We are living in a new age in which "Improvisation" has become a key motivating force in all of the arts. This started originally as a reaction in the early 20th century against stiffness and calcification which had taken the inventive spirit out of theater, dance and music . It was a plea for a freedom which would revitalize new performance and new composition in all the arts. But Improvisation was soon seen as more than a protest, as it became a regular part of the creative spirit of the mid-century age. We can no longer think of Improvisation as affecting one segment of the creative arts; it is probably much nearer the core of the creative impulse than we had thought in our teaching programs in the Humanities. Striving for standards of excellence in the established arts, we had lost the thread to Plato's "holy enthusiasm", the special attitude which had infused Greek creativity. When imitation and the standardized practices became part of a 3rd c. Hellenistic education, the great art of the Hellenic period withered and disappeared. Improvisation for the Greeks had been as alive in philosophy and science, in mathematics and medicine, as in the world of drama and poetry. Our models of creative behavior often have to go back to the Greeks for good illustrative examples..
Improvisation in one form or another is the premise of all living beings, which are constantly maneuvering one way or another to escape the formaldehydization of homeostasis. It is a condition of life for a proto-amoeba to improvise its status by splitting in two, making possible both survival and extension in teh same stroke. If God or some thinking being had just designed a new form of life, his next act would probably be fidgeting with it in some experimental way, to add the last touch to his creation as an act of Improvisation. What is sexual reproduction in its myriad forms but a way of re-mixing a thousand code signals to improvise some slight variability in the coming generations?
If these remarks seem fanciful, I note that attitude as a part of the improvisatory instinct. There are many metaphors for the problem of change as against tradition. For some situations the static state of mind is OK, for others it misses the point. Recall Heraclitus's statement that "All flows..... " like a river, and a river has a direction from the past into some sort of down river future. You cannot step into the river twice because it has changed while you climbed down the bank. All is Change, and he who deals with the flow of the world, does so with an Improvisatory mentality, which can turn and re-fashion each chunk of the passing data. Last year I was showing a woodworker how to sharpen his chisels in a better way, it was quicker and they turned out razor sharp; but he said he would continue to do it the old way, because "it was the way I was taught". We all do most of the processes in living "the way we were taught"; habit and imitation are the cement which make a "Culture" possible, while change and improvisation move it slowly into new directions.
The famous case of the monkeys isolated on a Japanese island but fed grain on a weekly schedule, is a case in point. Their food was dumped on the sand, and it was difficult to pick each grain out of the sand for a daily dinner. But one wise old female scooped some up and carried a handful out to the water, where the grain floated to the top. That was Improvisation, who knows how or why it took place, but the others saw how clever this was and copied it, thereafter making it a part of their local simian culture. They were doing exactly the same thing as she had done, but it was very different because it was repeating and not improvising. Much of what we do in our daily lives is of this repeating pattern, our "Culture" is the mass accumulation of traits which others have at some point improvised.
But it is Improvisation in the arts which I want to talk about here. I believe the primal "experiment-on-the-spot" effort is the same in all living activities. A group of mechanical engineers a few years ago published a series of papers in their professional Journal asking if Engineering were really a discipline, since much of its work was just extrapolation from known data by complicated derivations in order to be applicable to present problems. They probably sensed that a discipline like molecular genetics where there is so much unknown and waiting to be explored, is a very different kind of field. Some academic studies have huge banks of data become focused on past research, while imaginative tinkering is distrusted or deplored. The security of a scholarly past as recorded in the library shelves often influences scholars to look backward and ignore an uncertain and tentative road to the future.
A. adv. Without preparation or premeditation; off-hand, on the spur of the moment; extempore.
1669 LADY CHAWORTH in 12th Rep. Hist. MSS. Comm. App. v. 11 Mr. Elliot..desired Mr. Titus to make some verses..which he did thus, impromptu [etc.]. 1788 BURNS Let. to Mrs. Dunlop 16 Aug., She sometimes hits on a couplet or two impromptu. 1791 BOSWELL Johnson (1816) I. 31 note, This was made almost impromptu. 1882 FARRAR Early Chr. II. 375 note, This was afterwards improved into the story that he [John] wrote the whole Gospel impromptu.
B. n. Something composed or uttered without preparation or premeditation; an extemporaneous composition or performance; an improvisation. Also, a musical composition having the character of an improvisation.
1683 D. A. Art Converse 44 We must deal plainly and seriously with such men, waving all in promptu's and subtilities. 1693 DRYDEN Juvenal Introd. (1697) 37 They were made extempore, and were, as the French call them, Impromptus. 1776 JOHNSON Poem (title), To Mrs. Thrale, on her completing her thirty-fifth year, an impromptu. 1847 DISRAELI Tancred II. ix, Lady Constance..had a variety of conclusions on all social topics, which she threw forth..with the well-arranged air of an impromptu. 1880 GROVE Dict. Mus. I. 768/2 The two sets of pieces by Schubert known as Impromptus..were..not so entitled by him.
1. Composed or uttered without preparation or premeditation; improvised; invented, produced, etc. on the spur of the moment and without previous thought.
1789 MRS. PIOZZI Journ. France I. 240 Who would risque the making impromptu poems at Paris? 1830 D"ISRAELI Chas. I, III. Pref. 4, I am not fortunate in impromptu replies. 1849 THACKERAY Lett. Apr., I daresay I shall have to make an impromptu speech.
2. Made or done on the spur of the moment; hastily made for the occasion, or converted to use in an emergency; extemporized, makeshift.
1764 MRS. HARRIS in Priv. Lett. Ld. Malmesbury I. 118 Lord North took an impromptu dinner with us yesterday. 1800 E. HERVEY Mourtray Fam. I. 67 They had a little impromptu ball. 1856 MISS MULOCK J. Halifax xxii. (1865) 215 My daughter encouraged me to pay this impromptu visit. 1872 BAKER Nile Tribut. viii. 128 We prepared an impromptu raft.
Hence impromptu v., to compose off-hand; to improvise, extemporize. impromptuary a. = C. 1. impromptuist, one who composes off-hand, an improviser.
1802 H. SWINBURNE in Courts Europe (1841) II. 334 The soldiers sing in the evening an endless German song, and the sailors impromptu in Danish. 1802-12 BENTHAM Ration. Judic. Evid. (1827) II. 2 Answers impromptuary. 1834 MEDWIN Angler in Wales I. 48 In a pelting rain, impromptu"d the following epigram. 1848 Athenĉum 5 Aug. 773 Ballast-waggons..impromptued and filled up with seats. 1882 Chamb. Jrnl. 742/2 Theodore Hook..was a most prolific impromptuist. 1897 F. HALL in Nation
In the above OED citations, the word Improvisation is variously applied, first to a style of fluent speaking, also to the quick making up of rhymed couplets, further to songs of various sorts, and even to a surprise dinner menu. It is a highly variable word with many meanings, to which we can add more in these following areas:
Improvisation in the Arts
...dance theater music painting
speech and poetry
Painting by its nature has to be improvised. The artist has a rough idea to be sketched out on his canvas, but from there on it is all testing and trial with brush from the palette as he invests great care into each micro-mosaic portion of his canvas. In Picasso's line drawings brash Improvisation is virtually the whole painting, there is often nothing else on the sheet. When Rembrandt in his old age stared with blurred eyes into a mirror and transferred with pigment to the easel in-exact representations of what he saw, he was departing from his prior realistic depiction and moving into a new way of representing his mind's eye. He improvised paint to look like a cloudy eye as it existed in his mirror and slowlytransferred the image to his canvas. Copy-painting in the Louvre or painting from the numbers is a different process, one which makes nice wall decorations but misses the heart of the art. Georges Matthieu's "action painting" of the l960's was a flashy demonstration of Improvisation as new painting technique, probably better for showing the real-time process than producing finished work as art. At the present time hundreds of well known painters are thinking of their work as largely improvisational. They start from a few brush strokes which by addition and over-printing and re-coloring become, as if by itself an organic coherent painting. The contemporary abstract painters think of their work as growing in an organic manner, rather than following the lead of "abstracts" from the mid century period following DeKooning and Rothko.
During the last half of the 20th century there has been much attention paid to improvisational Dance as a less formal and more intuitive art-form than traditional thoroughly choreographed ballet. This is seen not only in staged performance but also in teaching methods where colleges which have a Dance program will usually have coursework introductory to the art based on an improvisational approach. A brief survey of college catalog offerings shows how widespread this has become, and much of this new approach is documented in various web discussions and description. There are more than a dozen major schools of what is now called Contemporary Dance, which draw upon Modern and Post-Modern Dance, in turn going back to the early work of the 20th century which started to break free from the formal and all choreographed dance of the time. Here the word Improvisation is an attractive open-door to making Dance an accessible and personal activity, a new and alive direction coming from an ancient art tracing back to the earliest stages of civilization.
Improvisation in Theater was already being developed in the early years of the 20th century and has continued in regular theatrical technique with increasing interest after the mid-century mark. It has also been used in many ways in cinema production, directors like Altman made major use of Improv. even to the point at times of not furnishing actors with a script. Full stage and film improvisation can bring life to a production in surprisingly interesting ways, and in the last quarter century improvisation has been widely used. Often unrecognized if aptly done, it can fuse invisibly into the fabric of a written stage script or film scenario. There are hundreds of groups worldwide which one way or another feature the idea of improvisational theater in plays and theater workshops.
Improvisation as an important part of Theater, uses a variety of experimental techniques designed to enliven the performance of a dramatic reading or a performed staged play. Without formally realizing it, stage directors have tried to incorporate an actor's intuitions into performed parts of a play. When confronted with a stiff and unconvincing part, a director will often say to ad-lib it a bit, and if the actor has a good improvisational skill, he will act out the part on his own as if he were the writer laying out the script. Life and liveliness come naturally from Improvisation and in theater and cinema this has been established as a common and worthwhile technique. We often can't be sure when a part is being improvised or read from memorized script, except by noting that it sounds very agile and good, perhaps better than the surrounding scripted material. Reversing the situation, a skilled actor can perform a part brilliantly by reading it froj script as if he were improvising the words, of which there are well known examples in the history of modern cinema.
