December 03, 2005

Giving Up to Time

I'm an inveterate improviser. I can't sit down at the piano without experimenting with something: chord progressions, a piece I'm learning, or something new entirely. For me, the impulse to improvise is distinct from the compulsion to compose. I won't say that things I learn from one activity don't find their way into the other, but the music that arises from each is very different in character.

In an interview, Fred Rzewski distinguished the two activities by saying that when improvising, one is engaged in continuous reinvention. Composition, however, has a memory. When composing, you reference and reconsider past ideas, attempting to make them into an integrated whole. Building on this thought, the memory in composed music is in the music itself. And by music itself (here at least), I mean notation. When I contemplate this conceptual networking, I inevitably refer to what I've previously written down. This fixed, visual presence exerts its own force over the progress of a piece.

Though the final act of performance exists "in time," the work leading up to it, to some extent, does not. The idea of creating a hermetic, self-explanatory score is a false notion, but it persists nonetheless (a realization is impossible without a Western musical education and an immersion in its very specific culture). The seduction of the self-sufficient score is that the music gets placed out of time. It can be performed today, in two hundred years — whenever — using the information provided by the notation.

The act of composing is, in many ways, a resistance to the passage of time. It's saying, "You can take me, but you can't take this part of me, this music." Improvisation says, "I know you're going to take me, and I know you'll take my music, too." Defiance against time would just be completely delusional here, because its effects are so immediate. The music is gone as soon as it enters the world. Improvising has its own kind of dare and danger, but it also can allow one to face up to the realities of living in a way that is harder to achieve within the realm of notated music.

1 comment:

Hucbald said...

I agree with everything you said, but would add that recording technology has changed the stakes. Many improvisations are now recorded, and those that stand the test of time take on a life of their own as quasi-compositions. I'm thinking specifically of Charlie Parker's improvisations, many of which I think ought to be etched in granite, and not merely transcribed into musical notation.

And on that subject, the best quotation I ever heard was, "Printed music is only a roadmap for making music: It is not the actual music itself." Unfortunately I can't remember who to attribute it to.