Friday, December 3, 2010

Robert Levin on Improvisation

This short excerpt is from from the 1992 documentary "On the Edge," written and narrated by Derek Bailey. The clip features pianist, conductor, composer, and musicologist Robert Levin and conductor Christopher Hogwood, with the Academy of Ancient Music. Levin discusses the importance of improvisation to performance and culture, both for contemporary playing and in the classical and baroque eras.

His points are particularly relevant to our recent discussions of a living culture and music as language. I have added a short summary below the video and emphasized a few of Levin's statements as they relate to the themes we have been discussing. As usual Levin is affable, enthusiastic and gives a most illuminating talk.

Also take a look at this article from the Washington Post which discusses Levin's performance of Beethoven's first piano concerto, op. 15, earlier this year with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Part I | Part II

Levin begins by suggesting that the degree to which standardization and lack of improvisation in much modern music-making has created a lack of challenging, interesting, and unique performances.
Many of the performances are interchangeable, they're middle-of-the road, they are not challenging. They are above all concerned with the outlines of composition, but not with their inner content: neither the emotional nor the intellectual fundaments that create all of the inequalities, the dissonances, the stresses, the strains in this music.
Of course performing with improvisation and ornamentation has risks. In terms of recording, which often splices sections from different performances, not all takes will be compatible since an ornamentation in one take might clash with one from another. In terms of live performance, there is the chance the performer might in fact play a few wrong notes due either to the challenge of creating spontaneously or to the excitement it creates, or that you might offend a few people by deviating from "standard practice." Yet if more people were playing in this creative way, Levin says, people would not be willing to forgo a live performance in favor popping in a CD. They would say:
Oh its really a pity I have this CD at home since I have the same silly thing all of the time and not the sense that I have experienced a performance that belongs only to me and only to those who heard it; to be treasured forever or exchanged with another which I treasure even more. But which is fragile as this music really ought to be and not capable of replication.
Levin concludes by mentioning the fact that we have undoubtedly heard, say, Mozart's music not just more but hundreds of times more than even the composer himself ever did.  Some have become museum pieces through ceaseless repetition and a lack of flexibility in performance.
The risk of appalling a few people who hear a couple of extra notes is more than balanced by the rewards of assimilating a language and bringing it alive. We are very fortunate in that in the piano variations and in the solo sonatas we have many examples of precisely the vocabulary Mozart uses when he desires florid embellishment

You might create and like an embellishment while practicing, he says, and try it in front of an audience where it falls completely flat. Why did it work at home and not in front of an audience?
There is a truth about a performance, about playing in front of people, that transforms even the absolute identity of notes and tells you that they're right or that they're wrong. The most important thing is the willingness to take risks and the acknowledgment that doing so invests the artistic statement with a level of integrity, with a level of personality, with a level of uniqueness that nothing [else] can.
Levin concludes by discussing the interconnectedness of the nature of the music, the performance of it, and its reception by an audience.
Baroque and classical music have a texture which is peculiarly ideal in terms of an improvisatory discourse. This music, despite is occasional elaborateness on the page, has a translucency which is very much designed to allow this practice [of improvisation] that was so integral to the period to be successfully put across. One of the issues that addresses is the gap between popular and serious culture that exists in our society now which certainly was not nearly so far during Mozart's time, with folk music constantly being borrowed and used and also when the composer was much closer to the audience and catered more to the audience and calculated his music to impact upon the audience in a way that these days does not take place.

Mozart's letters talk about how he wrote a passage that he knew the audience would like and sure enough they burst into applause in the middle of the movement. Now who would dream of applauding in the middle of a movement in today's performances? However if you go to a jazz club and you hear a jazz player and the jazz player plays a great lick then everybody applauds immediately and it is extraordinary to think as you read these letters that the ethos in Mozart's concert life was exactly that that one finds in a jazz club today.

Now if we're incapable of seeing that then it shows something about the rigidity that has grown into the performance of this kind of music, which is most unfortunate.

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