Friday, March 31, 2006

Classical Performers Actually Do Improvise, Part 1

Those essays on why classical performers don't improvise? Just kidding.

Now I’ll flip things around and argue that, in fact, the improvisational aspect of performing classical music, or perhaps better put, the creative element of performing classical music, is alive and well. It’s just gone underground, at least compared to the days of performing improvised complete pieces, improvised ornamentation, and improvised cadenzas.

To start off, I’m going to go out on a limb and take an unequivocal position on an issue that is the subject of much debate. I assert that classical performers are, like it or not, co-creators with the composer in the creation of a performance of a musical work.

That performing someone else’s music is inherently creative is self-evident to many of us who perform. I’ve been using the phrase “co-creator” for many years in my own thinking and occasional philosophical conversations about music. And in reading Bruce Ellis Benson’s intimidatingly titled book The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music, I’ve found someone else who uses it (although not with the same insistence as I do). Benson, a philosophy professor at Wheaton College, writes

If composing is a process, we need to examine what delimits the process, at either end. Is the composer the sole creator of a musical work, in the sense of initiating and terminating the process of composition? Or is the composing process rather something that extends beyond the composer – perhaps in both directions – with the result that the composer is also merely a participant in a particular musical discourse or practice. (2)

That’s a heretical statement to many composers and performers, at odds with a philosophy of the roles of composers and performers that gathered momentum as the 20th century progressed. Benson argues that what has become our dominant understanding of the roles of composers and performers is oversimplified and limiting.

. . . music making is a wonderfully complex activity that resists precise definition.

What is clear to me, though, si that the binary schema of “composing” and “performing,” which goes along with the construal of music making as being primarily about the production and reproduction of musical works, doesn’t describe very well what musicians actually do. In its place, I wish to suggest an improvisational model of music, one that depicts composers, performers, and listeners as partners in a dialogue. From this perspective, music is a conversation in which no one partner has exclusive control. (2)

Benson uses my beloved term “co-creator” a couple of times (13 and 18). His analysis of the phenomenon of music making is in all likelihood shaped to a large extent by what I assume, given where he teaches, is a fundamentally theistic point of view, or cosmology (but that's a subject for another essay, or series of essays).

Now whether or not we agree that the composer is the exclusive “author” of a written composition, and recognizing that how we answer that question may ultimately be dependent on whether or not we believe in or perceive some sort of dimension beyond that of individual consciousness, there’s no escaping the fact that when it comes to actually performing a piece, performers make an enormous amount of choices.

Carol S. Gould and Kenneth Keaton articulate this very well in their article “The Essential Role of Improvisation in Musical Performance” (The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 58 No. 2, Improvisation in the Arts [Spring 2000], pp. 143-148).

While a musical score contains information on pitch, relative duration [i.e., rhythm—EE], and often some indication of relative dynamics, articulation, and an outline of phrase structure, it cannot express innumerable details of a musical realization. These details include precise tempi, subtle fluctuations of tempo, expressive rubato, tone quality, precise dynamics, and the combination of all elements to form a cogent, balanced structure that conveys the emotional insights of both composer and performer.

And this is why I feel confident in making the distinction that performers are co-creators with the composer when it comes to an actual performance of even a fully-composed work. There are innumerable choices that the performer(s) must make. A performer may have thought, fantasized, imagined, reflected, prayed about, meditated on, her understanding of the emotional effect of the composition and the tempi, tone colors, rubati that would best bring the piece to life. He may have tried countless alternatives, and made what seem to be definitive choices. But in the act of performance, many of the precise details happen in the moment. And the best performances take on a life of their own. There’s a synergy that happens. New ideas occur. The music can seem to take on a life of its own. There can be as strong a sense of surrender, of almost taking dictation, as what Stephen Nachmanovitch describes happening in a good improvisation (in which the notes and rhythms themselves are not composed in advance).

A little name dropping: I was at a party some years ago at Janos Starker’s house, and he explained to a group of us that he no longer performed from memory because he found that when looking at the music during a concert, he got new ideas. Certainly there have been few, if any, performers in the history of classical performing as consistently thoroughly and thoughtfully prepared as Mr. Starker. No one has ever accused him of being a willful, self-indulgent, overly-romantic performer. And yet here he was, explaining how he facilitated the process of getting new interpretive ideas during a performance.

And if that’s not a description of some form of improvising, then I don’t what it is.

OK. I’ve participated in a heated debate or two with jazz colleagues who were dismissive of the idea that spontaneously-made interpretive choices that didn’t involve choosing actual notes and rhythms should be defined as “improvisation.” And admittedly it is improvisation broadly defined.

But there’s no question in my mind that the creativity that in earlier eras manifested itself in improvised ornamentation and cadenzas manifests itself today in improvised choices of timbre, vibrato, rubato, articulation, emphasis, etc. As I’ve thought about this, I’ve come to believe that for string players (my own field), vibrato serves the role that ornamentation used did in the days of yore.

And more on this to come.


Terry said...

We are what we play? (as in, "We are what we eat")

I wonder if the performer's prior work has as much or more influence on one's taste and each performance as does the indidual, him or herself. All the more for a 3-year novice like myself.

I recently bought the sheet music to the Gabrielli Ricercari. I'm working on #1 now. Right up my alley. I need to work on it some more, but it's reasonably easy. Even my wife seems to like how I sound on it, and she doesn't care for a lot of the other things.

It's certainly no highly structured sonata rondo form. No regimen of exactly 4 bar phrases, 32 bar sections, obligatory temporary key change to the dominant, and so on. It's more like a leisurely walk in a garden, or a free verse story. It's an improvisational-friendly environment. I could put my little phrases in their, or extend an existing 4-note motif for a while and most listeners would be none the wiser. Just as jazz pieces, with their well-defined one-chord-bar progressions are improvisational-friendly environments in their own way, those pieces invite improvisation in a very different way.

Perhaps what we like to do has a raltionship to what we've done before.

Anonymous said...

I've played in an amateur string quartet and when the work and players have really gelled, I think one can get into the same sort of "zone" as in true improvising. The music seems to be playing you, yet you also make all those vital choices about dynamics, phrasing, vibrato and so on. Plus, it is a true partnership of equals: "A marriage of true minds".

I'd say this experience is less common in most other forms of concerted music making.

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