Aural Skills and Improvisation Projects

29 september 2022

We proudly show you the outcome of the final projects for the subject ‘Aural Skills and Improvisation’ 2021-2022 of our 3rd year Bachelor of Classical Music students. For the first time this year, we have mixed the singers and instrumentalists to work together, making their own pieces. The pieces are based on self chosen inspirations and stories, and use various improvisation techniques and ways of developing the material. No scores have been used, and none of the pieces is conducted. The focus has been on listening skills, quality of playing, collaboration, interaction and originality of ideas.

“The improvisation project we did as a part of ASI3 was a beautiful way to explore our creative side, as we literally had to create a piece together. It was interesting to work in this manner with fellow students and find out about how, by collaboration and improvisation, we can represent ourselves as musicians in a whole different way than we’re used to as classical musicians. This project definitely triggered in me the will to (learn to) improvise more”.
Camille Bergsma, Bachelor Classical Cello

As part of the ASI intensive project, our group came up with a piece consisting of 5 movements. We had the idea to make tiny satirical pieces about mundane, daily activities that we are all too familiar with, like going to work or being stuck in traffic. To make it more interesting there would be a constant background voice bringing attention to the horrible things that are happening in the world at this moment, like the war in Ukraine for example. This represents the nagging voice that distracts us from our daily tasks and keep us awake at night, while still having to go on with our lives.

The first movement represents the morning. Camille plays the main character who was waking up. Others were playing bird noises. Kyra plays the sound of the alarm on the harp, which Camille loathingly turns to snooze. There can be heard wind relaxing noises as well by the horn. The radio turns on (Filipe) and flashes of bad news come though the babbling background noise. Movements two is about the traffic or commute. Busy noises of different chaotic characters follow each other.It emphasizes the chaos and stress created by modern day rush hour. In a certain moment, everything stops. The third movement was inspired a bit by the moments of quiet that arise between daily tasks. We used a G-dorian scale to create melody lines that were inspired by Gregorian chant. Razvan and Kyra played the melody, imitating each other, where the others played a drone of the first, third and fifth of the scale, creating a "Zen" atmosphere. Filipe added to this by speaking of a guided meditation, making this movement a sort of moment to oneself. Some peace after the chaos of the traffic. The fourth movement is a waltz, representing the idea of partying and enjoying Life, when there are clearly huge problems going on in the world at the same time. Filipe narrated the thoughts on the stupidity of a waltz in times of war and suffering.The waltz initially starts in G major. The accompaniment keeps going in that key but after a while the people playing the melody started to play it in different keys, and also minor on top of this G-major accompaniment. The final movement is the night. This is focused on the narrator, Filipe. He wants to sleep but the bad thoughts start taunting him, making him unable to sleep. It builds to a climax of thoughts and eventually calms down again. Right after Filipe seems to have finally fallen to sleep we hear once more the sounds of the alarm clock played by the harp.

This makes it a full cycle of 24 hours, which is part of people's daily routine, hence the title for the piece 24/7. We really enjoyed working together. There was a nice atmosphere in the group where we listened to each other and tried to implement each other’s ideas into the piece. I think we worked well as a group because we had very different perspectives and instruments. With that we could form a truly unique ensemble.

The Folky Ensemble originated in a third-year Analysis and Improvisation project. The musicians gathered for several creative sessions that took place in the first week of April 2022 before their final recording. The purpose of the project was for the musicians to be able to create their own music at their most efficient in the given time, as well as to develop their improvisation skills. This not only improved their skills in free improvisation but also increased the level of their qualities in terms of collaboration and organization.

The piece ‘Folky Talkie’ was the result of the overall work. It was based on folk songs from Latvia, Hungary, Spain, Turkey, and Greece. After the songs were presented by each musician within the group, they were developed further into a whole performance. Melodies were connected in various ways, creating contrasts in colors, such as the character, tempo, and dynamics. The accompaniment was the main support of the melodies and the connections among them. It required a high level of attention and imagination to create a suitable base below the melodies.

The performance contained five songs, introducing a hint of each country’s traditional identities: rhythm, harmony, and style. For example, the piece starts with a Latvian melody ‘Pūt, vējiņi!’, ‘Blow, Wind’. This melody consists of lyrical and slow phrases, creating a peaceful atmosphere for the beginning. A relaxing moment ends the introduction and gives space for a transition to the piece ‘Nihavent Longa’. Creating a huge contrast to the lyrical and long phrases, this tune forms a distinct character with a faster tempo. The Hungarian melody; ‘Tavaszi Szél’, ‘The Wind of Spring’, that follows next, brings back the connotation of the earth by creating a calmer atmosphere. A surprising rhythmic change introduces a tango tune, whose accents are supported by body percussion. At last, a motif, that is known to our ears from the Hungarian melody, is used as a transition to the last tune that originally belongs to the Greeks. The piece ends cheerfully, with the improvising violin at the top, accompanied by the percussive cello and counter melodies.

The Aires ensemble consists of Rita Fernández Gasala, Orsolya Janszová, Albert Lincan and Diogo da Costa Marques. We decided to take an adventurous journey through our cultures- Spanish, Portugese, Romanian and Hungarian. We collected the symbols of freedom, love for music from our nationalities and exactly that is why the improvisation is called Gypsy Caravan. Our goal was to follow the roots of Gypsy and Romani music with its colorful, diverse and unique style.

