Category Archives: Compositional Improvisation

Compositional Improvisation in the Western US

CD Review
Glenn Stallcop: Ash Fork Verses: Set #3; Glenn Stallcop, piano. Available at CDBaby, iTunes, and Amazon.com.

Arizona. Land of mesas and pine trees. High elevations give this state the southernmost skiing area in the US; and lovely alpine regions appear as oases in the high desert. That high, dry sensibility suffuses the compositional improvisations of Glenn Stallcop, composer and practitioner of this rare art form.

Compositional improvisation is, strictly speaking, a subset of classical improvisation. The distinction is necessary because, as a general rule, classical improvisation usually involves improvisation in the styles of composers other than the performing pianist/composer. Compositional improvisation is classical improvisation––as distinct from jazz improvisation––in the style of the performing pianist/composer. Many of the great composer/pianists of the past were well-known compositional improvisers (Chopin, Scriabin, Liszt, Brahms, among others). Many of the most important works of these composers were developed out of improvisations. It is almost axiomatic that any living, thriving music has improvisation at its core–witness Jazz and Baroque music.

Glenn’s improvisations were influenced, as were many improvisers, by Keith Jarrett. And, as Keith has followed a path leading further away from jazz in some ways, Glenn, a classical composer by trade, has spent much of his improvising career developing a distinctly classical style of improvisation. Glenn’s improvisations are also inspired by the landscapes surrounding his cabin in Arizona. That mix of pine and dust swirls about in his music; the arid, pungent qualities of advanced tonal harmony augment the dust devil textures. One of the densest tracks, ironically, is simply named “Playing The Harmonica”, and seems more concerned with the overtones the harmonica produces than any discrete melodies. Considering Glenn’s consistently dissonant yet tonal style, it is very much atmosphere rather than tone painting he seems to be aiming for.

An interesting issue with improvisation is that often tends to become a kind of background music. It is by its very nature more rambling than written music––but in a sense more naturalistic as well––and in the hands of a skilled practitioner can become a unique art form which speaks more about the moment to moment operations of the human brain than the carefully worked out patterns of written music.

Our brains are improvisational by their very nature; they go hither and yon often with little or no apparent overall direction. Jazz seems to understand this. It is this satisfying presentness that seems lacking in a lot of written music, and may indeed be one of the core problems that keeps classical music from becoming better appreciated in this day and age. Thanks to pioneering musicians like Glenn Stallcop, that situation may someday be remedied.

Glenn’s CD’s may be found here:

http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/GlennStallcop

Gregory Hall

Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (www.crsnews.org)  Inquiries about recordings/concerts/master classes may be directed to the CRS web page.

The Miracle of the Parma Festival

In a world…where classical and popular music make few efforts to get along with one another–and where success in both idioms often lies within lines of least resistance–along comes the Parma Music Festival (held annually in Portsmouth, New Hampshire).

Contemporary music festivals rarely incorporate both classical and popular music.  In order to do so, venues have to be found which are friendly to both musics, as well as to variations on both which defy categorization.  In our neck of the woods–north of Boston–as in many other places, venues tend to segregate themselves along either classical or popular lines, rarely incorporating both; and even more rarely do they host both musics at the same time.   Apart from occasional composer concerts at concert halls, much of the performance that goes on in classical venues is “old-fashioned”, both in terms of the music performed  and with respect to the careers of the performers, most of whom have come up the “competition ladder” playing the old chestnuts.  And in venues known more for popular music–most of which are very noisy and require music performed at the 90+ decibel level–alternative pop acts are often snubbed, not to mention classical performers and composers.

As a “non-pop” (as composer Dennis Báthory-Kitsz termed contemporary classical music) improvisational composer/performer who has not followed the traditional route for classical performers, I have noted that concert venues do not really understand my approach; and even quiet progressive places like bookstores and tea rooms usually do not get what I do. This is in stark contrast to online live performing–the venue to which I have largely had to resort to build my career so far–where my audiences have been very supportive in a way they could not be in the “real-world”.  IM’s, live chat, etc. during performances will someday leave real-world venues in the dust in terms of performance flexibility–but for the foreseeable future, musical careers will continue to rise and fall on the variable fortunes of “real-life” venue work.

Enter Bob Lord and Parma Recordings.  Known for his pioneering work not only in purchasing struggling classical labels like Capstone Records but also for bringing seemingly disparate musics together on the same label, Bob and Parma have succeeded now with two Festivals in making the latter paradigm work in the real as well as recorded worlds.

