Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 1: Notes, Hits and Holds

A number of years ago I started learning Wing Chun Kung Fu. It concentrates on using an opponent’s energy against them but employing very simple and scientific movements. I became very passionate about the system and how movements that were so elegant could also be so powerful.

I’d been playing with The Katet at The Jazz Bar for a few years at this point and, in an attempt to add a bit of spice to the set and try something a little different, I incorporated some of these Wing Chun movements into the songs by giving them a musical meaning.

Our very first signal was a full band hit and started off as a Wing Chun straight punch. Over the years this has evolved into a much more telegraphable downward strike, as you’ll see in the video. Next, we started using a ‘Tan Sau’ which translates as ‘Spreading/Dispersing Hand’ for held notes. This ‘hold’ signal was the first of many Wing Chun blocks that would become the basis of Suggesture. You’ll see more in future episodes.

The initial reaction to the signals was a sceptical one. There was definitely an element of pointlessness to it. Maybe that’s why it survived, because the band thought of it as a game. “Who’s Watchin’!” I’d call out during the gig before executing a couple of hits to start off the set. At the beginnning we simply called the idea The Hits, as that was all it was – a series of hits and holds at the start or end of a tune. Things started to get really interesting though, when we began strectching out middle sections of tunes. It was playing this game within the tunes that led to the demand for more signals, more rules to the game.

Notes 2

This takes us to note names. In the jazz circuit the musicians call the keys using key signatures; 2 fingers up = two sharps = D major or B minor; three fingers down = three flats = Eb major or C minor. There are a few problems here. Firstly, in a completely free improvisation its unclear whether to play in the relative major or minor. And also, with a lot of contemporary music, players arn’t simply playing in a particular key. In funk, soul and blues music for eg. it can be much handier thinking of the music with a certain ‘tonal centre’. The key can be major, minor, both, or neither, depending on whether you’re providing the bass, accompaniment, melody or vocals.

But calling tonal centres wasn’t a new thing at the Jazz Bar. This was something that had already existed within the funk jam sessions pioneered by guitarist Aki Remally. Simple one-handed shapes could call notes like E, C and B very easily. This would allow the musicians to change the jam up just enough that it never got boring. However, try and call notes like A or G and all of a sudden you need two hands. Not to mention calling sharps and flats.

So over the next few years, through trial and error, I developed a set of chromatic note signals. I used enharmonic equivalents i.e C# instead of Db, Eb instead of D# etc. These signals are almost immediately understandable. They work in either hand i.e the mirror-image (b given in the left hand won’t be confused with d), and can all be called with a single hand. This leaves the other free to play an instrument and/or to specify; how the note is to be played; the scale which is to be used (if its chord for eg.); if you want two notes played, one above the other etc. It also lets you make suggestions to two parts of the ensemble at the same time.

Enjoy the video. Next up, we talk about Shifting and Chords!