Actually an improvised concert does not need to be prepared at all. Still, mostly there is some kind of planning involved. For the interested, here is an example, a brief run-through of how it was conceived - planned - realized. Welcome inside.

The concert took place in Vor Frue Kirke on Dec. 03, 2010, as a part of the Århus Symphonic Organ Festival, to celebrate the inauguration of the new Klais organ in Musikhuset, the concert hall.

the scoreI arrived in town the day before my concert, just in time to hear the opening concert featuring Richard Strauss' "Also Sprach Zarathustra". I decided to let some of the themes trigger material for my improvisation. Five of the ideas below are loosely converted from Strauss.

My score was a sheet of paper with the titles of 7 ideas. I knew which one to start with, the rest was decided during the concert. The following sound examples take you chronologically through excerpts of the 52 minutes performance.

 

How the concert turned out

During the first 14 minutes I was busy presenting the ideas:

Clean out - Ultra rapid movements, decreasing. The process from full to empty repeated three times.

Thirds chord - From Strauss (also reminding of Sibelius and Carl Nielsen). Using weights to keep keys down on 2 manuals, the swell of both BW and SW alternating.

Needles - Pedal keeps a mumbling ostinato as pointillistic figures are played on sharp, light stops.

Pulses . Cluster chords on low, noisy organ stops create a percussion effect, more or less evolving into

... Hallelujah - tremolo chords, turned out to be not that much used after all.

... The snake - (not in the score, invented at the concert)

From 14 minutes into the concert, ideas start to be recycled and developed:

Thirds chord, again - adding more metallic quality

... Clean out, again - now lighter, converting to snake, then to pulse

... Needles, again , lighter, sporadic

New material: Reeds trio - Based on unison playing on 8' reed stops over all three keyboards. Starting very dry, slowly unfolding...

...after 5 minutes to a wonderful body of sound (to develop into the end of the piece).

New materal: H/C ambivalence - drying out to mystical pulses

Thirds chord, for the 3rd time - now up from darkness and becoming really bright...

...Hallelujah, again - merging with the thirds theme...

...distilling into Reed trio, again - almost down to unison, momentarily layering up

....and slowing down to unison again. This is where the piece ends.

 

Needless to say, there are many more correspondences and threads... this summary is just meant to show the relation between the spontaneous improvised playing, the preconceived elements of plan and the final plan evolving during the performance.

Meeting the organ

When I meet an organ for the first time, to prepare for an improvisation, I play it in a quite classical way, to become friends with the instrument. Gradually this develops into exploring sounds, which I record and listen to.  I'm looking for unique sounds, those with an edge, a perfect or imperfect quality etc. The score sheet, if any, comes later, maybe in the last hour before the concert.

After having found some characteristic sounds, I look for matches and how to blend things, using the keyboard I/II/III to create perspective.  I cross-check with the recording in order to find the balance, looking for the threshold of subtlety, where similarities, correspondences, shadows and a "3-D feeling" start to occur.

Basic obsessions

I have to say I am obviously obsessed with a few particular categories of material. You will find them here and in most other concerts I create. The ultra rapid is one of them. That is, to play so fast that control slips away both for listener and performer. Listen to the Clean out example above.

The split unison is another one. Here I use two or three keyboards for one melodic line, playing slightly out of sync or overlapping short notes in order to work around the organ's stiff sound and make it move in space. Start of the Reeds section is an example.

Then there is the overlapping chords, listen to the Thirds section for this one. Typically, chords on two different keyboards blend into eachother by use of adding/subtracting single stops and continuously moving swell pedals. The result is a composite chord that changes colour and expression as the point of gravity shifts.

This is a kind of live sound sculpturing:  I listen to the sound as it moves from the organ out in the space, meeting a new sound from another keyboard. The organ sound is not fixed, it ripens through space. As the overtones crash they eventually create a new chord, which again can give me an impulse to add a new sound. Here, combinations that traditionally are regarded as ugly in organ playing can sound really beautiful .

Another archetypical element is the tremolo playing ofte applied on full organ. Example: the second Hallelujah part. By making different sorts of tremoli on chords, I am able to control them dynamically over time, and a lot of good noise is added. This can sound rather violent, but I'm never using force on the instrument. It's just about rapidity and amount of information.

Last, the percussive element is almost always present at some point of a concert. I am generally attracted to making the organ sound like something else. The pulses example in this concert is actualy not the most characteristic. Often, the attack noises of certain organ pipes become musical elements of their own. And, clusters in low register blur the pitch perception and help to focus on other qualities of the sound.

As you may have noticed, all these characteristics represent specific non-traditional playing styles. Especially the detail level, or texture, is affected. I am constantly working on shifting the perception of the listener. By using simple melodic material but a multiple playing technique that develops the texture, the room behind the melody is opened up. By freezing some of the music it is possible to transcend, to move into new levels of perception.

On timing - before and after music

Freezing and running are two essential behaviours as you work with timing. The stages in between are not so interesting. Working on timing is of course something you do continuously during improvisation. Repeatedly you need to surprise yourself by just deciding that it's time to perform a change.  This could be to stop something abruptly, for example, regardless of whether the material could still develop.

Building up (or down) gradually is the complimentary technique. This can go on almost infinitely, as we are looking for a hypnotic quality. At the end of the day, the concert typically gets three or more heavy, monumental dynamic peak points. Maybe this is a way I need to change soon. The shape of the whole piece reminds somehow of a late romantic symphonic piece (Liszt?). A friend once suggested I orchestrate the "19 March Oslo Cathedral" piece and publish it as a symphony...

Anyway, all is done before. As we repeat doing improvised concerts, we perform the same ritual. The concert already happened. When I start the concert by playing the first sounds, I open something that is already finished. It would be impossible to improvise a concert without having gone through this process before.

As I prepare the concert, by sorting out ideas, finally writing down a few keywords on a sheet,  I enable myself to be ahead of the music as I play. Played sounds are definitive, they can not be erased from history. I can plan history in advance, then do something - whatever, actually - and it will be definitive. The detail is not important, but that it happened. To be conscious of this is one half of improvising, the other half is to search your way as you go. This means, I want to be both before and after the music, at the same time. Such an interesting thought, I don't want to say more about it.

Who is playing - and not

It is always useful to hear comments from listeners. One of my friends said that my project is a very impersonal one. I liked that one. He didn't mean a lack of personal touch or something, but rather he pointed to an objectivity which for sure is my aim. Actually I often think, during a concert, that the instrument is playing by itself. That helps me to listen and evaluate properly. And that is simply what I want the listener to experience.

Another friend said to me "Your style is very clear, it is not so much defined by what you play, but what you don't play".


As references to this article, these two solo organ CD's of mine might be of interest:
16 pieces for organ (2002)
19 March 2004, Oslo Cathedral (2004)

And, more about improvisation methods in these two reports from projects:
Report from Organ Night 2010
Belgrade report, oct.2010