Thursday, March 23, 2006

Just How Improvised Is That Improvisation?

I tend to think in black/white, either-or terms. Something is this or that. Part of growing up, for me, has been learning to accept shades of gray, mixed elements, internal contradictions, and paradoxes.

I remember some years ago having a difficult time connecting with the Wagner Ring cycle, because the "good guys" all seemed corrupt, while the "bad guys" didn't seem all that bad. I mentioned this to my friend and colleague Claude Cymerman, who is a Ring fanatic, and teaches a popular course on the Ring at DePauw. That's the point, he explained. No one is all good or all bad. People in power get corrupted. Part of me wanted the Ring to be like a comic book, where (at least when I was a kid) Superman is always and consistently good. Encountering the Ring and coming to this realization, as pointed out by Claude, was genuinely pivotal for me.

(I wrote yesterday about the movie Crash. One of the things I found so engrossing in it was this same, quasi-Wagnerian combination of good and evil in so many of the characters.)

Well, what has me writing about this today are some thoughts prompted by rereading David Rothenberg's book Sudden Music: Improvisation, Sound, Nature. Rothenberg is a clarinetist, writer, and philosophy professor (from reading the book, I get the impression that he would rank those in roles in that order). Somewhere in the book is a passage--which this morning I can't find--in which he discusses his interest in participating in spontaneous, sudden music rather than composed music. What struck me about that passage (which I'll find eventually and add in here) was that it helped define for me one of the challenges for those of us who play and teach classical music for a living, when we want to learn to improvise. The two seem to represent distinctively different ways of making music and relating to life.

Just as a character in a Wagner opera is neither all good nor all bad, very little music is all improvised, especially music in idiomatic performance traditions. While many of us have tended to think that "improvisation equals jazz," Rothenberg points out that
[t]he philosopher Theodor Adorno didn't especially like jazz because he thought it was not genuinely innovative. What passed for an improvised solo, he charged, was really just a trivial variation on the familiar: one still had to stay within the changes, and never break the rules. He missed the point of the music, but his critique still hits home: when the art is genuinely new, we are uncertain how to accept it. The radical cannot ride the familiar. (105)
An important distinction about idiomatic improvisation, such as most jazz, is that the improvisation is not total. There is a specific musical language which forms a frame of references, and quite often there is a pre-set structure (or set of structures), and often predetermined musical material which is varied in an improvised manner. The performers improvise on something.

In much jazz, that "something" is a standard (or non-standard) tune and its accompanying chords. In classical music we call a series of chords in a piece a chord progression. In jazz and popular music, they are called chord changes. In a performance of a jazz tune by a jazz combo, first the melody is performed, in recognizable if personalized form. Jazz musicians call this the head. Then, each (or most of) the musicians "take a solo," performing an improvisation based on the chord changes. The solo is the same length as the tune itself. The rhythm section (some combination, usually, of drums, piano, and acoustic or electric bass) provides a background for the improvised solo. The other instrumentalists simply wait while their colleagues take a turn doing solos; some may even walk to a different part of the stage.

There's a clear form, there's a clear subject to the improvisations, and the improvised solos have not only a predetermined length but also a predetermined harmonic structure. The "head" and the ending are often rehearsed or at least planned to some extent. So there is a composed as well as an improvised element to most jazz performances.

The same thing exists in Baroque music. A keyboard player may be improvising her realization of the figured bass continuo part. The solo violinist may be improvising ornaments to a melodic line. There's a composed element, and an improvised element. As with jazz, the composed element, and traditions of the idiomatic musical language, shape and structure the content of the improvisation.

More to come on this. I need to go rehearse some (unimprovised) Brahms.

1 comment:

Claudio Parodi said...

Well, also the improvisers that play non idiomatic music practise. To me, the best way is to leave an amount of unespected events coming out from your instruments (which I find is quite easy with my self-built or self modified electronics), and to practise to react as fast as possible in a musical way - we are making music.