Contemporary Music and Compositional Improvisation

On the whole, contemporary classical music appears to be suffering increasing irrelevance from a cultural standpoint. While jazz and popular music thrive and gradually become the new aesthetic standard in music, contemporary composers often still write for a specific minority of listeners, and remain irrelevant for many people.

While this may indicate a natural sea-change, the fact remains that classical music has always had a unique quality: because it is built from the “ground-up”, it can reach feelings that no other music can. As contemporary classical music fades, so fades its capability to move people in a unique way.

One of the major reasons behind this cultural irrelevance may be the lack of an ongoing improvisational ethic in contemporary music, one which communicates itself successfully to its listeners.  In any healthy music improvisation plays a large part in the creation of that music. Jazz and popular music use improvisation in abundance; during live performances—especially in jazz—people come not so much to hear the pieces as to hear what the performers are going to do with the pieces. This was the case in classical music of past centuries, culminating in the use of “figured bass” during the Baroque. Even up to the middle of the last century composer-virtuosi like Scriabin, Rachmaninoff and Messaien periodically improvised, not only around their existing works but “from the ground up”, creating new works through improvisation.

One important point about this kind of improvisation, whether classical or popular: it is usually communicated in a musical language comprehensible to its listeners. The grammar and syntax of the music follow rules not merely of the composers’ invention, but rules derived logically from the long history of (in this case Western) music. Rarely are scales denser than the octotonic employed, the logic being perhaps that using chords containing more that three consecutive semitones in improvisation blurs the resolution process. Thus, avant-garde improvisation in jazz is the exception rather than the rule, whereas avant-garde (free) improvisation is the rule not the exception in contemporary classical music; and thus–I feel–the corresponding (lack of) popularity of the latter.

My improvisations tread carefully beyond the octotonic, and include the range of scales from the least dense (whole-tone), through the octotonic and carefully beyond; thus, stylistically, my launching point is somewhere between Scriabin and Messaien, two of the last notable composer-improvisors.