Do It Tomorrow: “Sketch: A Language for Conducted Improvisation”

“Improvisation is an indispensable part of music,” says Jason Cerf ’15 as a means of introducing his senior exercise in music. “If done well, Improvisation proves an intimate understanding of music… The act of improvising, of creating, is the origin of music. Improvisation is the act of thought, the act of creation.”

In celebration of the art of improvisation, Cerf has devised a system of hand gestures which signal a given group of musicians, be them instrumentalists or vocalists, to shape a live performance of an improvised piece in real time. He calls this “conducted improvisation.” These gestures not only create meaning on their own; they also have a functioning syntax, meaning that groups of gestures can formulate full musical thoughts. Acting as an active component of the performance himself, Cerf both directs and listens, allowing members of his group to improvise freely as much as they follow his lead.

I asked Cerf a few questions about his project.

GP: Where did you get your inspiration for this exercise?

JC: Musicians like Bobby McFerrin, John Cage, Lawrence “Butch” Morris, Frank Zappa, Derek Bailey, Reggie Watts, John Zorn, and Miles Davis directly influenced me. I also learned a lot from the musicians I worked with!

GP: What are some obstacles you encountered while developing this system?

JC: It is tough to be clear when giving signs to an ensemble. In addition, harmony is is difficult to recognize and organize in real time. (Ed. note – you’re not kidding.)

GP: In this project, you use both instrumentalists and vocalists. Have you had to adapt your conducting system to suit each group? If so, what have some of the changes been?

JC: The vocal pieces are often imitative. I often sing lines or patterns to insert them into the texture. Instruments, on the other hand, introduce much more complexity. I learned to control the structure of the pieces more than the actual content. I had to add a few new signs to accommodate the needs of the instrumentalists.

GP: If you could impart one message to your audience, what would it be?

JC: In general, I want to encourage everyone to make music a part of their lives. Often people are embarrassed to sing or play, and choose not to sing or play. That is your choice, but just know that music is within everyone, and everyone is capable of making it.  Everyone should listen to and appreciate strange sounds.

Cerf’s senior exercise will be presented in Rosse Hall tomorrow, March 28th, at 1:00 P.M. The video above only encompasses a tiny part of his performance, so go see it!

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