NEW MUSIC AND IMPROVISATION
by Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen, composer, musician and teacher of improvisation as well as graphic notation at Music Therapy, Aalborg University, Denmark.
This is a revised version of an article which was published for the first time in 1995 in the programme book of Musica Nova, Copenhagen (Danish ISCM-Section), on the occasion of the 1st Scandinavian Improvisation Festival.
Improvisation provides new musical insights and new playing experiences. Please allow me to tell you a true story which also deals with the audience's point of view. Some years ago Agathe Kaehr from the English experimental music group Edges told me that after having graduated from the Conservatory of Berlin as a flute player in the beginning of the seventies, she heard the English group AMM play an improvised concert. It filled her with such enthusiasm that she decided to move to London in order to live where this kind of music could be found at that time. I asked her what was so fascinating about the music, and after a thoughtful pause she answered - that the silence before they played was different. It had to do with the way in which they prepared themselves on the scene, she thougt.
This story suggests that improvised music may have an especially concentrated atmosphere, that the musician may acquire a new and more direct form of contact with the audience and that the listener may experience a special excitement. An improvised performance is more risky than a 'normal' one - this fact is stated "with letters in small print" on the concert ticket, as the German Professor Behne put it newly in a lecture on the psychology of improvisation. The audience often knows that and goes for it - there is a greater element of sharing.
An improvised addition of voices to a melody must have been a common practise from the Middle Ages and forth. And still in the seventeenth century organists who applied for an employment as organist of the San Marco church in Venice solely did one thing at the examination: they improvised. General bass numbers leave room for improvisation, cadenzas in solo concertos do the same thing. Or, rather, they used to - for when have you last heard a soloist improvise a cadenza? One easily gets the impression that improvisation, a phenomenon which is a part of every other music culture, has wasted away in our Western classical music. Organists may form an exception. The existence of exactly notated pieces titled "Improvisation" might stand as a thought-provoking sign of the word having actually lost its original meaning and here only stands for a free compositional way of writing.
However, in the development of new music after 1945 improvisation has manifested itself as an important element one cannot look away from without reducing what was produced by composers, their thoughts as well as historical reality alarmingly. There are works that leave some of its realization to the musician, and a practise for playing without rules exists also. Early in the periode, a new aesthetic of art left room for indeterminacy in performance, and notation was modified accordingly. The New York School does not employ the concept of improvisation - but what happens here must be seen as a special variant of it, and in all cases it had consequences. Feldman, Brown and Wolff went on with innovating the notation. And soon this spread also to Eyurope. Stockhausen, Logothetis, Haubenstock-Ramati are relevant names - in Denmark: Gudmundsen- Holmgreen, Lorentzen, Plaetner and others.
We must try to differentiate between new notations ensuing improvisation and new notations which are precise. This may be judged from practise. In some pieces by Wolff and with the plus-minus-notation by Stockhausen, as a musician you may have enough to do with playing what there is, and to accomplish it may take much time and practise. So other notations can certainly also place the musician under an obligation.
But, the possibility of having greater freedom for the musician certainly also exists. And such practises as well as free improvisation with no material from an outside composer at all, was cultivated in various groups that arose in the last part of the sixties - AMM in England from 66 (it still exists), Stockhausens group from 68, lasting a few years, and many more. Danish Group for Alternative Music in the beginning of the seventies (where my own engagement in all this started), and English Scratch Orchestra were organisations run democratically by member composer/musicians theirselves - in both, improvisations as well as pieces could appear on the programme of their concerts. Later, Danish Group for Intuitive Music made concert series stressing pieces that contained improvisation.
In this, performance practise becomes sociologically significant, and probably some taboos become offended from time to time. Improvisation groups can have a mixed line up of members - for instance, in AMM conservatory trained Cornelius Cardew med with others having a jazz background. Since AMM never play from notations it would be hard to place it under a musical genre. Many other groups who never play from notations have jazz as their background. But exceptions certainly exist - Vinko Globokar (living in France) never plays from notations in his groups because he is ideologically against them, and Swiss group Adesso plays a neat kind of chamber music suggesting that jazz is not the most common background of its members. In the sphere of freely improvised music, it becomes increasingly difficult to take old genre headings seriously.
