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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

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Yeah, it's true that I invite finger-wagging sometimes. Recently in another forum, the old wag came my way about improvisation. It's an image issue, since so much of my music is through-composed. Dozens incorporate improvisation at some level, some are heavily structured, others not so much, and a few (such as Cat Music for Claire and Tom and Gendarme) are marginally stuctured at all. Oh, and the failures, what miserable failures.

The topic comes up because correspondent and composer Bill Harris has a new essay on improvisation. He had just spoken with a composer whose claim to fame is a personal library of visual cues for conducting improvisation, and Bill (an improviser himself) felt that after a long hiatus, improvisation had returned as a significant force in new nonpop. The concept of improvisation was discussed here in July, but is worth revisiting.

Many composers believe in the One True Music. Choice and commitment are what drive their creativity. They deny neither the existence nor the enjoyment of other musics, and occasionally may add them to their repertoire fo composition, a circumstance history affirms, whether it's the influence of Turkish style in Mozart, jazz in Milhaud, raga in Messiaen, African drumming in Reich, or pop song in Beglarian. But -- except for Milhaud's single attempt -- composers rarely bifurcate. (And, as usual, there is the disclaimer for the composer-for-hire, especially the film composer, whose work is collaborative with the image, plot and other sensibilities.)

Back to the wagging finger. The issue of improvisation is deeply bound up in self-image, without which the determination and confidence to improvise -- compose on one's feet -- is absent or debilitated. It is also deeply bound to the concept of literacy, and no more volatile term has infested the creation of music than that one.

So in the paragraphs above are served worms fresh out of the can.

Literacy is the prospect of reading and writing for communication, in music for replication. It is the communication of one to many, and one from another. Musical literacy is rarely horizontal or shared, at least not until it lifts off the page into the air. Literacy is fundamental to musical history before 1900, but not fundamental to music as a cultural phenomenon. Without speculation as to how future history will treat our commitment of musical communication to recorded form, it is evident that a large portion of music that was previously listened to and shared as a developing sonic and cultural event within a small geography is now captured and disseminated far beyond its origin. It is likewise influenced (some say polluted) by external cultural phenomena, particularly the economically powerful ones from the U.S.

At the point where musical substance is confused by these shifts, it becomes essential to turn away from literacy and recording and look to authority. Authority, with its roots in augere (to create), is of particular significance in musical issues. The composer (whose etymology is -- unimpressively -- one who puts stuff together) has authority in the assembly process of sonic ideas. But to discover deeper authority, one searches for sources upriver. In a paper-driven academic world, sources of authority are written ones, other pieces of paper that can be referenced, for authority that is handed down is not equal to authority that is written down. But fortunately these pieces of paper are just floating on the deep river below.

The sources of authority are found in improvisation. No, this is not about some sort of primordial musical goo. It is about the concentration of individuals, small groups, and local cultures -- whether in the bush, the neighborhood, the village, or the region, the workroom, the lab, or the classroom. These small groups have historically created languages and artforms, a growth that continues. One can point to Mesopotamia deep in the past or, say, Seattle. The villages of Bulgaria or the Nineteenth century New Orleans delta, the Australian outback or Victorian London, Thai funerals in 1959 or Detroit at the same time.

These places all share geographical authority and within them, artistic authority. The composers, writers, dancers, sculptors, painters all derive their manners of working -- even if infused with new imaginings -- from the authority of their cultures. (They then leave us the evidence in the form of completed Art Works.) The authority is drawn from an ongoing process of adjustment and refinement that may be as simple as a conversation over a meal followed by some practical implementation. An adjustment to food sources and their preservation creates the cuisine, an adjustment to weather and climate creates clothing and housing styles. The origins of communication and art are shrouded in the undocumented past in each of these cultures, but one can extrapolate that what we see in action in more recently documented culture (since, say, 1900) is different only in the quality of the observation, not the process of development. That is, improvisation -- the responses to external and internal cultural stimuli -- generates the ultimate art.

Everything written above may be painfully obvious, but it has received its share of dismissal from a high-art community. Primitive or naïve are the more generous terms in the conversation -- or even more gently, amateur or provincial. There is a sense of judgment that the handed-down is inherently inferior to the written-down, that the destination is more important than the pathway.

So back to literacy. This term has been diluted in recent years, but it is a valuable dilution because it forces an expansion of not only the meaning but also the value assigned to areas other than words. One can be literate -- read and write -- but, for example, also be stylistically literate or technologically literate or geographically literate. The ability to improvise within a stylistic structure is a highly refined form of literacy. I don't really mean to slop around in a verbal swamp here, only to identify a hole in our verbal expression in how we represent the manner of communicating information. (Traditional musical literacy was found so offensive that artists who could read would occasionally deny their ability, taking rightful pride in the musical ear, not the eye.)

Composers are self-involved, free-standing critters, whereas improvisation reveals a deep dependence on culture, mutual communication, and respect. Artistic self-indulgence (or self-delusion) is often great enough that it defies the concept of dependence, and indeed the personal imagined future of art conflicts with the imagined future timelines of other artists. Improvisation and individual creation overlap significantly, but not entirely -- and set up a tension of means and methods.

Since there are no improvisations captured before recordings (only descriptions and post facto composed improvisations by, for example, Bach and Chopin), the decline of classical-heritage nonpop improvisation is clearly evident in the first half ot he Twentieth century. At the same time, jazz ascended as the major form of developing improvisation -- essentially melodic variations on a chordal structure. By the time improvisation (in the form of "aleatory") returned to the nonpop avant-garde, it had taken a distinctly different path from jazz, even during the most nontraditional jazz era in the mid-1960s. Some of most prominent figures (Earle Brown and Anthony Braxton among them) inhabited both worlds, but the aleatory of classical nonpop was almost entirely unrelated to the jazz artform, which remained at heart a tonal variation approach -- rules that many European-influenced classical avant-gardists found deeply conservative.

Left out of this discussion is the rest of the world, much of whose music is traditional and communally developed, from African song through Peruvian flute and Javanese gamelan to Australian didgeridoo. Western music began a shift with composers like John Cage and Lou Harrison, who introduced to the West, respectively, gamelan-like sounds and the gamelan itself. Cage in particular brought performance-originated actions -- read improvisation -- in the middle of the century, as did Cornelius Cardew's Scratch Orchestra and the aforementioned Braxton and Brown. The European avant-garde was resistant, despite the refuge American jazz artists found during the great jazz drought in America in the 1950s. So the European-derived classical establishment in America was also slow in returning to improvisation, and came by way of the European model. The stylistic tensions are still evident than when musicians of different realms come together. The exploration is complex, the backgrounds alien, and performance often shifts back and forth more in a stylistic quodlibet than integral group improvisation.

Nevertheless, this transformation began the long and difficult road back to improvisation that had been abandoned for a century in the classical field. The generation of nonpop artists with pop origins also grew by the millennium's end who, together with the minimalists and their own more populist and internationalist history, are part of a postmodern Zeitgeist that did not take popular rejectionism as native to their artform. In other words, the vitality of improvisation was grasped once more.

Admittedly, this is a poor history lesson (the Bill Harris essay mentioned at the top has more & better). It's the sense that matters most, which identifies improvisation as a restored part of the nonpop realm, one that is in itself able to upset (as each stylistic generation has) the traditions that came before. The paper document has dominated, but today is ceding part of its fixed place to the forever-unfinished document, the exploration of the pathway that cannot have a destination.

As one who worked in the musical form that dared not speak its name for more than thirty years, I feel a deep personal gratification in this development.

A feline improvisation
A Sunday morning feline avant-garde improvisation: neither pathway nor destination.

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