A Fickle Sonance
a column by
Theo Jörgensmann, Albrecht Maurer, Kent Carter + Etienne Rolin Courtesy of Emanem
Improvisation is a word – like chance, indeterminacy, and aleatory – which may have a specific meaning, but has come to denote different things to different people. Its definition and various forms and styles of practice have no doubt changed over time and according to place. Certainly, concepts of improvisation in Middle Eastern music have differed from those in the Far East or in the diverse civilizations spread over the continent of Africa. Looking at Europe, and the development over the past 700 years of what we call classical music, we know that improvisation played an important role, though, lacking audio recordings, we have no precise idea how Bach sounded when he improvised at the organ (despite the surviving written accounts), or the full extent of Mozart’s ability to spontaneously create a cadenza in one of his piano concertos – which, given the largely unchanged harmonic conventions from his time to ours, may not have been that much different from the manner in which Count Basie filled in the open spaces of a Buster Harding or Neal Hefti arrangement.
Nevertheless, despite these origins, by the 20th century the classical world came to look upon improvisation with disdain and distrust. The composer had been elevated to the top of the classical hierarchy, with the score as his icon and the orchestral conductor as sole arbiter in his absence; in chamber music, the responsibility for accuracy and total adherence to the score was equally binding. Exceptions emerged, as they did in all the arts, as revolutionaries, outsiders who intended to upset the status quo, sought ways to break free from the constraints enforced by the establishment. Ironically, even the controversial and widely condemned 12-tone theories of Schönberg and his disciples were initially an attempt to maintain the supremacy of the composer and the singlemindedness of the compositional process in a world where governments, societal canons, and cultural traditions were crumbling. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the iconoclastic ideas of John Cage began to make a serious dent in the hegemony of classical music.
Though Cage had been composing with idiosyncratic post-Schönberg methods as early as 1931 and spent the ‘40s experimenting with percussion ensembles, the prepared piano, and systems influenced by Eastern philosophies, 1951 saw his first venture into chance-derived composing, using the I Ching as his guide. By abdicating the ego-motivated responsibilities of the composer, Cage became the figurehead for a number of like-minded composers who were exploring ways to involve the performer in the process of not just re-creating, but making music. Cage did not invent the idea of graphic, or non-notational scores, but he, Morton Feldman, and Christian Wolff, among others, conceived ideas in the 1950s that gradually took hold. As Wolff explained, it was an attempt “to turn the making of music into a collaborative and transforming activity (performer into composer into listener into composer into performer, etc.), [from] the cooperative character of the activity to the exact source of the music. To stir up, through the production of the music, a sense of social conditions in which we live and of how these might be changed.”
To do so, they created scores that required performers to craft a “realization”—that is, a carefully, conscientiously, and accurately gauged response to proposed musical conditions and indeterminate (unpredictable) possibilities. The performers were charged to variously choose their own notes, create rhythmic patterns, determine durations and attacks, and affect their group alignment, but in an environment of music-making that was not considered improvisational (despite the almost endless misconceptions that resulted, and still, alas, exist). So when, in 1957, composer/pianist Lukas Foss founded a group called the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble, he considered their approach to be radical and unique in classical music. Foss used the ensemble, and his particular ideas about improvisation, to provide interludes between the conventionally notated movements of his 1960 composition “Time Cycle,” and in 1961 released an album entitled Studies In Improvisation (RCA). But, just as Cage saw no relation between his indeterminate scores and the style of improvisation used by jazz musicians up to this time, Foss deemed his method of improvisation distinct from jazz – and from Cage’s chance-derived compositional methodology as well. Of course, jazz at this time featured improvisation within the confines of predetermined blues and song forms; something which neither composer apparently had any interest in. Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor were, in 1957, expanding song form through their improvisations, but had not yet broken free of it. But Foss’ comments (quoted from the booklet that accompanied the LP) show how most “serious” musicians felt about jazz: “To the classically trained musician, improvisation means something makeshift, random, haphazard…a form of self-indulgence.”
In Foss’ words, “We do not play ‘anything that comes to mind,’ rather, we play ‘anything that comes to mind within a pre-determined, limited sound-conception.’” And further, “System and chance form the basis for ensemble improvisation, but the performer holds the reins. [His italics.] His task is to find the appropriate note, rhythm, phrasing, dynamic, register on his instrument, and at a moment’s notice. He corrects [my italics] chance rather than surrenders to chance – chance controlled rather than chance in control.” (Thus Foss’ attitude towards Cage.) In order to “correct” chance, Foss and his collaborators (Richard Dufallo, clarinet; Howard Colf, cello; and Charles Delancey, percussion) reserved the right to shape their pieces in advance. “Without order, direction, and discipline, there can be no ensemble improvisation. In fact, ensemble improvisation is not possible unless specific ordering principles have been determined beforehand. This involves a study of musical freedom within a controlled field: a study of predetermined coordination of non-predetermined musical ideas,” Foss wrote. In effect, he was describing the sense of inevitability that often distinguishes a composition from a free improvisation – the feeling that there is a common, perceivable goal which the various components are working toward, as opposed to that of an ensemble spontaneously constructing its own environment. While allowing the musicians to choose some of the specific details which would fill the preconceived form, he was not yet ready to give complete responsibility for the form itself over to the perceived imperfections of spontaneous group interplay – what the philosopher and music critic Theodor Adorno once called the “approximate values” which he felt had no place in classical music. Thus they “democratically” designated points of reference – harmonic “guide tones;” areas of leadership, support, or counterpoint; cued entrances and durations; even occasional notated themes. With so many of the musical parameters worked out in advance, it doesn’t seem like chance had much of a chance.
