Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Classical Improvisation

Currently on his blog, Alex Ross has links to his summer writings. One long piece in the New Yorker is on work being done to bring back the improvised candenzas once common. Here's a paragraph that really caught my attention:

>>For a recent paper in NeuroImage, Aaron Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari studied what happens cognitively when someone improvises; they observed increased activity in two zones of the brain, one connected to decision-making and the other to language. Even if a soloist extemporizes for only a minute, the remainder of the performance may gain something intangible. Levin, the Harvard-based musician who for decades has been the chief guru of classical improvisation, believes that performances need to cultivate risk and surprise. Otherwise, he says, music becomes “gymnastics with the affectation of emotional content”—a phrase that sums up uncomfortably large tracts of modern music-making.<<

The point about the improv affecting the rest of the piece is something like I'm trying to get at with the turbulence & equilibrium idea. A bit later there's this sentence that reminded me of Jeffrey Agrell's "immaculate recitation" formulation:

>>The musicologist Karol Berger has described the cadenza as an inherently theatrical moment where the performer steps out of a written role and speaks in his or her own voice.<<


  1. I saw that piece, too, and wrote a note to Alex Ross about the kind of "classical" improvisation that I do (class, book, recordings), in case he's interested (haven't heard anything...). But it was great to read about what other folks are doing. It would be a "thousand flowers" blooming if classical musicians suddenly had "voices" and were able to express (italics:) themselves for once, rather than just repeating musical sentences about how Herr Strauss felt in Bavaria a hundred years ago. I've started my fall improv class and it's great fun. We'll have three concerts this semester - all made up on the spot. Audiences love it, and even the football players in the back row texting their girlfriends pay attention and enjoy this very different kind of concert experience where no one knows what will happen until it happens.

  2. Jeffrey - Thanks for the comment. I'd wondered if you'd heard of "Levin, the Harvard-based musician who for decades has been the chief guru of classical improvisation", but it sounds like you haven't. That improv class sounds like a lot of fun. What you're accenting is exactly what recorded music can't offer and what performers adjusting to the age of recorded music need to do more of, at least to my mind. Maybe you could record a few minutes of a concert and post it? I've been messing about with ITunes and iMovie on my Mac and it looks as though I should be able to post music to the blog as the sound track to a slide show type video.