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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Thinking of jazz here and other forms of largely improvised music. My view is that the ability to improvise is a valuable thing in terms of composing, and also to an extent in performance, but the latter is something my view has started to change on over time.

The ability to improvise on a musical instrument at a high level is an impressive skill, but how much improvisation do you feel is ideal in a musical performance? As a listener I find small amounts of improvisation excellent, for example to subtly change a piece here or there to keep it from becoming too predictable, or to allow the musician to flow seamlessly from one section to another over a part they may have forgotten.

On the other hand large amounts of improvisation I can find alienating as a listener, as though it is more about the musicians. It can also become predictable in terms of form because it becomes just a steady stream of soloing. I'm starting to question whether improvisation as a basis for performance is more freeing or limiting in music. I think it is the latter.

For example, when one learns a challenging piece of classical music on an instrument there are sections that will require a specific fingering in order to play correctly. Sometimes these fingerings are counter-intuitive, and not something one would just play through on the spot. These passages then need to be practiced for long periods of time to get right. In an improvised situation, the performer is going to be going through musical ideas that are playable in an instant using fingerings they have grown comfortable with over time. I suspect this limits the ideas the musician will perform in a live setting.

This being said ideally I think a performer should be able to improvise, I do like small amounts of improvisation within a piece (so you hardly notice its there). I also wouldn't mind seeing perhaps one piece of improvised music at a performance, if it isn't too long and not taking up the majority of the concert.

What are your thoughts on improvisation in terms of the music you enjoy listening to, (what percentage approximately is improvised music?) How much improvisation do you think is ideal in classical music performance today?
 

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as a general rule: I think when a classical musician improvise, he/ she shows a sign of weakness.

A true craft master would perform the piece without adding or altering a single note, yet you would feel that the performer owns the piece that he/she performing.

when I listen to Du-Pre performing Schumann's cello concerto, I feel that the concerto belongs to her not to him. same thing with Julia Fisher and Rubenstein.
 

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Depends on the era. As music gets more "modern" i.e. 1800 on, there is less room for improvisation because the harmonies are much more scored. Earlier music, like blues, could use ostinato or chord progressions which allow for considerable improvisation - Greensleeves is (usually) based on a romanesco or can switch to a passamezzo antico. Baroque also allows for improvisation - the most famous being the cadenza in Bach's third Brandenburg Concerto (BWV 1048).
 

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Organists have always been trained to improvise. Comes in handy if one is, for example, accompanying a procession or any part of a ceremony of indefinite length requiring music or if a composed piece requires an introduction of indefinite length for a ceremonial reason.

In the 18thc soloists in concertos routinely improvised cadenzas, as did anyone playing solo sonatas. Likewise, in the performance of works with repeats, like binary dance movements, players were expected to improvise ornaments and elaborations the second time through each section.

I've always been interested in unconventional applications of improv in prog rock and jazz. A favorite example is from early Weather Report. The first cut on I Sing the Body Electric, "Unknown Soldier" is in textbook sonata form, but the development section is free group improvisation because the sense of chaotic, existential terror required isn't conventionally composable. Similarly, King Crimson incorporated sections of group improv as retransitions to the final verses of songs for similar expressive reasons.
 
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The ability to improvise well in music that allows or requires it is a great gift and has no drawbacks that I can see. It can be abused - or, more accurately, music can be abused by its misapplication. But I'm not aware that this is a problem in classical music, where most performers are pretty much glued to the score. I greatly enjoy listening to performers from the early years of recording, especially singers, who were trained in an era that expected more personality and freedom in interpreting the written notes (or, occasionally, departing from them).
 

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In my opinion, being able to improvise is not a big advantage or requirement for a performer of classical music.

But I can still find good reasons to improvise also in classical music:

- it's great fun (in small groups) if you can do it together with musicians who also like to improvise
- it's also a good training for composing skills
- if you're not a professional performer, it can also help you in concerts when you're somehow momentarily lost ;)
 

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Improvisation, to my mind, is a valid form of composing while playing a musical instrument (albeit inconvenient), usually rather well.
 
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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
One disadvantage highly improvised music has in performance over non-improvised is a lack of familiarity with the listener. I suspect the majority of people did not come to fully appreciate all the nuances of their favorite music after hearing it just one time.

I think there can be a special connection between the audience and performers when they are both experiencing a familiar piece of music simultaneously. This connection can be lost or diminished with improvisation.

One non-classical artist I think did a poor job in this respect is Bruce Hornsby. He released an album of top 40 pop music and then performed the pieces as though they were jazz in a live setting, often times the pieces being completely unrecognizable to the audience. Many people complained about this, and Hornsby said that is what he needed to do to enjoy performing the music. In my view if improv is what Bruce Hornsby likes so much he should have released a jazz record. I think he ruined the live experience of his music for a lot of his fans.
 

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One disadvantage highly improvised music has in performance over non-improvised is a lack of familiarity with the listener.
For some listeners -- and some styles of music -- that's an advantage not a disadvantage.

tdc said:
On the other hand large amounts of improvisation I can find alienating as a listener, as though it is more about the musicians.
It certainly can veer off in that direction, sometimes.
 