As we learn more about that complex set of neuro-physical activities which we somewhat simplisticly call Language (especially in the light of new approaches under the heading of Cognitive Science), we find gray areas in human Speech not properly explored under our traditional speech and grammar approaches. The way a person assembles a communicative speech "sentence" is far more complex than the grammar books outline, and there are areas which are by no means clear even to investigative speech scientists at the present time. But it is obvious than a great part of the construction of any speech-segment or "sentence" is done in an improvisational mode. There is a general "intention" in mind before any words are summoned up. Then first steps given as an effective start to a cumulative string , often by a meaningless lead-in-word, even a cough or a gesture, After this a more formal assembly of word-elements can start to fall into a regular order. Multiple phrases and sentence divisions are improvised real-time "on-the-fly" in every spoken sentence, but it is done so quickly and so deftly by the automatic routing mechanisms of the brain, that the assembly of even a single sentence can take place entirely in the background . The act of talking, somewhat like the automatic processes of breathing and digesting and walking, involves summation of dozens of separate individual functions, of which we have little awareness in our daily communication. If we try to become conscious of the muiltiple steps our minds take in speaking, we run a risk of becoming sound-bound and stage struck; so the best way, as in taking a walk on a country road, is for most purposes just to go straight ahead.
This might be compared to the act of going for a swim at the beach. First there is an intention for a swim in the sea, then going to the beach, next getting up from the blanket and changing clothes, then walking over the sand, testing the water with a toe and splashing up to knee height. After a decision about going further or retreating, perhaps a slow entry into deeper water and finally a dive and floating around before actually beginning to swim. Constructing a sentence on some unimportant intent, is not unlike this. You start in the sunlight on the sand with an intent and you end in the waves with a well developed idea in action.
Assembling elements for a sentence is in a parallel situation. There is a process going from mind-intent, to physical motions of the speech organs and facial musculation, to the uttering of tentative sounds based on a learned grammatical function and order, and at last to the point of producing a string of word elements, which start the flow from phrase to sentence to a paragraph of notions, and finally to a communicative conversation. (This sentence is a good example of the process in construction. . . .) At every point, especially at the start, there will be moments of re-consideration about what word to choose, what phrase will best follow, and what the sense and the tone of the sentence will be like. This is done by dozens of acts of real-time on-the-fly Improvisation, without which the natural fluidity and intuitiveness of human speech cannot develop.
There are people who do not have this technique mastered, they speak in disconcerted jerks, they use memory cards to outline phrases as the elements of a paragraph, they prefer reading sentences from a script rather than engaging in a speech-flow as a progressive messaging system. They do not know how to speak in a relaxed and interesting mode, they have no capacity to use words in a fluent manner, in short they do not know how to "improvise" while they are speaking. Good story tellers and stand-up comedians have to be great Improvisers, while academic committee members reading a proposal from a set of 3 x 5 cards, are always a bore.
But Poetry, although virtually identical with every other form of Language, is somewhat different. In the Western tradition, we think of poems as consolidated and highly structured speech-forms, printed on a page to be read by college graduates as a silent form of personal meditation. Much modern poetry was actually written to be read in silence, and when we hear a recording of an author reading his own verse, it is often a disappointing experience. We say we prefer to look around on the printed page as we readin order to get the message exact and intact. College teaching of poetry focuses first on the Meaning which the author is trying to convey, it generally misses or dismisses the interior musicality and rhythmic complexity which all good poetry has, a sad end for the evolution of an ancient verbal art.
But I mention this for a specific reason. We are just now beginning to see the possibilities of "improvised poetry", but we are hampered by the way we have been accustomed to deal with poetry, as a visual rather than a spoken art. Artful dramatic reading of poetry can restore an awareness of poetry as musical art, but we are not yet comfortable with the next step, which is to actually speak poetry without a script, the way we speak a sentence. When Sappho in the 7th c. B.C. constructed her poems, they were sung with her lyre accompaniment. The writing down of the words in phonetic characters was secondary as a way of preserving her song for others to recreate in their own singing. A parallel for us might be composing a poem and after recording it tearing up the autograph copy intentionally, so it would exist in future time only as musical word sequence on a CD recording. But this is not the way we do our poetry; we write it down on paper, hoping to get it printed in a book for others to read in their armchair by the fire in an hour of relaxing silence.
We are now ready for experiments in improvised poetry, which is starting to take place in experimental poetry "reading" groups here and there. But it will take a while until we get as natural and free with this new use of the ancient art, as the Gaelic poets of the last millennium were, or the South Slavic guslars who continue their oral art even today. But there is something new in the works.
There have been important changes in the way Music has developed as a social and economic segment of the American culture. In the post Civil War decades a large number of piano manufacturers set up business, providing inexpensive upright instruments in a price range which the rising middle class could afford. The piano in the home became a sign of modest affluence, also a virtual home entertainment center as piano lessons made popular sheet music playable with family singing or for religious use with scored hymnal parts. Churches which could not afford an organ used the piano for services, and when the silent film arrived after l920 in thousands of small local theaters, the piano as improvised fill-in following filmed emotions and actions, became a common musical experience. All in all, more live music was in the air in the years around the turn of the 20th century than at any previous time.
Around l900 only way a person could hear music outside of the home, was in the concert hall. Recording had been developing for some time, first on wax cylinders and later on shellac discs after l920. They were crude but sold well because of the novelty of being able to hear all kinds of music at home. When the standard 78 rpm, record was replaced the "50's by the thirty three and a third disc, a longer playing recording was possible and by l970 in the post war boom of inventions and expansions, the high fidelity pressed disc on a plastic blank became an ubiquitous part of American scene.
The explosion of the musical scene after mid-century was startling. Having the mechanical control over reproduction in increasingly faithful recordings, a flood of recordings appeared as a widespread and profitable business. Now music could represent all the varieties of the American social configuration, from the early New Orleans blues origins and authentic country singers from the back country, to something called "jazz" which could become the blaring band music in the gaudy l930's or even a derivative art-music like that of Gershwin who combined elements of Debussy with the sound of American jazz. When "rock" appeared in the fifties, it signaled a new acoustic eruption, which was quickly divided and re-divided into the dozens of sub-styles becoming the branches of the developed end-century musical tree. This is all history and I summarize it here only because it leans so heavily on the meaning of the word Improvisation.
The original new Orleans players who accompanied funerals with band music in the streets, were not graduates of a high school music training program. They were self taught, they loved the sound of their instruments and played what they had in their minds as they progressed from note to note and step to step in the funeral procession. They were complete Improvisers for two reasons. They knew how to improvise because they could not read scored music. We owe to the early blues players and the various music threads which followed out of their playing, the first modern flush of truly improvised music, at a time when l9th century instrumental teaching had killed the improvisational spirit by rote learning and eternal drill.
By mid-20th c. the importance of the jazz effect had hardly been registered in educated America, as a quote from a l948 standard reference book (Reader ' Reference Encycloipedia, ed. S. R. Benet) shows:
JAZZ: Syncopated or ragtime music played by a band over very loud clangy instruments, tremendously popular during the l920's especially in the US. Jazz music is said to have originated in New Orleans. According to one story, in March l916 Bert Kelly's "Jazz Band"(said to be the first so called) was engaged by the Booster's Club of Chicago, and started jazz on its conquering career. The term was soon applied to modern life with such expressions as a jazz resort, this jazz civilization, and the adjective jazzy (meaning loud, gaudy, vulgar, exciting to the senses) coming into common use.
Who would have thought that half a century later Jazz would be taught in college courses as a regular performance art, that it would have generated millions of vinyl and then CD discs, that it would be accepted and imitated worldwide as something from the United States now finding its place in the global World Culture? We cannot speak of pure Jazz anymore, it will be a question of which jazz do you mean, and is it leading into Rock hard or soft, or toward MTV everywhere and pop concerts coming and going in each new season. In the world of Pop Music there are ranks and levels, there is also university based historical scholarship, and taped interviews with Jazz/Pop artists as national treasures in their later years, recalling the old days with an interviewer before they slip away into a pop-music heaven.
There are pop music performers who produce serious music, in a world of music production where every singer with a mike and a one chord guitarist is called an Artist. A new term "non-Pop" has been coined for serious contemporary music, but this usually means non-harmonic and non-triadic, so it stands apart for a special audience. Then there are accumulations of tens of thousands of scrappable CDs, sometimes noted as the toilet paper of the youth musicants, made possible by the low cost of writing a music CD. Has European Free Improvisation left jazz behind by going atonal? Is modern Pop, if scored for copyright reasons on occasion, still improvisational in part? In this farrago of musical production there are everywhere traces of the effect of improvisational freedom, but in very different degrees.
In l950 if you asked someone what Improvisation as, you could get a spread of several answers.
Improvisation is "playing be ear", although it is not clear what that means if you ask further. This implies auditory imitation of "real music" by an intuitive shortcut of some sort.
It could mean the piano playing of someone who never took lessons and cannot read score, so in a sense a musical ignoramus or a dilettantish fakir, even if facile at the KB and clever with the chords.
"Improv." is often taken to mean Jazz pure and simple. After all, who else but the New Orleans black players started it off in l910, they were the original jazzmen, so it must mean something deriving from their blues/jazz. But it could be three high school students in the garage in 2010 with a drumset, two e-guitars and a mike, doing a recording for an unsellable CD.
