Improvisation in Contemporary Western Classical Music

My composition folio examines how to incorporate improvisation in contemporary Western classical music. This chapter presents an overview of the different types of improvisations that have been included in my work. In some cases, in order to guide the performers in their improvisations, I have composed sections of improvisation that are directly influenced by Arabic music. In other cases, I have used diverse sources such as evocative images. 

 

Improvisation has long been part of Western classical music. However, the standardization of classical music resulted in the weakening, if not abolition, of improvisation in the genre. A revival of improvisation occurred during the 20th century as a result of several factors. One of them was the exposure to non-Western music with its various improvisatory systems. Another factor was the developments that occurred in jazz. In the second half of the 20th century improvisation had been employed by some composers of classical music. Lukas Foss (1922-2009) for example included improvisation in sections of his works and founded an improvisation chamber ensemble, which, through group composition, aimed to break down the division between composer and performer. In 1963 he wrote: 

 

We owe our greatest musical achievements to an unmusical idea: the division of what is an indivisible whole, “music”, into two separate processes: composition (the making of the music) and performance (the making of the music), a division as nonsensical as the division of form and content in this book (page 45). 

 

My own response to this observation by Lucas Foss consists of understanding improvisation as a meeting point between composition and performance. In other words the inclusion of improvisation into my music aims to build a bridge between composing and performing.

 

Despite recent developments, improvisation is not an integral component in contemporary Western classical music as for example it is in jazz and in classical Arabic music. One difficulty for composers is that many performers of classical music do not improvise. Performers of jazz and Arabic music do improvise. In jazz, the composed chords together with the melody are generally the basis for improvisation in a piece, and in Arabic music the improvisation is normally based on the melody and on the Maqamat of a piece. In my own works, I have investigated new ways of composing to employ the use of improvisation through the lens of its fundamental use in Arabic music. This has been done in order to enhance the interactions between the composer and the performer for a better performance.

 

In this context, the challenge for composers is to bring performers to improvise music that would be very difficult if not impossible to notate. The problem is that there are a wide range of approaches to improvisation, so without direction and limitation of the improvisational material, performers’ interpretations could lead to many outcomes. Sometimes this might be desirable, but in the case of my own music I prefer to be more specific. Therefore, I have employed particular instructions such as: tempi, modes, chord progressions, ordered and unordered pitch collections, as well as melodies. Another method of suggesting the character and mood of given improvisation sections is to use evocative titles. In some cases, explanatory notes to describe the nature of the improvisation have been provided. Less frequently, I have used graphic notation to indicate such elements as: climaxes, intensity and dynamics. The duration of the improvised sections is given in clock time and limited to a maximum of 120 seconds. In most cases a musical signal indicates the ending of a given improvisation. The goal should be that the notation together with explanatory notes would be sufficient to indicate what the composer anticipated for the improvisation. 

 

I have researched ways of including sections of improvisation for performers with different levels of proficiency in improvisation. As a general rule, I believe that performers of Western classical music should train in improvising of both Western and non-Western music. Knowing that this is not always the case, I have composed different improvisation sections for performers of Groups A and B respectively. 

 

I have distinguished between different skills within each group. For example, in Group B the terms Taqsim and Mawwal have been employed only for the instrument that is most likely to be associated with these forms of improvisations (the Arabic violin). In a few instances these terms have also been written for the piano. I believe that inexperienced performers could start with compositions in Group A and look at Group B compositions as a further step. 

 

Methodologies of Improvisation that are directly Influenced by Arabic Music

   Improvisation Influenced by Taqsim

Taqsim is a well-known form of improvisation in Arabic music. In my own works it functions as a device to integrate Arabic music with Western classical music. Don M. Randel (2003, p. 551) describes Taqsim as “a non-metric instrumental improvisation in which the performer, after establishing the principal Maqam, modulates successively to other Maqamat before returning to the principal Maqam”. The Taqsim often functions as an introduction to a composed melody or to a Mawwal (Mawwal is a vocal improvisation discussed further below). Borrowing a well-known form of improvisation such as Taqsim provides an instant blueprint for the performers in that it suggests such elements as tempo, rhythm and the function of a given section

 

Taqsim can be seen in Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio of Group B compositions (bar 1 of the First Movement and bar 9 of the Fourth Movement). In the traditional Taqsim, the performers are free to choose Maqamat for the improvisation, which often relate to the Maqamat of the principal melody. In my compositions, I had to specify the Maqam for improvisation because sections that follow the Taqsim do not incorporate Maqamat. 

 

In Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio, I directed the piano, “Taqsim: Solo Piano Introduction, improvise on Maqum Kurd in G”. In this instance, I also wanted to imitate the Arabic sound of the traditional Taqsim, therefore the pianist was instructed to attempt to sound like the oud. The following verbal explanation was added: “Keep sustaining pedal pressed for the whole introduction, improvise Arabic Taqsim on G Kurd. While your left hand's palm is blocking the strings, improvise and imitate the sound of the oud”. Taqsim have been employed only for Group B because of the performers’ familiarity with the traditional form. 

