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?

Mike Kearney’s Suggesture 101 – Episode 8: Soloing

In Rock music, a solo is usually taken as a section of its own. It’s a separate part of the song and may have a completely different feel or chord structure to the main body. In many cases, it’s even written. In Jazz, the musicians play the head of the tune and then its time for the soloist to improvise over the top of the same chord progression. In Funk, the band will usually lock down or land on a groove consisting of one or two chords and let the soloist improvise over that. Each tradition has its own style and its own treatment. In Jazz, for eg. the music is solo-based, whereas in Funk, it’s groove-based and therefore the solo is secondary.

The Katet’s improvised music developed out of this funk tradition. When the song has reached a middle section, let’s say after the second chorus, it can open out. Playing our residency at The Jazz Bar, we and the other late night bands have found that holding on to a good idea means keeping punters on the dance-floor for longer. This means that if after two or three verse/choruses you’re only 2 minutes into the tune, it’s best to keep things going. So what do you do? You groove. You jam. You take solos. Taking a solo is the equivalent of everyone having their say around the dinner table. Throughout the night, everyone gets their turn to take centre-stage and drive the song forward for a bit before its agreed to switch/trade solos, return to a head, verse, chorus or some other section in the tune.

With Suggesture, because the parameters arn’t set, the solo can be many different things and it can take many different forms in a live setting. Every Suggestor can choose how to treat the soloist. There are two ways in my mind; either hand over control/direction of the music to the soloist and let them decide where it goes from there; or retain control/direction and use the solo as a tool while you shape the music as a whole. One way is obviously more collaborative than the other. Me, personally, I like to keep my options open. I find, from experience, that what happens is often somewhere in between the two.

Most of the time I like to use the solo almost as a distraction for the audience, and during the solo I’ll set up what’s gonna happen next: be it new harmony, new rhythms, new tempos, an entirely new groove, lyrics, maybe a chorus etc. Now, what happens next is usually informed by the soloist. It’s a realtime reaction to whatever’s to what’s happening in the moment.

In fact, most of what the Suggestor does is informed by the music the players make, by the feeling of where the collective wants to take things. It’s up to the Suggestor to identify this and take it confidently in that direction. And there are techniques you can use to do this. As well as the solo being a platform for that particular player’s musical expression, you can also use it as a creative tool. You have to know how to react to a solo. Is it running out of steam and you need to change things up? Does it need breathing space and you need to step out of the way? Do you want to cut it off at its peak to create a dramatic transition into a new section, stopping the soloist before they can reach a natural conclusion?

This last one is a controversial idea. If the group is improvising together, then at what point, as a soloist, do your ideas become less important than the Suggestor’s? Surely the aim is to play the best music possible, and therefore have more fun. So, what if two good ideas clash on stage? The answer is in the name. The Suggestor must always remain secondary to the players making the music. The only way he gets his way is through trust. The relationship between himself and each soloist will be different each time, different from one night to the next. It’s about being adaptive, working together, moulding around each other. At the end of the day, its about making music together.

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Suggesture is a method for improvising with a group. It’s no better or worse than any other. It’s only one way. But it is a good way, because the process is good, the relationships are good, and the result is good. I hope it outlives us all.

We’ve reached the end of our Suggesture 101 series. I’d like to thank The Katet, The Jazz Bar, Jack Nissan and The Tinderbox Orchestra, Ruth Barrie(Camera) and Gavin Brown(Photography) for everything that they’ve given to this project. We’re all very grateful for the support we’ve received from you, the readers and viewers. You’ll be hearing more from me in the future as this system continues to evolve. In the meantime, why not try out some suggestions with your band, your choir, your class or your family. See if you can figure out why something like this exists in the first place. Start with the question:

Why do we play music together?