Sunday, February 2, 2014

Conversational Exercise: Let's Chat!

Glenn Gould
There is a section entitled "Truck Stop" in Fran├žois Girard's 32 Short Films about Glenn Gould that sparked the content of this post. Glenn Gould, the eccentric classical pianist, visits his regular haunt, a diner in Toronto. In the scene, he orders his breakfast and while waiting begins listening to the chatter going on around him. He becomes mesmerized by not the content of the conversations, but the musical language. We can see Gould listening to these unrelated conversations happening on opposite sides of the diner. The director portrays him absorbed in this breakfast chatter as a sort of counterpoint. Perhaps, the "Art of the Breakfast Fugue"?

This attention to the interaction of voices inspired Gould in his 1967 project entitled the "Solitude Trilogy". The most famous work of this project was called "The Idea of North". Here Gould created a sound collage of overlapping spoken monologues.  It is strikingly avant-garde for someone steeped in traditional classical music. Then again, Gould was an eccentric.

There could be a comparison made between this experiment and counterpoint of the Baroque period that was Gould's primary piano gig. Counterpoint refers to melodies that are played simultaneously. In the same fashion Gould called this technique "contrapuntal radio". If you are interested, the entire recording can be found here.

I had an idea inspired by the above scene and Gould's experiment. Could we develop a creativity warm-up routine for 2 or more players modeled on the idea of carrying on a spoken conversation? Or perhaps simultaneous conversations? In a previous post, I demonstrated the idea of gesturing as a way of getting the mind in a creative state. Would the model from the Glenn Gould film work in a similar fashion for small groups of musicians?

Here is the idea:

  • Get together with a partner. Any instrument or voice would work.
  • You are going to have a conversation with the other person on your instrument. 
  • Begin improvising a melody. Maybe pick a key or tonal center to work with. You could also play free.
  • The partner should at some point respond to your statement.
  • The length of each statement is up to each of you. If you are really engaged in what they are playing, lay back and listen. If you have the urge to interrupt and speak your mind do it. Have nothing else to say? Stop.
  • At the beginning you may wish to set up parameters. (e.g. swap short phrases, demand silence in between phrases, use long discourse, overlap phrases, "talk at the same time" (counterpoint).
  • Eventually, the goal would be to remove the strict parameters and let the conversation unfold naturally.
The product here should be a little more detailed than a simple regular call and response. The goal is to interact in a similar way to an actual human conversation. This means allowing room for silence, discussion, interruptions, discourse, and listening. Keeping eye contact with the other participant is key. Just as in a spoken conversation a glance, nod of the head, or movement of the eyes can invoke a reaction.

Often in conversations, one person is the leader. They bring a topic to mind and can often direct (if not dominate) the conversation. In a similar fashion, you may find that one of you is "following" the other person. This is okay and entirely natural. If recognize this happening, then you may want to make a conscious effort the switch roles. Have the other person "lead" the discussion.

Really, there are no hard and fast rules with this exercise. You can add to it and develop it in any fashion you wish. Other ideas include:

  • limiting the conversation to just rhythmic ideas (use a single percussion instrument or clap)
  • include 3, 4 (or more!) people in on the conversation
  • have two different conversations (two pairs of musicians) going on at once
  • converse with people who are at different levels of musical maturity
  • instead of improvising, notate and compose a "conversation-like" piece 
  • set up scenarios for the conversation (using space in between, simultaneous conversations, different keys/tonal centers, through a tune or chord progression)
  • You can even "comp" while the other person is "talking". In other words, play a simpler supportive part while the speaker takes the lead. I think of this as akin to nodding your head and saying "uh-huh" or "yeah" during a casual conversation.
Here are some parameters I set up as John and I explored this exercise. Check them out and then find a buddy and have a chat!

Conversation with deliberate silence in between the melodic statements.

Conversation with short phrases and minimal silence in between.

Conversation with Comping (e.g. playing supportive parts during the other player's melodic statements)

 Simultaneous Conversation


  1. Awesome post (as usual). So impressed with how much John has improved over the last three years or so.


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