Ontimpr10. Improvisation and Composition
- 1 Discussion
- 2 Is All Music Making Improvisational?
- 3 Differences Between Improvisations and Non-Improvised (Pre-Composed) Compositions
- 4 Aesthetic Differences Between Non-Improvised Compositions and Improvisations
- 5 Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for Improvisations and Non-Improvised Compositions
- 6 Refutation of Myths and Falsehoods About Improvisation
- 7 Assessment of the Inherent Inferiority of Improvisations Over Pre-Composed Music
- 8 Are jazz improvisations an inferior art form?
- 9 Are All Successful Jazz Improvisations Compositions?
- 10 How long does a composition have to be to have been composed?
- 11 Could there be a one note composition?
- 12 NOTES
Is All Music Making Improvisational?
If a musical passage has been previously completely prepared as to what is going to be played, then it is not truly an improvisation. By its very nature a jazz improvisation is a spontaneous and specifically non-rehearsed creative act of music production.These points help to answer and address the question of whether all music making is improvisational. This claim has been made by Bruce Ellis Benson The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music, Cambridge University Press, 2003.
In his book, Benson challenges the binary schema of “composing” versus “performing” music and argues that “this distinction does not describe very well what musicians actually do.”
Benson argues that musical works are improvisational both during composition and performance.
“that the process by which a work comes into existence is best described as improvisatory at its very core, not merely the act of composing but also the acts of performing and listening . . . [I]mprovisation is not something that precedes composition . . . or stands outside and opposed to composition. Instead, I think that the activities that we call ‘composing’ and ‘performing’ are essentially improvisatory in nature.”(bold and bold italic not in original)
“By his account, all the so-called musical works that, for [Lydia] Goehr and others, define the Werktreue ideal (Beethoven’s symphony no. 5 as the perennial paradigmatic exemplar), and are thus thought to be fundamentally opposed to the flexibility and performance-situatedness of improvisation, are only so in theory. In reality all music, scored or not, is partial, unfinished, and fundamentally constituted by improvisation.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Benson requires that “all music making is fundamentally improvisational” (his italics). This thesis is partially correct, but more wrong than right.
- While it is true that no musical score CAN precisely dictate in every possible respect what a performer of that music must do to produce the music from that score, it does not follow that all music making is improvisational in the sense used by jazz musicians.
- In his article “On Musical Improvisation,” Philip Alperson explains that “jazz musicians use the term ‘improvisation’ to refer specifically to the improvised choruses rather than to the whole musical work from first note(s) to last,” contrary to Benson’s view that all music is improvised.”
- What Benson seems not fully to appreciate is the need to make a distinction between an interpretation of a pre-composed score that contains improvisational aspects, such as how much vibrato to use when playing a note, versus a concurrently composed while performed musical production, a genuine full-blown improvisation.
- Many musical performers are incapable of improvising in the jazz sense as has been frequently discovered amongst classical musicians.
- A typical contemporary classical musician’s skill sets do not normally include improvisational skills since they are not expected to be able to make spontaneous compositions. The classical musician must be technically proficient at satisfactorily reproducing a musical composition to the conductor’s liking. If anything, a conductor would disallow any classical musician from improvising since then he or she would not be playing the music as intended by the composer.
World class saxophonist (especially on the soprano) Steve Lacy points out one of the flaws in equating composition with improvisation when he remarks:
“In fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.” (bold not in original)
A non-improvised composition can be created piecemeal, over extended periods of time, revised with parts rejected and never performed. This is impossible for an impromptu jazz improvisation because, unlike compositions, they cannot be altered after their initial establishment. Editing of immediately past live music cannot be done; it is impossible—a live improvised past musical phrase cannot be altered, deleted, or taken back. It is what it is and eternally remains as such.
Even this last point is not entirely true. An improvising musician who notices a mistake or a flaw while performing can use various techniques to either cover the flaw or mistake or make it seem like it is not one. Again, complex questions arise if recordings of improvised solos are taken into account concerning compositional credits, for example.
Suppose that Robert is a musician who can choose between four of his own improvised solos recorded at different times over the same song. Call them i1, i2, i3, and i4. He likes the opening of i2 better than i1 so Eddie Kramer the recording engineer seamlessly swaps out the opening of i1 and inserts in i2's beginning. Call this new piece i2i1. In the middle of i2i1 there is another section that the musician prefers be replaced by a similar section found in i4. The engineer now seamlessly inserts that snippet from i4 into i2i1 producing i2i4i1. Still not entirely satisfied about how the solo finishes the musician requests the engineer seamlessly integrate the ending of i3 into i2i4i1 thereby producing i2i4i1i3. Call now the sections seamlessly knit together in this work snippets with labels for each the i2, i4, i1, i3 snippets.
➢ Whose improvised solo is i2i4i1i3?
There are a finite number of possible answers to this question. These authors of improvised solo (AIS) answers include:
- (AIS1) No one composed i2i4i1i3.
- (AIS2) Robert, the performing musician, composed i2i4i1i3.
- (AIS3) Eddie Kramer, the recording engineer, composed i2i4i1i3.
- (AIS4) Robert and Eddie Kramer composed i2i4i1i3.
- (AIS1) No one composed i2i4i1i3.
Timbral Sonicists believe (AIS1) is true for all music. See objections to sonicism's positions at blah.
Reasons to believe Robert composed or did not compose i2i4i1i3
Most people's intuitions are going to incline towards the musician Robert who intentionally caused the four improvised solos in the first place. Everyone, except Platonistic sonicists, agrees that Robert produced each of the four original improvised solos, i1 through i4. This is not in question. What remains in question is whether the musical work, i2i4i1i3, is an improvised solo of Robert's. Each of the four components were Robert's and each of them is an improvised solo, but none of any of them i1 through i4 is identical to i2i4i1i3 because there are large sections that differ between them.
Arguably, i2i4i1i3 is a new composition since it has its own identity and it is not identical to any of the other improvised solos i1 through i4.
➢ Is i2i4i1i3 itself as a new composition and improvised solo, or an improvised musical work?
