Improvisation as Explosive Device

“If you know what you want why not just write it?”

I am writing a chamber concerto for improvising trio and 14 players and just returned from a rehearsal session with the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. Why mix up a classical piece with improvisation? These kinds of tricks are frequently written off as treasonous or trifling.

When you write for classical players you write precisely. You’re supposed to define everything. These players have no expertise in improvising and in any case you don’t know them so you don’t know what they’d do with the freedom. Rhetorical question: Why don’t we ever hear the question put the other way — Why write any music for a jazz player when all they do is improvise?

You do hear it argued that a jazz musician should stick to the basics and play in the generally defined style known as the mainstream. Writing pieces that bring classical players into an improvised context just isn’t cricket.

To put it simply: Improvisation makes exciting music. I believe in its power to create an electricity that cannot be found any other way. I also believe in the future of jazz, and I take it seriously enough to believe that writing these kinds of pieces can evolve the language of jazz. If I didn’t love the music I wouldn’t be involved.

Music seems to progress when worlds collide. All but the purest of purists see value in that progress. And it would be hard to look at the classical music scene today, or the jazz scene, and miss the central place of hybrids. But why try to bridge the divide? They are perfectly fine without a bridge and many great musicians master both jazz and classical and manage to compartmentalize.

Okay, let me just step aside for a moment and say that I’m using the terms jazz and classical in their generally accepted meanings. There’s an interesting conversation in there for another day. But let me also say that while I’m talking about classical and jazz I feel you could say the same things about any tradition. Style or genre is the very surface level of music.

Also since we’re defining terms let me say that when I say improvisation I don’t mean “do anything.” Even in the freest of free improvising there are rules based on instrumentation, etiquette, personal preferences and simple habits. There are even stricter rules in most improvised jazz, as well as in what we generally call “world music.” So I am talking about improvisation using strategies and frameworks.

“If you know what you want why not just write it?”

Because improvisation makes great music. It’s an element of music with explosive potential. Sparks fly when musicians are forced to make choices. The energy of surprise is one of the things I love most in music: The sense that anything could happen. There’s also a power in hearing the individual make a choice that I find captivating. Hearing the voice of an individual musician is one of the hallmarks of jazz, and I believe it’s a strength that can travel.

Improvisation is not an abdication of responsibility. It is a skill. Just as it takes time for a performer to learn how to improvise, a composer works for years to harness that power. Some of my favorite composers are composers I love because they’ve learned how to integrate that energy into statements that transcend the written notes on the page.

Here are some examples of what I mean. Many of these can be heard on the Greenleaf Radio stream.

Gil Evans – The Barbara Song. It’s a composition by Kurt Weill, transformed into something else entirely by a combination of brilliant orchestration and subtle interaction. Listen to how the rhythm section (Gary Peacock and Elvin Jones) drifts into and out of meter, based on a deceptively simple ostinato. The woodwinds and brass sound like they are floating on the tempo, making each entrance a slightly different embodiment of the theme. When Wayne Shorter begins improvising, he emerges seamlessly from the ensemble, almost like he’s still playing a written part. It’s a surprise to suddenly hear a sound that we know and love so well – Wayne Shorter! – emerging from the haze of of the orchestra and not taking over, but rather playing around the arrangement and turning it into something so personal. Whether by design or coincidence (some would say there’s no difference) the ensemble constantly seems to shift in its relationship to the tempo. It has a spine-tingling effect and makes an incredibly mysterious and beautiful piece of music.

Charles Mingus – Open Letter to the Duke. I often wonder how he wrote this. It’s a succession of themes that flow together so well that we’re somehow hearing the great mind of Mingus directly through the band. The parts are intricate. But it sounds like everyone is improvising all the way through, and that the piece was developed by a band of players dedicated to realizing Mingus’ dreams. You hear the personalities in the statement of each theme, but it’s all so clearly part of the unusual form that you’d be hard pressed to say where the composing ends and where the improvising begins.

Cecil Taylor – Enter Evening. Again, all the themes are written, but there’s an openness of interpretation that weaves a rich and unique sonic tapestry. It’s a delicate and well-defined form that could only have been arrived at in this way.

Luciano Berio – Laborintus II. This piece always excites me because of the way Berio mixed a chamber ensemble with electronics, jazz improvisers and a narrator. These aren’t things that generally go together, but you can’t imagine this without any one of them. It’s a continually surprising evolution of sounds, textures and ideas

Witold Lutoslawski – Piano Concerto. This is just one example of this composer’s use of choice for the players. The choices are very sharply defined and intended to create a very clear effect. Lutoslawski himself said that these techniques were the only way he could get the sounds he was looking for. When you hear the woodwinds interacting with piano part in the first few moments it’s hard to disagree.

John Zorn – Elegy. This is a dark and powerful piece composed for a special, hand-picked bunch of players. Zorn creates a piece like this in collaboration with the performer, developing the perfect sound, texture, moment for each situation, while retaining his overall sense of the piece and remaining very much the composer of the work. It’s another unique way a composer can work with the vocabulary of the performer to maximum effect.

These are just a few examples. There are so many others. And just thinking about it prods the musical boundaries we’ve come to accept and demonstrates the infinite variations available. This makes me more confident than ever in the future of music.

That’s why I don’t write it all down. Improvisation is a powerful element in a composer’s arsenal. I think there’s a future in it.