Improvised Music Outdoors
I just got back home from a gig playing improvised music for a silent film. We were playing outdoors, at the pavilion at James Madison Park in Madions, WI. This is a park where you can watch the sunset over Picnic Point across Lake Mendota, and the water is always reflecting the mood of the sky in beautiful patterns.
I used to live near here, about two blocks from James Madison Park. This was my first apartment when I first moved to Madison in 1986. I would come down to the Park all year long, at all times of day and night. Coming down to watch the sunset was practically a neighborhood ritual. My best friend and I, who lived across the street from me for those same years, would go down to the water on hot humid summer midnights and skinny-dip off the rowing docks to cool off.
I love the way the light on Lake Mendota shimmers and moves from the vantage of this Park. It was one of the reasons I kept coming back down to the water, especially at sunset. In my back catalog of older photographs, I can identify this location as important to my development as a photographer. I have numerous photos that are abstracts of the colored light ripples on the water, with no other imagery; pure pattern, pure abstraction. I can recognize this in retrospect as a formative experience, a piece of self-training, for later photographic work.
The silent movie we improvised to, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), is a classic German Expressionist film. One of its interesting aspects is the set design and backgrounds, which are all distorted, non-rectilinear, and psychologically complex. It's interesting to realize the influence of Freudian thinking on this film, which is about murder, mesmerism, somnambulism, and other then-horrifying glimpses into the shadows of the unconscious mind.
I'm very happy with what we played. This was my first gig playing Stick since the recent surgery, and I wasn't sure about my endurance, my ability to haul gear around, and how the Stick would work with my ostomy bag in place. In fact, there was no problem. I had help hauling gear, setting up and tearing down, and the Stick's belthook and shoulder-strap configuration avoided the ostomy bag entirely. I did tape the bag to my skin so it would be out of my way for the gig, and I did have to watch out for cables. I just brought a couple of processors for effects, not my big rack. So it was minimal gear anyway. I played bass guitar for one scene, but most of the film was on Stick.
Four or five people came up to me afterwards to complement our group on the composed music for the silent film. They were astonished to be told that it was all spontaneously improvised. Most thought it had been pre-composed, rehearsed, and planned. In fact, there were no rehearsals, we just show up and play. With the right people, though, people who have played together before, and are good at listening, it's not difficult. This is in fact my favorite way to make music: just play. With the right people, it works.
This group of players tonight was the same that improvised music for Nosferatu last Hallowwen in Madison. (I'd also had fun making a poster for that gig.)
Much of the music tonight was in the groove, rhythmic, almost like aleatoric rock & roll, often quite hard-edged and psychologically intense. Which was great, because that really suited the mood of the film. Some of the audience comments I heard later said that they felt the music was perfectly matched to the music, perfectly applied, and therefore it must have been composed. That was why some of those commentors were surprised when they found out how we actually did it.
I felt part of a rhythm section again, me playing bass lines mostly on Stick, some on bass, with Geoff Brady playing really brilliant drum grooves. Playing like this makes me play better. It was a very satisfying gig. I was tired by the time I got home, and I needed to rest for a couple of days afterwards, but I got through it, and it felt good.
I managed to tape the performance with my little digital voice recorder. Actually I used two DVRs, and will at some point mix them together to maximize the recording quality and balance. Meanwhile here are a couple of short excerpts from two different chapters of the movie, from one of the DVR recordings.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, excerpt 1