IMPROVISING AS A LOST ART

The Art of Realtime Composition



Improvisation in music means composing something new which has not been notated, something quite literally "un-foreseen". Any amateur musician in the 18th century could improvise, but as methodologies for music teaching developed in the 19th century, reading and playing complicated scores became the focus of the teacher's attention, to the extent of crowding out analysis of how music was constructed and how a student might put together a piece on his or her own. Reinforced by continuous practice, piano students became adept at pressing down the right keys at the right time, while the talented student could be further instructed about putting feeling and "expression" into the rehearsed product later.

Many a student who had studied an instrument for ten years might easily become dissociated from it as something unusable in later life, and he would often remark "Oh, I used to play the piano..... or flute...". The instrument had not become a part of his emotional being, because it was taught primarily as a mechanical device to be operated, not a living process in which to invest thoughts and feelings.

On the other hand, technical training cannot be discounted, you don't play a piano by sheer intuition and nothing is done without practice. If one's mind is furnished with musical thinking early on, with solid training on an instrument, there will be a good base for making one's own music later. I have found that students with half a dozen years of piano or violin can usually be taught to improvise in a month of sustained experimentation, but music students academically trained in Harmony without hands-on proficiency on an instrument cannot usually improvise at all.

Then there is the matter of a person's musical sense and musical inclincations. Many who have never studied music can pick out a tune on an instrument by ear , some may develop a high degree of musical skill even at semi-professional performing levels. Here as elsewhere the personal learning curve is likely to be more important than being taught step by step by a formal teaching program. The complex music of non-Western "musical illiterates" (incorrectly defined as those who cannot read music as in the unscored Indian musical tradition), shows how music can come from the individual who has learned to express himself personally while working within the framework of a developed cultural matrix.

In America Improvisation was formerly a suspect word, often associated with musical amateurs who "play by ear" without reallly knowing what they are doing. But in this last half century the huge popularity of Jazz has given a seal of approval to the word "Improv.". Jazz performers have shown that it is possible to work without a written score, and many feel that Jazz musicians are the only real improvisers of our world. At the same time other kinds of improvisation, ranging from Classical to "new music" experimental, attract little attention from either instrumental performers or the musical listening public.



Improvisation at close range...

Let me give a quick list of the range of Improvisers in our Western world:

1) Unnotated music is generally is thought to be improvisory, but a great deal of it is firmly structured. The outlines are often well thought out and sections are roughly "in place", although some decoration can be applied in terms of cadenzas, changes of shifting rhythm, and the details of instrumental performance. As Jazz developed from a free improvisational base, much of it became fossilized rotating around melodic centers with increasingly virtuosic performance skills. Jazz performance is now part of a familiar style, which started out from peculiarly local American origins, but soon became a global musical phenomenon with performances and recordings heard worldwide. The thematic or melodic core in a piece can usually still be recognized, along with identifiable skills stemming from a list of well known performers and within the jazz realm there is a clear range of performance and historical styles.

2) Our current relatively structured Universal Jazz is now the main thread of the improvisatory spectrum. But the improvisatory process need not be Jazz oriented and a skilled performer can play within the framework of any interesting style which seems attractive and comfortable. Modern classically trained improvisers often do 19th century Schumann-like free variations which can be quite lovely. or one can improvise in a Baroque idiom on the harpsichord, which is well worth doing since it must be based on an understanding of traditional standard theory. And then there is a style of easy playing of the 1970's which is associated with a nightclub atmosphere, pleasant to hear as background and not overly hard to imitate. This cocktail club kind of improvisation which involves musical memory and imitation of a certain cadenced style, can become trite and somewhat limiting as the process ends up by imitating itself. But it has an aura of freedom clearly different from mechanical playing out of a memorized score.

3) Improvising always was the testing ground for a new idea. and every major composer after 1750 could use instruments to try out and develop musical ideas. It would have been unthinkable for a composer to be unable to play several instruments reasonably well if not quite expertly. Improvisation was a critical part of music training, composers knew how to do live experimentation with complex configurations of pitch, dynamics and rhythm. Doors closed in the l9th century as virtuosic technique was demanded and taught under the hard hand of music programs designed to train professional performers. But as music in the early 19th century moved toward self-expression in the spirit of the literary Romantic Revolution, many new avenues opened. In the new spirit, music need not be considered merely a technique and a craft, it could become an "Art" and as such it would enter into the heady atmosphere of ideas, feelings and personality. In this atmosphere improvisation could be used to register personal impressions, emotions ranging from joy to anger to nostalgia, in a relaxed non-performance opportunity for experimentation.

