Improvisation and Composition


This seems to be a discussion that has come up quite a lot recently, and, i suppose, over the history of European improv, and seems to be the closest to a divisive subject we have. Although there is an aspect to the debate that just ends up with people agreeing to differ (or not even that), i do think it is instructive to examine the role of composition in improvising, as it has implications for the role of composition and improvisation in music as a whole, and so for the very reason why we do improvisation in the first place.

Perhaps firstly we should examine the question of what exactly a composition is. At first sight this might seem a pointlessly simple question, but in fact the nature of composition is in constant flux, and has been for a long as there have been composers. Modern composers might see fit to produce a picture of some sort, or an enigmatic series of instructions, and call it a composition. At the other end of the time scale, renaissance composition consisted of a tune, not dissimilar to a folk tune, lasting only a few bars - clearly the musicians of the time were expected to flesh out the outline using the conventions of the current styles. From that we can trace a progression, as composers over the next two or three hundred years removed from the musicians they are writing for more and more of the decision-making process, and made it their own. Firstly, Baroque composers took on the process of elaboration and variation, and built those into the piece. Over the next two centuries, dynamics, articulation and even the cadenza became the province of the composer, rather than decisions a skilled performer was expected to make, and the attitude towards composers shifted, as the composition transformed from being a vague plan of action, a starting point for an accomplished ensemble, to being some kind of philosophical ideal. A score by Wagner or Beethoven is now considered perfect before the musicians begin to play it, and the quality of the performance is measured by how close they get to this imagined ideal of 'what the composer wanted'.

What is often overlooked in all this is the degree to which a highly-trained classical musician brings cultural and artistic preconceptions to bear on such a score. To the musicians, schooled in this style from an early age, and often with a limited knowledge of other musical traditions, 'this is how it is played'. But imagine the same score played by latin musicians and gypsy fiddlers, and a very different sound would result, despite all the notes being in the right places. The conventions are not seen as such, and the contribution the musicians bring to the realisation of the piece becomes invisible, partly at least due to classical music's (current) culture of conformity, where a highly individual style or sound is less valued, especially in an orchestral musician.

If we now reexamine those classical scores then, but from the perspective that it takes a complex interaction between player and composer to bring them to fruition, the actual playing of music, even in the most detailed and authoritarian of works, a new perspective on composition begins to emerge. In this new light, the composer is giving the musician the tools with which to create music, a framework with gaps which the musician must fill with their skills and intuition. At first sight it might seem that the composer of such a work is being unnecessarily autocratic, in removing from the player so many choices that could otherwise be theirs, but in fact most classical musicians have little in the way of improvising skills (improvisation slid off the classical agenda some years ago, for some reason), and do not relish the opportunity to show them off. What they do have is excellent interpretive skills, though, and are grateful for a chance to put those to use.

Composition is not synonymous with classical composition, however (any more than improvisation is synonymous with jazz), and there are many other types of composition, usually suited to the skills of the musicians who play them. Rock compositions, for instance, are not usually scored in an orchestral sense. The words are written down, the melody is usually memorised, and a few chord symbols may be used. After that the composition exists as a set of agreed instructions and descriptions, and the arrangement is usually negotiated in an extended rehearsal setting (and, of course, is always susceptible to renegotiation at any time, if the participants feel that it is time for a change). Jazz composition for small groups consists of nothing more than a short melody and an indication of the harmony. The improvisational skills of jazz musicians, and their knowledge of the idiom, can expand that composition into a performance of substance.

The point of this, then, is that we are moving towards a definition of a composition as a set of instructions that allows a certain group of musicians to make music in a certain, usually more or less repeatable, way. The type and detail of the instructions varies according to the desired effect of the composer, and the skill set that the musicians will bring to the composition. A composition can always be written down, using one language or another, and as such, a composition is not music. Music is moving air, is the sound a musician makes which is not noise. A composition is a piece of paper, can be encapsulated in language - the very point of music, the reason why it survives as an artform, is that it cannot be so encapsulated.

Improvisational skills are, of course, widespread in all forms of music, and the use of improvisation in music is as old as music itself. Often the act of classical composition is a form of improvisation, followed by notation and codification. In the form of free improvisation pioneered in Europe in the last thirty-five years, a playing style has been borrowed from the European orchestral avant-garde, and a structure from free jazz to create an approach that does not use regular time signatures or tonal centres. Partly for the overall sound this creates, and partly because playing in this 'open' style does not infringe on the possibilities of someone else's playing. Using this style, structures are unfixed at the outset of playing; however, as the playing progresses, decisions are taken that are normally considered the province of the composer. A structure unfolds, revealing itself in a series of moments, as the musicians choose one option over thousands of others, and then choose again, and again. If the improvisation is recorded, then is the result a composition? If the choices are then notated?

At this point, though, we are really dealing in sophistry, in the deeper (and possibly less true) meaning of words. An improvisation recorded is just that, and the listener will perceive it as such. It is not a composition, in the useful sense of the word, tho paradoxically, a study of composition will help the improviser to become a better improviser, as will the study of almost any field of music. What i would wish to propose is that the composer for improvisers should, like any other composer, be aware of the predelictions, skills and abilities of the musicians (or typical musicians) they are composing for, and supply them with a set of instructions, in a suitable form, that will enhance the music they are about to make - in exactly the same way as composers have for millennia. In the case of improvising musicians, this may mean written instructions, or graphic scores, or some variation of 'conventional' notation, in order to facilitate their music making, and to add to it some ingredient that would otherwise be absent.

This last point is key, as improvising musicians are unusual in that they need no composer at all to make music in their idiom to the highest standard, and a composer for improvisers must think hard about their composition to ensure that the end result would at least be markedly and usefully different from any music that the players could achieve without the composer's intervention at all. The size of the group is, to my mind, a key factor here. The bulk of free improvisation is done in small groups, as much (sadly) for economic reasons as for artistic. This means that most improvisers are used to holding their own in small groupings, to being 25% of the sound, or more. An orchestral viola player, by comparison, is used to being 2% of the sound or less. In larger groups, most improv players are unable to be silent for more than 10% of the time, and a period of quiet tends to be viewed as an opportunity for someone who hasn't done much for a while to shine - it's habit, it's the way we play. The unfortunate consequence of this is a tendency towards the middle, towards middling dynamics, and middling densities. In a larger group, a composition can impose a sense of light and shade, of space and density, where none would emerge naturally. 'Themes' (used in it's broadest sense) don't usually emerge from large group playing in the way that a smaller group can find them. Sudden and urgent dynamic shifts. It is the province of the improvisational composer to prejudge the situation, but to consider the same question that an improviser in an improvising situation must consider: "what can i add to this situation that no-one else can?".

Sometimes, as a player and as a composer, the answer is: "nothing," and there are choices that flow from that conclusion.

phil hargreaves
Liverpool 2001