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Let's Talk Properly About Improvisation...


David Coram
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It's started in another thread and I think there's sufficient mileage to start a new thread going. We occasionally get to improvisation and just as quickly go away from it again, so can we hammer out a few details?

 

One thing that irritated me a bit on the other thread was the implication that people who improvise do so because they are too "lazy" (I believe that was the actual word used) to be bothered to learn some "proper" music. This is a point which I think needs some justification.

 

Tomorrow for instance I have a particularly fruity first hymn, OT reading and gospel text to "colour in". I have read the gospel text through several times and thought about it so that I can respond to it intelligently; Christ telling his disciples for the second time of his coming Passion, while they continue to argue amongst themselves over who is the greatest. It's a nice continuation of the NT reading which contrasts a life of gentleness and wisdom with a life of envy, ambition and greed. The collect and the OT reading are both about the burning fire of love for those who choose the first and eternal torture in store for those who choose the second.

 

Am I therefore lazy to a) have bothered to go and find out what's happening, 'B) read & attempt to understand what theme the service is likely to take, c) think about ways in which I can try to respond to it intelligently? Is it lazy to sit down at an organ in front of a congregation of 450 or so, and start trying to make a musical drama to fit in with all this, with a bit of luck reaching an almost unbearable climax as the crucifer comes in and happily ending in the same key & tempo as the first hymn so the introduction can blend in, and off we go?

 

Would it not actually be more lazy to instead pull a Bach volume out of the heap and play a bit of "proper music", regardless of however apt or otherwise?

 

Obviously there's a good deal of devil's advocate going on here, but - am I there to accompany a divine service & be the first (and loudest) to set the mood, or provide a concert? As the person delivering the preparation and introduction for a service containing such powerful words, is not my job to at least attempt to elevate message above messenger?

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It's started in another thread and I think there's sufficient mileage to start a new thread going.  We occasionally get to improvisation and just as quickly go away from it again, so can we hammer out a few details?

 

 

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I'm not sure that we are filling any details in here at all!

 

Surely, the justification for improvising anything is that one thinks of an idea and wishes to express it or explore it further?

 

At most masses, I improvise as I await the sound of the bell. This is something of a necessity, for whilst I try to time the voluntaries accurately, the actual deadline often passes.

 

However, almost all those improvisations are quietly played; sometimes in old style, sometimes in imitative style; often in a contemporary style. My usual trick is to think up a distinctive musical phrase, and then play around with it in a more or less formulaic A-B-A way. When it works and I am in the right frame of mind, people often purr their approval; especially if there is a nice tune to remember. More often, there is a nod of approval rather than silent applause.

 

I find improvisation is something I can either do fairly well, or really awkwardly, depending upon how creative I feel; but isn't true art like this anyway?

 

I reckon that one really good improvisation equates to four very average ones and perhaps one or two really bad and meaningless ones.

 

Somewhere on tape, I have a monothematic improvisation which actually went on for 15 minutes, and whilst the youthful absence of control was evident, there are good moments and one or two exciting ideas.

 

All that said, I take my hat off to the likes of David Briggs, who can just come up with the goods, time and time again.

 

However, if there is one thing I hate, it is the fact that EVERYONE tries to copy the French style, when there are so many other ways of doing it, and if I can re-discover the link, I'll post the URL of (I think) the Polish organist Julian Gembalski improvising wonderfully.

 

MM

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=====================

Surely, the justification for improvising anything is that one thinks of an idea and wishes to express it or explore it further?

 

 

I don't think I meant justification for improvising (liturgically, anyway) - I meant justifying the comment by another that improvising happens because people are too lazy and idle to be bothered with books of music, a comment which to me demonstrates a lack of understanding of the whole topic.

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Often I improvise before the service and at the start of the Communion before the choir gets back - sometimes at the end of the service too. The 'before' and 'communion' slots are usually on the spur of the moment while those at the end have an elemnt of pre planning almost like working on a concluding voluntary. None of this I feel is laziness - rather doing things in a different way. Improvisation done properly needs thought and possibly also pre preparation if only in my case a glance through my manu. book in which ideas are jotted as I get them.

Improvisation is also a sort of 'freeing up' to do something completely 'tailored' to the situation at the time and providing one has the confidence to do it it can work really well. My Rector now asks for 'one of your things' when he wants music at points in the service and is often very appreciative - likewise the congregation at the end of a service - those who listen.

I am not able to improvise like Cochereau, Briggs or some of you who appear here (and with 1 manual and 8 stops I do not have vast resources to use anyway) but I have used Nigel Allcoat's ideas and some from the series of articles sometime ago in Organist's Review and know what I can do effectively and with some sort of 'freshness' which I believe is important. I have listened quite analytically to some of the service music improvised by a friend who works in Denmark and who is expected to produce such pieces as part of his work, to some of the younger European and American 'conservertoire' organists not trying to sound French and I still remember the colouristic and impressionist liturgical improvisations I heard as a child at the hands of my former choirmaster/organist. I try and keep in mind a sense of harmony, musical form and some sort of unity to a piece. Quite a lot of the work I do with students at school helps here. Above all I keep going - any 'slip' can then be used as a feature later on!

