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Navigation through Form: Composing for improvisors

by Vijay Iyer

Many of us have either asked, or been asked: "How much of that was composed? How much was improvised?" Why do we feel compelled to know? It's as though somehow the experience of listening knowingly to improvised music differs significantly from listening knowingly to through-composed music. In the realm of common sense, composition and improvisation are seen as fundamentally different activities.

Indeed they are different, because they do not take place in the same time. It is often suggested that improvising is just composing on the spot, or that composition is slowed-down or "frozen" improvisation. But this is an incomplete picture. What's missing is that improvisation takes place "in time," and composition takes place "over time." In improvisation, the time taken matters; in composition, it generally does not (unless the composer is on deadline!). The centrality and irreversibility of time in improvisation has no equivalent in composition.

Perhaps we could provisionally define musical improvisation in broad terms, as an individual or collective real-time process of taking decisions and actions that have immediate sonorous consequences. Then the question emerges: how might one compose music that makes full use of improvisation?

Well, to state the obvious, we have nearly a century of documented examples. American recorded music is a vast arena in which these very issues are explored. In Louis Armstrong's 1920s Hot Fives recordings, for example, melodic improvisation is everywhere. Individual and collective improvisations outline the underlying harmonic and rhythmic structure of a song form; we also find moments in which a lead (composed) melody is "shadowed" by an improvised obbligato counterpoint on another instrument.

The large-ensemble music of Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and others, emerging in the '20s and '30s, featured formal call-and-response between composed ensemble passages and improvised soloistic passages. This might remind you of the European concerto, in which orchestration density varies considerably between crashing ensemble passages and delicate accompaniments to a notated solo instrument part – and also in which, once upon a time, unaccompanied cadenzas were improvised.

One major difference is that in Henderson's music (for example), improvisations are somehow happening while the ensemble is playing as well. This suggests that somehow an improvising soloist is able to play simultaneously "with" and "not with" the group – that is, to play something that is in synch with the others, but still somehow individually conceived and not pre-composed. The musician acquired a sufficient understanding of the underlying (harmonic, rhythmic) form of the piece, not to mention the fundamentals of music, in order to improvise a convincing, personal counterpoint to it. Such moments showcased the soloists' real-time improvisatory skills, musicality and virtuosity.

It is not surprising that that the furthering of this improvisatory art prompted its own offshoot: participatory, vibrant music with that art at the center. In the 1940's, Charlie Parker, Max Roach, and others pushed the envelope for small-group improvisation. Typically a received song form, essentially a "found" composition, was employed as a structured musical environment in which to make new extemporaneous musical statements. (When it became clear that publishing royalties went to the composer, not the improvisor, they chose to create their own song forms and their own re-composed glosses on pre-existing songs, though again using these pieces as vehicles for improvisation.)

The swirl of activity around Parker and his cohorts fostered the rapid development of a musical language for virtuosic improvising soloists and groups. The soloistic emphasis coexisted with improvisations on form and function. The division of labor among the different instruments (saxophone or brass soloist, piano, bass, and drums) began to blur; the stock roles of timekeeping, soloing, and accompanying were passed around rapidly and playfully, in a radical restructuring of the "traditional" song form and the functionality associated with each component (rhythm, melody, harmony). Improvisation became not just a technique for musical expression, but also a space of discovery.