Case in point: my “compositional piano improvisations”, which lie somewhere between background and foreground music, need a venue where conversation during music is OK (and hopefully inspired by it),  but where a dedicated audience may also form if the music requires it.  I found such a venue at the Festival, a wonderful little theatre called the Music Hall Loft, where folks were partaking of breakfast in the other room for the first half, and coming into the theatre to listen for the second half–a natural progression, as it were. Other Festival performers had this opportunity as well: the amazing bass clarinetist Matthias Müller presented his fabulous otherworldly improvisations in Portsmouth’s Riverrun bookstore –another venue which encouraged simultaneous quiet talking and listening.  And following both of our concerts, gifted performers working in the popular vein presented their works.

Ah, for a 365-day-a-year version of the Parma Festival!  A place like the salons of old, where conversations, and performances drawn from both written and improvised music, fuel each other.

Liszt_at_the_Piano(Franz Liszt Fantasizing at the Piano, by Josef Danhauser, a painting of Franz Liszt playing in a Parisian salon. The imagined gathering shows George Sand, Franz Liszt, Niccolò Paganini, Gioachino Rossini, and other artists and musicians of the era).

Copyright 2014 Gregory Hall

Classical and Compositional Improvisation: Thoughts on the 2014 Richard Lupien Classical Improvisation Competition

Article to be published in the 2014 edition of CRS “Society News”.  Reprinted by permission of CRS Inc.  (www.crsnews.org).

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History making. The first classical improvisation competition, certainly in modern memory. I was honored to be in attendance, as a self-proclaimed “compositional improviser”.  The event was held from 1-4pm, May 20, 2014, at Tanna Schulich Hall, McGill University, Montreal, as a part of the 2014 Montreal International Musical Competition.

Improvisation and classical music. There used to be a time when they went hand in hand. Nowadays, classical composers improvising in their own styles (as did Chopin, Liszt, Scriabin and Messiaen) are rarities.  So, when informed that there would, in fact, be a classical improvisation competition I immediately knew history was in the making. The current number of classical improvisers is quite small, yet already within their ranks there exists a wide variety of approaches. To initial appearances, there are two: the purely classical approach–which means playing strictly in a selected style of the past–and the compositional approach, which entails playing in one’s own style. However, this paradigm is much subtler than at first it appears.

I will not mention the names of the competition performers here, rather my impressions of the overall playing as it served “classical music improvisation”–perhaps a good unified definition of “classical and compositional improvisation”. Several of the performers were clearly on the classical side–a talent that takes a great deal of performance experience playing older styles–coupled with deep intellection on how those styles operate, utilizing music theory–from basic harmony and counterpoint up through sophisticated Schenkerian formal analysis. If one were to defend classical music improvisation as a viable art form this argument would certainly suffice, as these skills are both unique and hard-won. But even more, these performers brought individual elements which only their own on-the-spot compositional talents could create, another admirable achievement. For the performers more on the compositional side, there was still a strong admixture of the classical, with all the work and knowledge that implies. But primary in their playing was spontaneous composition–a distinctly different approach–and one which brings us back to the relevance of “classical and compositional improvisation” as not merely a continuum, but an exciting acknowledgement of the huge range inherent in classical music improvisation. Ultimately, this variety was evident in all the players’ work, and the competition laid the foundation for an exciting and diverse field of performances. As a whole, this skill takes an intense study of piano technique and knowledge of the history of classical music and couples it to compositional talent, that of an on-the-fly creation which is simultaneously free yet structured.
Classical music improvisation has the promise to turn both composers and performers into improvisers, bringing them closer together along the lines of the ideal nineteenth-century composers Liszt and Chopin, who were simultaneously the best pianists and composers of their day. And in that time both competitions and salons were important catalysts. Classical music improvisation flourished in the 19th century largely due to the culture of the salons. Pianist/composers developed their improvisatory techniques in this fertile ground, in much the same way as jazz musicians hone their skills improvising at clubs today. Some of the canonic musical works of the 19th century were born in these salons, through the art of improvisation.

It seems axiomatic that any music which communicates directly with its listeners has improvisation at its heart. Fans of jazz go to concerts not so much to hear the music but to hear what performers will do with the music. Classical music was perhaps at its most relevant during the Baroque, when performers improvised around figured bass. In these idioms, musicians improvise in a musical language that is so familiar to them and the audience that it is ultimately feelings they express, not just notes.

With a bold step Mr. Richard Lupien–urged on by the pioneering improvisational work of pianist/improviser Gabriela Montero–has almost single-handedly begun to legitimize the competition side of this long-dormant art, one in which lie the seeds of a true revival of contemporary classical music as a fully viable, creative and living art form.

More information: http://www.concoursmontreal.ca/permanent/en/concours/prix-impro-classique.asp

Copyright ©2014 Gregory Hall.