Not surprisingly, the music of the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble sounds, for the most part, composed – which is not all bad. In their “Fantasy and Fugue,” they set up a series of opportunities for shifting relationships between the instruments – treacherous clarinet and cello clashing against the piano’s foundation, a brief rhapsodic cello interlude, canonic phrases, staggered dance-like motifs, culminating in layered fugal lines. They varied their harmonic frameworks between diatonic, modal, and atonal maneuvers. Even at their most spontaneous sounding, however – in the sparse and responsive “Music for Clarinet, Percussion, and Piano” and the eloquently sculpted melodies and combined events of “Quintet (Moirai)” – their ideas could have come from a single composer, for example, Morton Feldman’s numerically-generated graph paper scores. Though they were an interesting step along the way, ICE had not yet overcome the classical prejudice against improvisational form. By measuring their success or failure against established compositional values, they proved to be more conventional than Cage and his cohorts, who were proposing not just new music, but new attitudes that accepted new formal relationships. In ICE, the mindset of the composer still held sway.
There is an irony in the fact that the Improvisation Chamber Ensemble consisted of classical musicians who wanted to examine improvisation as an isolated technique rather than a consolidated process, whereas today a quartet of musicians primarily identified with improvisation through jazz, free jazz, and free improv experiences – clarinetists Theo Jörgensmann and Etienne Rolin, violinist/violist Albrecht Maurer, and bassist Kent Carter – have chosen to name themselves the Rivière Composers’ Pool. The implication is striking; it may have taken 50 years, but improvisers working from a composer’s perspective have achieved the kind of formal coherence and grace comparable to specific forms of classical composition. The Emanem label has released a three-CD set of their studio and live performances, Summer Works 2009, which expand upon Foss’ historical premise in ways which are comparable to today’s free jazz musicians’ relationship to Coleman and Taylor’s position in 1957.
The widespread belief that free improvisation is spontaneous composition (and which Martin Davidson touches upon in his album notes) comes in part from the broader acceptance of the vagaries of form and the appreciation of new sounds and unfamiliar styles that were proposed by Cage’s work throughout his career, and in part because of the expanded methodologies which improvisers developed over time. Jörgensmann, Rolin, Maurer, and Carter are examples of musicians comfortable in a variety of improvisational styles because of something Foss did not have fifty years ago: experience. In fact, I consider the music on Summer Works 2009 to be closer to Foss’ intentions – that is to say, a classical format – than to other styles of free improvisation or free jazz because, through countless opportunities to improvise in different settings and the familiarity they have achieved with each other (Davidson wisely maps out their various collaborations), they have learned how to internalize and assemble spontaneously and collectively the types of strategies Foss and his colleagues pre-arranged. (Interestingly, this same sense of stylistic familiarity and internalized form is what enabled the 1949 Lennie Tristano group to create what are widely considered the first free group improvisations in jazz.) Using Foss’ own criteria, they have studied musical freedom within several types of controlled fields and devised methods of coordination that are compositional in sound and nature, and exhibit “order, direction, and discipline.” Etienne Rolin’s description is remarkably similar, when he pinpoints “the coordination of aural information, instrumental reflex, and formal perception within the quartet.”
To my ear, their music displays classical melodic contours and gestures – a sense of tension in the anticipation of how their interactive details will resolve harmonically; frequent manipulation of tonal gravity to dramatic effect and brief but pungent textural effects. (Rolin tends to be more extravagant in this regard than the linear, lyrical Jörgensmann, and he adds alto flute on occasion for another color.) Their formal relationships are sympathetic and transparent – often it’s possible to follow the improvisational logic as they find and then sustain the nature of a specific piece. Dance-like, animated rhythms contrast with fluid or crisp counterpoint and more complex exchanges and designs. But it’s the group empathy – the roles they adopt in interacting to shape and reshape the music – that creates the convincing, engaging balance of formal proportion and surprising detail. This is what improvisation can bring to compositional procedures, and the members of the Rivière Composers’ Pool show how ensemble improvisation has become a medium not just of freedom, but of trust.