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Discussion Starter · #10 · (Edited)
For some listeners -- and some styles of music -- (unfamiliarity) is an advantage not a disadvantage.
For sure. I think too much familiarity leads to predictability which is boring. Which is why as I said a little bit of new music mixed in with mostly familiar music at a concert works for me, and/or if it is all familiar music I appreciate when musicians find subtle ways of adding some freshness, and unpredictability, while still retaining the authentic feel, so that it doesn't seem like one is listening to an entirely different work. Little things can go a long way and as mentioned up thread this doesn't necessarily have to be done with improvisation.

I feel disappointed if I go to a concert and everything is attempted to be performed exactly the same way that I've already heard on a recording.

So I guess what I'm saying is for me ideally musicians should be good at improvisation but shouldn't use it too much when performing. The exceptions of course are styles like jazz and Indian classical music. I understand that improvisation is more important there.
 

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One thing about improvisation is that it involves the response of the performer to the particular instrument he's using.

Here's Malcolm Goldstein's One Bird Sang Not

https://vitheque.com/en/titles/but-one-bird-sang-not

Traditional compositions are working with generic properties of, for example, a violin. Goldstein's improvisation isn't, it's working with his particular violin.

Obviously you could develop a notation for the Goldstein improvisation - I just think it's very unlikely to happen in the traditional way of composition first and then performance. And also probably rather hard to play on an instrument other than Goldstein's.
 

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Alexandre Tharaud Plays Clement Doucet's "Chopinata"

There's a channel on You tube with lots of those clips, very interesting
 

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I feel disappointed if I go to a concert and everything is attempted to be performed exactly the same way that I've already heard on a recording.
I drove 90 minutes one time to see the band Kotebel perform in Brussels. Their stage performance was note-perfect from their just-released album. In inferior sound. In an uncomfortable standing-only hall. After a long tedious drive.

Yeah, disappointed.
 

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What shall we call "improvised music"? My dictionaries tell "on the fly" in English too, but when jazzmen play "improvised music" they have composed it before, over hours. Which answers also the difficulty of unusual fingerings. By the way, some instruments (flute, also saxophone) have few alternate fingerings, while others (bassoon!) need very long thinking and trials to determine workable fingerings for a bar.

I should like to bring to the conversation that baroque music left much more freedom to the musicians than classical music and later. Check manuscripts by JSBach: he wrote very little. No forte, often no tempo, no ornament, very few bowing indications. The musicians had to decide all by themselves. The scores were altered later by the editors to fit present habits, but they constrain the interpretation.

An extreme case is the basso continuo. Composers used to write a single note, the musician was expected to improvise around that note. That why these voices are so boring (think of the Air): because present musicians don't play them properly!
 

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What shall we call "improvised music"? My dictionaries tell "on the fly" in English too, but when jazzmen play "improvised music" they have composed it before, over hours.
I think, inventing music "on the spot" without preparation is no criterion for deciding whether some music could be called improvised or not.

To give an example: Some decades ago, it was standard in german protestant church music exams that you have to "improvise" a partita on a given chorale - the chorale will be told you four days before. So the result will be a mixture of preparation and working out things in real time. Maybe you could think how many variations your partita should have and how to arrange several forms (duo, trio, quatuor, cantus formus in different voices, plain or ornamented, canon, ...) into a satisfying sequence. - After all: I wouldn't recommend to try improvising a canon unless you checked that your chorale is appropriate for this ...

I should like to bring to the conversation that baroque music left much more freedom to the musicians than classical music and later. Check manuscripts by JSBach: he wrote very little. No forte, often no tempo, no ornament, very few bowing indications. The musicians had to decide all by themselves.
I am not totally sure ... the tempo could in many cases by read from the measure signature [I hope this is the correct term]. 4/2 will be slower than 4/4 and 4/8. You find a late occurence with Barber's Adagio which somes in (mostly) 4/2 thus indicating a slow speed even if adagio wasn't written above. (Compare with the slow movement in the "Hammerklavier" sonata.)

With ornaments, there were times when Bach was strict. He disliked it when pupils and other played more ornaments that he wrote. But I agree, if you say that a french musician had applied many ornaments more than written because he had taken this for full natural.

And yes, musicians have to make decisions. :) There is indeed some difference between Bernstein's Mahler and Walter's Mahler, although Mahler was very detailed and precise when writing his scores ... as opposed to Bach.

I think we could call "improvised music" everything that is not written in notes and not prepared end-to-end. Yes, continuo playing (listen to Jacobs' recording of the da-Ponte-operas) belongs to it, if the player doesn't use a "worked out" continuo writing.
 

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Amusing.

As a professional accompanist I regularly am called upon to improvise. A great deal of music I'm handed by singers is inadequately transcribed, especially pop music. It is up to me, as an experienced musician to decide how (and how much) to improvise a better score.

As for Classical Music, well, for the most part it needs very little (if any at all) improv skills. I may add a grace note or arpeggio here and there, depending on my mood. I'm playing for me as well as my audience, and it needs to be "in the moment", much like a stage actor may deliver their lines slightly differently each performance.
 
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