Creativity v Convention: What happened to improvisation in classical music?

Music

During lockdown, I wrote a piece featuring only a starting and ending theme, leaving the space in between entirely free for the performers (taking turns) to improvise. Players had complete freedom of expression in how they choose to navigate from one theme to the other. The notes they chose, how long they took, and style were entirely at the discretion of each performer.

I approached a few of my musician friends to test this conceptual piece out. When faced with no rules and no harmonic foundation on which they could improvise against, many of them struggled. I found this surprising, especially from performers I know to be excellent jazz improvisers.

However, my friends who are classical musicians failed the task entirely. Why?

Improvisation seems to have all but disappeared not just from the repertoire of classical music, but from the skill set of classical performers. Audiences attending classical concerts and recitals generally expect to hear faithful renditions of the pieces they know, and doubtless have in their music collections at home. Deviation from the score is seen as a failure, perhaps even an insult to the express will of the composer.

It wasn’t always this way. Many early pieces were based around a framework where improvisation would be expected, not just on the main theme (similar to a jazz ‘head’ followed by solos nowadays), but in the accompanymeny itself. The basso continuo parts in Baroque scores (usually played by the harpsichord) were loose fragments, using a special shorthand (known as figured bass) to highlight the expected harmony at certain points in the piece. It was up to the player to fill in the gaps. Similarly, soloists were given freedom of expression in their performance, often at the end of a piece in a completely improvised coda known as a cadanza:

It was the performer’s job to “finish” the composition for the audience (in the same way, today, that an interior decorator finishes the work of an architect and a builder)

Rhode Island Philharmonic, THE STORY BEHIND… (2021)
Composer & violin pioneer Antonio Vivaldi was renowned (and even feared by his peers) for the virtuosity of his improvised cadenzas (picture credit: Eboracum Baroque)

Nowadays, there is almost no improvisation to be heard at a classical concert or recital. Sticking strictly to the notes on the page has become convention.

Did the beginning of the end start with Beethoven? His fifth and final piano concerto, the so-called ‘Emporer Concerto’, features a unique instruction at the end of the first movement: “Do not make a cadenza, but immediately proceed to the following” (usually marked on the score as Non si fa una cadenza, ma s’attacca subito il seguente).

At this time in his life, Beethoven once one of the most celebrated piano improviser of his time, if it the best among his contemporaries, was now struggling with his hearing to the extent that he was no longer able to improvise when playing alongside an orchestra.

A wonderfully striking 3D interpretation of Beethoven’s portrait, circa 1812 (picture credit: Hadi Karimi)

Some believe that he decided to formally write a cadenza to be played as written, which was very rare for the time, almost out of a sense of spite; frustration at not being able to improvise the way he wanted to led to the instruction specifying that no other performer could either.

At the same time, pieces were becomg more elaborate, orchestras were increasing in size and composers were becoming more experimental and imaginative. This left little room for the spontanetny of one individual’s instantaneous composing. Similarly the widening of audiences themselves to include more of the emerging middles classes led to an increased formalisation of concert going etiquette, much like the ever-expanding rules of dining (which fork to use, passing the port from the left). Invented rules designed to separate the ‘old money’ from the ‘neveau riche’ soon became simply the way things are done. Instruction because convention. Convention became tradition.

So how do we come back from this? There are those who argue that without the skill of improvisation, you’re not a complete musician.

When we repeat music we have learned by rote, are we repeating memorised phrases in a foreign language in which we are unable to actually converse? Music is, after all, the oldest language. We don’t exchange information and ideas solely through the quotation of famous speeches (at least, not most of the time), so why does this still such a strong convention in western classical music performance?

That’s just how things are done around here.

There is something stultifying about a tradition where millions of pianists are all playing the same 100 compositions… everyone has to play a Bach prelude and fugue, a Beethoven sonata, a Chopin nocturne, and we’ll do that until the end of the world, something in our soul dies

John Mortensen, quoted in The Guardian (2020)

But it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way.

Real art is about breaking the rules and going against convention. Perhaps it is time classical performers took back their right to own their own performance and interpretation. Audiences won’t mind (according to this relatively recent research). Beethoven and the Old Masters won’t mind. They’re dead, but their music doesn’t have to be…

Refreshing my Strat (and adding a Tele mod)

Guitars & Gear

After commissioning my custom ukulele (which you can read more about here), I was more or less set in terms of the instruments I needed with my current musical projects. There was just one guitar which wasn’t quite right

My oldest Stratocaster hasn’t seen much of the stage recently, and not just because of playing less gigs due to various lockdowns, etc. The action had felt off, and it seemed to be because of the bridge, or rather the saddles. After twenty-two years, the small screws in the saddles had corroded to the point that strings could not be raised high enough for my liking.

