Music Composers Unite!
Jeffrey, this sounds exciting.
"We need to make everybody into a composer. It's healthy for people and healthy for society if everyone realizes they have a musical voice."
That sounds very liberating to know that improvising is more than chord progressions, you are expressing a your unique insight and personality in this medium.
Ann, it is exciting! Although I improvised as a folk then jazz guitarist for years, I didn't dare try it on the horn for decades out of sheer terror - I might make a mistake! It took terminal, life-threatening boredom to finally get me to try making up my own music on the horn spontaneously - and it was like Dorothy going from B&W Kansas to colorful Oz. My musical world has been tremendously enriched by discovering this new world. It's fun and it's easy. Who knew? Audiences love it, too. They know that we don't know what the outcome of a piece is - which makes it exciting, the way you don't know the outcome of a football or baseball game. We also involve the audience in various ways - taking suggestions (a la Whose Line Is It, Anyway?), bringing them up to conduct or choose who's going to play next, or giving them a shaker to play along, and so on. Students in the course often say it is the best, most useful music course they ever had.
Literate and aural music traditions complement each other, need each other. We're really good at the literate side, the re-creating side. But so many voices are silent because they have never had permission or training to speak. Music is a creative art without creativity as currently taught (except in a few places, like my class, Eric Edberg at DePauw U, Ed Sarath at U of Michigan, and most notably at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where Charles Young is head of the theory/composition dept. and EVERY music student has to take his Musicianship course, which is 2/3s composition and 1/3 improvisation. He has ordinary music students, but he occasionally sends me CDs full of the music these kids have created and it is wondrous to behold.
It's tough working with even freshmen in college on creative music (or anything else), because they have all had creative lobotomies by the educational process by this time. They want to memorize answers, spit them back, take their A and move on to the next thing. If you say, there are no "answers" - you have to explore, experiment, try things, they are often uncomfortable. We need to start and nurture this creative spirit in the youngest people we can find every step along the way. Then when they get to college they will demand to create things - as the normal thing to do. Colleges will have to hire more composers to teach them! Except that these composers will have to teach differently than they do now. Now they mostly train you how to follow systems and be like other composers. What Charles Young does is say, write what you want to hear, what you would like to play. Just write something! They start with what they know and work outwards from there, rather than have a foreign abstruse style forced upon them. If we want everyone to be a composer (a consummation devoutly to be wish'd), we have to let them speak their own language. If they continue, they will want to learn more, to study what others have done. We let babies babble and imitate, in not so long a time they learn to speak a new language without accent and express themselves. It's a good way to learn creative music as well.
Great discussion! Jeffrey, could you upload here a couple of your improvisations or give some related links? I always try to understand why the art of non-jazz improvisation is declining: about 100 years ago it was still popular enough, and we know that many great performing composers were improvisers. Since music is the language of human emotions rather than logic, the violations of style or performance imperfections sometimes are more expressive than following any given rules, and it is interesting how specific human features such as brain asymmetry or synesthetics affect this. There exist improvisers in other arts as well (e.g., poets, narrators, dancers). I know a painter who makes beautiful sketches in 20-30 seconds.
I'll look into some uploads, thanks for the idea.
Improvisation was an indispensable part of a musician's training until the 19th century with the rise of the conservatory (i.e. institutional music education), method books, huge orchestras and scores. By the 20th century, musicians had not only lost the ability to improvise, they lost the knowledge that it had ever been any other way. I think there that this is changing, albeit slowly. Educational curricula are like ocean liners - very hard to make course changes. Educational systems are like any big organizations - they do what is easy to do rather than what is any good, the same way hospitals are organized to make life easy for doctors, not for the patients. Bands and orchestras are convenient ways to engage a lot of people in music-playing - nothing wrong with that. Except that they squeeze out creative music. If you want to create music, you have to learn guitar or keyboard or drums and start your own band.
