A Question About Improvised Music

According to guitarist Derek Bailey, “Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practiced of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood. While it is today present in almost every area of music, there is an almost total absence of information about it.” (Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, New York: Da Capo Press, 1993, ix). I’m not sure if I agree that the technique “enjoys” the distinction Bailey describes as much as “suffers” it, and I also don’t agree that information about it is nearly non-existent. But I do agree that improvisation is among the least understood of the facets of music.

One doesn’t just wake up one day improvising great music; one commits a sizable part of one’s future to bettering the ability to improvise. A large part of the commitment is to mastering one’s instrument to the point where one can play nearly anything that he or she hears (I think of Jim Pepper, going off into the woods and playing the sounds of birds and moose on his tenor saxophone).

Another part is the getting together with like-minded musicians to practice improvising as a group. This activity consistently serves as a crucible for creating new directions in American music while simultaneously strengthening the musical traditions they’re rooted in. For many, it takes thousands of hours of preparation to get the point where they’re improvising music satisfactorily.

When considering music as ritual, improvised music borders on cultism. The amount of time and energy spent on researching, analyzing, and mastering a genre of improvised music is comparable to taking holy orders. But, Lincoln Center Jazz not withstanding, most of the temples erected to American music are for non-improvised music, where a performance might only get a few hours of rehearsal.

My contention is that the most vital music is improvised music and that the best of improvised music is presented in relatively small venues and that the larger venues will present only that music that needs the least amount of preparation and commitment by the performer. I wonder, though, if the paradigm is problematic or pragmatic. If it’s the former, is there a remedy?

7 thoughts on “A Question About Improvised Music

  1. mclaren

    “Since the 1950s, a form of conceptual masking, where substitute discourses of `happening,’ `action,’ `intuition,’ and recently, `interactivity,’ has often obscured the presence of improvisation in the arts. The need to exnominate improvisation here is due largely to the problematic status of improvisation in high-culture, pan-European art practice, as well as in Western culture more generally. This exnomination is particularly endemic to the older and more traditional media of music, dance, and theater, where in pedagogies, criticism, and support structures, works that incorporate improvisation are consistently disparaged—often, as Theodor Adorno had it, for simply feigning spontaneity rather than truly delivering it—since to admit the obvious was to challenge the primacy of new European music as the engine of change. In this case, the inability to learn from (or rather, to be seen learning from) designated subalterns, a retention from the colonial moment, becomes a fatal flaw for historians and theorists. In this way, I want to argue, music history (and the philosophy of music) risks becoming complicit in systems of domination.” — “Improvising Tomorrow’s Bodies: The Politics of Transduction,” George E. Lewis.

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  2. Ratzo B. Harris

    Thanks for bringing Lewis’s 2007 Buenos Aires essay to my attention. I believe it is one of his best and most heartfelt as well as one of his most courageous, but not because of anything in this particular excerpt.

    Improvisation was ex-nominated from discourse on jazz since the 20s. “Blow,” “hot,” and “jazz” itself were doubleness terms used to obscure improvisation as a technique (although some jazz academics argue, with no lack of credible evidence, that improvisation wasn’t used very much in jazz until the late 30s and 40s). It wasn’t until the late 40s that the idea of improvisation was included as necessary to the creation of quality jazz, although the jazz greats were, and are, expert improvisers.

    I whole-heartedly disagree, though, that music history and it’s underlying philosophy “risk becoming complicit in systems of domination.” I would argue that they, as well as music theory and pedagogy have been exactly that ever since the little birdie whispered in Pope Gregory’s ear.

    Can I assume that you’re looking at the paradigm as problematic?

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  3. Ratzo B. Harris

    Improvisation vs. Composition?
    Phil, your “Phil’s Improvisation Page” link goes to your “Phil’s Composition Page.” Are you suggesting that improvisation and composition are synonymous?

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  4. Ratzo B. Harris

    And the AACM remains a durable model and inspiration for artist-based co-operatives that could possibly become the way the business of music is conducted in the 21st Century. This links well with the citation of George Lewis, the author of A Power Stronger Than Itself: The AACM and American Experimental Music.

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  5. philmusic

    Are you suggesting that improvisation and composition are synonymous?

    Ratso, if I may call you that, I rename my page link for every post depending on the topic at hand. Sometimes as commentary or to make a point. Sometimes even as a joke.

    Actually I do think that they are different skills as for me composition involves refection and improvisation is instantaneous.

    For my specific comments on that look at my lesson page or here: Phil’s other page

    Phil Fried

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