I'm an improv musician. To some this sounds like a fancy way of saying "lazy musician" - no need to learn other people's tunes before each show, and no musical script to remember during the gig either. The job is to sit at a piano and literally make it up as our equally made-up play goes along (surrounded by a guitar, drums and cymbals, rain-sticks, giggle tubes, an accordion, and the instrumental lovechild that is a keytar, which graced so many hits of the Thatcher years). As well as the charge of laziness, people often react with pure terror at the idea of going on stage to spin songs, soundtracks, and spontaneous symphonies on the spot.
"That would be my worst nightmare," said a friend on hearing about my job. "If I went out in front of all those people without knowing what I was going to do, I would just freak out."
Freaking out is always an option and there have been moments of doing exactly that - at a gig in Bristol a slip of the hand during a theatre blackout nearly turned my grand keyboard introduction into the demo version of Magic Moments, leading me to pull the power altogether and sing a haunting solo which sounded a bit like The Circle of Life. Luckily the play was set by the audience in an underground morgue, so the unsettling atmosphere was sort of appropriate.
But the truth of the job is stranger than lazy or terrified. Making up music isn't all that scary because you actually practise a lot - as much as a sports player practises before they have to improvise during a match - and it's not (quite) as lazy as you might think, because improv musicians obsessively study a whole bunch of different music to develop an array of styles, references, and even wordless musical jokes ready to chuck into the bubbling cauldron of the onstage action. When it looks like we're just making it up we're actually using a musical vocabulary learned over years of picking up tunes here and there and of absorbing different ways of playing, always rifling through the inner sonic dictionary for new phrases to fit the mood of the scene. And being a nerdy crew, improv musicians love compiling a good dictionary.
When it comes to referencing licks and riffs no musical genre is safe. I've played (short/hopefully not copyright-infringing) take-offs of Queen, Sinatra, Shakira, Beethoven, 10cc, B*Witched and more national anthems than you could twirl a marching baton at, transformed from major to minor and back the other way, turning rock songs into waltzes and lullabies into dancehall tunes. The teenage years dubiously spent working out Red Hot Chili Peppers songs finally pay off when the one audience member out of a hundred laughs uproariously at your soundtrack to a scene set under a bridge.
While references are useful for some specific situations, the majority of what you play is music that has never been heard before and will probably never be heard again (unless you are one of the happy listeners to Racing Minds' improvised radio play podcast, in which case you can listen again and again to our spur-of-the-moment dramatic and musical stylings without any fear of them disappearing for good. Please do, really. This part of the blog is just extending the bit in brackets so that you have a moment to click on the link to the podcast). Still, the music is based on experience of what mood and style works for different moments: pious organ music for a scene in a church or creepy castle, a dramatic strum of Spanish guitar for adventures to gold-stuffed treasure caves or climactic showdowns between the hero(ine) and the villains, A-ha for anything involving Norway (Norway's real national anthem is a choral epic that would demand a cast of thousands to do any justice to). Superstar comedians and all-round lovely people Austentatious even employ cello and violin players to set the elegant Regency tone for their hilarious literary plays.
The music spun to accompany comedy improvisers on stage can add to the atmosphere and undercut it, throw in sly winks, and make the drama seem heightened above and beyond what is really reasonable for a bunch of people pulling on ludicrous costumes and making jokes about geography. And with a different show every time, you never know which bit of the mental music dictionary is going to be called upon next. It's the best lazy terrifying job in the world.
Racing Minds will be at the Edinburgh Fringe 5th-31st August 2015, 12pm at Pleasance Queen DomeSuggest a correction