Thursday, April 13, 2006

Robert Levin on the Benefits of Improvising

Robert Levin is one of my heroes. A Harvard professor, he's a concert pianist, musicologists, and extraordinary improviser in the "classical" (i.e., Mozart/Beethoven) style. He is famous for improvising his own cadenzas. A couple years ago, when he played the Beethoven C Minor concerto with the Indianapolis Symphony, my friends in the orchestra were just blown away by the fact that it was a completely different cadenza at each rehearsal and performance.

There's a great NPR interview with him that can be listened to online. And I just came across this other interview with him (from Harvard Magazine online). Great quotes:
Asked why the tradition fell away in classical music, Levin says, "It's not taught; it's not valued. Our performing system has been geared toward perfection of execution and polish. Everything is worked out to an extraordinary luster. That produces consistency, but not necessarily creativity." In his Mozart concertos, Levin says, he wanted creativity and risktaking at the forefront of the performance. It was his conducting teacher, Hans Swarowsky, who first directed Levin to a Mozart recording by pianist and improviser Friedrich Gulda. "It's a famous, even notorious, recording," says Levin. "It was attacked by a lot of musicologists as completely irresponsible and so on and so forth." (Indeed, Levin says, Gulda now seems to have stopped improvising publicly.)
Yes, yes, yes. He's talking about the creativity of the performer. (You may recall, if you've somehow and the time and interest to follow these writings, that I'm on a mission to get us to recognize that performers--even classical performers--are co-creators of musical performances, and that I recently discovered the philosopher Bruce Ellis Benson's work on this subject, especially his book The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music.)

If you're a classical performer who improvises (notes and rhythms), you may choose to do it only in private. That's fine. But developing your creativity has so many benefits to the rest of your music making. From the Levin article again:
"My feeling," he says, "is that the greatest benefit to me in [learning to improvise] is not what happens in the two or three minutes of the cadenzas, but what happens in the rest of the piece." This is borne out not only in Levin's most recent disc, but throughout his Mozart series, which shows all the positive effects of having set himself the task of understanding Mozart fully. His interpretations' most attractive qualities are the momentum each generates, the full pleasure Levin takes in Mozart's jokes, note patterns, and effects, and the confidence he has in Mozart's compositional choices.
When you spend time creating music, thinking up music, as Harold Best puts it, that creative spirit is brought to your music making of classical pieces. The music making is more alive, more free, more connected to the spirit of the music and to your own soul and humanity, and less about being right and correct and avoiding mistakes and playing as you should and all that other intimidating and inhibiting and self-absorbed stuff.


Anonymous said...

Thank God someone has finally revived this practice. I find the classical world so clinical and cold -almost hostile to creativity. Robert Levin's attitude is spot on. I wonder about his thoughts on tuning and temperament.

R. C Sotorrio

Anonymous said...

This blog of yours has helped me with my music home work.

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