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…

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.

Things learned from watching The Beatles: Get Back (review)

Music

I’m a little late to the party, but I finally managed to watch The Beatles: Get Back. While it was incredibly interesting, I wonder if many casual fans were deterred by its duration. I’ll provide a little background then highlight the main takeaway points I found from this miniseries. If you have watched this, please let me know your thoughts!

Background

Peter Jackson’s documentary launched at the very end of November last year, in three 2+ hour installments. It covers most of January 1969, when The Beatles, assistants and tech crew assembled in a large recording sounds stage with a documentary film crew in tow. The original plan was to record an album of brand new music, written from scratch and performed live in some form. In the end, sessions were strained before the group love to the new studios in the basement of the Apple Corps (their own record label) offices on Savile Row. The project culminates in a half hour performance on the roof of this building before the police arrive to shut it down.

The music from these sessions was eventually released shortly after The Fab Four had split up. Legendary and infamous American producer Phil Spector was hired to make an album out of the material available, which had been largely worked on by regular Beatles producer George Martin and engineer Glyn Johns prior to the abandonment of the project. The resulting album (Martin later said that he produced it, and “then Spector over produced it” ), now called Let It Be, was released in 1970, seemingly against The Beatles’ wishes. Indeed, Paul McCartney eventually stripped the record of the elements Spector had added – the choir, stings, horns, etc, and re-released the record as Let It Be… Naked in 2003, hoping to finally covey the project’s original direct-to-tape aesthetic.

Parts of the film footage was released in a documentary film of the same name. But 50 years later, after hundreds of hours of footage was discovered intact, Jackson (director of the Epic Lord of the Rings film trilogy and a self proclaimed Beatles super fan) stepped in to create a new documentary which told the full story of this short period in Beatles history. It includes a vast swathe of footage never seen before, including moments when The Beatles did not realise they were being recorded (such as a microphone hidden in a canteen flower pot which picks up John Lennon and Paul McCartney frankly discussing how their own egos getting in the way of their music). Overall, it’s fascinating and many musicians I know have marvelled at being able to see how The Beatles worked out songs such as Get Back and Dig A Pony. Here’s a few other things I observed

Paul doesn’t seem to know what he wants

Most of the Get Back project appears to be McCartney’s idea. He is the driving force behind the ‘live’ aesthetic, either in the form of performing to a live audience or recording without overdubs. However, he also seems a little lost and unsure of what he actually wants to look like. Sometimes it seemed like he was genuinely running out of inspiration (while simultaneously writing some great songs seemingly from scratch), and on other occasions he appears to have ore of a plan than he lets on, but is hesitant to force it onto the rest of the group. Perhaps he feared a mutiny if he pressed his ideas too forcefully. This does indeed happen in Episode 1 when Harrison reaches the end of his patience for having his playing criticised by McCartney (often without him providing a clear idea of what he wants George to play). Seeing McCartney’s indecision, or fear of being too forthright with his ideas, shows us a project that is doomed from the start.

Yet McCartney is not lacking in songwriting inspiration. He brings in Let It Be and The Long And Winding Road to be rehearsed by the band, having apparently written both if these songs almost to completion at home. I was left with the feeling that these were ‘back pocket’ songs; perhaps ones McCartney had considered keeping for a future solo album? However, when it becomes clear that the group don’t have enough material, he puts them forward, and of course, they end up being among the highlights of the subsequent album.

There is small but telling detail which emerges very near the end of Episode 3, after the rooftop concert has been finished and the band are recording the final takes for the album. During a moment listening back to a recent take of The Long and Winding Road, regular producer George Martin mentions McCartney having discussed adding a sting ensemble to fill out the sound on the record. The moment goes by quickly, and McCartney is very noncommittal in his acknowledgement of this statement, but it goes very much against the straight-to-tape aesthetic pursued by none other than McCartney himself. It indicates to me that perhaps his stated intentions and private desires have not always been the same.