- Yes, it is an improvised musical work. Each of the four individual components were improvised by Robert so therefore Robert composed each of them and should get credited with having produced this amalgamated musical work since he and only he is who made these four musical components that constitute the entire composition which is the i2i4i3i1 song.
- No, it is not an improvised musical work because it has been planned out from the start by the engineer. The engineer has previously planned to first use i2, then i4, then i1 and lastly i3 to compose a non-improvised work out of the four improvised segments or components. There is no spontaneous and unrehearsed situation since the engineer planned on amalgamating these four components into a song.
For example, when Charlie “Bird” Parker and Miles Davis were having a discussion as to whether one can play ANY note during an improvisation, Miles claimed that one could not play a D natural in the fifth bar of a Bb blues. Later, during a solo by Lester Young that Parker and Davis were observing, Young played this inappropriate note. After Bird suggested to Miles that Miles’s position had been refuted because Young had played the impossible note, Miles replied that he still had had to bend or smear it to remain in the context of a blues performance.
➢ Another time when saxophonist David Sanborn said to Miles that he was embarrassed by what he perceived as a gaffe during one of his own improvisations and wished that he had played something differently, Miles, somewhat surprisingly, responded with his gruff voice with the advice that “You should have played it twice.”
➢ Presumably this advice suggests that what one considers a flaw may not be perceived as a “mistake” if one repeats an inadvertent passage a second time thereby making it look like it was done intentionally the first time as well.
➢ In these ways it is paradoxically even possible to approximate editing oneself during a spontaneous improvisational musical performance.
Differences Between Improvisations and Non-Improvised (Pre-Composed) Compositions
Distinctive Features of Non-Improvised Compositions and Composers
- In the next couple of sections the word “composition” is shorthand for non-improvised and pre-composed compositions, meaning a piece of music that was not composed concurrent with its performance by the same individual.
- A composition can be developed over extended periods of time and at different times.
- A composition can have parts changed or even deleted.
- A composition can be edited prior to performance.
- The intentions of the composer are typically not identical to those of a performer. A composer may write a piece of music with the intention that it never be performed. A composer need not concern himself or herself with whether an audience approves or disapproves or has any reaction whatsoever to a composition.
- A composer can write music as an exercise or for purely theoretical reasons. A possible example would be Ravel’s “Bolero” if it were not intended to be performed.
- A composer by definition is someone who “writes and arranges music.” A composer need not in any sense be a performer of music. Hence compositions are musical products that do not require any actual sound production to exist.
Distinctive Features of Improvisations and Improvisers
Virtually nothing that has been said of compositions and composers is true for improvisations and improvisers.
- An improvisation is typically performed for the listening enjoyment of an audience and not for any theoretical reasons; rather for practical reasons.
- An improviser by definition is someone who “produces and makes music through sound production.” A composition is inert; an improvisation is active and dynamic.
- An improviser must be a performer of music and hence requires the existence of actual sound events to exist during the performance.
- Improvisations can only exist in real time and must be developed during a musical performance.
- At no time after the sound production event has occurred can any change or deletion or editing take place relative to the production of this part of the musical event. Of course, this ignores recording technology manipulations and substitutions.
- An improviser’s intentions will usually include an interest in producing a quality musical experience that can be enjoyed by a listening audience. This, of course, will often also be a composer’s intention as well, although as pointed out it need not be.
- No currently improvising musician could reasonably have the intention that the performance not occur.
- Even more telling, perhaps, is the differences in risk taking between a composer and an improviser. Because a composer can take his or her time and consider many possibilities for the production of a successful musical work a composer has a relatively lesser risk in the production of a musical score than an improviser.
- Composers can test out sound combinations and reject or incorporate a myriad number of possible musical events during the production of the composition. While an improviser during an improvisation can decide immediately beforehand not to play a particular way (this is the equivalent of the composer's rejection) he or she cannot reject something after it has been played. A composer can reject something after it has been played by rewriting his or her composition. Improvisers cannot test out different combinations and then reject them while actually performing these particular musical ideas at the moment. Anything played has not been ‘rejected’ and cannot be rejected because it already exists in the musical performance.
- An improviser must necessarily take enormous risks with a much greater chance of musical failure precisely because of the spontaneity involved during improvisations. Snap judgments are required. One cannot consider fifty different possibilities and then choose the best one.
- It is true that an improviser can make choices between musical passages that have been previously tested out in a past improvisation or prior performance or practice sessions.
Conclusions About Improvisations and Improvisers versus Non-Improvised Compositions and Their Composers
- Conclusion 1.
- Conclusion 2.
- Conclusion 3.
- Conclusion 4.
- Conclusion 5.
Aesthetic Differences Between Non-Improvised Compositions and Improvisations
These distinctive differences between improvisations and compositions entail a difference in aesthetic judgments regarding the evaluation of these two musical components.
- Because of the increased difficulty of needing to spontaneously compose during an improvisation, an improviser must be given extra credit for what results over that of the unhurried composer.
- The improviser can also be more easily forgiven any musical mistakes over that of the composer for similar reasons.
Steve Larson points out the immense amount of preparation required by any major jazz improviser.
“Thus, I feel confident in describing Evans's apparently "instantaneous" improvisations as the result of years of preparation. In fact, I suspect that any given mature Bill Evans recorded improvisation took him a great deal more time to produce than most twentieth-century compositions of comparable length cost their creators. The real work of producing such improvisations happens not on stage or in the recording studio, but in the practice room.” (bold not in original)
Do Aesthetic Evaluations Standards Differ for Improvisations and Non-Improvised Compositions
Ted Gioia on Jazz Improvisation's Imperfections
Ted Gioia, in The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture (1988), argues that improvisation requires a different set of aesthetic principles to evaluate the musical performance precisely because jazz music has the disadvantage of having to produce spontaneous improvisations rather than contemplative compositions developed over extended periods of time.
- In Gioia’s Chapter 3 “The Imperfect Art” he holds that ““If improvisation is the essential element in jazz, it may also be the most problematic.”
