We’re pleased to announce we’ll be bringing our sell-our Fringe show, The Katet plays Stevie Wonder, to Kelburn Garden Party 2017, as a preview to our 2017 run. What an awesome line-up….
See you there!
We’re pleased to announce we’ll be bringing our sell-our Fringe show, The Katet plays Stevie Wonder, to Kelburn Garden Party 2017, as a preview to our 2017 run. What an awesome line-up….
See you there!
We’re pleased to announce that we’re back at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the third year in a row with our sell-out show, The Katet plays Stevie Wonder. The show is a tribute to one of our greatest influences and brings us back to our spiritual home, Edinburgh’s now infamous Jazz Bar. After two sell-out runs we’ve added a few performances this year so no one misses out.
Get your tickets HERE!
Congratulations everybody! The Katet’s launch of Guillotine at Summerhall on October 9th was a complete success. Thanks to everyone who came, everyone who played, filmed, recorded, engineered, bought albums, bought T-shirts, made T-shirts, designed artwork, manned the stalls, took photos… etc. etc. What a massive operation. We couldn’t have pulled it off without you. Here’s a little look into what we got up to. This is the last song of the night(minus the encore) and the last track on the new album.
116%. We did it! Thank you one and all for putting your faith in us. Now its time to put your pledges to good use and get this album mastered, pressed and ready for release on Sun 9th October. See you at Summerhall!
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.
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.
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.
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!
We’ve all heard it before, in one kind of funk jam or another, when everyone’s on a solid groove and all of a sudden the whole thing jumps up a tone, or a minor third, or whatever. You can call this transposition or modulation, or even “key change!”. We call it ‘shifting’. Its the easiest way to change key and its as simple as telling everyone how many semitones you want to move and in which direction.
On a geeky note – In our experience, shifting up or down a major third(four semitones), rarely happens. It doesn’t sound as good as other shifts. It’s not as useful. That’s the reason we sacrificed it and made the four finger shift signal mean a perfect fourth, and five, the perfect fifth. Also, these signals of the fourth and fifth are so strongly ingrained in live music culture that it would be dangerously confusing to mess with them.
When we first started suggesting chords with The Katet, we split the chord across the horn section. Trombone took the tonic, alto sax took the 3rd and the trumpet took the 5th. Since then it has become much more interpretive but this basic set-up is very handy to fall back on. With each player taking a fixed ‘degree’ of the scale it was easy to jump to any chord we wanted and no notes in the triad would be left out. It also meant that I could manipulate the notes within the chords using ‘shifting’, because I knew what note everyone was supposed to be on. In larger ensembles this becomes more difficult but there are still some subtle ways to play about with the chords.
I think I’m primarily a song-writer, and from this point of view being able to suggest extended chord sequences is very important. And, with Suggesture, its also possible to call complex harmony by setting up a chord on top and with the other hand below, asking the bass player, and therefore, the bass/lower instruments in the ensemble, to player another note. This creates ‘slash chords’ and one can easily translate most jazz harmony using this method. i.e D half dim = Fm/D, Abmaj9 = Eb/Ab etc.
I guess the point was to try to be able to do something that no one else could. When improvising with a large group using other methods, the harmony is usually struck by chance. It sounds very “Modern” or “Post-modern” depending on how apologetic you are. How can everyone possibly know exactly which notes to play? Well, Suggesture retains a huge element of choice, whilst giving the players a framework created by the Suggestor, who at this time is acting very much like a composer/song-writer.
On the role of Suggestor – It’s worth mentioning how important it is to give the appropriate lead time. This is basically how much of a heads up you give the players with your signals. I spent many months messing up improvisations because the players weren’t reacting fast enough to the suggestions, or they were misinterpreting them. A huge learning curve was realizing that this was my fault. I wasn’t showing the signal for long enough. I wasn’t showing it all the way round to everyone in the band. I wasn’t being clear enough with my signals and frustration occurred on both sides. Once I took responsibility for this I started practicing and my conducting grew stronger.
Communication is the essence of Suggesture, and arguably all music. At the end of the day, the music will come from the musicians, from what’s inside them. And it’s the responsibility of the Suggestor to pull this out of them, using his knowledge of composition, harmony, dynamics and structure. At the end of the day though, the most important role of the Suggestor is to inspire.
