The written and the improvised: a journey in mixed waters

Testimonial 29.11.2022

Far from excluding each other, writing and improvisation have always, in the history of Western music, nourished and fertilized each other. Why should things be any different today than they were in the Middle Ages or at the time of Johann Sebastian Bach? A subjective plea for curiosity and porosity.

I have been exploring the field of improvisation on France Musique for twenty years (the program À l'Improviste) and for twelve years I have been at the helm of a program that highlights the music being written today (the program Alla Breve, which has become Création mondiale), and yet writing about these two approaches to the world of sound is rather difficult for me.
The following reflections are a sketch of an answer, rather improvised...

As a preamble to these ramblings, in order to revive the idea of the prelude that improvisers at the time of Bach always cultivated - and that musicians in certain cultures still practice today - I would like to offer these words, collected in the past from the American violinist Malcolm Goldstein: "I love Bach's music because it is the music of an improviser. I don't know why the practice of improvisation has ceased to be so natural, as it was in the days of Bach, for example. Being a musician meant a lot more. It would be great to find that in the training of today's musicians!"
That day, Malcolm Goldstein reminded me that he never started a day without playing Bach's music, and that it seemed vital to him to reconnect with the "trilogy" of musicians of the past: the ability to be an interpreter (instrumentalist or singer), an improviser, and a composer all at once, and to move from one to the other with the ease of a stream(Bach, in German).
In the 20th century, the musicians who have most immediately embodied this trilogy are undoubtedly jazz musicians and organists. The Austrian composer, organist, improviser Wolfgang Mitterer has these three practices so deeply rooted in him that he told me he could not conceive of the activity of composer separately from instrumental practice, from contact with the instrument. The fact is that every organist improvises, with more or less science and enthusiasm, and that he learns to do so: it is a practice inherent to the instrument and to its function of accompanying religious services. One of the former titular organists of Notre-Dame de Paris, who is also a professor of composition at the Dijon Conservatory, has written some fascinating lines about the instrument, Jean-Pierre Leguayhas written fascinating lines on his practice of improvisation, both inside and outside the liturgy.

If one leaves the churches to look for spaces where the practice of improvisation is very much alive and spontaneous today, the landmarks become blurred. To explore them, one needs to have a taste for adventure and porosity, to frequent jazz clubs and festivals, certain particularly curious theaters, improvisation festivals (there was even a time when the two names "jazz and improvised music" coexisted), those dedicated to experimental music, and to take an interest in the numerous collectives (Coax, Umlaut...) who, each in their own way, embody the spirit of Johann Sebastian Bach by blurring the separations between composition, improvisation and interpretation by dint of navigating without tension between these three practices..

In recent years, we have also witnessed the emergence of improvisers' orchestras of all kinds (from jazz, contemporary music, experimental music) that cultivate the back and forth between the two approaches to sound, the improvised and the written. This is notably the case ofONCEIM, based in Paris and founded in 2011. The musicians of this ensemble are at the same time performers, improvisers and composers. I think I'm right in saying that at the beginning, ONCEIM (Orchestre de Nouvelles Créations, Expérimentations et Improvisations Musicales) mainly approached the idea of structure and composition by inviting a musician from the orchestra to invent a more or less open form, likely to be played by it. Little by little, Frédéric Blondy, pianist and artistic director of the ensemble, turned to composers outside the orchestra, important figures of experimental music such as Stephen O'Malley, John Tilbury, Peter Ablinger Éliane Radigue... ONCEIM has its Berlin equivalent with the Splitter Orchester, founded in 2010, which brings together about twenty composers/performers of ten different nationalities around very similar work processes, on the borders of improvisation and composition, with a strong focus on the exploration of sound and its projection in space.
The list of ensembles/orchestras born in the last ten years is long. Let's mention here the AUN, a collective of improvisers based in Bordeaux and initiated by the double bass player David Chiesa, which defines itself as "an improvisation society": "UN improvises, invents playing devices, works with the cinematographic image" (note of intent of the ensemble). At one point tempted to explore the written word, I believe the ensemble has tightened its focus on improvisational situations.