Gioia continues on the next page by asking several probing questions:
- “Yet does not jazz, by its reliance on spur-of-the-moment improvisation, relegate itself to being a second-rate, imperfect art form?”
- “Does not its almost total lack of structure make even the best jazz inferior to mediocre composed music?”
- ““Why, we ask, should the spontaneous prattle of an improvising musician interest us as much as the meticulously crafted masterpieces of the great composers?”
Gioia concludes this paragraph with what he takes to be an extremely telling point:
- “The dilemma jazz faces was stated with clarity by composer Elliott Carter, when he suggested that the musical score serves the essential role of preventing ‘the performer from playing what he already knows and leads him to explore other new ideas and techniques.’”
Objections to Improvisation's Imperfections
One can object to both Gioia and Carter because quality improvisers strive to achieve precisely the goals which composer Carter claims is served by the pre-composed musical score when he states that a musical score prevents “the performer from playing what he already knows and leads him to explore other new ideas and techniques.” Exploring new ideas and techniques and not playing what one already knows is precisely what quality improvisers strive regularly to achieve. They explore musical avenues that they have not anticipated and test things out often with surprising outcomes.
Paul Rinzler's Response to Gioia's Complaints
Paul Rinzler, in his The Contradictions of Jazz, comments on Gioia’s presumption of the alleged inferiority of an improvised composition.
“Improvised music has been evaluated sometimes as being the aesthetic inferior of composed music. The processes of improvisation and composition differ, and these differences create what have traditionally been considered disadvantages for improvisation.”
A primary motivation for regarding composition as a superior musical form than spontaneous improvisational composition concerns the formalist’s claims of the superior structural complexity of a pre-composed as compared to a spontaneously composed (improvised) piece of music. Rinzler claims that “structural complexity is a primary value in Western aesthetics. It is perhaps the single most important aspect of a Western composed music on which claims of a composer’s genius or a composition’s worth are founded, and it is the basis for much musical analysis.”
Rinzler explains the nature of structural complexity quoting Leonard Meyer and Judith Becker:
“Music must be evaluated syntactically . . . Western art music is structurally more complex than other music; its architectonic hierarchies, involved tonal relationships, and elaborated harmonic syntax not only defy complete analysis but have no parallel in the world.”
“Among Western musicologists, . . . musical complexity correlates with levels of hierarchical structures, to the number of musical ‘lines’ occurring simultaneously, to the relationships between similar musical elements found in different sections of the composition, and in some sense to the length of the composition.” (bold not in original)
Paul Rinzler’s response to the alleged advantages of composition over improvisation is sophisticated. He first points out the alleged advantage that composition has over improvisation.“It appears unlikely that improvisation can compare favorably with composition in terms of structural complexity, given the different situations in which the improviser and the composer are found. The primary difference is that the composer does not work in real time; that is, the compositional process does not occur when the performance of the composition does.” (bold not in original)
Rinzler next analyzes four specific advantages that composition enjoys following the work of Philip Alperson. These four advantages are:
1. Creating an Overall Plan: “The broad sweep of a composition can be carefully constructed. Each unit and subunit can be fit into place and coordinated within the entire hierarchy, allowing the composer to create a high degree of structural complexity.” (bold not in original)
Whereas a composer can review the entire blueprint of a composition, Rinzler notes, the improviser can only use the retrospective method of looking backward at what has just been improvised and shape the next phase of music relating to what has gone before.
2. Revision and Editing: “Because composition occurs before a performance, changes in any aspect of the composition may be made prior to its performance. Revision and editing confer a great advantage to composition.”
Whereas a composer can consider and then reject vast numbers of possible solutions until she finds one she settles upon, the improvising musician can only use the one actually performed.
3. Notation: “Notation is a powerful tool for conceiving, organizing, and documenting elements of a composition. For an improviser, notation might function as a mnemonic device that refers to some predetermined musical elements, but it does not function as a compositional tool as it does for the composer.”
4. Responsibility of Composition: Rinzler argues that because of the advantages of composition, the composer is “expected to produce a complete, final, and perfect . . . product (in principle). Complexity and (near-)perfection are reasonable standards because the conditions of composition enable the achievement of those standards.”
Whereas any perceived mistake can be expunged by a composer, an actual mistake made by an improviser during a performance is irreconcilable.
Rinzler defends an aesthetics for jazz that focuses not exclusively on the musical work produced, the product, which is the actual sounds made during the musical performance, or the music represented by the musical score, but rather he wishes to switch the emphasis on to the artist and the performance product in a dialectic.
“The key to an aesthetics of jazz does concern the artist as a person as well as the musical object itself, in a dialectic.” (bold not in original)
By switching from only considering the formalist considerations of structural complexity as the primary thing of aesthetic value found in a musical performance, Rinzler opens up a new area for aesthetic appreciation and investigation of the value of a concurrently performed composition created by a performing improviser.
In an interview with Miles Kington, jazz critic of the London Times, Fall 1967, André Previn (b. 1929), German–born U.S. classical musician explained a basic difference between classical music and jazz:
“The basic difference between classical music and jazz is that in the former the music is always greater than its performance—Beethoven's Violin Concerto, for instance, is always greater than its performance—whereas the way jazz is performed is always more important than what is being performed.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Surely, if Previn’s insight is correct this has profound implications for the critique of improvised jazz music over that which is a performance of a composed piece.
Russell Lynes (1910-1991), U.S. critic, stresses the significance of performance in jazz precisely because it was improvised.
“Improvisation was the blood and bone of jazz, and in the classic, New Orleans jazz it was collective improvisation in which each performer, seemingly going his own melodic way, played in harmony, dissonance, or counterpoint with the improvisations of his colleagues. Quite unlike ragtime, which was written down in many cases by its composers and could be repeated note for note . . . by others, jazz was a performer's not a composer's art.” (bold not in original)
Of course, it is a composer's art in that the improvisations are being composed on the spot. It is not a composer's art in the sense of taking an unlimited amount of time to produce a musical product.
Surely, if Previn’s and Lynes’s insights are correct this has profound implications for the critique, assessment, and evaluations of improvised jazz music over that which is a performance of a composed piece.
