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Improvising using Reger's modulations

The original title of this collection of modulatory exemplars was
On the Theory of Modulation (Beiträge zur Modulationslehre)  published in 1904.

It's particularly exciting to have this collection by Max Reger, as he is the master of the sudden modulation! His organ preludes and fantasies are especially devoted to this device, in which he uses a kind of twist, duck, dive and hammer approach which nails a completely unexpected key to your forehead, and leaves the listener kind of dizzy and convinced at the same time.. I think it was WmGlenn Osborne on his organ improvisation site who suggested improvising on the exercises, so I can't take the credit for the idea, but this was my first time trying - which turned out to be great fun!

I should add that Reger himself tries to achieve his modulations in as few moves as possible. Many of the exercises are only a few chords long (average about 7) and nothing is 'not attempted' (excuse the awkward sentence), as even enharmonic transitions from C to B-sharp can be followed through neighbouring keys, the theory written in careful prose below. When I showed these exercises to Helmut Lachenmann, he told me they were not for the purist as Reger often uses the Neapolitan sixth chord to sidestep between remote keys, but this (in my opinion) adds to the charm and interest of the book. Anyway, there's plenty of other harmony books which are pure!

My first attempts were somewhat feeble and dry. It's difficult to know in which direction to expand, when the only (self) instruction is 'to improvise' on the exercise. However, I've been working a lot with baroque figurations recently so I tried using these to get from one chord to another and find the cadence at the end. Here's what I found:

  1. After about 10 mins I wanted to quit, as it didn't seem to be working. This meant that nothing interesting musically seemed to be happening and I didn't feel in control of the process.
  2. However, I decided to persevere and run the usual psychological checks: (i) am I focusing on the product or the process of improvising? (ii) am I doing something because I feel I ought to rather than I want to - 'the tyranny of the shoulds' in the words of Karen Horney.
  3. Well, a little bit of both was happening, particularly (ii) as it seemed kind of lame to give up so early. Anyway, after telling myself that I wanted to persevere, I readjusted my focus on the process - which is nice, because I start to enjoy all the possibilities of what I'm playing, rather than worrying about finding solutions, and correct solutions at that!
  4. This seemed to fix it in terms of creativity and enjoyment and things were already becoming more fluent in an exciting way. Suddenly a really unique path opened up, and a sense of genuine improvisation over elements of Reger's harmony kind of just happened. This was definitely a quick jump forward, almost unrelated to the previous work, so I guess my brain had also been working in parallel in the background, making all kinds of connections while I busied myself with the conscious stuff up front.

Conclusion: for me it really comes down to allowing the mind to work for you. It's almost as if one can programme in some coordinates (a goal or aim) and watch the brain bustle about finding solutions. Except, of course, I can't watch it :-) it's more of a trust thing. I'm also convinced that it's possible to establish a working relationship with these unconscious processes which is entirely beneficial. Perhaps this is a part of expert knowledge (not, I hasten to add, that I am an expert), and certainly I believe it's possible to thwart the work of these same processes by not establishing a working relationship - that is, by forcing the pace, by stressing to much, and responding to the 'tyranny of the shoulds'.

Anyway, for those two wonderful break-throughs, I'm a happy man this evening! 

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