Inside the inspiration: ‘COVID-19 Hip Hop Improvisation’


The COVID-19 pandemic has people cooped up and separated from each other so we all can stay healthy, and what was once routine is now on hold. So what does this mean for artistic composition?

What’s happening and what’s not happening in the world have always influenced and inspired musicians.

Brian Hanegan is no exception. The saxophonist is a professor and Director of Jazz Studies at Augustana University. Recently, he wrote, recorded and produced this tune called “COVID-19 Hip Hop Improvisation.”

Inspiration for the song came in more than one form.

“Of course, the influence of COVID-19, that’s how I kind of, or where the name came from, and then for me it was trying to create music on my own, or by myself during the self-isolation, the social distancing thing,” Hanegan said.

As you can hear, the song has various musical layers.

“What I did to start with, I put in the drum track, and then I laid down a saxophone melody, and then I harmonized that melody, and so those are two separate tracks, so now we’re up to three, and then I added an EWI bass line to it with my EWI here,” Hanegan said.

“EWI” is an acronym for “electronic wind instrument.” Underneath the improvisation, there is a repeating section.

“And then that loops and loops and loops, and then there’s a harmony part that comes in, too,” Hanegan said.

As that part repeats, another instrument—maybe Hanegan on the EWI, or maybe on the tenor—improvises. It presents a contrast in emotions. One remains in one general spot, with subtle movement, maybe straining to go somewhere else. Then there’s the other, that floating, improvisational line going in different directions, freely exploring: almost like a human mind restlessly racing while in physical isolation.

For Hanegan, the song evokes the feelings of our current reality.

“I think so, I think depending on who’s listening to it, there’s a nervousness about it, or an agitated sound maybe to the way that I’m improvising, or aggressive, maybe is the way to describe it,” Hanegan said.

He’s not alone with that interpretation.

“When I put the track out there, there was some people commenting on Facebook on it saying that my improvisation sounded like I was mad, like mad at being socially isolated from other musicians and things, and then so I took a listen back to that and I thought, ‘Yeah he’s kind of on to something there,'” Hanegan said. “There was a real direct intensity to the improvisation, so maybe that comes out in the music.”

To get a better idea of the Hanegan’s musical mind, I spoke with Augustana students who have worked with him.

“His musical mind is always taking ideas from other well-known jazz musicians, and kind of reincoprating them into something that’s very unique to him, so it’s really cool to be able to see his, what we like to call language on the saxophone,” Augustana junior Erin Livingston said.

“He’s definitely one of my biggest mentors here at Augustana, and he really pushes me to become better,” Augustana junior Anna Van Ravenswaay said.

“One of the best parts of his creative mind, is that he’s not afraid to make mistakes, and he really preaches that to his students as well, and I really appreciate that,” Livingston said.

Just like the improvisation happening within it, Hanegan’s song can inspire different feelings. After all, there’s always some link between the music and the physical and emotional spaces in which it was created.

“I think emotion-wise each time that I play the tune or if, in subsequent times when I perform the tune, it’s always going to be different, based on how I’m improvising and maybe some different factors that are influencing my demeanor at the time,” Hanegan said.

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