Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective
Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective

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Composition and improvisation in cross-cultural perspective

1.2 Different perspectives on the creation of music

If a simple division into composition and improvisation is not going to be adequate, particularly when considering music beyond the Western art tradition, then what can we usefully say about the different ways in which music is created? A starting point might be to remind ourselves of the similarities between composition and improvisation. Both the improviser and the composer create music. Both of them, in doing so, draw on a range of skills and experience: their musical training and knowledge of music theory, the repertoire they have learned, vocal or instrumental technique, and so on. No one, composer or improviser, has ever created music out of nothing, without reference to what has gone before. Both improviser and composer build up a store of musical experience before creating something new, and that ‘something new’ is both related to and in some way different from what has gone before. Beethoven drew on the tradition handed down to him, arguably neither more nor less than did jazz saxophonist John Coltrane or Indian sitarist Pandit Ravi Shankar.

In an important sense then, composition and improvisation are aspects of the same phenomenon rather than opposed concepts. They appear to be very different, and often they can be treated as such, in Western music at least, because in this case we can often make a distinction between the notes the composer put on the page, and those details left for the performer to decide. Applied to other musical traditions however, the distinction rarely applies in a comparable way.

What, then, distinguishes different types of musical creation? Two factors we have already considered are the use of notation and the time-scale involved, and these bear further examination.

Notation is certainly an important factor (for one thing it can impose a longer time-scale on the creation process, since the act of writing down music is in itself time-consuming). In fact, many people talk of another dichotomy, related to but distinct from that between composition and improvisation: that between music in notational traditions (written music) and that in oral traditions (unwritten music). This is an important distinction, because the use of notation in teaching and performance has many important implications. Historically, since notation was the first means by which European art music was turned into a tangible artefact, it made it easier for people to conceive of a piece of music as an object (equivalent to a painting perhaps). Notation therefore played a part in the emergence of ideas of the ‘musical masterpiece’, and of the ‘great composer’. Conventional notation usually enables particular pieces of music to be preserved indefinitely, unchanged, whereas unwritten music tends to change gradually over time. And, perhaps paradoxically, notation can also enable music to change more rapidly than it does in oral traditions. It is difficult for an avant-garde composer to make an impact without the medium of notation through which to spread his work, so it tends to be written music which generates radical departures from tradition (recordings have helped to support similar processes in other traditions, notably jazz).

All written music is, by definition, composed. Remember, however, that composers can and in most cases must leave some decisions for performers to make – an exception to this would be the case of a composer who also produces and records the definitive performance of his/her work, for instance through electronic means. Is it true, though, that all unwritten music is improvised? Apparently not. Numerous examples around the world demonstrate that much may be composed, taught and performed without the use of notation. So although the distinction between written and unwritten music is important, it should not be confused with that between composed and improvised music. The terms ‘written’ and ‘composed’ overlap, but are not synonymous.

What then of the point about time-scales? Is there a distinction between music which is thought out in advance, and perhaps performed a considerable period of time after its completion, and that which is conceived and performed almost at the same moment? At least one authority on the subject, ethnomusicologist Bruno Nettl, thinks so:

We could speculate upon the division of the world's musical cultures and of their subsystems – genres, periods, composers – into two groups. One of these would be the music which is carefully thought out, perhaps even worked over with a conscious view to introducing innovation from piece to piece and even from phrase to phrase: the other, that which is spontaneous but model-bound, rapidly created, and simply conceived. The first gives up spontaneity for deliberation, while the second eschews a search for innovation in favour of giving way to sudden impulse. Neither need be considered improvisation …

(Nettl, 1974, p. 11)

You might have found Nettl's last sentence slightly confusing: surely the two categories he describes (the consciously worked out, and the spontaneous) correspond to composition and improvisation respectively? Not exactly – Nettl would put much so-called ‘improvised’ music in the same category as rapidly-composed written music, as this next passage makes clear.

Schubert is said to have composed a song while waiting to be served at a restaurant, quickly writing it on the back of the menu; Mozart turned out some of his serenades and sonatas almost overnight; and Theodore Last Star, a Blackfoot Indian, had visions in which, in the space of a minute or two, he learned from a guardian spirit a new song. But, then, Brahms labored for years on his first symphony; Beethoven planned and sketched ideas for his Ninth over two decades; and William Shakespeare, an Arapaho Indian, said that when he took a bit from one song, something from another, and a phrase from a third, making up a new Peyote song, it might take him a good part of an afternoon.

(Nettl, 1983, p. 26).

This all raises the question: how should we define composition and improvisation? We haven't yet, however, reached the point where we can answer that question.


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