Tuesday, 29 December 2015


If I'm in the mood, in the evening I have taken to creating what I think of as improvisations, in the musical sense.  I have instinctively set myself the sort of flexible "rules", or creative limitations, I imagine any improvising musician must use.  Chief among these is finishing the piece in one evening.  I might tighten it up later, but it must be substantially complete by the time I power down the PC that night.  Another is that, if possible, most of the images used should come from the same folder, that is, taken with the same camera in the same month of the same year.

So, I open a blank 30cm x 40cm file, 300 dpi, and begin to play.  The first two chords in this particular piece (evening of 27th December) were as follows:

That is, a major and a minor from December 2015, played on the Fuji X-M1.  Obviously, these two photographs have their own individual strengths and appeal, but – to continue the musical analogy – a reliance on single images can feel rather like playing the same few chords over and over again.  Something, I confess, I rather like to do on the guitar; I have a particular liking for the way a straight D chord rings, and the way other chords sit alongside it.  But is there anything more annoying, than someone else's purposeless musical noodling in the next room?

Another rule is to set myself a new image-editing challenge.  I'm still expanding my repertoire on Photoshop (or, rather, Photoshop Elements, not the full-on concert version of Photoshop) and, being an old-school amateur, I like to do everything myself using the most basic tools, in the same way I used to program in Perl without resort to libraries of ready-made routines.  Although I do have a pressure-sensitive Wacom graphical tablet, I still prefer to use a simple mouse for most operations, having developed a high degree of dexterity over the last couple of decades.  In this case, the challenge was to extract and save this rumpled anti-bird-strike sticker from its uninteresting, out-of-focus matrix:

Having succeeded, the new file will join my ragbag collection of recyclable bits and pieces, like the fragments of melody that appear and reappear as inversions and variations in any improvisation, together with a musician's trademark shifts in mood, timbre, and tempo.  Because, let's be honest, eighty to ninety percent of any improvisation is not so much spontaneous creation as an artful cut and paste job.  Having a headful of other music and ready-made progressions at your fingertips is an essential prerequisite of creating the other ten percent, or – on a really good night deserving of a standing ovation and multiple curtain calls – that magically original twenty percent.

Having laid down something that works, the rest of the job is trying to make it sing.  This may require changes of shape, of colour, of contrast, of relative size, of emphasis, and almost always the substitution of stronger new elements which upset the balance of everything else all over again, but in a dynamic, creative way.  You've got to be in the right mood to start, but by the time it's finished, the piece will have either created and imposed its own new mood or fallen apart into unresolved disharmony.

Thankfully, this sort of improvisation doesn't happen on a stage, live before a paying audience...

27 December 2015

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