 

  Improvisation Influenced by Mawwal

Mawwal is another well-known music improvisational form in Arabic music. Eish-Ran (2012) explains Mawwal as vocal improvisation that is performed in the framework of the Maqam according to a written text. Mawwal acts as an introduction to a song and uses the melody’s Maqam. It is performed in a free rhythmic style without a steady beat. Eish-Ran also points out that as part of the Mawwal, performers show their vocal technical abilities, and, by moving from one Maqam to another, their knowledge in Maqamat. Similar to my use of Taqsim, here I also borrowed Maawal in order to direct the performers in what I wished to hear in their improvisation. Mawwal can be seen in Group B compositions, such as in the First Movement (bars 50-51, 55-56, 61-61, 67-68) of Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio. Mawwal in my compositions have a shorter duration than the Taqsim and last between one to three bars. 

 

Since voice (which traditionally forms Mawwal) is not part of my ensembles, I requested the Arabic traditional instrument (the Arabic violin) to imitate this vocal improvisation. In Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio (Figures 3.1 and 3.2.), I have limited the improvisations to two bars and wrote “Mawwal”, “Violin improvisation on Arabic Maqamat”. In this instance, the Maqam has not been specified for the improvisation because I wanted the performers to perform Maqamat of their own choice (as is the case in the traditional form of Taqsim and Mawwal). In several two bar sections (Figure 3.1. and Figure 3.2., bars: 50-51, 55-56, 61-61 and 67-68), the piano and the double bass repeat three pitches, a semitone and tone intervals apart, in octaves in the lower register. This creates a quasi drone of three pitches that limits the choice of Maqamat for improvisation to a greater extent than would be the case with a single pitch drone. The performer has to select Maqamat that are melodically compatible with these three pitches. Because a musical signal indicates the ending, performers are able to improvise freely without a need to count exactly two bars. The signals can be seen in the first beat of bars 52, 57, 63 and 69. On each occasion there is a single note (crotchet) played by the piano and the double bass in fortissimo marcato, and the violin always enters on the second crotchet beat. These signals limit the duration of improvisation, which would have a free and usually long duration in traditional Arabic music. 

 

Methodologies of Improvisation that are indirectly influenced by Arabic Music 

   Free Improvisation 

Free improvisation is a recognizable genre and a term that is often employed to propose free form improvisation in which the performers are able to decide on such elements as mood, texture and aesthetic of the improvisation. Free improvisation, as a genre, developed in America and in Europe in the 1960s and is an offshoot of free jazz. Sansom (2001) describes free improvisation as follows:

 

“Free Improvisation” is the term most often used to describe the music and/or form of music-making most immediately associated with the likes of Cornelius Cardew and Derek Bailey and groups such as AMM and the Spontaneous Music Ensemble. The form first emerged during the 1960s; it is now widely practiced by numerous artists throughout many countries and has become (perhaps somewhat ironically) a genre in its own right, with associated record labels, media, significant artists, aficionados and performance ritual. In seeking a definition of free improvisation, and given its oft-cited ephemeral and transient status, the approach taken here considers free improvisation as creative activity, encompassing its artistic agenda on the one hand and the process-based dynamic of its production on the other (page 29). 

 

Sansom also pointed out that free improvisation has its root in the developments of jazz on the one hand and the experimental classical music of both America and Europe on the other. My own use of free improvisation is similar to what is described above by Sansom, that is, creative improvisation that encompasses the performers’ artistic agenda on the one hand and the process-based dynamic of the work on the other. Whilst interested in the musical and sonic outcome of what is known as free improvisation, I did not attempt to create provocative political statements that characterize some performers of the 1960s (Cornelius Cardew for example). Also, my improvisational sections have been limited to a maximum of 120 seconds in duration. The inclusion of free improvisation into my music aims to let the performers improvise on a familiar form in order to build a bridge between my composition and their improvisation. 

