View from the West: Improvise? What Do You Mean I Have to Improvise?



Dean Suzuki
Photo by Ryan Suzuki

What happened to the practice of improvisation? It had been, to varying degrees, an integral part of the Western classical tradition for centuries, but sometime in the 19th century it fell by the wayside. Picking up the pieces has been difficult and problematic at best, or not even on the radar screen at worst. It has been a conundrum for both composers and performers who get little or no training in the art of improvisation.

It has not always been so. The practice of ornamentation was at least quasi-improvisational in early music through the Baroque period. There were practices of ornamentation, but the application of the practice was by way of personal choice, albeit according to tradition, yet the music could not help but manifest the personal imprint of the performer.

The basso continuo tradition was, at least in some ways, analogous to contemporary jazz charts. The skeleton of a set of chord changes, a melody and a bass line served as a kind of armature or framework for the fleshing out of the music through varying degrees of improvisation. This is a practice that is now virtually lost, though resurrecting it goes on today. Still, such a tradition is clearly not part of the contemporary training and mindset for practicing musicians and less so in the universities where future musicians are getting their education.

We have all heard about the competitions between keyboard virtuosi in the baroque era, demonstrating their chops and improvisational prowess at the organ or harpsichord in a game of one-upmanship. Composer/organists Buxtehude and Frescobaldi were famous for their remarkable improvisational artistry, attracting listeners from far away. Bach or Mozart, given a theme, would improvise fugues extemporaneously (can you imagine?). Indeed, in the 16th century it was often required that a keyboardist demonstrate his ability to improvise in a fugal style in order to secure a position as an organist. There are written accounts of the magnificent improvisations of Bach, Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Later, Liszt, Franck, and Bruckner were famous for their improvisations–a regular part of their concert programs.

Cadenzas were not written out in manuscript form for piano concertos by Mozart and Beethoven (except for the final, “Emperor” Concerto) and were instead improvised. There is probably not a pianist on the planet that would dare to improvise a cadenza on the spot while performing with one of the world’s great orchestras. The stakes are too high and the practice has been lost. What wouldn’t we give to hear Mozart or Beethoven creating a cadenza on the fly?

So what of improvisation in contemporary music? With the exception of organists who maintain a tradition of and training in improvisation, it is not a course of study or a pursuit for most classically trained musicians. For the most part, we do not teach our students to improvise or even engage them in the concept of improvisation outside of jazz. And even then, typically the emphasis is squarely on traditional, conservative jazz, rather than the kind of free improvisation that practiced by artists such as Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, Fred Frith, or the Rova Saxophone.Quartet.

Of course, improvisation of various sorts has been demanded by numerous composers of the 20th century. Charles Ives and Henry Cowell allowed for certain freedoms in their work. The timing of the flute section in The Unanswered Question was such that their part was not to coincide with the beat structure of the strings accompanying them. While this is hardly improvisation, Ives was a pioneer in loosening up the controls in music and handing over a degree of the decision making process to the performers. Similarly, Cowell’s works using his so-called “elastic form” allowed performers to stretch out and compress a work by repeating or deleting certain measures.

Cage and his followers, especially Earle Brown and Morton Feldman, forced performers to improvise in their graphic scores. Often they turned to David Tudor to realize their works for piano, but even then, the improvisational intent was squelched, at least to a degree. Tudor made a practice of mapping out exactly what he would do in performance, in essence creating a fixed score based on his rendering of graphic scores and the like.

Fred Frith, one of our most celebrated and accomplished improvisers, teaches composition at Mills College in Oakland, California, and his compositions have improvisational components. He has collaborated and worked intensively with Ensemble Modern which has commissioned work from him. While the musicians of the group have limited, and in some cases non-existent, backgrounds in improvisation, they have been quite open to Frith’s coaching and the results have been splendid.

Likewise, Terry Riley‘s long-standing collaboration with the Kronos Quartet has forced the members to engage in improvisation which has opened up new vistas for them. After the success of In C and A Rainbow in Curved Air, Riley stopped setting pen to manuscript paper and focused for years on largely improvised performances. It was Kronos who helped bring Riley full circle and back to his composition desk. Perhaps the flip side of the Kronos coin is Riley’s Chanting the Light of Foresight—Imbas Forasnai for the Rova Saxophone Quartet, a group that often practices the art of utterly free improvisation, reigned in somewhat by the score. Riley is one of few classical virtuosos who fully understands and practices the art of improvisation which is fully integrated into a host of his compositions. In a way, Riley is the classical world’s Cecil Taylor, but where are our Ornette Colemans, Albert Aylers or Derek Baileys?

This is not to say that there are no such improvisers. There are, of course, many, including Ned Rothenberg, Katrina Krimsky, Robert Dick, Jon Gibson, and Victoria Jordanova among a host of others who divide their time between composition, improvisation and traditional performance. Of new music ensembles, only a few, such as the Paul Dresher Ensemble and the Bang On A Can All-Stars have members who are accomplished, even lifelong improvisers in addition to having classical training and chops. Of course, John Zorn, who splits the difference between classical, jazz, rock, cartoon and film score music, and industrial noise, has made improvisation in the widest possible spectrum of styles a cornerstone of his work.

Still, proportionately, the numbers are very small. The training grounds seem to be the clubs and alternative venues rather than the academy. And while the academy could easily calcify improvisation into a set of formulas, gimmicks, and riffs, good practitioners/teachers should be smart enough to preclude such an outcome.

It is not entirely clear what it is that we seem to fear, even loath, in improvisation in the “classical” realm. We fully acknowledge the importance of jazz (well, some just pay lip service) that is nothing if not an improvisational art form. We admire the beauty and strength of jazz’s greatest artists, acknowledged and acclaimed improvisers all. Outside of music, we esteem and praise the improvisational techniques used by the Abstract Expressionist action painters and the human truths they portray. Yet one gets the feeling that improvisation in the contemporary classical arena is somehow viewed as less than artful. The naysayers ask: “If a composer did not write it, how can it be regarded as good music? Performers should perform and composers should compose.” Ultimately, this is a schizophrenic and intellectually dishonest attitude. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, n’est pas?

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