Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The division of labor between composer and performer, while central to Western art music, is foreign to much of the world. This does not owe to a lack of performers. Every human society, ancient and modern, has its musicians. What tends to be absent is the separate role of creator. Not only is it common for music to arise from an anonymous or semi-anonymous folk process, but musicians are also given to improvisation. Melodic lines and tonal archetypes (modes) are treated as canvases for spontaneously conjured embellishments and departures—or what pianist David Dolan calls “walking freely on firm ground.” It is only with the proliferation of notation that the composer and performer become truly distinct entities. The composer sets ideas on paper, and the performer meticulously renders those ideas into sound. The goal of “correct” performance replaces real-time interpretation.
Part of what differentiates improvisational and semi-improvisational folk music from Western art music is its gestalt approach, wherein a musical motive is conceived as a whole, rather than as a sum of individual notes. Thinking nothing of notes, the musician permits different tones and tone sequences to replace each other, so long as the motive retains its basic character. It is similar to an artist setting pieces of glass or stone within a framework, and is sometimes called the “mosaic technique.” This contrasts with Western notated music, which, by its very nature, is built from individual notes that are unalterably fixed on staff paper.
This distinction is best illustrated by example. Musicologist Michal Smoira-Cohn recalls when a Bedouin musician visited a class at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. The musician played a “marvelously concentrated and highly inspired piece” on a one-stringed bowed instrument. When he finished, the professor explained some details of the performance and asked the musician to play the same piece again. Bewildered, the Bedouin proceeded to play a new improvisation, which resembled the first but was not identical. Smoira-Cohn relates: “The experience illuminated for me the true significance of the art of performance. I realized that the supposedly primitive Bedouin knew better than all of us the real value of music.”
This “real value” is part and parcel of oral societies, where improvisation is a fixture of story, dance, song, and instrument playing. Each performance is a re-creation involving identifiable elements that are manipulated, arranged, and supplemented in new and unreplicable ways. Compare this with the non-spontaneity expected of classical musicians, who work tirelessly to actualize a composer’s vision. Their performance may add a subtle interpretation, but the fear of wrong notes results in general sterility, and solidifies the separation of composer and performer.
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This was an irresistible read for me, Jonathan! Naturally, my favorite part is the story of the Bedouin who is baffled by being asked to “play the same piece” again. That is the beauty and the danger of improvisation. I can no longer count on my fingers and toes all the times I’ve been asked to perform the same improvisation. It’s a bewildering and delightful experience at the same time. Certainly, it demonstrates quite well that each performance (not only of improvisation) is unique unto itself. For no matter what else (live) performance is, it is bounded by the temporal, geographical, and contextual specifics when it is performed. And that can never, ever be reproduced completely. Thus, my love of improvisation which never assumes anything else.
Amen! Thanks for your comments. I was actually thinking of you when I wrote this.
You’re a good friend, Jonathan!