Maybe improvising is just a matter of knowing what you want to do and the confidence to keep going - my all time pet hate, however is formless 'Anglican sounding' meandering - sometimes heard liturgically and frequently at organist's association meetings - the excuse there being to 'try the organ'. Upsetting perhaps (and certainly touching raw nerves if commented upon) but I do wish those who do this sort of thing would not bother or better still play from a score. To me THIS smacks of laziness and an attitude that the person/people concerned should be allowed to express themselves or whatever does not apply in my opinion - especially when the rest of us are forced to listen.

 

AJJ

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I don't think I meant justification for improvising (liturgically, anyway) - I meant justifying the comment by another that improvising happens because people are too lazy and idle to be bothered with books of music, a comment which to me demonstrates a lack of understanding of the whole topic.

 

 

====================

 

Well, you can dismiss this ridiculous comment in one.

 

Bach was known to improvise....nuff said!

 

MM

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=====================

 

However, if there is one thing I hate, it is the fact that EVERYONE tries to copy the French style, when there are so many other ways of doing it, and if I can re-discover the link, I'll post the URL of (I think) the Polish organist Julian Gembalski improvising wonderfully.

 

MM

 

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Here is the Julian Gembalski link to the improvisation, played on a genuine baroque organ which is the largest of THREE in the same church!

 

http://www.bernardyni.ofm.pl/klasztor/lezajsk/organy.htm

 

It's the last item on the list of sound samples. 18mB.....it takes a while to download even at Broadband connection speed.

 

The disposition of "the organs" is worth checking out.......talk about a super-abundance of mixtures!

 

MM

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Guest paul@trinitymusic.karoo.co.uk
====================

 

Well, you can dismiss this ridiculous comment in one.

 

Bach was known to improvise....nuff said!

 

MM

 

 

I know I have stirred things up with my comments (none of which relate specifically to anyone here, because I have not knowingly attended their services and listened every week) - I know huge talent exists in some places, but this fact is immaterial to my contention.

 

Let me make my objection clear: my problem is with people who assume that because they have this particular talent, it is fair and right to give their improvisations (and no other organ music) to their congregations every week!

 

I have no problem with special needs as in

a. filling in

b. 'service use' as in building towards/from service music I love a good post hymn development or a sympathetic 'lead-into' a service...... but not as the only diet every week!

c. 'themed' improvisations for the church year..

d. gospel fanfares and the like

 

It is the approach that says (by implication) 'I am either too busy' or 'there is no need in any case to play from printed work composed by others'. I wrote 'arrogant' and 'lazy' and I stick by these words.

 

It is the equivalent of your vicar, blessed with a gift for inspiring discourse and literate beyond measure (as are they all, of course) asserting

'I do not need Bible readings or a text in front of me. By Divine Inspiration, every week I will draw forth from The Holy Spirit every word that my congregation needs.'

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It is the approach that says (by implication) 'I am either too busy' or 'there is no need in any case to play from printed work composed by others'. I wrote 'arrogant' and 'lazy' and I stick by these words.

I still think your language is rather strong but if you are referring to every single voluntary every single week then you may have a bit of a point. I was talking mainly about pre-service music and think we may have been at crossed purposes. For pre-service music I will still maintain that what is important is to provide the most relevant possible preparation for service; set the tone, introduce themes and styles (both musical and liturgical), take into account the intrusions of talking, crying babies, etc. It is a service, not a recital. Afterwards, it is time for something of substance which will almost always be jubilant in nature in the morning and tranquil in the evening (or, at least, predictable in advance according to the season of the year); that's what I save my "proper music" and preparation time for.

 

It is the equivalent of your vicar, blessed with a gift for inspiring discourse and literate beyond measure (as are they all, of course) asserting

'I do not need Bible readings or a text in front of me. By Divine Inspiration, every week I will draw forth from The Holy Spirit every word that my congregation needs.'

That is a flawed parallel; primarily, because the ministry of the word and sacrament are the focus, whereas the music is not (to start with, anyway).

 

Secondly, although no priest relies entirely on Divine Inspiration just as no organist does (unless they're the 'stick down a pedal note and keep going' sort who I join you in condemning), the most celebrated preachers both on local and global levels do almost precisely what you say. Take Wesley, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Billy Graham - and a vast number all over the world who enter the pulpit every week with just a few skeleton notes, and tailor the exact content and delivery to suit the audience. These have always seemed (to me) to be more successful than the ones who step up and read aloud for ten minutes - if they've lost their audience by the bottom of page 1, they've had it. I can remember about four or five really compelling sermons I have heard, all delivered with just one or two notes. The preparation of short notes tells me that the person has thought about what they're going to say, how they're going to say it and where they're going to end up, and their skill is in striking the right balance. Musically, it should be the same, but instead of short notes you have information (whether readings, hymns etc) in front of you to work from.

