What sense can I make of improvisation?

Time for another instalment on improvisation – I’m going to try to absorb different accounts of what improvisation is and who does it… and there are questions that I don’t necessarily have answers for.

To begin with, two complaints against improvisation:

First from C.P.E. Bach, commenting sarcastically, in the preface to his Sonatas with Varied Repeats (1760). He goes on:

“It is indispensable, nowadays to alter repeats. One expects it of everybody.  A friend of mine goes to endless trouble to play a piece as it is written, flawlessly and in accordance with the rules of good performance; how can one not applaud him? Another, often pressed by necessity, makes up by his audacity in alteration for the lack of expression he shows in the performance of the written notes; the public nevertheless extols him above the former.”

He’s complaining about the prevalence of improvising, particularly the convention that on the second time through a melody, the performer would add variations;in fact some of them would start before they had finished the first time through – think of how a jazz player states the theme of a ballad for instance. Consequently Bach began composing the varied repeats himself, and also provided variations or embellishments (Auszierungen) for existing works. This makes us aware of the degree to which improvisation was the modus operandi of his day, and his complaint is the beginnings of a move away from it.

Now Scott Joplin, in a preface to a collection of his piano ragtime compositions:

“We wish to say here that the “Joplin ragtime” is destroyed by careless or imperfect rendering, and very often good players lose the effect entirely, by playing too fast. They are harmonised with the supposition that each note will be played as it is written, as it takes this, and also the proper time divisions to complete the sense intended.”

Joplin also wants literal and accurate renditions of the written page. Ragtime is an important tributary stream of jazz, but it is not an improvising form. Even through to stride piano, the written melody takes precedence over any long solos. Comparing a James P Johnson piano roll such as Carolina Shout (performed by him), with his own recording, and with the published score show a high level of similarity- there really isn’t much improvisation in the way that we have come to think of it in jazz.

Now a word in favour of improvisation from Duke Ellington:

“…the music is mostly written down because it saves time…..I write it and the band and I elaborate on the arrangement…When we’re all working together, a guy may have an idea on his horn..another guy may add to it and make something of it..”

This is undoubtedly a scenario that people in a rock band, for example, would recognise.

Returning to the 18th century, in the last few years there has been a lot of interest in the Italian tradition, brought to my attention by a recent Radio three programme (Nick Baragwaneth: Educating Isaac, BBC Radio Three)

Academic Bob Gjerdingen (Northwest University) has been studying the conservatoires of 18th century Naples, and to sum up the history that he puts forward: in the 18th century, now regarded as a golden age for European music, (Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven et al), Italian musicians actually dominated, and the Neapolitan orphanage-conservatories taught music as a craft skill, with a heavy emphasis on the improvisatory technique of partimenti. This is similar to figured bass1, and can be summarised as the ability to improvise over learnt bass lines, i.e. create chord progressions, in a way that we today would recognise as being similar to twentieth century mainstream jazz.  So possibly some pre-conceptions concerning improvisation need to be addressed.  We should probably be careful about that word; Stockhausen was.  In a 1971 lecture on improvisation he distinguishes between improvisation and his term intuitive music.  Stockhausen seems careful here to avoid stepping on any toes- he recognises that improvisation has been around a long time in other idioms, (he cites jazz and Indian music), and that varying levels of structure and ‘rules’ usually apply.

Taking my lead from Stockhausen, I think I need to attempt to unpack the word improvisation, because it really means different things to different people. In my last post (have a read here) I tried to open the lid on mainstream jazz improvisation with regards to soloing- standing out front and taking the spot light. I tried to show how much of that was the result of pre-planning and intense training (a common analogy made by jazz musicians is comparison with a boxer training for a fight).  A lot of this could also be applied to rock/funk soloists – there is a whole industry of books websites and CD’s to help people learn to solo like Hendrix or Eddie Van Halen (check out Zack’s recent post here).

Finding your part:

Improvisation isn’t just about soloing – there are improvisational techniques, used in everyday music. What I mean by improvisational techniques is best explained by examples. Zack talked in a previous post about Clarence Clemens’s solo on Born to run “as an example of a very famous rock solo which gives the impression of ‘freedom’, ‘expression’ and ‘spontaneity’ etc. but is actually, in terms of process at least, a highly mediated artefact that is improvisational in its origins.” This example went beyond the favourite hot licks and well rehearsed patterns I was describing – here the solo was re-worked shaped and eventually finished as a largely composed entity- many recording session solos are done this way.

