In the Introduction, I voiced a critique of current classical music performance practice that is based on a general inability (or unwillingness) to depart from the score. While continuing to address this issue, this chapter will also reference the increasing number of exceptions to this generalization and will present where one will find certain examples of these exceptions discussed in this project. The score-based approach to performing classical music both in the concert hall as well as in educational institutions will first be contextualized by studies that use historical recordings to highlight the difference between the way music was performed in the past and contemporary performance practice, in order to argue that improvisation is a logical and strategic way to distance one's own musical practice from current performance practice norms. Following that, the question of why improvisation can reinvigorate an approach to classical music performance will be answered in four ways: its inclusion in one's own musical practice reflects the way music was practiced in the early nineteenth century when the repertoire in question was created; it is a strategic tool for adding new ideas and perspectives to current standards in performance practice; it engages the performer and audience in different ways; and the newly embedded knowledge learned through improvising classical music expands the musician’s ability to engage with the repertoire. A plea to work away from the score by finding methods towards improvising without a score will be voiced, followed by a clarification of where the many examples of colleagues, who are already themselves working in this manner, are mentioned.
Modern performance practice and the musical work
It is a pity that most 'classical' musicians have fallen out of touch with the art of improvising. Improvising is the core of making music. If you really understand what you are playing you must be capable of improvising in that same style. Otherwise all you are doing is imitating. (Arcadi Volodos 2014; Mooiman and de Jong 2016)
Comparing recorded performances of Schumann's Kreisleriana by Martha Argerich and Vladimir Horowitz immediately gives one the sense that the performance practice of classical music is diverse. Just by considering the way each pianist uses timing and rubato in the opening phrase of the first piece, the listener is left with the impression that these two pianists have very individual approaches to the music. (Timing and rubato, as well as numerous other performance tools that still remain within the guidelines of a particular score, are parameters that are subject to improvisation in performance and will be discussed in much more detail in the chapter On Scales of Improvisation). However, the performances of the laureates of the most recent Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, Belgium might immediately give one the opposite impression: performers seem to be heavily restricted by certain norms in classical music performance practice and are not encouraged to question or transgress these norms. An unintentional wrong note in a modern performance of Schumann blemishes the entirety with an impression of sloppiness and imperfection, and the idea of playing a "wrong note" intentionally remains unfathomable to the general classical music practitioner today. In the Introduction I accused contemporary classical performance practice of being homogeneous and even monotonous; of course this does not mean that I think that performances of nineteenth-century repertoire all sound the same. The root of this homogeneity can be traced to the fact that most performers revere the score above all else that is involved in a performance. This reverence heeds the following logic: What is notated by a composer is sacred and a performance should follow the score at all times and as meticulously as possible. This chapter intends to depict certain generalities in classical music performance practice today in order to highlight how moving away from widespread norms can be achieved through a variety of different means. My intention with this chapter and with this research project in general is to emphasize that guiding classical music practice towards a space where there is more room for degrees of improvisation can conveniently remove the constraints imposed by these norms, and can reinvigorate the way the performance of classical music can function, both in public and at home. Why and how these deviations from the notated music might open new and interesting vistas on a rather well-known repertoire will also be addressed. Furthermore, I will show that this plea to work away from the score to find more ways to improvise is by no means isolated; there is an ever-increasing number of classical music practitioners who are pursuing and finding similar methods, and some of their work will be mentioned here (although the impossible task of comprehensively summarizing the situation of the classical music improviser today renders this part of the discussion necessarily incomplete).
The ever-presence of the musical work in the performance of classical music today can be seen in concert halls and educational institutions around the world. Almost without exception, a classical piano recital at Wigmore or Carnegie Hall consists of a presentation of musical works, composed in the past (including the recent past), performed by a reputable artist. Similarly, a traditional education in classical music in a renowned music conservatory culminates in a degree recital where the student exclusively performs musical works from the past (sometimes including contemporary works from the recent past). Still, an increasing interest in improvisation in the classical music community has been developing alongside these standardizations, and this begs the question of how one can bridge the gap between the two. That performing a precomposed work and improvising are in fact deeply intertwined and influence each other will be shown in much more detail in the chapters On Scales of Improvisation and On My Improvisation Methods, but first I need to present an argument here as to why I believe classical music performance practice is in need of revision, and why creating a certain distance from any specific precomposed work is a convenient strategy towards that revision.1
In his recent publications, musicologist Daniel Leech-Wilkinson has been working to dispel some of the myths, or "delusions" as he calls them, regarding modern classical music performance:
It seems increasingly obvious that western classical music is essentially an oral culture imagining itself to be a written culture. Musicians learn their craft via practical, one-to-one studio teaching (supplemented by workshops, masterclasses and rehearsals) in which beliefs about how scores should be played are passed on orally and by example, sharing the assumption that the notation already encodes most of the information one needs from the past about how the music should sound. (Leech-Wilkinson 2016, 325)
Leech-Wilkinson justifies his claim that classical music is an oral culture by using historical recordings to prove that modern performance practice (including performance practice that aligns itself with the so-called historically-informed performance movement) is drastically different from the way performers approached the same repertoire 120 or so years ago. The way performers used various musical parameters – especially flexibility in regards to timing – in the past stands in stark contrast to the way performers use them today. He then addresses an ethical component of this confrontation between modern performance practice and the way the same repertoire was performed in the past by posing a question using performances of Brahms by pianists Ilona Eibenschütz (1872–1967) and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920–1995) as examples:
