Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 7: Lines

When it comes to improvising music, the hardest thing to achieve is a coherent sense of tonal harmony. But once you have a sense of this it gets even harder to stop the music from becoming boring. Either you can stay atonal and interesting, or you agree on a set progression and stick to it. As soon as anyone starts to expand the progression or play with the edges of the existing harmony, you get clashes. If the music is meant to be tonal, then clashes appear initially as mistakes and unwanted. Suggesture aims to tackle this problem by making it as easy as anything to move the key, change the chords, transpose any harmonic idea etc. However, and this brings us to our next topic, we can’t just sit playing chords all day.

When listening to any music it’s obvious that one of the most engaging aspects is melody. Yes, we all have our preferences; some of us prefer beats; others really dig complex structures; some of us focus on the overall mood of a piece. But the importance of melody cannot be understated when it comes to story-telling. You can have the same chord structure for six minutes and if the melody is strong enough, if it tells a story that’s interesting enough, if the journey it takes us on is attractive enough, if it changes and varies itself enough to the hold the attention of the listener, then mission accomplished. The question is how to improvise melodies with a large group. “Just let someone solo,” you say. I say, “No”. That’s boring and easy. We use ‘Lines’.

You can come up with as many signals and suggestions you want to try and create as many melodic devices and themes as you can – the idea being that if you can show everyone what notes to play, they can play them in realtime and at the same time i.e a unison theme. But, for me, it was a revelation when I realized you could just ask the players for these themes. Usually, after one or two repeats, an entire ensemble can pick up up the melody. Job done. Also, this opens the door for the players to be as creative as they want with their thematic material. This is the main method for the players to shape the music themselves.

Lines 1At its simplest level, Lines can be riffs that the rest of the ensemble can pick up and jump on. At a more advanced level, in a layer on top of the riffs, these lines can be themes, variations and counter-themes that can last 8 to 16 bars which can be repeated, shared by multiple solo instruments in maybe a question and answer fashion, and eventually by whole sections in harmony maybe as a recapitulation. Once these themes take hold, they can then be used by the players as a basis for variation in a development section. So, using Lines, there’s scope for hefty melodic and thematic development when it comes to orchestral improvisation.

This takes me the my idea of ‘Symprovisation‘, or ‘Sympro‘. Its not hard to imagine how far Suggesture can go. My dream is to be able to stand in front of a full 60-piece orchestra and create a symphony from scratch, in 3 or 4 movements, for a packed audience, using this system, or what this system will become, to such a high level that the unknowing ear would mistake it for a fully composed, fully rehearsed piece. Along with the Suggestor’s control of progressive harmony, the use of Lines, developed far enough and practiced hard enough by the orchestra, can make this dream a reality. Wouldn’t that be something?