In more recent years, as we’ve progressed through the system, we’ve come across a paradox. When improvising with others musicians must be quite intuitive. They must use their musicality and their instinct to ‘feel’ what to play and how to play it. They must be quite reactive and sensitive to the music going on around them. However, when following the direction of a Suggestor, this intuition must be suspended. The players will have to trust that the Suggestor is performing with the same amount of intuition, instinct and sensitivity.
These two attitudes are hard to marry. If the ensemble has little faith in the Suggestor, the music will reflect it. On the flip side, if the group can read each other and play exciting, progressive music simply though intuition, the Suggestor’s job becomes minimal.
I think there is a balance between a player staying true to themselves and staying true to the suggestions. It’s not one group of people doing what a conductor says. Its everyone working together in their different roles towards a common goal – making good music. Hence, the idea of each signal or direction being a ‘suggestion’. As individuals or as a group, each suggestion can be taken or left, or interpreted, or approximated, or developed, or mistaken for better or worse. It doesn’t matter. Its the process that counts, and this relationship between the players.
It’s been said before, if you’re going to improvise badly, why not just play a great tune instead? There is a fair point to this. Improvisation skills need to be honed, practiced and executed well if the thing is going to be worth it. Just waving your hands about and creating a few hits and a few chord changes isn’t enough. The quality of the music needs to be weighed up against the effort of the process. One of the major benefits of improvisation verses composition is that, with Suggesture, there is much more scope to latch onto spontaneous ideas, develop them quicker and more effectively and have more fun. It’s always exciting performing without a prepared script but if the final product can rival a ready made piece, then that is certainly worth the risk.
On a geeky note – When moving the major chord, we use the dominant scale or mixolydian mode. When moving the minor chord, we use the natural minor scale or Aeolian mode. The reason for this is that we think it sounds better. The flattened seventh in the major suits The Katet’s bluesy style of harmony. The flattened sixth in the minor always sounded better when using descending patterns.
However, all the scales are assignable. All a group has to do is agree which signal means which mode before playing. Any combination of fingers in the ‘scale’ hand can signify any number of keys/modes/scales, existing or made up. This means that the harmony of a moving chord is not fixed or limited. We just prefer to use the scales we do. Different groups will differ. People are like that.
I think as your rapport with a particular group or band develops, the less signals you need. On a gig, mid-jam, I’ve found that a lot of cues can be given with a look, or a raised eye-brow. This illustrates the importance of eye-contact, for any kind of conductor. With Suggesture, if the musical idea isn’t quite tight or unanimous enough, its because there’s confusion in the signal and, ultimately, its therefore the Suggestor’s fault. You can help the players create some amazing, magical moments, but you can also hinder a perfectly good groove and cause a total train wreck. More recently, with The Katet, I’ve been getting out of the way of the players completely. I walk to the back of the stage and let them go. I only come back in with a signal once they’ve hit their mark and are ready to move onto the next thing. Its important to remember at all times what the group is trying to do.
On the flip side, the more gestures you have have the bigger the scope for creating the music you’re after. These gestures are devised to be used in combination with each other. The more extensive the vocabulary, the more you can say, and the better you can say it.
Let’s turn our attention to the backline. Most systems of improvisation involving drums and guitars i.e a rhythm section, are groove-based. This means that the players ‘hold down’ a repeating idea, be it a simple chord structure or an ostinato. The rest of the ensemble provides the variation or development on top of this stable idea. The ‘Groove’ is one of the most important musical ideas for the working musicians that I know. It not only involves the notes one plays but, crucially, how they are played, and very fine aspects of swing and feel. Therefore, improvising with the groove is a delicate affair. The relationship between the rhythm section and the Suggestor must be solid. One could debate ad infinitum about what groove actually is, so let’s move on before that happens.
One of the things I found during the Tinderbox Suggesture workshop was that, because we’d never worked with an orchestra before, there ended up being a lot of realtime adaptation. Certain hand signals appeared out of necessity. Others were altered to fit the size of the ensemble. For eg. – The question of how to address multiple sections independently of each other without getting too confusing. As you’ll see in this episode’s video, a simple solution is usually just around the corner.
