Reviving the art of improvisation

2009 August 29
by Simba
Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires by paula moya, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License by  paula moya

As a nice apropos to the recent discussion I had with Tangocommuter about improvisation in tango, there is an interesting article in the current issue of The New Yorker about the possible return of the improvised cadenza in western art music:

The art of embellishment—improvising cadenzas, adding ornaments, taking other opportunities for creativity in performance—is a hot topic in classical music these days. For generations, conservatories preached absolute fidelity to the score: do what the composer wrote and nothing more. The problem is that the scores of prior eras can leave quite a bit to the performer’s imagination, and the earlier the piece the sparser the notation.

(…)

Mozart, as composer and pianist, brought the practice to its peak; one of his contemporaries stated that cadenzas should be dreamlike in their logic, expressing “ordered disorder,” and Mozart’s playing evidently had that quality. (He wrote out cadenzas for many of his concertos, so his performances may not always have been spontaneous.)

What I find so interesting is that tango music largely followed the path of the western art music, going into more written out scores, leaving less room for improvisation. This happened gradually from the end of the golden age, and becomes very evident from the fifties. Piazzolla was known for introducing more elaborate scores than his musicians had ever used before, but it would be unfair to blame it all on him, all the major orchestras moved towards a more ‘orchestral sound’.

Jazz, on the other hand, a music that is similar to tango in many ways, seems to have moved in the other direction, towards more freedom (at least for the soloist), music less written out, with room for elaborate solos, largely improvised.

Unfortunately, both musical forms moved away from dancing.

It was the remark from a musician, supposedly jazz musician, that playing tango is ‘boring’ due to its inherent structure that set off the discussion. I personally find it more likely that musicians taking up tango today do not have the skills and knowledge required to play tango like it should be played. Including improvisation. Including communication with the dancers on the dance floor. Which makes it more interesting for musicians as well as for dancers, one would imagine.

Maybe tango music walked into a dead end when musicians let go of improvisation? Let us hope with the apparent resurrection of improvisation in music academies and art music performances, that tango too, can take up its improvisation once more, and bring back life to the music:

Classical advocates of the practice believe that it is not only historically valid but intellectually enlivening. For a recent paper in NeuroImage, Aaron Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari studied what happens cognitively when someone improvises; they observed increased activity in two zones of the brain, one connected to decision-making and the other to language. Even if a soloist extemporizes for only a minute, the remainder of the performance may gain something intangible. Levin, the Harvard-based musician who for decades has been the chief guru of classical improvisation, believes that performances need to cultivate risk and surprise. Otherwise, he says, music becomes “gymnastics with the affectation of emotional content”

Sounds familiar?

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