 

In Group A compositions, freely improvised sections can be seen in (1) Vision, Fantasies and Dances (bars 135-139 of Part 4, and bars 13 and 45 of Part 6) and (2) Sensations (bars 38-40, piano). In Group B compositions, it can be found in each of the works; for example, in Arabic Violin Bass Piano Trio (bar 59 of the Second Movement). In some instances, I employed free improvisation to create a loud noise that repeats a number of times in the movement for short durations of one or two bars. This can be seen in Vision, Fantasies and Dances in bars 45, 46, 74 of Part 3, and in bar 14 of Part 6. In these instances, the following verbal explanation has been added: “Fast Improvisation; creates constant, busy and non-melodic sound. Use pizzicato and Bartók pizzicato” 

 

   Evocative Images as a Guideline for Improvisation 

The works in this folio contain between one to seven movements or parts (movements in some works and parts in others). Each of them is divided into three to eight major sections. These sections have been given titles to evoke various images that transfer ideas and thoughts that inspired my compositions. This approach can also be seen in my works prior to this folio, for example in Oud Bass Piano Trio from 2005. The liner notes of Oud Bass Piano Trio states that the titles of the images were chosen as a general guide to the feel of the composition and are not binding, and that the listener may assemble the parts into a story, according to his/her understanding or imagination. Included below the titles of Oud Bass Piano Trio: 

 

First Movement

  • Prelude – eternal love

  • Sunlight shines upon ancient beauty 

  • Priestly blessing

  • Non-believer’s silence

  • And he shall bring you peace (the closing words of the Benediction of the priests)

 

Second Movement

  • The good angel

  • Angels’ revolt

  • “How thou fallest from heaven, Hillel son of Shachar” (Isaiah the Prophet, 14:12) 

  • Imaginary ritual belly dance

  • In the celestial world

 

Third Movement

  • A pianist’s conflict

  • Where does the Cardo end?

  • Jerusalem Fugue

  • In the reflection of the Sabbath candles

  • Palestinian bride

  • Illusory bliss

 

Fourth Movement

  • Kabbalist’s prayer

  • The Oud’s regard

  • Love fantasies

  • Imaginary ritual belly dance

  • On the day of silence

 

Fifth Movement

  • “What ails thee, Hagar? Fear not” 

  • Priestly blessing

  • A moment of seclusion (Yichud)

  • Epilogue - A song from the Land of Israel

 

These titles also function as a tool to guide improvisation. Of course the performers would first relate to what seems to be mandatory (e.g., notation and verbal instruction), but the titles influence improvisation at a different level. They suggest the mood of the section and guide the improvisation in regard to such aspects as intensity and style, and to some degree articulation and dynamics. I have found it to be a condensed way to describe a long story that inspired my composing. The titles can be seen in most of my works, both for Group A and for Group B. Figure 3.3. shows an example of a section from Vision, Fantasies and Dances (bar 62 of Part 1), where the title is Flying in the heavens with the exalted angels. This title evokes an image that hopefully inspires the performers to improvise in a peaceful and calm manner. Along with the titles I also added the following two instruction notes: “Free improvisation; create mystery, a feeling of sorrow and a calm picture. In your improvisation, use harmonics and move from one pitch to another very slowly, try to make changes only after the other instruments do", and “Use only natural overtones mostly on strings A & E” (1st violin).

 

 

   Rows of Ordered Pitch Collections 

I have looked at ways of forming improvisation out of ordered pitch collections, and composed several rows for each instrument in the ensemble in which the performers improvise their own phrases. The performers are instructed to improvise using the pitches prescribed in the order in which they are written. This method allows the composer to control the pitch structure while enabling the performers to define the emotional intensity of a given section. 

 

The Serialism method of composition influenced the compositional format described above. I used Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone method as a basic guide, as well as aspects of integral Serialism (in which a series is applied to other musical parameters). In particular, I looked at musical elements that are associated with Arabic music such as wide vibrato and glissando. In some instances, I composed pitch collections only with intervals similar to that of the non-microtonal Maqamat (i.e., semitones, tones and minor-thirds). The number of pitches that are employed in the rows are varied and there are usually more than twelve pitches. In some instances, pitches are repeated to create segments of tri-chords, tetra-chords and penta-chords of the Arabic Maqamat.  

 

An example of the approach described in the above paragraph can be seen in bar 45 of Part 2 of Vision, Fantasies and Dances (Figure 3.4.). In this section each performer has a number of rows of different durations given in seconds. The different durations allow for transitions between rows not to occur at the same time. The violins (1st and 2nd) and the viola have four rows, and the cello three. The sum of the rows’ duration is of course equal for all four instruments. As mentioned above, in some instances rows were composed with similar intervals to that of the Arabic non-microtonal Maqamat. This can be seen in the first row of the 1st violin (Figure 3.4.). The row contains sixteen pitches and uses intervals of semitones, tones and minor-thirds (with one exceptional major-third). The first half of the row (pitches 1-7) forms a tetra-chord (pitches 1-4) and a tri-chord (pitches 5-7). The pitches of the tetra-chord are D, D sharp, E and C sharp, being two rising semitones and a falling minor-third. The pitches of the tri-chord are F, F sharp and E, being a rising semitone and a falling tone. Both chords contain similar intervals to those of the Nikriz and the Hijaz Ajans, but the intervals are set in a different order to the Nikriz and the Hijaz Ajans. The second half of the row (pitches 8-16), forms a set of three tri-chords (pitches: 8-10, 11-13 and 14-16) with similar intervals to that of the Nahawand jins. 

