Vitamin S
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Workshop number one!
29 Jun 2011

The first workshop of 2011 started with a linguistic metaphor. Workshop dictator Drew read out two definitions of “phrasing” to the small (but select) crowd, describing how a phrase consists of a “small group of words standing together as a conceptual unit, typically forming a component of a clause.” The idea here being that the phrase, though not a sentence, nevertheless has a beginning, middle and end and can be combined with other phrases to complete a sentence. He then sent us away to work on a phrase of our own devising, eventually asking us to pair up and combine them together.

But herein lies an inherent problem concerning the essential nature of communication. Is it really possible to break communication into its constituent chunks, and focus on them? To think of a phrase without placing that phrase within the context of a complete thought — a sentence as it were? I mean do we combine phrases to make an idea, or are phrases a way of describing a complete thought? Drew’s comment that a phrase has a beginning, a middle and an end of its own seemed to hit the nail on the head. Phrases tell a story of their own within the bigger picture.

There is ample precedent for breaking things down and focusing on phrasing. In fact it's a common theatre tool to allow actors to explore lines. Actors are asked to work on a single line — a phrase — by going over the line with as many different approaches as they can. This is done in order to rid themselves of any preconceived characterisations they may have attached to the lines, to allow the words to breathe and have their own meaning outside of the actors’ ideas. A bass player in NZ Musician magazine recently described this, saying how he ‘freed’ vocalists from the tyranny of words: “lyrics put you in a state”.

Improvised music is much more than just noise and exploration of extended techniques. These have their part to play in the creation of phrases that may not have otherwise been heard, but they are a tool: a means not an end. The central plank of the workshop — that a great improvisation is created through thoughtfully constructed phrases, explored and put together to create a coherent powerful whole, is a message that needs to be heeded.