I first spoke with the members of Seattle Chamber Players about doing a concert featuring improvisation after attending one of their concerts in November of 2004.
The program featured music of the American “maverick” composers (Cage, Earle Brown, Henry Cowell, etc.) of the mid 20th century. I had been exposed to much of this music when I attended UC Santa Cruz in the 70’s, and then as now I was struck by many of the relationships, and some of the contradictions, that this music had with contemporary improvised music.
I say contemporary for a reason. Almost all music contains improvisation, and most music contains quite a bit of it. The great art traditions of Indian classical music, North and South, American jazz music, and Indonesian Gamelan music are just 3 examples of profound improvising traditions. All traditional folk forms, and virtually all modern forms of rock, folk and other so-called popular music include heavy doses of spontaneous inspiration.
European classical music has its share as well, in early music, organ music, figured bass, and cadenzas just to name a few. Of course one could argue that even “interpretation” is improvisation to some degree, and why not? Further along, where do we draw the line between improvisation and composition? How many composers have started with a spontaneous invention only to slow it down and take the time to notate it? My favorite story is of Bartok performing his work for 2 pianos and 2 percussionists. Choosing to depart from the score one night, and ad-lib briefly, the conductor, Fritz Reiner, is furious with him after the performance!
Whose music is this anyway? And is it an improvisation or simply an off-the cuff re-write?
The focus this evening is on improvisation in the context of contemporary music.
Just as the structure, language, and even intent of classical composition has transformed radically in the last century, so has the nature of improvisation. There is a growing tradition of performers and composers who use improvisation as a starting point for creating new music. Some of these artists have backgrounds in traditional forms that use improvisation, but just as many do not.
Cage, Cowell, Brown, et. al. seemed to be looking for ways to free themselves from the constructs of formal composition. By using graphic notation, chance operations, and similar techniques they were encouraging the possibility of a musical moment that could not happen otherwise. Some of these works were fabulously liberating, while others seemed oddly constrained by the notion of “score”. After all, if the performer has so much choice, should the performer in fact have an opinion?
Ideas? Personal taste (god forbid!) My epiphany came one night when I had the incredible fortune to hear Yvonne Loriod and Olivier Messian himself perform a program of his music for 2 pianos. At the time I was virtually obsessed with music of the phenomenal and virtuosic pianist Cecil Taylor, who had left behind the traditions of jazz rhythm and harmonic structure to create a radical new voice in the African-American tradition. Hearing Messiaen’s music for the first time, it seemed all of the same cloth, although created in an entirely different fashion. There were no chance operations or graphic scores here, nor any improvisation, every note fully notated, and yet Messian looked for inspiration from the songs of birds, and in some way he had captured both the utter randomness and imposing structure of life itself. In the 60’s, jazz saxophonist Eric Dolphy spent his days practicing with bird songs, we assume looking for a similar inspiration. Listening to him now on record it seems to me that he found it. It was Dolphy himself who once said to the audience, “The thing about music is once it is in the air, you can never capture it again.” Of course that concert was recorded, including his remarks, and released on record and CD many times over. Go figure.
“Free” improvisers in the late 20th century proposed that music of great depth and beauty could be made without a score, and without a pre-determined harmonic and rhythmic structure. Of course is anybody capable of truly improvising? All musicians have a personal language, and whenever we hear a brilliant improvisation, be it in a jazz standard, a slow blues, or a moment without pre-ordained structure, we hear the culmination of a life’s work banging up against the door of a new possibility. Some have argued that improvisation without structure can lead to music that lacks focus, is indulgent, and often devoid of substance. I am afraid I agree, but would only make the point that it seems to me no different than any other form! The gems are few indeed, and we take the same chances when we open the piano lid as we do when we take pencil to paper or press record on the tape deck.
A number of approaches to improvisation will be presented this evening. In my portion of the concert I will present two. One will be open form improvisation. My contribution will be simply as a member of the ensemble, along with some work during rehearsals where we spent time developing various strategies for improvisation. I feel strongly that the elements of good music are universal; structural integrity, development of motifs, a certain level of sophistication along with some level of emotional resonance. Just my opinion. Issues of orchestration, harmony and rhythm, dynamics, tone color, and the role of the soloist and accompanist exist in all music.
The other pieces will be conductions. I owe this entire concept to my good friend and mentor Lawrence “Butch” Morris who I originally hoped would be here tonight.
Beginning in the late 70’s, Butch began developing a language of improvised conducting which can be used with any ensemble that he uses to this day. I was very fortunate to be in many of his early ensembles. With a few exceptions, most issues of harmony, melody and rhythm are left to the ensemble. Other parameters, including repetition, motif development, density, dynamics, and orchestration are cued and organized by the conductor.
Tonight will be the premier of my own “conductions”, and I will only be using a small portion of his extensive language. Wish me luck.
Seattle, WA 2005