It starts with a small introduction part, using the different mystic sounds of the vibraphone and the violin. After this there is a bit of spice of flamenco, fiery Latin rhythms and harmonies on a mi-scale. It is a big pleasure that later on we could convert this rhythm into the traditional Romanian folk music, played on the violin, and accompanied by vibraphone, voice and clapping. Just to stay in the Eastern part of Europe we decided to use a small section of Csárdás in the piece, and also a Hungarian traditional folk song. In our song after the percussion solo we slowly return to our opening position, with a Spanish metrum. We finished the piece with a typical Hungarian cadenza, just for the fun of it!

In this improvised scene, we explore the idea of sacredness vs sacrilegiousness with our central focus and holy object being a wooden chair. We start calmly and contemplatively, joining the scene one by one, until two singers introduce the instrumentalists to the holy object and draw them into its sphere of influence. The excitement grows, but cannot last forever…

The setup might sound comedic, but within the improvisation, all participants take the role of the chair seriously, although in different ways. We attributed specific roles to each player, initiating or following in specific passages. These roles are fit to the personality and instrument of the respective player, taking into account our different musical personalities that we had got to know from each other throughout the week. Similarly, to our rehearsals, the leadership is not attributed to one person, but fluctuates instead.

Throughout the improvisation, we move from minor to Lydian to chaos to ACDC#, according to a previously prepared scheme. We invite you to listen to our story, and challenge the harmonically inclined to identify the harmonic scheme.

First of all we very much enjoyed working together to create this piece. We managed to cooperate quite well and everyone participated more or less equally. Everybody had their own ideas and we managed to include them in the outcome, even though some of us did not feel as experienced in improvisation as wanted. Maybe we ended up repeating ourselves many times because it was difficult to come up with something new or fit into the ensemble. This is a skill it we would like to develop. 

We created a bright start with the Icelandic tune “Dyravisor”, presented by the trumpet. After one presentation of the melody cello and piano join in a mostly accompanying manner. Voice made some phrases of counter melody. Both cello and voice also had the melody at some point and trumpet played a bit with the motives while piano made some harmonies. It became a quite rhythmical part, but still very calm.

For the next part, we wanted more intensity. Shostakovich was introduced by cello in a solo part. We all took the phrase and played in a big canon. We used different registers and changed on being “in front” of the canon. It created a lot of action and sound before the cello again created a solo transition with taking a simple rhythm and changing notes.

In Grieg’s “part” the voice mostly sings the original melody (with pitch and rhythm changes). Here we wanted to create another image of sound started and this part without music, only beating the rhythm introduced by cello on our instruments, creating the mood of what will follow.  Then everybody joined one by one. This was more or less a dialogue between voice and piano. It would be likely to work more with this part. There was a need to change the original melody and improvise something on top, but it was difficult and a bit scary to do it and not disturb the melodic line. However, we believe the transitions from Shostakovich to Grieg and further to Debussy work quite well.  

With a metric modulation from the cello going from C and G to only G, we moved to the fourth part which was an improvisation over Debussy’s Reverie. The piano made the syncopated bassline from D in the beginning before showing its’ origin from Bb where voice and trumpet presented the melody. Then the piano went back to D alternating on C, and the cello made an improvisation. The syncopated bassline made it difficult to stay with the one, but also created a part with much flow.

To complete the circle, we wanted to go back to the beginning. With the syncopated line already alternating on C we made a mixolydian scale that took us back to the “Dyravisor” which ended the piece with great energy.

Through this piece, we present the complicated moment of seeing an old friend who you don't speak with anymore because of a past difficult situation. Small talks, kind looks and patience is required. The conversation leads to a dynamic ''we need to speak.'' What are the two girls hiding?Their past is being faced through a small improvisation based on Greek orthodox music and Gregorian chant that connects in the end.With the trombone in the role of a soloist as well as a supporting role, reacting to the girls’ conversation, the atmosphere of the piece gets many different characters.The piece ends with a climax where the girl who didn't want to talk anymore says that she has something to say and the other one this time reacts with: it's not necessary.

The story is based on the story of Little Red Riding Hood and starts in the first scene with baking cookies. This is heard in the very light and fun musical scene. Then follows the scene in the forest. This is marked by the entrance of the oboe playing bird sounds. Here you can hear the sounds of nature. The trombone plays a transition to the third part, which describes the big bad wolf. We wanted to build a sustained tension and suspense, which transitions to the final movement where the wolf is being killed. At the very end, we hear a bass drum entrance which kills the ensemble sound and brings the memories of the beginning soundscape, which concludes the whole piece.

The Cookies Collective is a very diverse ensemble consisting of João Silva – baritone, Hella Termeulen – mezzo, Arturo den Hartog – counter tenor, Kamilė Makarevičiūtė – trombone, Vilde Lervik – oboe, Gonçalo Martins – percussion and João Brito – percussion. As the instruments have very different characteristics, it required a bit of attention to create a good blend of the sounds and to bring the instruments together as a whole. We therefore took three sessions to create a nice soundscape and get to know each other in a musical way. We were inspired by the first scene of baking cookies and therefore named the ensemble the cookies collective.

“This is the kind of collaborative project where everything comes together: compositional thinking, active control over musical material, improvisational skills, a great command of ones instrument/voice, and above all deep listening! This year’s batch of students did it again!”
Karst de Jong - Professor of Improvisation and Collaborative Music Creation, Royal Conservatoire of Den Haag and YST Conservatory Singapore