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Improvisation Musings


Unforeseen Magic

Improvisation is the essential act of music. It is the primary creative function: nothing comes into being without it.

Improvisation means, literally, to work with the ‘unforeseen’ – each living moment requires an improvisatory decision to facilitate movement to the next living moment. Working directly with unforeseen events is a form of magic.


In our culture we are obsessed with planning; we believe that ‘planning’ equals ‘structure’ so that an unplanned event is easily misunderstood as an unstructured event. This is a mistake which leads to rigidity of thinking and impoverishment of the imagination: absence of magic.

Becoming over reliant on planning for the future we easily miss the significant beauty of the present. This results in a dislocated sense of meaning and a disembodied sense of self.

Improvisation is unplanned beauty, instant structure created from the sounding resources of our own inner selves.

Improvisation celebrates the here and now!

The Classical Tradition

The canon which runs from antiquity via Palestrina and Bach and through to Schoenberg via Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven is truly a wonderful tradition full of beautiful music. But who needs it any more? And when did people begin sitting down to listen to music instead of dancing and singing along? Compared to the joys of group improvisation, this great European tradition seems like so much hierarchical social nonsense studded with genius.

Notating and Recording

In our attempts to ‘fix’ musical culture, notated and recorded music has been afforded higher status than improvisation. The aurally transmitted culture which was folk music has itself become a fixed commodity. Classical music (in the broad sense) has become a kind of safe haven for those who require music (and life) to be predictable and unchallenging (listen to Classic FM if you disagree.). The world of orchestras, opera houses, chamber quartets and lieder recitals has become a heavily subsidised repository for tradition – a museum culture.


Despite all of this, improvisation is a thriving aspect of 21st Century musical life. We find it where live musicians are engaged in re-inventing and re-creating living musical experiences. Improvisation is not restricted in style, it’s an attitude, an approach. It re-invigorates music with life energy. It escapes from notation, from scores, from staves, from clefs, from barlines (prison bars?), from fixed notions of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, from conductors, from seated patrons, from equal temperament, from composers, from teachers, from grade exams, from analysis, from all the stuff that imprisons music and renders it comatose. No accident that a good classical performance is often described as “well executed!”

24 Dec 2009

how very true. For me the act and art of composition is very closely linked to improvisation. The seed idea emerges and grows, almost of its own volition. If I write it down or record it that is simply a way of sharing with others {often far away]something that came through me, often inspired by simply being in the present and allowing it to happen.

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