Improvisation Masterclass with the Sara Serpa Trio: “Close Up”


The main purpose of the masterclass conducted the Sara Serpa Trio at Escola Superior de Música de Lisboa in October 17th, 2019, was to discuss the creative process behind the performance of voice, cello and saxophone trio. The masterclass focused on playing a selection of original compositions with emphasis on developing musical interaction. Sara Serpa (voice), Ingrid Laubrock (saxophone) and Erik Friedlander (cello) also discussed the sources of inspiration that frame the trio compositional and improvisational processes.

 Close Up can be explained, interpreted, and heard through multiple angles of its creative process and performance.

The configuration of voice, saxophone and cello exposes each instrument in a vulnerability that sometimes verges on discomfort, much like a Close Up photograph that is saturated with detail. As a trio,we are faced with the challenges of finding a way to work together while playing within this hyper-detailed setting and this uneasy close range. From within this exposure, we look for cohesion, and collective sound. I wrote the material, but the music took shape in the process of our rehearsals and the time we spent together, discussing and trying. The recording process, too, continued the concept of exposure. All of us were present in the same room as we recorded, taking away the possibility of correcting mistakes — no chance of going back.

The compositions themselves also reveal Close Ups of different episodes in my life. Each episode as it took place by itself felt simultaneously important and isolated. Put together the episodes create a whole — life itself, with its moments of joy and sadness. The compositions assume the different languages from throughout my life. In English, my adopted second language, there are texts by two women whose writing I greatly admire: Virginia Woolf and philosopher and feminist Luce Irigaray. Portuguese, my mother tongue, appears in “Pássaros”, a poem by the late Ruy Bello, gone too soon. Departure from and avoidance of language is part of my work. When I come to sing or compose, in the moment I lack words, I sing sounds. Sounds that alone find their meaning. The wordless voice becomes another Close Up of a moment, emotion or expression. There are different challenges imposed on the voice in this music — to create a background, to hold down a bass line, to sing long tones that become textures, to traverse complex lines, to find its place without a harmonic instrument, to be independent, to feature as a solo, to act in ensemble. These are all challenging situations, from which I am continually learning: to find the place for my human voice.

Finally, at the time I was writing and working on this music, the film Close Up by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami appeared in my life. The film was transformative for me, and has stayed alive in my mind as very few films are able to do. It is inspired by real life events and performed by the participants themselves—the people involved in the events become the subjects of the film. Subjects become objects,the viewers become the actors, and the actor(s) become(s) the director(s), as they reenact and reconstruct present and past events. Cinephile Sabzian fraudulently impersonates a well-known Iranian filmmaker to get access to a family’s house and daily private life. With the pretense that the family members and their house are ideal for his new film, he spends weeks in the house until his fraud is eventually discovered and he is taken to court. Sabzian is the anti-hero, in the sense that he lies and deceives. And yet it is impossible to see him as a bad person. The way he naively speaks and behaves shows his humanity and suffering. In the film, while Sabzian is in the courtroom, in a real-life trial, Kiarostami interviews him, showing a Close Up pan of his face:


Sabzian: “....Then a good man comes up and portrays all my sufferings in his films and I can watch them again and again. They show the evil faces of those who play with the lives of others, the rich who pay no attention to

the most basic needs of the poor. For that reason I felt compelled to read this script. I read it and it brought calm to my heart. It says the things I wish to express.”

Kiarostami: “...Now that you have interpreted this role, are you a better actor or director?”

Sabzian: “I don’t want to brag, but I am more interested in acting. I feel that I can express all the bad experiences I have had, all the deprivations I have had inside me. I believe I can make others feel my feelings through acting.”

Kiarostami: “Aren’t you acting right now? What are you doing in this present moment?”

Sabzian: “I am talking about my suffering. I am not acting. I speak from my heart. It is not acting. For me, art is the experience of what you feel inside. If someone can nurture that is like what Tolstoy says, art is the experience felt by the artist and made public to his audience. Given all the positive feelings I have experienced, just as deprivation and suffering, and my interest in acting, I believe I could be a great actor and communicate that inner reality.”

Kiarostami: “Why did you pretend to be a director and not an actor?”

Sabzian: “To interpret a director’s role is in itself acting. For me, that is acting.”

Kiarostami: “What role would you like to interpret?”

Sabzian: “Myself.”

Kiarostami: “Haven’t you done that already?”

Sabzian: (Silence)


In Close Up we, together, become actors and directors, performers and listeners, the others and ourselves. You too are part of this process.