Only if the question were put to a well educated college grad, would the name of Bach as a master improviser of his age come up, with a footnote that in the 18th c. everyone who considered himself a musician could improvise easily on the spot. Elegant young ladies improvised on the harpsichord as part of their ladylike education. But such improvisation is not usually taught now with the music lessons, and the college Improv. course will be specifically directed to the popular area of Jazz!
"Improvisation?" says a current, well known and well recorded concert pianist with a distinct grump. "No I don't do that, I play Bach and Beethoven who are the real masters, their music is better than anything I could do, so I never thought of improvising." Asked to play something on a host's new piano, he has to ask for a score.
Preface to Piano Improvisation
By now there are deep thinkers in the Arts who are much concerned with Music Improvisation. They understand the importance of connecting a thought in the mind to sounds which the fingers elicit from keyboard or fingerboard, as a way of testing out ideas on the fly, while at the same time exercising a sort of spiritual meditation from personally conceived music.
When we think of Improvisation, it is usually in terms of a group performance. It can be a Pop jazz band or the experimenting European Free Improvisation style, but it will be a group effort resulting in a group concert or recording. Normal configuration will be a bass setting the lower register "ground", there will be a tune or well known melody which is used to tie together the voice-lines of the performers, and then alternation of the single-voice instruments which assume and relinquish musical leads for the group. This is the standard practice historically and it persists nowadays with enthusiasm worldwide.
The piano can be used in such an improvising group, but it has entirely different properties as an instrument. Keyboard instruments whether piano, harpsichord or organ, offer polyphonic possibilities to the two-handed player, who can expand each hand's use to develop separate voices as well. With the piano, a three voiced improvised piece is natural and perfectly masterable by a skilled improviser. As far as hand skill goes, it is like reading a four voice chorale transcription, a church hymn or a barbershop quartet score, but as Improvisation it is an entirely different experience. For a person trained to read piano music with the usual RH melody line and a LH chord accompaniment, it may seem a daunting venture to hold three voices in tight control. But this was a technique well understood by any 18th century musical person, whether casual improvising performer or a serious composer .
The interesting thing about two-handed piano technique is that the right and left hand are connected to opposite sides of the brain, and have somewhat different neural control pathways. The RH is usually dominant, and most piano music is written with that in mind, while the left can be taught to perform fast scales, if not convincing trills, with a great deal of patience and practice. Throwing a baseball with the wrong hand will show the nature of the different brain connections, although each arm is of the same strength. There are further connections of a subtler kind which concern the way women are wired neurally, often with better use of both hands and more balanced use of the two connections. There has been much study and speculation about these brain connections, more remains to be convincingly researched, but the rough inequality of RH and LH for piano performance is something pianists have to deal with one way or another.
We usually don't think of it, but right and left hand playing on a keyboard are anatomically inverses of each other. Brains are quick learners and with a few years of practice we can learn to play running unison scales and arpeggios with relative ease. But a lot of brain reorganization has gone into this in the background, not unlike the image inversion in the retina which makes the eye more useful to us than the inverting camera image. We overcome the RH and LH difference in ordinary piano practice, but there are special uses for the manual differences, which are noted in the music textbook "Rule for Opposite Motion". The baroque canon in inverse motion as an interesting harmonic variegation came originally from the inverse orientation of the two hands. Nothing is more boring than continual over-use of parallel thirds, something we are taught to do early in our piano training.
The range of the piano is immense, from 60~ bass fundamentals going upward by seven octaves to a useful 2000~, with special overtones to identify the instrument beyond the played "note" or pitch. No other instrument has such range, but beyond that there is an overall volume of sound in passages with eight or more simultaneous tones, which can overpower an entire symphony orchestra. Or there can be such light and delicate sound with careful touch and una corda pedaling (which is actually two strings now!) that harpsichord music can be played with attention and acoustic caution. Glenn Gould who thought a lot about these things, never had to go the harpsichord for his Bach.
Non-keyboard instruments have a single voice, only rarely and with great virtuosity can they reach for a bit of polyphony, as in the Bach Partitas and Bartok's (scored) piece for Unaccompanied Violin. The piano is the great polyphonic instrument for full range Improvisation, it invites the inter-weaving of multiple voice lines by its true nature. Much of the intricacy of Mozart's developed style comes from his awareness of Bach's voice leading, which he first heard at Baron van Swieten's salon performances of Bach. When Brahms said that each morning started with Bach, he was thinking of the voices, not the harmony; the voice lines pervade everything Brahms composed. Casals played a Bach Suite for Unaccompanied Cello every morning for the same reason, to remind himself of the internal tracery of polyphonic voicing.
Use of the right hand on the piano for a tune or melody line, with the left hand supplying an accompaniment with solid or broken chords as "presets", is common practice in popular piano music and in a great deal of l9th century serious composition. There is a certain acoustic reason behind this, since human hearing is sharpest and clearest in the octaves above 440~ A, where a tune approximates the range of the tenor to soprano voice. People in the Western world tend to hear music from the top down, but this is a severe limitation for the music of six centuries of Western composition. The bass line of the baroque "thorough bass" was of great importance since it set the frame of a piece securely, just as the acoustic bass of a jazz group sets the foundations of a piece below the instrumental level.
Preset chord arrangements for piano as accompaniment to a melody, are convenient for popular performers to play easily. But this style limits the capabilities of the piano which is a basically polyphonic instrument. It takes time and training to really hear the four voices of a string Quartet, and just so it takes much effort and experience for an Improviser to graduate from two to three and even to four voices in a fast-moving realtime composition. Using voices in improvisation is never easy, it represents a different way of using mind and hands and also the piano as an instrument.
An ordinary jazz performance will be loaded with preset concepts: the bass line, the piano fill-in for textures, and the melodic preset variations. These make a performance convenient and practical without a great deal of intricately conscious thinking. But there are also extra-ordinary jazz performances which use the instruments of the group as conscious intertwining voices. By now it is fully recognized that Improvisation is Composition, and the best jazz and rock people with improvising are often very good composers because of their improvisational freedom, as coupled with individually tailored voice-leading lines.
There is one kind of improvisational showmanship which I feel gives a bad name to the art. Liszt at age of twelve is reported to have started the practice of asking the audience for a written tune, which he would then turn into an improvisational piece of virtuosity. This was common as a stage performance in the late l9th c. and has recently been revived as an interesting piece of audience amusement. It suggests to the audience that the pianist knows his instrument and is melodically imaginative, a nice piece of showmanship but nothing more. In a similar fashion, baroque performers often will extemporize a cadenza in fully scoredmusic for what was probably originally improvisation , and they do improvised figures on baroque scores much the way original performers did them. But these are improvisational parcels, chunks to go into score at appropriately noted academic places, and they touch the mere edge of the improvisational spirit.
Three is much to be said about the nature of the improvisational mystery, which produces self-organized pieces of intricately devised musical texture, arranging sound configurations of complex patterns in real-time, transferring notions from mind to hands moving almost by themselves on their instrument. Improvisation should be seen as a colloquium between an Idea in the mind and Fingers doing things on their instrument, with instant monitoring deciding what sounds and rhythms will come next. I think of solo Improvisation as a soliloquy of sorts, an experiment in patterning without restraint, a fantasia without the emotional overplay of virtuosic showmanship. Improvising is a solitary experience of considerable emotional depth, it is done best in a quiet room with nobody but the performer listening; but it can also be done in an auditorium before an audience if the Improviser isolates himself in complete concentration on his task. It is nice to know that there is an appreciating audience out there, but when doing his work the performer has to be quite alone.
In the long history of true improvisation, (as against prepared Improv with everything largely in place but varied in the performance), which ranges from Bach through Liszt to Rzewski and Vorn, there is a world of intricately performed sound which is lost forever. What a waste there has been over the centuries, the performance of talented moments playing to an auditorium of attentive listeners who hear for a moment something gone into thin air, perhaps a historical rerence in the pages of music history. But now we live in a different world from the days of the traditional piano concert. Then you had to go to a hall to hear a Beethoven Sonata, or try to play it yourself from score at home as best you can. Recording at 78 rpm was a lead-in to the slick vinyls of the mid-century, but now we have a whole new world of electronically reproducible sound. We have access to the Classics of jazz or the classical Classics, all recorded on flawless disc to hear at home, or soon audible on telephone wire or through the air from a satellite. In the coming decade we will be as used to hearing recorded music everywhere, as we are used to hearing conversation worldwide on our telephones. In just fifty years everything has changed around, from the new HiFi vinyls to the lastest iPods in everyone's pocket.
This has immediate importance for the Improviser, who still generally thinks of going to a hall and performing to a live and responsive audience. This will still be an interesting way to try out new ideas with an appreciative public, but it is not in the spirit of the world-wide communication revolution which is already spanning time and space around the globe. Concert performances of music, whether popular, experimental or classical, do not make enough money from the gate to be economically practical. They are excellent as intimate experiences for city dwellers wealthy enough for an evening's entertainment, but they do not reach beyond their narrow urban world. For the concerting Improviser there is not enough fee to make any sort of a living, while the loss of carefully constructed real-time compositions at performance each evening at a hall, will eventually foster repeating in a similar style, counter to the spirit of Improvisation.
The precious moment of improvisational success, when something new and absolutely perfect is achieved, should be recorded at that creative moment. This will mean work in the studio with the recorder running continually, from which authentically perfect moments can be selected and preserved as compositions which can not be created in any other way. A musical Mind working at full energetic capacity, performing at some regular part of the day and recording the improvised material as raw tape for editing, in an organically constructed texture of pure sound, is the Improviser's ideal way into a future for his musical output. Recorded, his music has body and an identity. It stands in the same relationship to the improviser's musical thinking, as the score stands to the traditional composer's music written out on score paper.
