Sunday, September 4, 2016

Sundays at the Improv

Improvisation and Composition played almost no part in my musical training, which is regrettable. I can blame this in part on the biases of classical music education in the late 20th century, in part on my own silly biases against non-classical types of music, but, probably most importantly, on a lack of confidence and the absence of context in which I thought my creative voice could make a difference.

As I've written before, my first real efforts at composition came from my experiences working as a church musician, where I wasn't being evaluated from an academic perspective. Whereas the "lesson and recital" context I knew well was defined almost entirely by the idea of performing existing works as nearly as possible to the way their composers intended, and given that there seemed to be an almost infinite repertoire of music better than I could imagine writing, it was striking to come to a Sunday morning and realize that Piece X by Great Composer Z didn't quite meet the liturgical needs. Meanwhile, I'd also come across a repertoire of chorale preludes (old and new) that were much more functional than great, so I started to see where I might get the best results by 1) creating my own functional pieces and, 2) tinkering with existing works. [I suppose that years of "faking" as an accompanist and adapting on the fly to whomever I'm accompanying has helped nudge me past the idea that my job is always and ever to play things exactly as written.]

The most basic kind of tinkering might just involve cutting and pasting and repeating some generic prelude by Bach or Handel, but pretty soon I'd also find it useful to flip something major into minor or, most fun of all, recompose the opening to a chorale prelude by the likes of Pachelbel so that it seemed like a postlude based on the closing hymn that had just been sung. In some cases, this would involve changing as few as 3-4 notes, which essentially created a bridge from hymn to a "piece actually based on a different hymn tune." In other cases, I'd try to keep the new tune going against Pachelbel's figuration as much as possible.

Perhaps in a future blog post, I'll provide a more subtle example, but I happen to have a recording of an extreme instance of this kind of segueway. A couple of years back, the morning service was to be followed that afternoon by the parish's biennial variety show, in this case a 50's themed "Rock Around the Clock" celebration of the church's 1950's founding. Rather than picking up from the final hymn, I decided to anticipate what was to follow with the cryptically listed "Concerto in D Major, Vivaldi, arr. by W. Haley." Clearly, I didn't spend a lot of time on it, but it basically begins with Haley in the style of Vivaldi, transitions into Haley in the L.H. with Vivaldi figuration above, and finally into Bach's keyboard transcription of Vivaldi.

That's hardly a real improvisation though it was very unrehearsed, but in the past couple of years, when I've been playing organ regularly for the first time, I've experimented more and more with improvising freely for preludes, simply taking phrases from a hymn tune and "playing with it" over various pedal tones (easy to do on organ!), re-harmonizations, etc. Sometimes it goes better than others. Playing softly and slowly almost always helps in this regard as it's easier to hide in a haze. I'll admit I can't always hear in my head exactly how things are going to come out, although every now and then I end up with a total accident that works out (the kind of thing that has long since stopped surprising me).

For the Independence Day-adjacent July 5th Sunday, the opening hymn was "O for a thousand tongues to sing," and as I didn't have handy any prelude based on the tune (Azmon), I thought first about freely improvising. Then I remembered that this tune is the basis for the first movement ("Old Folks Gatherin'") of Charles Ives'  Pulitzer-winning Symphony No. 3: "The Camp Meeting." A few months back, I had very loosely used the finale of Ives' Violin Sonata No. 2 as a prelude since "Come, thou fount of every blessing" was the opening hymn. On that occasion, I'd basically read more or less from beginning to end at the piano, bringing in the violin part as best I could, but also generally playing more slowly and softly than Ives had instructed. A sort of dream-like walk-through intended to minimize the revivalistic ecstasy of the original.

So, I went ahead and submitted "Improvisation on Azmon based on Charles Ives' Symphony No. 3" as the title for Sunday's prelude without really knowing what I'd do. Although I can do a passable job of reading from an open score (the Ives symphony is pretty lightly scored), I didn't want to rely on those skills for Sunday, especially as it would involve a lot of page-turning, a couple of transposing instrumental parts, and some kooky Ivesian accidentals.

I was actually on vacation, away from any keyboard for the end of the week, but I spent time when I could inputting parts of the score into the computer. When I got home Saturday night, I used Finale's quick and dirty "piano reduction" tool to squish Ives' ideas onto two staves, simplifying a bit by leaving out some octave doublings and the like. The "piano reduction" tends to over-simplify and obscure some of the voice-leading, but oh well, time was running out.

Sunday morning, I arrived nice and early and just started trying stuff. I went back and forth between piano and organ, and though I'm much more comfortable voicing unusual harmonies and contrapuntal textures on a piano, I decided the organ gave me more of the vibe I wanted. Part of my inexperience as an organist means I don't love making lots of registration changes on the fly when playing, so I knew I'd be limited in the range of colors available, but I'd pretty much decided to avoid the more harmonically adventurous sections of the movement where the problem of notes sticking out awkwardly is more likely. Here's the original:

And here's what one of my practice run-thrus sounded like. Unfortunately, by putting my phone right on top of the console, there are a lot of extraneous sounds from the keys, the pedals, the bench creaking, and the like.

Basically, what took shape is that I play through the first 41 seconds of the Ives, more slowly, repeating the progression introduced by brass/bassoon, and then (departing briefly from Ives) alternating the first few phrases of the tune against several repetitions of the last brass/bassoon bar. Then I skip over a more chromatic/dramatic bit to Ives' first clear intro of the tune against a walking bass line around 1:01. This also continues until things started getting too "interesting," at which point I jump (rather clumsily) to Ives' coda [5:51], once again bypassing a big climax. At the Adagio cantabile, Ives introduces a lovely, meandering, gently out-of-synch flute descant, which meanders a bit differently in my "version," (less off-kilter oboe material). To wind things down, I (sort of) repeat that descant over a pedal and then fade back to the brass/bassoon progression to end things.

My performance as rendered here is far from perfect, especially in terms of registration, but as a "piece," I think it works really well, with a satisfying structure that ends up being quite different from what Ives wrote, even though most of the musical material is his. So, it's hard to say exactly what this is. It's part cut-and-paste transcription, part improvisation, and part "cast your fate to Finale's algorithm." As it happens, Ives' symphony is actually based on three now-lost organ works, with the inspiration for this movement having been a prelude the composer played at New York City's Central Presbyterian Church around the turn of the century. Maybe I channeled Charles and found my way back to 1901....

No comments: