Improvisation doesn't have to be terrible

At the age of eleven, fed up with other clarinet players who would not practice, Sara Schoenbeck picked up the bassoon. She was attracted to the instrument’s beautiful deep tone, and its strange and mysterious allure. From that day forth, Sara has been expanding the capabilities, tone, and technique of “the quiet beast” that she plays. Not only is Sara changing the way the bassoon is played, she is part of the changing face of contemporary music in general.

It is common for Sara to pack up her bassoon and go off to practice music. For those of you who are picturing the inside of an opera house, complete with an orchestra dressed in tuxedoes and long dresses, performing classical music, stop; you couldn’t be further from actuality. This week, you can catch her performing on bassoon in an eight piece band featuring bass, electric guitar, drums, trumpet, viola, cello, and zheng (a Chinese stringed instrument). I know many of you may be thinking that you have been transported into a musical twilight zone; welcome to the world of improvised music. Sara describes it as “music that is spontaneously composed, without pre-conceived structures other than the musical language that each musician brings.” With such varying instrumentation, let alone the unique musical background of each player, this musical twilight zone is in fact a whole new world of musical opportunity.

Sara got her start in improvised music after realizing that she “wasn’t always getting personal artistic satisfaction” when she played the music of other composers. She turned to improvising, and was catapulted off the written page, championing music from her own creative centre. To an improvised musician this is appealing, as is the interaction required to successfully play improvised music with other musicians. New techniques are often required for the tones of multiple instruments to resonate together. “I often try to hear things texturally and try to blend and bend my sound beyond traditional bassoon practices,” says Schoenbeck of her technique.

Improvised music walks a tight-rope with concert-goers – some are attracted to the innovations performers make, others are put off from the departure from traditional musical practices. Schoenbeck tells her listenership to simply enjoy. “Go in with an open mind. Try to be a synesthete, involve your other senses.” Improvised music is often as visual an art form as it is aural. One may see instrumentalists physically manipulating their instruments in weird and wonderful ways. But one can also have the music literally send shivers down their spine.

For the full experience of improvised music, a compact disc will not suffice; “I think improvised music is best experienced in person,” offers Schoenbeck. “I really love a more intimate setting for improvising...[the] bassoon is a bit of an albatross. It’s big, difficult to mic, has thirteen keys for your thumbs alone, and is mercilessly quiet. I could be blowing my brains out and not be heard.” Luckily for music aficionados, Sara, along with some of North America’s most respected improvisers are performing as part of the Time Flies Improvised Music Festival; this takes place from February fourth through sixth at the Ironworks studio on Granville Island. If you have any desire to have your mind blown, you should definitely check it out.

// Colin May

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