Two things saved the session from an even earlier end

The huge soundstage The Beatles start in gives them acoustically-related problems from the outset, and appears to prove a hindrance to their creativity. Speaking from my own experience, it is hard to really dig into new songs, or even your own playing, if you’re struggling to hear everything around you clearly. Their decision to relocate to their just-completed basement studio in the Apple Corps office gives them the opportunity to work on the songs they have started in a more familiar and better sounding environment. You can see in Episode two how much more quickly things come together for the group after the move. But there is anoter factor which helped things along considerably, and arguably saved the project altogether…

The arrival of Billy Preston to the sessions is the real turning point in the Get Back sessions. The Beatles had first met Preston in their early days of performing in Hamburg. Preston was part of Little Richard’s band and was in London performing with Ray Charles when he ran into George Harrison and popped into the sessions to say hello. Once invited to sit in on electric piano and organ, something clearly changes for the better in the atmosphere of the sessions. This happened once before during the recording of their previous album, 1968’s The Beatles (also known as ‘The White Album’ due to it’s blank cover). Harrison has spoken about having fond memories recording While My Guitar Gently Weeps with Eric Clapton providing an (at the time anonymous) guest solo, because the band were all on best behaviour in the presence of a guest and friend. In a similar way, things seems much less acrimonious or stressful once Preston starts adding to the Get Back sessions. It is clear that the group enjoy his contributions. Lennon even suggests recruiting him officially, to which McCartney counters that it is hard enough reaching agreements between the four of them already! The value which The Beatles themselves placed on Preston’s presence is evidenced in the initial release of the song Get Back as a single – it is credited to “The Beatles with Billy Preston”. High praise indeed.

Ringo seems to play no part in the decision making process

The Get Back sessions are full of decisions, indecisions, wrong decisions and changed decisions. Arguments, conflicts, reflections on their egos and statements of intent. But none of them come from drummer Ringo Starr. Although jokey and stylish as ever, once he sits behind the drum kit, Starr quietly listens as the three remaining members pf the band discuss arrangements or argue. Sometimes suggestions or directions are given to him on how he should play. Interestingly, he is more often than not left to create his parts based on what he hears, showing a high level of trust his band mates place in his abilities.

Yet I still found it striking how – in these sessions at least – it is Starr who is the real ‘quiet one’ of The Beatles.

Several elements precipitated the breakup of The Beatles, but Yoko Ono probably wasn’t one of them

Yoko Ono is a presence throughout this documentary series. But it doesn’t appear disruptive. Sure, during some of the downtime moments, she joins in the free-spirited jams by wailing down a microphone, but most of the time she sits by Lennon, supporting him silently in a way I think he obviously needed at the time. She is seen chatting amiably with the wives and girlfriends of the other members of the band, but nothing we see of her in this series, either voiced aloud or whispered into Lennon’s ear, gives any indication that she was responsible for the tensions the band faced, or their eventual breakup later in the same year.

Those tensions, and those decisions, came from the same place they had since the passing of the band’s manager Brian Epstein a few years before – they came from the four members of The Beatles themselves.

Final thoughts

It was fascinating to see how big the team around The Beatles had become by this point in the life of the band. From the arguments and arrangements to the songwriting and even the business side of The Beatles rearing its head again and again, we are given a clear picture of a small group of people hemmed in by their own success and unsure the best way to continue. Although their main team is comprised of trusted individuals, long term partners and even old friends from their days in Liverpool, the heart of this miniseries is the four members of The Beatles themselves. Many were close – very close. But the only four who really knew what it meant to be a Beatle were John, Paul, George and Ringo. Somehow, it seemed to keep the together, against everything and everyone else. At least, that is, for a time.

Overall, this is a truly fascinating insight into the end of one of the most influential, if not the most influential, musical groups in popular music history. The famous rooftop concert might be one of the less interesting things in this entire series, though this might be because many of us have seen or heard this before (indeed, a few of the live tracks from this concert were used in the final album). It was so much ore enlightening to see the group at work, crafting and recording songs, just like musicians across the world still do today. It is worth watching, but be warned, it’s a long, deep dive…