Who is harmed when the Brahms ballade, Op. 10 No. 4, is played by Michelangeli rather than Eibenschütz? Certainly not Brahms. We imagine him harmed because we imagine him present. [...] Is the listener harmed by hearing a different reading of a text? If they are then what damage is done to them when they go to the theatre to see Shakespeare? (Leech-Wilkinson 2016, 328)
Leech-Wilkinson arrives at the conclusion that the practitioner is the one who suffers from a restrictive and policed approach to classical performance practice based on a certain number of assumptions, including "that musical works exist," "that there are or were composers' intentions, that they are known, and that they matter," and "that there are limited possibilities inherent in a score, perhaps only one ideal performance" (Leech-Wilkinson 2016, 330—331). Because I agree that the general approach to the performance of classical music is in need of revision, I will now debate Leech-Wilkinson's assumptions in order to argue that improvisation is a strategic way to offer a new approach next to, beyond, or instead of these current standardizations. Understanding that musical works do indeed exist but circumventing this existence in practice by using methods that drift away from a particular work (as described in detail in the chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis) immediately brings the classical music practitioner away from the issue of the "limited possibilities inherent in a score." Instead, the performer finds him or herself in a musical space where there is room for various degrees of improvisation. And, after having stepped away from the score and having engaged with a practice that is guided by the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis, upon returning to the score the performer is more aware of the sheer multitude of possibilities inherent in its realization, giving him or her not only the impression that there are actually countless "ideal performances" of any given work but also the tools to realize them.2 As for the composer's intentions, the question of how they can be known and how they should then be interpreted seems more valid than if they actually "matter." As presented in musicologist Peter Kivy's Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance, the composer's intentions are but one of four different authenticities guiding the modern music practitioner in relation to a performance of a musical work composed in the past. (A thorough presentation of Kivy’s four authenticities can be found in the chapter On Sonic Signature). How composers' intentions can be known and what they may be are issues that are obviously open to interpretation. Musicologist and violinist Clive Brown for example asserts that the composer expects us to improvise:
If classical music is to regain its cultural significance, musicians must engage with it more courageously, learning once more to read between the lines of the score. Only then will they recapture the full measure of freshness, beauty and excitement that composers expected their notation to convey to skillful performers and, through them, to the listener. (Brown 2015, final paragraph)
Based on research purporting that musicians in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (coinciding in part with the beginning of recorded music) approached the performance of musical works with a significant amount of freedom, Brown asserts that composers expected their notation to be encountered in this manner, as that was the norm in performance practice at the time.
Norms in classical music performance practice have indeed changed drastically. In his research comparing historical recordings to modern performance practice, Leech-Wilkinson exposes how different performances of the repertoire sound today in comparison to the past. In turn, musicians like Anna Scott (see Romanticizing Brahms..., Scott 2014) and Sigurd Slåttebrekk (Chasing the Butterfly, Slåttebrekk 2010) are working to create performances that are (in Scott's case) creative explorations, or (in Slåttebrekk's case) attempted re-creations of performances encapsulated in historical recordings. The results from both of their work confirm just how much standardizations in the way classical music is performed have shifted over time. Leech-Wilkinson describes Scott’s performed and recorded explorations of historical recordings of Brahms as "alternatives that we know have happened." He then describes my presentation of methods towards distancing one's own practice from a more or less fixed interpretation to create space for improvisation as "alternative readings whose historicity we shall never know" (Leech-Wilkinson 2014). Historical recordings indeed provide an opportunity to use audible evidence to expose the drastic differences in the way classical music is practiced today compared to the past; but, as was made clear in the chapter On Improvisation in the Nineteenth Century, the ever-presence of improvisation in the first half of the nineteenth century also stands in strong contrast to the way modern classical music is (generally) practiced today. Although the audible evidence necessary to know how improvisation sounded in the past is lacking, the modern classical music practitioner can nevertheless engage in improvisation knowing that he or she is working in a way that is in accordance with the classical music tradition up to and including the first half of the nineteenth century. Essentially, I propose that the distance between historical and modern performance practice that has been exposed and analyzed by researching historical recordings can be further investigated using improvisation as the main research tool.
Scott’s and Slåttebrekk’s explorations of historical recordings within contemporary performance reward them with new embodied knowledge related to issues of timing, rubato, and dynamics – knowledge that is derived from the exposure to and imitation of these recordings. This knowledge provides a context in which improvisation can happen, specifically when the act of imitating historical recordings is replaced by a desire to let the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis (see the chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis) take over so that certain performative decisions take place in the moment. With more diversity available in/by/through reworking specific musical parameters, it is not only very plausible to conceptually reject the myth that there is only "one ideal performance" (Leech-Wilkinson 2016, 331); a practitioner also has the means to create many different performances of a given work. By claiming that improvisation is a strategy towards creating new approaches next to, beyond, or instead of current standards in performance practice, I extend the practice of improvisation on/with/in nineteenth-century repertoire to include, besides timing, rubato, and dynamics, the musical parameter of pitch, thereby looking for ways to find music that is not directly related to the notated music (the process that has been described as “circumventing the musical work” in the chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis and is presented in more detail in the subchapter Practicing in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods).