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Classic(al) attitudes to improvisation

Classic(al) attitudes to improvisation: an evening with Franz Joseph Stoiber in the Igreja dos Jerónimos, Lisbon.

This was an unusual concert for an organist: improvisations from start to finish, and unrestricted by style or genre, as  Franz Joseph Stoiber, the titular organist of Regensburg Cathedral was spending some time in Portugal, teaching and performing recitals, one of which I had the enormous pleasure of hearing in Lisbon last Friday. This occasion was further enhanced by my meeting the British composer, improviser and pedagogue Nicholas McNair who is known to many in Lisbon for his extended musical activities, including the teaching of improvisation to young classical musicians.

So, perhaps my enjoyment and impressions of the recital were enhanced by the previous discussions I'd been having with Nicholas? This is more than possible as our conversation had centered around the dominant modes of thinking in classical music, and how these affected those musicians who now view themselves as entrusted with the task of performing classical music. I had been questioning these values for some time, even completing an article for my masters on the subject of hegemony in classical music, but my conversation with Nicholas McNair pushed my vision a little further, as his convictions and depth of reflection clarified a number of indistinct impressions I had been wrestling with.

It's a little unusual to question the attitudes of musicians towards classical music. rather, it is a common obsession to question the attitudes of a dwindling public! But I totally agree with Nicholas that there is an over-arching and frozen mindset in the institutions of classical music, whose focus is primarily on the cultural artifacts (the works of great composers) and the veneration of genius. Such attitudes are not passive but active in influencing the activities of classical musicians, as, by focusing on the works of genius, and the (consequently) perceived lineage of great composers - contributors to the sacred canon of such masterpieces - it is assumed that the very products of genius, the works themselves, have embodied properties of communication and affect which will be automatically communicated through rendition. Worse, the pursuit of excellence in performance of these works, is usually presented as the only fitting goal for any child expressing an interest in music. Of course, there is a great danger when treating these subjects, to strike attitudes in opposition to so many, that one seems merely to rant and rave ineffectively. However, I am by no means alone in voicing criticism of attitudes towards creativity in classical music, nor am I by any means a pioneer! Such criticisms have long been articulated and from various sources towards various targets in the classical establishment. For example, it has long been observed by musicians leaving their classical roots to take up folk music or jazz, that the training of classical musicians is restricted in creativity and leaves many without any meaningful context in which to perform; also from the disciplines of historical musicology and ethnomusicology, can be read accounts of a fundamental change in the practice of classical music at the beginning of the 19th century, a change in which new distinctions were placed between improvising, composing and performing, eventually separating the creative from the interpretive.

For musicians, the increasing polarity between performance and creativity has created certain roles or stereotypes: composers for example should produce works of originality, as worthy successors to the masterpieces already in existence; while performers should do justice to these masterpieces through ever increasing levels of professional expertise. Such distinctions, in which natural, unashamed creativity becomes increasingly rarified still persist today, perpetuated through much of the formal tuition of classical musicians, celebrated and encapsulated in the rituals of concert giving, international competitions and the like... while audiences for classical music dwindle and highly-trained musicians cast around in vain for new repertoire, new ways of presenting the old repertoire, a sense of creative purpose and a connection with modern society.

What does this mean for improvisation - and how on earth does all this relate to poor Franz Joseph Stoiber, the seemingly forgotten original departure point of this article? Well, to return to the recital of Friday evening, this was a truly improvised musical evening, one which offered real opportunities to observe the organist taking risks. By risks, I mean a willingness to experiment with the unknown, to follow musical ideas as they arise mentally; this shouldn't be underestimated as it takes a lot of courage in the cultural environment already described to take these kind of chances. Many improvisers don't and for reasons one can sympathise with (for some their careers are built on a reputation of infallibility). But the courage of Stoiber aside, the fact that the improviser has to engage with wider cultural issues through the very act of improvising within a wider context of non-improvisation, is the reason that I have digressed so volubly in an effort to describe this context. It is only by understanding the general - and that in the language of protest against cultural hegemony, against which thousands of individual exceptions can and should be declared - that one can understand the particular, which is the terrific difficulties facing classical musicians wanting to improvise in this day and age.

Of course, by some quirk of logic-free reasoning characteristic of normative values, improvisation is somehow permitted to organists - and through this cultural loophole emerge regularly artists of Stoiber's ability. This situation seems to be accepted without any difficulty by public and institutions alike, and there's no doubt that the organ world has offered a safe haven and 'cover' for many to experiment and develop their improvisational identities. Notwithstanding, many mature musicians, (organists among them) who arrive late at the decision to improvise, the 'sacralisation' of classical music, the sense that creativity is not really allowed, and that to play on one's musical instrument music that is not composed by an authorised composer, is enormously inhibiting. I remember personally, almost a feeling of guilt, of desecration, as I first tried a few improvised chords in the strict privacy of my own practice room.. I could never have improvised to my teacher, or even my friends, as my mindset was entirely used to interpreting accepted works of genius at the highest, most polished level I could manage.

Clearly then, for many, the transition from classical performer to classical improviser (whatever that role might now be) is a large, complex transition, fraught with many pitfalls and emotional challenges. It is not surprising that most, if not all (allowing for some exceptions to prove the rule) expert improvisers started, or were allowed to start by their musical overseers, at an early age. Allowing oneself the possibility to create is, I believe, a significant psychological step for classical performers: a step which takes one out of traditional roles and away from the tacit support and recognition given to those roles. For individuals, these difficulties can be overwhelming, inhibiting creative 'flow' states and complicating the processes of natural development through practice. However, as my conversation with Nicholas McNair convinced me, it is by articulating this conflict and becoming more conscious of it, that such steps can be taken, and a creative future embraced.

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