Saturday, August 26, 2006

Seeds of Decline and Resurgence

Greg Sandow closes Episode 9 "Improvised Delights" (the most recent one as I write) of his online book-in-progress, The Future of Classical Music, with the following:

So am I urging us to return to some 18th century (or early 19th century) paradise? Hardly. There were many problems then. Performances, by our standards, were very likely bad. Again by our standards, they were barely rehearsed. Writers of the time complain about singers and instrumentalists who introduced too many ornaments, making the music unrecognizable. (Note Brahms's caution: Singers should only change the music if their changes didn't hurt it.) Singers carried around "baggage arias," as they were called (because their music was, as Stendhal says, "carried around permanently, as it were, like a change of underwear"), which they'd introduce into every opera they sang. 18th century orchestras seem to have improvised, with, sometimes, all the violinists individually--and, you'd think, cacaphonically--adding their own embellishments of the written violin line.

But let me say it again. The spirit of those long-lost days is something we ought to recapture. At the very least, we ought to know that we've lost it. And by losing it--by evolving the concept of classical music, in which improvisation was all but illegal--we may have sown the seeds for classical music's current decline.
One of the things I've been thinking about lately is that part of the lack of creativity in much current classical music performance results from the fact that our current cultural understanding of classical music doesn't allow for the sorts of embellishments and improvisations that were culturally accepted two hundred years ago. And this isn't true just in the performance of music by dead white guys from Vienna. Almost all contemporary classical, or art, music is written with a cultural understanding of "play the score exactly as written."

In other words, few classical composers write their music in a way that allows for embellishment or other forms of improvisation and co-creation when it comes to the notes themselves. Back in the 1970s (which seems to have been the heyday of this genre) aleatoric music did allow for considerable latitude and creativity on the part of the performers. And that's the main reason I always enjoyed playing it.

But aleatoric music was also relentlessly atonal, often lacked any sense of definite, sustained pulse, and so didn't "catch on," so to speak, with audiences or performers in any widespread sense.

As started to explore in my posts last spring, there is much more to this phenomenon than evolving practice. Underlying it are fundamental notions of the roles of performers and composer, of the nature of a musical "work," of intellectual ownership of a piece of music, and the point of concerts and recordings (are they more about the performer or "the music"?).

The "seeds of classical music's decline," as Greg puts it, include not only the loss of a culture in which performers were allowed to embellish/alter the written text of a musical work, but just as importantly the loss of the performer/composer.

I'll explore this more in another post. But to put it briefly, my hypothesis is this: as art-music composition moved into atonal realms, successful performers stopped composing. As universities and colleges expanded in the 20th century, they became the new patrons of composers, who no longer needed to write music that appealed to audiences. It became impossible to survive in academia as a composer if one wrote in a tonal style, or even to receive respect from the musical intelligentsia. And pretty soon there was no one to teach performers to compose in an accessible style, performers would be embarrassed to compose in an accessible style, and the art of writing genuinely accessible music, and having it written by performers who regularly connect with audiences, was essentially lost.

That's all quite over-simplified, of course, and there are certainly exceptions, but I think in the broad outline it's a pretty accurate observation.

All the concerns about being "faithful to the composer" and feeling guilty if one departs from the exact details of a written score can vanish when the performer is the composer. And when the composer leaves room for the performer's creativity, rather than viewing performers as Straviskian "executants."

And so at least some of the seeds of classical music's resurgence will be encouraging new music that is accessible, that purposely invites and encourages the creativity of performers, and in encouraging performers to compose and composers to perform.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Using improv in teaching

Now the new school year has started, and I'm using improvisation in my teaching. I'm teaching cello, of course, and also one section of the DePauw School of Music's first-year seminar for music majors. It's an unusual class, in that the students rotate among five faculty members over the course of the semester. We have four sections of the class, with 12-13 students in each. Each class has a "main" teacher, with whom they spend the first two and last four weeks of the semester. In between, they have two-week sessions with other faculty. The topics include writing about music, the impact of recording technology on music, Dalcroze Eurythmics, music technology training, and (with me) improvisation and a bit of African drumming/singing.

