Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Toward a Taxonomy of Improvisation

I wrote in the post about the tradition of organ improvsation about the misconception that many people have that improvisation equals jazz. The truth is that musical improvisation exists in many, many different musical genres, as well as outside established musical genres.

As I work on writing this book about improvisation for classical musicians, and in my discussions of improvisation over the last ten years, I've found it helpful to describe the different contexts in which people improvise. A classification, or taxonomy of improvisation has been developing in my mind.

It is, of course, perhaps the silliest of all subjects about which to attempt to create a taxonomy. What is more unrestricted, more subject to change and growth, less dependent on predefinition than improvisation? Derek Bailey puts it well in Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music:
Improvisation is always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for analyis and precise description; essentially non-academic. And, more than that, any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation. (ix)
That said, there nevertheless is some benefit to describing the phenomenon of improvisation to whatever limited extent is possible. There are three broad categories in which improvisation occurs (at least in my observation). Naming them is helpful, I've found, because the distinctions tend to open up possibilities rather restrict them. Classical musicians do tend to think that improvisation equals jazz, and thus can find themselves intimidated by the tremendous skill and period of learning it takes to become even a minimally competent jazz improviser. And some classical musicians are just not attracted to jazz, not so much because of the improvisatory element, but because they don't connect with aspects of the jazz musical language. It can come as a wonderful surprise that there is much improvisation to be done outside of jazz, and without necessarily developing the skills to improvise in public before a paying audience.

So here's my taxonomy-in-progress. I'm still working on the names--attempts at labeling are often artificial to some extent, and clearly many of these categories overlap. As a matter of fact, rather than representing different types of improvisation, my taxonomy deals more with different purposes for improvisation. While there may be differences in the what, the more fundamental distinctions for me are in the area of why.

First, and perhaps most obviously, there is improvisation as a part of an established performance idiom, such as jazz, or the classical organ tradition. Derek Bailey, in Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, calls this "idiomatic" improvisation, and that's a good name for it.
Idiomatic improvisation . . . is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom - such as jazz, flamenco, or baroque - and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom. Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so-called 'free' improvisation and, while it can be highly stylised, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity. (vi-vii)
Bailey makes a good point here. And it is important to note that one thing all these established idioms have in common is that they involve performers who are making music for some form of an audience. This performer/audience relationship is what defines the first of my taxonomic categories, improvisation as a performance art. I propose that one valid way of looking at improvisation is there are performance idioms which include a significant amount of improvisation. Quite often, this improvisation is idiom-specific, other times the improvisation may be "free" and/or combine aspects of many traditional idioms. There are, then, idiomatic and non-idiomatic forms of improvisation as a performance art.

There are two other contexts for musical improvisation, neither of which have performance, especially as traditonally understood (i.e., with performers playing/singing for an audience), as their goal. These contexts are focused on the benefits of participating in the process of improvisation. Each may well incorporate idiomatic and non-idiomatic elements, but the focus of each is more on the process than on the "product" of a performance.

They are improvisation done as a focused learning activity, and improvisation done as a modality of human development, healing, treatment, etc.

Learning-activity improvisation includes the improvisation activities done in a music theory class, for example, or improvised etudes on an instrument. Improvisation is used as a tool to explore and learn more, or to develop a skill. The ability to perform an improvised piece (or section of a piece) for other than fellow students is not the goal.

Growth/healing improvisation includes non-idiomatic, free improvisation done alone or in group settings such as Music for People workshops, community drum circles playing improvised rhythms, and, more formally, music therapy.

I'll be writing more about each of these soon.


Terry said...

I hope that your improvisation discussions will be of help in the kind of improvisation I want to competently do (I think it's fair to say I already incompetently do).

This link describes the sort of improvisation I'm interested in, although I suspect it is not in the direction you are going:


The page is titled Cello Accompaniment, but it goes on to describe improvisation in accompaniment of modal Traditional Music. Not jazz, but not entirely unlike jazz in that you have to "play well with others."

For me, the idea of providing accompaniments and/or improvising in a group is the Holy Grail of improvisation. Can you imagine what a Bach extended-family reunion circa 1690 would be like? What a party! I'm sure they didn't need any music stands!

Nobody ever says "I took up the cello because I like to play accompaniments" but 3 years ago I was attracted to the cello because it can play such a diversity of roles in a Traditional Music band. It can be bass, it can play fill chords, it can chop, it can be a close harmony partner or open harmony partner, it can sing a melody or it can sing an obligato. What other instrument can play such diverse lead and character actor roles?

Some quotes from the above link that speak to me:

"Throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was expected that musicians should be able to improvise their parts..." (ain't nobody I know that's going to write parts for me)

"... It was improvised modal counterpoint. This once commonplace skill is now totally lost."

".... The great cellists of the time used the written part merely as the starting point of their accompaniment."

Eric Edberg said...

Hey, Terry, that's a really great link--thanks.