Ideas

Blossoms I Off the Cuff I Artistic Statement I Perspectives On Improvisation I Art Review I Sunsplashed Bio

SMART Blossoms: Piano Music : Gary Smart (pn) : ALBANY TROY1286 (51:36)

Fanfare for Piano and Radio. Blossoms. Four American Painters. Line Drawing. On Three Notes. In Black and White. Three American Poets. The Robot’s Tango. For Toru. Dangerous Machine. Inside Again. Shortening Bread. Christmas Music for Piano and Two Radios.

If I had to choose just one word to describe the pianist and composer Gary Smart, the word I would probably use is, well, smart. Currently a Presidential Professor of Music at the University of North Florida, Smart, who was interviewed by Peter Burwasser for Fanfare last year, really knows his trade. Although this is not apparent from the annotations that accompany the recording, which were written by the composer himself, Smart studied composition with such luminaries as Toru Takemitsu, Elliot Carter, Yannis Xenakis, and Luciano Berio, and among his piano teachers and mentors he counts Vlado Perlmutter, Claude Frank, Jorge Bolet, and jazz hall-of-famer Oscar Peterson. For all his numerous diplomas and pedigrees, however, Smart is a real iconoclast. His protean music is utterly unique and, at least to my ears, it defies categorization. For consideration here is a recording of “unedited abstract improvisations,” as Smart puts it, consisting of twenty-five piano pieces. Although only one of these works exceeds five minutes and most take less than three, they all pack quite a punch.

To cut right to the chase, this is a disc that invites debate and may well divide listeners into two camps. I suspect that it will fascinate contemporary music aficionados and probably irritate the hell out of almost everyone else. I fall in the former camp, and, frankly, the more I listened to this recording the more I enjoyed it. It really is a ton of fun, and the only disappointment is that, since these are improvisations, it is unlikely that this music will reach a wider concert audience. (Perhaps Smart could be persuaded to write at least some of these pieces down?)

The three cycles—Blossoms, Four American Painters, and Three American Poets—deserve to be singled out for their evocative qualities (detractors should check out the luminous, Szymanowskian Frankenthaler), as do the contemplative For Toru (an elegy written for Smart’s mentor Takemitsu), the percussive Shortening Bread, and the last work, Christmas Music. Concerning Christmas Music, in which the piano interacts with and reacts to two radios that blast Christmas music, static, commercials, and sundry news-du-jour, e.g., news concerning United Airlines’ bankruptcy, Smart remarks in his witty and informative annotations: “I have the feeling something very meaningful happens [here] . . . but my explanations are clumsy and I leave further comment to others.” Before even reading Smart’s annotations, I got the exact same feeling listening to his inventive music, but I too cannot quite explain why. But isn’t that the mystery of good music, whether it was written last week or two hundred years ago?

The quality of the recording is very good. Smart plays a spunky instrument, whose bright, piercing, and percussive voice suits his music well. As an added bonus, this instrument has no fear of intimacy—it does not appear bothered in the slightest to have its insides occasionally touched, plucked, scraped, and gently hit. Although he is not exactly a young man, Smart plays with astonishing facility and ebullience. I suspect that he is a very happy person, and that really comes through in his playing.

I highly recommend this recording to readers with an interest in experimental music. More generally, I also recommend it to anyone who can keep an open mind for at least two minutes and eighteen seconds, the duration of the aforementioned Frankenthaler. Radu A. Lelutiu

Gary Smart “Off the Cuff”: The art of a master improviser
BY DAVID DEBOOR CANFIELD (Fanfare magazine April/May 2012)

Composer-pianist Gary Smart is a rare bird indeed, being a classical musician other than an organist who can improvise. His career has encompassed a wide range of activities as composer, classical and jazz pianist, and teacher. His diversity of teachers may be unique among pianists, as he has worked with everyone from Ralph Kirkpatrick to Jorge Bolet to Oscar Peterson. His work has been supported by the Guggenheim and Ford Foundations, the Music Educator’s National Conference, the Music Teacher’s National Association and the National Endowment for the Arts, and his music has been heard at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall, as well as at venues throughout Europe and Asia.

