Cat Dance’s most recent shows at Endgames have had a special guest: a keyboard played by Mike Risse. Unlike musical improv sets, in which the accompaniment usually provides the backdrop for improvised songs, in the Cat Dance sets barring a couple recent exceptions, the accompaniment has primarily served as atmosphere for the set.
I had first witnessed atmospheric accompaniment in improv during Meridian and Revolver a couple years ago. When Adal Rifai, a performer on Revolver, visited Endgames last year, I asked him about it, and we got into a short conversation about how accompaniment could influence a set. Some of it went over my head because I had never had the experience of this kind of accompaniment. In fact, the Cat Dance sets in these recent weeks were the first time I’d experienced it.
This fact kind of startles me given how much I associate musical accompaniment with storytelling, which has been part and parcel with my informal musical education. I owe a lot of that education to cartoons. In the world of classical musical, there’s Disney’s Fantasia, but Warner Brother’s Merrie Melodies was way more influential on me. A Daffy and Porky cartoon introduced me to the William Tell Overture, a retelling of the Three Little Pigs introduced me to Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, and then there was a cartoon version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It wasn’t just classical music, either. When I started learning how to play Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” in middle school, I immediately thought back to a tune from Disney’s “In the Bag”.
Of course accompaniment isn’t limited to the big or small screens. It’s one thing to read Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” but a completely different experience to watch Tim Robbins read it in the voice of Thompson to music by Bill Frisell composed specifically to accompany the reading. The music acts in the moment, potentially increasing the gravity or making light of it, setting an emotion or indicating an abrupt change, and adding a new layer to the work.
The difference in improvisation is that the music is not just influenced by the set but also has the ability to influence it, as well. While this is completely obvious in musical improv, where the accompaniment and singers need to harmonize, the connection is more subtle but just as prevalent when the accompaniment is atmospheric. In the Cat Dance sets, the improvised music has become an additional character that we can follow, affect, and be affected by. I hope to learn more as we continue to try this out.