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Improvisation & Composition
Last post Sat, Jun 06 2020 by mekosmowski, 7 replies.
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Posted on Sun, Apr 19 2020 04:29
by jsg
Joined on Thu, Jan 19 2006, San Francisco, CA USA, Posts 321

Composers:

My friend Art Austin and I get together occasionally (well, not these days due to the pandemic) to do free improvisation.  We plan nothing, not even tempos or chord progressions; we just listen to one another and react, nothing memorized, agreed upon, notated or overdubbed.  I've long believed that improvisation is the root of all authentic music.  Just 150 years ago, music could not even be recorded.  And only a few thousand years ago, a fraction of the time we humans have been around, there was no music notation either.  Musicians simply sang, played, listened and passed down traditions to other musicians. 

PLAY (10:43)

Art Austin, clarinet
Jerry Gerber, piano

My questions for discussion:

1.  Do you improvise?
2.  What do you believe the relationship between improv and composition is?
3.  Do you think improvisation is important for composers, and if so, why?

Best,

Jerry

Posted on Sun, Apr 19 2020 08:18
by mh-7635
Joined on Wed, Aug 04 2004, Posts 192

Jerry, you must've had some plan with that piece, it's bloody amazing, a terrific piece. Very Poulenc-ish in places and a curious smorgasbord of styles as you both start riffing off each other. Curiously, it sounds very European too in places.

Yes, I improvise. It's a necessary pre-composition starting point for me as much as it is a part of actual composition too. The way I see it is that improvising is working with raw materials and acting like a search tool, hunting out, and chasing down ideas, whilst actual composition is the imposition of order and will in an effort to refine and hone. Applying technique at the compositional stage for me, is all about teasing out any nascent material within an idea and a way of creating homogeneity in an extended piece.

Improvising can also take place mentally for me and stretches of musical phrase can be parsed in real time and as quickly discarded or improved upon. Improvising can also be done on the manuscript. I find it sometimes useful to work out long form in a graphic way on manuscript, plotting key moments and even rhythm, without the need for notes as such - a kind of route map. This is particularly useful when the sound-world of the piece has been worked out and has been mentally absorbed. One can quickly plot scenarios and gauge their efficacy in relation to the material and how one can proceed with it.

Finally, improvising with technique is essential to me too. A lot of people do not understand the connection between technique and the finished work. The underpinning provided and the creative challenge presented by self-imposed (self-designed) parameters, is what distinguishes a great piece from most imv. The limitations ironically freeing the creative spirit by challenging it to overcome are an essential driver and mechanism for writing music that is unified and inevitable in its expression. These limitations are of course continually re-assessed during progress and are flexible enough to be altered should an unexpected musical twist occur.

This all sounds very cold, but in reality it is not. One is ultimately always swayed by the pull of the music and that is the final arbiter.

Posted on Sun, Apr 19 2020 21:12
by jsg
Joined on Thu, Jan 19 2006, San Francisco, CA USA, Posts 321

Originally Posted by: mh-7635 Go to Quoted Post

Jerry, you must've had some plan with that piece, it's bloody amazing, a terrific piece. Very Poulenc-ish in places and a curious smorgasbord of styles as you both start riffing off each other. Curiously, it sounds very European too in places.

Yes, I improvise. It's a necessary pre-composition starting point for me as much as it is a part of actual composition too. The way I see it is that improvising is working with raw materials and acting like a search tool, hunting out, and chasing down ideas, whilst actual composition is the imposition of order and will in an effort to refine and hone. Applying technique at the compositional stage for me, is all about teasing out any nascent material within an idea and a way of creating homogeneity in an extended piece.

Improvising can also take place mentally for me and stretches of musical phrase can be parsed in real time and as quickly discarded or improved upon. Improvising can also be done on the manuscript. I find it sometimes useful to work out long form in a graphic way on manuscript, plotting key moments and even rhythm, without the need for notes as such - a kind of route map. This is particularly useful when the sound-world of the piece has been worked out and has been mentally absorbed. One can quickly plot scenarios and gauge their efficacy in relation to the material and how one can proceed with it.

Finally, improvising with technique is essential to me too. A lot of people do not understand the connection between technique and the finished work. The underpinning provided and the creative challenge presented by self-imposed (self-designed) parameters, is what distinguishes a great piece from most imv. The limitations ironically freeing the creative spirit by challenging it to overcome are an essential driver and mechanism for writing music that is unified and inevitable in its expression. These limitations are of course continually re-assessed during progress and are flexible enough to be altered should an unexpected musical twist occur.

