The Value of Improvisation?

What a pleasure to play in pianist/composer David Lopato’s concert at the University of the Streets performance space last Tuesday. The line-up included; Marty Ehrlich on clarinet, soprano and alto saxophones, and flute; James Shipp on vibraphone and hand percussion; Richie Barshay on drums and percussion; and Hal Friedman on piano (when David and I were playing synthesizers).

David’s deeply personal approach to music is steeped in his love for and scholarship on Javanese gamelan music (the synthesizers were used to trigger metallophone samples for sections of two pieces, “Jalan Jiwa” and “This Life,” that are based on the genre) and jazz. The concert’s program was a fine balance of lead-sheet type tune playing and larger-form score reading. The climax of the concert, “Suite 911,” is a descriptive three-movement work composed as part of his processing the events during and after the fall of the World Trade Center (Lopato and his family are long-time residents of New York City’s Tribeca neighborhood, where the incident occurred, and witnessed the events from a distance of under one mile). The lead-sheet style tunes included “Beboppin’ with Bella,” for his rambunctious dog, and the evening’s closer, “Samba de Yaya.” Although written as lead sheets, their forms are quite involved and include elaborate interludes, codas and double codas. The evening’s ballad, “Clarity,” was the only piece composed purely in a “theme-variation” style, where individual solo improvisations performed over a melody’s chord changes comprise the formal structure.

The music was deeply satisfying to play and, judging from the audience reaction, to listen to; but, although the group was rehearsed and, in the case of Ehrlich and myself, very familiar with Lopato’s playing and compositions, it was quite difficult to perform. Lopato’s understanding and use of irregular and complex rhythms is profound and he composes lines that take advantage of an instrument’s full range. This means that performing his music demands attention to the printed page, which is very different from the group I play with at the Queen Vic on Wednesdays. There, no printed parts have been used (yet), so we freely improvise to set up sonic environments that become a setting for whatever relatively well-known tune comes to mind.

This contrast between following written music and playing from memory reminded me of a book, Blues People, by LeRoi Jones (a.k.a. Amiri Baraka). In this profound and difficult examination of the development of African American culture, the author described a fundamental difference between the imported African labor chattel and its Colonial European-American consumers: literacy. Without placing a value on the term, Baraka concludes that the literate European cultures could leave out members of the illiterate African cultures (and, tacitly, members of the indigenous Native American cultures) from their dealings, making assimilation into the European American culture difficult. I think the difference also points to how illiterate cultures foster unity and cooperation, while literate ones foster an obedience/rebellion paradigm.

American improvised music draws heavily on the mindset of illiteracy. It is a faux illiteracy, though, as almost all American musicians can read music in some form or another. But when musicians improvise together for the greater part of their performances, they foster a sense of unity and cooperation and there is also a greater chance of their connecting deeply with their listener. Unfortunately, most listeners’ understanding of what American improvising musicians play is woefully superficial. The elements that make up a piece of music based on gamelan are about as alien to the average American music listener as those that make up a jazz concert; they don’t take the time to listen to music properly. Since they’re only given tunes lasting five to ten minutes at the most (even though they might be listening to a multiple hour-long concert), their ability to follow a longer musical work is never allowed to develop. This is not a new observation; I’ve been reading and hearing discussions about this topic for decades. But it is important, I believe, in understanding concepts of indigenousness in American music. Representative John Conyers authored HR 57, which claims jazz to be an indigenous American art form. But it is not; just as Latin American music is not. They might exploit certain elements of indigenous American music—irregular and/or non-metered rhythms, unfixed and flexible pitches played in pentatonic-ish manner, improvised call-and-response—but the idea that music is non-communal and isn’t involved in cultural ritual (other than the dance-hall mating rituals and the all-too-brief call to worship) pulls it and its audience out of a shared sense of place.

For that reason I was pleased to hear that Roseanna Vitro is part of a push to include music as part of the technique of teaching in public schools. Even when music is isolated as a stand-alone subject, its inclusion in public school curricula has a positive impact on the student’s abilities. Please go to the Facebook page her name is linked to and read what’s there. I’d like to know what you think.

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4 thoughts on “The Value of Improvisation?

  1. Joseph Holbrooke

    “Since they’re only given tunes lasting five to ten minutes at the most (even though they might be listening to a multiple hour-long concert), their ability to follow a longer musical work is never allowed to develop.”

    I agree but I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that this is a bad thing. There is no telling what the optimized duration of concentrated listening is right now. Who knows what it will be in 50 years.

    Reply
  2. Robert F. Leng

    The author brings up some good points regarding the differences between so-called literate and illiterate musical cultures, though I personally don’t prefer the term “illiterate” in describing the arts of indigenous cultures. The musical/artist traditions of many of these cultures, and their output, can be as complex or more complex than anything from the written European tradition.

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  3. Jon Silpayamanant

    “The musical/artist traditions of many of these cultures, and their output, can be as complex or more complex than anything from the written European tradition.”

    Indeed–and there are notation traditions in a number of empire cultures (Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire, China) that have as long a history of melding both improvisational and notated musics in ways that Western notation can’t really represent well.

    Thanks for the link to Roseanna’s facebook page, Ratzo!

    Reply

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