One of the quickest ways to be coherent is through the use of repetition. Even Gerre Hancock in explaining his first axiom (“Never stop.”) urges the student, should an unexpected and harsh dissonance occur, be sure to repeat “the mistake.” Through the repetition, we have balance and intention, so the audience may begin to doubt if that first surprise was unplanned. What if, instead of repeating ourselves when we made “a mistake,” we choose to practice our repetition intentionally?
An ostinato pattern can give us a repeated motif that can provide tonal and rhythmic coherence for a piece. It can also enable us to practice our mental gymnastics. While a repeated pattern may appear mindless, if we focus too much on what else we are trying to do, it could very easily fall apart. Ostinatos should be short and simple enough that we can repeat them easily and spend our mental energy on the other voices we add to the pattern.
While I improvised freely at the piano as a young student, there came a time when I became attached to the notes on the page. The jazz piano lessons I took from Laurie Altman began to free me once again from that attachment. One of the first pieces he had me learn was “Peace Piece” by Bill Evans. The YouTube video below is Bill Evans’ 1958 recording with a transcription by William Hughes.
The entire piece is built on two chords and lasts over six minutes! The left hand provides the ostinato, keeping the rhythm and tonal center for the piece while the right hand is free to explore different ideas, sometimes quite far away or very rhythmically complicated. While the transcribed rhythm at the beginning is rather complicated, the simple version is as follows:
While this is obviously a piano composition, I think it would adapt quite well to the organ with the feet playing the lower notes (stems down in the above excerpt) and left hand playing the chords (stems up). Start with a soft flute (or celeste) registration for the accompaniment with some sort of a solo stop for the right hand to explore.
While the left hand provides an anchor, the right hand is free to explore. After initially keeping to notes in the same scale, an F# appears, and then many other accidentals. My jazz piano teacher actually encouraged me to explore several different modes with the right hand while the left hand remained constant.
Notice also the change in register. Not only is the left hand repetitive, the right hand repeats melodic ideas, often at different octaves. The right hand even comes all the way down into the ostinato pattern at one point.
From the title, we gather that Bill Evans’ intention was to create a softer reflective mood. Without changing the ostinato, how could we do to change that? What if we got louder, creating a crescendo as we went along? How about increasing the chromaticism in the right hand? increasing the speed of the right hand rhythms? increasing the number of notes in the chords the right hand plays? I think we could become rather wild and frenzied using this “Peace Piece” ostinato!
Transposition and modification
As with any improvisation exercise, it’s always good to transpose it into all the other keys. I remember Laurie Altman suggesting creating a B section for the piece by moving into Eb major (or was it E major?). This way, we could have a nice little ABA piece with a calm beginning and ending and a contrasting more active (in a different tonality) middle section. If you practice in multiple keys, there’s no reason you couldn’t create a multi-part rondo (ABACA). Even if your sections are half as long as Bill Evans, that would give you 15 minutes of music all based on the same idea! (Perhaps you could try it the next time you play a wedding and the bride is late…..)
This is only one ostinato. Michael Joseph offers another in the New Hampshire AGO Workshop which I posted this week (video part III). I’m sure there are many others that you could find or create. Next week, I plan to look at a slightly longer ostinato pattern we commonly call a passacaglia.
Hoping all your ostinatos have variety,
Recent additions to organimprovisation.com: