Classical Conversations?

Sveio School band at the Norwegian Championshi...

This week is high school band camp at the university. I’m giving two masterclasses (Dan Spencer is giving the other two and Dan is also doing the Creative Music sessions this year). The classes are about how the horn works (the overtone series), how music theory on the horn works (valves), and a number of other topics (sight-reading, range, endurance,   tuning and intonation, etc.). Last night was faculty recital night, and Dan and I played a duet of mine entitled Ostinato Suite (1. Quickstep 2. Elegy 3. Habañera 4. African Bell) for our part (it was originally for horn and trombone, but I did a version for 2 horns a couple months ago). What makes this particular duet a little different is that each movement has the opportunity for improvisation. In this case, it’s always in the top voice (since in the original, the trombonist did not improvise), but it can easily be adapted so that both could improvise (trading off in each movement or between movements) or the improv could be skipped altogether. We had to leave out the Habañera for time purposes (it was a pretty long recital), but we had fun with the other three. I did the improv on 1 and 4, Dan on 2.

There were some brilliant performances by the faculty, wonderful players, wonderful music, but I can’t help thinking that all of contemporary classical music would benefit by having at least the possibility of some Really New Music happening in concerts. There’s not a little Chicken/Egg going on; composers would put windows of improv in mostly written out compositions (like this one) if there were classical players who could fill them; classical players would be more likely to add the skill of improvisation if there were more pieces available that offered the possibility.

For all the wonderful classical music that is and was played, having some improv happening somewhere is a breath of fresh air. It’s like watching a sports event where the outcome is not known (i.e. most of them, except where one team is vastly overmatched at the outset) – more interesting than watching a rerun of a game where you know who the winner is (except for those going over game films to examine the details and learn from them, which is what we do in improv class after a concert).

Dan and I talked about it, as we always do (Dan is finishing his doctorate – just the dissertation [on creative pedagogy] left; I’ll miss those talks (although there is Skype and email) – we often had to repeat lessons because we would get to talking about these subjects and not get to playing). And one thought that came of it is that it may be time to put my money where my mouthpiece is and start being the composer and creating some vehicles for horn players that have some written parts and some improv parts. The improv parts can and should be very simple, at least in the first batch (however big that will be). Then later, as people get used to doing these, the challenges can increase. Actually the amount of challenge in the improv is almost always up to the player, the one who chooses the notes. You just choose notes that suit where you are technically and musically. Sounds simple. Classical players just don’t have any practice in choosing their own notes. They think, I can’t do it, because they imagine they have to choose the same or similar notes that master composers or improvisers choose. They don’t. They only have to choose the notes that are comfortable for them. Just as they choose the words in conversation that are familiar and effective for them, not necessarily the words of Cicero or the style of an auctioneer.

It’s time to have some classical conversations. Everybody.

And time for me to construct some vehicles to make this happen. And for you, too, if you have any experience in this at all. If you don’t, do it anyway and learn from the process. Let’s all make something for the future of classical music.