Aesthetic Standard Differences Between Pre-Composed Compositions versus Improvisational Compositions
➢ So what are the implications for assessing an improvised jazz performance versus assessing the straightforward performance of a composed piece of music?
One of the basic differences is that one can complain if a performer fails to play what is in the musical score, but this complaint is non-existent for an improvised piece.
- This makes for a fundamental difference in approaching basic assessments of the success of composed versus improvised musical performances.
- When assessing a successful jazz performance one will use the considerations discussed in Factors of Good Improvisations.
Furthermore, improvisation is a difficult skill to master and requires enormous amounts of effort on the student to end up producing consistently successful improvisations. Hal Crook, author of numerous textbooks teaching improvisational skills, advice, and knowledge remarks about the challenges involved when learning to and actually performing improvisations.
“Every musician who has seriously tried to improvise knows that (for an instrumentalist) the art of improvising is no less than the ultimate musical challenge, demanding one's total musicianship in every moment of the act.
Today the subject is so vast, so potentially complex, involving a myriad of topics, aspects, techniques and materials that even highly motivated students with comprehensive musical backgrounds have difficulty deciding where to begin or how to advance their study. The question often arises: "How will I ever learn to do all this?!"” (italics authors)
Refutation of Myths and Falsehoods About Improvisation
There are myths concerning both improvisations as a process and as a musical product. There are related myths regarding musicians who improvise. All of these myths regarding the nature of improvisations and improvising musicians have been recognized as such amongst contemporary knowledgeable commentators of the jazz scene. However, to explain why each of these improvisation myths are false or mistaken requires that one first delineate them prior to their refutation as is done next.
MYTH 1: Improvisers are primitive and unstudied musicians who naturally produce improvisations not based on memory.
- ➢ From the very beginning of jazz many musicians were highly accomplished and well trained in European musical conventions.
- ➢ Improvisers often know from memory what kinds of musical responses are appropriate for a given context and have studied them in great detail. Charlie Parker learned how to play the same tune in all twelve keys, etc.
- ➢ Many accomplished improvisers often use individually distinctive musical phrases and sounds typical of one of his or her own ways of playing. Individual musicians voices are often discernible in how that person makes his way through an improvisation. Charlie Parker has musical licks distinctive of how he plays, as does Stan Getz and Miles Davis, etc.
MYTH 2: The improvisations are not particularly governed by rules or conventions.
- ➢ Bill Evans in “The Universal Mind of Bill Evans” was at great pains to stress the importance of conforming one’s improvisation to the original melody. He believed that there were numerous constraints that one should follow to produce a quality improvisation.
- ➢ There are many musical rules that musicians often obey during an improvisation. For example, limiting one’s solo to a specific number of bars of music, or staying in the same musical key, or keeping in the same harmonic range, and using the appropriate notes for a pentatonic versus a diatonic musical scale.
- ➢ Playing in the appropriate style (Dixieland, modal, Latin, a blues, etc.).
- ➢ Playing in a conventional manner so that your fellow musicians know where you and the music are during a performance.
- ➢ Each of these is a rule governed activity.
MYTH 3: Improvisation cannot be taught.
- ➢ As jazz music schools from Maine to California know, improvisation is offered as a class from beginning to advanced improvisations.
- ➢ One can teach oneself how to improve one’s own improvisations and this is a kind of teaching. One learns from one’s own experiences and reflections upon what worked and did not work during one’s improvisations. Precisely because of this, more experienced improvisers can depart hard won knowledge on to their students. Therefore, improvisational techniques and approaches and actual licks and riffs, etc. can all be taught to students.
- ➢ Come to think about it, is there anything that cannot be taught? The burden of proof here is on the naysayers, so what is their argument?
MYTH 4: Free jazz improvisations not based on chord changes are easier to play than straight ahead jazz improvisations because they don't need to conform to any particular set of musical rules or conventions.
- ➢ On the contrary, improvising from chord changes supplies the musician with an obvious jumping off point. There is a place to start and a place to which one can return or dip back into.
- ➢ During a free improvisation, on the other hand, it remains a constant challenge how one will accomplish saying something musically interesting given that there is no starting point.
Assessment of the Inherent Inferiority of Improvisations Over Pre-Composed Music
Stepping back for a moment, let us consider the claim of the relative complexity of pre-composed music versus that of concurrently improvised music. Ted Gioia, at least in his role as devil's advocate for the claim that improvised music is inherently inferior to pre-composed music, claims that because improvised music is "spur-of-the-moment," "almost totally lacking in structure" and consists in "spontaneous prattle" resulting in an inherent inferiority to pre-composed music.
Let's assess each of these claims in turn.
Are all improvisations spur of the moment?
Is this bad? What are the consequences?
Of course it depends upon what is meant by "spur of the moment." The definition of "spur of the moment" is an activity done on impulse and without planning in advance. One obvious use of the phrase is in the case of making a sudden and surprising decision such as taking the afternoon off from work and going to a movie instead. For this action to count as "spur of the moment," it cannot be that you do this every Friday. If it is a repeated and therefore planned action, then it does not qualify as being spur of the moment. Hence spur of the moment actions do not involve pre-planning and must be spontaneous.
➢ But why must it be spontaneous and what does this imply?
What is the meaning of "spontaneous"?
The term "spontaneous" has several different meanings and uses. It is an adjective meaning happening or arising without an apparent external cause. Call this the undetermined cause type of being spontaneous. The other use concerns activity that had not already been set down and was not planned or written in advance. Call this unplanned spontaneity.
Notice that the undetermined cause type may have actually been planned in advance. Imagine this scenario where intuitions support both properties in the imagined case. All that needs to be done is to have a scenario where an event is planned and written down ahead of time but appears, and to some extent is, arises without a shall we say 'full' external causation.
Here is such a scenario.