The new technology has already given us the tools for a new World-Wide Music. We already have the expansible tools of the mp3, just now the You-Tube is appearing for somewhat different audiences, we have wire sound transmission and satellites and the costs of equipment for recording and preparing for distribution become lower each year. What is holding the Improviser back from using these tools for his art? It is his own history, his feeling that there is something in audience participation in a hall or college auditorium that he is not willing to relinquish. Yes, he can still have his concerts in the heart of a music loving city where the critics are jotting notes for an art newspaper. But for the future, it will all be compact and ubiquitous and inexpensive and global in the new world of the electronic Internet. Music improvised for the global audience will be different from music improvised for an audience in a hall; it will be for a different audience with a different set of interests and tastes.
When I sit down at the piano, after warming up hand and the instrument with aome toccata-like preludes, I am ready to try out a new musical idea. This must in some sense be improvised as a highly concentrated "performance", since with improvisation there is no way to go back and practice again and again until it is note-perfect. From there a digital recording will give materials for me to select for the web, which provides me with a somewhat anonymous but global audience for my piece. With over half of the present computers equipped with broadband in this year of 2006, music will become as worldwide a phenomenon as a telephone conversation. With mp3 compression at 11:1, the server storage is hardly a problem , where a mere 10meg of stereo music can play worldwide in a stream of sound a solid ten minute stereo piece.
Writing music score is a private and solitary occupation done on a quiet room with computer or pencil on paper. Improvising or realtime composing music is much the same but with an instrument and a digital device set to record. If music publishing on paper is obsolete because of cost and pirated copying, music in electronic format is cheap, ubiquitous and it can be coded to establish authorship. New ages always demand new modes of thinking, in this fast moving time we have a lot of new thinking to do every year.
Improvisation and Style
Thinking of STYLE, one realizes soon that it is a Janus-like term with two very different meanings. On the one hand the Style of a composer is the musical identity, which marks a sonata or quartet of Mozart . This can be documented by academic analysis or merely be a sense of the sound of the work. Most people are able to tell a Mozart piece from one by Haydn intuitively, since there is much detail for identity in a musical composition just as there is visual identity in recognizing a human face.
But there is another meaning to the word Style, which is used for a general class of similarly constructed work. We speak of the Baroque style, of Early Classical style of music, of Serialism and Minimalism and Country Music as Styles, although there are variations within each class from different dates and composers. It is in this second range of Styles that the improviser will face the problem of selecting or even just falling into a Style for his playing, or facing the impossible problem of trying to avoid any style and do something that is entirely of his own making.
Since the early years of the 20th century there has been a concern for artists about dismissing and even tearing up all remembrance of past history, and creating a new style of his own entirely from scratch. When Schoenberg verged in l906 toward his newly deconstructed sound, he turned the edge of that corner and proceeded on to his own "new" Serialism, just as DeKooning some decades later reduced his own style of painting to the elemental brushwork without an overriding sense of artistic history. There are many examples of this modern tendency toward self-realization, but the process has a way of short circuiting itself as time goes on. The New becomes the textbook page about a new trend now no longer new, mentioned in courses on Music History but hard to incorporate into ongoing new work.
The older idea of artistic craftsmanship based on a fusion of everything interesting drawn from the history of the art, is probably a better way to think of achieving a personal identity. The two centuries of German music which preceded Bach's work are very much a part of his musical output. He was able to be comfortable with the swing of a very long musical tradition, and do his own thinking without worrying about being the first to do something entirely new. Every important 19th century composer in turn has had some relationship with the presence of Bach's music as discovered after l820, without imitating his historically-marked Baroque style. Art in a continuing society has a way of becoming an artistic continuum, a river of individual identities subsumed in the flow of time, and this provides a stable underpinning for new workers who need not be concerned about the "all is new" proposition.
I mention this because an improviser as he begins a new performance summons up a general memory of everything he has heard. He has stored sounds and harmonies and figures which are on tap for instant use in fast passing seconds. It will be natural for him to think of a starting point, perhaps a few notes forming a micro-sequence which reminds him of a Bach invention, or of a phrase from Alban Berg's opera, and this can be overlaid with a personal impression of the tone of that particular fall afternoon, or am lingering sense of some sadness which gets into the new self-configuring piece. It is in just such an indeterminate moment of creativity that the improviser pulls together divergent threads of thought to weave a new fabric of musical sound, and this precious moment is the reason that the improvising musician will come back again and again to his instrument to reveal in acoustic activity what his mind is saying to him in a subconscious mode. If this sounds vague, that is quite correct since the creation of new work is always a vague process, becoming clear and finite only as it proceeds. But for the improviser, the succession of choices from moment to moment keeps the vagueness fresh, which is the reason for improvising in the first place.
Improvisers gravitate to stylistic centers automatically, as a matter of dealing with the continuum of their art. For some, the period from Ockgeheim to the death of J S Bach is a rich period for musical ideas; there are multiple levels of craftsmanship in melody writing, harmonic devices and especially the high attention paid to counterpoint. Using only a general sense of the Baroque sound, one can draw on a long artistic past without copying or imitating pages from the scores of yesterday in new performance. Many improvisers are finding the baroque experience a good base for their work, but there are also pitfalls in that landscape which must be watched with care.
For improvisers a morning session in a modified baroque style is a great say of limbering up the fingers and getting the ears re-adjusted to the sound of the piano again. As a temporary "loan" this is natural and not forced, since the sound of keyboard baroque music has become so familiar with our excellent recordings after mid-century. This sound is a relief from the overload of l9th c. virtuosic and practiced piano, but there are things to ignore or avoid. Baroque KB music tends to be "notey", largely because of the way it was written to counter the short resonance of a harpsichord's plucked string. Ornamentation may also stem from the same lack on resonance, but if not overdone it can be lovely in its own right.
Worst of all is the four-part-sequence in which a melody fragment is played, then repeated, then varied with a chord change, and finally settled down for a standardized resolution. Originally enticing as hearable and easy to manage, this became a stock cliché of the baroque and extended itself into almost all l9th c. music even in the orchestral realm. Once one senses the triteness of such stock progressions and the outline of the sonata form, the improviser can relax and expand his improvised sequences beyond the four measure standard and the formal repeats and variations. This frees him up from a measure-bound rhythmic pattern and the sequence-bound formula, for a wider range of expression. The piano with its long sound durations and rich harmonics does not want to be restricted to a strict baroque idiom, even when it is consciously employing elements of baroque two-handed polyphony as an effective base for new improvisation.
The piano can be sharp and as clear as the clavichord in a much large dynamic range, but it has one feature which beclouds its sound unless used sparingly and with care. The "loud" pedal which raises all the dampers on the instrument, is often abused by practicing performers who tend to "ride the pedal" the way drivers in the old days "rode the clutch". With all dampers up, the open strings pick up harmonics from struck strings and resonate in a great whirr of random harmony and noise. For baroque style use, the foor should be free from the pedal and used only when needed for special effects, perhaps a termination for a resolution or a final chord with una corda pedaling. Much better is careful use of what I call "finger pedaling", or holding down one struck key to resonate while playing others. Thumb or fifth finger does this easily, and since the improviser is designing his own sequence, he can use finger-pedal as another tool in his armarium.
Baroque music uses stock running scales and climbing arpeggios far less than the mid-century music of the l9th c. , but care and sparingness should be the constant rule. Conservatory students who try their hand at piano improvisation, either from curiosity or as part of their training, often get mired in the rush of the scales and arpeggios they have been taught to execute. Having practiced endlessly for speed and picky accuracy in their classical pieces, they can come away with a feeling that the Improvisation is running away with them. Taught to execute passages flawlessly six hours a day, they can be shocked at the immediacy of doing something un-anticipated on an instant's call. It often seems that the more thoroughly a conservatory pianist is trained, the harder it will be to become an easy and pleasurable improviser.
When a teacher tells a student to "put more feeling into that passage", it is usually the dynamics which are meant, the idea of making a phrase swell in volume in an interesting way. For piano this is more difficult than for a string instrument where the bow hand has complete control over the dynamics of swell and fading. But there is also a confusion in terms, because "feeling" and "emotion" are only very indirectly properly used musical terms. A performance which has years of thought and countless months of practice, played at just the right point in the performer's career and on the right piano in the right hall, may have an "emotional" effect which a listening audience. There may even be a suggestion for "feeling" annotated in a score, although as a suggestion this lack real definition. Life itself is the fabric on which feelings are embroidered, we people are the containers for unsaid and unsayable emotions, and if some part of the mystery of inner workings of the frontal lobe do manage to suggest themselves into a work of art, that is a mystery in itself. How craft transcends itself into feelings of the brain (Aristotle's mistake said it was the heart), is not yet fully understood; except that perhaps a person living a full life like Bach's may have the crossover more fully in control. But then how do we understand the life-meanness of a composer like Wagner beside his emotionally charged Lohengrin?
On Piano Improvisation
Classical Improvisation, which flourished from the time of the Renaissance into the 19th century, has virtually disappeared. To most people the word "Improv" means Jazz which is by now spread worldwide, but this is something quite different from the wide range of classical piano traditions. Harpsichordists are now re-discovering improvisation, initially as a study in Baroque decoration or for filling out unwritten cadenzas, but this is largely in an academic direction and not connected with improvisation as an artistic and personal activity. There is a long tradition of improvisation on the organ, originally serving for extensible sections of the service, now developing where there is time open on the organ keyboard.
A person who has gone through several years of piano or violin lessons at some time in the past, will often say that he has forgotten everything and can't play any more. Of course that is wrong, since there is very little a person learns which is totally forgotten. Words which you have read years ago will spring to mind when you need them, and one doesn't forget how to read even if he hasn't cracked a book open for years. One loses familiarity and speed of recall fro memory, but there is a lot which is couched in some unused part of the memory bank. There are hidden pathways of the neural connections which hands and fingers remember dimly from the hours of musical practice, and when called into service again, the fingers on keys or fingerboard will find they are not in a totally foreign territory. Memory has a tendency to serve us well, often as a pleasant surprise.
