Improvisation vs composition in music

Improvisation vs composition in music

Improvised music has sometimes been evaluated as being the aesthetic inferior of composed music. The processes of improvisation and composition differ, and these differences create what have traditionally been considered disadvantages for improvisation.

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As Bruno Nettl, said, “The improviser makes unpremeditated, spur-of-the-moment decisions, and because they are not thought out, their individual importance, if not their collective significance, is sometimes denied.” Ted Gioia said the same thing in several different ways:

Yet does not jazz, by its reliance on spur-of-the-moment improvisation, relegate itself to being a second-rate, imperfect art form? [Is not] the best jazz inferior to mediocre composed music? Why, we ask, should the spontaneous prattle of an improvising musician interest us as much as the meticulously crafted masterpieces of the great composers?

jazz sheet music Improvisation vs composition in music

Under the pressure of spontaneous creation, the jazz artist had little opportunity to impose on his music the architectonic sense of order and balance that distinguishes the more leisurely constructed arts.

For no matter what a jazz fan may claim, even the best improvised melody suffers by comparison with, for example, a Bach fugue.

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One might well conclude then, that regarded as compositions or sounding structures, the musical product of the improviser usually, if not always, falls short of the architectonic (and especially polyphonic) possibilities of conventional Western music Lastly, Philip Alperson brings up an important criterion, structural complexity:

“Denis Dutton asserted that he did not think it likely that there would ever exist a single jazz improvisation which would compare favorably (or even remotely) with the structural complexity of Beethoven’s late quartets.”

Structural complexity is a primary value in Western aesthetics. It is perhaps the single most important aspect of Western composed music on which claims of a composer’s genius or a com-position’s worth are founded, and it is the basis for much musical analysis. Western composers have been very interested in developing complex musical structures.

Improvisation means mistakes?

In order to appreciate the significance of mistakes in jazz, we must be confident that some particular case is truly a mistake. Sometimes, what are believed to be mistakes in jazz are actually not mistakes. What might be misunderstood as a mistake can be instead the result of an individualistic and personal aesthetic operating in jazz.

A jazz musician is expected to develop an individual and personal approach and sound, and this is sometimes mistakenly perceived as deviation from some universal standard that might apply for classical music or some other music but which does not apply in jazz. If one tries to impose such a universal standard, then one might find all sorts of apparent mistakes.

Thelonious Monk’s dissonant harmony, Miles Davis’s range of tone colors, and even the cockeyed angle at which Lester Young held his saxophone are all examples that could be incorrectly judged as mistakes if one ignores the individual and personal aesthetic in jazz. Within this aesthetic, the uniqueness of these examples should be celebrated. As Robert Walser says, “The problem of Miles Davis is that if technical perfection is assumed to be a universal and primary goal, . . . [Davis’s] semiotic successes are inaudible.”

When Davis uses an unfocused tone for dramatic effect, or plays indeterminate notes in a phrase that is, by unenlightened standards, a “mess,” it is not a mistake; rather, it is “rhetorically clear.”

In this example, technique is in service of an individualistic aesthetic sense, and is not a value in and of itself.
Technique in jazz is defined not through a universal standard, but in terms of intent. That is, good technique is that which expresses and makes manifest an improviser’s intent, as a matter of positive freedom.

The stark dissonances of Thelonious Monk may sound like mistakes to jazz neophytes just like Davis’s unfocused tone, but those dissonances are actually the consistent result of clear intent from a great musical mind that saw creative possibilities in harmony and dissonance that no one else in jazz had before. Because some who may not be familiar with the individualistic aesthetic of jazz may make misjudgments about mistakes is not a reason to conclude, however, that mistakes are completely absent from jazz.

Beyond apparent mistakes that are the result of an individualistic aesthetic remains the possibility of a true mistake in jazz, something that does not express or manifest the intent of the improviser, or something that is somehow out of place.

Even if an improviser’s conception is free of blunders, the most mundane sort of technical difficulty—whether one’s fingers, manipulating the musical instrument, accomplish the goal that the improviser’s conception lays out before them—can prevent the successful execution of that conception and result in a mistake. The conception may be inspired, but the flesh can be weak. An improviser may make technical mistakes such as any performer of composed music may suffer: irregularities in intonation, attack, and timbre, playing an unintended note, and so forth.

This is a standard technique in jazz: if you make a mistake, make it again. That way, it is harder to interpret the first mistake as a mistake.

However, the jazz musician may also use a mistake as inspiration for improvisation, perhaps as a means to try to rescue the mistake. An improviser may find creative possibilities in mistakes because they are outside the normal range of musical ideas for that improviser. This is one way in which the improviser has an advantage over the composer, who cannot deal with a mistake once the performance of the composition has begun.

The score of a composition is clearly a product; it is a material thing that is a composer’s practical job to produce. The fact that jazz improvisation typically does not use a score leads to the idea that jazz should be looked at as a process, in contrast to the compositional product. If formalism typically analyzes a score to uncover its structural complexity, then might not product and structural complexity be irrelevant for jazz because jazz does not use a score?

Also, the process of jazz improvisation is an inherent part of the music of jazz in a way that the process of composing is not. The process of improvisation is necessarily on display during improvisation, whereas, in composition, we only see the result (the product) of the com-positional process and not the process itself.

Sing! Day of song – Bobby McFerrin – Improvisation

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