What Is Improvising? Annea Lockwood and Many Others January 26, 1976

I’m not sure what ‘improvising’ really means anymore. Traditionally it applied to forms of music which weren’t very free at all. Jazz improvisers had a good deal of melodic freedom, but had to keep right with the chord changes of whatever tune was being played. Harpsichordists were said to be improvising figured bass accompaniments in baroque music, but they too were obliged to follow strict, predetermined harmonies. Raga improvisers didn’t have to worry about harmony, but they had to keep strictly to the prescribed scale, and work with specific melodic formulas.

But then both free jazz players and avant-garde instrumentalists loosened the reins a whole lot, and their improvising sessions became almost totally unpredictable. They wanted to be free of all restrictions, and they set no conscious limitations on what could happen. Of course, if players had approaches that offended or interfered with the other musicians, they wouldn’t be invited back to the 1976/rehearsing-einstein-on-the-beach-philip-glass-and-robert-wilson session, but that was about the only kind of restriction or censorship that existed.

In this atmosphere, a good many types of music, which in another age would probably have been considered improvisatory, were presented as actual compositions. Stockhausen, for example, wrote a set of piano fragments which could be played in any order, and which took radically different forms from one reading to another. But he didn’t call it an improvisation at all. He called it Klavierstück XI. And Cage, many of whose works were equally unpredictable, began referring to ‘music indeterminate of its performance,’ because to have called his work ‘improvisations’ would have implied that the players were not guided by goals and rules.

Gradually ‘improvisation’ has lost most of its original respectability and come to imply a completely uncontrolled sort of messing around, and no one wants to admit that he is improvising, except in jazz quarters where, due to such long traditions, the word has never become a pejorative. But in the meantime, if we could return to the original sense of the word, and realize that most forms of improvisation have actually been forms of highly restricted improvisation, we could say that there is an awful lot of improvising going on these days, and that a number of composers have devised ingenious new ways of doing it.

Like Charlemagne Palestine, who often sits down at the piano, without knowing how long he is going to play or how often the music will change, but with a very clear idea of the overtone effects he is going after and the basic harmonies he will be playing as he tries to get them.

Or Philip Corner, who sometimes restricts his activity for an hour or so to the simple task of blowing into a curious ceramic pot, but within that severe limitation, will allow reverberant low tones and whooshes of air to come about however they will.

Or Jim Fulkerson, whom I recently heard perform on unaccompanied trombone, focusing his efforts on three or four specific and rather unusual techniques, but without much plan for details within these sections.

Or La Monte Young, or Joan La Barbara, or Garett List, or Jim Burton, to mention only a few New York composers, all of whom set highly defined performance tasks, but end up with a variety of specific results from performance to performance.

Annea Lockwood’s January 10 concert at a very new but very active loft space on 17th Street, known as the Brook, was another case in point. Lockwood is particularly concerned with sounds she finds in nature, and over the years has evolved a rather amazing collection of tapes. The recordings she has acquired of the erratic astral sputtering of pulsars, and of rumbling volcanic and earthquake activity are especially impressive. Human musicians will probably never produce sounds quite as awesome as these. She also has a number of fine recordings she has made herself of geysers, mud pools, rivers, rippling lakes, tree frogs and other wild life, storms, and fires.

For this presentation, she assembled representative tapes from all these categories, added some human breathing sounds, and set up a 10-track playback system, each track having its own carefully placed loudspeaker. For about an hour a rapt audience of a hundred or so listened to these sounds as they faded in and out, and interacted with one another. In the case of the earthquake, the speed has been jacked up to bring it into the range of human hearing, but otherwise the sounds had not been tampered with, so it was easy to identify the elements, appreciate what they represented, and understand why the event had been called ‘World Rhythms.’ The mix which the audience heard was concocted on the spot, which is where the improvisation came in. By mixing the ten tracks spontaneously, Lockwood was able to respond to the acoustical realities of the moment, and pace things according to the mood of the evening. But there was an additional element in the concert.

While the recorded sounds were being played, Carole Weber sat 1976/rehearsing-einstein-on-the-beach-philip-glass-and-robert-wilson to a large gong, hitting it rather gently at unpredictable times, adding man-made vibrations to the mixture of recorded sounds. These infrequent gong tones seemed to have a different feeling every time, and later Lockwood explained what had been going on. A physical movement, such as hitting a gong, energizes the system somewhat, and Weber’s assignment had been to sense this slight increase in her energy every time she hit the gong, wait until she had almost returned to a state of complete calm, and then hit it again, all without paying conscious attention to how she was playing the gong, or what prerecorded sounds she was hearing.

Was Weber improvising? Well, she certainly wasn’t just messing around. In fact, assuming that she has the power of concentration to strictly adhere to such a difficult assignment, and being fairly sure that she does, then her actual individual will power was never engaged even for a moment. That is certainly a long ways away from the type of freedom which is often implied by the term ‘improvisation.’ It would be better if we could get back to that original definition. We should remind those who have been avoiding the word that, with the exception of a few very loose styles, improvisation has always involved specific intentions and tight restrictions, and does not necessarily encourage performers to express spontaneous emotions. Then we could say that all these composers are working with improvisation, simply because the exact outcome is not predictable.

All of this is only semantics, of course, but this particular problem is one which seems to be causing a lot of unnecessary confusion, at least in classical and avant-garde circles. If improvisation could become a respectable term in all quarters again, with the understanding that it covers a lot of different ways of making unpredictable music, then I suspect that many people who think they did disagree would discover they don’t.