Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950

Doubtless the concepts above involved a lot of changes and problems for performers interested in contemporary music. Performers had to deal with new philosophies, performance techniques, equivocal notations, the preparation of their own scores and manifold ways of improvisation. The changes occurred after a period of glorifying performances that were objective and faithful to the original (Stravinsky and Schönberg) and rejecting interpretations brimming with individual embellishments, variation, or improvisation in the manner of Liszt or Busoni. Playing from memory, suggesting the impression of immediate creation, seemed to provide the substitute for improvisation or improvisatory interpretation. The existence of notation in Western music stimulated constant musical innovation and progress, producing a variety of styles and complex scores that inhibited performers more and more from improvising. Devoid of notation, Non-Western music rather emphasizes the preservation of its timeless musical material and performance rules. However, the suspension of the performer in electronic music and in Conlon Nancarrow‘s works for player piano could be viewed as the culminating point of a tendency in Western music to control and determine more and more performance aspects. Yet, in so-called free improvisation the performer seems to be suspended as well. The phenomenon of improvisation in new music thwarts the dichotomy composition-performance or composition-interpretation. Often it is difficult to distinguish between the composed, performed and improvised portions of a piece. When requiring improvisation on the basis of vague instructions, composers emphasized the aspect of providing the performer with a more human and creative role. Yet, they often overlooked the fact that performers became equally respectable creators or inventors, that is co-owners, of the music in question and did not get their share of credit and royalties. There were fewer problems in the case of a personal union of composer and performer (Young, Well-Tuned Piano) or a close collaboration between composer and performer where pieces were written for the performer’s unique abilities (Jazz). But many performers were overwhelmed by the new amount and confusingly wide range of liberty. Some who did not want to risk dilettante spontaneous activities “illegally” worked out their own traditionally notated version (as it was done in Germany quite often, by the Kontarsky brothers, and the conductor Clytus Gottwald). Others used the demand to improvise to fool around. It is known that improvisers, unlike performers of traditional scores, need to have a reservoir of motor patterns, structures, scales, etc. at their disposal. If they do not want to depend on a kind of automatic writing, they also need experience in making musical decisions, following rules, judging the sounds, and selecting the next activity while playing. This implies long-term practicing and experience.

Much hope was put into “free” improvisation. But what is free improvisation compared to the variety of controlled improvisation? It was the goal of groups like the New Music Ensemble (Austin, Eaton, W. O. Smith, Vandor), AMM (Prevost, Rowe, Gare, Cardew), and New Phonic Art (Globokar, Alsina, Drouet, Portal) to create a kind of “pure” improvisation, music free of notation, arrangements, form, style, idioms, and tradition through constant development, changes, and questioning of the sound product. Yet, it was certainly more a wishful thinking than reality. Every free and “non-idiomatic” improvisation is based on somewhat familiar material since the improviser cannot ignore his musical background, his musical baggage. And whatever seems completely new, at first glance, can eventually be at risk of being consolidated as a musical idiom. Many groups focusing on free improvisation were short-lived. Larry Austin explained why his New Music Ensemble gave up: “There was a crisis point in our development, which we reached about three years after we formed: we had learned the piece called ‘free improvisation’. The original reason for the group was disappearing.”(15) Lukas Foss dissolved his Improvisation Chamber Ensemble in the early sixties when he realized: “Improvisation: one plays what one already knows… Acrobats practice until it is safe. Improvisation that works is made safe.”(16) (Among the long-lived groups are AMM, Art Ensemble of Chicago.)

Last but not least, one wonders about the role of the listeners. While most composers and improvisers did not try to conform to the listener’s taste, they show various attitudes toward them. The listener was partly viewed as a kind of a voyeur peeping into intimate music making, partly as a tolerated tourist (as Vinko Globokar put it). At some improvisation concerts, due to their workshop character, the listener was not charged an admission fee. Cage, for instance, wanted the listener to focus on the sounds themselves without trying to get emotional and intellectual results out of them. Boulez aspired to communicate a message that the listener should perceive critically. He disapproved of aural states of euphoria, while Young declared that the listener “should be moved to a strong spiritual feeling and be carried away to heaven,” and used incense and lighting to support these effects. MEV wanted to free the audience, to democratize the institution of the concert, and organized musical events in streets, factories and prisons involving audience participation. Considering audience participation through meditation and telepathy, Oliveros aimed at educating the listener to more intense perception, greater receptivity and openness. However, in the case of audience participation, listeners might only be able to listen with half an ear, since they have to use energy for various other activities. In most cases listeners have to use individual listening strategies, since they cannot fall back upon familiar structures, models and forms. They have to depend on principles of “spontaneous listening” (Adorno’s expression) focusing, for instance, on repetition, similarity and contrast of sound textures in order to structure the piece aurally. With all of the above principles in mind and by memorizing previous sounds and anticipating subsequent sounds, listeners might enlarge their perception to arrive at a “multi-dimensional listening” (Adorno) experience.

From Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950
By Sabine Feisst
© 2002 NewMusicBox

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