Improvisation in Classical Music Part 1

IMPROVISATION IN CLASSICAL MUSIC!? This guy has to be joking!

Well I’m not. Way back when the famous English lutenist John Dowland was known for his improvising, and back in his time it was common place for an ensemble to have a lutenist or vihuela player that broke off into a lead, off the cuff. Of course the melodic and harmonic structures were much different than they are today the moment was still the same. Why has this been abandoned in today’s modern classical guitar world? In my article I will attempt to answer this question by laying on the proverbial table a couple of hypothesis of my own.

The first hypothesis is that When guitar began to be taught in universities there was a lot of emphasis given to what we call the “standard repertoire”. What is the standard repertoire? Well grab yourself the Segovia discography and that’s pretty much it. A lot of emphasis was given to the works of Bach, Sor, Giuliani, Villa-lobos, and Tarrega. The fore mentioned composers are by no means exhaustive but this was pretty much the reigning champs. This is why if you pick up a cd of classical guitar music the program on the disk is pretty much made up of music by these composers. Hence, the first problem people have been hearing the same thing for so long we are doomed to play what they like or we do not get gigs. This in effect stifles the classical guitarists creative thinking because we spend so much time studying and preparing these standard works. My teacher the wonderful Cuban Guitarist Jose Lezcano attended a master class in Spain over the summer in which he had the opportunity to play for Leo Brouwer and Roland Dyens. In a Question and answer session, Jose offered the following question to Roland Dyens: “why is there not A lot of emphasis on teaching and learning the standard repertoire anymore?” Mr. Dyens offered the following answer: “There is no urgency!”

I would have to agree with Mr. Dyens WHAT IS THE URGENCY! This music we call the standard repertoire is not going anywhere. It has been around for hundreds of years and is not in danger of becoming extinct. With all the recordings in existence of these works they will always be heard and enjoyed. The emphasis needs to be on new works. If we do not discover the new music we are doomed to overlook the next generation of Mozarts and Beethovens.

The second hypothesis Is that because we study the structured repertoire our spontaneous musical tendencies fall by the wayside. We rely to much on what we know and spontaneous creation dies. We as classical guitarists fail to remember that A lot of what that has been discovered in the way of new styles and sounds has come by way of freakish and radical, spontaneous creative thinking, that was recognized and developed.

One of the problems is that perhaps we have taken tonal music to the highest levels and it’s time to branch off into different realms of creativity. Arnold Scheonberg thought so and in the 1920’s developed the twelve tone row and the technique we now call serialism. What seems to be the logical route today is not so much attempting to create completely new styles out of nothing but the creating of new styles by the marriage of different styles. For example Paco de Lucia’s fusion of Jazz and Flamenco to create the “Nuevo Flamenco” movement, that brought us such artists as Tomatito, Strunz and Farrah, and Jesse Cook to name but a few.

One of the most neglected arts in the world of the Classical is that of improvisation. Improvisation can however mean different things to different people. In the next article we will discuss the many different applications of improvisation. Until next time Keep the fingers moving.