Thoughts On Improvisation

Improvisation is no normal activity. It smells of the exotic, the seductively illegal or immoral. It is the life and breath, the mother’s milk, of creative artists. In attempting to create something unique (that is, something personal, and by its personality unique), artists must, at a certain point, improvise with their material whether they have arrived at the material through a mystical, irrational process that we call inspiration or through highly rational means. Moreover, a performing artist who is incapable of improvising will sooner or later find himself on the stage with his pants down around his knees, and not be capable of covering his wardrobe malfunction with a moment of inspiration.

Still, has there ever been a child who has not blushed and improvised? In which case, we call it a lie. Each of us knows the feelings that accompany a lie, especially an unprepared lie that has to be improvised in the moment: increased pulse, shortness of breath, faintness and butterflies in the stomach, sweaty hands. In exactly these terms, we could be speaking of love, permitted or forbidden, romantic and chivalric, or lusting and erotic. Obviously, improvisation has something to do with the core of our basic nature.

In music, improvisation has an interesting history. “Naïve” or “folk” music has always contained much room for improvisation because the unadorned and literal repetition of basic material soon wears out its welcome. One of music’s basic tasks is to delineate the form and architecture of time through adornment and creativity. Except for those cases where the suspension of time is the goal of the work, as in a trance, whereby the stasis of time through undifferentiated repetitions of a figure is desired—except in these cases, the constant feeling of discovery, whether composed or improvised, is the raison d’etre of the music. Renaissance and baroque music, even in the fixed forms that emerged in concert performance, allowed an unusually wide possibility of interpretation. Specialists have only recently acceded to this fact in the performance of this music, thereby rescuing from the dustbins of history many forgotten masterpieces thought to be boring and pedestrian.

However, at the beginning of the so-called classical period (mid-18th century), the figure of the composer emerges with increasing force, not only foreshadowing the cult of personality but also the composer as a creative artist so compelled by his need for personal expression that he is unwilling to allow the performing artist to intrude upon his vision. Beethoven’s Razumovsky string quartets may permit wide differences in their interpretation, but they allow no improvisation. The composer’s intentions are paramount, not those of the Rosé Quartet. (However, according to the musicologist Robert Levin, there is some evidence that Mozart expected improvised ornamentation in the repeat sections in his piano sonatas.) One exception to this practice was the cadenza, a virtuosic display allowed for in the concerto, a work for soloist and orchestra. However, even here, the cadenza was often composed or improvised by the composer at the first performance.

I suspect that it was no accident that this development took root, ripened, and came to glorious fruition in Germany, the spine of classical expression that ruled the Western canon for 150 years. A need for control and clarity, a discomfort with ambiguity, a mistrust of freedom and happenstance in art or politics—all are major components of what the rest of the world (and most Germans) would call the Deutsche Seele, the German soul. As Wagner said, deutlich (clarity) and Deutsch are cognate. It was left to the raw revolutionary energy of American black jazz to topple this aging structure. The central, basic element of jazz is not its melodies or rhythms or harmonies, it is the improvisation. The authority-ruled controlled Germans were slow to allow themselves the unbound possibilities of jazz improvisation and indulge in the seductive, confusing, forbidden smoke of half-formed possibility instead of the clearly understandable, clean-scrubbed objects of their own music world. (France and Great Britain reacted much earlier.) But at the end, even the Germans lusted after the American black jazzhound and dared the unknown.

But here we’re dealing with a play, not a jazz session. What’s the point? We’ve named the play Improvisations over Shylock. Obviously, we’re thinking of something that doesn’t fit comfortably within this 400-year-old box called The Merchant of Venice. We acknowledge that this box, this play, is anything but empty or used-up, that it can still move us, change us, and illuminate our world. Why not, then, dammit, just simply play the play as written? Isn’t that enough? I have to admit that a very small, shy voice somewhere to the left of my gall bladder answers “No” even as my loud public voice says “Of course that’s enough! What kind of ungrateful boobs do you take us for?” And this thin whisper is the same voice that wants to add notes to Mozart’s clarinet concerto or write a fantasy over the Razumovsky quartets. I know, I know. You don’t have to yell. And you add, “And why do I have to attend to your private, spoiled, vainglorious indulgence?” and I reply, “Because I’m one of you, but one who is gifted or damned to react to this, our world, in this manner, like my equally afflicted colleagues: actors, directors, choreographers, etc.”

What we’ve undertaken here are improvisations over Shakespeare’s Shylock. That means that we will use the entire vocabulary of our art and our personalities to investigate, to find out why this 400-year-old play still has power and why it has meaning for us today.

We will use all our technical possibilities, use our control in new ways other than those used when one “plays the play.” And we will risk the dangers of boredom, ambiguity, formlessness, and emptiness to occasionally if not continuously come upon those moments of soaring freedom, breathless danger, pure pleasure, and extraordinary insight that one occasionally encounters with the best jazz musicians. That we are performing this exercise in Germany, with its nightmare history vis-à-vis the Jew, with its struggle to deal with this particular story in our time, further encourages this approach.

However, that which we offer is not an unconfined reaction to the material but, rather, a carefully considered and even carefully rehearsed result. But then where is this freedom of which I sang? Jazz and improvisation have never existed in an unlimited and undifferentiated context of freedom—if, indeed, such a thing is possible. The ground rules of the basis of the improvisation must be agreed upon beforehand. This basis can be the harmonic structure of a song (the chords) or the form (blues) or such hard-to-define elements as texture (the late Miles Davis groups) or energy levels (Cecil Taylor and Sun Ra), but the basic principle of structured freedom remains the same.

Still, why in theater? In the New York theater world of the late Sixties where I worked (naturally, it also happened elsewhere), there was a general tendency to redefine what, in the past, had been called a play, or theater. The same spirit was abroad to redefine everything that had come before, whether music, painting, sexuality, education, etc. One result of all this questioning was that the people whom one earlier had called playwrights, and who regarded themselves as playwrights, sought other possibilities for their expression. Actors and directors began to develop pieces in the same way that choreographers made dances.

What emerged were more like improvisations over the technique of the actor rather than written plays worked out in studio rehearsals. But where could one find the structure of such pieces without the forms of scenes and acts? The answer was in the same area in which dance finds its structure (not its content)—in the music. Like other composers, I was approached by one author after another to share with them my knowledge of musical structure: of theme and variation, of sonata form, of fugue, etc. Painters reacted to the spontaneity of jazz in the form and gesture of their work, and suddenly music, that art form that is hardest to define as to its content, exerted a new and exciting influence over the other disciplines. After all, who can say definitively what a piece of music is about, except for itself?

Since music began, it has offered a special treasure for the improviser. In this the late 20th century, when the content of the fixed forms of art is exactly as suspect as the vagaries of improvisation once were, music has become more and more the major artistic expression of humankind, which would not surprise any “primitive” peoples.

So here we engage in an enormous, unforgiveable lie, one that will, I hope, through its insistence, lead to the truth in much the same way that a circus poster, which advertises a world of impossible adventure and danger, finally pales against the moment when trapeze artists challenge and overcome death. To win you over, to ask you to give up your mistrust, we will balance on the tightrope without a net, admit to the chutzpah of our undertaking, and hope that no one will be injured by our daring.

Stanley Walden

NOTE: The German-language version of this essay appears in George Tabori: Improvisationen Über Shakespeares Shylock (Hanser Verlag, 1979).