In return, however, improvisation has come into its own in terms of creating its own institutions. Examples include English Musician's Collectives, American Free Music Societes, musician's cooperatives in Germany and Switzerland, Swedish FRIM, magazines, regular radio programmes, record labels like English Matchless, Incus, Bead, Acta, !Quarz, German FMP and Random Acoustics - and the music life of the cities of Stockholm and London. Musicians will often not perceive their activity under a genre heading - other then 'improvised music' which has become known in the concert life of London and Stockholm. A terminological concept which has become accepted by many musicians is Derek Bailey's "non-idiomatical" music. When genre headings are abandoned, so are also their cultural identities. American experimental jazz in the sixties was intimately connected to black culture - but in the subsequent development towards freer improvisation in the seventies in European countries like England and Holland, it was taken over by white musicians. If you can still call what you are doing "rock", it will evoke associations among the public both of something nice they are familiar with and maybe of a certain amount of subversiveness as well. But those who play just "improvised music" seek and find their own music - it is an avantgarde attitude. - The name Logos in Belgium stands for a concert group as well as for a concert hall and for a comprehensive archive of performing material and recordings, all of it comprising various experimental music, including improvised. In addition, in the eighties they lead the improvising amateur group "Ghent Filharmonic". - In elementary music education improvised elements has established itself. German periodical Ringgesprch fr Gruppenimprovisation publishes a yearly, comprehensive calendar on courses in improvisation. When the wall in Berlin, Germany was taken down in 1989 it became known in the West that it had long been possible to study improvisation as a main subject at the conservatory of Leipzig. One additional thing to mention here is the subject of Music Therapy which in its modern form could not have come into existence without the re-discovery of improvised music in experimental music culture after 1945. - So well, something has indeed happened!
Groups and individuals can connect their improvisational practise to quite marked ideas. Stockhausen's vision is spiritualistic, attaches itself to the old idea about a sounding universe, the music of the spheres, and as he perceives it, there should be freedom from clichees, to follow inspiration in every given moment. - Logos and Scratch Orchestra rather had a vision of improvisation as having the possibility of becoming a new kind of folk music, accessible to all, without style uniforms. In Scratch Orchestra, several special improvisational genres existed, meeting various demands in the life of the group. One was "scratch music" - a quiet music performed by each member according to her/his own recipe at the beginning of meetings. "Improvisation rites" were pieces having a composer, gathering the group around one activity, but they should not fix it too much. Finally, one had "compositions" which might very well also be open for improvisation, for instance pieces by Cage, LaMonte Young, Kosugi and Stockhausen. - English David Toop undertook in the seventies very comprehensive studies in animal sounds and communication and practised his flute playing outdoors. Viewing music as intimately connected to its environment, a territory behaviour as it were, is something he shares with other Englich composers and musicians.
One statement being at the same time beautyfully formulated, philosophically deep and very subversive with respect to music theory comes from the American Earle Brown. He says: "It is not possible, given any degree of optimism and generosity in regard to people in general, to set a time limit on creative reflection or a limitation on the number of people involved in the creation" (1966). If there can be no time limit to creative reflection, then music can be created on the spot under the right circumstances - improvisation is then a way of producing music having the same importance as composition has. And if there can be no limitation on the number of people involved, then instant creation of music can also take place collectively.
It is good to improvise without rules, but putting up frameworks is also a practise capable of broadening the perspective. And written frameworks can be exchanged between groups ... I find it deplorable that so few musicians till now coming from jazz and rock backgrounds make such frameworks. I believe that in many cases, spoken agreements exist, so the step to be taken should not be too big. We look much forward to seeing your products!
Shortly described - frameworks may consist of words, like in the collections by Stockhausen from 68 and 70 which both provokes associatons as well as they give precise directions. See for instance this "Unanimity":
Play and/or sing
extremely long quiet sounds
extremely short loud sounds
Try to sing/play
more and more attacks
SYNCHRONOUSLY with the others
without visual signs.
And they may be sign systems of a different nature - or maybe picture-like, with various degrees of freedom in the interpretation.
Our musical culture needs improvisation. Let us try to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem!
generally on improvisation: Derek Bailey: Improvisation. Its nature and practise in music. (New ed. British Library National Sound Archive, London 1992). Editions exist in several languages, including Japanese!
A music history book which also accounts for new notations since 1945 is Reginald Smith Brindle: The New Music (Oxford University Press, sec. ed. 1986).