Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – An Introduction

On the 24th May, The Tinderbox Orchestra in collaboration with multiple Edinburgh bands will be debuting a brand new project called The Spontaneous Orchestra. The aim is to bring together an array of diverse bands including Frontiers Orchestra, The Black Diamond Express, Mantra, Urvanovic and Victorian Trout Conspiracy, as well as a group of innovative composers and conductors, to perform an entirely improvised set. We’ll be using ‘acetate’ composition, audience participation and a style of free-conducting called ‘Suggesture’. This last one is what i’d like to talk to you about.

Suggesture is a constantly evolving system of gestures used to focus the live improvisation of musicians. The system uses the role of a Suggestor, who ‘conducts’ the band using this vocabulary of hand signals. I have been developing this system for the past few years with The Katet during our late night weekly residency at Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar. More recently we’ve used the system in collaboration with other groups, most notably, The Tinderbox Orchestra.

The origins of Suggesture are simple; a few note names, a signal for a full band hit etc. Over time, and through a period of ‘natural selection’, the signals, concepts and ideas changed, were broken down, and were replaced by better ones. As the rapport within The Katet developed, so did our scope for improvisation. Before we knew it we were having 40 minute improvised jams complete with head sections, choruses, transitions, development and solo sections and recapitulations.

To put it simply, we were playing brand new and exciting music from start to finish. Anytime it started to get boring we could change it up to a new and fully formed musical idea, almost immediately. And all the while the audience could watch the whole process happen in real time.

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In May of 2013, we met with The Tinderbox Orchestra in Summerhall for what was to be the first ever Suggesture workshop. We had never attempted to teach the system to anyone before and had rarely used it outside the Jazz Bar. Many of the players in the orchestra had never even improvised before. I didn’t know how a lot of the ‘suggestions’ would translate to the full orchestra as many of them were devised specifically for The Katet and its instrumentation.

There were a huge array of unknowns. But what happened on the day was nothing short of spectacular. Not only were we able to teach the orchestra the Suggesture basics, but we developed even more signals, almost like a spin-off dialect that would only work with an orchestra. It was an incredibly exciting and fulfilling day which culminated in an entirely improvised 30 minute performance.

There are many different methods and systems out there for improvising with a group. This one is fast, direct and incredibly effective. It doesn’t take us 2, 3, or sometimes 5 minutes to get to a ‘good idea’. Using this role of the Suggestor, we can get there instantly – as quick as you can think of it. We can develop the music tonally much faster than has ever been done before. Its easy to learn no matter what level of musician you are. Its fun and I think think its a very cool way to make music with others.

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 is a blog series which will take you, step by step, through the basics of the system in detail. Accompanying each blog will be a video containing footage of the original Tinderbox Suggesture workshop, as well as interviews with some of the young musicians involved, plus appearances by members of The Katet. We’ll be releasing all 8 episodes over the coming weeks.

If you wish, please follow the blogs and videos. LIKE, SHARE and RETWEET #suggesture101. And of course, if you want to see the whole thing in action, make sure you make it down to The Hidden Door Festival on May 24th for what promises to be a very special day packed with exciting music.