I was particularly keen to interview Dr. Smart, since he and I share a love of improvisation (although I would not put myself in his league in that area). We also both attended Indiana University. So it was a great pleasure to engage him in a conversation via the Internet, which I did in late November of 2011. Fanfare readers have met him previously (33:5) in an interview by Peter Barwasser, so I’ll attempt below not to re-walk the path that my colleague has trodden.

Q. What precipitated your desire to become a musician?
A. I’m told I was singing and dancing for friends and family as a toddler, a natural show-off. I remember hearing a piano tuner play our piano after doing his work. He had been a silent movie pianist in Chicago and could he play! I was so excited. I kept pestering my parents for lessons. Finally they relented and by the time I entered the first grade the piano was already the center of my life.

You know, maybe my eclectic musicality began right there. Mr. James, that piano man, played everything – the “classics”, salon music, pop tunes, rags, jazz. It’s a very American attitude, I think. Pluralism. I gave my first full piano recital when I was eight or nine. In junior high I played the Pictures at an Exhibition. I think I was pretty good. But there was little for me to compare myself to, except Walter Geiseking and Artur Rubinstein on recordings. I suppose I was a kind of prodigy. I grew up in small Midwestern town culture. Sports and academics were quite as important. It all fit together. I had a wonderful childhood.

Then too, I loved jazz and pop music. I read sheet music easily and started notating my own stuff in grade school, all on my own. And even though Miss Adelaide, my piano teacher, absolutely forbid improvisation and jazz, I happily improvised jazz and all kinds of music and screwed around changing written music to suit myself, ignoring traditions and labels to my heart’s content when I was alone at the keyboard. That was my world, with my rules. My music. My artistic attitude has always been positive. I love my life and what I do.

Q. Wow! Launching your career with Pictures, my favorite piece of music! How do you balance all of your musical activities, as described above? Do they “compete” with one another, or achieve a symbiotic relationship?
A. Certainly the different musical activities do “compete” for my time, but really they are all a part of the same thing. For me improvisation is simply composition in the moment and composition a carefully considered improvisation. It takes no time or effort to change from one to the other. Most days I do both and the two activities support one another.

Q. You were at Indiana University the decade before I came there to study. Was David Baker already on the faculty by that point, and did you do any jazz work with him?

A. I spent most of the 1960’s at IU. I had some wonderful teachers-mentors there: Alfonso Montecino, Sidney Foster, Jorge Bolet, Bernard Heiden, Roque Cordero, Gene Bayless, Gary Wittlich, George Gabor, Bill Bell and many others. It is a great school, isn’t it?

Yes, I did work with David. I remember his joining the faculty and taking over the jazz program. He’s a fine musician. But I didn’t study improvisation or jazz theory at IU. I was a piano performance major as an undergrad. I’m one of those musicians that learned jazz as an apprentice, just listening and playing. I did that as a kid. I listened to loads of recordings, often playing along. I joined the Musicians Union at fourteen and started playing gigs, mostly dance band jobs. I learned hundreds of tunes from a fake book and from that I learned keyboard harmony and harmonic form.

As a freshman at IU I was put into an advanced theory group. I said that there had to be some mistake, that I didn’t even know what “music theory” was! It was explained that I had tested well and that I should give it a try. I spent a very interesting year, learning the labels and broadening the concepts that I actually already did know. I do remember being stunned that most piano majors couldn’t sight read or improvise. I had thought those were basic skills. Now—don’t get me wrong—there was much I did not know: that world of Western European music, the many styles and traditions, the cultural associations, all of those masterworks.

What I remember most fondly about David Baker was his generosity. He invited me to play, to take part in projects, even when I was very young. His influence on me was directly musical. I played his charts and compositions, improvised with him, learned under his guidance. I also worked with Jerry Coker at IU. His polytonal harmonic thought was very influential on me at the time. I also had the experience of making a four month State Department tour of the Mideast with Jerry’s IU big band. It changed me—the diverse, vibrant cultures, the food, the music!

Q. David, who’s about to turn 80, recently fell and broke his hip, but you’ll be glad to know that he’s bounced back very quickly, and has resumed teaching. Why do you think that improvisation among classical musicians, other than organists, became a lost art? As you point out in the notes to your CD of improvisations, this was not always the case, and was routinely taught to students from the era before Bach through perhaps the middle of the 19th-century.

