Cultures of improvisation (1)

Franz Liszt Improvising at the PianoImprovisation has been the norm in most cultures throughout most of human history. Nowadays, though, improvisation is largely associated with jazz, and its antithesis is Britney Spears at one end of the spectrum and a classical symphony at the other. Improvisation — that foundation of the musical impulse in man — has been drained out of classical music and much of contemporary popular music like the Taliban shutting down music stores. What happened?

It is not commonly known that improvisation played an important role in European music throughout much of its history. Polyphony arose as a result of singers improvising counterpoint over a cantus firmus. The earliest treatises, such as the Musica enchiriadis from the ninth century, make clear that added parts were improvised for centuries before the first notated examples.

During the Renaissance, discantus supra librum — improvised countermelody on a melody written in a book –- was regarded as an important discipline in a composer’s training. Improvisatory practice is documented in a number of published instruction manuals, mainly in Italy (e.g., Ganassi in 1535, Ortiz in 1553, and Dalla Casa in 1584).

Improvised melodic ornamentation, another feature of Renaissance music, was brought to a high art in the subsequent era, the Baroque. During this period, keyboard players were also expected to improvise chord progressions based on a musical shorthand called basso continuo, where symbols were written over a bass line as a musical guide much like key charts. Bach was hardly alone but was perhaps the greatest improviser during this period. When visiting Frederick the Great of Prussia in 1747, Bach improvised a series of pieces on a theme proposed by the king, which he later set down in writing as “A Musical Offering.”

Our perceptions of European music from this period — supposedly stylized and restrained — are way off mark. Greg Sandow, writing in “The Future of Classical Music?“, describes how audiences would hiss and applaud while the music was being performed. Singers were expected to take liberties with the music in operas and often tried to outdo one another or would even mock a rival in the midst of his or her solo. Handel engaged two Italian prima donnas to sing an aria at the same time. A London newspaper wrote,

The Contention at first was only carried on by Hissing on one Side, and Clapping on the other; but proceeded at length to Catcalls, and other great Indecencies… it is certainly an apparent Shame that two such well bred Ladies should call Bitch and Whore…

As the ornate, contrapuntal music of the Baroque was superceded by the simpler Classical style, improvisation continued to be an essential skill for any musician. In the concertos of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, the performer was expected to improvise the cadenza, an extended solo at the end of the first movement that showed off the performer’s skill. Beethoven won many intense improvisatory contests over rival pianists.

Well into the 19th century, the period in which we can start to discern a change, improvisation was common. A widespread practice involved an improvised prelude to a notated piano composition. Singers continued to embellish melodies. The painter Delacroix argued that the boldest inventions of his friend Chopin were the ones he made up on the spot, spontaneous displays of counterpoint and lyricism. Liszt famously improvised music at his concerts (see painting above, “Franz Liszt Improvising at the Piano,” by Josef Danhauser, 1840).

But as the role of composer became elevated to a godlike status, the exact notes a composer wrote consequently assumed greater significance. Like the Ten Commandments, they couldn’t be tampered with. By the dawn of the 20th century, improvisation no longer held a central, esteemed role in performance. Today it is rare to find a classically trained musician who can make up music on the spot, and for those who do have the ability, there is no performance outlet.

Something different happened with popular music. From the 1920s through the 1940s, jazz was one of the prominent forms of popular music and improvisation naturally played a central role. As jazz was replaced by the rise of rock ‘n roll in the 50s, improvisation was less important but lived on in the form of solos, and the simplified harmonic and song structure facilitated improvisation for musicians who might not be as broadly skilled as jazz masters. With the creative explosion and cultural experimentation of the 60s and 70s, musicians took even more liberties with improvisation. Extended drum solos, guitar solos and the like became a signature of rock. Fans appreciated Jimi Hendrix, Keith Emerson and Prince for their musicianship and improvisational skills.

Something happened as the 70s evolved into the 80s, though, that largely dampened improvisation as an integral aspect of popular music. Jazz had been marginalized. Pop songs increasingly omitted instrumental solos. There were several factors in this change. Punk, with its stripped down quality that emphasized raw energy over musical ability, and dance music — first with the stylized regimentation of disco, then later with the overemphasis on drum and bass in repetitive house music — began pushing aside the culture of improvisation by the late 1970s. With the rise of music videos in the 80s, which brought an emphasis on visual style over substance, and with increasingly short attention spans, it was not surprising that improvisation faded to the margins. The one place it continued to play a vital role was in rap, but that was less about music than about words and poetry. Recorded music has become so ubiquitous that lip synching is an accepted norm in live performances. Many of us expect live music to sound “just like the CD,” and there are few opportunities for spontaneity.

Improvisation has always had an uneasy peace with popular music, which demands simplicity for mass appeal, but in the current cultural climate they seem hopelessly incompatible. It is still out there, of course, in great artists of whatever genre: Prince, Tori Amos, Herbie Hancock, Carlos Santana… But improvisation is the wellspring of music, and I yearn for a time when it will again play an important role in the life of our culture.

1 Comment

  1. Hi
    imteresting to get this on my google allerts!
    very busy so my reply is rather short.
    I have been developing classically based improvisation suitable for concerts. My first rcorded concert was in 1997. I also have developed this experimental approach, piano and classical guitar as my solo instruments. Lots of other implications too.

    Cheers for now
    Geoff c Hitchcock

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