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Improvisation and the Orchestra: A Composer Reflects

By George E. Lewis

In 1960, the influential ethnomusicologist Mantle Hood coined the term "bimusicality" to describe the work of musicians of the Imperial Japanese Court, who were trained in both gagaku and pan-European classical traditions. As it happens, well before the publication of Hood's article, musicians trained in jazz were already well known as early practitioners of the bimusical. In 1930, William Grant Still's optimistic belief in the viability of a "Negro Symphony Orchestra" was based on his own experience as both composer and performer in classical, jazz, and popular idioms. Imagining the players in such an orchestra, Still predicted that "their training in the jazz world will even have enhanced their virtuosity, and they will be able to play perfectly passages that would be difficult for a man trained only in the usual academic way."

For much of the 20th century, the boundary between high and low culture in the U.S. has been symbolized musically by the great competition between jazz and classical traditions, a stand-in for a more fundamental, culturally nationalist struggle. In proposing an amalgamation of these traditions in the late 1950s, Gunther Schuller felt that "by designating this music as a separate, third stream, the two other mainstreams could go their way unaffected by attempts at fusion."

In the ensuing years, however, the rise of postcolonialism and the stirrings of the civil rights movement had vastly complicated these discourses. As scholar and composer Jason Stanyek has noted, cross-cultural, face-to-face improvisative spaces often feature an "embodied collective learning" where sociality is marked as an important experience for both artists and audiences. In an unpublished essay from 1988, composer and pianist Frederic Rzewski declared that the improvised music of Musica Elettronica Viva, an ensemble that he helped to found, was "based on friendship&ldots;Any unfriendly act on the part of some individual threatens the strength of the music we are all trying to create." Rzewski's experience recalls critic Christopher Small's observation of African improvisors, who respond "not only to the inner necessities of the sound world&ldots;but also to the dynamics of the human situation&ldots;"

Romanticism: Hot Potato

The fading of expertise in improvisation from "classical" music has become the subject of a slowly growing body of scholarship. Most recently, ethnomusicologist Angeles Sancho-Velasquez connected this disappearance with the twilight of 19th-century Romantic ideals of spontaneity, inwardness, and sublime and ineffable mystery. In 1911, however, composer Ferruccio Busoni was still holding fast these ideals in his "Sketch of a New Aesthetic of Music," declaring that "notation is to improvisation as the portrait to the living model."

In 1962, composer Lukas Foss, who briefly explored collective improvisation in the late 1950s, could precisely reverse Busoni's terms, asserting that improvisation "relates to composition much in the way that the sketch relates to the finished work of art." By this time, the image of the Romantic ego-driven mystic had been transferred first to bebop, and then to improvisation in general; no less a personage than Pierre Boulez dismissed the practice as "personal psychodrama."

But if we disconnect improvisation from the debates over European romanticism, we can see the practice of real-time analysis, exploration, discovery and response to conditions as fundamental to the existence and survival of the individual and the species. The philosopher of mind Gilbert Ryle maintained that thinking itself was a question of improvisation, saying of the normal human that "if he is not at once improvising and improvising warily, he is not engaging his somewhat trained wits in some momentarily live issue, but perhaps acting from sheer unthinking habit."

In this light, the moral imperatives and double-star binary oppositions that have "informed" so many discussions of improvisation and composition become something of an intellectual way station in classical music's mid-century confrontation with the postcolonial condition. In the interest of new music that incorporates both disciplines, the binary will undoubtedly need to be jettisoned--not just for performers, but for the entire network that nurtures the culture of orchestral performance--composers, theorists, scholars, academicians, and the economic and technical support infrastructure that is so crucial to the performance of orchestral music.

Stations Along The Path

In large measure, the composerly avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, both in Europe and the United States, tended to view improvisation as, in the 1965 words of Roger Reynolds, "more or less profitable wanderings in a well-defined maze where the composer, performer and listener know the rules and references." One is struck by the vast gulf separating this view from the experiences of the improvisors themselves. As saxophonist Steve Lacy observed, "you have all your years of preparation and all your sensibilities and your prepared means but it is a leap into the unknown."

In 1950s contemporary music, one path toward this leap involved the advent of graphic scores, whose seemingly indeterminate methods, particularly as applied by composer Earle Brown, often reflected not only an ideology of personal self-determination, but also a transhistorically, transnationally imagined community of thought and practice.

for Brown, the goals of this community became collapsed onto the idea of style. Brown told British guitarist Derek Bailey in a 1992 interview:

It is somewhat my responsibility to create conditions which, in a certain sense, won't be violated stylistically. For instance, if there's somebody who is very good at improvising in the style of Bach, or in the baroque period, very often I suggest something verbally. Like, I ask for erratic, jagged rhythms, so that he would not make sequences of 8th notes.

As Brown told guitarist Bailey, "I was working with improvisational forms." Thus, beyond the conventional reading that a composer's task involves countering the performer's force of habit in the service of new music, Brown's suggestions reveal that the future history of any graphic score or improvisation will be partly oral, partly aural as mediated through recording, and partly related to the texts that musicians, scholars, and journalists have produced about it.

