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  Improvisation is the chief way in which music is, and always has been, performed. The performers invent what they play or sing as they go along, either with complete freedom or conforming to some prearranged or preselected idea. They respond creatively to one another, to the mood and atmosphere of the occasion and to the ideas contained in the basic material.

It is important to distinguish between improvisation in which a piece of music is created during its actual performance, and improvisation in which an existing piece of music is subjected to interpretation, elaboration and variation. A further distinction lies in whether improvisation is the trained response to a given sign, the development of a musical idea held in memory, or an impulsive musical action during the performance itself. It is a term not easily defined, since there are as many meanings as there are different musical traditions in the world. However, improvisation is an essential element in all orally-transmitted music, from the social music of aboriginal peoples to such major art traditions as Indian classical music.

In Western music, improvisation is most commonly understood to be the musical invention that takes place within a familiar or predefined formal framework. This may simply be an abstract, structural model involving melodic, harmonic or rhythmic elements, as in the performance of Blues or the cadenza of a classical concerto, or it can even be an existing piece of music in its most basic skeletal form, as in the practice of jazz. Another form of improvisation is the musical realization of codified symbols and their interpretation or elaboration within the stylistic conventions of the musical idiom. They are generally used to represent either a melodic outline, as in the cipher notation of Indonesian gamelan music and the ideographic notation of ancient Chinese zither music, or to give harmonic guidance, as in the use of chord symbols in pop music and jazz.

Improvisation is central to the art-music traditions of many Asian cultures, such as Arabian maqâm, Indian râga and Persian dastgâh. The performer undergoes a programme of training, which is as long and demanding as that for a Western performer of notated music, the objective being to acquire a rich musical vocabulary of melodic and rhythmic patterns, with which new compositions may be created. The framework for Asian improvisation is less structured than that of Western models, and is more a scheme for musical development governed primarily by aesthetic, expressive conventions. In musical cultures of this kind, the bases for improvised performances are often traditional, some of enormous antiquity. In religious music-drama, for example (such as that of Indonesia), each character or moment in the story has its own kind of music, hallowed by tradition—demon-music, fight-music, praise-music—and the performers improvise on ideas well known to both themselves and the audience. A similar technique is used in Japanese classical drama, where declamation and song (often to pre-composed texts, also extremely ancient) is accompanied by a group of musicians improvising music on traditional ideas, but keeping in phase with the mood and style of the particular performer. Classical Indian musicians draw from a vast repertoire of traditional melodic sequences (râgas) and rhythmic patterns (talas), each of which has conventional associations: times of day, patterns of weather, emotions and so on. By improvising on these patterns, sometimes for hours at a time, they seek to induce a kind of transcendental state in their hearers, in which the suggestions in the music fuse with the promptings of the hearers\' own individual selves and with those of the audience as a whole.

Throughout the world, jazz and rock musicians use pre-existing songs, the words and melodic and harmonic patterns of which give a kind of objective correlative to the improvised performance. Traditional ‘wedding bands’ in Eastern Europe play processional music, and dance music, based on patterns of melody and rhythm which can be as much as 2,000 years old. Church music, from Tibetan Buddhist chanting to the Shaker songs of North America, is improvised in a similar way—and as with jazz and rock, the use of specific words gives particular colour and associative power to each performance.

The major exception to the idea of improvised music is the Western classical tradition. In this, music is meticulously notated, and the performers\' task is to interpret the composer\'s marks as faithfully as possible, accommodating their own creative and emotional impulses to the ideas unlocked from the written score. (This is particularly useful in the creation of large musical forms such as symphony or opera. It could be argued, indeed, that neither orchestral music nor opera could exist, in the extraordinary subtlety we know them, unless the scores were written down. A gamelan is a largish group of players (sometimes over 60); a Noh play can involve several dozen performers; but the overall intellectual and emotional control is different, and certainly less varied, than in, say, a Mahler symphony or a Wagner opera.) An element of improvisation has always been built into Western classical music, but in a small way. Performers in Renaissance church music—and 18th-century music added ornaments and short cadenzas to the printed score; continuo players in the 18th-century improvised accompaniments based on chords notated by figures under a bass note (‘figured bass’); concerto soloists in the 18th and 19th century improvised cadenzas to show off their technique. But in Western society, a performer who improvises or is musically illiterate now tends to be looked on as less accomplished than the performer of composed, notated music—a direct consequence, some say, of musical élitism practised by the conservatoires of music, with their insistence on musical literacy. Equally, highly-trained conservatoire musicians can be so accustomed to relying on the printed page that they are unable to improvise or perform ‘by ear’. Such matters pose the fundamental questions of what exactly musical competence is, and who should be its judge. It is only in the last few decades, with jazz and rock becoming accepted subjects for study alongside ‘classical’ music, and with the advent of aleatory techniques, graphic scores and the like, that improvisation in Western art music has achieved anything like the importance it has always had elsewhere. KMcL SSt



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