But there is a self-protecting device which affects us when we find ourselves in danger. FEAR is as natural in trying to trace out a forgotten musical technique on the piano keys, as it is when wading over river stones in the dark. Whether we are trying to save our ego shins or our shins, we often come up with a fearing reaction saying: "Oh no! I couldn't do that. I don't have that talent, you know. I've forgotten everything!".
Music is in many ways similar to speech. Called upon to improvise a short talk before a group, we often find ourselves without words, we falter and hesitate and seem to forget that we do really know how to speak in sentences. More secure with a few notes on a card to glance at, we forget that in daily talk we start a sentence with little sense of the words and clauses which it will be using, and no sure terminal point for ending.
Human speech is the master case of Improvising and a good story-teller or public speaker has a natural flow which is operating in good part on a subconscious level. Over-caution and sometimes over-education can block the flow of words, and some of the best talkers may be high school dropouts. Yet some of the best public speakers have training as actors and know from experience exactly what they are doing. My point is simple: If you can speak sentences without planning and outlining them before you start, in other words if you have normal use of your native language, you can also improvise simple sequences of musical ideas, but with one proviso. You must know something about the language, or you must once have had music lessons, since in both cases you must have a reservoir of practice and experience.
Children before the age of five are great improvisers with words and sounds. There are wonderful collections of poems uttered by kids for their own pleasure, and there are gems of little songs which children do as a natural part of living. It seems that these normal talents gets somehow cramped as soon as they come to school, and are told what to do, what to say and if they don't have a naturally fine voice, they are often told to keep quiet while the others sing. School singing in our Western culture is in the diatonic mode, and sounds which are sung off-pitch are insistently called "wrong" . But other societies sing in quarter tones, in sliding tones, in different voice modulations and styles; but until recently it was assumed that the Western voice was as "right" as the Western economic schedule was right for the rest of the world. No wonder many children become voice-conscious and finally, in the psychological sense of the word, expressionless musical "mutes".
It seems strange that Fear of Self Expression is so strongly inculcated in the modern Western world, where we are at the same time so heavily schooled in the expressive literary and musical traditions on which our society is based. Our great authors are seen as remote geniuses whose every line is valuable and historically professional in a world where we are all artistic amateurs. Indiscriminately worshipping Mozart's complete oeuvre, we miss the fact that many pieces are quite ordinary. This is an important point to keep in mind, since it makes his really fine work stand out as truly astounding. No writer wrote everything always at the top of his talent, no composer was in tune with himself all of the time. Over-praise and incessant study of Masterpieces puts us at somewhat of a disadvantage, since it creates a vast distance between our humming out a tune and Bach's outlining of a chorale. But both go back to random sets of musical ideas lying formless in an idling mind. The difference is that Bach had tools to go ahead with his thoughts, while we hesitate at the keyboard and tell ourselves that we can't make music, without even trying.
It is not just in music that we find this fear of exposing oneself to the criticism of others. Once a school child gets the message that Ideas are less important that the Facts of a situation, he loses the most important function of the human mind ---- the ability to think. If we live in a world where everything important has already been thought, where all new ideas have been previously patented by someone somewhere, and where new ideas are like to be wrong-headed or useless - - - we create a society of intellectual drones who lose the ability to lead and can only follow. This disability is equally incapacitating in science, in political life, in the writing of poetry, and of course in the creating of new musical thoughts. It is unhealthy for a person to have no access to the world of imagination, since it affects both mind and in the final analysis it also affects psychosomatically the functions of the body.
We tend to trust things which are manufactured, whether tools which come from a well known and reliable factory, or cars which have a record for good service, or even drugs from a major pharmaceutical house. The word "home made" is still suspect even in these days of the DYI revolution and the carefully hand-crafted object. But we are changing out attitudes and a piece of blown glass from a craftsman who makes pieces with great care is now held to be more valuable than even a vintage beer bottle. We have been learning the value of individual craftsmanship, but in music we are slow to catch up and many still would prefer to play a genuine sonata of a Classical Master than to assemble improvisational elements of an Alberti bass with a melody in G major in the classical style. I am a little uneasy about playing for company a baroque style Invention of my own, and when I tell them it is my own, it will be my cleverness at imitation which is applauded rather than the sound of the music. I think I have got beyond this by now and play what I want, I don't bother to tell them the source, in other words I let the music stand by itself without a prop from Bach. I a friend who knows a lot about early music , thinks it's an arcane baroque composer, I merely smile and let it go at that.
Sooner or later we recognize the unsure meaning of the word Improvisation, which literally means "not previously seen", hence not "composed" on paper as a regular score. In a world where "real music" is written and printed in a volume of scores, the improvised piece is the exception. If we say the performer is "playing by ear" that tells nothing since all music should be played with careful auditory attention, and playing without listening is one of the faults of the struggling learner. Without the ear there is no msuic at all, and it is the fingers not the ear which press the keys on the piano. Or does the "improviser" have the whole thing in mind, everythingn in place and virtually memorized, before he touches a key on the piano? Or is he "making it up as he goes along", a question we would never think of asking about a person's conversational abilities. Is it a matter of musical "talent" which enables one person to generate tunes while another can only repeat?
Then there is the question of meaning of the musical Impromptu which should have the same meaning as an Improvisation, but I find a number of Impromptus by Schubert and Chopin, so I suspect they are regular compositions which had their origin keyboard improvisations, before being committed to paper. In those days the intuitive playing of the moment vanished , while now we can record a session to examine it, suture it together with other sections, have it mastered and edited and finally end it up on a CD recording. This may be in a certain sense still an Improvisation, but very different from the live performance which involved the emotion and sensation of the moment, now only partly represented by the polish of the finished product. But as we ask questions about what Improvisation is, we get nearer to the idea of intuitive "Real Time Composition", which is what improvisation is really about. If we let that critical phrase rest in our mind when playing, we improve the nature of our improvisation since we are recognizing that it is the creation of new music as a composition, rather than random extemporizing (another word!) in a cursory manner. If Improvisation is really Composition, that is surely important to recognize, so it can give stature to work in a world where the intuitive is often glossed over as partial and unimportant.
There is a great problem with standard "Notation" which gives us probably less than a third of the information we need for playing a piece decently. Notation tends to give music stature and a sense of value since it is notated on paper, while if it is merely heard or recorded, it lies in the realm of the impermanent and incidental. Over the years more than a hundred efforts have been made to write a better system of notation, some quite ingenious and many reasonably efficient but, as with the introduction of a better spelling into English, it was felt best to stay with the current system since change would have to go down to the level of introductory teaching. This does not mean that our standard Notation is good, it is just better than the necessity of changing everything in a well trained musical world.
Reading the Notation with hands on the instrument often gets in the way of listening to what you are playing. Of course if you read a piece often enough you are actually memorizing it and the score will be nothing more than a place-holding reminder. But this is true only for a well practiced piece and does not apply to most "read" (meaning played) music. If I tell a friend that last night I read through three of the late Beethoven piano sonatas, he will comment on my piano proficiency, but I only meant to say that I had "read through the score" silently the way I would read a book. Reading a score silently should be an important analytical procedure, it concentrates attention of what the score is "saying" rather than what manual directions for performance it is giving. Some teachers stress reading a score first and singing or humming it before trying it on the instrument, as a way of dealing with the musical part before the manual procedures. Reading score and simultaneously playing the instrument, while adding dynamics on top of the rhythmic of the phrasing ------- this is a complicated business and not one which will be enjoyable. So we have to raise the question of exactly what we mean when we speak of "playing" the instrument, since there is much work but a very small component of what the word "play" means in other phases of life.
What does it mean when the teacher says "Play that note again!" (Technically a "note" is from Latin "nota", a mark on the paper, and we do use the word for a printed character on the score. But we also use it for a musical sound and it will only be context which tells us which meaning is used.) I mentally correct the "note" F# on the score because when I play that "note", meaning a key on the keyboard, the sound if the "note" sound is wrong. Nobody gets hung up on this linguistic problem, but when the teacher says "play that note harder" we do have a real problem about meaning. Does "harder" mean "louder"? But the speed of a descending finger on piano key is what makes the sound loud, and hammering hard into the felt bed does nothing at all. Speaking inversely of a sound as "soft", we refer to its sound on a dynamic range, while actually making of soft is a complicated procedure for gently fingering the complex Erard action to make the hammer come up and just kiss the string unison.
Now do I want the triple unison to sound, or only two strings which the score perversely notes as una corda? We call the left pedal which moves the KB laterally on a grand piano the "soft pedal", but it has an special function of using two strings while sympathetically ringing the third one for a lovely lute-like sound, which can be easily missed if we are thinking only of "soft". Downward speed of the finger means brilliant with louder sound, a controlledly gentle and slow movement of the hand gives an entirely different range with less percussive brilliance but a charming singing ring. Here as everywhere in art there are subtle undercurrents which can easily be missed, we have to watch the words we use or we miss the details of what we are doing..
The "Sustaining Pedal" on the right is not a Loud Pedal at all,. It raises ALL the dampers across the whole instrument and lets the strings all resound sympathetically with the played sounds in what is virtually a Reverb Mode. When you play a lot of baroque music which doesn't want much use of this pedal, and then switch to 19th century harmonic music which depends on the fusion of sounds via the pedal as a necessary part of the musical sense of a piece, you begin to see how specialized the sound of the raised dampers actually is. This Sustain Pedal can be used cover up bad playing, it can give a false sense of legato on a clunky run, and it will ruin the separateness of sounds which want to be heard alone, by raising its characteristic cloud of mixed sounds. As with French cuisine, mixing the elements can be an art only if done carefully, while there are times when you want to bite into a ripe apple all by itself.
