Improvisation

“The kiss of death for your career is when you turn up and say: ‘Oh, I don’t do that.'”

In an interesting article in the WSJ forwarded to me by Jimmy Mac, we have a brief exploration of the rediscovery of improvisation by some classical musicians.

This article has some relevance for church musicians. Over the years, I’ve always asked instrumentalists (and a singer or two) if they were able to improvise. Usual answer: no. But the unusual answer of “yes” often makes for some real playing.

This would be a good topic for any discussion among church musicians. You know I’d be in the camp of pro-improvisation. It’s a frequent occurrence wanting to stretch out a piece of music in a worship setting. It involves “play” which is how we mostly describe our interaction with creating music. Improvisation is an essential tool for any church musician of any style or instrument.

The WSJ article is more concerned with music for classical performance:

In a way, this, too, is a return to the origins of concert music, when composers like Bach, Mozart and Chopin wrote, played and improvised their own music. The separate profession of the performer is a result of the 19th-century emergence of a middle class that fostered a greater demand for live music while at the same time canonizing the masters of the past. Eventually, performers stopped writing — let alone improvising — their own cadenzas in concertos, while some composers began to write music for instruments of which they had little practical understanding. Improvisation, meanwhile, became intellectually suspect.

But this reveals a certain cultural bias in itself. Music as performance is a relatively recent phenomenon. Before audio technology, enjoying music was something that resulted from learning it yourself and playing it for your family and friends.

Locking music into a certain elevation of the past? That was never the experience of concertgoers in the 1700’s and before. It makes me wonder if the pre-conciliar chant movement was partly an offshoot of this mentality, and more of an attempt to recover a past for its own sake, rather than an authentic exploration of what suits worship.

Nadia Sirota, violist and Manhattan School of Music faculty member(who had the quote at the top, too):

“And as for us classical musicians, let’s be honest: We all secretly want to be rock stars.”

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Todd and his family live in Ames, Iowa. He serves a Catholic parish of both Iowa State students and town residents.
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4 Responses to Improvisation

  1. Liam says:

    Well, an essential quality for good church organists is excellence in improvisation.

    A famous example recounted in the memoir of Vierne:

    http://www.ewtn.com/library/LITURGY/DIGORG.TXT

  2. Liam says:

    And my experience has been fortunate in encountering many organists who can jam in ensemble greater than any other musicians I know. (Lord knows, my music director’s wedding last fall had at least a half dozen organists and 100 singers and we all jammed it up quite well.) And I, trained as a horn player, grew up with ensemble playing (not just orchestras and bands, but brass groups and wind quintets, octets, et cet.) as my musical metier, as it were. I think organists get a lazy bum rap in some circles for being thought incapable of jamming. Well, perhaps the less competent organists whom some cheap Catholic pastors are inclined to retain who lack sufficient excellence to challenge the pastor in any way (that’s really another tradition), but that’s just as true of a host of workmanlike musicians of a non-organist stripe.

  3. Todd, you have struck a wonderful nerve with this topic. I have been fortunate over my 38+ years of mus.min. to have collaborated with many, many gifted organists and instrumentalists who, like me, are well versed in both classical technique/theory and the art of improvisation (whether in the baroque sense or the organist’s lexicon.) I don’t just believe, I know that there come moments in certain liturgies (besides an improvised interlude or postlude) wherein intuitive artists can and should augment, say, a final cadence of a programmed choral or congregational piece with an improvised coda. The inspiration comes when this is done with reverence for the liturgical action and the moment, not for the purpose of drawing any attention towards personal virtuosity. I have collaborated in many of these excursions in combinations of organ with guitar, flute, piano, soprano sax (yes, ala Paul Winter/Paul Halley), violin & guitar, guitar and flute, etc. We are blest at my place with some serious players with good ears and good souls. When I took the DM job 15 years ago at my current parish, I assumed leadership from a friend who was interim director, a symphony violinist who could lead, but not “do” vocal leadership. After a while, I cajoled him into playing beyond the printed melody or descant harmonies and used an old Miles Davis axiom, namely that one’s ear fully aware know’s the choice comes down to moving by a half or whole step. 15 years later, I can’t get the guy to play the freaking melody! (Joke)
    But, that’s not a problem because we have a full string quartet and some assorted wind players realizing the orchestrated parts! But those moments when our organist (alone or with myself) extends a defined moment with those internal gifts of melodic and harmonic movements that are more inspired than improvised, that is as much communion between heaven and earth in song to me as when we sing the text of the Sanctus.
    One must be clear on this subject: we’re not talking about some local geniuses or prodigies doing their own version of a Jimi Hendrix or John Coltrane or Virgil Fox “Wow!” cadenza that interrupts the natural progression of liturgy. It’s not something that should EVER be programmed into each available Mass just ’cause you have the horses there to do it!
    These are moments that originate spontaneously, just as should the musical performance of them.
    Improvisation within the structured, programmed piece is another subject and a valid one to deliberate. It, too, should be measured with discretion according to a consensus between the director and the musicians who have such capabilities.

  4. Liam says:

    The operative phrase from a singer friend who died a decade ago: “I’ll meet you at the coda”.

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