Improvisation is ever-present in both performance and composition and is realized to certain degrees in all musical activity. In this chapter, the different scales of improvisation inherent to different ways of making music will be discussed in detail, drawing a picture of a continuum of activities ranging from those that do not involve very much improvisation to others that are very improvisatory in nature. This discussion is organized around an ordered list containing various degrees of improvisation originally presented in Benson's The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue (2003). The examples he provides will be analyzed and contextualized using music by me as well as others. The goal of this chapter is to dispel the myth that improvisation is “something created on the spur of the moment” and to depict it rather more within a continuum of reworking and recontextualizing.
Making things up as you go along?
- Schwankung am Clavier -
[- undulation at the piano -]
(Schumann, Tagebücher Vol. 1, 411; my translation)
What Schumann calls a Schwankung is typically called an improvisation today. Many other terms can be used, such as extemporization or fantasieren in the German language, and certain colloquial phrases describe the phenomenon as well: “to make things up as you go along,” “on the spot,” or “on the spur of the moment.” Considering that "in music, improvisation marks the simultaneous conception and presentation of art" (Landgraf 2011, 16; author's own emphasis), more modern terms such as "real-time composition" and "instant composing" emphasize the conceptual rather than the presentational aspect of improvisation – consider improvisation scholar Simon Rose and saxophonist-improviser-composer Raymond MacDonald's observation of how "real-time composition leads to a particular focus on listening, through the embodied process of improvisation" (Rose and MacDonald 2012, 196), or the implications behind the name Instant Composers Pool, an Amsterdam-based ensemble working on the verge of composed and improvised music. In this research project, I try to stick to the terms improvisation and extemporization, using the latter occassionally as a synonym for improvisation in order to create some diversity in the vocabulary.
So what is happening when you improvise? Are you really making things up as you go along?
In The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue, Benson claims that improvisation is ubiquitous in musical practice but that no instance of improvisation qualifies as “something created on the spur of the moment out of nothing” (Benson 2003, 30). It is ever-present in that it is always connecting the performer, composer, and audience in the field of musical dialogue in ways that happen differently each time, even though these connections are very much guided by previous practices and experiences (my wording of Benson's general thesis).1 I take his viewpoint earnestly and will base the rest of this discussion of improvisation upon the notion that improvisation is ubiquitous in musical practice. This starting point resonates very well with my personal experience as a practicing musician – from reacting to a loud cough during the quietest passage of a slow movement to responding to a particularly unusual piano or acoustics – there does always seem to be some improvising happening while playing music, albeit sometimes to relatively small degrees (as in the two examples just mentioned). This ubiquity of improvisation in musical practice is then augmented by another notion mentioned in Benson’s book, namely that “each instance [of improvisation] involves a kind of reworking of something that already exists, so the differences concern the ways and the degrees to which this reworking takes place" (Benson 2003, 30). If this is the case, if improvisation is always a reworking of something that already exists, can it ever produce something brand new?
In his book The Field of Musical Dialogue, music philosopher Marcel Cobussen quotes the French philosopher Jacques Derrida who remarks that “improvisation, regarded as a purely spontaneous creation of something absolutely new, is impossible” (Cobussen, 2017, What is Improvisation (Not?) ). Derrida's claim indeed resonates with Benson's insistence that every instance of improvisation "involves a kind of reworking of something that already exists," and the Russian philosopher Michael Bakhtin argues that "something created is always created out of something" (Bakhtin 1986, 120; also quoted in Cobussen 2017, What is Improvisation (Not?) ). Using Bakhtin and Derrida as well as other philosophers to substantiate his view, Cobussen states that:
improvising can therefore be understood as interacting with and transforming certain historical predispositions or, in a less time-based formulation, engaging with existing structures and rules, accepting, rejecting, appropriating, or building on previous selections and decisions. (ibid.)