Improvisers always have the basic problem of playing in a Style. One man does a Chopinesque style nicely and it is always a pleasure for him to play in the evening for his own appreciation of his piano under his intuitive fingers. Another person loves the Baroque and has assimilated enough sense of baroque polyphony to use fingers separately with two hands for three or even four voice lines, and this sound becomes his enjoyable musical habit. We all start to improvise from some learned or heard base, it is often a child's realization that Clementi or early Mozart can be re-created with a rolling triadic left hand while the right tries out melodic lines. This is a good start for children to try out, it opens the musical door; but where it will go later is a matter of an individual penchant with an element of chance.
What kind of sounds are available for our use? Are triadic chords in a diatonic sequence the good and "harmonic" sounds, are minor seconds and tritones are to be avoided? Are some sounds which you play in your basic improvising acoustically "wrong" and musically unacceptable? By now the old preconceptions against sounds which do not fall into the diatonic sequence are hopelessly obsolete. Nor were they every forbitten for classical music, as a quick survey of a few pages of a Bach or Brahms score will show. There is as good use for the curious sound of the augmented fourth or tritone, just as there is need for the sweetly saccharine major third. In some places thereshould be a bit of acerbic pulse beats, perhaps like the need for a touch of salt and lemon with your shot of tequila.
The words RIGHT and WRONG are heavily loaded terms in our educational system, we get points of credit for the one and demerits for the other. If we changed our terminology to a scale of "better-to-less-interesting" we would be in a better position for trying out new ideas and sounds. Once upon a time a musical minor-second was considered a "discord", now it is a needed sound in any composition, if only to add a touch of tartness to the harmonic sugar of an all triadic piece. Everything that was marked as wrong in l900 is now considered usable, and our acoustic sensibilities have shifted to entirely new acoustic grounds. Many will still prefer Brahms or Country music for their accessible harmonic resonances, but the new sounds of Varese in l926 and the surprises in current electronic music are clearly here to stay.
Striking and holding a simultaneous note with each hand anywhere on the piano keyboard, you will find that half of your experiments will be harmonically sweet, others full of overtones and beats and much more acerbic. But move one of the keys to an adjacent one by half-step as a leading-tone, and try again: Whichever sound you had will be reversed, sour to sweet or vice versa. Don't think you have to learn Standard Harmony before you try to improvise, in fact doing that you will probably be on the road to academic stiffness and defeat. Playing with just two tones and seeing which works with or against the other, is the simplest basic lesson in undrstanding what musical harmony means. Consider again the case of a glass of tequila, which has to be tempered with a traditional pinch of salt and a bite of lemon. Harmony is the combination of just such complements and opposites.
On Personal Style
Each person develops his individual pathways into Music, here are a few notes from my own musical history.
Starting piano at eight I did the regular study of standard composers for a dozen years finally reaching some of the student-playable middle sonatas of Beethoven. Early in my lessons I heard a German teacher and his student do improv four-hands at my teacher's recital, and immediately started finding my own variations on Three Blind Mice following his lead. My regular enforced practice sessions on lessons became tolerable since I could spend another half hour on my own improvisation. By the time I left lessons for college studies I had a firm sense of improvisation as something I did for my own pleasure. That feeling stayed with me and has been a good companion for a whole range of notches in my career as student, teacher and also as a human being ?!
At college there was one really fine Steinway B unfortunately housed in a smallish room which few people used, so I was always able to go there and see what came out of a half hour at the keyboard. I realized late one afternoon that the diatonic scales were limiting, and started using chromatic intervals as interchangeable with the diatonics. This happened for me in a rush of excitement, and the first thing I noticed was people hammering at the door and telling me to cut the noise, which is how they heard my incipient poly-tonality. In those days you didn't hear about Schoenberg or Cage's aleatory ventures unless you were in an good musical circle, most teachers stayed with the standard stuff and there was little musical revolution in the ordinary college atmosphere. Looking back, I see that I had intuitively developed a sound which was quite in line with what had been brewing since l906, and when much later I heard Schoenberg's Six Little Piano Pieces, it was with a shock of realization that I had been there too.
In those days there were just a few 78 recordings of baroque harpsichord, but when I heard Landowska's Goldberg, I knew I was going to be involved with baroque idiom for a long while. I think it was not just the sound of baroque counterpoint but the possibilities of using interlocking voices with two hands within a generally diatonic range that entranced me, and some years later I bought a modern Italian style single keyboard harpsichord which propelled me further into polyphonic thinking. Of course the harpsichord can be used now for non-baroque playing, but there is something so natural and suggestive about the clarity and abrupt singing of a plucked string, that the Baroque and the Harpsichord fit together in a seamless fashion. True the harpsichord is dynamically weak, that is the standard criticism, but it gathers amplitude from addition of chords just like the grand piano; for softness it has to have additional ranges of stringing, since it can't become gentle by itself. After a while I decided to go to a large piano and sadly let the harpsichord go, somewhat sadly. Since that time I stayed enmeshed in the sounds of baroque music. In a way this is the best introduction into improvisational learning, since it uses both hands which are separately connected to different sides of the brain, and there is a wide range of some two centuries from which to derive ideas and musical examples.
Improvisation gives me a window into playing the piano at any time of day in relaxing luxury of sound. I can close my eyes and let the sounds flow forth with a wide range of expression, which is what I have always felt Improvisation to be about. If there is a question about having a personal sense of music available, I must admit that I have a Baroque preference in hand, but there is a cost. I am staying within the parameters of a Style, and as I become comfortable in that way of playing, I distance myself from other things which I could do with the instrument. Many performers get into the same bind when they become expert in their interpretations of Chopin, and find Mozart no longer available with the same ease and familiarity. This brings up one of the critical problems with improvising which is " playing in a style". When friends ask for something in the style of Schubert, that is fun at first but later it becomes a parlor trick which I have to recognize as such, and not in the spirit of free expression. Writing sonnets in the manner of Shakespeare would also be a parlor trick, clever but not really personal self-expression. So I am faced with the problem of Style, which style I want to use and adopt, and then there is the nagging question: What about having a style of your own? I am still improvising and experimenting many decades later, and my own style of playing continues to go through shifts and changes, which I find encouraging as a sign that I am still finding new ways to articulate my musical thinking. I am glad to ahve my early experiments with atonal music on the back burner, when the baroque sound becomes a little too facily, I shift unconsciously into an atonal or better put a "pan=tonal" mode, which I may stay with for a month at a time. Everything flows, nothing stays the same.
Anyone who has played Beethoven must come away with a sense of the relationship between the scored pages of the sonatas and the instrument as a powerful generator of remarkable sound. I think this comes largely from Beethoven's own curve of development through the sonata series, which were his testing ground for many ideas which later flowered in orchestral works and in the late quartets. Piano was just emerging in l820 as a new and rich instrument capable of expression far wider than the Stein piano of Mozart's day, and the modern piano has emerged bit by bit from those critical developments dating just after Beethoven's later life. It was probably the development of the Erard action and the iron frame which provided a base for higher string tension, as well as the large and carefully designed sound board which made the critical difference between the old and the modern piano. A modern student playing Beethoven on a Steinway can feel reasonably close to the composer both manually and acoustically, and it is natural in improvising to borrow turns of phrase and ranges of expanding sound from the sonatas. My early Improvisation was Beethovenian, and I only started to leave it when I recognized that it was being developed as limiting development of a personal style.
What do we mean when we speak of a musical "Style"? Since the beginning of the twentieth century almost all artists felt they had first of all to rip up any notions of inherited painting, sculpture or music and start with a clean slate. This was probably inspired by the great changes after l906 in the world of physics and then psychology as Freud's work began to influence Western thinking. Schoenberg's early work was tonal and harmonic, but after l910 he consciously set about inventing a new system and he designed the 12 tone row was generated against much protest. By 1960 Row Composition was common in conservatory teaching, it became a "style" and was eventually used too much, becoming just one more style and not an approach to a new way of musical hearing. By late 20th century the "row" was rarely used as the core of a musical foundation, as composers in a conservative and historically conscious musical society returned to many of the harmonic devices of the earlier part of th e century.
So we found ourselves faced with our traditional "Harmonic Style" stripped down to a badly--named "a-tonal Style", later emerging as "Pan-Tonal Style" and finally settling down into what many new composers consider in a somewhat Zen manner to be "Style No Style". It would seem that this is a mixture of absorbed elements from various sources which have been so melded and conflated into a new mold that the exact tracery of artistic heredity is no longer possible to determine. Critics will point out in their footnotes to historical articles on Musicology many "borrowed" elements, but the artist is only conscious of a mist of mixed memories out of which he distills new expression. The first stages of consolidation of various trends is not a Style, or I should better say that this not a style yet; but after we get to know the characteristics of the new painting or new music, and the artist gets listed in the scholarly history of his art, we will be speaking of his Style as his musical identity.
Is it possible or even desirable for a person involved in his own private improvisation to avoid being caught in the dragnet of a specific Style? Should he always be on guard to avoid being imitative? Must he be so individual in Will we either reject his work as idiosyncratic and meaningless, or discover him after he is dead that he is the founder of a new Style previously ignored? And the final question for an improviser would be this: Are you interested in these problems, or do you feel satisfied in your own performing on your instrument for an audience of just for yourself alone, enjoying the sound of your music and the exercise of your brain speaking its mind in an acoustic framework? It may be quite enough for you to play your work as an Improviser and not the work of what our society marks as a Composer? Is there really a structural difference between Bach improvising at the harpsichord and Bach writing score at his desk? If you record your improvisations and many years after your decease they are discovered and found remarkable, you will be in the company of such composers as Vivaldi who was unknown in l920, or Nadelman whose sculptures in the museum collections had been left in a Westchester garage as unknown work to be scrapped. Do you want to involve yourself in the trammels of criticism and history, or is it enough to make music and enjoy the moment at which you are creating your own art?
