Tool #12: Structured Improvisation, Pt. I (John Zorn Cobra Feature)

I’d like to give an introduction to a topic that’s near and dear to my heart in music: structured improvisation.  While I can’t do it justice in just one post (hence the “Pt. 1” in the title), I love improvisation, so I would feel ashamed if I neglected it in this blog.

Structured improvisation can take on many forms.  It generally means leaving certain aspects of performance and the piece up to the performers.  Some great structured improvisation composers are of course Cage, Rzewski, and Zorn, all of whose music I’ve had the joy to improvise with.

Let’s go to one example for this post’s focus: John Zorn’s Cobra. Cobra is a piece that relies on musicians following commands, creating commands and suggestions, and generating improvised music.  The piece has a set of instructions that set up a framework: a conductor/leader makes the ensemble produce sound by holding up cue cards that mean certain actions, and the musicians can follow these commands, suggest commands, and even essentially tell the conductor to buzz off, whereupon a faction splits off in a musical rebellion.  Cobra is thus in essence a type of game.

Let’s get into some details.  For starters, the conductor can hold up cue cards to bring a solo instrument in, a selected “pool” of instrumentalists in, duos, and any combination he/she chooses.  The musicians can then create music as they want–they might agree on a march, trade off motivic fragments, or even start screaming at each other with their voices.  The conductor can then cross-fade other musicians in and out, stop the piece, add a coda, or fade the piece out as if it’s a pop song with one of those ever-so-classic fade-outs.

But wait, there’s more!  The conductor has three storage capacities.  These are red cards that are labeled 1, 2, and 3.  When the conductor shows card 1, the current music that is being played is saved as “cue 1”.  Whenever the conductor shows card 1 again, the music of “cue 1” is played again by the musicians, who remember who was playing and what “cue 1” sounded like.  This has been used to many effects, some very comical (in my experience).  In one rehearsal, we’ve had something such as the tuba and recorder as one cue, pianos playing a march in another cue, and a violin and viola playing a weeping melody on another cue.  So, if the conductor gave the recorder cue, then cut them out and played the piano cue, then cut those players out and played the violin/viola cue, the wacky shift of moods would make everyone laugh.

If the musicians have had enough of the conductor bossing them around, they can put on headbands and form their own ensemble, usually a very disruptive entity that ignores the ensemble and plays whatever they want, not matter what the circumstances.  The conductor then has to work with a “spy” to “assassinate” the “guerilla” leader of the faction, and bring the ensemble back to order.

Other cues include creating cartoon noises, changing the music type (eg. noise making to lyrical jazz), changing the volume (the conductor has in essence a master volume fader), and creating trade-offs between the members of the ensemble.

So, how can Cobra give us compositional tools?

Here are some tips that Cobra can give us composers about structured improvisation:

  1. You don’t have to fear the unexpected, and you can invite as much or as little of the unexpected as you want.  If you want a melody based on 5 pitches and in a syncopated jazz rhythm, improvised by a guitarist, you can call for that, and if you want a free-form noise explosion of pitches that you don’t care about from anyone in the whole ensemble, you can call for the limited (first, jazzy example) or more free (second, noise-making example) situation.
  2. Improvisation can be fun.  It is not only a great bonding experience for musicians (both players and composers), but it doesn’t have to be a cold, stoic exercise in removing the will of the composer (and don’t get me wrong; there are great pieces that remove the will of the composer in stoic and non-stoic manners).
  3. Written instructions can give musical results.  Visual and graphic instructions can do the same.  Either and/or both may be the most effective way to achieve the improv you’re seeking, so don’t fear using non-standard or non-musical symbols, text, or physical gestures.  In fact, the way that players communicate to the conductor is by pointing a certain number of fingers at different facial parts (eg. 1 finger at your nose is a suggestion that the conductor command you and another player to play a duet).
  4. Having a leader helps organize things, but things can happen independently as well.  The conductor figure in Cobra is essential, but the duets, trade-offs, and rebellions led by the ensemble are performer-inspired, that is, the performers make the music, and the conductor doesn’t tell them to play a duet in the style of Hendrix, or a pedal A# as a bassline.
  5. Musicians are more creative than they (or you) might think.  Getting over the initial stigma of “what the hell am I going to play?” and “what if I sound like crap?” is tough at first, but it’s like blowing up a balloon: you have to get over that initial hump, and then you’re home free.
  6. There are many elements that can be improvised.  Form, instrumentation, orchestration, style, melody, harmony, rhythm, mood, etc. are all viable options.
  7. Lastly, improvisation opens up new worlds.  It’s like having an ensemble of 15 performers turn into an ensemble of 150 compositional threads per minute from 15 new composers.

Try it out, and let me know what you think!  I want to do another post on structured improvisation down the line, so there will be more on this eventually.

Thanks for reading!



3 thoughts on “Tool #12: Structured Improvisation, Pt. I (John Zorn Cobra Feature)

  1. Steve

    Dan, you should check out Anthony Braxton. He’s done a lot with compositions that incorporate improvisational cues with shapes and symbols. He worked at Wesleyan for many years before he retired last year.

  2. Pete

    Sorry, but you have a fundamental misunderstanding of how Cobra works. This is directly from the instructions: “The prompter is not a conductor – they should get their cues from the improvisors using the hand
    signals. They then relay the ideas to the rest of the band.”

    1. Thank you for the comment! To be honest, the way I described the piece is how the ensembles I have been in have performed it. Perhaps we haven’t been doing the piece justice. It is strange that it was never conveyed to us in this way; perhaps there are variations to the instructions that allowed our ensemble to proceed in the way we did?

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