The German version of this essay has been published in the Jazzfest Berlin 2016 supplement [PDF, 1,7 MB].

When asked recently about current tendencies in new classical music, so-called indie classical, the New York music critic Alex Ross replied that there is a rising trend for composers performing their own music in concerts. In jazz, it is common practice to play one’s own compositions, that is to say, to interpret them. Jazz musicians generally do this with their own bands, whose members don’t see themselves as specialists for the interpretation of their original works, but rather as a tight-knit group of like-minded artists, polishing something that promises to yield a common musical result. So most composers in the field of jazz are also their own music’s foremost interpreters – and of course they improvise, too. Obviously, in a concert featuring classical music, this is different: Interpreters play music by composers and there is very little improvisation. Where are the origins of this difference in the musical practice of classical music and jazz, and what do they tell us about the creative process of today’s jazz?

The disappearance of extemporaneous playing

The Romantic music of 19th century saw the onset of a slow process of specialisation. A clear separation between composing, interpreting and improvising took place in the development of musical practice. What was a commonplace part of daily practise for Bach, Mozart or Chopin and regarded as different aspects of a musical existence as a whole is no longer valid for most modern composers and interpreters. Before this process of specialisation, preluding, cadencing and rhapsodizing in the present moment were a normal and highly appreciated expression of musical practice. The names of great improvisers up until the age of Romanticism are largely identical with the great composers that we know to this day: Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin. Even Anton Bruckner, a composer of eminently clear forms, was legendary for his organ improvisations in the era of High Romanticism.

Coinciding with an incipient awareness for the historicity of musical styles in the mid-19th century, the question of which style a musician should be able to improvise in arose. Previously, musicians warbled, fiddled and plucked mostly in their own styles, similarly to what we see in many folk music genres today, where stylistic reflection is upstaged by the relish of practice. Has improvisation in fact become an unmanageable endeavour for interpreters and composers, faced with a multitude of styles from Bach to Boulez? Does the sensible solution really lie in the division of labour outlined above? It would certainly appear so. To be sure, there are several renowned 20th century composers who are also professional interpreters, but improvisers have nearly entirely vanished from the scene, with the exception of musical personalities such as George Gershwin who operate across stylistic boundaries.

Moreover, the processes and results of composition become more and more complex. Somewhere along the road to radical abstraction in New Music, improvisation as a natural creative resource, a conscious treatment of extemporised musical freedom, fell by the wayside. At the same time, the tendency to treat “the work” of a composer as sacrosanct asserted itself. Interpreters concentrate on the interpretation, serving the work in which every note has been clearly set by the composer’s will. Only recently, after having seen several theatre productions in Berlin, the great classical interpreter András Schiff wrote in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” that fortunately the interpreters of classical music don’t claim the same liberties as theatre directors and actors do, which prevents them from dealing with it in a similarly ruthless way. In jazz, this vacancy between interpretation and improvisation is cultivated and developed further, combining it with new forms of playing, instruments and sounds, with swing and groove, with aesthetic and stylistic elements like hipness and an underground image.

Keith Jarrett with Miles Davis and Michael Henderson, 1971 © CC-BY SA 4.0, Photo: JPRoche

Improvising out of nowhere?

Therefore, improvisation as a musical strategy is maintained in selective contexts of the current musical landscape. Does the so-called free improvisation or “contemporary” extemporisation, as it were, require experience, knowledge and skill? Or is it as Keith Jarrett, probably the most widely known improviser of all, says? He defines the beginning of each of his improvisations as a metaphysical zero point, from which he unleashes a new and unaffected idea. Are there (still) improvisers of unlimited capacities, or are all improvisers simply cunning stylists who achieve freedom and flexibility only by applying the technical capabilities, set pieces and stylistic know-how at their disposal?