A. I know what you mean, but to some extent “classical” performers do—must—improvise when they play. One improvises every gesture, every phrase of the music. We’re not robots! But yes, the notes and rhythms are given in the notated classical score. Improvisation of the “score” itself, even a part of it, perhaps that has been neglected.

Still, I think there must be many other improvising “classical” performers out there. I think immediately of Robert Levin, who improvises Mozartian cadenzas brilliantly. In any case, I have the feeling that we are entering a new era. Many young “classical” performers are interested in improvisation in various styles. Style and improvisation. Now there is a topic for a book. One can improvise in any "style". What is "classical" anyway? Actually, I think the term itself is morphing.

Back to your question. Why did it stop? Maybe specialization had something to do with that. Perhaps as the repertoire of masterworks grew, there was a greater need for performance specialists and less need for composer-performers. Then there was the rise of the middle class amateur. For them, music was indeed just the notated score. And don’t you imagine that educational practice was at fault too? Teachers put much more emphasis on the intricacies of the “komposition”, a holy book to be recited in ritual, rather than on the intuitive activity of improvisation. So improvisation was less valued. On the other hand, who can seriously criticize the artistic production of nineteenth century Europe? Those composers certainly left us a treasure chest of composed music.

Q. I note in your previous interview that you currently teach the art of improvisation. I presume this refers to classical improv in addition to jazz, no?

A. I tell my students that I believe in learning a lot more than I believe in teaching. I can show, I can tell, I can make metaphor, I can encourage, I can suggest ways to think, to act, to practice, to perform...but I cannot “learn” for the learner. That only the student can do and that is the big job. Yes, I give some private lessons to pianists. I have no particular method to sell, no text. We play together. I comment, they ask questions. Some are jazz students, some new music ("contemporary classical") students.

My favorite class is the required improvisation class for all our senior performance majors. The class has vocalists, trumpeters, flutists, cellists, percussionists, everybody. I might compare it to the old TV show, “Whose Line is it, Anyway?” I just give assignments. They play in duos, trios, once in a while in a large group, and I listen and comment. I play for them and with them. The students are a little shy at first, fearful of “making mistakes,” but in a couple of weeks, after just playing around, having fun, relaxing, gaining confidence—things happen! You would be amazed at the latent creativity in those kids. Oh, of course I riff on this or that material or technique now and then, but it comes out of play, out of a context that just evolves. Sure, some things fall flat. But other things are wonderful. It’s different every semester. Great fun. And the process is very natural, quite essentially musical.

I make no distinction between musical worlds in that class. Classical, jazz, world musics, pop, new music—it's all material. So I suppose what we do is mostly “free improvisation”. We do touch on many of those genres I mentioned. I am not exaggerating when I say that students love the class. I think it is because they are again experiencing that feeling that drew them to music in the first place: being “one with the music.”

Q. Exactly how does one go about teaching students to improvise?

A. I really don’t know. How did you teach your children to talk? Talk to them. Listen. Encourage them to listen, to try to talk. After a while, they can talk! It’s the same with music. Now, of course there are levels of accomplishment. It does take years to become a "brilliant conversationalist". I'd like to make this point clear here: one must practice improvising in order to become a capable improvisor. Years ago a colleague heard me practicing the day before an improv concert. "What are you doing— Practicing?!" he exclaimed. "You're a fraud then! You don't really just come up with that stuff out of nowhere!" Well, no. And neither did Bach or Beethoven. It takes years of practice to learn to extemporize music. It is not magic. It is art. It is a hard won music making ability.

Q. Have you liked some of your improvisations enough to undertake the laborious procedure of transcribing them into notation?

A. No, though I have transcribed others’ improvs for my own benefit. But as I have said, I feel that composing, which I’m always doing, is just “very slow and careful improvisation”. You know, since you bring it up, if someone else wanted to transcribe any of my improvisations, I confess I would find that interesting.

Q. Well, as much as I like them, I’m afraid that I won’t be the one to volunteer to do it! Even with absolute pitch, it’s a real chore. Do you think the art of improvisation will ever make a substantial comeback among classical musicians?

