improvisation, piano, Uncategorized

Becoming an Improviser in 36 Measures

I spent about an hour with 36 measures of music. I was not watching the clock, and I was surprised by how much time had passed when I stopped. I was playing on an upright piano in a practice room/office I shared with a few of my graduate school colleagues at Stony Brook University in Stony Brook, NY. Under fluorescent half-light, I sat alone in our ivory cinder-block cellar for that hour.

I was not practicing, not repeating a measure or a phrase for perfection, not playing through the whole piece for memorization: I read through the 36 measures as written then played them in order in every way I could imagine. The piece was J.S. Bach’s Prelude in C major from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book 1. This experience and others inspired by or assigned in a class I took with Ray Anderson led to improvisation, free or structured, becoming integral to my music-making.

I picked some of my favorite textures from my hour-long improvisation and turned them into a performance piece I called In C. Over the next few years, the piece was a constant for me as I moved from Long Island to Brooklyn, NY, then from Brooklyn to Lancaster, PA. As I looked at maps from New York to Pennsylvania, I saw the Susquehanna River. I didn’t know if it was navigable, but I imagined traveling by boat from one home to another. After moving to Pennsylvania, I walked along the Susquehanna in Harrisburg, viewed it from a bridge between York and Lancaster Counties, and drove beside it for a 2013 Christmas music tour.

Susquehanna River in December 2013

When I decided to write Rivers I Have Walked for Maria Thompson Corley’s 2021 album Soulscapes 2, I chose the Susquehanna River for one of the three movements. While writing this one, I made a chord progression and improvised on it in various ways. One version became a stark introduction. Another wove into melodic dialogue between the hands. The last recalled the flowing texture and rhythm of Bach’s Prelude. An Fmaj7 chord was already in my progression, so I quoted my favorite moment from Bach’s composition, the measure where this chord occurs in the low register of the keyboard.

After twenty years as a note-reading, score-interpreting, classically trained pianist, I became an improviser during that hour with Bach’s Prelude in C major. Now, my work takes place in an apartment in Richmond, VA, with big windows and off-white drywall and a Casio workstation keyboard. Improvisation is still part of my practice and process. Susquehanna is the first of three movements I wrote for my friend Maria. Listen here.

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