Creating music is the other half of one's musical personality, and few ever get to experience this; few even know that it exists. Comprehensive musicianship, healthy musicianship involves both literate and aural traditions. We are all addicted to ink. We need to inject aural music (which is where it all began!) back into music education and performance. We have to give up the kind of perfection that is attainable with composed music - improvisation is just fast composition where you are making a lot of choices very quickly and it won't be so glossy and seamless as a composed piece - but it also has the potential for a kind of pizzazz and sparkle that is rare in composed music. What works very well is to alloy the two (and this we can take from jazz): start and end (and/or perhaps have in the middle, too) composed, worked out material, with the bulk of the performance in the middle improvised. Then the music is both always the same and recognizable and always different - every performer, every performance is fresh and new. Composers still have a piece with their name on it, a piece they can register with ASCAP; performers can shine in different ways on the written stuff and the made-up stuff; audiences have pieces they recognize and remember, but which will be new every time.
There are definitely improvisers in other arts. One of the (or perhaps _the_) most fun and interesting concert I ever played was a couple years ago - five of us improvised on stage in concert for about an hour taking our inspiration from dancers in front of us who improvised dancing, taking their inspiration from our playing...
I hope this art will be rehabilitated, and computerized instruments (for performance, not for score writing) will probably do the work. For me, the difference between improvising and score writing is like the difference between a real love and following a matrimonial law. Sometimes they coincide.
What we need is for everyone to receive a bit of training but even more encouragement and opportunity (space & time) to learn to make up their own music. Improvisation (fast composition) can be combined with slow (written) composition. Creating music motivates, even excites people. Improv is also social. You can work on your chops by yourself (as improv inspires you to do), but improv is made to thrive in a social setting - playing with others. Improv is also a composer's best tool. All compositions started out as improvisations. It's easy for composers to spend too much time in a room alone. Composition flows easier and is more fun if you spend part of your time improvising with other who can also "think in music."
I'm not sure what you mean by 'computerized instruments.' Something like the Eigenharp, perhaps? (I want a pico!).
It's not 'computerized', but what I've been having great fun with lately is the Roland Handsonic 15 - it's a touch-sensitive electronic percussion "plate" with small divisions - and it comes with 600 sounds of every kind of percussion sound - orchestral, Latin, Asian, African, jazz, sound effects, nature sounds - it's amazing (even though its technology is 10 years old - there's nothing like it or that beats it that I know of). It also has a sequencer that is programmed with a lot of different kind of drum/percussion beats/patterns - so you can play along with it. I got it at a good price used on Ebay. I plan to use it in my improv class, my improv (performing) group, perhaps my Creativity in Music class, and even in my horn practice and lessons.
"Of course we don't disagree Daniel, and probably making technical mistakes in the course of improvising is a driving force for inventing new sonority."
In fact, Igor Stravinsky once commented that if had any advice at all for aspiring composers (writing at the piano) it would be "always keep track of your mistakes. In the long run they may not be mistakes."
One of the great things that you experience as a classical player new to improvisation is a whole new view of mistakes. Fear of mistakes is what kept me from improvising on horn for decades; my job (symphony orchestra) was to be error-free every day, every time. That kind of life means boatloads of stress, and the process is really only "fun" when it's over - you survived another day, time for a beer. As I tell my improv class: What do you do in classical music if you're not sure about something? A.: You lay out. What do you do in improvisation (Soundpainting in this case) when you're not sure? A.: you play louder. And do it twice, especially if you got an "unexpected result." Mistakes are opportunities to discover something new, something you probably never would have come up with if you hadn't blundered into it. Classical music: mistake = failure, ulcer. Improv: mistake = interesting new something that you can add to your stock of cool ideas. An experienced improviser can almost always turn an unexpected result into something that sounds right. Dissonance? Great - then you can resolve it.
Love those surprises.
All I can add is two words:
Keith Jarrett is fantastic. We can't be him, but we can all do the same thing as him: sit down at the piano (or other instrument) and make up stuff. It helps to have starter, which could be nearly anything: a motif, a rhythm, your mood right now, a tricky fingering or scale or other technical limitation (e.g. right hand only black keys, left only white keys), something new (left hand keeps the beat shaking a shaker, right hand improvises. Switch!), 2 chords only (e.g. Maj-Maj, Min-Min, Maj-Min, Min-Maj) chord in left hand, solo in right; switch; depict a kitten or a volcano or the founding of Cleveland.
Everyone should be their own Keith Jarrett. Listen to him as much as you can. Then be you, and see what's in there.