The promoter (Colonel Sanders) of a famous cellist named Pablo Costello wishes this concert to be enthusiastically enjoyed by all audience members. To encourage a successful concert where audience members have a wonderful and memorable experience, Colonel Sanders passes out to each audience member previously written and planned instructions stating that he would encourage the audience during Costello's performance to supply positive energy from the crowd in the form of applause and shouting at appropriate points during the show. He tells the audience in written and previously planned instructions that they will know the right time at which to have a large applause reaction, but that this could happen at any time after the first one minute of the performance. Unfortunately for Colonel Sanders, this is an audience that dislikes being told what to do or how to behave so many members in the audience resolve not to follow these instructions.
PABLO COSTELLO'S PERFORMANCE and the AUDIENCE'S REACTION:
Unfortunately for tonight's performance, Pablo begins with a piece that is not to the audiences liking or taste so there is tepid applause during it. Costello, sensing he has lost the crowd, jumps out of order and does his most popular tune next instead of as an encore. In the middle of this piece he does some amazing technical tricks on the cello that produces stunning and striking musical effects. The audience, so disappointed by the opening number, now feels relieved that they had made the right decision to attend the concert and recalling the instructions as well of the promoter breaks out in vigorous applause, yelling and cheering, jumping up onto their seats, and giving plenty of accolades to Costello with a cry of "More, more!"
➢ Was the audience's applause spontaneous (undetermined cause type) yet planned?
Reasons to think it was planned was the instructions given to audience members just prior to the show. Reasons to believe there was no apparent external cause was that the point in Costello's performance when the audience had such a strong reaction has no apparent external cause that fully accounts for why the audience reacted at precisely that time and in the way in which they did react.
Back to the topic at hand. Are jazz improvisations spur of the moment? Are they accomplished by being activities that are “done on impulse and without planning in advance?”
Well, they are done as concurrently composed and performed musical activities where the entire improvisational composition had not been entirely planned out in advance, as pre-composed compositions have been. However, it is a mistake to think that no prior planning in advance has been done to achieve improvisational success. All successful improvisers have spent considerable, not to say enormous, amounts of time working on his or her musical skills. There is no reason not to accept that all of this prior activity can count as planning in advance of the actual production of a successful improvisation.
➢ Are jazz improvisations spontaneous in either the apparently undetermined cause type or as unplanned spontaneity?
It has just been argued above that improvisations should not be thought of as entirely unplanned so they are not of the unplanned type of spontaneity. Additionally, neither are improvisations of an apparent undetermined cause type because we know precisely what the apparent cause is of the improvisation, namely, the musician herself or himself is the actual (not just apparent) cause.
- Jazz improvisations are not entirely unplanned, as full blown spur of the moment activities are, therefore improvisations are not spur of the moment activities.
- If jazz improvisations are not spur of the moment activities, then this is not a feature that Ted Gioia, or anyone else, can use to argue for the inferiority of improvisations versus pre-composed compositions.
- Neither are jazz improvisations entirely spontaneous activities in the sense that they are not “coming or resulting from a natural impulse or tendency;without effort or premeditation; natural and unconstrained." In fact, successful jazz improvisations do not result from natural impulses because these skills are not innate and must be learned and practiced. No musician naturally with no training or knowledge whatsoever instantly is a master improviser, not even the young Indonesian pianist phenom, Joey Alexander.
“Does not its almost total lack of structure make even the best jazz inferior to mediocre composed music?”
It appears Gunther Schuller may well believe that improvisations typically lack coordinated structure when he claims that “The average improvisation is mostly a stringing together of unrelated ideas.”
Challenging this picture is Gunther himself when he promotes Sonny Rollins's non-average improvisations as exhibiting thematic structures. Other scholars such as J. Tyler Friedman, associate curator of contemporary art for the Museum of Wisconsin Art at Marquette University, support that effective improvisations succeed in conveying what he terms 'narrative flavor' and that good improvisers often have a beginning, middle, and end structuring their improvisations.
“I use the term “narrative ﬂavor” to describe a listener’s perception of the form of a narrative in a piece of music. On the one hand the term indicates that the musical exemplars I have in mind do not in fact convey narratives proper. On the other hand, “ﬂavor” suggests a pre-reﬂective conspicuousness, which I believe that the phenomenon in question enjoys. Just as explaining the ﬂavor of, say, cinnamon is a surprisingly difﬁcult task, so too is narrative ﬂavor difﬁcult to describe. Nevertheless, experiencing the narrative ﬂavor of an exemplary improvisation no more requires that one be a connoisseur of jazz than experiencing the ﬂavor of cinnamon requires one to be a gourmand. And the difﬁculty of putting narrative ﬂavor into words does not prevent us from offering general descriptions of how music seems to tell a story that help us get a better grasp on narrative ﬂavor. Trumpeter Max Kaminsky provides a good point of departure: “The art of improvising lies in the sense of structure, in the ability to build a new story out of the bricks and mortar of the original song. Most so-called or would-be jazzmen can play a thousand ad-lib notes and not say a thing; not rearrange or conceive of them so that they tell a new story, with a beginning, middle, and end.” The experience of narrative ﬂavor, then, seems to be related to the perception of coherence in an improvisation – the impression that every element serves an indispensable role in the aesthetic success of a work. Such an impression is relatively rare since, as musician and theorist Gunther Schuller points out, “The average improvisation is mostly a stringing together of unrelated ideas.” Kaminsky’s reference to a beginning, middle, and end suggests that narrative ﬂavor involves an improvisation possessing a purposive structure not unlike that belonging to successful literary narratives. However, narrative ﬂavor involves more than a purposive structure. With reference to contemporary philosophical work on narrative, I will argue that in addition to a purposive structure there is also an affective element required for music to give the impression of telling a story. (bold not in original)
Are most jazz improvisations structureless? This claim just doesn't seem even in the right ballpark. Do typical jazz improvisations have a "total lack of structure."? Absolutely untrue. The improvisation based off of the chord changes of a particular tune have as much structure as the original tune's chord changes.
Do free jazz improvisations have musical structure? Yes, in fact they can have more structure than structured pieces of music if by structure is meant an architectonic matrix of interacting pieces.
First let us investigate what is meant by structure in general and then afterwards what likely is meant by musical structure.
What is structure?
Dictionary.com reports that the word "structure" can be used as a noun or as a verb.