Beyond just solos, there are more fundamental/structural ways in which improvisational techniques apply in accompaniment and rhythm section playing. From a keyboard player or guitarist in a band, to a jazz rhythm section, chords or basic harmonic structure is given, but knowing how to realise that requires understanding of the idiomatic requirements of the genre and choosing how to then execute ‘your part’. One of the most common requirements in a rehearsal of newly written music is to ‘come up with a part’. Andy Summers ‘came up with a part on’ on Sting’s basic chords for Every breath you take (albeit partly inspired by Bartok violin duets he had been playing with Robert Fripp), improvised it in one take and turned into something that became as recognisable as the composition itself – (he should have received writing credit). Often, parts that were first felt out in a rehearsal or recording session become integral to the song, to be repeated in every performance. This process does not produce something as finalised as a symphony – a baseline may be fixed, while a guitar part may be changed from show to show. Drummers may still play a variety of different fills, while still holding down the ‘correct’ beat etc.

Similarly in ‘straight ahead’ jazz, the rhythm section take on enormous levels of control over how a given composition is going to sound from moment to moment, making constant reactive and collective decisions within a fixed harmonic structure. As an analogy for this improvisational technique approach, I think of crossing a road- do you look for a gap in the traffic, wait a bit longer, run now or walk to the traffic lights? All happening in real time. I’ll stick my neck out and suggest that this seems to me the way that most music is made throughout all cultures…?

The cadenza – how to get some for yourself:

I would like to have a look at the loss of improvisation that occurred in the classical world. Consider the cadenza. If I am playing through my copy of the Mozart Flute Concerto in G (KV 313), as I reach bar 215 there is the word solo and a fermata (pause sign). The orchestral score shows a G major chord in second inversion (D in the bass – called 6/4 chord in figured bass terminology). In 1778 this would have been my chance; the cadenza – I could, figuratively speaking, put my foot up on the monitor and let rip2. I had to get from that 6/4 chord back to the root position chord, and I could go through a lot of harmonic places to get there, and take the opportunity to tear through some virtuosic and technical flourishes on the way. But not for some time has that been the case. Now I can choose one of several composed cadenzas- there is on from 1880’s by Paul Taffanel and another from Rudolf Tillmetz, and several more of varying quality.

Cadenzas have been in the classical news more recently. Violinist Nigel Kennedy has improvised some of his own even on recordings- in 2008 on the Beethoven violin concerto and the Mozart concerto no 4. (Nigel Kennedy/Polish Chamber Orchestra [EMI 3953732]). It received a lot of negative criticism! There is a good article on this cadenza conundrum here (incidentally, cadenzas are just one example – all that partimenti went out the window too!).

And also in the New Yorker magazine here:

I suspect that the general music loving public are often mislead in their appreciation of what skills today’s classical player may possess. This leads to confusions and embarrassments in situations of everyday music, as I’ve witnessed: it was Auntie Ethel’s birthday (all names changed), and someone is a pianist at the conservatoire- “Oh great, you can play Happy Birthday.” Well maybe no, not without a score, and certainly not if everyone starts singing and first and the musician is expected to catch which key they are in and join in. On the other hand somebody else there, who plays keys in a cover band CAN and does play it. To quote another contributor to that radio 3 programme, Giorgio Sanguinetti (University of Rome), on the conservatoire educated pianist:

“…they cannot play a single note that is not written in the score….you know…. many pianists they cannot even go to a piano showroom and try a different piano without playing some other’s music…… play a scale, play a cadence, play…improvise .. something..but they cannot”

Well I’m glad I didn’t say it that strongly.

What happened?

Well of course, CPE Bach got what he wanted. The composer became king (far less often queen). By the romantic period the inspired genius’s score had to be faithfully delivered by dedicated musicians. Of course the composers still maintained their improvisational skills (Beethoven did it all the time), and the training for conductors and organists still requires facility with actual music making at a structural level. Church organists have to be able to realise figured bass, and improvise. Then there are répétiteurs, who have a skill set that blows my mind because it is so far beyond what I can do. These noble people, who work for Opera and theatre companies, can look at a chamber or orchestral score and (often with no prep) play a reduction of it. It’s not exactly improvising, but it is improvisatory decisions taken as to how to re create the merciless complexity of a full score, with ten fingers onto a piano, in real time, right now!  So the conservatoires still know how to teach these skills, but seem to have divided this labour up, and performance specialists may have fallen foul of a ‘need to know’ way of thinking- i.e. they don’t need to really now how the music is working, they have enough work on their hands just playing the stuff, so why bother?