A. I wouldn’t be at all surprised. That would be very healthy and great for our musical culture. I do know that the National Association of Schools of Music has suggested that every graduating music major should have some experience in improvisation. That is what led to the creation of my class. At the University of North Florida we took the suggestion quite seriously.

Q. I’ve asked a lot about your improvisation on the piano, but not much about your conventional piano playing. What motivates you in that?

A. Aside from all we’ve discussed, I am a classical pianist, and that is an important part of my musical life. I play a few concerts every year, also do some chamber music playing. This informs everything else I do. Just a couple of weeks ago, I played a concert of Haydn, Debussy, Dohnányi and the Brahms F Minor Piano Sonata. I teach students this music every day. I only mention this because readers might assume that an improvising, jazz playing, far out composer would not have much to do with the traditional repertoire. Not so. I love this music. I draw constant inspiration from it. For instance, I have just rediscovered the Busoni transcription of the Bach D minor Chaconne – the solo violin masterwork. I have fallen in love with this piece and am now learning it.

Oh, I do realize it is not “echt,” that it is as much Busoni as it is Bach. But it is wonderful piano music and it suits me. The nineteenth century meets the eighteenth century in the twenty-first. Back to pluralism!

Q. How do your songs fit into your overall body of works? I see that they span a rather large period of time. Has having a singer for a wife precipitated greater interest in this genre for you?

A. As the notes for that CD relate, I have always loved singing of all kinds. I grew up listening to those great American pop songs, but I also love the art song and opera. And certainly Marilyn and I have lived a life in music and have performed many, many programs of songs and piano music over the years. Her attitudes and interests have definitely rubbed off on me.

Singers are so interesting in that each “instrument” is unique, and the voice and the way it is used so clearly reflects its owner’s personality. Words and music, that’s a rich subject. Song is probably the oldest kind of music. Aren’t all instrumentalists really imitating the voice?

Q. Have you written an opera, or would you like to? After hearing your Me and My Song, I feel that you might write the next Porgy and Bess!

A. That is a very kind comment. Thanks, David. I am humbled. I adore Porgy and Bess, and I stand in awe of George Gershwin. Me. An opera. Funny you should mention that. I am now in the middle of a large project, a kind of solo soprano opera, called Opal’s Diary. It is in two acts, about ninety minutes long. Marilyn and I had done it for years as a kind of chamber opera – just soprano, piano and a few props. Now I’m orchestrating it. Marilyn isn’t singing much anymore, so I have no soloist or venue as of yet. I don’t usually work this way, but this piece deserves full realization. It is one of my best works. Also, apropos of my CD, I have just recently finished an orchestration of The Major’s Letter. It is also awaiting performers and performance too.

Q. In your extensive travels to the Middle East and Japan, what have you brought back with you that has benefitted your music or piano playing?

A. I learned about cultural perspective and the richness of human expression. This is an old world and it is unbelievably diverse. So many musics, so many musicians. I am positive that many colors of sound, gestures, patterns and attitudes toward these materials have worked their way into my mind. I can think of some direct influences here and there. I have written a couple of “Japanese” works: Kiku Preludes for piano solo and Wabi Sabi for mixed octet. Both of my piano sonatas are influenced by gamelan music. My recent piano quintet, Song of the Holy Ground, is based on an Apache chant. I do find world music materials inspiring.

Q. It’s hard to imagine someone such as yourself synthesizing the teaching of a Ralph Kirkpatrick and an Oscar Peterson. Did they overlap in any way in their ideas?

A. Now that’s a creative question! Let me think. Certainly both men were totally dedicated to their music. Both believed in the power of music to change people’s lives, to inspire, to consecrate lives. Both were very focused on clarity of purpose in performance. Interestingly, both used language, i.e. certain syllables or phrases, to teach musical gesture. I picked that up from them. Both were outspoken, about music and about everything else too. Both were impatient. Neither suffered fools (or unprepared students) gladly—or for very long! They were different performers. Mr. Kirkpatrick was an intellectual, a harpsichordist. When he played, the world went away. It was subtle and intelligent, very elegant. So very musical. Mr. Petersen was a force of nature. When he played, it was often overwhelming. So creative, so lush. His technique was of course dazzling. And his rhythmic sense was the sharpest, the most invigorating I have ever experienced. Well, what they had in common was that they both could PLAY. I was lucky. I watched and listened up close. That was an education. They did their best to pass the torch. I try to do the same.

