Let me make a couple of thing very clear from the start. Understand I am not a musician. My formal musical training ended when I was about six or seven and I put the violin down for the last time. I do not even consider myself a singer. If well rehearsed on a tune that falls well within my limited range I can hold my own. Beyond that and we're venturing into fingernails on a chalkboard territory. Seriously.
I am a poet. A wordsmith. A verbage engineer. I write the songs that make the young girls sing. Well maybe not that. Anyway. The point is I don't understand music theory. I have trouble figuring out many time signatures. I can't play a chord and I don't know what key we are in at any given moment.
Given the rather verbose (what do you expect from an engineer?) disclaimer regarding my limitations you might ask, why the hell should we believe that you have anything of relevance to say about improvised music?
I can answer that very good question with a very simple and very arrogant response; I understand.
Before I became an improviser, I was a fan. I schlepped thousands of pounds of gear just to be there for the performance. I watched, I listened, I absorbed every possible detail of the experience with no other purpose in mind than to understand. This came in very handy when some time later the guys asked me to join as band poet. While I have no technical musical skills to speak of it was in many ways a perfect fit.
Here's how I look at it; improvised music requires a very abstract, intuitive state of mind. Your brain and your heart must be constantly open and flexible. This is particularly true because you are in constant communication with your band mates on many levels, most of them subconscious. There are many different stages in that communication too.
For example, at the beginning of a piece the conductor gives some quick and dirty directions to the rest of the band (e.g. "dirge in F minor", "a quick 9/8 with a 6/8 on the chorus"). I can't do that, so I have to come up with other ways to tap into their minds that make sense and will translate into coherent music. So they have to put up with directions from me such as, "this is a moribund wedding tune as played by crazed mechanics" or "you're a ragtime zither player trapped inside a barrel going over Niagara Falls with Alistair Crowley". Nutty, huh? Amazingly, and fortunately these guys are able to think at least as abstractly as me and they get it. At least, most of the time they do.
Then while the piece is being played a different level of communication is required. Verbal signals are essentially pointless. Hand gestures are good but not always practical when you're fretting and plucking and such. Here's where facial expressions, body language and most importantly instinct come into play. Through trial and error you learn what everyone will understand and what just looks epileptic. As a vocalist I have a certain advantage in that my hands are mostly free to gesture. On the other hand I am at a distinct disadvantage because I need to face the audience more consistently than the others and this means my two-way communication is severely restricted. I have to look behind me frequently to catch my cues from the conductor; otherwise I have to keep my ears open for audio cues which aren't always that reliable.
One other aspect of communication is related to the first one I mentioned, that of the conductor's instructions at the beginning of a piece. This is really just a pet peeve of mine but quite often whoever is conducting will give fairly detailed instructions to the other musicians regarding key, time signatures, mood, speed, etc. And then he'll turn to me and say, "Come in when I signal you."
Come in and what!?!? They always seem to assume that I have something to say that will fit with the music. I can only hope they are right.
band member contributions