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…

The making of ‘Last One Get the Lights’ (part two)

Music

You might remember Part One of the NG Band mini-documentary, which was released a few weeks ago. If not, you can watch it here.

Here’s part two. Let me know what you think.

New singles Right Side of Wrong and Anything and Nothing will be released as a double A-side this Sunday (11th April) and will be available on all the usual online and steaming platforms

2021 in books: Science-fiction special (January-March)

Books

Well, here we are, three months into 2021 already. How’s this year looking for you, compared to it’s predecessor? Already it seems that there are reasons to be hopefully optimistic.

Last year, I made brief notes on every book I read (excluding the academic texts I had to consult as part of my psychotherapy work) and published mini reviews in four different blogs; one every quarter. You can find the most recent one by clicking here. I enjoy the process of revisiting what I had read and thinking about it a little more, so I have decided to do it all again this year.

Here are the titles I have read from the start of the year, up until the end of March. It was only in March itself that I realized that every title in this article could be considered science fiction. This was not intentional, not least as I had recently written about the genre of Mundane science-fiction – a category that would not include many of the novels I speak about here…

The second sleep by Robert Harris (2019, Arrow)

Set in the future, in a society which has reverted to a more middle-ages style of living, thanks to an unnamed disaster which has apparently happened around the time of our own present. Harris paints an England without electricity, and where the church has once again become a force of power, and science is labelled as heresy. We follow a young priest sent to bury an older priest in a remote parish in Exmoor, only to discover the deceased parson’s collection of ‘pre-Armageddon’ artifacts, which set him down a path which makes him question what he has been taught. This book provides mystery, thought experiment, sexual tension and archaeology – all in a little over 400 pages!

I’ve read a few of Harris’s novels, and found them all to be similarly fast-paced. Easy read they may be, but not for lack of detail. I heartily recommend this book, and if you find you enjoy it, perhaps try Fatherland (similar to this novel, in that it is an alternate version of 20th century history, with one major difference!) Conclave (set during a papal election) and Pompeii (the days leading up to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, followed by the aftermath). Like The second sleep, these novels take place over a short period of time, usually about a week, which helps keep the plot moving quickly. Sometimes we need a nice, quick & easy read in our lives, and Harris is a great author for that.

On the steel breeze and Poseidon’s wake by Alastair Reynolds (2013 & 2015, Gollancz)

I read the first part of this sci-fi trilogy, Blue remembered Earth, towards the end of last year (read about it here). I decided to read both sequels back to back, to avoid forgetting too much of the detail, and in order to stay fully immersed in the world Reynolds has created in this story. That said, both of these books do enough of a job reintroducing you to recurring characters that they almost work as standalone novels, not least because the protagonists change with each novel, as time shifts forward a century or so with each installment.

Time-hops like this can be tricky to pull off, but Reynolds manages it here, without having to resort to Isaac Asimov’s method of using something akin to a chain of short stories in his excellent Foundation novels (the original first three, anyway). The story flows well, with enough science fantasy to be interesting, but not too much that it bogs the book down – plot is still very much the main driver of these books, especially as the final novel looked like it might wrap up some of the mysteries set out in the previous installments. However, there were a few minor errors in the paperback versions I was reading; really simple things which could have easily been avoided with more thorough proof-reading. Other than that, very enjoyable.

The Themis Files trilogy (Sleeping Giants; Waking Gods and Only Human) by Sylvain Neuvel (2016, 2017 & 2019, Del Ray)

Sleeping giants must have been on my bookshelf for a while, perhaps purchased as part of a 3-for-2 offer at one of the more well-known bookstores. At 376 pages, it seemed a nice short book to enjoy after finishing the Poseidon’s Wake trilogy by Alastair Reynolds (see above). But as I started I realized – dammit! – it’s another trilogy! What happened to the good old standalone sci-fi book? Still, since each book is just over 300 pages or so, at least it didn’t take long to get through the entire trilogy…

