The Red and The Black: a card game for improvising musicians

The idea for this came about when a quartet of musicians came together for a week of recording. Rather than simply firing away at each other all week, we started putting together ideas for structure. This was mine. Four musicians and four suits. With that, I only offer the following as general rules to be used or discarded as the players see fit. With larger groups than a quartet, more than one person could be a “heart” or “club.” It would also be up to the players to decide if the color schemes still held.

Thinking about it several years later, I suppose someone could do this as solo pieces (Solitaire!) if they made equivalents to the suits or colors.

I liked that the draw meant each improvisation would likely have a different texture in the same context. Sometimes a suit isn’t drawn or one is drawn two or three times. In the case of the quartet, the players could decide if they were playing as suits or colors, solo or duo. Individually, a player could interpret the numerical information on the card based on their own musical ability or simply ignore it.

I always intended to come up with something similar for a Tarot deck, but never did.

General Instructions
1. Pull the aces from a deck of cards and shuffle. Lay them out face down. One person (or representative in case of a larger ensemble) picks a card. He or she is now that suit. So if the player picks the ace of hearts, he now plays either when conducted or when a heart is

2. It may be best to organize the playing space so that the red and black suits are together. Also, everyone should be able to see the cards that are drawn. In large ensemble situations, maybe an overhead would be good to use.

3. Shuffle the remaining deck with or without the jokers. Draw four cards. These represent the score. (H=Hearts; S=Spades; D=Diamonds; C=Clubs)

4. Once this score is finished, discard. Pick four new cards and begin again until the deck runs out. (48 cards = 12 scores in one set)

5. If you use the jokers, I recommend using the joker as a wild card, so the deck ends with an even four cards. In other words, draw four cards with the joker.

Drawn: 3H 4S 4H 2D

Because Hearts are drawn first they control this score. They can choose to play completely through the entire piece and signal Spades and then Diamonds in or out in the order they appear. They could choose to signal in everybody in the order they are drawn and then signal everyone out. They could also choose to have the Diamonds play along with them (as the Red team).

If a player chooses, she could also read the numerical value of the card. For example, if I get the 3H, then I could play in 3/4 time, 3 chords, 3 actions, 3 seconds, three frets, notes, or strings or I could only play in thirds (harmonically or melodically). It’s up to the player and the conducting team.


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