Would Mozart, arguably the most comprehensive improviser of his time, have thus been able to improvise as freely as Jarrett (or as ferociously as Cecil Taylor), if only he had chosen to? The futility of this question becomes apparent as soon as we transfer it to a more current context and juxtapose two entirely different musical style-systems: Can a traditional musician from the Aka pygmy people be influenced by a piano etude by György Ligeti? No, but Ligeti could conversely be influenced by the music of the pygmies – Jarrett can interpret Mozart, but Mozart cannot interpret Jarrett. “Can” is used here in the sense of the French “savoir” (knowing or being aware of), that is to say: to be aware of a musical context and its history. Interestingly, when talking about this concurrence, Keith Jarrett describes classical music and jazz as parallel worlds: “You have to lock the one into a closet for the other to be able to come out.” (TA, 8 May 2015). One would think that his wide experience with improvisation on tonal music would have been helpful to him when playing Bach and Mozart, but strangely enough, this doesn’t seem to be the case. So, even one of the stylistically most accomplished improvisers of our time draws a clear line between classical interpretation and jazz improvisation.

Apparently, the improviser faces the same question as the composer – and, by implication, the composer’s executive hand, the interpreter: Neither of them can take any supposed knowledge for granted; everything has to be questioned. Paraphrasing Socrates’ famous sentence, Morton Feldman poses this question: “How do I know what I don’t know?”

As professional creative artists, Jarrett and Ligeti are fully aware of the limits of their musical knowledge – both with regards to the technical and physical aspect (pouvoir/being able to or having the skill to) or the intellectually philosophical (savoir/knowing). Every improvising musician has role models and influences, and may even be engaged in a dialogue with them, just like all composers. Thus, they know what they know and what they are capable of. Stravinsky once remarked that every new composition is a commentary on those created previously. The same goes for every improvisation. There is no ivory tower for improvisers, nor for composers. But creative composers or improvisers want to know what they don’t know, so that they can explore the boundaries of their experience as well as the alluring void that lies beyond it. If we join Jarrett and Feldman together with Socrates’ dictum, the whole thing becomes an exciting, enjoyable and suddenly even logical endeavour: Since I know that I know nothing, I can start my improvisation from nothingness – listening, moving, acting-reacting, developing. Martial artists would call it thinking through the body. They practise all their lives – not to give a well-behaved performance of what they have practiced, but rather to be able to execute the crucial exercise from out of nowhere, i.e. to do something they never did before.

This intuitive energetics comes from the depths of evolution and as a potential is just as much a part of music as a sense of rhythm or the ability to hear melodies. Without the survival strategy of improvisation, we would stand no chance when faced with unexpected situations. It is a creative energy that we can nurture and train. It can challenge our own playing and our capacities, both with our instrument and in contact with our musical partners, creatively changing our perception and our playing. So it may be true that everyone can only work with what they know, but from this material, they can invent unknown and unheard-of creatures. Our abilities should unearth what we don’t yet know. Improvisation is the art of outwitting ourselves.

Interpretation as a uniting practise

What is the difference between improvisation and composition as creative, dramaturgical and architectural occupations? Let us take two of the most influential modern piano works of New Music and jazz and compare their interpretation history: György Ligeti’s piano etudes and Keith Jarrett’s authorised transcripts of his legendary “Köln Concert”. Ligeti sees himself as a composer, whereas Jarrett is known as an interpreter and improviser. Ligeti’s oeuvre is interpreted with increasing splendour, joining the ranks of important piano cycles, whereas any interpreter of Jarrett’s standard of improvisation would put themselves at risk of creating quite a peculiar form of reproduction: No one would be quite sure to what kind of genre one was being exposed to, as both listener and player. Jarrett’s cycle is an evening of improvisation, played entirely from the dynamics of the moment, whereas Ligeti’s cycle is a notated and elaborate composition in the tradition of being intended for repeated performance. The approach of this comparison may appear less absurd if we consider that many of Chopin’s works, for instance, are solidified improvisations, in that they were often notated after the fact. It is highly probably that he performed them a little differently whenever he played them live or that he continued to develop them by repeated performance.