These are a series of epistolary novels, meaning that the story is told in a series of documents, usually collections of letters, through which the wider plot is gleaned along with the insight of the characters. In the case of this trilogy, the short chapters include log entries and articles. However, they mostly take the form of transcribed interviews between the characters of the story, often with an anonymous, CIA-style interviewer. This can be a useful device for driving the plot forward, as well as maintaining suspense. However, at times I felt that the exposition was forced. At times, the characters seemed to be saying things which would have been unnecessary. It would have been more interesting to leave certain pieces of information out, to be revealed more subtly in later chapters. But here lies the biggest problem in composing a novel this way. How can one attempt to follow the golden writing rule of ‘show, don’t tell’ when a epistolary novel places so much emphasis on the tell, with very little show?

Despite this, the story was interesting and the entire trilogy was a very quick read. I found that I had settled into Neuvel’s style and enjoyed the story he spun over three short books. If you’ve never read a novel composed this way, I would recommend you give these books a go. They also serve as a way of stepping into science-fiction for those who haven’t really tried out the genre before.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924, This edition 2020, Penguin Classics Science Fiction)

The life story of Zamyatin is as interesting as this story, recognized as the inspiration for Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Escaping prison in his native Russia (for being anti-Tsar), Zamyatin finished his engineering studies, worked in England then returned back to his homeland in time for the 1918 October Revolution. However, he had a strong belief in allowing artists to have creative freedom. We is set in OneState, where the only ‘true’ happiness can come from a kind of subjugation in this futuristic communist state, where the inhabitants have numbers instead of names (such as the narrator and protagonist, D-503). Although he might not have been the first to write dystopian fiction (H.G. Wells and Jack London can both lay claim to getting there first), We served as an inspiration (direct or otherwise) for many future writers.

The first manuscript was smuggled out of Soviet Russia, and a translation by E.P. Dutton was published in New York in 1924. The republished edition I read was based on the more recent translation by Clarence Brown in 1993. It captures the dry, characteristically Russian humour that appears throughout the novel, as well as the slightly otherworldly sequences that help to confuse the readers – D-503 doesn’t know for sure if certain sections in his ‘notes’ (the novel) actually took place, or are merely dreams brought on by his ‘mental illness’ (referred to as ‘imagination’ and ‘developing a soul’). It is an interesting book, and slightly wacky in places. The only thing that didn’t sit comfortably with me was his regular reference to his friend’s ‘African lips’, hinting at non-Russian features which, while not immediately offensive, feel very much like a product of Zamyatin’s age that hasn’t stood the test of time very well. But read as a social criticism on one-party states and human nature, it continues to resonate.

The penultimate truth by Philip K. Dick (1964, Gollancz)

Less well-known than some of his other works, I found The Penultimate Truth surprisingly difficult to get into. At only 191 pages, it shouldn’t have been a slog, and the characters inhabit the story well. The story itself is an interesting one – most of humanity is living underground, believing World War Three continues to rage over them. In truth, the war only lasted two years and a small elite work to maintain the illusion to the masses in their ‘ant tanks’ while living in palacial villas on the surface. This much is on the back cover’s synopsis, so no real spoilers here. However, I spent most of the first half of he book with the feeling that it might have been better to withhold the ‘truth’ of the surface, adding a greater mystery element. A simple rearranging of the chapter order might have achieved this. Perhaps Dick was more concerned with the other themes which emerge towards the end of the story, and I’m sure this book has many fans. However, it took a while for me to get into this novel, which I considered abandoning.

Final thoughts

I mentioned at the start of this article that I had not intended for every book to be a work of science-fiction, and as enjoyable as it has been escaping to other fantastical lands, I feel the need to dive into a non-fiction book soon! I also noticed shifs in my initial expectations with some of these titles. I did not think I would enjoy the Themis Files series as much as I did, and I ended up a little disappointed with The Penultimate Truth. Similarly, We was a lot more trippy than I expected it to be, but that was no bad thing in and of itself.

These are, of course, my own opinions. As always, do let me know if you have read any of these titles, what your thoughts were, or even if you have any recommendations for me. I always love discovering new books and authors!