free for(m) macwin_2 (Krzysztof Knittel)
Free improvisation, for me, is more of a notion, or even an intention, than musical reality, because any improvisation is partly a composition, although improvising musicians would rarely admit it. And how has it been in the past? Karol Szymanowski, in a letter to Zofia Kochańska, wife of the great violinist and Szymanowski’s close friend Paul, wrote thus about a concert planned for 14th January 1924 in Zakopane: “I have thought with my local friends here that I’d give a concert alone, with private tickets sold quite expensively, and perhaps I’ll make some money out of it, but what is the background of the story?! I can’t possible fill the programme with my piano works, they are too difficult, so I’ll be playing terribly stupid things including improvisation! Briefly put, une grande blague, taking advantage of Zakopane’s musical ignorance, of course with the feeling of committing an artistic crime, humiliation and prostitution!!”1.
Szymanowski’s approach to improvisation is quite surprising, especially when we take into account his love for Chopin, who was a master of piano improvisation, as mentioned notably by Polish poet Juliusz Słowacki in a letter to his mother written on 3rd September 1832: “A few days later at Straszewicz’s there was a second evening, but as often when you prepare for a long time for something it was a failure, we sat there bored to death from 10 o’clock until 2 in the night. Yet at the end Chopin got drunk and improvised beautiful things on the piano”2.
Free improvised music is connected with free jazz, but is rooted in the tradition of modern Classical music: the works of Cage, Stockhausen, Boulez, Berio, Scelsi: music that jazz musicians listened to and that often inspired their own compositions.
Many jazz musicians turned to free improvisation when, according to Steve Lacy, “jazz got so that it wasn’t improvised any more […]. It got so that everybody knew what was going to happen and, sure enough, that’s what happened. Maybe the order of the phrases and tunes would be a little different every night, but for me that wasn’t enough”3. Lacy talks about his meetings with Don Cherry who “used to come over to my house in ’59 and ’60, around that time, and he used to tell me, «Well, let’s play». So I said «OK. What shall we play?». […] And it took me about five years to work myself out of that. To break through that wall. It took a few years to get to the point where I could just play”4 i.e., play without stabilizing a theme, a rhythmic structure, harmonic functions etc.
Swedish musician, theorist and philosophy professor Christian Munthe defines improvisation as follows: “Improvisation is the activity of, to some extent, creating and constructing a piece of music in the same time as it is being performed. […] Usually, the improvising takes place within some kind of given constraints or frames – sometimes guided by formalized rules – that are tied to some established tradition dictating how music should sound […] (e.g., jazz, heavy metal, Baroque music or flamenco). […] What makes the free improvised music special rather is its history of creation”5. As Derek Bailey, pioneer and leading figure of European free improvised music has expressed it: “free im provisation is not a kind of music… it is a kind of music making”6. Derek Bailey used the terms “idiomatic” and “non-idiomatic improvisation”, the former being applied e.g. to flamenco or jazz, and the latter to free improvisation. Bailey argues that improvising musicians rarely evoke the term “improvisation” at all: they simply say they play flamenco or jazz, which is “due to its widely accepted connotations which imply that improvisation is something without preparation and without consideration, a completely ad hocactivity, frivolous and inconsequential, lacking in design and method. And […] they know from their own experience that it is untrue. […] It completely misrepresents the depth and complexity of their work”7. The key principle of free improvised music, therefore, is its non-idiomatic character, i.e. a lack of idiom, or according to free improviser Andrzej Izdebski, its multi-idiomatic character.
Let us now reflect on the relationship between the art of improvisation and composition.
Eddie Prévost, English percussionist and co-founder (with pianist John Tilbury) of improvisers’ ensemble AMM, considers that “the reality of improvisation is different from the reality of composition; the premises of composition are incompatible with the premises of improvisation, nor are they competitive with them”. Prévost believes that “the art of improvisation consists of creating music with no imposed form, no expectations and with no other objective but the very action of music making.”
French clarinettist Louis Sclavis answers: “There basically is no difference. In both cases music is composed. When you improvise, you compose. When you write, you compose. These are two different methods, but basically there is no difference. Good music needs to be composed. When you play as an improviser, alone or with others, you create a composition”. Eminent pianist (who could be tagged as post-jazz) Cecil Taylor thus argued in 1965: “If a man plays for a certain amount of time – scales, licks, what have you – eventually a kind of order asserts itself. Whether he chooses to notate that personal order or engage in polemics about it, it’s there […]”. And for Giacinto Scelsi, “the score is only a «deposit» of the process of creation, which in improvisation, runs with no breaks in real time”8.
In an issue of the “Glissando” magazine (3/2005) dedicated entirely to improvisation, Michał Libera quotes a story by Frederic Rzewski: “In 1968 I ran into Steve Lacy on the street in Rome. I took out my pocket tape recorder and asked him to describe in fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation. He answered: «In fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.» His answer lasted exactly fifteen seconds and is still the best formulation of the question I know”.
So much in guise of an introduction.
What I will play today on instruments constructed by Piotr Such, using the Windows operational system and the MaWe patch, based on the Max/MSP software by Marek Chołoniewski and Marcin Wierzbicki, will partly be free improvised music, although the form of the whole and the majority of electronic timbres were achieved through experimentation. Moreover, as has been my practice for many years, I will be using techniques such as re-use and recycling, so you will hear bits of formerly composed electronic works, together with new sounds obtained with the use of the latest technology.
Oh, and one more thing. Since there are so many interesting applications created by Apple for the iPhone and iPad, I opted for using some of them, although they are musically unstable and somewhat looked down upon by real pros. But the sound structures they generate are so interesting that I decided to take the risk. The whole has a duration of around 30 minutes.
1 Dzieje przyjaźni (korespondencja Karola Szymanowskiego z Pawłem i Zofią Kochańskimi) [History of a friendship. The correspondence of Karol Szymanowski with Paul and Zofia Kochański], ed. Teresa Chylińska, Kraków: PWM 1971, p. 78.
2 Hanna Wróblewska-Straus, Korespondencja Fryderyka Chopina, jego przyjaciół i znajomych [The correspondence of Fryderyk Chopin, his friends and acquaintances], “Rocznik Chopinowski” 21, 1995.
3 Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music, New York: Da Capo Press 1993, p. 55.
5 Christian Munthe, What is free improvisation?, http://www.efi.group.shef.ac.uk/fulltext/ftmunt.html (accessed 1st August 2012).
6 D. Bailey, Improvisation…, op. cit.,. p. 142. 7 Ibid., p. xii. 8 Ch. Munthe, What is free improvisation?, op. cit.