I still remember how one day Gelinek told my father that he was invited to a party that evening where he was to oppose a foreign virtuoso in a pianistic duel.
“I’ll fix him,” Gelinek added.
Next day my father asked Gelinek about the outcome of the battle.
Gelinek looked quite crestfallen and said: “Yesterday was a day I’ll remember! That young fellow must be in league with the devil. I’ve never heard anybody play like that! I gave him a theme to improvise on, and I assure you I’ve never even heard Mozart improvise so admirably.”
“Then he played some of his own compositions, which are marvelous – really wonderful – and he manages difficulties and effects at the keyboard that we never even dreamed of.”
“I say, what’s his name?” asked my father with some astonishment.
“He is a small, ugly, swarthy young fellow, and seems to have a willful disposition,” answered Gelinek.
“Prince Lichnowsky brought him to Vienna from Germany to let him study composition with Haydn, Albrechtsberger, and Salieri, and his name is Beethoven.
The modern performer of early repertory is challenged to make it meaningful to audiences who are in many ways removed from the language and culture of the original. Who would notice the bravura of a dancer who substitutes, unannounced, the doppio portogallese for a regular double step? What face would raise itself out of its program should a singer spontaneously change the words of a song in a foreign language? Would an improvised rendition of a basse dance be more successful than an existing setting by a Renaissance master? Such sprezzatura on the part of a dancer or musician would have to be recognized by the onlookers to be appreciated.
But improvisation employed as a means to enhance the expressive qualities of the music, the dance, the art, will surely have a noticeable affect; what better way is there of making a piece one’s own? Improvising performers don’t extemporize because they are bored, but because they can. It is what they do. It is part of their personal expression as performers, just as it must have been in the Renaissance.
2 players. Two players sit in chairs facing each other. The game: construct a piece using hand and arm gestures only. Although this game is without sound, the principles of improvisation are the same: come up with a strong idea, repeat that idea, embellish or ornament it, develop that idea in all the ways that you might develop a melodic idea.
Suggestions: Respond to what your partner is doing – steal (imitate) their ideas, integrate them with your own, be inspired by your partners ideas. Remember to be silent (i.e. motionless) sometimes. Create ostinatos (repeated gestures) as accompaniments to solos. Take a solo – be imaginative!
The Future of Classical Music by Greg Sandow has long been one of my favorite blogs. His latest post was an account from Sally Whitwell about her “experience as a performer and composition workshop presenter for teenagers at the Perth International Arts Festival”; if you’re interested in creativity in music and music education, this is a must-read.
Whitwell was shocked, shocked that the festival had a hard time finding classical musicians to do creative workshops.
I won’t rehash the whole post – you should read the original to get the details of how she worked with the kids to use text and workshopped melodies to create a song (see below). The staff turned the ideas into a notated composition that was later performed:
“In my perfect world, all kids would have this opportunity to be creative with music.”
Thanks Sally, and thanks Greg!
Nate Trier has a blog on topics in improvisation and composition that you should definitely visit. I was just there and found that he has two recordings of improv games from my book Improv Games for One Musician (GIA, 2009, 50 p.). The first game is a duet (2:39) for sax (David Elkin-Ginnetti) and some kind of keyboard sound (Nate); titled Atonal Interval Warm-Up, where the performers are limited to certain intervals. Here they chose M7/m7, #4, M/m2nds.