Q. If you could be remembered for just one thing in music, what would you like that to be?

A. Here’s the thing: I have spent over fifty years in music now, and I feel I’m just now becoming the artist I want to be. I think I’m doing good work now. I would like to do this for a good long time. I would like to be remembered as a “late bloomer” who just got better and better as time went on.

I’m not ashamed to say that I aspire to write a few works—somewhere along the line—that last. Wouldn't it be fine to compose a work that is performed one hundred, even two hundred years from now? How would I know? Oh, I think I would. And I would be very pleased.

Q. Well, I think it’s quite possible you already have!  

Artistic Statement    

I have composed and performed music for some fifty years now. As an American I have had the privilege of growing up immersed in the musical traditions of American folk music, religious music, ragtime and the many kinds of pop and jazz music of the past century. All that is part of my make-up. At the same time the western European classical tradition has long been an integrated part of my education and my musical thinking. And to that rich mix of music I have added in the past thirty some years a growing, serious interest in several world music traditions. In all these traditions I find my inspiration.

I am a classical composer, trained to state and develop musical ideas. Material is one thing and technique another. Let me explain: I do follow my intuition, choosing freely from my large bag of musical materials and associations. But at the same time my background in the classical literature pulls me back toward traditional formats and time-honored developmental techniques and forms of expression. I feel that this personal creative tension – this contrast between the familiar and the unfamiliar, the formatted and the abstract - is what makes my music something distinct. Sometimes my works are easily accessible, but at times they must seem odd or unsettling to an audience, not because they present “difficult” material, but because they create unusual contexts. A work that finds a unity in neo-romanticism, gamelan music, jazz and banjo music can seem strange indeed. In the past few years I have gained the confidence to suspect that I may well have something unique to contribute. In fact it may even be my responsibility to make the attempt. Finally, and as always, it is a matter of artistic excellence.

If I do have a unique musical perspective, it lies I believe in my personal eccentricity and in my unusually pluralistic outlook on music as an art. I do attempt in my works to blend both materials and techniques from many traditions. I have now reached a mature age and level of experience. It is time for me to attempt the creation of a body of fine work on a larger scale - work that reflects not only my personal perspective, but also somehow, the perspective of this time and place, its feeling, its resonance.

It seems to me that the arts are paradoxical. Over time the artist develops a technique and a discipline. Then, throwing caution and objectivity to the wind, he must humbly aspire to move beyond that, even beyond the self. Through the creation of things intensely subjective, the artist may approach an expression of the universal. This has fascinated me since I was a boy. I have dedicated my life to the study and practice of music as art. I believe it is extremely important work. Music is magical. It brings together the complete person, the physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual person. I now aspire to do what it seems I was born to do, to create a fine, personal, enduring art music.

Perspectives On Improvisation
Dr. Gary Smart
Presentation at the NASM Annual Meeting, Boston, MA., Nov. 1998


I was about twelve years old when Miss Adelaide, my piano teacher, heard through the grapevine that I was known to “fool around” at the keyboard for hours with no notated music on the stand, and even worse, that I had been entertaining friends and family with musical improvisations. Miss Adelaide’s agitated response was the musical equivalent to every mother’s “you’re going to put your eye out with that thing!”

She was a wonderful teacher, a mentor to whom I owe much gratitude. However, Miss Adelaide was of the generation that considered Western classical music, as embodied in the notated score, to be the one true music. In her mind the concept of improvisation was associated with a lack of discipline, a lack of attention to detail, and a sloppy technique . . . not to mention a frivolous aesthetic mindset.

One does have to admit that these weaknesses are often present in the music making of fledgling improvisors. Pretentiousness often rears its ugly head too. I remember with embarrassment Miss Adelade throwing a volume of the Beethoven Sonatas the length of the room when I allowed myself to take several very inappropriate improvisational liberties with the score.

I certainly deserved the lecture I received about musical tradition and respect for great artistic achievement, and yet I still find myself defending that young seeker that I was.

