Improvisation is very near and dear to my heart. I started my love affair with improvised music in college, sometime during my first year of undergrad. I love it, the creativity happening right in front of you, spontaneously. It’s so authentic, it’s impossible to play anything you don’t intrinsically understand. I started with jazz, and I somewhat branched out an explored folk traditions, even dabbling briefly in free jazz, but I was always considered improvisation outside of the classical world. I was fascinated. Starting my sophomore year, instead of taking the standard classical theory, I instead took Basic Musicianship, which taught me some jazz theory and improvisation. Instead of whatever it is one learns in standard classical theory, (which based on my grad school experience is augmented sixth chords), I learned about all the modes, indian and south african rhythm exercises, and got over my classical musician phobia of improvising. I spent the next year learning about jazz, jazz improvisation, and trying to keep my deeply embedded classical mannerisms from overpowering everything else. These two years of trying to learn to be a jazz musician were possibly the most valuable of my entire musical education until very recently. My ear developed more in one month of playing with a bassist than in the entire year spent in traditional aural skills.
Fast forward to a year and a half ago when I was introduced to improvisation from the classical side of things. Suddenly improv was something that was common. Not everyone was good at it, but most everyone, (excluding the diehard orchestra types), was comfortable with improv in some form or other. I was in ensembles that were entirely improv based. I didn’t love everything I was hearing, but I was learning. One of my most useful classes was called ‘flute ensemble’ and it was an intro to improv class that was based on sounds, rather than trying to follow a chord progression. And then I heard Robert Dick perform a solo improv set. It was amazing, the most thoughtful, well-crafted music I’d heard in NYC. It wasn’t jazz, it was was just music that he hadn’t written down.
I think a lot of people, musicians included, that consider all improv to be jazz. It made a brief foray into the classical world during the experimentalism of the 1950s and 60s, especially in the music of Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, and John Cage among many others. One driving idea behind this was handing creative control back to the performer, being co-creators of a work of art, rather than the rather rigid relationship of the composer handing down a piece to be performed in the way the composer envisions that had become the norm up to then. Graphic scores became a popular way to accomplish this balance. The composer would sketch out a piece, to some degree, while the performer filled in all the little details like notes and rhythms, and sometimes larger details like the structure and form.
I love improvising, though it’s still a relatively new skill for me. I struggled for years with seeing myself as an artist, while feeling a total lack of creativity and involvement in orchestra and even some solo repertoire. New music changed that for me, and working with composers made me somewhat part of the creative process. I recently discovered graphic scores and have fell in love. It seems the perfect marriage of co-creatorship, the composer outlining the big picture while the performer decides how to convey that idea. I don’t know everything I want to do with this undeveloped love, but I am going to keep working on it and see where it goes. Maybe improvisation will make a comeback.