As a 'verb it is used with an object, as in structured or structuring (something), as in to give a structure, organization, or arrangement to; construct or build a systematic framework for: [e.g.,] to structure a curriculum so well that a novice teacher can use it.
As a noun it has these definitions of general relevance:
- Mode of building, construction, or organization; arrangement of parts, elements, or constituents: a pyramidal structure.
- Something built or constructed, as a building, bridge, or dam.
- A complex system considered from the point of view of the whole rather than of any single part: the structure of modern science.
- Anything composed of parts arranged together in some way; an organization.
- The relationship or organization of the component parts of a work of art or literature: the structure of a poem.
- The pattern of organization of a language as a whole or of arrangements of linguistic units, as phonemes, morphemes or tagmemes, within larger units.
“Are all jazz improvisations "spontaneous prattle"?
Are jazz improvisations an inferior art form?
From another perspective, U.S. music critic, Henry Pleasants (1910-2000), complains in his "A Performer's Art," that:
“The jazz musician is denied the dignity accorded the composer because not everything he composes is first written down, or, necessarily, written down afterward, or, once written down, considered immutable. And he is denied the dignity accorded the Serious-music performer because the latter is an "interpreter" of presumably great music. The musician, in other words, who makes up his music as he goes along, or makes up a good deal of it, or who rarely plays the same music twice in the same way, is, we are given to understand, inferior to the musician who makes no music of his own. For all his undisputed virtuosity and inventive fancy, the jazz musician cannot, we are led to believe, be granted equality with the Serious musician who can read and play the notes written down for him by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner a century or so ago.” (bold not in original)
Are All Successful Jazz Improvisations Compositions?
Steve Larson believes that not all jazz improvisations should always count as compositions. Here's what he concludes about improvisations and compositions:
“This study suggests a different definition of improvisation. I now understand improvisation as the real-time yet preheard—and even practiced—choice among possible paths that elaborate a preexisting structure, using familiar patterns and their familiar combinations and embellishments. And I now understand composition as putting together musical elements and storing them—whether in memory, notation, or sound-recording media—in a way that allows, but does not require, revision.
These definitions are not mutually exclusive. Music can be either, neither, or both of these things. Some improvisations are best regarded as compositions. Other improvisations are not. Some compositions are best regarded as recorded improvisations. Other compositions are not. Some aleatoric music, often cited as an example of music that is both composed and improvised, may be neither. And I suspect that all enduring music is created by improvisation, whether or not it is recorded in notation.” (bold not in original)
Larson in these two paragraphs gives zero reasons for believing that some improvisations are not compositions. Worse than that his definition that he provides for composition, namely, "the result of putting together musical elements and storing them" would seem consistent with all improvisations counting as compositions so long as they are stored in some way. All improvisations have certainly put together musical elements .
Is Larson correct that the definition of composition requires storage or storing? While it is true that most compositions get recorded in "memory, notation, or recording technology" is storage a necessary condition for something to count as a composition? There seems no theoretical reason why there could not exist a composition that does not get stored.
Here is an argument that a composition could exist that doesn't get stored in memory, notation, or recording technology. There are two considerations here—the first one concerns ontology versus epistemology. Beethoven is getting forgetful. Nevertheless, he continues to do the exact same mental activity he does when he does write it down using musical notation and produces what all would agree is a successful musical composition, if it were known about by having been written down. At the end of this process after having thought the entire piece through to his satisfaction he then forgets what he wrote. Did forgetful Beethoven produce or make a composition? Just because no one can know what this composition consists of is irrelevant as to whether forgetful Beethoven produced a composition from an ontological perspective.
The other consideration concerns what is true given a possible world's scenario. Suppose that God is monitoring Beethoven's musical output. The day after Beethoven has forgotten his musical output of yesterday, he works on composing a musical work, but this time he writes down the score on paper. God remarks to himself that this written down notated composition is identical to the one Beethoven forgot that he thought up yesterday. If the non-remembered and non-stored musical production gets ruled out as counting as a composition, then God's remark would be mistaken. But can God make a mistake about this when the two musical productions generated by Beethoven are identical?
The second one has been written down in musical notation so counts as a composition according to the definition. If forgetful Beethoven had written down the first forgotten one he would have written down the same musical score. Hence the two musical productions would have been identical. The fact that the first one was not stored seems irrelevant to its now being identical to the second one musically. Storage is only required for knowledge and evidence, but not for existence of a composition in the first place.
Additionally, for a Platonist who believes all possible musical compositions have eternal status as abstract objects, existing as abstract musical structures can count as a kind of 'storage' or permanence and available for discovery by more than one person, or the same person could discover it twice.
Some theorists seem slightly confused about how to talk about the relationship between improvisations versus compositions. On one hand Craig Rusbult distinguishes between improvisations and compositions in terms of their relative permanence status. On the other hand, he repeats constantly that improvisations are compositions. First he requires compositions to be repeatable as the result of being recorded in some manner, including, written musical score, recording technology, or even human memory. After, he still maintains that improvisations are on-the-spot compositions. When he remarks that one can preserve a composition he refers to preserving an improvisation. Surely if all that is being done is recording of a musical improvisation this improvisation is already the composition that is being recorded.
“When you find something that "works well" during a musical improvisation, you may want to preserve the results of your creative discovery in a musical composition. Basically, an improvisation becomes a composition when it is repeated in the same form, so its status changes from temporary to permanent. Because improvisation is on-the-spot composition, in real time while the music is happening, all skilled improvisers are skilled composers. And some composers, continuing the tradition of J.S. Bach, are also skilled real-time improvisers, with an ability to perform well and produce pleasing music when they (and their listeners) do care about the quality of the music. You can preserve a composition—so it can be duplicated later by yourself or others—by writing it on a sheet of paper or, in modern times, by saving it in the memory of a computer or electronic instrument. Or your improvisation can be recorded on tape or digitally, and then transcribed into a musical composition. Or you can just remember what you did, and then play it (or something like it) later. (bold not in original)
What is meant by composition?
So, it is going to come down quite a bit on what one means by composition.