Such flexibility with form deeply influenced subsequent generations of composer-improvisors. This notion has undergone constant reinvention, reconsideration, and redevelopment in the last several decades. A partial list of examples (mostly grabbed from my iPod) would include instances as diverse as James Brown's practice of "taking it to the bridge" (i.e., vocally cueing a formal transition between musical sections, typically at an un-predetermined moment); Jimi Hendrix's real-time negotiation of the constraints and possibilities of the electric guitar; John Coltrane's navigation through increasingly complex harmonic mazes (as on "Giant Steps"), or his semi-modal chromatic improvisations over pedal points in a dense polytonal, polymetric matrix (as on "Transition"); Ornette Coleman's use of composed themes and blues aesthetics as points of departure for collective improvisations; Anthony Braxton's use of formal "logics" (e.g., trilling behavior) as generative principles with which to construct larger pieces; rhythmic forms, as with the music of Steve Coleman; intervallic improvisational constraints, as in the recent work of Henry Threadgill; the idea of the mixing engineer as improvisor, as with reggae/dub artists like Lee "Scratch" Perry; the playful lyrical form of freestyling in contemporary hip-hop, as in the 30-second "battle" sequences on the television show 106th & Park, with recent champion Jun tha MC; the use of a set of verbal instructions, visual cues, or other nonmusical ideas to orchestrate improvisation, as with John Zorn's game pieces, Fluxus's "happenings," and some of Karlheinz Stockhausen's open works; the structure of an instrument as a formal zone for creative inquiry, as exemplified in the work of pianist Cecil Taylor and kotoist/sound artist Miya Masaoka; or the interactive interpersonal encounter framed as its own "form" to be navigated and interrogated, as seen variously with The Art Ensemble of Chicago, guitarist Derek Bailey, and many others.

[The last couple of examples in this list would seem to challenge the notion of "free improvisation," a term in common use today. I am indeed arguing that there is no such thing – that improvisation is always subject to embodied, cultural, individual and interpersonal factors that should be viewed as formal parameters.]

So far I've only mentioned a small corner of the huge number of strains of improvisational music in the West alone. One can readily look to traditions from around the world for more examples of formal/compositional elements that frame improvisation. West African traditions feature a great deal of improvisation, often within strict formal parameters that take years to master; indeed, systematic studies have revealed much in common with African diasporic musical practice in the Americas. Many of the innumerable information-rich traditions of the folk and classical musics of South Asia and the Arab world also feature improvisation as a central element. Practitioners spend decades of their lives internalizing the intricate parameters of melodic forms (ragas, maqams, etc), rhythmic cycles and formulas, solfège systems, repertoires, and conventions of improvisative performance practice.

Every example that I have mentioned here displays the quintessential notion of navigation through form, to use Anthony Braxton's terminology. This phrase vividly depicts the idea of improvising in some sustained relationship to composed material. Using the navigation metaphor, we can imagine improvisation as an active path through a space of possibilities. In this view, it becomes apparent that improvisation should not be viewed as the antithesis of composition; it is not an either-or situation. Musical improvisation takes place in dialogue with composed or pre-scribed forms, not simply in place of them.

Composers have much to learn from improvisative traditions. The most savvy composers writing for improvisors are those with personal experience as improvisors – those who possess an intimate understanding of its parameters of expression, its interactive possibilities, and the stakes involved in the commitment to process. Similarly, the best improvisors are those who wield an arsenal of information with great skill – and that includes knowledge of the art of composition.

Clearly, many traditions of improvisation require a great deal of preparation and rigorous study. And yet we should also remember that improvisation is a fundamental musical behavior. Children's songs, folk songs, work songs, and other vernacular musics around the world are born of improvisation. This simple fact reminds us that improvisation is not a kind of music, but a way of approaching musical activity, with more varied manifestations than we can imagine.

In my own work, I tend to imagine composing for improvisors as a kind of structural architecture. Form is omnipresent, in the same way that architecture is ubiquitous in our daily lives, but it functions environmentally. That is, it provides spaces and occasions for interactivity and real-time exploration, so that improvisation is always possible, even necessary. So, when asked what percentage of my music is composed and what percentage is improvised, I can respond that it is 100% both.

Vijay Iyer has been dubbed one of the "new stars of jazz" by U.S. News & World Report, and one of "today's most important pianists" by The New Yorker. A 2003 recipient of the prestigious Alpert Award in the Arts, Iyer is a forward-thinking composer who draws from African, Asian, and European musical lineages to create fresh, original music in the American creative tradition.


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Last updated 3/28/04