Any skill can be misused. At that age I simply needed guidance to find artistic balance. It does seem a shame to me that I spent years leading a musical double life, studying classical scores and playing that music in recital on the one hand, while secretly learning to improvise by playing along with pop, folk, jazz and yes, classical recordings on the other. Many contemporary music students find themselves more or less in the same situation.

Surely the need to touch on the natural musicality of all of the above mentioned musics, and the concomitant need to play unwritten music, can be acknowledged and reconciled. Modern music students deserve this kind of an all embracing education and American music teachers and musical institutions are struggling to accomplish this today.

Musical improvisation is less mysterious than the uninitiated might suppose. No art is created out of a void. To the contrary, the clearer the material, the method and the context, the better the creation. As obvious as that statement might seem, myths and misunderstandings persist. Many years ago a colleague heard me practicing for an improvisation concert. As I remember, I was working up fantasy variations on some well known tune. He was indignant. “You’re practicing?”, he asked in disbelief. “What a fraud! I thought you were going to improvise tomorrow’s concert!” Herein lies an important point: improvisation need not be thought of as a cheap parlor trick. It is for me a great irony that jazz fans tend to glorify improvisation as a kind of magic, while in the classical field there is a stigma placed on the unwritten. Improvisation is not magic, nor is degenerate. It is simply a musical skill, an artistic tool which can be developed.

Improvisors at any level . . . as composers at any level . . . must clearly choose the musical “what” and the musical “how”. The choices, be they common practice or unique, are a necessity, but are no guarantee of success in themselves. Quality, I believe we would all agree, is more dependent on the development of materials and the overall success of the musical narrative. In any case, these choices can be made with or without the use of musical notation.

“Jelly Roll” Morton, reminiscing about his group’s early recordings, explained that music was always on the stands during those sessions. His musicians, however, only sometimes played exactly what was written. Just as often they embellished what was notated, or in reacting to the musical moment, played something else, mixing reading and improvisation in a practical and quite creative manner. To that old jazz master the notated score and the improvised phrase were both just tools of the trade. In American big band music, a tradition of which “Jelly Roll” was the first master, one finds a consistent use of this approach. In this music impro-vised and notated music are happily juxtaposed and mixed. It has long been the case, in our own musical history and in other cultures’ musics, in fact, that a very effective and exciting music is created by presenting both kinds of activity simultaneously. This is entirely practical and natural.

Consider the close relationship of improvisation to notated composition. A useful concept might be a sliding scale which ranges from “composed in the moment” to “completely precomposed”. Practically, almost any musical undertaking exists nearer the middle of this scale than might be supposed. From where does the primary musical impulse come? Doesn’t composition first move through improvisation? Isn’t composition a kind of very carefully considered, notated improvisation? Ask a composer. Isn’t performance preparation, even performance itself, at times very closely related to improvisation? Ask a performer. Let me stir the pot a little more: there is the fascinating phenomenon of “solidified improvisation”. As an improvisor, I have found, in a couple of instances, that improvised pieces have “set” or “solidified “over time, thus becoming in practice unnotated compositions. This is not so unusual.

The great jazz pianist Art Tatum let several small improvised specialities like his “Carnegie Hall Bounce” and “Humoresque” set, thus becoming something very close to unnotated composition by the late part of his career. A favorite showpiece of Tatum’s, “Tea for Two”, contained large composed but unnotated sections which alternated with improvised sections. Gunther Schuller has pointed out this phenomenon in the Duke Ellington orchestra where trombonist Lawrence Brown allowed smaller eight bar solos to set, and so become unnotated composed solos in a notated piece.

I always think of Mozart when this subject comes up. For such a great talent, it would appear that composition and improvisation were almost the same thing. Mozart wrote in a letter, “When I am . . . say traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, or during the night when I cannot sleep; it is on such occasions that my ideas flow most abundantly. Whence and how they come, I know not. “ He later goes on to say, “Nor do I hear the parts successively, but I hear them, as it were, all at once. All this inventing, this producing, takes place in a pleasing, lively dream! . . . For this reason the committing to paper is done quickly enough, for everything is, as I said before, already finished.”1 I doubt that Mozart was exaggerating.