This leads us to the idea of different ‘dialects’. Certainly the more Suggesture is used with groups of different sizes, genres, abilities etc. it becomes apparent that the same set of gestures will not categorically work with them all. Already the gap between Katet Suggesture and Tinderbox Suggesture has grown wide. With the Katet we continue to use more advanced theoretical concepts that work in a funk/soul setting, with heavy emphasis on a three-piece brass section. With Tinderbox, a lot of the signals are much more intuitive. Brand new suggestions have been created which are textural and orchestral-based and would not work in a Katet situation. This leads me to believe that the system will continue to grow and evolve through variation. The more bands it’s used with, the more the vocabulary will adapt and change. Hence, the different dialects.
A few years ago I was hooked on a popular anime called Bleach. It featured Shinigami or ‘Death Gods’ whose unique swords were the manifestation of their souls. When they were in a tough spot, battling Hollows or Arrancars, they would summon their strength and power-up to the next level. Their swords would be ‘released’ and transform into magnificent variations on the original. This ‘release’ was called ‘Bankai’.
Every time I execute a Bankai, I picture my favorite protagonists from the animated series. I imagine their desperate situations and their unshakable resolve in the heat of battle. This dynamism is inseparable from Suggesture. It’s a system which works theoretically and practically, yes, but the reason for its success up until now is the philosophy behind it.
If you’re going to lead someone, you have to prove to them that you’re worth following. You have to show them your resolve. The Bankai is perfect for this. Most of the Suggesture signals to date have their origin in martial arts. There is no reason for this. It just happened. The reason it has sustained itself though, is because there’s something to it. It’s inspiring watching a person give their all in a performance. A Suggestor cannot perform timidly, cautiously, or half-assed. They must display 100% commitment if they are to expect it. This is why the physicality of the movements is key. Its a vehicle for the Suggestor’s intent.
When coaching other Suggestors, I often get a bit anal about the details of the hand positions and specific movements. Here’s why. Firstly, I believe the movements must stay true to their origins, as far as possible, with respect to the great traditions that shaped them. Secondly, it’s theatre. The Suggestor must be impressive not only through his skill and creativity, but also through his body language. His body is part of the performance. Its not surprising that numerous audience members throughout the years have mistaken the whole thing for some sort of dance. You ever watch a dancer? Total control. Total confidence, thought and precision. Total expression.
The suggestions explained in this episode’s video were ones that worked immediately. As mentioned, we’ve probably had hundreds of signals over the years. Most never made it past the first gig. This was probably because they didn’t work straight off the bat. Yes, every signal should require a brief explanation, like the rules of any game, but, if after an explanation and a practical demonstration it still doesn’t work, then something’s gotta give. Maybe the concept needs addressed. Maybe the clarity of the signal needs worked on. Maybe the whole thing is pointless and there’s an alternate road around to the idea. Maybe its just not that fun in the first place.
It got to the point for me where this process of creating, trying and refining suggestions was almost as fun as writing tunes. For long periods I would go without composing new material and, instead, focus on coming up with new signals.
The Push already existed in our musical circle’s terminology. I just gave it a form- the Wing Chun palm strike. Funnily enough, the Pull was not something anyone would use when jamming. But it made perfect sense, as the opposite of a Push. In combinations these are a lot of fun, and in advanced Suggesture Pushes and Pulls can be called in realtime using two rotating hands to denote on subsequent beats of the bar. A lot of fun!
The bend is one of the few signals I must pay homage to the late great Frank Zappa for. ‘Zappa’s Way‘ as they called it, was a very quirky and inspiring system of hand signals with musical meaning. The main problem with Zappa’s Way for me, is that the resultant music was closer to noise. This, of course, is not a bad thing and it’s understandable as Zappa was developing this system in the wake of the death of the Modern era(mostly noises). I remember at university, his compositions were being used as case studies for Post-modern music. His music and his improvisation style were ahead of their time but one can only make squeaking and pooping noises for so long. Hence, Suggesture’s focus on harmonic and thematic development. Though Zappa’s bends would be used to slide all over the place, ours are simply used to warp the sound. Again, this signal works every time, even without an explanation. All one has to do is bend one’s body over to the side and you’ll find the group does the same. Just like dancers mimicking each other.