A word is needed at this point about what ART exactly is. The Greeks spoke of techne which we have somehow changed into the mechanical aspects of "craft", and the Romans who had to deal face on with Greek art as better than anything they could do, adopted the craft word "ars artes" for their translation. But since the Romantic Revolution after l798 we have been thinking of Art as an emotional component in the artist's mind, which he develops as personal expression of his inner thinking through the tools of his craft. It distresses us to think that a composer like Mozart wrote pieces for money, that modern composers must depend on commissions or fees from performance for their livelihood. Beautiful thoughts without a public history are unfortunately cheap and quickly overlooked, and although the phrase "ars gratia artis" is true at some root stage, it is in reality more of a nice phrase for wishful thinking.
In improvising I have none of this problem. I am doing what I am doing for the sake of what I am doing, otherwise I wouldn't be doing it at all. On the other hand I cancommunicate mentally on the Internet with an unseen audience which is my society at large, and imagine from it some token of appreciation and possibly praise. If I make music on a desert isle, it goes out over the waters beyond my ken, so it is not my business to be artist and critic at the same time. So this discourse of mine about what Improv and Art are may be in great part peripheral, and even a distraction from what I want to do with my hands on piano or viola. But by unloading my thoughts about what I do with music, I believe I can simplify the problems which I have set for myself to solve.
Just now, after one of those spells in which I found it best to stay away from the piano for a few weeks, I got up this morning and started to move fingers on the keys again. The piano sound seemed harsh and percussive today, as a hammered piano sound initially is, and I felt annoyed with doing just another two part invention a la baroque. Soon I found myself piling up some resonant chords and picking out significant inner lines to accentuate, delicately calling up more reverb with the sustain pedal. This was different from what I was doing before, it felt different and quite fine acoustically, and before many minutes were gone I saw I had invented some inner turnings of the hidden voices in a way I had never done before. If I had asked myself what sort of style I was using, I would have had to remark: No special style at all!
Of course that is incorrect, I suppose what I meant was I was really employing "all of them", but only in bits and pieces like torn scraps of note paper put together in a collage. I felt freer than before, the sun seemed brighter and the feeling that perhaps I was on the edge of something new, this was exciting. In short I had unexpectedly done something involving an new inner meaning and my whole self felt at much ease. For me the improvisatory freedom of my music has been the key to both doing what I enjoy and also looking forward to something which is not yet in my power. But it is not exactly this way every time I touch the instrument and does not work every week in the course of the year. Yet overall there is always a good result from my working hypothesis, that making music from scratch is as vital for well being as being able to talk out a line of thinking, even if it is still only talking to myself.
Piano as an Instrument
The sound of the piano is rather specialized. Each note starts percussively as the hammer comes up under the triple strings to strike; then the sound almost instantly starts to decay while the soundboard picks up a ringing echo of the initial contact. Release the key and the damper cuts the sound off flat, press the right pedal and the sound sings on while slowly evaporating. The overtones in cascading sequence mark the sound as that of a piano specifically. We hear all this as the normal sound of a piano note without really noticing it, so at times is it worthwhile to experiment, even if as a beginner, with another instrument.
I find my viola an excellent antidote to sharpen my hearing, its sound is softer than the violin for a learner and it fits my hand better over the strings. Here everything is changed, the sound can be manipulated to grow from soft to strong and then disappear with a whisper, all under the arc of a single bow motion. My left hand which on a piano pressed keys typewriter fashion, now has to find pitches on the fretless fingerboard with infinite care and subtlety, but it will be the stroke of the right handed bowhair which actually defines the sound. Here there is no automatic decay, the overtones are rich and fully developed, and after an hour doing baroque improv on the viola, I come back to the piano with a better sense of what it cannot do, and above all what it does so well with its two hands, chords and the widest range of any musical instrument. At times it helps to widen the range of one's experience a bit by changing the tuning of one's ears.
The piano is of course the instrument most widely studied in our early years and it is the most common musical instrument in Europe, the UK and the US, dating from the huge wave of manufacturing enthusiasm which started in the third quarter of the 19th century. Foundries for casting the harp, production of high carbon steel for the strings, woodworking factories everywhere - - - - these were the manufacturing base for a wave of piano production. And the public responded with enthusiastic buying, believing that a piano was a necessary part of every home's equipment, much as we now consider a computer entertainment center as a needed presence in the home, whether we have a use real need for it or not. The piano was the first large-scale sales item in a long list of devices which range from the bicycle after l890, cars after l910, vacuum cleaner and radio in the l930's and the ubiquitous TV after the War as the beginning of our long list of electric and electronic equipment. The odd thing about the piano is that so many of the vintage ones are still around, probably because manufacturing costs have gone up steeply and what was once an inexpensive piece of equipment has now become a serious investment for a homeowner. There are so few changes in the construction of a Grand Piano that inm buying a used or vintage instrument, it will be the reputation of the maker and the actual sound produced which decide if the adjustment or repair of hundreds of little parts is going to be worth the cost. Pianos are everywhere and they do live on!
But there are many things about the piano which we have little cognizance of from our parentally enforced student days. Reading "notes" and pressing keys, we were so busy that there wa hardly time to actually listen to the sound we were producing. The sound of a struck sound is quite special in the range of the instruments of the orchestral range. First of all, the piano is a percussion instrument. Hammers striking stresses string produce a very complex sound, which starts as a strong tone of much amplitude but short duration as the actual contact sound results from hammers on strings. But the sound starts to decay almost immediately and in a few milliseconds it has deteriorated to something like a fifth of its original loudness. But a secondary sound appears, as the soundboard through the bridge under the strings catches the energy from the original hammer stroke and produces the second part of the piano's traditional sound. This is the singing quality which we often think of as the piano's "real sound"; but it cannot exist without the original stroke or clunk, and the two are inexorably tied components of the piano's complex tone.
But that is not all. Every instrument has its characteristic set of "overtones" which are the harmonics which a physicist will lay out for you in a regular harmonic series. These determine the sound of each instrument, but for the piano they not only give us "piano sound", but a lot of stray and often objectionable harmonics, which make a good piano sound sweet and charming while a bad one will annoy your ears. Pianos are famous for their random harmonics, which bedevil recording engineers in the studio as they try to get the sound you hear acoustically recorded into a digital format for a CD season. Hammer and key-to-bed strikes are inevitable, and in fact have become a part of the musical sound of the instrument, if damped not so strong as to impinge on the recording process.
But the one thing which is even more important than the condition of the soundboard is the Hammers, which have to be the right ones for that particular instrument, and also in proper condition. Hammers harden with use hitting against the strings, they also harden with moisture content and above all with age, having a specific life span. Pianos played a great deal daily may need new hammers in half a dozen years, while a concert piano regularly used may require hammers in just two years. Hammer filing should be done with care, probably annually. But there are dozens of little adjustment in the Erard style action which should be checked once in a while by the expert, since nothing in such a complicated device can be counted on to stay in adjustment forever. Wood is still the best material for the action parts, but wood is always changing dimension with changes in humidity. In other words, the piano you play and improvise with is not an acoustic constant like an electronic keyboard, and we should be aware of changes under the fingers as the seasons and years pass.
Improvising at the piano, whether done alone in a quiet room or in an auditorium before an audience, is basically a solo and even in public a solitary experience. We speak so often of the purpose of Art as a special sort of human Communication, that we can easily lose part of our personal sense of identity in the artistic process by over-thinking the idea of "communication". Performers often say that the audience is an integral part of each performance, that the performer depends on audience attitude and receptivity for a really good performance. But Improvising is inherently a solitary performance, you do it for yourself, for the unraveling of the rhythms and for the sense of being involved in a mesh of flowing tones. You can imagine that you are playing for a packed auditorium, or you can invite some friends over the play for them extempore. But the basic business is done solo between you and the instrument, which is the core part of the activity.
As you touch fingers to the keyboard there is a vast emptiness which is waiting to be filed acoustically; while you are playing you have a heightened activity like birds whirring about in the air describing circles and orbits and swooping over a pond to rise and veer off past the forest. When you are done there is again silence, but filled with the memory of something which was alive and exciting, now vanished back into time. This is a personal experience, and a certain dose of solitude is necessary to turn the five minutes you are improvising into a piece of music. Playing for an audience means veering by some angle into a different azimuth, while playing for recording is always initially flat and a disappointment, like looking at yourself in a mirror reversed and sensing that is not really the way you look. To record you have to put the machine into REC and then forget about it, later you can crop off the stuff you don't want and probably surprise yourself by some of the parts you hardly remember at all. But the act of communication in improvising is internal and personal; this is one of the few things you can do in and by and for yourself, a good change of attitude in a world where almost everything seems to have a social and societal component. Here you can for a few moment be really "alone" with yourself.
Traditional piano manuals speak of "Addressing the Piano", which has nothing to do with the Post Office. But there are things which should be attended to before you touch the keyboard since they effect sound and style. A chair is needed which brings your forearm to level when you are just touching the keys, and not every chair will do this well. The Steinway practice chair with its angled seat is excellent for keeping the legs free for the pedals, but it has to be the right height for the player's size. The cellist has to sit in a proper attitude to operate the instrument at all ; the pianist seems less coerced by the piano but there is a piano-stance which puts the player in a good position for action. Centering the chair on middle C is sensible, but the trick is always to get the chair in the same place both sidewise and in relation to the KB, while feeling comfortable with the pedals. Once you have this location, you want to get back to it each time you play, since improvising means reaching for keys so automatically that you are finally actually reaching for the sounds themselves. This is quite different from getting directions from the score to press keys and then hear sounds . Here you have the sounds in your head and the fingers go directly to the sounds. The violinist does this more closely, each finger "knows" the sound it wants to find and goes to that point on the fingerboard with practiced precision. With strings the sound must be micro-adjusted by a flash of nerve impulse connecting ear and hand, while for the piano the pitch is established by the instrument, which is much simpler. But the precision of placement of person to instrument is equally exact.
