Essential Tools for the 21st Century Musician: Improvisation

Imagine having a conversation with someone but instead of speaking you had to read from a piece of paper with writing on it. Now imagine that none of that written text is your own but words written by other people. Not only would your end of the conversation lack some measure of spontaneity, but you would also have to carry around an impressive library of text which you would have to have organized for quick retrieval lest you stymy the flow of the conversation. This is kinda what it’s like being a musician that can’t improvise.  Improvisation in music is the analogue to our normal everyday ability to improvise with our voices with the spoken word. It’s also something that disappeared from Classical Music training for a while though it’s making a comeback.

I recently watched Transformers: Age of Extinction and recalled that Bumblebee, in the first film of the franchise, isn’t able to speak because of damage to his vocal processor.  Other than the squeaks and blips (which the Autobots understand) he communicates via samples taken from Television shows, Movies, and Radio broadcasts in a collage of words and sounds (reminiscent of how Wreck-Gar speaks in the animated series and film).

While it would be tempting to say that Bumblebee might not be speaking with his own voice, I dare say that we wouldn’t make such a claim about someone who uses pre-recorded verbal sounds to speak, such as the speech synthesizer used by Stephen Hawking (or for musicians that use a healthy bit of sampling in their works, or DJs who use other musicians’ works to create their art). This would be a false dichotomy premised on the mutual exclusion of spontaneous creativity and the reproduction, in performance, of someone else’s text/notation or recorded sounds.

What lingers, though, is this impending sense that improvisation is somehow inferior to composition and that only the specialist composer can do the latter while improvisers are relegated to the secondary task “sub-composition” or, worse yet, that musicians only exist to re-present (note how represent breaks down in this case to a “re-presenting”) the “true creator’s” work.

At least this is often considered the case in traditional Classical Music performance practice.  It wasn’t always the case. As anyone in the Historically Informed Practice (HIP) movement knows, improvisation was an integral part of the craft.  Whether it’s realizing the figured bass, adding ornamentation, improvising cadenzas in concertos, or as some of the great composer-performers did: improvising preludes or new “movements” to their own works, by the Romantic era, Classical Music took a completely different trajectory than most of the rest of the world’s music when it decided fidelity to the composers’ score was of the utmost importance.

This is unfortunate, but we’re lucky in that improvisation in Classical Music is making a comeback. By the time Gunther Schuller coined the term “Third Stream” in 1957, we’d already had a healthy dose of improvisation in a number of the works by Experimental and Avant Garde Composers in Europe and the US. The overlapping of Jazz and Classical in the Third Stream was likely just a reflection of the zeitgeist and by the 60s and 70s we’d start to see the rise of improvisation (outside of its Jazz and non-Classical Music genres) amongst musicians who were more comfortable in various idioms.

However, most of that was happening in smaller ensembles or with solo artists, or amongst some of the rising number of New Music Groups. Groups like Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra started to incorporate improvisation via the use of graphic notation like his classic Treatise. While John Cage, Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff had long been using graphic notation as early as the 50s (Luigi Russolo’s scores for his intonorumori from the 20s notwithstanding), Treatise was intended for the larger Scratch Ensemble. Even the total serialists on the other side of the pond, Stockhausen and Boulez, were starting to incorporate chance and choices left to the performer.

All of these innovative notations were still grounded in one thing, the score, which implied the power of the author/composer to give directions to the performer. Even the highly enigmatic, and open-ended Event Scores of the international Fluxus movement and the text scores of composers like John Cage and Stockhausen during the 60s relied on that. The directions for Cage’s 0’00” (sometimes referred to as 4′ 33″ No. 2), as open ended and permissive as it was in all its various iterations, still gave directions to a performer from a composer.

What is telling is this direction of incorporating performer choice (or expanding performers’ choices) was even echoed in the Jazz world where improvisation was still a part of the tradition. In other words, there’s the constraint of the pre-existing piece (even if it wasn’t notated) that may only exist in the collective conscious of players. Free Jazz played that role during the 50s and 60s. Cecil Taylor, John Coltrane, and others wanted to break away from the restrictions that came with fixed chord changes or tempos of the tunes. Some larger improvising groups during the 60s such as the Globe Unity Orchestra, ICP Orchestra, and later the Willem Breuker Kollektief, started to move toward a freer form of collective improvisation that differed from the more traditional solo/combo still found in Free Jazz. A number of those groups also included classically trained musicians.

The large ensembles had to wait for Soundpainting and Conduction in the mid to late 70s for a vocabularly of gestures which a conductor could use in directing large ensemble improvisation. It was during this time that Walter Thompson would create his Soundpainting, and Bruce Morris would create his Conduction (short for “conducted improvisation“). Both of these new conducting languages were designed for larger scale improvisation. Sometimes referred to as real-time composition (which, to be frank is all that improvisation is after all, right?) this gave conductors a vocabulary to created directed improvisation in real time–as well as allowing the conductor to be an active improviser. While a few orchestras and ensembles were formed during the 80s (most significantly is the Walter Thompson Soundpainting Orchestra which is still active today), we can see the most significant explosion in Improvising Orchestras and Soundpainting Orchestras happening after 2000.

While there have been plenty of improvising classical musicians and improvisation styles since we in an age where musicians are fluent in a variety of musics (i.e. musical languages). We’re no longer in a stage where most musicians are monomusical. Some of this has to do with changing demographics (for example, the growing ethnic population in the US brings with it the growing ethnic musical styles); some of this has to do with the ease with which we can access other musical styles thus becoming familiar with hearing, understanding, and most importantly–playing them.

What this entails is a changing musical landscape. Since the previously dominant mainstream Euro-American forms of music (both Classical and Pop) are waning, this leaves a open space for all the variety of musics that other cultures bring or that existed on the fringe of the mainstream Euro-American musics (e.g. Soundpainting Orchestras). Improvisation, or as I like to refer to it, the ability to speak music rather than simply recite it is playing a much more central role in musical culture overall.

The 21st Century Musician without the ability to speak music is cutting off a very large part of potential performance revenue streams as well as some teaching revenue streams. Also, the openess to new and unique musical ideas that comes from constantly creating it in real time really helps in learning new styles of music (as well as the more obvious helping to learn how to improvise in new styles of musics) and other musical languages. Also, since improvisation is an act of composing, you’ll automatically be building up some skills for composition.

Nick Minnion places improvisation within his Triangle of Musicianship and explains how it can complement and amplify other skills.


It works like this: if you improve your improvising skill, your ability to compose automatically improves (composing is really just improvising done more slowly!) The insight gained from composing or improvising goes a long way to improving your listening and music analysis skills, which in turn enhance your ability to transcribe music, such as working out a song from a recording you’re listening to so you can write it down on paper in either notation or tablature. Transcribing is really reverse-engineered composing!

The more music you transcribe, the better your understanding of how music works. This newly gained understanding then feeds back into your ability to improvise and compose.

If you’re a music student currently in school or recently graduated music student, you could open up a wide range of opportunities for yourself by learning how to improvise.  If you are already an improvisor, then I suggest getting a healthy appreciation for different improvising traditions, styles, musical languages because you never know when you’ll have to play that opening taqsim in a Middle Eastern group, or take a solo in an Old-timey/swing band, or trade fours in a Jazz band, or play a non-composed cadenza in a Classical concerto!

3 thoughts on “Essential Tools for the 21st Century Musician: Improvisation

  1. I totally agree! I’ve never seen the “Triangle of Musicianship” before, but stumbling upon it is how I got my start “speaking” as a classical performance major in college. Thanks for sharing.


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