Now I really don’t want to belittle classical instrumentalists- in fact it’s become an annoying cliché to do so. If like me you have sat through workshops where musicians sight read through fiendishly difficult contemporary pieces, you can only be amazed (it takes me days of work to even approach some of that kind of material). I have also been criticised in situations where I am the composer, for not putting enough ink on the paper: a couple of dynamics left to chance and the admonition of  “well I could do with more information as to how you want this to sound” (maybe I wasn’t sure yet….).

Perhaps to deal with the weight of the repertoire from 1700 to post-Darmstadt complexity you really do have to specialise to this degree. To return to the analogy of jazz musician as a boxer in training; a modern classical musician might be like a gymnast working on an impossibly difficult routine, hoping to be able to perform it in an inspired way- and boy are some of them strong! I have also worked with many orchestral players and soloists who are rounded musicians with working knowledge of different kinds of music and the ability to create on the spot.  For many years Keith Jarrett has ploughed his path at the highest levels of jazz, but he has also recorded Bach and Shostakovich preludes, and here in Edinburgh I know clarinettist Pete Furniss (classical background) and pianist Paul Harrison (jazz background) have showed a high degree of versatility across the jazz classical divide so we should be careful about knee jerk criticism and prejudice.

There are changes afoot – pianist and conductor Norman Beedie is teaching creative and contextual studies and keyboard, at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Part of his remit is to teach classical improvisation.  He recently told me:

“I find they do not know a 6/4 chord so the 6/4 to 5/3 (root position) cadence is not known. All cadences need to be taught or at least dusted off but to be used as part of a musical language takes so much time because they do not speak/play the language- they have only played what has been composed”.

Again this is not to be critical of the students- people who have been dedicating their lives to such high level of performance have sometimes simply not been instructed in these other aspects of music theory. Perhaps the classical musical education system is at fault here?

Let Freedom Ring:

Weirdly, this brings me back to Stockhausen’s intuitive music, and the heady days of the mid to late sixties. But what exactly was Stockhausen doing at this time? If you are not familiar with his output, here is an example from what is probably his most famous piece of intuitive music –  Aus Den Sieben Tagen (from the seven days):


play a vibration in the rhythm of the universe

play a vibration in the rhythm of dreaming

play a vibration in the rhythm of dreaming

and slowly transform it

into the rhythm of the universe

repeat this as often as you can

You can find the whole ‘score’ here.

It is easy to make jokes about it being 1968 and even Stockhausen attested to the fact that people thought he had “flipped out completely (I had, for some time, I must say, but in a very unusual way, not with drugs or anything).”  To perform this material he created what can best be described as a band or group but he maintained his traditional status as a composer and largely received the plaudits.  As such, as such this eventually helped drive some members away- because of course at this level of improvisation they felt (rightly to me) that they should receive greater credit.

I think it is interesting to have a quick look at what was happening in jazz at the same time. In his lecture, Stockhausen distinguishes between free jazz and his intuitive music, saying that free jazz still sounds like jazz, which is somewhat true. Free jazz ,of course, is a misnomer; saxophonist Ornette Coleman began to abandon chord changes, most emphatically with 1959’s Shape of jazz to come. For a non jazz specialist this record probably doesn’t sound very different from other post war jazz. True there is no piano, but the melodies are still blues based and played tightly by trumpet and saxophone, and the bass walks while drums largely swing- but there were no chord changes, so for jazz that was (and in many ways still is) a fundamental departure. And it wasn’t long before other the other elements of melody and rhythm were being stretched to breaking point and completely abandoned. But (big but) many jazz players still retained their personal control over what they were doing, and refused to give up their hard won repertoires of improvise ready material. To hear trumpeter Freddie Hubbard on two of the most radical sessions from the period – Coleman’s Free Jazz, and John Coltrane’s Ascension, is to hear a musician still holding onto the mechanics and techniques of his hard won conventional playing, and to me it works. In fact it wasn’t long before musicians such as the Art Ensemble of Chicago were saying that for them ‘free’ was freedom to play whatever kind of music they wanted to.