This all sounds very cold, but in reality it is not. One is ultimately always swayed by the pull of the music and that is the final arbiter.

Nope, just pure improv; I turned on the recorder and we played for about 30 minutes. I did however take the best of what we did and assembled them into little "vignettes" to give it at least a little bit of cohesion.  I don't think of doing that as composition, but rather just a little bit of editing.

I know another composer, John McGinn, who also does what you described, where he works out ideas in notation, primarily rhythmic, but not putting any actual pitches in until later.   I've never been able to work like that, but that's what makes composition so unique, each person has their own method to the madness.  Improv also for me is about the raw, spontaneous musical impulse, unrefined, uncensored, without the critical mind intervening until composition begins.   That's why it's so important to me.  Wasn't it Stravinsky who said we shouldn't have contempt for the fingers, or something like that?  I think he meant that sometimes the hands have an innate musical wisdom all their own and there's a certain almost child-like freedom in just moving around the keyboard (or whatever instrument you improvise on) and seeing where things go.  All the accidents happen in improv, but the decisions happen in composition, or something like that..

Posted on Sun, Apr 19 2020 21:56
by agitato
Joined on Mon, Jun 22 2015, Posts 404

Thank you, Jerry for starting this thread. This should prove insightful for beginners like me.

What Mike said makes a lot of sense to me, regarding the relationship between improv and composition. And the idea of graphing the entire piece is pretty cool. No wonder that helps to create coherent large scale structures. Ive heard that sketching an outline as the approach used by many great composers, from Beethoven to contemporary ones like Corigliano.

I come from a tradition (Indian classical music) where there is no written music and everything is done on the spot. However, there are many predefined phrases from which the artist chooses, and in a way their improv is already pre composed. The more sophisticated the artist is, the more phrases he/she knows and it almost sounds like they are making new musi as they go alone (this also depends on the sophistication of the listener).

So I wonder if 'improv' and 'composition' become more and more indistinguishable when the artist's musical knowledge becomes more sophisticated? So that every new note or chord they come up with is already well thought out, and its only secondary matter of they put it on a piece of paper (composition) or play it on an instrument (when its called improv)....of course this leaves out the element of the sub conscious and spontaneity that makes us so human.

Anand

Anand Kumar
Posted on Tue, Apr 21 2020 21:33
by agitato
Joined on Mon, Jun 22 2015, Posts 404

I just got a chance to actually listen to your piece as I didnt have my head phones.

I agree with Mike this piece is fantastic. Besides the masterful playing of the instruments, it is impressive that there is absolutely no apparent hesiation in either of you as the piece moves along, almost like it was already written. I like how you explore all various modes...like the phrygian just after the first minute.

You must have had so much fun doing this.

Anand

Anand Kumar
Posted on Wed, Apr 22 2020 20:31
by jsg
Joined on Thu, Jan 19 2006, San Francisco, CA USA, Posts 321

Originally Posted by: agitato Go to Quoted Post

I just got a chance to actually listen to your piece as I didnt have my head phones.

I agree with Mike this piece is fantastic. Besides the masterful playing of the instruments, it is impressive that there is absolutely no apparent hesiation in either of you as the piece moves along, almost like it was already written. I like how you explore all various modes...like the phrygian just after the first minute.

You must have had so much fun doing this.

Anand

Thank you Ananda!

Yes, it's a lot of fun improvising with Art.   He plays 1st clarinet with a regional symphony orchestra and is one of the few classical instrumentalists that I know who can improvise.  Glad you enjoyed it!

Posted on Sat, Jun 06 2020 04:10
by mekosmowski
Joined on Tue, May 26 2020, Posts 6
I recorded my first midi from the controller earlier today. Prior to that, all of my note entry was with the mouse. (I'm transitioning from MuseScore / soundfont to Reaper / libraries.)

I don't have a performance background (played tuba in elementary (primary) school and that's about it). About 7 years ago I came across Rosegarden while doing a Linux install (to make it worse, it was Arch). In a moment of supreme hubris, I thought to myself, "I have a master degree in chemistry, how hard can composing/producing music be?"

I've since earned some humility and taken a year of college theory. Composition has been almost a visual activity. I use playback all the time, but the initial notation entry with the mouse, visual, sort of.

So, this morning, I have a controller that I mostly use for sound design preview. I stumbled on a short sequence that I liked, so I learned how to record midi. I even used a black key! :)

So, today I had my first glimpse of the value of improvisation for composition.

Thank you for the topic and the other answers. It is good learning how other people do things.
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