Dictionary.com gives these definitions for "composition" among which these are relevant to this discussion:
- The act of combining parts or elements to form a whole.
- The resulting state or product.
- Manner of being composed; structure, as in "this painting has an orderly composition."
- Makeup; constitution, as in "his moral composition was impeccable."
- A piece of music.
- The art of composing music.
None of these definitions strikes a reasonable person as inappropriate or wrong for how the word "composition" gets used in conversations. The definition that may end up being most relevant when addressing the question as to whether every musical improvisation (not counting interpretations of a musical score while sticking to and intending to play that very score as intended by a composer) can count as a composition is the fifth one stating a composition can be "a piece of music."
➢ What, though, is here meant by piece?
There are easily two standard readings that can be given and the dictionary does nothing to disambiguate between the two. The word "piece" has a part/whole ambiguity. A piece of music could conceivably refer to either just a part of a larger musical work, or it could refer to an entire musical work.
If "piece" means just a part, then since any improvised section of a jazz performance is clearly part of the larger whole, then on this conception and definition of composition all improvisations would count as compositions. To make reference easier to this conception we can label it as a part-piece.
If it means an entire piece of completed music, then not all improvisations are completed pieces of music. Call this conception of piece the whole-piece.
➢ Are there any arguments that can break this stalemate as to how the concept of improvisation relates to part-pieces or to whole-pieces?
A relevant consideration in favor of the part-piece use of composition concerns how we are prepared to talk about an improvisation within a tune that is less than the entire piece of performed music. We are certainly prepared to claim that even in this instance where the improvisation in question is a part-piece of a larger musical entity that the improviser is responsible for causing this part-piece of music to exist. Furthermore, no one should deny that the individual musician had produced this music. If someone were to deny that a musician had composed that particular improvisation we would be thunderstruck since if he or she did not compose it, then who did? Here we are using the first definition of composition, namely, "the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole" which an improviser most certainly has done in making the improvisation.
Furthermore, using all of the other definitions this improviser produced "a state or product" by making an improvisation and has produced "a structure" wherein this improvisation has a particular "makeup" and "constitution," and has "artfully" produced "music."
CONCLUSION: All of these considerations support the idea that all improvisations have been composed by the improviser who produced them resulting in a musical product that can be a composition.
Not every improvisation counts as a composition
An objection to every improvisation counting as a composition concerns the situation where an improviser has only added minor improvised embellishments while performing a previously pre-composed musical composition. It does not seem intuitively correct that the entire work with minor embellishments should count as a new composition. Rather we are inclined to describe the situation as one where it is the same composition but with minor additions and interpretations.
➢ What is an embellishment to a piece of music?
Wikipedia explains that embellishments, also often called ornamentations, are typically added notes that are not essential to the melody (or harmony) but add interest and variety to the performance of that particular tune:
“In music, ornaments or embellishments are musical flourishes—typically, added notes—that are not essential to carry the overall line of the melody (or harmony), but serve instead to decorate or "ornament" that line (or harmony), provide added interest and variety, and give the performer the opportunity to add expressiveness to a song or piece. Many ornaments are performed as "fast notes" around a central, main note.” (bold not in original)
On this line of reasoning theimoroviser is responsible for producing the ornaments and embellishments, but he or she is staying more or less within the confines of the original score. This counts as improvisational additional when these ornaments are added because they are not in the original musical score. Nevertheless, they don't affect the overall structure of the original musical work so are i sufficient to count as a brand new composition.
How long does a composition have to be to have been composed?
Regarding lengths of musical works with regard to their being a completed composition, consider a composer who has not yet written any music, but who now begins to produce a piece of music that she intends to be 32 bars long. She writes the first two bars of music still with 30 more bars to go. Would anyone deny that these first two bars have been composed by this music writer? While it is true that these first two bars do not constitute a completed or finished work, it remains true that these first two bars have been composed and constitute part of a fuller composition. Could anything that is part of a composition not itself be a composition? It doesn't seem possible, does it? But for the part versus whole problem, everyone agrees that the person who wrote the first two bars did put them together and hence composed those two bars of music.
There is one way in which it is possible. Individual notes are parts of a larger composition so one note can be a part of a composition, yet the composer did not compose that specific particular note. It would seem correct that any one note could not be a composition. On the other hand, the composer who produces two bars of music has sequenced the notes in an original manner and so this would count as having been composed.
Could there be a one note composition?
While initially a single chosen note, say middle C on a piano, would not seem like it could be a composition there are several thought experiments that show it is possible.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT #1: A composer uses only one note, but repeatedly over and over with varying rhythmic patterns. First a 3-2 clave rhythm for two bars and then a 2-3 rhythm for another two bars. Because the composer has indicated a more complex musical structure and this musical structure could be performed by a musician, then the person producing the music caused it to be in existence (or at least known about and can be performed by multiple musicians and by varying instruments). Imagine that a piano, violin, and saxophone perform the piece.
Arguably, this is a complex musical composition that uses only one note. However, the different rhythms and different mixes of rhythm, as well as the different timbres of the three musical instruments, makes this a playable piece of music and therefore counts as a composition. We want to credit the composer and give authorship of this piece of music to the person who caused it to exist and this is a composer who produced a composition using only one note.
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT #2: A musician writes done a score using only one note. The note is to played on a violin first for one minute, then wait one second of rest, then played again for half of that time which is thirty seconds, wait one second, then half of that preceding time interval, which is 15 seconds, then one second pauses in between, then half of that repeatedly until the performer cannot keep to the time schedule. Presumably one can at least get down to a sixteenth note and perhaps a 32nd, or maybe even 64th, but unlikely to get much quicker and shorter than this. The name of the piece is "Zeno's Dichotomy # Infinity."
Does "Zeno's Dictomomy # Infinity" count as a musical composition using only one note (repeatedly)? Are there any non-question begging arguments that show it cannot have been composed and/or that it is not a composition? Hearing none, we conclude it is a musical composition using only one note (repeatedly).
THOUGHT EXPERIMENT #3: OK, you say, maybe THOUGHT EXPERIMENTS #1 & #2 show one can have musical compositions with only one repeated note, but how about only playing one note once?