The UN - Jean-Christophe Leforestier from Ensemble UN on Vimeo.

Long before this blossoming, smaller ensembles have shown the way, constantly navigating between orality and writing: I am thinking of ]h[iatusan international contemporary music ensemble founded in 2005 by the cellist Martine Altenburger and the percussionist Lê Quan Ninh. The majority of the members of this variable-geometry ensemble have both performing and improvising experience, which leads them to propose courses that mix written pieces and improvisations, "in a permanent oscillation between the two disciplines, highlighting the coherences or ruptures of artistic practices that are too often considered as antinomic.
Lê Quan Ninh defines the explorations of ] h[iatus in these terms:"The long-tested experiences of interpretation and improvisation form the basis of the singular vision of contemporary music that the ensemble wishes to share: a music that comes not only from those who write it, but also from those who play it, who are, in a way, on the ground of sound every day, who experience the transformations due to a patient closeness to the musical material and the instrument.
It is clear that the approach to sound by improvisers is very different from that of non-improvisers, because to improvise is precisely and above all to question one's relationship to the instrument and to one's culture by taking hold of it as a tool for creation in its own right, as a tool that allows one to draw out one's own poetry in ever-changing artistic circumstances...
The improviser acquires a virtuosity of listening, a faculty of adaptation as well as a sense of the material which allows him, if he is also an interpreter, an organic comprehension of the works and their interior movements. These become, as it were, a bundle of circumstances to be crossed: circumstances of time and space, abstract and concrete circumstances of the musical material, circumstances of transitions, etc. which are like other aspects of the circumstances with which the improviser must work, such as the acoustics allowing such or such dynamics, the volumes of air to be moved, the necessity of silence, the duty of solidarity, the necessary sharing of perceptions. It is in this transversality of circumstances that the work of
the ensemble]h[iatusIt is in this transversality of circumstances that the work of the artist is situated, a transversality that leads to the confusion of the written and the improvised.  

Laboratorium - trailer / teaser from Ryoanji Asso on Vimeo.

Very inspired by my companionship with these ensembles, I would be unable to help you to try to see more clearly in this intertwining of practices. Better still, I admit that I have no desire to oppose - or even to compare - the written and the improvised, and I too prefer to favour a transversal thought that tends to confuse them. What can we say to composers who are reluctant to improvise because they consider it as simple music of gestures - isn't music all about gesture, about gestures? - or as an unreflected and imperfect expression of the moment, a simple outlet for the musician who wishes to express himself in music, and simply to play his music? What can we say to those who prefer to point out the formal weaknesses of an improvisation rather than recognize the richness of formal invention of certain improvisers, which cannot be reproduced on paper? What can we say to improvisers who forget to nourish their practice by listening to music in depth, whether it be written or "oral tradition"?

To oppose orality and writing, as one superficially opposes the forest to the garden, makes no sense: the game is lost in advance! Who says that the forest as a living organism does not obey an internal organization, and that the layout of a garden - and this is true even of our French gardens - excludes all fantasy and invention? How can we remain insensitive to the art of the gardeners of the Middle Ages, who knew so well how to combine the design, the organization of the plants in space with the wild and crazy grass? In the history of mankind, well before the appearance of writing, music was born from improvisation, and still today, many composers improvise mentally or on the instrument all or part of their future works before putting them down on the music paper, and this, whatever the universe they explore. Doesn't a composer of electronic or acousmatic music go through phases of improvisation with the sounds he has recorded or stored in his sound library? 

At this point in my ramblings, I allow myself a stream of questions.
How are the first draft and the organization incompatible? Don't they have in common the idea of invention, of creation? And is it not conceivable that a seasoned improviser can go very far in the organization of sounds when he is in a performance situation? I have experienced enough improvised music concerts to be able to say that some of them have left me with the memory of an accomplished, organized and magnificent sound world, giving me an auditory, sensory and intellectual pleasure as great as the most meticulous of compositions. 

