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Structured improvisation

Structured improvisation
March 18, 2008, 05:31:51 PM
Something metal can adopt:

Nowadays we associate contemporary improvisation with jazz or bluegrass, not classical music; we don't often get the opportunity to hear a classical musician improvise. However, this wasn't always the case. In previous centuries, the occupations of composer and performer were inextricably linked. The one who composed music also executed it, sometimes spontaneously. Organists such as J.S. Bach improvised during church services. In the nineteenth century, after the establishment of public concerts, performers such as Beethoven used improvisation as a way to show off their abilities and attract attention to themselves.

Many great composers were masters at improvisation, and some of them incorporated improvisation into their written compositions. Mozart and Beethoven not only improvised variations on popular themes of the day, but preserved some of these improvisations of paper. Sometimes, a composer was required to improvise a passage of an otherwise notated composition, as was the case with the 1808 premiere of Beethoven's Choral Fantasy, Op. 80. Beethoven was so overwhelmed with concert preparations that he had no time to compose an introduction for the Fantasy. When it came time for the premiere and Beethoven still had no introduction, he simply sat down at the piano and improvised one.

One place in classical music where it is not unusual to find improvisation is the cadenza. As master improviser and Harvard Professor Robert Levin points out, a cadenza is a musical freeze frame in the midst of a concerto. While the orchestra pauses, the soloist takes a single chord and through musical reflection and invention blows it up and prolongs it.


J.S. Bach, while he was alive, was little known as a composer, and his works were criticized for being dense and old-fashioned — but he was renowned as the greatest improviser on the organ in Europe. A famous French organist once came to town to compete against him, and, hearing him improvise while warming up, promptly left town on the next train. Bach put improvisation skills at the center of his teaching. Most of his instructional manuals are how-to books in improvisation. He often wrote out several different versions of his most popular pieces, such as the inventions, to show how a student might improvise on the structure.

Handel wrote one treatise on performance - and half of it was devoted to improvising dances and fugues.

Mozart was most famous in his day, according to scholars, “first as an improviser, then as a composer, then as a pianist”. In a famous piano competition in front of the Pope, Mozart and Clementi not only had to improvise in the final round, they had to improvise pieces together.

Beethoven became famous in Vienna not as a composer but as an “astounding” improviser. It was a full ten years that he was famous as an improviser in Vienna before he started to become well-known for his compositions, and he improvised publicly until the end of his life.


Any amateur musician in the 18th century could improvise, but as methodologies for music teaching developed in the 19th century, reading and playing complicated scores became the focus of the teacher's attention, to the extent of crowding out analysis of how music was constructed and how a student might put together a piece on his or her own. Reinforced by continuous practice, piano students became adept at pressing down the right keys at the right time, while the talented student could be further instructed about putting feeling and "expression" into the rehearsed product later.

In the new millennium we stand as heir to a complex musical heritage. We face a new kind of academically taught "serious" music, which is neither totally tonal nor yet atonal, where a musical line, which is not necessarily distinguishable as a melody, proceeds by motions of fourths leaps, while thirds and sixths are replaced by minor seconds. This neo-tonal "style" presents a style-sound of its own just as clearly as the l970's cocktail lounge music had a recognizable sound of its own. This is not the first time that academic preferences have tried to define and regularize art. But it seems that public musical taste may be ready for some changes. However there are no sharp lines of cleavage appearing, no harsh breaks with the past like the upheavals of 1910.

There is no reason to avoid tradition. Traditional Western triadic harmony has much value from a long history of development. It accords with the harmonic overtone series to which our ears respond naturally. Triadics can be mixed and matched with "dissonances" of all sorts and proportions, and the results will carry a variety of "beats" which enrich the acoustic texture of a performance. Beatless fourths, fifth and octaves were the inheritance of early church music singing drawn from Greek antiquity, but slowly abandoned by the 12th century composers as sole basis for composition, in favor of enriching intervals like the thirds and sixths with multiple beats per second. Tallis' 16th century "Alternating Hymns for Plainsong and Polyphony" contrasts timbrally dry and rich textures perfectly, while reminding us that parallel fifths octaves apart or sounds in unison are also usable and artistically valuable. Nothing in music is ipso facto un-usable!



Re: Structured improvisation
March 18, 2008, 08:17:04 PM
Structured improvisation rather than improvisated structure, but first emphasis on melody rather than rhythm.

Most metalheads are unable to conceive an expressive melody, most are used to attach chords on preestablished patterns, as if they by themselves were enough to bring sense. Remove this, and songs can't support themselves, because they weren't enough melodius on first place.
There's no authentic connection with classical music if melodies aren't able to be beautifully sung.

Improvisation is evocation, and Metal musicians need a deep internalization of melody (melodies) in order to make coherent improvisations.


Re: Structured improvisation
March 19, 2008, 05:24:05 PM
I suggest anyone interested in improvisatory music to investigate the traditional music of India. And I don't suggest anyone to get their hopes up in regards to good improvisatory metal.

Re: Structured improvisation
March 19, 2008, 05:38:38 PM
Hasn't metal been trying the get away from the forced improvisation of the 80s? All metal was improvisatory in that spontaneity gave birth to the music, not so much application of pre-established theory. Let's be honest here, Kerry King had a method for his art, but he didn't plan out his solos note for note.