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Space and Color as Improvisational Elements

img  Daniel Barbiero

As an experimental musician, I have been interested in exploring improvisation as a field for integrating musical and non-musical elements that can serve to focus the listener’s perceptions not only to the improvisation as it unfolds, but to the act of perception itself. 

Such an approach is conceptual as much as physical, and as concerned with materials—broadly understood--as with the processes in which they can be deployed and organized.  Two of the most important materials are space and color, and they are conceptualized in specifically functional ways.

Space—open space left to stand by itself, or musical silence filled by ambient sound—corresponds to what artist Hans Hofmann termed negative space, or the absence of intended matter. Space functions as a structural element, allowing sound episodes to take their places within the overall architecture of the improvisation.  In a sense, space helps set the grammar of an improvisation in that it acts as a means of ordering sound events.  With each improviser listening to the others, this is done more or less spontaneously, as unplanned but mutually agreed-upon interstices between sound events put those events into relationship with each other in a manner that is mutually illuminating.

In addition to its architectural or grammatical function within the improvisation, space takes on a role in directing the listener’s perceptions. Space allows the assimilation of sound events into the listener’s perceptual field as a whole. But beyond that, space allows other perceptual modalities, such as vision, to come into play in a mutually influencing relationship. Significant passages of negative space facilitate in the listener an awareness of the flux of his or her perceptions as he or she is situated at a given time and in a given place.

Whereas space operates as a complement to sound, color operates as a complement to pitch.  Color, or the quality a sound takes on by virtue of the way it is produced, is an integral element of pitch. An emphasis on the aural results of different modes of sound production can focus the listener’s attention to this sometimes neglected, sometimes taken for granted dimension of pitch.  For my own instrument, the double bass, color can take on many shadings through use of conventional and/or expanded techniques. The simple difference between arco and pizzicato playing will produce noticeable differences in color; at a more subtle level, color varieties can be afforded by variations in the pressure or placement of the bow, the speed of its course across the string, the introduction of foreign objects through preparation, gestural interactions with different parts of the instrument, etc. 

At the same time, color can stand alone as an independent element in a performance. Expanded instrumental techniques and electronic manipulation alone or together allow the production of interesting, unpitched sounds from conventional instruments. And ostensibly non-musical objects, integrated into a performance, bring with them highly colored sounds that throw into sharp relief the nuances of even the most conventional instruments and techniques: The ethereal sound of bowed metal, the extraordinary sounds of ordinary objects amplified with contact microphones, or the frictional sounds of scraped and rubbed surfaces, when put in the context of pitched playing, serve to dramatize the colors that are an integral part of the sound envelope of the musical note, announcing itself in the attack and retreating in the decay. 

Conversely, more conventional pitched material recontextualizes the sometimes mundane, sometimes startling sounds surrounding it, bringing them into an expansive continuum of musical possibilities and allowing the listener a heightened awareness of the potential musicality of ostensibly non-musical sounds.

By Daniel Barbiero

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