Musical Improvisation

Musical Improvisation

October 10, 2017
Categories: Seattle Women's Chorus


Today on the blog we're catching up with two members of the band for SWC's Fired Up, Kate Olson (woodwinds) and Susan Pascal (vibraphone). Fired Up opens on Friday at Saint Mark's Cathedral.

Do you know each other?

[Kate] Yes, Susan and I know each other, although not very well. I've hired Susan to play my music a couple of times--she is creative, professional, punctual, and very fun to work with. It's really invigorating as a musician to find someone like Susan who is so supportive and good at collaboration, especially on original music in a duo setting. 

[Susan] I’ve followed Kate’s work in Seattle and have enjoyed playing in her bands several times. She’s a wonderful musician, her compositions are creative and fun to play, and she often uses electronic effects on the saxophone, an adventurous spirit.


You’re going to be improvising with one another during this concert. What can we expect?

[Susan] I was happy to learn we would work together in these concerts, and I arranged saxophone and vibraphone parts for “This Land Is Your Land” with her in mind. The arrangement spotlights Kate in several improvised solo moments, cadenzas, while the rhythm section supports her. My improvisation is primarily in the accompaniment, which is a tight arrangement that I embellish. The underlying arrangement will remain the same, but those improvised moments will be different from concert to concert.

[Kate] And in a choral setting, the main focus will always be the singers, so whatever we come up with on the fly will have to fit into and be supportive of what the vocalists are trying to accomplish. The real star of the show here is Susan's arrangement of “This Land is Your Land.” This song is so important to the genre of protest music historically, and to showcase the lyrics by a white man (Woody Guthrie) in a powerful soul music arrangement made famous by a black woman (the recently deceased Sharon Jones), is really to get at why we do what we do. Music is communication, music is community, and in America, we have the unique privilege and grave responsibility to rise above our external differences and delve into shared emotional territory. This is why improvisation in that sense is so important--it brings immediacy to our musical decisions.


How does a musician learn to improv?

[Susan] There are many teachers, schools, and traditions of thought on this!  Mastering your instrument, learning harmony, and finding ways to interpret the cryptic-looking chord symbols that work as shorthand for our musical language is part of it. Listening to and studying the masters of the tradition is essential. Find a teacher that you’re comfortable with to guide you, and find a community of musicians to play with and experiment with, and you will find your voice.

[Kate] Pretty much every performance that I do includes improvisation; I actually have a Master of Music degree in improvisation from the University of Michigan. And as to what I said earlier, music is a form of communication--it's a language. As any student of foreign language knows, the only way you get fluent is to practice speaking with a native speaker, and the first step to that is listening. In musical improvisation, this means playing with improvisers that are better than you, and doing more listening than playing. For the 8 years of college + education that I undertook, I can say that I learned the most about improvisation by going to shows and being a keen listener on the bandstand. School is for concepts and meeting people that are like-minded. You don't really learn how to play until you're out there doing it.


Susan, you have a more comprehensive explanation on your website but, for the novice, what is a vibraphone?

[Susan] People often recognize the vibraphone as being similar to a xylophone. It has 37 bars made of an aluminum alloy; each bar is tuned to a separate pitch, and the bars are arranged like the keys of a piano onto a frame. It has a damper pedal, resonating tubes that amplify the volume, and a vibrato mechanism that opens and closes those tubes by rotating butterfly valves— quite the contraption!  Originally invented as a vaudeville novelty (the “steel xylophone”), it eventually found its primary use in jazz and was made well-known by the big band leader, Lionel Hampton. I’m currently playing the vibraphone in musical groups of different traditions: contemporary jazz, salsa, chamber music, and surf pop.


Kate, how many instruments do you play?

[Kate] I consider myself a saxophonist first, and a "woodwind doubler" second. So the instruments that I own and could possibly play on a concert are: soprano, alto, tenor, and bari saxophones, B♭ and bass clarinets, and flute. So that's 7 woodwinds. I also play guitar, bass, and keyboards well enough to perform on them, but absolutely not at the level that I play woodwind instruments. I joke that no one really *needs* a saxophone in their band, so I had to learn other instruments to make myself marketable. In my own bands/solo projects (KO SOLO, KO ELECTRIC), I specialize in soprano saxophone and effects, but when other people hire me, it is almost always for a combination of other instruments. For example, my next gig after the Women's Chorus show is a run at The Triple Door called This Is Halloween, in which I make myself up to look like a corpse and play alto saxophone and electric guitar. Go figure. :-)


Is there anything about this concert’s topic (protest and social justice activism) that particularly makes it exciting to perform?

[Susan] It’s fantastic that the Women’s Chorus is bringing people together and reminding us all to speak out.

[Kate] In the current political climate, it is imperative that artists take a stand, and that means taking a side. Musical protest is an incredibly powerful form of activism, and as musicians, I think it's our duty to stand up and be counted. Women are so powerful, and historically, those who actually hold offices of power have been telling us that isn't the case. Every time I play with the men's and women's choruses, I am moved to tears. It's that kind of power and emotional depth that gives us the responsibility to speak up, to build our community, and to advocate for the rights of those who are unable to do so for themselves. If that's not exciting, I don't know what is. 


Susan Pascal photo by Kevin Clark