In the last twenty-five years, music theorists have been applying theories of semiotics to musical analysis. Agawu (1991), Nattiez (1990) and Hatten (1997) have demonstrated ways in which semiotics can be used as an analytical tool to approach expressivity in music composition. Of these three, Hatten proposed his “markedness theory” by which the expressive meaning within a composition can be interpreted by understanding oppositional signs within the work (p. 51). Hatten’s theory can be applied as a model for how a performance of free improvised music communicates a sense of musical meaning. To clarify from the outset, it is not my intention to apply Hatten’s theory analytically, but instead to use aspects of it to develop a tool for improvised performance. Furthermore, it is important to note that this paper will be a combination of research derived from text and analysis, along with intuitive knowledge gained through the practice, performance and discussion of improvised music with colleagues.
Part I: Improvisation
Improvisation has been an important element in music through the centuries in the classical and folk music of India, Spain, Persia, Africa, Western Europe and North America. Moreover, in Western Classical music the importance of improvisation is reflected in the Baroque era in the form of embellishments and continuo parts, the Classical era as cadenzas and fantasies (“improvisation”, n.d.), and most recently, in contemporary music as both a compositional tool and as a means to step away from the limitations of present Western music notation and performance practice (Bailey, p. 76).
It is interesting to note that during the periods of Romantic and Modern music, improvisation was looked down upon as an art form and treated as secondary to accurate compositional practice and performance (Haynes, p. 209).
Derek Bailey, in his book Improvisation (1980), notes the difficulty in defining the term improvisation (p. 1). The first line of Improvisation states that “Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being both the most widely practised of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood.” The Oxford Dictionary of Music describes improvisation as “A perf[ormance] according to the inventive whim of the moment, i.e. without a written or printed score, and not from memory” (“improvisation”, n.d.). Conversely, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines improvisation as:
1 : to compose, recite, play, or sing extemporaneously
2 : to make, invent, or arrange offhand
3 : to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand (“improvise”, 2008)
In his article Improvisation from the Oxford companion to music, Arnold Whitall (n.d.) argues that “dictionary definitions of this term [improvisation] invariably stress the idea of composing or performing ‘extempore’, without preparation. The implication is that improvisation is the freest kind of creative activity…” (Whitall, para. 1). He later goes on to argue that improvised music “involves a balance between fixed materials or frameworks” (para. 3) and total freedom, implying a distinction between structured and unstructured aspects of improvisation.
Bailey also proposes two categories of improvisation: the ‘idiomatic’ and ‘non- idiomatic’ (Bailey, p. 4). Bailey maintains “idiomatic improvisation, much the most widely used, is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom – such as jazz, flamenco or Baroque – and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom” (p. 4). Through this, Bailey implies that ‘non-idiomatic’, or free improvisation, contains no set idiom.
Although improvised music occurs spontaneously, and the final product is created in real time, it has been argued that “no improvised performance is totally without stylistic or compositional basis” (Nettl, “Models or points of departure” section, para. 1). With both Nettl’s and Bailey’s concepts in mind, we can see that although free improvised music exists outside of a set idiom, performers can still improvise within a framework. The main difference between idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation is that within non-idiomatic improvisation the performer creates a novel framework rather than relying on tradition to supply a framework.
Bailey notes that the “characteristics of free improvisation are established only by the sonic-musical identity of the person or persons playing it” (Bailey, p. 99). Considering this idea in combination with Merriam-Webster’s third definition of improvisation, that improvising can be about creating music with the tools that we have immediately available, we conclude that for the free improviser, stylistic and formal frameworks are limited only by awareness, and the ability to choose and adapt ideas and concepts to our musical needs.
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Agawu, K. (1991) Playing with signs: a semiotic interpretation of classic music. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Bailey, D. (1980). Improvisation : Its nature and practice in music. Ashbourne Eng.: Moorland Pub. in association with Incus Records.
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Hatten, R. S. (1997). Markedness and a theory of musical expressive meaning. Contemporary Music Review, 16(4), 51-63.
Haynes, B. (2007). The end of early music : A period performer’s history of music for the twenty-first century. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.
Nattiez, J, (1990) Music and discourse: toward a semiology of music. Translated by Carolyn Abbate. Princeton: Princeton University Press
Nettl, B., et al. “Improvisation.” Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved December 12, 2008, from http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/subscriber/article/grove/music/ 13738pg1
Whittall, A. “Improvisation.” The Oxford Companion to Music. Ed. Alison Latham. Oxford Music Online. Retrieved December 12, 2008 from http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com.proxy.bib.uottawa.ca/subscriber/article/opr/t114/e34 00