I contacted Elderwood Guitars (who built my beautiful semi-hollow guitar) to discuss repairs. I also decided to make a few changes while this axe was in the shop…

What’s new?

I don’t really have the need for an HSS guitar nowadays, so used this opportunity to have the bridge humbucker replaced with a Tonerider Vintage Blues single coil. This would better match the two City Limits pickups in the neck and middle positions. Barrie at Elderwood was able to change the pick guard and brave the bridge pickup within the larger cavity in the guitar (cut out for the original humbucker).

I also asked for the ‘Tele mod’, i.e., a switch whi h allows me to activate the bridge pickup in any position, effectively giving my seven different pickup combinations, including the lovely sounding neck & bridge pairing. This is one sound Telecasters have always had that was not available on a standard Strat.

With a switch taking the place of the second tone control (the remaining tone control becoming a master for all three pickups), I now had a guitar that could provide this, as well as the classic ‘quack’ from the out-of-phase Strat positions (2 & 4) – the best of both worlds, in my mind (and to my ears).

Finally, I figured that since these modifications would result in a different sounding guitar, perhaps it ws worthwhile refreshing the instrument visually as well. The old Midnight Blue finish had certainly acquired its fair share of chips and dents over the years. Barrie smoothed these out before hand painting the guitar in a burnt orange hue, which you can see below…

Before (left) and after (right) shots of my oldest Strat (pic courtesy Elderwood Guitars)

To me, it looks very similar to the orangey shade of older, worn down fiesta red guitars. It lends a classic vibe to my oldest Strat – the oldest guitar in my collection, in fact. The vintage feel is aided by the off-white pickup covers and scratchplate.

How does it sound?

It sounds like a classic 60s Strat or Tele, depending on your pickup choices. The neck & bridge combination has widened the sonic pallette of this guitar, making it my main choice for soul, funk and rhythm & blues gigs. Another great job by Barrie!

What are the best mods you’ve made to your guitars? Get in touch and let me know!

Upcycled music: Neil McHardy ukulele review

Guitars & Gear

Last year, I commissioned another custom-built instrument. I was in the market for a ukulele I could take out to gigs, as my existing concert sized one did not have a pickup or preamp attached. Knowing Neil McHardy in Cumbria has built a few ukes recently, I asked if he would consider making a tenor sized electro-acoustic model for me. McHardy guitars operate from a village in Cumbria, making acoustic instruments out of recycled wood. Some of you may remember built his first ever classical guitar at my request, mainly out of an old table (you can read the full review by clicking here).

This time around, I was happy to let Neil design it pretty much however he wished. I am a fan of his signature offset sound holes, and my only stipulation was to include a preamp so the ukulele could be used for concerts and recording. As always, Neil sent regular updates on how the build was progressing (see pictures) and was always happy to impart gems of guitar and uke building knowledge.

Size matters

So what is the difference between a concert and tenor sized ukulele? A tenor is larger than a concert, sometimes up to four inches longer, but they are tuned the same. In fact, soprano, concert and tenor ukuleles can all be tuned the same (G4, C4, E4, A4). The main difference is volume and depth of bass response which the larger bodied instruments benefit from.

An example of the size and scale differences between different types of ukulele

With tenor ukuleles, some players also use a G string which sounds an octave lower (G3), effectively making he open strings sound exactly the same as the highest four strings of a guitar at the fifth fret. I can see how some players might find this easier, especially if they are migrating to the ukulele from the guitar. Personally, if I needed that sound, I’d put a capo on one of my guitars, so I have opted for the more traditional uke tuning.

Specifications

The finished instrument is made from recycled Douglas Fir and Spanish Cedar. The face plate and scratchplate (or golpe) are made from fallen trees Neil found on a walk, and feature the most stunning grain, on which Neil has placed the tuning pegs in a line (rather than two per side, as is traditional).

With the addition of a good value preamp (powered by an easily removable 9 volt battery), this new uke was fitted with strings and Neil contacted me to collect it.

I love the look of the grain on the golpe and faceplate, and was impressed with the instrument’s volume when strumming it unplugged for the first time. Plugged in, it sounded the same as it did acoustically, just with the potential to go a lot louder – which is exactly what I would expect.

Family photo with my previous McHardy build, my gorgeous classical guitar

Unfortunately, I haven’t had the chance to try it out onstage yet, but I plan to use it in an upcoming recording project (more details on that to follow). But when that material comes to the stage, this uke will be out on the road with me. I can’t wait.