Relating to "existing structures and rules" plays a significant role in the improvising presented in this research project because of the attention given to remaining within the context of nineteenth-century piano music. The question may then arise as to whether less idiomatically-oriented improvisation still relates to structures and rules, or "historical predispositions" at all, but Cobussen uses social scientist and philosopher Bruno Latour to argue that "any given interaction seems to overflow with elements which are already in the situation coming from some other time, some other place, and generated by some other agency" (Latour 2007, 166; quoted in Cobussen). Associating the question of the access to newness through improvisation and another concept commonly associated with the term, freedom, music philosopher Eric Landgraf claims that, "far from being the expression of unbridled freedom, improvisation marks a process that acquires a degree of consistency by connecting to – repeating and altering – what has come before" (Landgraf 2011, 16). Within the context of Playing Schumann Again for the First Time, the pursuit of something “absolutely new" would probably transgress the original goal of the project, which namely is to pursue ways of learning to improvise convincingly within the context of Schumann and the nineteenth-century piano repertoire in general. As already mentioned in the Introduction, a practitioner like myself who engages in various musical styles is actually looking for a way to avoid the "new" with this project; by re-engaging with and reworking the old, my intention is to pursue improvisation in the context of Schumann's piano music more according to "the sense implied by the literal meaning of the term derived from Latin, defining improvisation as an unforeseen, unforeseeable, and unplanned activity that is inventive, as any creative ‘doing’ that, voluntarily or involuntarily, unfolds without following a predetermined plan" (Landgraf 2011, 16; author's own emphasis). The lack of a specific predetermined plan, however, should not undermine the fact that "improvisation is linked to the known and familiar in as much as the known and familiar must be recognized as that from which the improvisation has to distinguish itself" (Landgraf 2011, 93).
In 1994, pianist-improviser-composer Frederic Rzewski said that:
Improvisation is a controlled experiment with a limited number of unknown possibilities. It always has rules and a framework. There is no such thing as a 'free' improvisation. [...] Learning to improvise can also be compared with learning to speak in public. Success in both depends upon being able to concentrate on the thing to be done, to somehow ensure that it goes on, and on all of the things that could possibly go wrong; which, although they have to be considered at some point, should not be allowed to interfere with the performance in the moment of doing it. Of course errors must inevitably happen; but part of the interest in watching or listening to a successful improvisation lies in the fact that such errors are human and universal, and therefore a part of everyone's experience. The skillful recovery of a dropped ball is satisfying to observe, because the spectator can at once identify with the player in weakness while admiring the same player's strength. (Rzewski 2007, 104—105)
Rzewski's insistence on rules and a framework in order to improvise coincide well with the analogy of improvisation as "learning to speak in public." In what language is the improviser speaking? In a language that already exists? In a language that the audience can understand? In an essay discussing why performers should study performance, American author and jazz musician José Antonio Bowen uses the language analogy to convince the reader that "the point of learning a new language is that we can eventually speak for ourselves. When we are fluent, we can create expressions never heard before, but still understood" (Bowen 1996, 34).2 Returning briefly to the issue of newness, the reason such a phrase can be understood supposes that it is not “absolutely new” at all, but rather an altered instance of something repeated from the past. Bowen's example also highlights how the rules and framework of a language ordain understanding. Without them, an expression could be understood in multiple ways and might therefore lack meaning due to a lack of context. (During my first trip to South Africa, I could not help but understand the Afrikaans phrase baie danke [thanks a lot] as buy a donkey). Rzewski's admiration of the improvisatory recovery of a dropped ball – equating a dropped ball to an unwanted happening in a musical performance such as a wrong note – also raises the question of degree. What efforts does one have to go through to recover a dropped ball? The size of the court is arguably a lesser factor than the experience and skill that the player has in recovering a ball. When a classically-trained performer misses a note and continues as if nothing happened, was that ball easier to recover than when John Coltrane makes a “mistake” while soloing on the changes from “My Favorite Things” for ten or so minutes? Although the word “mistake” implies something unwanted, an elegant recovery can render the mistake-event as something crucial to the improvisation – this recovery can only be considered elegant if the mistake is surrounded by other behavior that provides coherence to the performance. Improvisation is embedded to various degrees in these two musical “mistakes” as well as in their respective follow-throughs. However, a “mistake” in a higher degree of improvisation (mistaking in which musical tradition one takes part, for example) might have further-reaching consequences.3
