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Home :: Archive :: 2003 :: September ::
Thirteenth Night
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.1713  Tuesday, 2 September 2003

[1]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Monday, 1 Sep 2003 09:47:16 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 14.1709 Thirteenth Night

[2]     From:   Matthew Baynham <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 2 Sep 2003 09:42:49 +0100
        Subj:   Thirteenth Night


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D Bloom <
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Date:           Monday, 1 Sep 2003 09:47:16 -0500
Subject: 14.1709 Thirteenth Night
Comment:        Re: SHK 14.1709 Thirteenth Night

Since I find myself consistently assumed to have an extremist position
that I don't hold, I will allow myself one more post and then be done
with it.

Although I mistrust "spectrum" images, I can't think of a better, so
here goes. At one end of the musical improvisation spectrum you would
find marching band performances: there is almost no room for improv
unless the band deliberately takes itself out of that mode to allow room
for a jazz-type soloist. Just to the side of this would be symphonic
concerts of the familiar sort. The music also depends on precise timing:
sloppy entrances and such are the hallmark of mediocrity. In addition,
the conductor's interpretation requires that the musicians be able to do
exactly what he or she wishes as to tempo, dynamics, and so on.

Stating the obvious: every performance will nevertheless be slightly
different even when the same music is played by the same orchestra under
the same conductor; and there may be considerable difference in the
solos from one performance to another. But all are governed by the
established score.  Musicians who messed with that would not be employed
long.

Various kinds of solo and small ensemble music allow greater freedom of
improvisation: certain kinds of organ works and songs, for instance, or
what's called "big-band jazz" (not swing, as such, but the work of
Armstrong, Ellington and so on).The larger the ensemble and the more
elaborate the arrangement, the less pure improvisation you find. One or
more soloists take off at various times, but the others follow the
charts. The bandleader offers some guidance, sets the tempo and usually
indicates the stopping point, but doesn't "interpret" the way a
classical conductor does.

What we once called "modern jazz" (and now has gone back to being called
"be-bop") developed out of the work of the big bands -- at least out of
the black ones. The ensemble was reduced to a much smaller group and the
scoring was radically simplified. A basic tune -- sometimes original,
sometimes a standard -- would be laid down, and then the improvising
would start. The rhythm section (bass, drums, sometimes piano) would
continue while the others took turns improvising "takes" on the original
tune; frequently the rhythm instruments would get solos as well.

It was (and remains) one of the most remarkable music forms ever
developed.  But it gets its power from substituting freedom and
individualism for the precision and power of more rigidly scored forms.

To drag this back to drama: I assume that drama similarly operates on a
spectrum of greater or lesser improvisation, or, alternatively, greater
or lesser dependence on a text. Any given performance will lie somewhere
along that spectrum. Its appropriate place depends on the understanding
of the text. Stage business that requires extremely precise timing, for
example, requires intensive rehearsal time to get that timing right.
Once it is dead right, however, then it can be played with for short
periods of time without disaster. Characters can be changed, as long as
they're not changed too much, and as long as the other actors go along
with the changes.

On the other hand, dramatic forms like improv comedy and commedia
dell'arte have always operated much like be-bop, and they are also
wonderful. But they are different from technically complex work that
would quickly go down the drain if the actors started riffing.

You might, for example, do a set of riffs on any classic scene by
Shakespeare: Hamlet and Polonius would be an attractive possibility.
Instead of doing only the lines as written, the two actors could invent
and interact and explore all sorts of fascinating aspects of character
and language. Now that would be like jazz.

But Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would still be waiting off-stage for
their cue to come on.

I'd pay money to go and watch an ensemble of first rate actors doing an
evening of such riffs. But don't call it "Hamlet."

Cheers,
 don

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Matthew Baynham <
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Date:           Tuesday, 2 Sep 2003 09:42:49 +0100
Subject:        Thirteenth Night

I don't know how transferable this is, but it's certainly true that
amongst my friends who are professional classical musicians, there are
some who feel comfortable and confident improvising and some who don't:
and that this ability is not in any particular correlation to how good
they are when they play from the score. I wouldn't be surprised if it's
the same amongst actors.

Matthew Baynham

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