Improvizone

I suppose it had its moments

Andrew Booker 2007-09-26 22:57:27

I left August's gig at the Plough feeling really pretty good. An unpredictable evening had gone extremely well. I left last night's gig feeling the absolute polar opposite. It was so bad, by the time I got home I had two whiteheads above my chin to squeeze. I swear they weren't there at 5.30pm.

As every gig has, even this one had some really good moments. I think. I'll have to check the recordings, if I can bring myself to listen to them, and resist the urge to wipe them from the disk. Hang on, you say, surely I'm meant to be trying to promote the gigs? If I start laying into this one, like, it was was utter plop, surely that is not best way to get people to come? I disagree. This is only the second of the eight gigs that I have not liked. In general I love the stuff we do, but if I only ever talk in glowing terms about the gigs, you will not really believe me. If I tell you when it was rubbish, I hope at least you will think I'm telling the truth, rather than some glossy aren't-we-all-totally-brilliant marketing wank. If you're reading this at all, you're already interested in us anyway. What's more, keep reading and I hope you'll see why a lot of the gigs do work very well.

What does it take to make a good improviser? For it takes several of those to make a good Improvizone gig. Let's get the obvious out of the way first. You have to be able to play the instrument. Well yes, we can all guess that much. You need harmonic awareness. What key are we in, how standard chord progressions work, and whether we're major or minor. You need some metrical awareness, that music sounds good as phrases of a certain consistent length, for example four rounds of this, four rounds of that, and so on. On the whole, everyone who volunteers for an Improvizone gig has probably got all of the above. Either that, or they are totally fearless. Oh, good point, you need confidence. The trouble is it's not very helpful just to tell someone to be confident. They can't suddenly be if they are not. Confidence can only grow over time out of good experience.

And on and on, all basic stuff that anyone needs to be able to make any kind of music at all. Besides all of those, here are three qualities I'm beginning to think you must have in order to improvise a good gig. Three things which were... erm... a bit wanting last night.

Control
You need to be in control of your instrument and your gear. What does that button do? What is the maximum signal level? What is a good position for this knob, and what happens if you turn it to maximum? What state is the battery in? If you don't know this stuff, then at best you can call yourself an experimental musician. At worst, it means you are operating by superstition and you don't know how to get it working when it goes mysteriously quiet. Ironically, many musicians who aren't good at improvising still have their tools totally sussed. But anyone can master this bit. It's just preparation, but for a turn-up-and-play gig like us, it is pretty crucial.
Creativity
You need to be able to come up with ideas. Some imagination. If you have no initiative and have only been listening to one type of music for the last 30 years, or you can only play music other people have made up for you, forget trying to do a gig like this. Go and rehearse with someone else and make tons of cash, and the very best of luck to you.
Recognition
I think this is more important than anything else. You need to recognise when things are going well and when they're not, and you need to recognise when your part is important in all of it. There may be a riff you're playing which is so dead crucial that if you stop, you will pull the chair out from under the whole piece. So stopping suddenly is not a good idea. Is it. Similarly, if you can't tell something is crap, you won't know that it needs flushing, and there is really no hope for us all. And if you can't tell you're playing out of tune, not only don't you belong at the gig, you probably need to go outside and throw your guitar into the path of the nearest steamroller.

As the organiser of the gig, it is my job to make sure that as many players as possible in the gig lineup score well in all three of those. When the lineup is sufficiently gifted in those three, the gigs are always good. It's also OK to have a minority who aren't that great. Where that happens, particularly in the creativity, you get a natural leadership occurring, with the others contributing more subtle embellishments. This is all fine.

I'm afraid I goofed on this one. I know Tim and Nick very well, I know their strong points, and equally their weaknesses. After yesterday... well, let's just say I know their weaknesses a lot better. This is not to say I will never invite them to a gig again, but that the outcome of last night's gig is something I could pretty much have predicted. Actually I don't really mean that, because I couldn't predict that Jack would get stuck at work on the other side of London and not be able to come.

OK so we didn't play very well, that was only the half of it. There was nobody there, besides Os and two others we knew. I had told several friends about it. Boy, was I glad they didn't show. There were plenty of people in the pub, just none of them venturing into the music room to watch us. I didn't blame them. There were only a few very short periods where I could equate what we were doing with a gig I, or anyone else, would want to watch.

It was clearly wrong of me to interpret last month's surprisingly non-zero turnout as anything other than a fluke. Perhaps my stubbornness at not wanting to put up posters ever again is to blame. This is the battle with small-scale music events like this, to know what works and what doesn't, in such a small sample size that it's hard to tell facts from noise. Maybe I'll swallow my pique and make a couple of random posters for October. I also need to work on the local area. Walthamstow is (or was) well known as a musicians' habitat. Oh sorry, I was forgetting, musicians aren't interested in going to gigs other than their own. Judging by my own gig-going habits, at least.

One last thing, before I go away and surprise myself with a good hour of veritable gems from the gig I've just dissed. I tried out my expression pots with moderate success. The ring modulator one was definitely the more effective, but maybe the subtleties of the distortion filter, though totally lost in the room, will come through in the recordings.

Expression pots and hits << | >> Analysis of the track hit count