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Why I Love Improvisation...and Why I Hate It

I have long had a love/hate relationship with improvisation and improvised music in general. The love part comes from my conviction that one needs to free one's mind to generate new musical ideas, and allow them to arise organically and spontaneously. New musical ideas can't just seem contrived or calculated; they need to be real -- to have some resonance with me as composer, and, hopefully, with the listener. Sometimes I get my best initial ideas just from sitting down and freely improvising. And when I'm stuck as to how to proceed with a composition (which often happens!), improvising on some element(s) of the theme(s), initial idea(s), or Urtext of a piece will often provide impetus if not actual material(s) and idea(s) to move the composition forward.

The hate part comes from a conviction that, based on experience listening to many improvisational artists, that disorganization and just plain boring nonsense creep in, usually from lack of inspiration. Music needs some degree of overarching organization to provide coherence, a sense of direction and development, and that ultimate satisfaction that should come at the end of a movement or composition that the composer/creator has tied up all the necessary loose ends.

Of course, music can also be over-organized and too carefully contrived. When this happens, an aesthetic gulf between composer, performer, and audience can develop; in fact, this seems to be the problem with so much of the serious music composed from post-WWII on. In some pieces the composer may have constructed an entirely new musical vocabulary, aesthetic, and syntax -- a new musical language, as unfamiliar as any verbal language one doesn't speak would be. In such situations, the listener's need to understand and follow is lost in a world of new rules and regulations for sound that they can't always be expected to grasp.

I see improvisation as a useful tool for generating compositional ideas; however, without any degree of organization (even if it's done "on the fly"), improvisation is generally messy, and qualifies as noise -- not music.

Just my "two cents."

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