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New York, New York


A New York harpist trying to figure things out - and the mishaps and adventures that inevitably ensue.

Improvising as an Orchestral Robot

Kathryn Sloat

As you probably have realized, I am a classically trained harpist. When I am given a piece of music - whether it’s a solo, or an orchestra part or for a chamber piece, the goal is to replicate exactly what is on the page. It’s not that there isn’t room for interpretation, but the correct notes, rhythms, dynamics, etc. all have to be there. 

That’s why, on the rare occasions when I’m called upon to improvise, I tend to freak out. “Wait, you’re not going to give me exact notes?” I say. “What about rhythms? How long should I play for? Whaddaya mean it doesn’t matter???” My brain kind of goes kaplooey. 

But a few weeks ago I got an email from one of the guitar professors at Mannes, about a performance opportunity with this composer called Elliott Sharp. Not one to turn down a chance to play, I signed up, and kind of forgot about it. The email seemed to imply that not everyone would get called, so I assumed they would let me know if I was needed. 

About two weeks later I got an email back to the effect of, “Hi! Here’s the music, see you at the concert tonight!” HUH??? This took me totally by surprise. “I have a day to learn the music? Aren’t we going to rehearse beforehand? What’s concert dress??” All of these typical classical musician thoughts flashed through my brain. 

I printed out all twelve pages of the part, and did my best to look it over before that night. I didn’t really do any research on the piece or the composer (in my defense, I had a lesson and work and orchestra rehearsal, which pretty much took up my whole day), but if I had I would have realized two things: First, that Elliott Sharp is apparently a big deal. His bio describes him as “A central figure in the avant garde and experimental music scene in New York City (actually it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know this, or I would have been even more nervous).” And second, the piece, called Syndakit, is improvisatory. 

The first part of the evening was a lecture by Elliott Sharp, talking about his music and about Syndakit in particular. In the second half, the ensemble of performers (which consisted of me on harp, a few string players, and a bunch of dudes on electric guitars) got onstage, and Elliott taught us how to play the piece. Each of us got one of the twelve pages (on which were written several self-contained patterns of notes and/or rhythms) at random, and were told that we could play whichever patterns we wanted. Or, you know, whatever we felt like playing. The idea was to listen to the other musicians, and imitate something you heard someone else play, and to improvise your own pattern that someone else could imitate. 

I was rather skeptical at first, but this turned out to be the one of the most fun (funnest?) times I have ever had performing. We played it several times, and by the third try, I was probably the most relaxed I have ever been onstage. It’s not like you can mess up when you’re improvising, so if you decide you don’t like something that you’re playing, you can just stop and do something else. Listening and imitating the things I heard in the ensemble was such a different way of interacting with fellow musicians, and starting a pattern and then realizing that someone else was imitating ME was probably the coolest thing ever. 

In his lecture, Elliott Sharp referred to orchestral musicians as robots, not relaxed or confident enough in themselves to just let loose and play what they feel. I think this is often true. I know that I, at least, can get so hung up on playing the right notes at exactly the right time that sometimes playing in an ensemble can be more stressful than enjoyable. I think that improvising is an important thing to do, if only to just allow yourself to relax and have fun. 

Think of it as letting yourself have pie for breakfast every now and then.