Compositional Improvisation

AE interviews Mike Vargas
March 14, 2006

Presented by Roulette on April 19 as part of its spring series at Location One in New York City, improvising pianist Mike Vargas told us that he had a lot to say about improvisation. We invited Kerry Hagan to ask him a few questions about it.

AE As an improvising pianist, how would you describe your musical aims?

MV Clarity, economy, a unique sound. I strive for the same clarity and economy that's possible when music is composed and when a composer has the benefit of time for reflection and editing. As a pianist, I've been working hard to find a personal voice, a unique sound that I think of as a new species of music. My aim is to lead my listeners out into a musical wilderness where we're face to face with mystery and creation. And where maybe there's a moment of adventure and respite from some of our daily concerns.

AE You've worked a lot with dancers. How has your work been affected by it?

MV Yes, I've worked a lot with dancers. And I am often playing solo in a room full of dancers improvising. We find that their active participation plays an important role in the actual making of the music. When people are listening and moving their bodies at the same time, you can begin to imagine the expansion of the performance situation. With improvised music and improvised dance occurring simultaneously, a situation develops in which listening to the music is made more complex and interesting by all the creative and physical logistics of dancing. We don't think of an audience at that point. Nobody is 'just watching' or 'just the audience' while a musical artist is 'performing'. All of the implications of this situation have given me a lot of insights about rhythm, space, continuity and development. And then it's even more interesting when I do play in front of a seated audience.

AE Can you name some artists who have inspired you? And can you discuss their influence on your work?

MV Some of the artists that have inspired me are Sun Ra, John Cage, Cecil Taylor, Morton Feldman, Samuel Beckett, Robert Motherwell, Cy Twombly ... These are all people who have thrilled me with their brilliance, particularly with respect to breaking new ground. And I've gleaned knowledge about composition from their works, even from people that were not musicians. Looking at works by the abstract expressionists, for example, I ask myself, "how do they organize material? How much structure and how much freedom?" and so on. And from these questions, I've developed a craft of composition that ultimately I use in improvising.

But when I get to know the works of artists that break new ground, I also get something more important. I know it's been said before, but what I get is the encouragement to trust my own creative life, to make my own choices and to have the courage and the confidence to make a bold statement and stand by it.

© 2006