Maybe one key to clarify this connection lies in the culture of conscious interpretation. Every age knows a culture of interpretation of its compositions and styles. There are schools and lineages of interpretation; there are even downright guru lines, clans and battles in the arts pages about the sovereignty over questions of interpretation. In so-called serious music, this subtle art has become a field for experts: the great soloists and conductors of the 20th century. Since the end of the 20th century, this self-concepts has become emergent in jazz, too. There is a new scene of musicians and critics who philosophise about what is true jazz and what isn’t. They like to use their own understanding of tradition to determine whose music is still to be considered jazz and whose isn’t. Instead of polemically dividing true jazz musicians from false ones or traditionalists from modernists, it might be more interesting to ask whether interpreting and inventing music are really such different occupations. The indie-classical musicians mentioned at the beginning of this article solved this problem by simply declaring themselves to be post-genre musicians. They are less interested in whether a composer, interpreter or improviser belongs to avant-garde or tradition than in whether they display appropriate, coherent and autonomous behaviour as musical personalities beyond any genre. Truthfulness of action results from biographical coherence. Thus, they casually combine indie rock with classical music or other influences. Why should an interpreter who loves baroque or classical music not be allowed to compose or improvise in these styles, even though this might smack of “retro”? Michel Foucault said that as critics (and that is what we all are), we should look for signs of life of phenomena, rather than donning the red robe of a judge. So maybe the motto is not an all-out “anything goes”, but a generous “everything is allowed”.

Wittgenstein‘s band

In his treaty “Vermischte Bemerkungen (Culture and Value)”, Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosopher of language, examines the idea that art constitutes a kind of monastic observance: If you want to correctly interpret the signs of a cultural circumstance in order to communicate with it intelligibly, you have to know the rules of observance, similarly as in a religious covenant of close-knit initiates. Today, we would call this a code. Without the ability to specifically interpret signs, I have no chance of understanding and applying the meaning of the corresponding semiotic system. Interpreters of Ligeti’s etudes have to know the rules of this music. But the more contemporary the work that they are dealing with in this way is, the more they have to contribute to these rules. Paraphrasing Stravinsky, we could say: Every interpretation is a comment on those preceding it. Because an interpreter has to do exactly what Jarrett said in his preface to the authorised musical score of the “Köln Concert”:

“And yet, even this choice (of certain notes) cannot communicate the intrinsic meaning of this passage as an improvisation, because only listening will determine the meaningfulness of the music. So what we have in front of us is the image of an improvisation (comparable to the print of a painting), but all we see is its surface – the depths remain hidden. (The depth originates in the listener.) As a consequence, I would like to recommend this recording as a final reference to every pianist who intends to play the ‘Köln Concert’.”

If we replace the word improvisation with composition, in a way, the same statement results: The score of a piece only displays the architectural plan of a creature whose living body will be revealed in sound – if we just belong to the right order, the right band or the right tribe that will master the process of decoding it. So there are actually several reasons why the “Köln Concert” as a standard work of the 20th century could be more often interpreted in the great concert halls.

The “Köln Concert”’s process of origination is the exact reverse of that of the Ligeti etudes: The materialisation of the work is followed by its notation. But the musical logic of the work’s genesis remains the same: The work can only come from its sound, from the interpretation of its “notes” and the manner in which they expand a code by interpreting it.

At the opening of Jazzfest Berlin 2015, Richard Williams said that the festival wanted to inspire everyone to think about what jazz is today and what it could still become. For me, jazz is more like an occupation and an attitude than a style with commandments and prohibitions. This attitude and this occupation quite naturally assume that composing, interpreting and improvising are different forms of the same creative energy which teaches us to understand and play music. They cannot be separated, no matter which musical current we are moving in. They all feed from the same mystical source.

Jazzfest Berlin 2016 takes place from 1 to 6 November, 2016.