Reviving the lost art of classical music improvisation
An interview with Werner Elmker
Q. First, please explain about the relationship between improvisation and the classical composers.
A. It was impossible to conceive of a concert involving composers like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Chopin without having them show their skills as improvisers. Improvisation actually turns out to be at the heart of the classical tradition. Classical composers were not only skilled improvisers in recital, but also used their improvisations as the basis of their compositional work. Audience response was an important ingredient before a piece was written down. Today, due to modern technology, competitions, and specialized music education, audiences have become consumers for “perfect” and frozen products, and the art of improvisation is dying out. Unless this trend is reversed, it is possible that the classical tradition itself will die out.
Q. What made you begin your exploration of musical improvisation?
A. In the 1980’s, I started listening to the improvisational piano recitals of Keith Jarrett. They were inspiring to me, not because of the jazz style, but because of the high level of inventive inspiration in the moment. This was an excitement I had never experienced during classical recitals. I began developing my own improvisation skills, and after a couple of years started giving informal recitals for friends.
Q. Why do you prefer to improvise music, rather than performing the standard classical pieces?
A. There are already so many great pianists performing classical music. However, there are only very few classically trained musicians today who are improvising in public. There are many reasons for doing it, and I will just mention a few of them here. First of all, to re-enliven the lost art of classical improvisation in order to avoid the classical tradition dying out. Second, to create a deeper connection between performer and audience. Third, to increase the performer’s appreciation of classical pieces by gaining a more in-depth understanding of the composer’s musical mind. And finally, because it is much more enjoyable to create music in the moment than to merely reproduce music based on a written score.
Q. Can you mention some of the other classically trained musicians who are improvising in public?
A. One of the first to dare the experiment in recent times was Friedrich Gulda, who played both classical music and improvised jazz with equal relish, and always insisted that both should be given equal weight as part of his overall musical identity. He played and recorded with major jazz names, notably a disc of improvised piano duets with Chick Corea.
Inevitably, he earned a reputation as something of a rebel in the generally conformist world of classical music, but also gained respect for the clarity and intellectual rigour of his interpretations of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. He passed away recently.
Classical pianist and musicologist Robert Levin spent many years learning to improvise within the style of Mozart. He is now basing his career on the impressive and slightly risky stunt of improvising piano concerto cadenzas in Mozart’s own style.
Jazz pianist Chick Corea is also occasionally improvising cadenzas in Mozart concerti, but in his own jazz style.
Violinist Nigel Kennedy often improvises the cadenza in violin concerti in his own style, based on idiomatic violin technique and phrasing.
Q. Are any other classical performers giving full recitals where everything is improvised?
A. Not to my knowledge, but I would like to warmly encourage this new venture, because I consider it to be essential for the survival of the classical tradition.
Q. Are there any rules for improvising music?
A. There are different kinds of improvisation, some are based on a structure or melody, and might include ‘taking off’ from a composition by someone else or a folk tune or variations based on a harmonic progression. Others are completely free improvisations with no particular structure, no expectations or preparation.
In any case, there has to be a balance between change and non-change, a balance between something new and something repeated.
Every improviser starts out by rehearsing certain building blocks such as chords and scales. The improvisation consists then of combining these building blocks in a new way every time. It’s like speaking. We have a number of standard words and phrases, and the process of speaking is to improvise based on these basic elements. Humans are basically creative, and it is therefore natural to improvise. It is surprising that people think improvisation is so advanced. Music is life in a concentrated form. What is strange is not improvisation, but that people have stopped improvising.
Q. What indicates success in improvisation?
A. Individual taste of course is one answer. But I would also say that the familiar parameters from classical music apply here: an improvisation can be evaluated in terms of technique, sound, phrasing, harmonic and melodic invention, counterpoint, imagery (the ability to conjure images in the mind from tones), intuition, emotion, passion, clarity, etc.
Q. What part does intuition play in music?
A. Intuition is an essential foundation for music. One definition of intuition is ‘access of knowledge from within, independent of external information.’ The improviser or musician, who can create music from within, is in my opinion more interesting to listen to. We get to experience who that person is. This is the rewarding inner experience of music.
Q. What you are saying is that music is a kind of communication?
A. It is a very subtle form of communication, a language, a structured sound that communicates feeling, intuition, and silence itself. It is a glimpse into another universe, a form of discovery of the human soul.
Q. What has most inspired your improvisational work?
A. Spanish music, Indian ragas, film themes, children’s songs, folk tunes and ballads like ‘Scarborough Fair’ and ‘Greensleeves,’ certain pieces by Ravel, Debussy and Chopin. Some pieces and styles of music are definitely more suited for improvisation than others.