In her article “Improvising Impromptu, Or, What to Do With a Broken String,” Lydia Goehr differentiates between the concept of improvisation impromptu – the everyday improvisation of “doing exactly the right or wrong thing in the moment” – and the musical improvisation extempore - “when musicians make up music in performance, from this moment forward” (Goehr 2016, 459; author’s own emphasis). Rzewski’s examples of a dropped ball and a mistake during a musical performance both constitute instances of improvisation impromptu. Goehr continues by explaining that improvisation impromptu can and does happen during improvisation extempore and that these concepts are differentiated by the fact that “improvisation extempore asks us to attend to what is achieved in the performance as a whole, [while] improvisation impromptu picks out the inspired or exemplary turn in a performance when, on the spot, one does (at best) the right or winning thing” (ibid., 464; author’s own emphasis). A further way to differentiate between the two concepts is in regards to the knowledge that the performer has (or lack thereof) of the improvisatory act before its instantiation:
In improvising impromptu, unlike in improvising extempore, the not-knowing is three fold: we do not know that we will have to improvise at all, or how we will improvise when we do have to improvise, and we do not know how our improvising will turn out, although, if well-trained, we might well feel secure that we will indeed know how to employ our wit to make the right fit. (ibid., 471)
Although I believe that a practitioner also does not know exactly how his or her improvisation will “turn out” when improvising extempore, the core issue of degree that this chapter addresses applies (equally well) to both the improvisational concepts of impromptu and extempore. Improvisation extempore is yielded to various degrees in both performance and composition, and as already described above in the discussion of dropped balls and “mistakes,” improvisation impromptu can emerge as a minor mishap or as a significant hurdle during performance.
The rules and framework themselves can also become parameters for improvisation; or, to continue by speaking of degrees, a large enough degree of improvised musical behavior could even alter the rules and/or framework as well. Discussing Erlend Dehlin's PhD dissertation “The Flesh and Blood of Improvisation,” Cobussen says that a "form of rationality, usually presented as a given set of rules, might become an instrument rather than a restraint jacket, not to be obeyed and followed indiscriminately, but to be used creatively and spontaneously" (Cobussen 2017, Management - Richard Barrett ). Dehlin himself articulates that "abstract models such as rules and structures [...] can be used in improvisation as tools" (Dehlin 2008, 94-95). A good example of music that results from breaking rules can be heard in the Eusebius Traum subchapter of the chapter On My Improvisation Methods, where two of the three instances of Eusebius Traum do follow the rules laid out for the musical experiment whereas the third instance does not.4
"Performers – even when performing music that is strictly notated – do not merely 'perform' but also 'improvise' upon that which they perform" (Benson 2003, 26). Using this perspective as a departure point but then quickly extending it to include composers – composers are also always improvising to some degree – Benson summarizes various degrees of improvisation in both performance and composition in a list, designating a number for each degree to which musical improvisation can take place. The list concludes with the eleventh degree of improvisation (improvisation11), after which he follows with this disclaimer: "by no means is this list meant to be exhaustive. These are only some of the forms and degrees that improvisation may take. I sketch these to show not only how varied improvisation can be but also how ever present it is in both 'composition' and 'performance'" (Benson 2003, 30). Benson's items on the list serve to introduce each following subchapter, which include extended commentary of my own, relating each item on the list to music exposed in this project as well as to examples from pianist-improviser-composer colleagues. I use this detailed list as it helps me to present the various degrees of improvisation apparent in music-making within the specific context of nineteenth-century piano music. By combining Benson's insistence on the ubiquity of improvisation and the degrees to which it can take place along with Rzewski's idea of the necessary existence of rules and a framework, a complete picture of what is happening in Playing Schumann Again for the First Time can start to take form.5