International Society for Improvised Music
by Ed Sarath, ISIM founder,
Reflecting the multiethnic mix of contemporary society, the merging of genres in today’s musical world has produced
In spite of this prominence, an awareness of the nature and expressive power of the improvisation process continues to elude listeners, critics, promoters, scholars – and perhaps even improvising musicians themselves. In Derek Bailey’s words, “improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being the most widely practiced of musical activities, and the least acknowledged and understood.”
This point is underscored by fundamental questions about improvisation that have continued to elude musical artists and thinkers, some examples of which include:
What exactly is improvisation? Is it really, as it is often defined, an accelerated form
These questions point to the need for an aesthetics of improvised music, an articulation of the underlying principles in which improvisation is based. On one level , this aesthetic model would illuminate the expressive richness inherent in the extemporaneous and interactive aspects of improvised performance, which might be best understood in contrast to those of composition. Composers have the capacity to reflect and edit as they fashion a work over time, whereas improvisers create in a single performance. Composers usually create alone, whereas improvisers can either create unaccompanied, or as is common, in ensemble situations. There are unique expressive aspects in each format, and an understanding of improvisation would encompass those qualities that can only be achieved in improvised performance. As Steve Lacy states, “there is a music which must be composed; there is another which can only be improvised”.
This is not to suggest that improvised music is devoid of structural richness, either in the form of preordained pitch-rhythmic formats (e.g. jazz, or Hindustani music), or in the resultant material. However, these are very different notions of structure than those that are associated with composed music, and may be rooted in very different theoretical, cognitive, and cultural principles. An understanding of improvised structure is important not only to improvised music, but to an understanding of the contemporary musical world. Jeff Pressing’s concept of “Black Atlantic Rhythm”, for example, shows the vast the extent to which rhythmic practices of the African diaspora have permeated a wide array of musical practices, improvised and non-improvised, across the globe. An aesthetics of improvised music is needed to account for the unique principles that are driving the resurgence of improvisation in the broader musical landscape
An improvised music aesthetics would also shed light on the unifying and transformational aspects of improvisation, how through spontaneous invention and interaction “performers, audience, instruments, the room, the night outside, space”, to use Stephen Nachmanovitch’s words, “become one being, pulsing”. Improvised performance uniquely reflects “the quality of energy that is very personal and particular to those people, that room, and that moment”.
Two main obstacles might be cited that have limited the cultivation of this kind of improvisation-based aesthetic awareness.
One is the commercial orientation of the music industry, which has placed a much greater premium on catering to the listener’s comfort zone than supporting the exploratory, eclectic and sometimes risky creative excursions, let alone transcendent qualities, that are intrinsic to improvised music. As a result, improvising musicians find limited outlets for performances, CD sales and airplay, and society thus has limited exposure to important creative expressions of our times.
Moreover, the predisposition toward composed music in the academic musical world has relegated improvisation to the remote fringes of musical practice and investigation. The problem here is not composed music per se, the richness and importance of which in the musical world few would deny, but the extent of its predominance in academic musical culture, as a result of which improvisation is excluded from serious study. Outside of jazz, most music majors have little or no contact with improvisation. Even with appeals from the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), and Music Educators National Conference (MENC) for improvisation to play a more central role in overall musical training, progress has been limited. If anything, improvisation tends to be offered as an elective, or as a single-semester requirement in music teacher training programs. This reflects a view of improvisation as, at best, an embellishment to conventional musicianship, and at worst, an unnecessary and expendable part of musical training. And while jazz programs generally offer substantive training in improvisation, it is usually confined to mainstream jazz approaches and neglects important aspects of the jazz lineage, in addition to more varied approaches of the musical world.
A broad improvisatory spectrum that integrates mainstream jazz with more open approaches cultivates a musical awareness that is both more receptive to the treasures of the past, as well as new developments. Moreover, the integrative and creative features of improvisation – its capacity to unite a wide array of musical skills, aptitudes and stylistic influences –
points to its rightful place as a core aspect of musical understanding for all music students. Improvisational skills and awareness, when developed through systematic and rigorous study, can enhance all facets of musicianship, can be a source of deep fulfillment and meaning, and can connect musicians – and by extension, listeners – with both the innermost regions of their musical awareness, and the pulse of the musical world around them. While there is a rightful concern, in both jazz and conventional music learning circles, for the preservation of tradition, it is important to realize that tradition is ultimately fathomed most deeply and comprehensively through the lens of the present. In this regard, improvisation – which is the most profound means for engagement in the musical present – is the key to both the appreciation of the treasures of the past, and the celebration of the ongoing developments of one’s time and place.