Musicology – improvisation

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Writing about composition/notation and improvisation, Fred Wei-han Ho once wrote:

“Some have argued that once the music has too much notated composition (implying that improvisation is necessarily diminished), then it becomes more “European” and less “African American.” Initially, Western European music had quite a lot of improvisation, the result of player/composers [-p.139] under economic pressure to quickly come up with new works to entertain and satisfy their aristocratic employers. Though they were “literate” and trained, improvisation facilitated both economic expediency and met their own creative urge to avoid the repetitive boredom of performing the same “hits” the same way all the time. As solo and small group works expanded to large ensembles and extended compositions, and paying audiences required their favorites to be replicated as faithfully as the “first”; notation assumed greater and greater dominance.
African American music has never, until recently, had to face the prospects of institutionalization, canonization, and the standardization and codification of a ruling class (presently bourgeois) classical music. Paradoxically, as the art and music of an oppressed nationality, it was free to be free. Duke Ellington’s orchestra could play every night for years the same show music and still retain spontaneity and freshness, no matter how much notation, choreography and staging was set. As “jazz” took on more of an “art” music (i.e. primarily listened to and not danced to) aspect, and the “jazz” composer (who still could be a player/leader) began to pen extended works such as suites, ballet, music-theater and film scores, the best and strongest writing always allowed for and enhanced spontaneity and improvised contributions by the players. Indeed, to truly play the music was to achieve a state of complete memorization and internalization in which the written page was no longer looked at, but the players played from understanding and interaction. This is the essence of the African American music ensemble and composition: in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The identity of the parts and whole, of player and composer, or notation and performance, of composition and improvisation; are inseparable, mutually dependent and interpenetrate.” (pp.138-139)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold mine) Fred Wei-han Ho ‘”jazz,” Kreolization and Revolutionary Music for the 21st Century.’ pp.132- Eds Ron Sakolsky and Fred Wei-han Ho Sounding off! music as subversion/resistance/revolution. Autonomedia (and Contributors): New York. 1995

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