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Gary Martin Rolinson

Whats the relationship between Improvisation and Modernism?


It is generally accepted that Modernism is associated with unfamiliarity and difference, and that all work it accommodates share a relationship to the modern world which was unique and exceptionally different to any other. Similarly, improvisation often results in new ways of thinking and unique ideas. Modernism, in its simplest form, represented rejection of tradition. It stressed freedom of expression and experimentation. It has various suggested starting dates from 1872, with Richard Dedekinds work with the foundations of real numbers, to the early 1880s and the work of Vincent Van Gogh, an important contributor to the foundations of modern art. His paintings were quite unique in style, known for their vivid colours and emotional impact. Other painters of that time included Manet whose unconventional treatment of traditional subjects has said to have been the turning point for Modernism as he devalued the importance of what was painted in favour of stressing the process by which a painting was created. Modernism in music actually appeared a while later with the likes of Schoenburg, Stavinsky and George Antheil, but it shared the same value of reacting against Romanticism and common practice. It could be argued that Impressionism created a style of art which became the prototype of Modernism as some of Debussys work occurred as a reaction to the excesses of the Romantic era. Famous for its dissonance and use of the whole tone scale, Impressionism broke away from the dramatic use of the major and minor scale system. Romantic composers also used long forms of music such as the symphony and concerto, while Impressionist composers favoured short forms such as the nocturne, arabesque, and prelude. Another influential Modern composer was Arnold Schoenburg. His early works are widely known for the introduction of expressionism in music and later in his career he abandoned tonality altogether. His atonal ideas developed to the pioneering of the twelve tone note row to "replace those structural differentiations provided formerly by tonal harmonies"1. This breaks away from earlier classical music which had treated some notes as more important than others as now all twelve semi-tones are treated equally. These ideas opposed all previous thought in composition by abandoning a tonal centre. The Explosion period began in 1910 as there was growing political tension and unease with social order was portrayed in artistic works in every medium. Milestone developments were being made to Modernism: Picasso and Matisse rejected traditional perspectives as the means of structuring paintings, an idea not even impressionists ventured into. In theatre, the first expressionist
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Gary Martin Rolinson

play was being written in 1907 and Schoenburgs music finally reached atonality in his String Quartet no.2 in F sharp minor. Developments were being made to Modernism as it went along right up to the end of the second World War. It was faithful to the rule that the moment a style or attitude becomes accepted and commonplace, that art is over. But it still kept an underlying theme of embracing discontinuity, approving disruption, and dramatically altering tonality in music. These themes or rules can often be found in improvisation. It is safe to say that the earliest forms of music were improvised. With no rules to follow or any understanding of notation and recording of music the only option was to play music either form memory or completely new each time; thus, as Evan Parker said, Improvisation is a compositional method2. Although there is not much recorded evidence to suggest that improvisation thrived until Medieval times, it would be imprudent to think there was little improvisation until then. The first detailed information on improvisation technique appears in ninth-century accounts instructing singers on how to add another melody to a pre-existent liturgical chant. Improvisation continued to be a feature of keyboard music in concerts until the early 20th century. An example of this can be heard in the third movement theme in Bachs Italian Concerto as several voices move together as chords. This kind of improvisation can be linked with Modernism by its intention to be unique and different every time it is played. Up until the early 20th century, improvisation was a highly valued skill for composers such as J.S. Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Liszt. However improvisation in the area of art music seems to have declined with the growth of recording until the Jazz Age. Improvisation is one of the basic elements that sets jazz apart from other types of music. It originated at the beginning of the 20th century in African American communities in the Southern United States. Some jazz was purely improvised as a reaction to white people stealing ideas from small groups and making lots of money from them. This reaction can be linked to Modernism as it shows the rejection of tradition, so that their music could not be plagiarised. Improvisation In jazz also allowed the skilled performer to interpret a tune in very individual ways, never playing the same composition exactly the same way twice. Depending upon the performer's mood and personal experience, interactions with fellow musicians, or even members of the audience, a jazz musician/performer may alter melodies, harmonies or time signature at will making his music very personal. In the same way Modernist composers stress free expression, jazz artists are encouraged to portray personal emotion through his music.
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Gary Martin Rolinson

This can also be linked with more contemporary music where improvisation is used extensively. This made live shows very special for followers of groups such as STS9, The New Deal and Lotus. There are however bands who play purely live improvisation music at their concerts, making up the standards, patterns, rhythms at the top of their heads. These bands such as Xlovers and 42winA2 break away from common practice much like Schoenburg and Debussy. In conclusion I believe that the common ground between Modernism and Improvisation is the desire to break the mould of previous conceptions and to experiment with free expression. Ezra Pounds was a major figure in the early modernist movement in poetry and once epitomised Modernism with his slogan, make it new3. I feel that this best typifies both Modernism and Improvisation.

References:
Classical Procedures - SFCM History Home Evan Parker - Jazz 3 Ezra Pounds - poets.org
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Bibliography: Musicology of the 20th Century - Reader 2010, Newport University The Anarchy of Silence - John Cage and Experimental Art The Romantics, by Neil King The Modernist Period, by P.A. Lee-Browne www.guardian.co.uk/music/genres/jazzandblues, 9th November 2010 Modernism, witcombe.sbc.edu/modernism, 9th November 2010 Aesthetic Theory, by Theodor W. Adorno www.sfcmhistory.com, 8th November 2010 Evan Parker, AllAboutJazz.com, 10th November 2010 www.poets.org, 10th November 2010