As an improvisor, I’m particularly interested in his Variations K. 416e, “Salve tu, Domine”, and the Variations K. 455, “Unser dummer Pobel meint”. Mozart seemed so pleased with these works, both of which were improvised at a soiree on March 23, 1783, that he wrote them down in the next few days. I wonder: are these works then improvisations, or compo-sitions? Mozart hardly made the distinction.

In fact, throughout most of the history of our Western music, improvisation and the use of semi-notated music were the rule. The musicianship of Mozart, as well as that of Bach, Beethoven and many, many other masters and journeymen practitioners throughout the centuries included a well developed improvisational ability. World music provides us with a wonderful mix of musics which are improvised, composed but unnotated, or make use of both techniques. I’ll just mentioned 1) the East Indian sitar tradition . . . a profound and subtle art music that is improvised, 2) Indonesian gamelan music . . . which is most often composed but unnotated, 3) and Japanese Shakuhachi flute music . . . more often composed but unnotated, but also making use of various degrees of improvisation. Where in the world do our pat Western ideas of composed works versus improvisation fit in with this array of musics?

Let me come back to my own experience: I have for some time included in my jazz concerts transcriptions of recorded jazz piano improvisations. When a modern performer learns and notates a historical improvisation, does that old improv then become a composition? By this point, it seems to me the question is moot.

To my mind musical improvisation at any level, in whatever context, professional or playful, complex or simple, profound or not, is essential music making, and so is an essential experience for the music student. Improvisation inexorably links spontaneous composition with performance, and dispels the proposition that musical substance is necessarily the pro-perty of “composers”, while interpretation is the business of “interpreters”.

For today’s students these ideas already present a false dichotomy. Though many students will finally choose to stress one particular area in their careers, the musical world which they will soon enter is pluralistic in the most practical sense. Most of the musical world outside academia, i.e. the areas of commercial music, contemporary classical, jazz, folk music, world music, etc. has moved on into a delightful era of fusion and pluralism which makes constant use of the musical improvisor’s skills.

Yet, don’t most students of our classical tradition still learn to “recite” music, not to “speak” it? Is my distinction unfair? Isn’t that really what we mean when we use the word “unmusical”?

Consider the parallels in the other arts: improv is a staple teaching tool in theater education, dance students regularly improvise in class, artists sketch, writers converse, debate, draft, all balancing a natural sense of play with a feeling for order. These young artists are challenged to truly learn to “speak” the language of their respective arts.

Though all music students should experience improvisation, our teachers and educational institutions often cannot and/or do not facilitate that experience. Of course, jazz programs teach improvisation, though only within the jazz context. In a general context, an improvisation class, which offers valuable peer interaction, and hopefully, an improvising teacher-model, would undoubtedly be the best educational setting for learning to improvise in any stylistic context. Such a class would be especially effective for beginning improvisors, who respond well to an enthusiastic model- teacher. The jazz tradition has a proud history of apprenticeship. Modeling is the simplest, yet most directly effective tool for teaching improvisation.

For the interested and dedicated student who would learn to improvise, there are many simple improvisational activities with which one may begin to learn. Success depends on the use of improvisational exercises with set goals, and the ability to assess progress realistically. Simple activities which the self-teacher and/or the class teacher may utilize effectively are 1) the creation and repetition of simple melodic or figural patterns, 2) experimentation with call and response patterns, 3) playing along with recordings (over and over again, with persistence), 4) imitation: imitating one’s own musical gestures or those of one’s peers or teacher, imitating the melodies, rhythms, sound colors and/or patterns of the immediate environment, 5) embellishing written music (heresy can be fun), or 6) writing simple pieces, learning them, and then altering them in improvised performances. The involved student will quite naturally create more exercises that are stimulating and immediately enjoyable.

It is important that after all of these activities the student replay the improvisation in his mind and critique seriously. Often the student may wish to try again with alterations and/or improvements in mind. Self motivation is obviously all important here. As in an English composition writing class, the student must be willing to create an unpolished, only partially satisfying first draft. The student must rely on, and believe in, the effectiveness of constructive play. Constant, thoughtful repetition will indeed bring real progress and finally, fluency.

Improvisational experience reacquaints the student with the primal need to make music and with the simple pleasure of working spontaneously with basic musical materials. What is learned will naturally affect all subsequent music making, in whatever context.

