Improvisation and Origination

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

All music begins as improvisation. Guided by an internalized assortment of musical conventions, proclivities, and preferences, and propelled by a need for self-expression, the musician offers up an unfolding sequence of tones. Sonic strokes are applied to a canvas of silence and time, coalescing into a piece of music. What happens after the initial act will determine what type of improvisation it is: creation for the moment, or creation for repetition.

In musical styles that value extemporization, such as jazz and ragas, certain sounds are not meant to extend past the performance. They are embraced as spontaneous creations in and for that moment. Beauty arises, mistakes are made, ideas are asserted, and ingenuity is flashed—all without concern for documentation. The experience begins and ends in real time. In contrast, music created for repetition is expected to persist beyond the improvisatory genesis. Tones emerge from the imagination, but are thereafter revised, re-shaped, and retained for future performances. This process occurs in both oral and scribal cultures, where music is reiterated through person-to-person transmission, notation, audio recording, and often a combination of these. The impulsive journey of formation becomes a roadmap for reproduction.

There are cases where creation for the moment and creation for repetition intrude upon one another. These “violations” take the form of transcriptions of improvisatory solos, recordings of jam sessions, embellishments in classical compositions, and the like. Purists shun such rule breaking: improvisers guard the ephemeral nature of their craft; classical musicians shield the notes on the page.

Frank Zappa was a vocal critic from the improvisatory camp. In a 1984 MTV interview, he blasted fellow guitarists for playing carbon copies of their recorded solos on stage. Zappa was asked, “Do you consider yourself a great guitarist?” Rather than self-labeling one way or the other, he gave an assessment of the state of guitar playing, lamenting the scarcity of intuition and risk taking. His response deserves quoting in full:

“Well, I’m specialized. What I do on the guitar has very little to do with what other people do on the guitar. Most of the other guitar solos that you hear performed on stage have been practiced over and over and over again. They go out there and they play the same one every night, and it’s really just spotless. My theory is this: I have a basic mechanical knowledge of the operation of the instrument and I’ve got an imagination, and when the time comes up in the song to play a solo, it’s me against the laws of nature. I don’t know what I’m going to play; I don’t know what I’m going to do. I know roughly how long I have to do it, and it’s a game where you have a piece of time and you get to decorate it. And depending on how intuitive the rhythm section is that’s backing you up, you can do things that are literally impossible to imagine sitting here. But you can see them performed before your very eyes in a live performance situation. I don’t like any of the guitar solos that have ever been released on a record, and I think that the real fun of playing the guitar is doing it live, not freezing it and saving it on a piece of plastic someplace or putting it on a video.”

It should be mentioned that Zappa was no enemy of notation. He meticulously scored his songs for all instruments, including percussion, and was notoriously perfectionistic regarding the conversion of his writing into sound. But he also knew when to depart from predetermined ideas and respond to the moment. What he despised was the breakdown of distinctions between the fixed and the improvised. Implied in his comments is recognition that music can only be improvised once. After that, it takes one of two paths: evaporation or concretization. For Zappa, fleeting sounds should be kept fleeting, while stipulated sounds should remain stipulated. Even so, Zappa himself sometimes wandered into the awkward space where impromptu playing becomes frozen for consumption. A series of guitar-solo albums and a book of solos-in-transcription are testaments to that uncomfortable truth.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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