Improvisation is a strange topic to think about. On the surface, it seems to be fairly simple: know the chord progression to follow, choose notes from the chord and construct an appropriate melody. Add in fast scales and difficult harmonies if you’re feeling up to the task; if you want to round it all off, make the improvisation memorable and fitting with the rest of the performance. While complex, this approach seems methodical – methodical enough that any worthy musician should be able to take it on. But this isn’t the case. Improvisation is a completely different beast to playing composed music, one that relies on creativity, raw talent, communication with both the band and the audience, and unparalleled skill with the instrument. Through improvisation, some of the greatest works of music have been born.
Jazz is the medium that comes to mind when the word improvisation is thrown about, and rightly so. Performing a great solo is one of the cornerstones of the genre and is one of the mountains that must be climbed to become a master. Moreover, jazz improvisation stands out from improvisation in other genres like classical and folk in the sheer complexity of the medium, especially in terms of harmony. The style grew with the genre itself. With the dawn of the swing era, it was simply variations on main melodies – a nod to the influence of classical music. Bebop introduced more complex chord progressions, and by the time of the pinnacle of jazz in the 50s and 60s, soloists were improvising over extended chords, tritone substitutions, rapid modulation, modal harmony, helmed by the likes of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. If you’re looking for an introduction into this era, Davis’ Kind of Blue, widely considered as his masterpiece and one of the greatest jazz albums of all time, is an excellent starting point.
Improvisation was surprisingly also prevalent in classical music. Even as far back as the medieval and renaissance eras, the ability to play a melody instantly over a background harmony was essential for all aspiring musicians. Many baroque concertos had the soloist improvise virtuosic melodies on the spot from a set of chords. And while this is not true improvisation, Musikalisches Würfelspiel is an 18th– and 19th-century concept where each side of a die is assigned to a short passage of music – roll the dice and piece together a new melody every time. Not exactly John Coltrane but interesting, nevertheless.
Despite this last example being a bit feeble, the idea of aleatory, or chance, music has led to some landmark works. If you haven’t heard In C by Terry Riley, I’d recommend you stop reading this and go listen to a performance immediately. Or multiple. Or perform your own (https://teropa.info/in-c/). The piece sounds very different every time it’s performed: Brian Eno said the score is ‘more like a packet of seeds, and every time those seeds are opened, something new and unique grows”. The idea of this 1962 piece revolves around a sheet which details 53 short separated musical phrases; you must play them in order, but you can repeat the phrases as many times as you wish and move on to the next phrase as you wish. Every musician does this independently, creating a hypnotic mosaic of sound, all joining in harmony but clashing and syncopating in rhythm and texture. Instruments are not specified, meaning that many versions – from 120-piece orchestras to electronic instruments to traditional instruments from around the world – have been played. In many performances, it is standard for the piano to hold a constant pulse of Cs throughout the piece – an idea given to Riley than none other than Steve Reich, another minimalist composer whose work was incredibly innovative in its day.
But while a fascinating and revolutionary side piece into modern art music that deserves much more focus, I doubt it can be considered to be true improvisation. Arguments can be made for and against whether the individuality and creativity of the musicians shine through, and if it allows musical expression. I believe this to be the crux of the issue: improvisation is the expression of the artist, calling forth the talent, imagination and virtuosity to make a unique piece. This is why jazz became the mainstay for this method – the genre is focused on the artist and their originality. And this is why classical music didn’t have a true improvised piece for the first half of the last century; pieces that do have this technique might not be able to be considered classical music (a notoriously difficult genre to define).
In the contemporary age, where music is a free-for-all and every artist and composer is set apart from the rest, improvisation still holds an important place. As to be expected, it is essential in the new waves of jazz, but also is becoming more prevalent in rock, electronic, classical and film. Improvisation has been relevant in our society for hundreds if not thousands of years and will always be a route of artistic expression. I know that many people are excited about where this route can take us.