So consider another supremely iconoclastic figure and a big name check for many of today’s free improvisers – Albert Ayler: his most famous composition Ghosts, (1965) actually starts out sounding like a French marching tune. Then there’s cult figure Sun Ra (who had at one time accompanied Billie Holiday) who could move from tight, but somewhat off-kilter, big band charts (Saturn) to something comparable to Stockhausen, (Heliocentric).

And that brings me up to today’s free improv scene which seems to me to be everywhere (it is prevalent and well represented in many university music departments, including the University of Edinburgh). If you are like me, you may wonder at the disconnect from 18th century partimenti to –  “play a vibration in the rhythm of your molecules”, and Stockhausen was well aware of this – to quote again from his 1971 lecture:

“After several hundred years of being forced to play only what has been prescribed by others, musicians are particularly apt, once they start playing intuitively in a group, to play all the time.”

I know what he means. And this is where my own struggles begin with free improv – when I try to do it.  Just for a moment I am going to take the part of an angry jazz elitist and have a rant:

Three hundred years of playing exactly what’s written, forgetting all about improvisation; largely ignoring the rise of Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, or Ravi Shankar, and now you’re just going to wade back in and “have a go” with a bit of free improv? Hello… some people have been working on this for a while….  a bit of shedding might be nice (shedding is jazz-language for practising- as in go out to the woodshed where you won’t disturb anybody). Of course this is grossly unfair and I can equally criticise a lot of jazz for sometimes displaying a conservatism and formalism (see Haftor’s recent post here).

The problem is, when I play in this context, there is an overriding tendency to think, and to make sure I know what I am doing, such that I could repeat it fairly accurately at any point. I am just being honest here, and I can imagine that many free improvisers would tell me that I am simple not up to the job- clearly I am not opening up. Listening is always stressed as being fundamental BUT I’m not entirely sure how I feel about sitting for several minutes hearing someone breath air through their trumpet. Should I do the same thing? Should I blast in over the top? What would happen if I started to play Happy Birthday?  And I can’t deny that I get pretty bored sometimes. And I once played an official Cobra gig at the New York’s Knitting Factory, back in the late 90’s and I still don’t know what to make of it all. (Cobra is a detailed musical improvisation game composed by John Zorn). However looking at the scene today I do see a whole variety of stratagems falling under the free improvisation banner. From highly organised sessions with considerable pre composition as sometimes used by Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra (GIO) and the Instant Composers Pool (ICP) to complete “no discussion allowed”, “go for it now” improvisation.

I also can’t deny the value of improvisation in workshops for children/non-musicians and music therapy, for example.  I know of great successes in this field and have nothing but admiration for people who can do this kind of thing.  For example, see Zack Moir’s previous postI, however find myself incapable of leading such workshops -I always want people to use a scale or something….

So I proposed a little thought experiment for myself- I play the flute, so give me a violin, which I truly can’t play. If you asked me to play G major it would sound awful. The more so because my musical knowledge would mean that I know the bottom string is G so I would try to measure out the intervals from the open string, try also to draw the bow across it etc. It would sound awful. However tell me to do a free improvisation with the violin and I might give it a go… after all I can pizzicato strings and make rasping noises with the bow and listen to what I am doing and try to respond to it– I might even do that better that when on the flute.  What does this say about the music…?

As you can tell, I am still mulling a lot of these issues over so it would be great to hear what other people think.  Please feel free to comment below.

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My PhD was entirely devoted to the process of composing music. Before academia I spent eleven years (from 1990) as a full time musician based in New York, working as both as a session player, and as the musical director of The Groove Collective, a band that combined Jazz, Latin, and Funk forms. This led to six albums and performances around the world including Montreux and North Sea Jazz Festivals, the Roskilde Festival, Red Rocks Amphitheater Colorado, and Filmore West. I have also performed in orchestras, and as a solo flutist, including a broadcast on BBC Radio Three.

4 thoughts on “What sense can I make of improvisation?”