Breathing easily is important to establish before playing. I have found that just ten breaths a minute for a minute or two, with two seconds easy-in and four slowly exhaling will relax the body completely. For those with elevated blood pressure, this same exercise drops the diastolic pressure considerably, a good indication that the body is becoming restful and at ease with its autonomous operations. We learn at misuc lessons to watch the score and play without looking at the KB, and when improvising we should learn to see the KB in our mind and not with our eyes. Closing the eyes does two things: It makes you hear much better; and it also makes you connect sounds in your mind with your fingers, not with your eyes scanning the eighty eight keys for the right one. With eyes closed you have to rely on the unconscious mind for part of the playing, and this starts you off on the right foot (....finger!) for the intuitive process of improvising.
Many of us were taught to think of the fingers when playing the piano as little hammers which are struck down and instantly brought up to a raised position in order to be ready for the next stroke. It is unclear where this perverse doctrine came from, perhaps a curiously retained from teh days of the clavichord which does require discrete finger action because of the use of a single string for two quite disparate pitches. This is a technical matter for the clavichordist, whose instrument disappeared two centuries ago until cautiously revived in the ancient instrument movement. The harpsichord has no such problem and was the favored instrument of the 18th century until the development of the Stein early-Mozart pianoforte of l770. Now with the Erard derived escapement, there is no excuse for the practice of snapping the fingers up to a quasi-military attention. If taught this way, try to practice hands laid flat with fingers extended as an exercise before touching the keys. Un-learning is always a difficult process!.
The piano is played with the hands uising the fingers which are separately articulatable extensions. For certain effects like a severe staccato, the fingers do have to do all the work, but a great deal of playing is done with hand movements preceding the finger work. As an example, consider the right hand octave scale which could be considered a set of eight separate finger motions with a hand cross-under going upward below the middle. But it can be thought of as two compound motions, the first three sounds done with fingers under a lithe legato-ing handroll, with the knuckles raised up enough to let the thumb go under, and a natural five-finger motion again completing the run. Of course this must not sound like two phrases, but it must not sound like eight plunks either. Right hand going up is always harder than going down, and the raised knuckle is essential, left hand being the opposite.
But the hand cannot work well unless the forearm is relaxed and free to work out of a loose elbow joint, and the upper arm up to the shoulder socket joint must be in a loose state to allow complete freedom of motion. Without freedom the sound will he hard and harsh. Compare the bowing hand of a violin, which is the crux of concern for any advancing student; without freedom the sound is tense and short; until the right arm is freed up there will be no true violin sound. Now the piano is a different instrument, and even if Hindemith's statement "a key depressed by a non-played with the tip of an umbrella produces the same sound as that of a concert pianist" is not completely true. There is a narrow range of sound variation which the pianist's stroke can produce. It can be a scarcely audible pianissimo to a painful fortissimo, but in acoustic terms the actual decibel ratio is very small. What is involved is the way the hammer addresses the strings , and if it is merely to kiss the string unison, this must be done with a very soft and relaxed hand-arm motion. On the other hand the loudest fortissimo will be developed by speed of key descent. It will be the speed itself and not a force which drives key into the felt damped board. Speed can only be generated by a special "falling" hand movement which originates in the weight of the forearm, the so-called (and often misunderstood) technique of "Weight Playing". I mention this here as one of the requirements for a relaxed hand and arm motion, since there is no possible use for a six-inch falling motion from a tense and rigidly controlled forearm. Waving the hand up from the KB has great histrionic effect, but no musical validity, as the original advancers of the W-P system firmly stated.
There are performers who raise their hands a foot above the keyboard, wave them about in a relaxed motion, and descend with a certain artsy flare to again touch the keys with style. And some will go so far as to move the whole body back and forth, plunging the arms into the fallboard area as their personal playing style. I have seen this done even with the harpsichord which knows no difference in attack on the keys since the pluck of the quill is pre-defined and hardly changeable. This waving can become a mannerism keyed to the audience's perception, suggesting that this performer is sincerely involved in his music with his whole body, so as to speak "with heart and soul". This can be fun to do and a great audience pleaser, and incidentally good exercise for relaxing the body; but the great performers like Horowitz and Brendel and in the old days Bach himself, have always played close to the keys as a matter of intelligent efficiency. For the improviser, you have enough to think about, I suggest not wasting effort with antics.
For a strong and ringing tone, some personal adaptation of the Weight Playing Technique can be useful, with the reminder that this does not involve raising the hand to fall eight inches onto the KB. That is a histrionic act great for an insensitive audience who wants to see something active as well as hear the music. But as a simple experiment, take a foot long stocking and put a handful of stones or gravel in each end, tied there by a shoelace. Hang this over the right hand and after adjusting for a comfortable weight, see what this does for your performance of a simple Chopin piece. Forgetting tempo which will be slowed down, listen to the strong sound with which the fast down-fall of your fingers depresses the keys. You don't have to strike hard because you are striking fast, which is what makes that ringing lyrical sound. This is what the European system of weight playing means, it is useful by using your forearm weight (without the stocking) as a relaxedly falling object. Speed of an activated finger is too slow for a ringing sound, it has to be the arm hinged from the shoulder which drops the finger in the right place with the right speed. Not easy to master without a teacher, but worth a few hours of trying.
Let me cite a parallel situation which is giving me trouble. I find I am making a lot of mistakes in typing, and I think it is because I am shifting my attention from the keyboard up to the monitor. I am pretty familiar with finger work from the old days when everybody had to learn to use a typewriter. But with a piano it is different, a little like shifting attention from the hands on the piano back and forthwith to the printed score in front of you. Something can easily get lost or mishandled in the shifts. I find my left hand in typing tends to beat the right in speed and I get transposed letters here and there, I had thought because not concentrating on the hands. But now I realize it is because the left hand on the KB is slower, and the hammers which have to be lifted are heavier, so the left hand starts earlier on the piano, but not on the computer KB . I am learning to go slower, try to match the RH and LH as participants rather than competitors for speed. This seems good and I think there are parallels to think about with piano playing, the message being: Keep your mind and eyes on one level, keep things even, and watch for unobserved eccentricities.
Measures in a traditional score are perfectly reasonable if you are playing county music, dance or atraditional song score, but they are not a real part of Music as such. I just opened Mozart's Sonata in C minor to check, and sure enough he is writing completely over the scored bars, as Bach does often and Brahms almost always. The measure bars are in fact useful for quartet or an orchestral score, since performers have to know with accuracy where to come in, exactly where they are in the piece. But for music in the last half of the last century, score accuracy has been a problem and for solos pieces it is often just one more thing to arbitrate. The real problem for the improviser is getting free from score thinking (counting as the teacher said: one-and-two and- etc. ad nauseam), and improvising without a bar-based measure manner. If this is too hard to avoid, you may want to go with measuring, but remember that there will be natural phrases which are out of touch with the time signature, and you should not be precluded from using these. Sometimes improvising to line of poetry which have their own cadence and measured phraseology, will be a useful antidote for rote counting of beats, and it is not necessary to tell people afterward that you were writing to a poem. Stravinsky did this often and never revealed his sources.
Studying music we get so accustomed to the notation with all its peculiarities and graphical quirks that we may fail to notice how arbitrary and almost logarithmic the scaling of lengths of the sounds, the Durations of the indicated notes, actually is. If you think of the quarter note as basic as commonly seen on a page of score, then the next shorter sound would be the eighth note, which in a precise scaled and barred "measure", will be half the length of duration. And then the sixteenth note as commonly used is half of that, and the fleeting thirty-second note is half of that in its turn. Seen schematically we would have something like this:
---- -------- ---------------- --------------------------------
and the half-note would be a gigantically long:
This is the natural result of a measuring system which works by halving and doubling, useful but a serious restriction in any numerical system. This system wants to add up all the components between the bars and have them come out to the right total. For group or orchestral music this may be a sheer necessity of organization so the various players have something to go by in coordinating their parts.
But for the solo performer or the solo improviser such precision is not only unnecessary, but a psychological and artistic limitation. Taught early to count out the beats by a precise-minded teachers, we retain something of this pattern of strict regularity for life. Many of us will move a finger or toe automatically to accompany a recorded piece of music being played, as if we were controlling the evenness of the beats. Now the improviser does not want to be confined that way, and should be free to make sounds as long or as short as seems proper without any sense of external constraint. Our modern recordings have the tempo laid out very accurately with evenly spaced sounds, this is very much the spirit of a modern performer's style and what a listening audience expects. But when we compare Casals disc of the Bach Cello Suites with the modern Yoyo Ma recording, we might at first say that Casals has no sense of time, that he is way out of line. But listening more carefully, we see that his independence is very much a part of his intention, that the freedom he uses is intentional and no mistake. So I suggest for the beginning improviser that the counting-out of the time is not necessary, in fact it is really not good at all. Let the sound be what you want it to be, it should be what you are hearing in your mind before you start playing, and remember that total regularity has a tendency to end up being boring. Verbum Sat Sap.
In Music there are always more things to say, and when one talks about Improvisation in this new Age where interest in ex tempore art is appearing worldwide on all artistic levels, there can be no arbitrary end to thoughtful discussion. But I think enough has been said on these pages to register the core ideas with which I have been working for a number of years, and I think it is a part of wisdom to leave room for others to think and comment in their own words. I am ready to go back from this verbal world of words to my Falcone 6"1" piano #169, and devote my time to playing what I have been talking about here. Sufficient are the words, and I can return to the more interesting atmosphere of what is really on my mind, which is the sound of MUSIC.