Furthest Right

Preparation and Improvisation

When the modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state change with it. -Plato

Most people these days probably think that music is a result of spontaneous inspiration.  Indeed it is, but this is only half the story.  Do not forget the orderly, mathematical side of music.  Music is not so much created as it is discovered and then forged.  Pythagoras was not even a musician, yet it is he who discovered the diatonic scale.

The above quote from Plato refers to specific modes of Greek music such as the Ionian, Dorian, or Lydian and their ability to alter moods and temperaments.  No one will deny that calm music soothes us, and warlike music stirs our aggression.  Great pieces of Classical music take the listener through various moods and temperaments.  But what if we extrapolate this notion to modes of creation of music or even art in general?

The most basic division between modes of creation would have to be preparation and improvisation.  Any great artist needs to practice both of these modes.  Although, ironically, “practicing” improvisation is actually a form of preparation and conversely, all art, in its final form, was improvised at one point.  An artist cannot forge what he has yet to discover.

Indeed, improvisation and preparation should both be valued.  But let’s cut to the chase.  These days, it is hard to deny we disproportionately value improvisation over preparation.  Although all of the regional re-iterations of Woodstock, most notably Bonnaroo, try to come across as “underground,” everyone knows how popular they are.  Without a doubt, the mode of expression at these events is one of free-spirited improvisation.

The remedy to this situation is not military marches and national anthems exclusively.  We simply need a balance.  Believe it or not, Elvis was not the first showman, Jimi Hendrix was not the first “shredder,” and Jazz was not the first musical genre that utilized improvisation.

Jazz might be the genre most closely associated with improvisation, but the Classical musicians improvised as well.  Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, and Liszt were all known for their improvisational skills.  But unlike the “jam bands” at Bonnaroo, the Classical musicians improvised through variations on themes.

The improvisation of the jam bands is reliant on genre mixing.  These genres include folk, rock, folk-rock, blues-rock, funk, jazz, jazz fusion, psychadelic rock, southern rock, country rock, acid jazz, bluegrass, and techno.  Confused yet?  The possibilities are endless man.

So many styles resemble schizophrenia, quite frankly.  Perhaps this is why Plato wanted to keep the modes of music clearly defined and separated.  The band names in this scene are equally random and meaningless.  String Cheese Incident, Aquarium Rescue Unit, ekoostik hookah, Leftover Salmon, Fearless Flying Frog Brigade.  How quirky!

One almost gets the feeling that a total reliance on improvisation is just an excuse to avoid making the masterpiece.  But let’s get beyond improvisation and return to striking that balance between preparation and inspiration.  Listen to the works of Niccolo Paganini, specifically his 24 Caprices, and try to convince yourself he isn’t just as inspired, spontaneous, and imaginative as any jam band.  You won’t be able to do it.  Paganini is the true sound of never ending, constantly flowing Nature.

Paganini might be classical music, but he is far from stuffy and boring.  He was a virtuoso and a showman.  “He did everything but come on stage wrapped in blue flame,” according to one admirer.

There is no doubt that in live musical performance there is going to be an element of improvisation and “winging it.”  But there is a difference between noodling, twenty minute space-jams and Paganini’s dazzling, unprecedented technical feats and mesmerizing theatrics.

His 24 Caprices are just that – capricious and whimsical.  They sound spontaneous but they are not spontaneous.  It is not overly serious or over-prepared, but it certainly isn’t aimless and random.  It has purpose.  Paganini was a rare man who discovered and forged a path between preparation and inspiration.


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