4) It is not difficult to learn basic diatonic harmony. You start by picking out "by ear" with the right hand on piano or KB a melody line (your own or from a song), and filling in an "accompaniment" of solid or arpeggiated chords with the left hand. A great part of the music most people hear today is constructed this way, not only our popular music but much Baroque and Classical composition as well. Almost all of the popular music we hear on records or radio today is constructed in this way with a Melody which gets our musical attention, riding acoustically above a background Accompaniment.

Before 1900 music in the colleges and conservatories was taught diatonically, with dissonances used mainly for color and texture. But after 1920 the sound of a new music appeared, and manuals of composition began to state flatly that triadic harmony was to be avoided, along with diatonic scales and anything that reeked of the last century's over-sweetened sound. The new Serialism after WW I had its day with many composers but very few audiences, probably because in its pure and academic form it was uninteresting although in the hands of a master like Berg or Webern it could be musically alive. Once the doors to new sound arrays were opened, the improviser found he had a wider range of musical styles from which to select elements suiting his own musical intuition. At the present time crossing the line from Baroque to Chromatic-Atonal to Whole-tone in a single piece is not only possible, this can be exciting and intellectually worthwhile, since it reaffirms the position of "Music" above the various styles which have evolved over centuries of musical history. Improvisers today have a wide range of new possibilities at hand.

5) Authentic folk music that Bartok and others were recording at the beginning of the last century, has always been in good part improvisatory. Musical history is always present for the folk performer working in an established tradition, but there is enough elbowroom in the presence of his audience to define his personality, to say exactly who he is and why and how he is playing. Held in line by the echoes of his musical past, he has freedom despite a highly organized musical background in a conservative societal framework. This is why the folk singer or priest-seer is such an important person to his audience, as representative of live performance at a given moment, while yet tracing the thread of musical history back to his past.

6) A private person working with an instrument which is long practiced and well understood, can have a remarkable kind of freedom. Not having to please an audience as he plays alone in his private room, free to think his own thoughts and experiment mentally and manually, he has only one major concern: To please himself. All great art is done by people who, even if they were engaged in pleasing others, are above all intent on pleasing themselves. The study of the endorphins bears exactly on this point, but there is more involved than our ultimate brain chemistry. Becoming enthusiastically involved in a process is the initial germ of artistic creativity, whether it is a child playing with clay or stones, or an established musical composer putting together the parts of a new quartet.

The musical improviser playing for himself is at the cutting-edge of real-time creation of an art form, along with his improvisatory counterparts in dance, theater and painting. C.P.E. Bach voiced a pertinent caution when he said that "Improvising must not be technical virtuosity with scale runs and arpeggios dominating the piece. Improvising to be worth anything good, must come from the Soul".



Improvisation in wider view.....

But the improviser has to deal with other matters than hand, ear and instrument if his work is going to have real meaning to himself and to others. Music since the start of history has always been man's most basic means of expressing himself. But when much music after the Renaissance became the formal accompaniment to a sacred text, it could lose some of its imaginative individuality. Bach transcended this limitation by his intense personal religious devotion, coupled with his extraordinary ability at composing live keyboard music in evocation of new musical ideas. But much music of his time was conceived as background if not pure decoration, like the chairs tables and carpets of a salon, finally becoming "tafelmusik" for the pleasure of the educated rich, who as an educated class did appreciate craftsmanship in and for itself. Music became one of the costly ornaments of a high living standard for the sensitive and educated European upper class.

We don't like to think of Mozart writing music to pay for his living expenses, but funds whether earned of contributed are involved in artistic production one way or another. At the present time the greatest part of new music goes from electronic studios into the world of advertising or serves as backgrounding for TV and movies. There is a commercial need for disposable filler music to fill the needs of the recording and radio broadcast industry.