 

The order of the intervals in each tri-chord is different from the order of the Nahawand jins. The pitches of the first tri-chord are G sharp, F sharp and A, being a falling tone and a rising minor-third, by comparison the interval sequence of the Nahawand jins is tone, semitone and minor-third. The pitches of the second tri-chord are F, E and D, being a falling semitone and a tone respectively, whereas in the Nahawand the interval sequence is minor-third, tone and semitone. The pitches of the third tri-chord are C sharp, D sharp and C, which is an inversion of the interval order of the first tri-chords (pitches 8-10).

 

The application of series to other musical parameters can be seen in bar 45 (Figure 3.4.). In the rows for the cello, pizzicato and Bartók pizzicato have been employed, and in the rows for the viola, glissando in combination with vibrato have been included. The use of glissando in combination with vibrato was influenced by Arabic music’s microtonal ornamentation as discussed in Chapter 2 (2.3.2.). Rather than having created separate rows for individual musical parameters, I have chosen to link articulation and microtones to the pitches of the existing tone rows.  

 

   Summary 

This chapter presents an overview of the different types of improvisations applied in my works. I have examined improvisation in the context of Arabic music, and looked at the interaction between the composer and performers. Some approaches to improvisations were directly influenced by forms of Arabic music, and in other cases, elements of Arabic music were combined with Western approaches to improvisation and to composition in general. 

 

Consistent with the division into Groups A and B, I have looked at different performers’ backgrounds in improvisation and also distinguished between different skills within each group. In Group B compositions, Taqsim and Mawwal (well known Arabic forms of improvisation) were employed to direct the performers in their improvisation. These traditional forms provide an established plan for the performers in that they suggest such elements as tempo, rhythm, and the character and mood of a given section. They can be seen in my works only for the performers who were expected to have proficiency in the performance of these forms. 

 

Freely improvised sections can be seen in many of my works, both in Groups A and B. Incorporating sections of free improvisation enables creative improvisation that encompasses the performers’ musical styles and improvisational idioms on the one hand and the process-based dynamic of my composition on the other. In composing, I was interested in the sonic outcome of free improvisation, but not in transferring political statements like those associated with the political left of the 1960s. I believe that giving the performers the freedom to improvise on their favourite musical material in a free form introduces different musical genres into my music, and as a result, integration of these genres may occur. In addition, the improvisation creates a bridge between my compositions and the performers’ musical genres and agendas. 

 

The titles of the sections in my compositions evoke various musical images and transfer ideas and thoughts that inspired my work. In some cases, the titles function as a way to guide improvisation, as they suggest the feel of a given section and guide the improvisation regarding aspects such as intensity and style and to some degree articulation and dynamics. Along with the titles, explanatory notes for the improvisation have been added. I believe that the titles, the verbal instructions and the notation complement each other and create a specific guide to improvisation. The musical images can be seen as a tool for the composer, additional to notation and verbal instructions, to direct the performers in improvisation. Often in my works, the musical images spotlight Jewish themes such as prayers, Piyyutim, Biblical quotes and holy places.   

 

Improvisation based on ordered pitch collections can be seen exclusively in Group A compositions. Several rows for each instrument in the ensemble were composed and the performers were instructed to improvise their own phrases using the pitches prescribed in the order in which they were written. This method allows the composer to control the pitch structure while enabling the performers to define the emotional intensity of a given section. Aspects of integral Serialism, in which a series is applied to other musical parameters, allow for the manipulation of elements that are associated with Arabic music and limit the performers to improvise with specific musical materials. Further to the integration of Arabic music, semitones, tones and minor-thirds, intervals similar to the non-microtonal Maqamat, are applied in the works. 

 

Performers in Group B have prior knowledge in improvisation both in Arabic and Western forms. As such, compositions for Group B make greater use of improvisation, and Group B performers more readily recognize the Arabic sources. Writing for Group A was a greater challenge, because it entailed advising the performers in more detail about improvisation. 

 

Overall, my approach was to apply improvisation in a variety of different ways. I wanted improvisation, similar to its use in Arabic music, to be an integral part of my compositions. Therefore, I composed the following: (1) sections of improvisations that give the performers a great degree of freedom (i.e., Taqsim, Mawwal and Free Improvisation), (2) sections of improvisations that have some limitations and request improvising on specific musical elements (i.e., titles with verbal instructions) and (3) sections of improvisations that limit the performer to use only specific musical elements, such as ordered pitch collections. It is my belief that the inclusion of improvisation in my own music unites Eastern and Western musical genres. The performers bring their style of improvisation from both the Arabic and Western worlds, and thus they are able to integrate musical genres of a great diversity.  

 

Improvisation       

      by Dr Yitzhak Yedid