  1. Dr Worth

    It seems to me that perhaps lurking somewhere beneath the lines of this interesting and, it goes without saying, intelligent and well-informed and interesting blog, are questions such as ‘What do we use music for?’ and ‘What is the point of playing music at all’?

  2. It seems that part of “what do we use music for” is about: whose tastes do we have to satisfy as we make music? Are we making a recording and need to meet someone’s idea of what the intended audience will buy? Are we at a gig, and do we care about satisfying the audience in some way so we’ll be invited back / sell CDs / build followers of our YouTube channel? Are we not performing out, but jamming with friends, but still somehow need to meet our friends’ expectations of what kinds of sounds we’re gathered together to make? Are we alone, but have an attachment to the kinds of sounds we want to hear ourself make, and/or get inside of by playing them ourselves? Or are we alone, free of having to meet anyone’s expectations, free even of our own preconceptions of what we want to sound like, and able to simply explore?

    Of course, no-one’s going to know what things in that last category sound like except the lone musician, unless the sounds can escape and somehow make themselves sound respectable enough to be promoted to one of the more public categories.

  3. So I’ve been thinking more about improvisation, in all sorts of areas, and coming to see that it’s usually, in any area, music or not, embedded in a complex culture.

    For example, I dance Argentine Tango, which is an improvised dance, but has a complex and distinct set of understandings about what is and what isn’t within tango. It also has people pushing the boundaries in various ways, and people divided as to the value of the boundary-pushing stuff, and whether it should even be called tango. But even people pushing the boundaries are remaining within certain conventions about what couples dancing is.

    I’m listening to the Berklee Jazz Improv course that others mentioned in blog comments this fall, and Gary Burton draws the analogy between improvisation and language. So thinking of improvisatory contexts within language — well, much of what we do is improvisatory, in that we put words and sentences and conversations together in real-time without having rehearsed or composed them in advance. But we draw on an immense amount of experience and practice with language to be able to do this.

    So thinking of those examples, it makes sense that music improvisation within a given style or musical culture draws on experience and practice with music in that style or culture, and is not randomly freeform. I’m thinking of your previous, autoethnographical, post about your recording of a particular solo improvisation: everything you describe there in terms of what you know from years of listening and practicing and playing, and then how you bring strands together to respond to the contours of the setting for the improvisation, to me parallels the ideas about improvisation that thinking about other areas of improvisation led me to.

    So now that I’ve written the comment that really goes with your previous column, I’ll think about free improvisation, whatever that means, and probably crystallize some thoughts there just in time for your next column :-).

    Do you think it’s bad that you, as you put it, think so much in free improv sessions?

    I’ve been thinking on and off for quite a number of years about people’s expectations for situations, and how different people react when a situation veers from those expectations. What you write about yourself and free improvisation makes me think about that.

    I’m quite fascinated to find Stockhausen here in your blog entry and will seek out his 1971 talk.
    I wonder how much of Stockhausen’s Seven Days can be performed on a single instrument. I think I’ll seek it out and try. The few starting instructions you quoted here fascinate me as things to try, plus I’m curious about in what different ways I would create it on voice vs. flute vs. piano — I find that my improvising on each of those three is quite different from each other, driven largely by areas I’m good or bad at in each.

    For my own improvisations, circling back to the language metaphor, I think I must be at a pre-kindergarten scribbling and babbling stage. I don’t know enough to draw from the prescribed scales over chords, and I can’t consciously hear the repeated chord progressions in a jazz number, and I’m in a rebellious phase where any principle I hear about “do X so the music will sound good” makes me think “ha, let me try not-X and listen for myself”, so I spend time just playing with how things sound to me instead of trying to make things fit into some pre-existing culture of sounds. (And in fact they’re not completely culture-free, because I’m shaped by all my own musical experiences.)

    Of course I can only do this kind of musical scribbling because I’m just alone by myself and can sound however I want. If I were going to be performing out, or playing with a group, the pressures on me would be completely different for the kinds of things — even improvisatory things — that I ought to produce.

    1. Hi Sharon and John
      sorry to not be around- was avoiding the internet over Christmas
      yes the big question is what do we do music for?
      And in the end the only answer I have is because it helps people
      perhaps research like this from the head of Edinburgh’s music department helps to assuage my reservations about free improv

      the Stockhausen was sourced from a great book “Stockhausen on music”

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