Since the beginning of the last century, all the arts have been faced with the cultural problem of tearing up everything that had been done before, in order the create something which would be entirely modern and "new". At the same time artists who were well trained in the techniques of their art were fully aware of what it was that they were ripping to shreds. All the arts were going through a similar reaction phase, as a way of defining themselves in their own point in time. Painting, sculpture, writing and music all faced this problem of "newness", sometimes outrageously defying public taste for half a century, before slowly gaining recognition and some tardy acceptance. As a reaction against this reactive mood, some artists reversed the process and ingeniously imitated the past in a NeoClassical mood redefined by their personal taste, balancing as it were an uncertain artistic future with the well understood and familiar past. The music of Stravinsky in l910 as compared to his work in l950 shows this shift of sensibilities.

In order to create something new, one has to go back into ones self. This can be done consciously and sometimes quite mathematically selecting parameters and algorithms to put sounds together in arranged ranks and orders. Schoenberg and the later serialists were doing something of this kind with the tone row, and in a different vein the development of computers music later in the century produced a new experience in ElectroAcoustic Music. Behind these new directions lay a deep dissatisfaction with the old notions of Established Art. In a time of fast moving change, artists felt a compelling need to open the doors of the mind, to let a lifetime of experience in, and then sort things out with the sifting processes of the complex human mind. All this upheaval could end up with something personally valid, something vital and really new. Or it could dead end in a cul de sac to be documented in the annals of the history of art.

Lendvai demonstrated with precision the many ways in which Bartok employed both the Fibonacci Section and the Golden Mean (1: 618... : 1) in his composition, but Bartok had much earlier remarked that in composing he relied essentially on feeling and intuition. Nobody can exactly define intuition, possibly because it is one of the more complex functions of the human mind, and the brain is not a good tool to auto-describe itself. But Bartok's remark is deep. How can we utilize the full capacities of the mind without a process like "intuition", which etymologically means a "looking within"? In making music, can we have half a dozen separate functions operating independently, without working with an overall architecture? How can we help ourselves do more than we can consciously think about doing, and still have the results of this mysterious pondering come out as organized musical thought?

In the new millennium we stand as heir to a complex musical heritage. We face a new kind of academically taught "serious" music, which is neither totally tonal nor yet atonal, where a musical line, which is not necessarily distinguishable as a melody, proceeds by motions of fourths leaps, while thirds and sixths are replaced by minor seconds. This neo-tonal "style" presents a style-sound of its own just as clearly as the l970's cocktail lounge music had a recognizable sound of its own. This is not the first time that academic preferences have tried to define and regularize art. But it seems that public musical taste may be ready for some changes. However there are no sharp lines of cleavage appearing, no harsh breaks with the past like the upheavals of 1910.

Or it may be the moment for our public taste to turn backward to the established excellence of the Western Classical tradition, and enjoy the art of the past in preference to the uneasy artistic shiftings of the present age. There were recent painters who used only black or brown, with minor touches of brightness at the edges, but they soon went their way as history of art curiosities. Any art which is constructed on narrow or limiting parameters is going to be moribund in a generation, while art which selectively uses the full palette of available materials (if done by a person who has courage, craft and intuition of some mysterious sort), will have a chance of being appreciated a century later as still vital and vivid.

There is no reason to avoid tradition. Traditional Western triadic harmony has much value from a long history of development. It accords with the harmonic overtone series to which our ears respond naturally. Triadics can be mixed and matched with "dissonances" of all sorts and proportions, and the results will carry a variety of "beats" which enrich the acoustic texture of a performance. Beatless fourths, fifth and octaves were the inheritance of early church music singing drawn from Greek antiquity, but slowly abandoned by the 12th century composers as sole basis for composition, in favor of enriching intervals like the thirds and sixths with multiple beats per second. Tallis' 16th century "Alternating Hymns for Plainsong and Polyphony" contrasts timbrally dry and rich textures perfectly, while reminding us that parallel fifths octaves apart or sounds in unison are also usable and artistically valuable. Nothing in music is ipso facto un-usable!

