Thursday, November 27, 2008

"The most impressive part of the music we play is the art of improvisation"

[Note: this blog is moving to; I'll cross post for a while; meanwhile please adjust bookmarks and links.]

Those of us trained in the traditional, improvisation-phobic classical musical culture often don't realize that improvisation played a key role in the way people made music, even much of what we now think of as classical music, through the nineteenth century. While most (but not all) of my own improvising is in non-performance situations, in which I'm improvising for a cathartic emotional release, or as a creative way of practicing and exploring, improvisation exists (and existed) as part of the performance art of many genres of classical music, particularly music before the early nineteenth-century development of the the concept of the fully-notated, independent, "great work," which gave birth to the concepts of Werktreue (being true to the work) and Texttreue (being true to the text."

"The most impressive part of the music we play is the art of improvisation," early-music guru Jordi Savall is quoted in this article. "He says improvisation is always risky, because of its very nature. "It needs to be organised to prevent chaos," he says. "It doesn't mean you do what you like. You have to follow the structure and work out which instruments will be involved before you go on stage."

That might be better put as, "it doesn't mean you do only what you like," in the sense of not being aware of a particular musical language, the language of a particular musical idiom, or not being aware of a particular structure (such as improvising variations over a simple ground bass--that's a bass line, not a ground-up string bass).

In the more stylistically free and eclectic improvisations I've performed and that I coach my DePauw students in, there are usually decisions made in advance for performed pieces: instrumentation, basic structure, use of ostinatos (repeated figures) or drones, etc. Sometimes, though, it works to just go out with two or three people and improvise "freely."

In a free (i.e., unplanned) ensemble improvisation, at least in the way I encourage, someone initiates an idea; that idea is met with a response. There's dialogue and interaction. It's not just simultaneous playing or singing in which the music makers act independently of each other. It's a conversation, a battle, an embrace, a game of ping pong. It's listening and being aware of each other and one's own ideas, "saying yes" to it all.

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