Off the Page, Against the Grain

It’s the rare performer who improvises in classical music.

By Bradley Bambarger

Feeling Free, in Church
From the young Bach’s heroes to Bruckner and beyond, the most enduring traditions of improvisation in classical music have originated with church organists. The French Romantic organ school has been passed down in cathedrals from Widor, Vierne and Dupré to Messiaen, Langlais and Naji Hakim. It is ironic that the ostensibly strict and circumscribed environment of the church kept free improv alive, but, Levin explains, “because organ music was always based around church services, it had to be flexible; the organist had to be able to wing it if the bishop spilled the wine or the bride lost her shoe.”

Very much in his own way, twenty-nine-year-old organist Cameron Carpenter is carrying the torch for this legacy, in both churches and concert halls, on vintage pipe organs and digital instruments. Few can argue that Carpenter, trained by Paul Jacobs at Juilliard, has technique and intellectual power to burn. But some find his yen for glittery outfits and camp flamboyance disturbingly Liberace-like, even if his showman’s flair is drawing listeners beyond the decidedly hermetic organ realm.

The Pennsylvania native admires improvisers, from florid jazz titan Art Tatum (“huge virtuosity and rhythmic sophistication”) to French organist-composer Jean Guillou (“a genius for giving personal performances”). Carpenter’s own improvisational ambitions are multifarious: there is his more traditional organ improv, in which he improvises an encore to a Bach recital based on thematic and harmonic touchstones from the previous hour; he also regularly improvises live soundtracks to such classic silent films as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, drawing on a bank of previously developed leitmotifs and textural combinations. Next, he is planning to experiment with long-form, raga-like improvisations.

Improvising helps a musician see music not as an engraved absolute, but as something more natural, “allowing for spontaneous creativity,” Carpenter says. “Being able to improvise a fugue demands serious contemplation and practice. Improvisation takes people who also don’t give a damn what people think, the ones who aren’t worried about what will happen if they play a wrong note and it winds up on YouTube.”

Experience in improvising is invaluable for shortening response time in contrapuntal situations or enabling quick recovery from a finger-slip, Carpenter points out. Advantages also accrue to spontaneous musicians when it comes to pleasing an audience; echoing Montero, he says he finds that listeners tend to react most strongly to the music that comes from him, in the moment: “Perhaps it’s an influence from pop, but there is more of an expectation of a personal statement in music today.”

Relationships, Not Genres
In contemporary composition, improvisation as an ideal has come in and out of vogue. Such disparate post-war avant-gardists as Cage, Lutoslawski, Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez experimented with various “aleatoric” processes that gave performers a degree of freedom. In the late fifties, the Gunther Schuller-led Third Stream movement tried to meld jazz improvisation and classical form. Today, figures from composer-pianist Rzewski to composer-guitarist Steve Mackey incorporate improvisation into their work.

Fred Frith is another. Classically trained on violin as a boy in England, he switched to guitar after hearing the Shadows and the Beatles. He co-founded art-rock band Henry Cow in the late sixties, made influential albums of solo improvisation on prepared guitars in the seventies and became a fixture of the downtown New York experimental scene in the eighties. Frith has played in various groups since, including the song-oriented Cosa Brava with Carla Kihlstedt and harpist Zeena Parkins. In recent years he has also composed works for such top new-music groups as the Arditti Quartet, Asko Ensemble and Ensemble Modern.

Writing music for Ensemble Modern that incorporated improvisation was a frustrating experience, Frith says: “Ensemble Modern can read and play anything. A few of the players had a feel for improvising, but most didn’t like it — it freaked them out. So the first piece I wrote for them, Traffic Continues, was pretty unsatisfying, even though they were brave enough to go out on a limb with me. Traffic Continues II: Gusto, was better, because I brought in some outside players that can really improvise. My ideal twenty-first century musician is a player who can read, improvise, play rock, anything.

“Improvising demands mastery,” adds Frith. “But it’s a paradox: You have to be in control, but you have to let go. That tension is what can make it special.”

Frith, who teaches composition and improvisation at Mills College in Oakland, senses “a generational loosening” among classical musicians. He cites such young groups as So Percussion, the Eclipse Quartet and Calder Quartet for their “fearlessness.” He says, “It’s a taste thing with younger players — they enjoy and respect improvising. . . . It’s also pragmatism; they realize one has to be more versatile to be a working musician these days. But I find that since the sixties, the hierarchy in music — with strict classical playing on top and everything else below — has imploded, on the street if not in the institutions.”

As one of Frith’s “ideal twenty-first-century musicians,” Carla Kihlstedt’s manifold pursuits stem from the way she “thinks in terms of relationships, not genres.” The violinist-singer has pursued instrumental cinematics with Tin Hat, avant-folk with Two Foot Yard and theatrical art rock with Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, as well as sessions for the likes of Tom Waits and singing and playing simultaneously in such bespoke compositions as Lisa Bielawa’s Kafka Songs.