Why Improvise, Part 2

Why Improvise, Part 2

I posted a question, “Why improvise?” last week that generated an interesting single-sourced set of responses. The gist of these responses was that improvisation offers a way to:

(1) broaden one’s palette through sonic exploration—a making of music that results in something that sounds antithetical to our usual output;

(2) break away from the hyper-sequenced computer realizations that come out of studio production;

(3) a way to produce a personal take on someone else’s work; and

(4) as a kind of real-time composition.
I want to attempt to take a dialectic approach in further exploring that question in the hopes for more input and participation. But first I want to modify the original question to make sure we’re discussing improvisation in performance.

While improvisation is an act of exploration (an act of finding, actually), I’ve found that when I’m performing to an audience, whether live or for a recording, what I improvise is heard before I play it. I very seldom play something I haven’t played before or will never play again. Of course, this isn’t the case from a global perspective—the entire improvised performance is unique, but the elements played aren’t unknown. They’ve been practiced, studied and categorized long before the instrument is out of its case. What I choose to play might take a different direction after it begins in order to better serve the moment, but I always know what I’m going to play next.

I, also, tend to use improvisation as a chance to reject the hyper-technological trend in popular music. I would take it further, though, and include the rejection of strict equal temperament that makes string harmonics sound out of tune and, most especially, the motoric approach to rhythm that Western art music is built on. So, I don’t reject the implements of technology (I love to use looping machines and signal processing) as much as I react against the “think inside the box” mindset of Western musical thought in general.

The idea that there is nothing new is self-referential; that is, it’s nothing new. Even derivative performances are unique, although they might be boring. In this sense, everything is original leaving the improviser the burden of making something personal out of something familiar. But more important is the idea that by exploring the “different facets” of playing, for instance, Latin-jazz standards, a kind of hermeneutic window can be established for an entire culture.

Finally, I was reminded of a concert I attended several years ago where a piece for solo piano composed by a friend of mine was being premiered. The piece was one of the last pieces in the pianist’s program and, for reasons that can only be left to conjecture, the soloist presented a very interesting and passionate performance of a work that bore, quite literally, no resemblance to what my friend had composed. Was this an act of improvisation, spontaneous composition, or interpretative burnout? Whatever it would be called, as an act of improvisation, it was a failure; even though, as a piece of music, it had merit. Improvisation is a method of performing and musical performance results in something heard. Composition, by contrast, is creating a set of directions to be followed in performance. A composition can include directions to improvise, like the music of Cynthia Hilt’s Lyric Fury (which performs its last Miles Café concert this Sunday at 4pm), but not vice-versa. Improvisation (like what will happen this Sunday at Local 269 at 9pm with Herb Robertson, Adam Niewood, Chris Lough and Jay Rosen) is over when the music stops being played. In the words of Eric Dolphy, “It’s over, it’s gone in the air. You can never capture it again.”

So, I ask again, “Why improvise in musical performance?” I look forward to your comments and thank you in advance for them.

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One thought on “Why Improvise, Part 2

  1. Eric

    All live musical performance requires decisions made in the moment, even in performance of the most detailed scores. If there is a fixed text, then the performance is verifiable for accuracy of its notated elements, as in the case of your friend’s solo piano piece. But I wonder if anyone in the audience other than the composer realized that the performance largely deviated from the score. Perhaps that performance was not perceived as a failure by some members of the audience. It would be interesting to know how the performer of the piece felt afterwards.

    At the other extreme, as you pointed out, when performing without a fixed text, the performers bring their own texts (experience, habits, abilities, desires) to the performance. And in my experience, the best performances of scored music are every bit as exploratory as the creation of entire musical structures in the moment.
    So all performances involve improvisation, pre-existing texts, and hold out the possibility for new discoveries to be made by both performers and listeners.

    Personally, almost all of the improvisation I do is non-performative, predominantly mental, in the creation of music to be performed by others. But when I do improvise in performance, it is to conjure up energies in collaboration with other performers and the audience that are driven by the unpredictable – I force us to not know what is coming next.


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