Paul Cantrell’s music blog & podcast
Piano music old and new from a devoted amateur,
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Posts tagged “Improvisations”

Here is a second selection from this year’s Keys Please to follow Todd’s little musical rattlesnake adventure. This is an improvisation by Carei Thomas, the rattlesnake’s narrator, now on piano. I thought — and he said afterward — that there was a little nod to my own funny little improvs in this one, especially in the way it starts with a very low note and a very high one … but it’s definitely a Carei thing!

Some improvs have a definite form (head-solo-head, fugue, tala) or a definitely style (Dixieland, bebop, Ghanaian drumming) … but this is one of those that’s just completely spontaneous and organic, and grew out of silence in a completely organic way — like a spring daffodil poking its head up through the jumbled twigs and dead leaves. Todd and I actually murmured to one another during the applause, “Oo! Where did that come from?” Only Carei knows, I suppose, and maybe not even him.

The Usual Topic
Carei Thomas, piano

I took care of my girlfriend Paige’s pet parakeet Pegasus recently while her landlord did some emergency plumbing work, and Pegasus joined in one day while I was practicing the piano. It was not the standard chirping, but a complex mix of all sorts of sounds Pegasus doesn’t normally make, which followed the music quite well – louder in the loud parts and softer in the soft, somehow matching the texture and fitting into the spaces in a birdsong sort of way. It was like she was a soloing on my material — a really wonderful bit of inter-species improv.

I tried to capture it in a recording the next time I practiced, but she wasn’t as interested in the piano that time. Too bad! I did, however, manage to capture a bit of a human singer on the microphones, which I will share next time.

When I started In the Hands, I also started recording little unplanned improvisations. I’d done some of this same sort of work during college in the Macalester New Music Ensemble, and some things like it at Keys Please, but it wasn’t until last year that I started putting a regular, concerted effort into playing and recording these.

They’re perhaps not as interestingly layered or as structurally satisfying as the compositions, but they have a raw energy and spirit of playfulness that I like. They’re also good calisthenics: doing them helps keep me loose and flexible for composing. Writing music, it’s easy to get bogged down in endless revision or over-conceptualized note derivation; these improvs help me maintain the balance between conception and intuition.

I originally had the idea of giving the improvs nonsense word names, like “Fleedle” and “Scrunkic", but when I recorded these three, they somehow fit perfectly the names of three little towns in Wyoming my family has always loved for their too-good-to-be true poetic names: Lusk, Lingle, and Torrington. Since then, I’ve been naming all the improvs after Wyoming towns and counties — it turns out that the state is a gold mine of wonderful words!

Paul Cantrell, piano
Torrington Lope
Paul Cantrell, piano
Paul Cantrell, piano

These three make a set of sorts: I sat down with no plan or preconception and played them back to back, just as you hear them here — in this order, in fact. My little Wyoming triptych!

What do you do when your piano’s a touch out of tune? You record an improv like this. Or at least I do.

Paul Cantrell, piano

Oh, you say you wanted a piano improv with actual notes? Well then, check out Chris Morris’s very clever tip of the hat to the In the Hands improvs. Yes, it’s this site’s very first piece of fan art ever — and nicely done at that! So awesome. Thanks, Chris!

He has a bunch of other music on his site, more jazz-leaning and thus a nice counterpoint to the stuff here, all ready for your downloading and listening delectation. Don’t keep the man waiting. Go visit!

Today’s improv is a bit of fun with one of my favorite sounds from extended piano technique, made by damping a low string with a finger or two at about the point where the copper winding ends. This sound also makes a prominent appearance in the second movement of The Broken Mirror of Memory.

Paul Cantrell, piano

I have been practicing some new material to record, and I’m getting the piano tuned later this week in anticipation of actually recording it. So stick around — I hope to have a few treats for you in February!

Crystalizing, particle by particle.

Paul Cantrell, piano

That’s the last of the January improvaganza. I’ve been composing day and night (and it’s a perfect night for it tonight: new snow and a near-full moon!), and that will yield some new recordings just as soon as I manage to get some of these new pieces learned. But next time, I have a quirky little treat in the works for you. No, no, it’s a secret. Only Joel knows.

A sudden outpouring with no resolution!

Paul Cantrell, piano

I sat down and played this once, then for some reason started it again a couple of times — perhaps trying to find a resolution that wasn’t there to be found. But I ended up using that first take after all.

It somehow reminds me of GMH:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:

  Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;

  Selves—goes its self; myself it speaks and spells,

Crying What I do is me: for that I came.

(Here’s the whole poem.)

I can’t decide: is this one emotionally charged, walking in an unfamiliar place, breath held? Or is it something moving without human intention, like water flowing beneath the ice, seen through human eyes?

Paul Cantrell, piano

Hmm. I think this one went on too long, but I do like the ending.

Shelter. A safe place.

Paul Cantrell, piano

I’m returning from Colorado tomorrow, but it will likely be a while before my piano is back in tune and I’m recording again. Will the blog go silent, you ask? Fear not! I recorded a little round of improvs a few weeks ago, so that’s likely what you’ll be hearing here for the next couple of weeks.

When I post a bunch of improvs in a row like this, part of me cringes at them starting to feel like filler material — but I set out to post recordings twice a week, and by golly, I’m sticking to that! So I hope you can enjoy these pieces for their emotional variety and in-the-moment rawness as you await the Return of the Composer. If nothing else, you can enjoy the names, which Wyoming provided and my parents helped me select.