On Basic Classical Improvisation

Within the range of modern Classical Improvisation of music, there is a wide range of musical activities called "Improvisations"; but there is so much to say about each area that one can quickly lose the thread of the overall topic. Consider these the briefest of introductory statements.

1)       First is the original function of the toccata, named from the Ital. "toccare" or touching the keys/strings of an instrument, which may be called warming up, or testing out the instrument. This can verge unconsciously into a little piece, or it can be just warming up.

2)       The composer tests out a series of ideas, improvised Studies or musical notions. For example the first volume of Bartok's Mikrokosmos which were originally improvised as composed live; these become Etudes/Studies when notated and edited.

3)       The composer/performer casually goes to the instrument with a mood, a feeling which he wants to express. Like a poem, it may be something not sayable in the ordinary modes. When he finished playing, the the piece disappears.

4)       He, or friends he is playing for, recall the piece, so it may get played again later. It becomes in partn part become by frequent use, and as such it becomes part of the composer's live-repertoire, often with variations. It may stay this ways for years, or forever...

5)       The composer/performer decides to keep the piece un -notated, and uses it for performance regularly. It becomes fixed, actually edited with most of it left exactly "in place", but there is slight room for alteration in performance.

6)       The composer decides to notate this piece. Now it is fixed, it can be played by others, or published, but it may still be called an "Improvisation". (Schubert's Impromptus are not impromptu at all, they are carefully contrived pieces which were originally improvised,but later appeared as published pieces calles Impromptus.)

7)       The composer draws on improvised materials he had done at some previous time, makes sketches of these, and later uses them in a formal work. Beethoven has such famous sketch books.

8)       The composer is notating a piece at his desk (Bach's son said he always wrote away from the keyboard...), he needs something new, goes to his instrument and tries out a passage, or contiunues or perhaps just lets it flow. Back to the desk, this goes into the formal piece he is writing.

9)       The composer cannot or does not like to play an instrument, he writes on paper and waits for a performer to let him hear the sound of what he has written. This is the exact polar-opposite of the Improvisational Mode.

10)       There is a relatively new type of serious musical composition, which is conceived and produced with the aid of a synthesizer , which must be mentioned as one of the most interesting directions for composers in the coming century. In this music, much can be planned in advance, or sections can be left in rought notation to be improvised live in performance.

11)       For decades, popular musical artists have recorded their live performance on tape directly, often sequentially into simultaneous-play channels on the tape deck,. Songs have often gone from the microphone to the market without a score, unless a rudimentary score were needed for copyright protection. Jazz, pop, rock and country have been able to use this semi-improvisatory technique easily, their live music directly being converted directly from the recording into a saleable CD.

12)       A new development for the individual composer which has become practicable only in the last ten years, is the use of electronic keyboard or an electronic musical instrument, which uses the MIDI format to communicate with a computer employing a music reading and annotating program. With this system, improvisation of all sorts can be converted into a notated score with some adjustment and jiggling . As of now, the programs work well for hand-notation, but there are many problems with recording complex music in real-time, from wrong notes, wrong durations and rests and imperfect "quantization" or regularization of the notes. But in the near future, the gap between the Improvisor and his finished score may be much less, and this will change the role of "improvisation vs. score-composition" greatly.

13)       A great mass of commercial new music is being recorded in hi-tech music studios for use directly as recorded. It can be either digitally recorded and put on CD, or composed with a synthesizer (either the simple rig for home or band use, or the master synth. used by professional Electro-Acoustic composers). Some of this music is worked out in detail before playing, some is clearly improvised and edited for use later. Much of music you hear on TV ads, TV shows and cinema soundtracks is produced by this route, since it is economical and offers a wide range of sounds and effects.

One step further along for piano Improvisation, is to have installed a pitch and velocity sensitive sensor strip underneath the keys of the instrument, so recording of the actual instrumental sound can be done at the same time as electronic signaling is being fed to a MIDI program for editing and notation. Piano sound can be recorded and MIDI sounds on any combination of instruments at the same time p[rovided that we are using the same pitches.

Do all these things make composition overly facile and automatic? Not at all! We are now able to tune in on the neglected improvisational art, and use an original, intuitive flow of music which the mind feeds to the fingers, as the original-source for composition. This avoids the various interfaces of stop-and-start pencil writing, of transfer to paper for reconstruction by a performer at a later date, since the acoustic original is being simultaneously taped.

What IS required is a composer whose hands can develop in real-time musical thoughts as they sequence themselves in the composer's mind. For composers in the classical tradition of "new-music", this is difficult, sinceacademic training does not go in this direction. But the gains working faster, more intuitively while self-monitoring composition at real-time pace, are significant indeed.

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William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College