I recently had the pleasure of spending a fantastic week at the end of June attending the Lute Society of America’s biannual seminar in Cleveland. The performances were drop-dead beautiful and the lectures, workshops and classes where fascinating. What was particularly dear to my heart, though, was the general trend of much of the discussion, among students and faculty alike, which was focused on the nature of improvisation and strategies for approaching it, and its relationship with the compositional process. Of course, this was as applied to music in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. To my delight, though, we found that there is basically no difference between how improvisation was approached in the past and how it is approached today in jazz, blues and popular music. Sitting among some superb musicians and some of the leading scholars in Early Music, I found that many of the issues under discussion were exactly the same as what we used to hash out decades ago, as improvising blues musicians, over bottles of cheap wine in a basement studio in Brooklyn; indeed, we found the answers to some burning questions back then and I was able to take many of the conclusions we had come to and offer them as constructive contributions to our discussions in Cleveland. There were a number of surprised nods of agreement among some very learned heads on the observations and solutions I offered. We discovered that as musicians, regardless of academic background, we all face the same challenges when improvising and composing and are all equally creative in dealing with the concepts associated with the two, and their application. Where can the fine line between composition and improvisation be found? Can it even be found anywhere at all? It’s a fuzzy line, seemingly more of a messy smudge that obliterates the end of the one word and the beginning of the other (and vice versa). I’m not sure if they are as much two distinct forms of expression as they are just dual aspects of one primary creative process. The answers to questions like this are never easy to sort out and more often than not, if not being impossible to answer, turn out to be a complex mess. I don’t expect to find all the answers here, but I do hope to explore some avenues of inquiry (...and to add to the confusion it pays to remember that things are not always as they seem, nor are they otherwise).
There are "compositions" that, as documents, may very well be no more than a record, a snapshot, so to speak, of an ongoing creative process of improvisation. This is a view shared in the visual arts by abstract expressionist painter Wilhelm deKooning. DeKooning felt that his paintings were never really finished, and that those canvases taken from his studio and exhibited publicly were only documenting a stage, a thin slice, of what was going on from day to day in his creative process. He felt that his life—spent in a constantly evolving act of painting—was his true artistic statement. The paintings, as documents, were incidental. It’s almost as if he viewed the whole concept of "the work of art" more as a verb than a noun. Ornette Coleman seems to share the same point of view: in the liner notes of his 1959 recording, Change of the Century, he states that, "In a certain sense there really is no start or finish to any of my compositions. There is a continuity of expression, certain continually evolving strands of thought that link all my compositions together. Maybe it’s something like the paintings of Jackson Pollock". It’s interesting to note that Coleman, the consummate improviser whose recorded works are largely improvised, refers to his works as "compositions". Apparently the line was pretty fuzzy for him, too. This begs to question as to when does one stop calling the process of creating "improvising" and call it "composition"?
As far as the documentation of an improvised performance, Derek Bailey—that arch-improviser—in his book, Improvisation: It’s Nature and Practice in Music, adds this to the discussion: "Essentially, music is fleeting; its reality is its moment of performance. There might be documents that relate to that moment—score, recording, echo, memory—but only to anticipate or recall it." On the basis of this statement we can conclude that music, by necessity, has no choice but to be experienced as an ongoing endeavor, in the flux of time, from performance to performance; it, puts the real experience of music in the forefront and squarely in the "Now". This is fertile ground for the performance of improvised music. Bailey also says that improvised music is best heard live and then forgotten as soon as possible, the implication being that the more you listen to a recording of an improvised performance, the less you’ll get out of it. While I don’t deny that there are real benefits (and real pleasure) to be derived from listening to the recording of a hot solo by your favorite performer, over and over, it’s also true that the overall artistic value of recording such performances can indeed be a hit-and-miss thing (eg. "Emergency", by Tony Williams & co.). Often it is most valuable solely as a reference document of or for the performer.
Be that as it may, the practice of documenting improvisation is not a new concept and goes back a surprisingly long way. We can catch a glimpse of it with the recercar. Recercars are written records of improvised performances that occur most commonly in the lute repertoire of the 16th century. In 1508, Joan Ambrosio Dalza, published a number of abstract, free form recercars that play primarily as improvisations. By mid century, Francesco da Milano was publishing recercars that, while still retaining a loose feel, come across as being much more organized. As time progressed the form of the recercar became formalized to the point where it morphed into the fugue. It, in effect, became an established compositional form and virtually unrecognizable from it progenitor.
I believe there is a direct correlation between the recercar, as it appears on the printed page, and, say, an ECM recording of Ralph Towner playing a live concert of improvisations. They didn’t have audio recording equipment in the 1500s and couldn’t catch everything, but what they did was write down is what they remembered of an improvised performance. They wrote down their best licks. To take it a step further, they may have strung some of their best licks together, in a pleasing way (and in a satisfying way, possessing a greater measure of internal rhetorical coherency), to form a composition. In my own experience, blues solos that began as improvisations in performance eventually, after playing them literally over a thousand times, were edited to the extent that they became composed solos. I could very well have written them down and called them recercars. There is a clear connection here that spans centuries. Examining the evolution of the recercar throughout the 16th century nicely illuminates the close symbiotic relationship that improvisation and composition share; it serves as an archetype of what goes on within the mind of the individual musician. The process of thoughtful organization of spontaneous musical ideas, as illustrated in these works, is probably the clearest link I can find in the fuzz between the two disciplines.
Crawford Young, being the genius that he is, approaches the issue from the opposite direction, saying, " Improvisation is really only memorized composition". Seab Meador once told me that he learned how to play guitar by listening to as many records as he could and stealing as many riffs off them as he was able. In this fashion he eventually built an aural library, a lexicon of licks that he could draw from when improvising. I believe every improvising musician can relate to this as we have all done the same thing. The really fun and creative part is when the moment comes, usually in performance, where you morph those riffs into something else: something all your own. These are the moments that you eventually find and develop your own voice, where you find ideas that you want to preserve, where you may have the urge to compose a vehicle with which to preserve them. Thus we have moved from composition to improvisation and back to composition; we’ve come full circle, and the process will renew itself when someone hears our riffs and adds them to their own improvisational vocabulary.
I’ve also heard improvisation referred to as "spontaneous composition", but I believe this may be stretching it a bit too far. Composition implies intent; it implies a desire to preserve a specific musical idea for duplication in future performances. A purely improvised performance expresses no such intention, it functions completely in the "now". True, ideas born of improvisation–truly inspired ideas–that make a deep impression remain to become parts of possible forthcoming composed works. But in this capacity they are not spontaneous, they are willfully manipulated. Anyone who has improvised an inspired solo knows that doing it is not a conceptual thing, it’s an experiential thing. The thinking is peripheral; it’s really a matter of doing. It’s spontaneous. Is it composition? I don’t think so. It’s a matter of expressing something else, and what hat that something else is, is a matter for an essay all by itself.
This little excursion has the potential to quickly turn into a book–or at the very least a series of posts. I’m just getting started. Every time I put down an idea it generates three more. As far as I can tell, improvisation and composition are intertwined in the ultimate symbiotic relationship. Although it often appears that one cannot exist without the other, I won’t go so far as to say that all composition is the product of improvised ideas; there are always exceptions. I’m not yet satisfied as to whether they exist as two independent entities, or as two aspects of the same creative principle, or both. There are too many factors to consider to come to any immediate conclusion. So, for now, I’ll leave it at this.