- The Importance of ImprovisationImprovisation is amongst any artist’s most valuable skills, and in music describes the process of spontaneous composition within or without the pre-existing harmonic and rhythmic framework of a piece. A direct representation of a performer’s emotive and artistic sentiment in a given moment, it would be easy to argue the case for improvisation as Music’s purest form of artistic expression. To the extent that we as human beings are unpredictable, fundamental principles of improvisation underpin our day to day existence, and it is therefore we must acknowledge that inherently, the earliest Music in any culture had its basis in improvisation. Whilst improvisation as a performance attribute is virtually omnipresent in indigenous musics of cultures the world over, it has become all too often overlooked in western Classical Music performance and formal tuition. Despite this, interestingly the skill has also been at the root of the development of western classical music through history.
Without professing myself as wholly capable in the field, as a Jazz musician I have experience in working artistically with improvisation, whether melodic lead soloing, or accompaniment, and cannot stress enough the challenges faced by performers wishing to achieve an undistorted, spontaneous musical interpretation of their ideas. I hold my earliest contact with the concept of improvisation in real-time (whilst working in a community Jazz orchestra) amongst my most treasured memories. As a 15 year old classically trained wannabe, the reality is that I was scarcely equipped to comprehend the demands on inventiveness, fluent technical instrumental skill and theoretical proficiency required to improvise with the intensity of my band mates. Despite this, my early experiences with Jazz changed my life. For what it’s worth, in my own opinion nothing compares to the excitement and anticipation of hearing a friend, fellow performer, or even one’s self embark on an off-the-cuff musical exposition. It is artistic energy transferred in its purest form. But my personal experiences alone provide scarce evidence to justify the argument for improvisation, so why do performers improvise?
- Bill Evans is a true giant of Jazz Piano. His timeless compositions and recordings at times scarcely do justice to the man’s artistic gift as an improviser. In “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans”, a 1966 documentary, Evans discusses his views on Jazz and in particular, improvisation. Whilst discussing his experiences as a performing Pianist, Evans describes a professional level of creativity he is able to depend on, sufficient for public performance. The subtle implications of the statement itself, would indicate that musically, Evans was a prolific and habitual improviser outside of the public limelight. Furthermore, does he insinuate that the personal practice of exploring expression in spontaneous musical composition is fraught with personal insight and discovery? Maybe it’s time to call upon my experience again, questionable though it may be. Many Musicians see improvisation as key in developing a sense of personal artistic creativity, as well as the most genuine method of theoretical and interpretive musical development. Is this aspect of musical tuition missing in institutional music education?
- Ironically, improvisation is at the root of the development of western classical music. From organum accompaniments of choral plainchants of the middle ages, through to the complex, imaginative compositions of the Romantic period, improvisation comprised at least a considerable component in any classical music performance or recital. The organ works of the Baroque period seem to represent the pinnacle of improvisation in classical music, composition at the time revolved around providing a framework for improvised melody. Whilst known nowadays as great composers, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, were similarly prolific improvisers, with Wolfgang and Ludwig even competing in improvisatory competitions, on one such occasion, against each other (Mozart lauded praise upon a young Beethoven). In their respective hey-days, the two were regarded primarily as improvisers, secondly as composers, and thirdly as outright performers. Would this prioritisation of musical elements benefit the musicianship of classically trained musicians?
Improvisation flourished in a variety of genres of music through the 20th century, making its conspicuous absence from classical music is all the more disconcerting. The demise of Improvisation in classical music performance seems to correspond with the development of recording technology, hence could it be that concert-goers’ demands have dictated musicians’ performance methods? Consumer demand has driven sales in the music business, and could it be the increasing pressures of the business that prompts classical performers to recite interpretations of pieces familiar to their audience? In a similar vein, has the lack of spontaneous musical creation acted to stifle creative invention in music? Modern day classical performer repertoire consists largely of other composers’ works, limiting opportunities for a performer’s own composition. It seems a lot can be learnt in attitudes toward improvisation from jazz, global folk and popular musics. Here’s hoping to a reintroduction of Improvisation at the forefront of modern classical music, without it, the genre risks losing sight of its musical foundations.
Daniel McGurty 02/2012
(Cover photo <http://jazzinphoto.files.wordpress.com/2009/03/eric-dolphy-bologna-64.jpg>)