20 August 2019

Who Killed Improvisation?

Listening to an interview with cellist Matthew Barley on his latest recording of John Tavener’s The Protecting Veil, the issue of improvisation came up.  In this wonderful new recording (and I wholeheartedly recommend it) Barley sets the Tavener work alongside, not the usual suspects (ie other works for cello or Tavener’s own music), but some of Tavener’s favourite poetry and, most interestingly, Indian music.  Much to the fore in the Indian music is improvisation, and Barley is keen for us to know that his performance with tabla player ‘Pinky’ Singh, was recorded in a single take, as were his own improvisatory additions to an orchestral arrangement of Tavener’s Mother and Child.  In the interview (with James Jolly on a Gramophone podcast) the question was asked, when did musicians stop improvising? (Hear the whole interview here - https://www.gramophone.co.uk/podcast/john-taveners-the-protecting-veil-matthew-barley)

As an organist, improvisation is not so much a part of my musical life but vital to it.  An organist who cannot and does not improvise is not an organist – they may be able to play music on it, but they cannot play it as a musical instrument.  It worries me deeply how many so-called organists there are who do not improvise.  Only the other day a few organists came to look at our tiny little chamber organ – five stops and a heavily truncated single manual.  Surely, with such a diminished instrument, the obvious way to explore its potential was through improvisation.  But did they improvise?  Not a bit of it.  They tried little bits of half-remembered hymn tunes and party-pieces designed for something with rather more resources.  Nobody thought to doodle around exploring how the stops in individuality and combination might sound in their own right.  A visiting so-called organist to a church I was attending was invited to play the concluding voluntary.  He asked for music, but music was there none.  So he fumbled his way grotesquely through a partially-recalled Bach Fugue much to the detriment of himself and the organ.  Why did he not just improvise?

That said, proper organists do improvise, proper organ teachers guide students on the joys of improvisation, and proper organ students seek out a teacher who can instil into them the confidence to become competent improvisers.  In the worlds of jazz and most non-western musics, improvisation is key to being a musician.  The question is, however, why have “classical” musicians lost the ability to improvise?  How many piano teachers, string teachers, wind teachers, brass teachers teach improvisation?  I suspect one in a million, if that.  And if I ask why they don’t teach it, the response is always “there is no need”.  Yet there is surely no better way to familiarise yourself with the instrument you play than through improvisation.

Apparently right up until the closing years of the 19th century, improvisation was part of every classical musician’s vocabulary.  I didn’t know that.  I knew, of course, that up to Beethoven pianists and other concerto soloists were expected to improvise cadenzas in concertos, and in the 17th and 18th centuries improvised ornamentation was expected of any player.  (And how puerile most modern-day musicians sound when they slavishly follow some desiccated pattern for trills, turns and the like as written out in theory textbooks, rather than fall back on their long-dormant musical instincts.) 

Whenever it was that the art of improvisation was no longer deemed a necessary part of musician’s skill-set, the fact is that hardly any students of western classical music are now taught how to do it.  Most amazingly, vocal teachers seem to avoid it like the plague.  A few years back when Trinity introduced Improvisation as an option in its grades 1-5 practical exams, resistance to it was strong – most notably from singers.  Yet singing is the most improvisatory of all musical disciplines.  One can joke that hearing some singers makes you wonder if they can do anything but improvise, but on a more serious note, with the human voice being such a unique instrument, no music can properly match an individual voice.  Improvisation therefore becomes an essential skill for the singer to transcend the limitations of the voice in its relationship to the written score. 

Two suggestions for the demise of improvisation were raised in the interview.  Jolly, as a former editor of Gramophone, understandably questioned whether the growth of recording might have had something to do with it.  Now that the vast majority of humanity gets its music from pre-recorded performances, improvisation has lost its allure.  After all, when the listener can re-hear the identical performance ad nauseam, that essential spur-of-the-moment inspiration which results in improvisation is lost, and the improvisation becomes as formalised and sterile as the music on the written page.  Indeed, recordings militate against improvisations, because they can be retouched to the extent that the listener is not certain of the credibility of what they hear.  Barley is at pains in his recording to point out that his improvisations were recorded in a single, unedited take. 

The second suggestion seems to me the more likely.  And that is that composers, from Beethoven onwards, have become so prescriptive in what they write that scope for a performer’s free expression is lost.  From Bach, who rarely offered tempo, dynamic or phrasing markings, to Boulez, who burdened every single note with so much detail and performing information that any chance of individual interpretation is lost.  Through the 19th and 20th centuries composers maintained an unwavering path from allowing freedom to the performer to trussing them up in tight, restrictive and unbreakable bonds.

A sceptic might also suggest that composers have a vested interest in closing the door to improvisation.  After all, when you earn your income from writing music down, the last thing you want is for musicians to realise that they can create music for themselves.  Perhaps now we live in an age where everybody thinks music is free and accessible to all (poor, deluded fools!), we will not be so easily seduced by the notion of everything we need to do in a performance being presented to us on a sheet of printed paper.

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