The concrete advantages of improvisational experience are diverse and many. They include a true, more integrated comprehension of the musical phrase, of harmony and harmonic progression, and a better understanding of form in its many aspects, thus creating a more solid ability to conceptu-alize, and memorize, written works.

For the performance student improvisation activity is particularly valuable. It is my experience that concentrated improvisation practice can improve technique, Miss Adelaide’s misgivings to the contrary. Students often find that improvisation brings a new fluidity to their playing, a new, natural feeling for gesture, and a more natural linkage of technique to musical goal.

Specific values for the composition student include the opportunity to physicalize musical thought, an opportunity to weigh the value of spontaneous creation in relation to the value of carefully considered revision and the layering up of ideas, and an appreciation of what an interpreter can and should bring to the written score.

For the theory or musicology student there is again that opportunity to experience the physicalization of musical thought, to integrate left and right brain activity. There is also the opportunity to develop a “hands on” understanding of the many elements of style, as well as the chance to consider the limitations, as well as the strengths, of the written score.

The goal of all music study and practice should be a whole brain musicianship which finds that fragile balance between discipline and freedom. My Miss Adelaide need not have worried. I still recognize well the importance of control and order, and I know this thanks to her teaching. But, as her favorite composer, Claude Debussy, said, “Music must never be shut in, must never become an academic art. Music is a free art, as boundless as the elements, the wind, the sea, the sky!” 2

ENDNOTES
1 W. A. Mozart, a letter quoted inThe Creative Process, Brewster Ghiselin, Editor, (New York: Mentor Books, 1952, 44.

2 Claude Debussy, Debussy on Music, Francois Lesure, Editor, (New York: Knopf,1977), 245.

REFERENCES
Schuller, Gunther Early Jazz. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968
Hodeir, Andre Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence. New York: Grove Press, 1956
Lomax, Alan Mr. Jelly Roll. Berkeley: University of California Press,1973
Lester, James Too Marvelous for Words - the life and genius of Art Tatum. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.  

From an Art Review on the Web

“An atmosphere of elusive restraint informs the work of Mr. “X”. He asks rather than answers questions in these metaphors for the metaphysical underlayer, the swath of the unknown. He gives us impressions of a nervous turbulence marked by periods of calm. These works play on tension, growth, and controlled development, as is evident in a figure-ground relationship where the imposing weight of the hovering figures mirrors the weight of worldly irresolution. He imbues his precise abstraction with an essence of physicality and yet a whisper of intuition, casting a post-Minimal gaze on Abstract Expressionism.”

Sometimes critics are more creative than the artists they review, though to what point . . . I’m not always sure. I often tell my students, “Music ‘means’ musically!” Explanations are secondary. Mendelssohn said, “It’s not that music is so imprecise that it can’t be put into words. Music is, in fact, so precise that it can’t be put into words!”

Sunsplashed Bio

Those of us in the arts spend so much time writing bios, notes and biurbs, trying to introduce ourselves while balancing ego and modesty, aspiration and exaggeration, truth and advertising, It is a silly game really, but it seems we all must play. Here below is a weird over-the-top fantasy bio I wrote a couple of years ago. I’ve never had the courage to use it. Someone might not understand. I’m afraid I might start a religion. - Gary Smart

Grandmaster SunsplashGrandmaster Sunsplash
A centurion cosmomusiker from the Arcturian peninsula of the planet Nicflurtenoid of the star group RU9UR7,the acclaimed Grandmaster Sunsplash holds degrees from every conservatory on his planet and knows everything worth knowing as well as lots lots more. It is impolite to laugh at his unusually low guttural vocal sounds and high squeaks which are quite meaningful to the highly intelligent and/or virtuous. He once inadvertently bit an impertinent earthling tax preparer who instantly ceased droning on about numbers to become a poetic bird in the jungles of New Guinea. Such is the power of his artistry. He can swallow complex serial chords whole while juggling dense impressionistic textures and agogic accents at the same time and, as is well known, Shih Tzu dog monks worship his piano playing. It is said he has on occasion composed melodies out of nothing but sand. The Grandmaster (Sunsplash) likes to relax by making small objects disappear. It is polite to throw money in his presence.