In creation, I believe in the play of communicating vessels, in porosity, in constant back and forth, in the organic links between practices, a bit like phase transitions exist in physics for the same element. If water is present in different forms - ice, water, steam -, the same is true of the phenomenon we call music, which can be offered to our ears in forms that are in no way exclusive. Everyone is free to choose one state or the other, or to feel more comfortable in it. In music and artistic expression in general, I believe in what circulates: in openings in a seemingly closed system, in rules that insinuate themselves into what at first glance looks like disorder. I believe in contamination!

Long before experimental music, there were illustrations of this sleight of hand in early music. Musicians of the Song on the Book (Middle Ages), the Renaissance and the Baroque period (ornamentation, the realization of the figured bass) needed a lot of imagination to "flourish and develop" the few notes or lines they had before them! On the other hand, the history of our Western music is full of contrasting moments and periods of transition that left room for freedom. I am thinking of those times when the codes of writing were relaxed to let in the wild grass - theEmpfindsamkeit for example in the time of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach!  

What about jazz, you may ask?
I will leave it to the specialists of jazz - or rather of the multiple faces of jazz - to complete these reflections and will content myself with sketching an escape towards the European and French ensembles that I have been able to approach, orchestras such as the Globe Unity Orchestra of the pianist Alexander von SchlippenbachThe Barry Guy New Orchestra, Joëlle Léandre 's Tentet ,Ève Risser 's recent ensembles (White and Red Desert Orchestra), Christophe Rocher's Nautilis ensemble... in which one finds this constant, fruitful and delightful back and forth between writing and improvisation. 

ZONES LIBRES - Teaser from Ensemble Nautilis on Vimeo.

A few days ago, the Brazilian composer and conductor Januibe Tejeraonce very close to the improvisation collective Warning with whom he collaborated on several projects, confided to me his deep interest in improvisation: "Some composers feel betrayed when their music sounds improvised, because they claim an extreme refinement of the writing. I belong to the other clan. The more spontaneous a written music sounds, i.e. the less one feels that it obeys imposed structures, the more surprised and happy I am. The difficulty is to conjugate this appearance of spontaneity with the long time that is the writing process. As a composer, I am constantly balancing between these two energies; on the one hand the lived continuity of the work, on the other our reality which is more distended. You have to relate the two things in the writing. It is a fact, I try to bring back the improvisation in my writing: it is a real desire! Without speaking about the work of improvisation with the instrumentalists, in the solo and duet forms especially, moments of improvisation intended to better know and the instrument, and the musician for whom I write this music.

As a final point to this subject "open" by nature, a last glance: that of the interpreter-improviser-composer Thierry EscaichA musician who began his exploration of sounds as a child on the accordion before meeting his instrument, the organ, and with whom the listeners of À l'improviste once shared great moments of improvisation: It is improvisation that nourishes most of my works. I often speak of a kind of initial spurt in any creative experience; this spurt is improvisation - sometimes it's also improvisation in the subway, in traffic jams - it's what comes all at once, which doesn't mean that we don't conceive complex forms! What gives the start is a gesture, whether harmonic or rhythmic (...) Olivier Messiaen I believe that the composer had a rather special relationship with improvisation, which I analyze very well myself as a composer; he always limited his improvisations, except in the course of the service, undoubtedly moved by a kind of fear, as if this practice could take away his ideas, or prevent him from realizing them later in his own works. As a composer, I had this same questioning. At the beginning, my improvisations were quite distant from my compositions. On the other hand, until about ten years ago, when I composed, I would voluntarily put myself in a situation; it was a bit like "watching" myself compose! Progressively, these two worlds have come closer together; as a composer, I try to find the spontaneity, the outpouring that one can hope for from an improvisation, and when I improvise, I try to structure - but not too much - to try to keep this kind of flame, these rustlings of wings... "

Anne Montaron

Photo article ONCEIM © OlivierOuadah


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