[Smt-talk] Pieces with improvisatory openings

Michael Morse mwmorse at bell.net
Wed Oct 26 11:20:57 PDT 2011

  The discussion continues to blend together musical creation procedures with subjective impressions of these methods, and further with metrical and rhythmic factors which may or may not have anything to do with either. Is everything that is composed supposed to sound composed, and everything improvised, improvised? Do all violin cadenzas 'sound" improvised, for example? (The Bartok, Berg, and Schoenberg concerti sure don't! For that matter, neither does the Brahms.)  Why? How? To take a presumption that has carried on far too long already in this conversation without adequate challenge, is there any solid historical, musical, or cultural evidence for the highly impressionistic association of meter-less music with improvisation? C.P.E. Bach didn't think so, certainly not in the terms bruited about in this discussion.    Linda Seltzer's germane invocation of alap and jor earlier in the discussion is of course a dramatic counter example of meterless=improvised, as both sections involve balancing highly complex norms of improvising and scripted obligation. The Hungarian lassu and friss might be taken for a positive case of this association; but I continue to regard most such instances not as examples of meterless=improvised, mensurate=composed, but of a dramatic musical formal principle, a transition from (in the language of Curt Sachs) logogenic to pathogenic. And I continue to protest against the plainly irresponsible association of improvisation with formlessness. Bach, and I'm sure many accomplished musicians today, could improvise a fugue. That accomplishment may be exceptional, but it demonstrates that the association of improvisation with formlessness is perforce mistaken, based on a narrow, stick in the mud concept of musical form. "Why bother with improvisation"? Why bother with composition? These are painfully absurd questions. But they ensue only too naturally from working with aerially-rooted conceptions such as whether something "sounds like" it's improvised or composed.
MW MorseTrent UniversityPeterborough, Oshawa

Eliot wrote that "Improvised music isn't supposed to sound improvised."  I remember wrestling with that subject during a Dutch Music Theory conference on improvisation.  There are improvisations that sound as if they had been pre-composed.  Yet there are also improvisations that do give the strong impression of being impromptu, whether purposeful or not.  The impression is created by a perceived  lack of structure somewhere, whether Mitch's theorized lack of metric structure, or a lack of hierarchical organization to the melody, or a lack of exact agreement between melody and harmony.  I do know that I prefer listening to improvisations that are not too polished.  I want to know that the performer is in the present act of creation, otherwise why bother with an improvisation?  As all of us who have given extemporaneous speeches know, a certain amount of precision and depth is lost when we forgo exact pre-planning of a performance.  Hopefully that loss is balanced by an increased excitement engendered in the performer and the audience because everyone is linked in the spontaneous act of creation.


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