It is not generally known that in the past, musical improvisation and composition were one and the same thing. Today they are, in one sense, fiercely opposing concepts.
In the 19thcentury, improvisation quietly started to disappear from its position in the performance aesthetic. People stopped tolerating deviations from the musical score such as extemporization of cadenzas and unencumbered ornamentation. Improvisation became a craft, not an art. Imperfect society started aspiring towards the ideal of perfectibility, probably emblemised by the French Revolution. Romanticism placed special value on the autonomy of the composer, the practice of composing as superior to improvisation, and the ‘work’ as the end-product.
The figure of the composer-performer (the composer who performs his own works) became increasingly divided. Previously a collaborative affair, music-making succumbed completely to the composer’s markings, and the score set limits on the performer’s interpretive freedom. We are where we are now largely as a result of this: we are told that composition refers to the musical work itself, and improvisation refers to a/the creation thereof.
Rather reductively, some aesthetic discourses say improvisation is ‘spontaneous, primitive, and natural’, and composition is ‘calculated, sophisticated and artificial’. Others acknowledge the true complexity of the dichotomy, suggesting that perhaps music can be improvisation and composition simultaneously.
“It is known that the Plains Indians seek visions in order to learn songs, and that these songs come to them during periods of ecstasy sometimes brought on by fasting and self-torture. The sudden creation of a song is in line with statements from Plains Indians that songs can be and normally are learned in a single hearing.” Nettl, Thoughts on Improvisation: A comparative approach
What is more, these very songs are often remembered, named and recounted. But the point at which an improvisation becomes a composition is vague – were these songs improvised when first sung? Do they become a composition at a specific point?
In her talk, Lara Pearson made the useful point that from an ethnographic perspective the concept of aesthetics is problematic in cross-cultural contexts. She used the example of Karnatak music, a southern Indian concert music, to illustrate that music can at once be both composed and improvised. Focussing on formats in the style that act as musical challenges, she discussed ways in which such challenges afford either success or failure, and contribute to an aesthetic in which risk is positively valued.
To say that a piece by Schubert is the timeless and detachable work of a genius is only half true. All music, composition or improvisation, attaches importance to performance. All music is a ‘performing art’ – improvisation the art of making up and playing music simultaneously, and composition the ‘cause’ of a performance.
Improvisation and composition are intimately connected because freedom applies to both, albeit in different quantity and valued by a different standard. Composition embraces a micro-freedom; improvisation is valued for the reservoir of possibilities in its macro-freedom.
Stylistic differences can be indistinguishable. Listen to an unspecified music with your eyes closed – are you sure you can say whether it has been composed or is improvised? The significance of category and words become futile. We are saying very little when we call something improvised or composed, because they occupy two sides of the same coin. The form of a successful improvisation appears as convincing as that of a composition, and the successfully-performed composition gives the illusion of being improvised.
Composition occupies one end and improvisation the other. In-between, there are a wide range of activities under performance. Performance is the heart of improvisation, and a process with a cerebral place in composition.
We are left with the continuum. A long faint, balmy expanse like the crack of dawn.
References, further reading, links
(feature image) Indian woman with a classical music instrument Karthik Balekudru Vishwanath
Bruno Nettl – Thoughts on Improvisation: a comparative approach
Pearson, L. (forthcoming). A Socially Situated Approach to Aesthetics: Games and Challenges in Karnatak Music. In A. Hamilton & L. Pearson (Eds.), The Aesthetics of Imperfection: Improvisation, Performance and Composition in Music and the Arts . London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Andy Hamilton – The Aesthetics of Imperfection