➢ Could one note played only once possibly count as a musical composition?
To answer this question, first consider an assessment and evaluation of a famous musical piece discussed by Andrew Kania in his article, "Silent Music." In this article quoted below, Kania discusses a musical work by the famous artist Yves Klein. The piece in question consists of the playing of just one D major chord for 5-7 minutes followed by 44 minutes of silence.
“Yves Klein, much better known as a visual and performance artist, was also the composer of the Monotone-Silence Symphony. The final version of the work, scored for a small orchestra and choir, consists of a D-major chord, to be held for five to seven minutes, followed by forty-four minutes of silence. The history of the piece is rather obscure, particularly with respect to whether it was composed before or after Cage’s 4′33″. . . . It was orchestrated by Pierre Henry in 1957, and was certainly premièred in 1960 at Klein’s show “Anthropometries of the Blue Period.” It was also played at Klein’s wedding in 1962. (bold not in original)
➢ Does Klein's "Monotone-Silence Symphony" qualify as a musical composition?
- If it does, then simply modify this same composition by substituting one note for the D-major chord to be played once followed by the 44 minutes of rests and relative silence. Call the new work "PoJ's One Note Silent Samba."
CONCLUSION: This is then a different composition, but a composition apparently just as much as Klein's piece, and consists of only one note played once, thereby answering our question in the affirmative. One note played only once pieces of music can still qualify as a musical composition.
- The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music, Bruce Ellis Benson, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 4.
- Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol 9, No 2, 2013, Book Review of The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music, Bruce Ellis Benson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN-10: 0521009324, 216 pages, Reviewed by Melvin James Backstrom.
- The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: A Phenomenology of Music, Bruce Ellis Benson, Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 4.
- The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 43, No. 1, Autumn, 1984, fn. 28, p. 29.
- There is no published book that can be found on the internet attributing the quotation to Steve Lacy. Here are two websites that quote it from Lacy, but with no documentation—only attribution: Jazz-Quotes.com and Jazz Advice.com.
- This story is described in footnote 18 of “Kinds of Blue: Miles Davis, Afro‐Modernism, and the Blues,” Jeffrey Magee, Jazz Perspectives, Volume 1, 2007, Issue 1, pp. 5-27. Published online: 11 Jan 2007. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17494060601061006.
“Considering that both musicians used the major seventh in their blues, it is interesting to note that Davis recalled arguing with Charlie Parker about whether it was possible to play a D natural in the fifth bar of a Bb blues (that is, the major seventh of the subdominant Eb). Davis said it should not be done; Parker insisted that it was acceptable. Later, Davis admitted hearing Lester Young play the note, “and it sounded good. But he bent it.” See Ian Carr, Miles Davis, p. 36.”
- "Improvisation versus Composition?," Steve Larson, Journal of Music Theory, 49:2, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 258. DOI 10.1215/00222909-008
- For an overview with critique of Gioia's themes in his book see Ted Gracyk's webpage "An Outline of Gioia's Imperfect Art."
- The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, Ted Gioia, Stanford Alumni Association, 1988, p. 54.
- The Imperfect Art, Ted Gioia, Stanford Alumni Association, 1988, p. 55.
- The Imperfect Art, Ted Gioia, p. 55.
- The Contradictions of Jazz, Paul Rinzler, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008, p. 141.
- The Contradictions of Jazz, Paul Rinzler, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008, p. 142.
- The Contradictions of Jazz, Paul Rinzler, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008, pp. 142-43.
- The Contradictions of Jazz, Paul Rinzler, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008, p. 143.
- The Contradictions of Jazz, Paul Rinzler, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008, p. 144.
- The Contradictions of Jazz, Paul Rinzler, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2008, p. 149.
- Quoted in "A Performer's Art," Serious Music And All That Jazz, Henry Pleasants, Simon & Schuster, 1969.
- "From Ragtime to Riches," The Lively Audience: A Social History of the Visual and Performing Arts in America, Russell Lynes, Harper & Row, 1985.
- How To Improvise: An Approach to Practising Improvisation, Hal Crook, 2010, p. 3.
- What is a riff? at ThoughtCo explains the differences between licks and riffs.
“In terms of the music itself, the series of notes, chord pattern or musical phrase that is repeated is called a "riff." Often, a riff is used as an introduction to a song, such as a guitar riff. Musical riffs are often found in genres like popular music, rock, and jazz. A riff is different from a lick in that, while a lick is a stock pattern or phrase, riffs may include repeated chord progressions.” (bold not in original)
- The Imperfect Art, Ted Gioia, Stanford Alumni Association, 1988, p. 55.
- “Spur of the moment” is defined as meaning “occurring or done without advance preparation or deliberation; extemporaneous; unplanned.”
- Dictionary.com defines "spontaneous" five ways, but the first three are most relevant: 1. coming or resulting from a natural impulse or tendency; without effort or premeditation; natural and unconstrained; unplanned, as in a spontaneous burst of applause.
2. (of a person) given to acting upon sudden impulses.
3. (of natural phenomena) arising from internal forces or causes; independent of external agencies; self-acting.
- “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation,” Gunther Schuller, Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schuller, New York: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 87.
- "On Narrativity and Narrative Flavor in Jazz Improvisation", J. Tyler Friedman, Revista Portuguesa de Filosophia, Vol. 74 (4), 2018, pp. 1401-1402. DOI 10.17990/RPF/2018_74_4_1399.
- Dictionary.com's definition of structure.
- Dictionary.com's definition of structure.
- "A Performer's Art," Serious Music And All That Jazz, Simon & Schuster, 1969.
- "Improvisation versus Composition?," Steve Larson, Journal of Music Theory, 49:2, Yale University Press, 2008, p. 272. DOI 10.1215/00222909-008 .
- "Making Music—Improvisation and Composition," Craig Rusbult.
- Wikipedia: "Ornament (music)," first paragraph.
- "Silent Music," Andrew Kania, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 68, pp. 343-353. doi: 10.1111/j.1540-6245.2010.01429.x.