Q. What is ‘music of the moment’?
A. It is music without expectations, open to any and all impulses coming from inside and outside. It means music that is never repeated again, unless you capture it in a recording. It is music that is eternally new and fresh, and which embodies the saying that ‘You can never cross the same river twice’.
Q. How do you actually make music out of these impulses of the moment?
A. The performer shares one thing with the audience--the present moment. This particular group will never come back, and the ‘collective consciousness’ of that group creates the music. Many improvisers claim that the audience is as important as the performer. The music becomes the ‘collective song’ of the group.
Q. What is your opinion of the modern recording technology?
A. Recordings have their place, and can help improvisers develop their art. In that context, a recording can be considered to be the best and most merciless teacher. But a recording contains only a fraction of the power of a live concert. I definitely prefer recordings from live recitals over studio sessions. And I am very concerned about the modern trend of editing recordings in various ways. One of the challenges facing classical music today is the modern recording industry, which has set unnaturally high standards of perfection for the classical performer. This has to a large extent killed any creative and therefore more risky ventures in that arena, such as improvisation.
Q. What is the most important element of music?
A. Silence. Some think music is the opposite of silence. I consider music to be structured silence. The foundation of music is complete stillness and peace.
Q. Are you speaking of the breaks between the notes?
A. This is the most obvious aspect of musical silence. As pianist Artur Schnabel said: “The notes I handle no better than many pianists. But the pauses between the notes—ah, that is where the art resides.”
The pause of silence allows the audience to experience that the subtle emotions behind the music continue, even with no physical sound in the room.
There are many other levels of silence in music, deeper than this absence of sound between notes. For example, when we listen to a great master performing, there seems to be a deep silence throughout the piece, irrespective of volume changes. Some pianists have an exceptionally refined quality of touch and subtle awareness that reach beyond the tones into the gaps of silence between them. We could say that this type of performer allows the audience to transcend the hard surface of sound and experience the river inside the music, the basic silence underneath it. This experience is very soothing and elevating, very healing to the audience. They are hearing the very silence deep within life itself.
Q. What has been the influence of eastern music on your music?
A. I have studied and researched classical North Indian music since 1988. I have developed ‘Ancient Voice’, a vocal style inspired by the ancient vocal style of Dhrupad. In classical North Indian music, the emphasis is on improvisation. 80% of a raga is improvised; 20% is traditional structure. So, training in this style of vocal music, has spilled into the traditional music I am used to as a concert pianist. Indian music has a different ‘non-linear’ feeling to it compared to the more ‘linear’ Western tradition. An Indian raga is never played the same way twice.
Q. Why should we even want to hear someone improvising when we could hear music by Bach, Mozart or Beethoven?
A. In the concert hall today, you are hearing modern interpretations of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven. There is no guarantee that these modern interpretations are even close to the performance practice of the composers. It would be fascinating to hear the full glory of the music when the great composers themselves were improvising, but we have no recordings from that time. Enjoying the faint echoes we get from the written scores can be inspiring, but it is not enough to ensure that the classical tradition will survive. For a tradition to continue breathing and living, there must be some element of new and fresh creativity.
Q. Do you teach improvisation?
A. Yes, and this is one of my favorite projects as a music educator. I am presently completing a CD / book entitled ‘The art of improvisation’.
Q. Do you have any advice to new improvisers?
A. I would like to quote Carl Philip Emanuel Bach here: “Improvising must not be technical virtuosity with scale runs and arpeggios dominating the piece. Improvising to be worth anything good, must come from the Soul”.
Any improviser knows that one of the main secrets of improvising is to practice certain building blocks like harmonic progressions, arpeggios, scales etc. All of these elements have to be mastered completely before one can improvise in public. However, it is not enough to just practice a lot of different techniques, and then assembling them in a random way. There must be this magical element of musical inspiration, which leads to a wholeness, which is much more than just the collection of all the different musical building blocks. This is the part that is most difficult to teach, because it ultimately is linked to the general personality of the performer. Some performers have a natural aptitude for this, and others don’t.
Q. What do you experience when you improvise?
A. It is a great experience when it works best, but as Keith Jarrett once mentioned, improvising is always like walking on the edge of a grave. It is that risk element that makes the performance experience so much more intense and rewarding to the audience and the performer alike. But in its essence, it is not different from the peak experiences classical performers have mentioned. Here are a few quotes:
“You feel as if floating in the air. You no longer feel I play, but It plays, and look, everything is as it should be. As if guided by a divine hand, the melodies flow from the fingers.”
— Edwin Fischer, German pianist
“Then suddenly comes the moment where everything is flowing through me, and I feel part of the cosmos—it is as if a divine power takes over. . . Then all limitations of the intellect are loosened. . . and in the absolute rest is a total concentration. . . Those are the moments I live for.”
Staffan Scheja, Swedish pianist
© 2005, Werner Elmker