Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Improv Everywhere

I always feel kind of stupid "alerting" people to something Alex Ross has written, since if you're not reading him faithfully already, what are the chances you're going to read this blog—but this New Yorker piece is probably worth noting all the same. The subject is the lost (and recently regained) art of classical improvisation. Of course, still lingering in the air of the concert hall, like a sulfurous odor, is an ethos that prizes the art of composition over the art of performance in every case: composers who spotlight the performers' virtuosity rather than their own are dismissed as "superficial"; music history textbooks are actually histories of musical composition, with the greatest performers who ever lived mentioned as footnotes to the scores they played; the highest compliment a critic can pay a performer is to say that he channeled the spirit of the composer. The notion that someone might play something that hasn't been written in the score, or god forbid just make a piece of music up on the spot, might still rankle some classical aficionados, especially if the aficionado in question is an utter tit. People tend to forget that some of our greatest composers were also great improvisers; e.g., the famous marathon concert that introduced Beethoven's Fifth to the world also featured an extended solo jam from our Ludwig Van before he launched into the premiere of the Choral Fantasy. It's true! Anyhow, as Ross observes, those crusty ol' attitudes are changing—though mostly in the relatively narrow realms of cadenza and ornament—and I don't have much to add to his observations, other than... 1) Lawrence Brownlee. Right??? I just watched the DVD of Maazel's 1984 a few weeks ago, and even more impressive than Brownlee's ability to bang out expressionistic tenor coloratura up above high C is the incredibly sweet timbre to his voice while he does it. This guy is a star. In a year's time, your mother will know who he is. Here is a video uploaded by someone called LawrenceBrownleeFan: 2) Schnittke's Beethoven cadenzas. Again: right??? I was about to link to ArkivMusic dot com, where I believe at one time you could buy a print-on-demand CD of Gidon Kremer playing them, but it's no longer available, because somebody hates you. Ah well, I can listen to my copy all I want, la la la, gloat gloat gloat, and you can settle for YouTube, as Ross suggests. 3) Richard Egarr's recordings of the Handel organ concerti. I really didn't think that he could do anything as interesting on the organ as he does on the harpsichord. I was WRONG. These recordings are revelatory, a thrill. 4) One quiet word of dissent: reading this passage
For a recent paper in NeuroImage, Aaron Berkowitz and Daniel Ansari studied what happens cognitively when someone improvises; they observed increased activity in two zones of the brain, one connected to decision-making and the other to language. Even if a soloist extemporizes for only a minute, the remainder of the performance may gain something intangible.
I could just imagine a Greg of my acquaintance reading it at the exact same time on the other edge of the continent and emitting a grunt of frustration, followed by SEE, THIS IS EXACTLY WHY I CAN'T LISTEN TO RADIOLAB. People make too much, I think, of studies that say, "When you do x, the y centers of your brain light up!" What, after all, does this data really tell us? Can we really draw from this study the inferences that we're being invited to draw? I don't buy it; let's not go there. Furthermore, I am a staunch opponent of doing something in art just because it seems to be rooted in nature or biology. Not that there's anything wrong with nature. It's just that sometimes, art is better.

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