My main section, the one in which the students and I have six weeks together, is subtitled "Creativity, Non-Western Music, and the Furutre of Classical Music." It's been greatly influenced by Greg Sandow's course at Julliard, "Breaking Barriers: Performing Classical Music in an Age of Pop," as well as my prior work with improvisation and my much more limited experience with some forms of African music.

Today was the third session of the class. The first two were spent on organizational issues, discussing readings, and problem-solving as the students learned to use the interface for our class blog.

Finally today we got to making music together: no computers allowed (all the students at my university are required to have a laptop, and we had been deep into them the first two sessions). We used Remo djembe-style drums today. Twelve students and me, sitting in a circle. We started with improvisational drumming and did some call-and response drum exercises and rhythm games.

What came to be the lesson of the day was to notice how when some of the students would have a solo, their awareness would shrink into themselves and they'd no longer be feeling or playing with the pulse of the group. So it became a great window for discussing the importance of feeling a collective pulse when making music with other people.

My gosh. Imagine being a college freshman, third day of school, first time playing a djembe, and all of a sudden you have to lead a four-best call and response, or play a four-beat solo. No matter how fun and safe an atmosphere I create, it's a wonder more of the kids didn't freak out.

So we created a game in which we made sure to feel the pulse in our bodies, and went around the circle, each person playing just the four beats (thump, thump, thump, thump). The object simply to feel the pulse together and keep it going. And then we started to vary the rhythm just a touch, the focus still on feeling the pulse.

It's an example of using improvisation, in this case with hand drums, to work on a fundamental musical skill--feeling a musical pulse in your own body, and feeling a collective musical pulse while making music with others.


Later this morning, a cello lesson. I decided to start this student on a piece that has in it a passage based on an e minor/minor arpeggio (i.e., a minor triad with a minor seventh above the root). I taught her just the arpeggio (e, g, b, and d) through several octaves. Then I played an accompaniment pattern on my cello while she improvised using the arpeggio. We switched roles, and I then asked her to improvise using the same notes but with repeated notes (which are used in the piece). We had a good time with it. And it was a good way, I think, to get ready to play that passage and to incorporate some fun and creativity into it.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Gearing up to teach and write again

If anyone is still checking this blog, since it's been so inactive, I'm back and I anticipate I'll be writing more frequently. It has been very helpful to take some (unplanned) time from writing about improvisation. It's given me time to think about the book itself, and how it wants to be structured. While in my original writing each entry was meant as a draft of a chapter or part of a chapter, or even more vaguely as what I've been taught to understand as "prewriting," the freer, blogging-about-thing-to-do-with-improvisation- aspect is taking over as well.

And, meanwhile, I've had some improvisation experiences. Two recitals on which different pianists and I played an assortment of classical pieces and ended with pretty much free improvisations, and I've given two improvisation workshops: one at a camp for teenage string students, and another for grown-up string teachers. Over the next week or two, I will get descriptions of these experiences posted.

Starting two weeks from Wednesday (i.e., August 23) I'll be teaching in DePauw's first-year seminar for incoming School of Music students. It's a team-taught course in which the students spend not quite half the semester with one teacher, their academic advisor, and the other half rotating amongst four other teachers, having short units on a variety of topics.

My short units will combine improvisation, especially improvised hand drumming, with some work on African music, including learning a couple of African songs and transcribed drum rhythms.

For this, especially the improvised drumming, I'll draw heavily on the work of Arthur Hull. Arthur's website is; it's well worth exploring, especially for those interested in improvisation inspired less by Western music and culture than by African, and those who are drawn, as I am, to improvisation as a mode for personal and interpersonal development. I'll write about my experiences teaching these units, and my longer, creativity-focused work with my own class later in the semester, here, as much as is appropriate.