Brown's 1950s work reflected his strong interest in the psychology of open forms, from the music of Charlie Parker to the visual mobility of Calder and Pollock. Once a graphic score migrates conceptually beyond the communities in which it originated, however, the metatext that it represents inevitably becomes transformed. In that sense, either the graphic score or the improvisation can become a site for asserting affinities with, or articulating fealty to a received tradition.

A powerful alternative, however, finds both improvisation and indeterminate notation transforming whatever combination of traditions the musicians performing the work have emerged from, thereby transforming the entire network from which the music emerges.

Teaching Improvised Music

Performer-centered models in which individual players adopt new skills, communicate cross-culturally, and articulate personal research directions, have found trenchant articulation in improvised musics. Accordingly, in more liberal circles, it is often asserted that orchestral performers "should learn to improvise"--whatever that may mean.

Learning new performance skills is only part of the issue, however. Christopher Small's understanding that "the tension and the possibility of failure which are part of an improvised performance have no place in modern concert life," could be applied not only to performers, but also to the economic and social infrastructure that supports classical music itself.

Orchestra performers operate as part of a network comprised not only of musicians, conductors and composers, but also administrators, foundations, critics and the media, historians, educational institutions, and much more. Each of the nodes within this network, not just those directly making music, would need to become "improvisation-aware," as part of a process of resocialization and economic restructuring that could help bring about the transformation of the orchestra that so many have envisioned.

Improv(is)ing the Orchestra

Many of the most radical practices and social changes that emerged from what cultural historian Daniel Belgrad called "the culture of spontaneity" of the 1950s and 1960s seem to have occurred without very much input from the modern symphony orchestra. In both Europe and the United States, improvisation, and free jazz in particular, was widely viewed as symbolic of a dynamic new approach to social order that would employ spontaneity both to unlock the potential of individuals, and to combat oppression by hegemonic political and cultural systems.

In the late 20th Century, the most common route toward the encounter between improvisation and the orchestra, from Larry Austin to Hans Werner Henze to Steven Mackey, involved having star improvisors "front the band." While the results can be spectacularly successful, a more radical integration of improvisation into the orchestra, rather than simply grafting improvisative elements onto its surface, could explicitly call into question the nature of the orchestra itself as a sentient sound-producing body.

The set of alternative models that reimagine the orchestra along improvisational and communitarian lines includes Cornelius Cardew's "Scratch Orchestra," Pauline Oliveros's "Sonic Meditations," and Lawrence "Butch" Morris's "Conductions," in which an improvising conductor functions literally as a centralized conduit of musical current linking other improvisors. These models provide trenchant examples for recuperating the symphony orchestra as a developmental site for new aesthetic models that foreground agency, identity, embodiment, cultural difference and self-determination.

If, in performances of improvised music, the possibility of internalizing alternative value systems is implicit from the start, we can more clearly view the difficulty with the earlier pluralist conceptions of improvisation and the orchestra, where, as art critic Hal Foster put it, "minor deviation is allowed to resist radical change." Similarly, the pluralist tendency to situate African-American music as the vehicle of orchestral transubstantiation, while well-grounded historically, risks becoming overly narrow in the new century, as improvisative traditions from around the world, influenced or not by African-American forms, become part of a landscape that could inform the classical music of the future.

Indeed, what might a new American classical music sound like in a postcolonial world? Certainly, such a new music would need to draw upon the widest range of traditions, while not being tied to any one. Rather than quixotically asserting a "new common practice," perhaps such a music would exist, as theorist Jacques Attali put it, "in a multifaceted time in which rhythms, styles, and codes diverge, interdependencies become more burdensome, and rules dissolve"--in short, a "new noise."

Improvisation, so fundamental to what being "American" is all about, would play an important role in fostering that new noise. For Attali, who includes the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians as emblematic of the project of using music to build a new culture, subsumed under the term "composition" is a set of processes and practices that appears to resemble, not composition as it is practiced in the West, but improvisation.

"Music is no longer made to be represented or stockpiled," Attali wrote in 1977, "but for participation in collective play, in an ongoing quest for new, immediate communication, without ritual and always unstable. It becomes nonreproducible, irreversible."

George Lewis, improvisor-trombonist, composer and computer/installation artist, studied composition with Muhal Richard Abrams at the AACM School of Music, and trombone with Dean Hey. The recipient of a MacArthur "genius" Fellowship in 2002, a Cal Arts/Alpert Award in the Arts in 1999, and numerous fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Lewis has explored electronic and computer music, computer-based multimedia installations, text-sound works, and notated forms. A member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) since 1971, Lewis's work as composer, improvisor, performer and interpreter is documented on more than 120 recordings. His published articles on music, experimental video, visual art, and cultural studies have appeared in numerous scholarly journals and edited volumes. In Fall 2004, Lewis will become the Edwin H. Case Professor of Music at Columbia University.


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Last updated 3/28/04