 

I regularly watch in admiration as my vicar talks non-stop (apart from short breaks for hymns) at funeral services for fifty minutes or so. I usually find afterwards that his sincere, moving, entertaining and interesting content was flawlessly delivered solely on the basis of a dozen or so words on a small piece of paper.

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I know I have stirred things up with my comments

 

It is the equivalent of your vicar, blessed with a gift for inspiring discourse and literate beyond measure (as are they all, of course) asserting

'I do not need Bible readings or a text in front of me. By Divine Inspiration, every week I will draw forth from The Holy Spirit every word that my congregation needs.'

 

 

=============================

 

 

It would help if they read a newspaper or a few learned articles instead!

 

B)

 

MM

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Another possibility, particularly when there is no strong theme running through a reading, is to improvise in a particular style. A week or so ago, I played the Evensong procession in to a Basse de Cromorne, having been listening to a certain amount of seventeenth and eighteenth century French music over the week-end. Since I am fortunate to have a nice French Cromorne and some good flutes to contrast, I though that it was a suitable thing to do.

 

Yesterday before Matins, I played the Adagio from the 3me Symhonie by Vierne. Despite attempting to time it carefully, the procession was three minutes late arriving in the stalls, so I then chose to improvise, but in the style of Vierne - not the easiest style to assimilate.

 

Whilst I would not suggest having a 'themed' entire Sunday since, as David mentioned, the music should be appropriate to the mood of the service, nevertheless, had I been due to play the Sortie at the end of Matins, I should probably have improvised a Grand Jeu-type movement - something else which suits our instrument well.

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Of course, there are the occasional opportunities for the organist to play "see who can spot the tune". A month or two back we had a "Sea Sunday" for some reason that escapes me now. During the Parish Eucharist I don't think anyone spotted the references to Bobby Shaftoe and Tom Bowling that mysteriously crept in. However the choir clearly latched on to the fact that they were processing in to "What shall we do with a drunken sailor" at evensong and failed to keep straight faces.

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Of course, there are the occasional opportunities for the organist to play "see who can spot the tune". A month or two back we had a "Sea Sunday" for some reason that escapes me now. During the Parish Eucharist I don't think anyone spotted the references to Bobby Shaftoe and Tom Bowling that mysteriously crept in. However the choir clearly latched on to the fact that they were processing in to "What shall we do with a drunken sailor" at evensong and failed to keep straight faces.

 

 

=====================

 

I think you and "pcnd" could have a whale of a time playing a "Sea Bass de Cromorne"

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I'm sorry to say that if you heard my pathetic attempts at improvisation, you would know at once why I don't do it in public. What David is talking about is on a whole new plane compared to me, and more power to his elbow says I - if you've got it, use it. Trouble is, I haven't. He appears to be spending a considerable amount of time and trouble effectively composing special music for each Sunday, except he isn't writing it down on paper.

As far as preachers are concerned, if a) they have spent a considerable amount of time on their knees in the preceding week, and :blink: a considerable amount of time reading, and reading around, the word of God in the same time, and c) have spent time assimilating the news, national and local, and d) have also spent time listening to their congregation, to their concerns, feelings, hopes, prayers, etc., then they have done their preparation, and it is not surprising if the Good Lord gives them words to speak to the congregation which will be relevant, Godly and helpful. But this approach is the same as practise for a musician, surely. Preparation is the key to a good result for both, whether playing music written by another, or 'on the spot' by those who can do these things; or preaching from notes or a script, or extempore. Isn't it?

 

Regards to all

 

John

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Sorry - I treat my improvisation a tad more seriously than that! I personally prefer not to disguise well-known tunes as improvisations.

 

:blink:

 

All the same - the similarities between 'Postman Pat' and the start of the plainsong for the Te Deum are quite interesting - sometimes one could go one way and sometimes the other!

 

AJJ

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Tournemire's Orgue Mystique provides musical interludes for the Mass, or does it? Given the indeterminate length required for interludes, does the music serve a genuine practical purpose? Aside from the final movements, to what extent do any of the correspondents use this music? - It's hardly ever been mentioned in these columns. :blink:

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I've just remembered something!

 

Go to the following link, and if you haven't subscribed, do so immediately.

 

http://www.organsandorganistsonline.com/

 

Then click on the mp3 library once you are registered, and a pop-up board will direct you to various categories.

 

If you have survived that far, click on "improvisations" and the first four are by yours truly.

 

St.Joseph's, RC, Ingrow, Keighley....where I play.

 

These are short improvisations which I did about 20 years ago, simply because I had a bit of tape left in the machine at the time.

 

The last one is on a bit of a wing and a prayer, due to the fact that I was trying to improvise something vaguely resembling a Toccata on the one hand, and the fact that the tape was rapidly running out on the other.

 

For the most part, it certainly isn't French in style (save for the silly Toccata), and probably demonstrates a tad of Hindemith's influence....I was into Hindemith at the time.

 

:)

 

MM

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