Chicago is a city known for its improvisation. It’s the mecca of improv comedy, the birthplace of Chicago-style jazz, and, thanks to the Newberry Consort, it’s also a great place for improvisational early music.
David Douglass, co-artistic director of the Newberry Consort, says improvising is as old as the human race, but in Europe, the art of having musicians being able to improvise successfully as a group began in the Middle Ages and became especially popular in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
In order to keep musicians improvising together, they began using what is known as a “ground bass” or basso ostinato, where the bass line features a repeating harmonic pattern while other higher instruments play variations on top of that. Later on, the repeating pattern didn’t have to be relegated to the bass line, but could simply be a repeating harmonic pattern played by any single instrument.
In Elizabethan times, using a ground bass was an especially popular technique among secular musicians, who often relied on it to improvise dance music. But by the early Baroque period, composers were also using it in musical pieces that were written down, creating elaborate counterpoints and additional harmonic lines above the repeating bass line.
A popular example is that of Pachelbel’s Canon, written in the late 17th century, which features the same descending four-note pattern in the bass line throughout, while many different instruments come in at different intervals and add their own voice and texture to the piece.
Another example is Claudio Monteverdi’s “Laetatus sum,” written in 1650. In this version, listen for the repeating pattern played by the theorbo player.
Although these two examples feature a ground bass, they don’t include improvisation. But Douglass says the art of musical improvisation was at its height during this time, when musicians were interested virtuosity and ornamentation.
“Expression in Baroque music is the most virtuosic part,” Douglass explains. “In all of this repertoire, the performer is central to the music.”
In our upcoming concert, “Dangerous Love: Playing with Fire,” April 27 to 29, the three string players and three continuo players will be improvising here and there throughout the concert. And in order to do it well, Douglass says, the musicians must listen closely to one another.
“It’s all about communicating,” he says. “It’s like having a conversation in words, but it’s in music.”
Douglass says having the chance to improvise in front of an audience is always a thrill, because you never know how it will turn out, hence why the Consort dubbed this program, “Playing with Fire.”
“It’s dangerous in that it kind of exposes how you feel about the music,” he says. “But it’s fun because you’re making up melodies, and it’s your own inspiration to create the music.”