We are in a sense products of our past, this is the inevitable burden of history both personally and culturally . But we are also the product of what we currently are doing, what we make and fashion and devise. The composer has a long list of interfaces between him and the final musical product, starting with his thought as it gets penciled or computed into score form, next finding and briefing a performer, who will find a manager to arrange a concert in a hall, with a given date and a paying audience. Considering all the requirements which a musical composition involves, it may be hard to see the importance of intentional artistic "newness" as a device to free the artist from part of the tradition of history. In fact some of our preoccupation with newness and the Cutting Edge may be a reflex from the Sciences which after 1906 have had to do much scrapping to make room for newly developing knowledge. It may be that the arts and the sciences both felt they were trapped in the attitudes of the past and needed to clear away certain mists if they were to see more accurately into the future.

Some of the historical interface between the artist and his music can be avoided by the composer of electro-acoustic music, who has only himself, the synthesizer and the generated sound tape recording to consider in shaping his final product. Modern synthesizing and editing possibilities are enormous, and the composer as "musical thinker" will have to be in some measure an audio-engineer before he is done with a piece. Much composition can be done by laying out procedures for assembling sounds as recorded or fre-abricating them into new ones. But there should be some hands-on improvisation on keyboard or electronic controlling instrument to give an idea of what the newly configured sound will be like. Electro-Acoustic music may sound different from what we have been accustomed to hear as Music. But most of the craft and technique implications still remain in the areas of traditional subharmony, in the shape of phrasing and in the dynamic variables, although the final result will have a very modern and distinct EAM flavor of its own.

But now there is a new twist for the Improviser who can record on tape what he is doing, listen to it, criticize and revise it, rework it, and if he likes what he hears, he can even have it recorded inexpensively on CD to sell or give to friends. This direct line from the improvised composition to a hearable musical artifact is something new in the history of Western music, which formerly had to be played by instrumentalists from score to be heard at all. Countless Jazz, rock and country groups record their music as they progress from their own sounds in a studio to a CD and on out to the world. Most don't fulfill their dream of making it big, most don't even break even, but the recording path is available and it has the ability of turning a stream of sound into a durable artifact. And for the private improviser recording is the only way to hear his own playing the way it sounds to someone else. For the improviser the recording is the best and ultimate Critic.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus said that what you have in the reach of your arms, you can control; from there on out it is less and less yours. Just so in this case. You are still for the major part personally in control as a relationship is being made between thoughts in your mind, the sounds which echo from your thinking, your hands on an instrument and the tape in your recording machine. This directness frees you for more work tomorrow, new thinking the day after, without waiting on other people's criticism or praise for your work. Writing music will come later, after and out of the live real-time experiments, and it will have more solidity of shape and more permanence. But it will have less fluidity overall.

An ancient Chinese thinker said that the best training for political life and the ruling of a country was MUSIC. He saw that if you have skill to regulate the multiple parameters of musical composition and performance, you can probably think fairly coherently about the polyphonic parameters of running a state. In this country we think of the Law as ideal training for a political career, since law teaches us to reduce a complex set of standards to operating rules to perform a finite job. However training in Music may have another ability to attune future politicians to multi-dimensionality, something which major societies require in order to operate simultaneously on many levels. Our world depends on processes and instruments of all kinds, which are often found to be difficult to harmonize among themselves. There is no political melody which rides above a background accompaniment, all parts must combine to make a properly resonant whole.

Music is one of the remarkable activities native in the structure of the human mind. Making music employs brain, hand, tool, ears and eyes, body rhythm, inner vision along with visual imagination guided by intuition and some degree of good luck. The human activity which best approaches Music in complexity and need for intuition, is found in the higher levels of our scientific studies. Science demands a lifetime of study, laboratories and high professional experience to operate effectively, while Music, operating at several parallel levels of complexity, is open by contrast to us all, it is completely in the public domain. It does demand study, practice, technique and a lot of patience, but the rewards can be counted in terms of health of the body and happiness of the mind.

I have a coffee cup which whimsically says "Life is a bitch...... and then you die!" But in the meantime things will be a lot more interesting if you have the opportunity to improvise some music to go along with your joys as well as your tribulations, and at the end even to accompany your formal exit from this world. Music has such a strange way of enchanting the ear, freshening the mind and totally sweetening the atmosphere. It may be unheard, but the best way for us to go out at the final exit of life, would surely be to go out singing.

Return to Music index

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris