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How do you define Improvisation and Composition?

The definition between improvisation and compositions isn’t as objective as you might think. There as many definitions of the two practices as there are people practicing them. There are two ideas that commonly come up: composition uses a pre-conceived idea and improvisation is something that happens in real time. But other than these two simple ideas, the possibilities are almost endless.

We emailed a number of musicians from a diverse range of backgrounds to see how they each define composition and improvisation. Here are their responses:

Heather Segger

I think of composition as predetermined structure and improvisation as action without predetermined structure (or composition of structure in real time).  The variable is predetermination.

Chris Donelly:

How do you define improvisation?
Adapting to structure.

How do you define composition?

Jason Doell:

I don't often think about the fundamental issues or well-argued divisions that surround the practices of making music…my personal intersection with music has developed over many years… and spanning this time, my ideas about music have been warped, bent and abstracted around not one or two modes of music creation but many. Such is the life of an artist. However, when I'm asked to pontificate about the supposed duality of composition and improvisation, my thoughts go to something I remember reading from Pauline Oliveros many many years ago. Keeping in mind the nature of memory, this is probably a conflation of many ideas and authors but it goes a little something like this:

Composition and improvisation are fundamentally the same. One is a real-time manifestation of the other and the other is an augmented version of one. Oh… and you can erase ideas in one but not the other.

I think she said all these things in a manner close to what I've presented.

The funny thing is that I don't necessarily agree with any of the above. It is far too essentialist for my tastes, lacks nuance, and I do think that you can erase things that have been performed. However, this is where my mind goes and well… it's tinder for the fire. 

Tim Brady:

My simple definitions:
Improvisation – I'm making music, I don't know where I'm going, but that is the pleasure in it.
Composition – I'm making music, I have a pretty good idea of where I'm going, but that is the pleasure in it.

Emilie LeBel:
Both are both composition, just with different starting points into creating a piece of music.

Ben Dietschi:

Improvisation and composition coexist in a continuum, in which all music contains qualities of both. I might define the polar ends of this spectrum by exploring the inverse intention of each practice:

Improvisation is in its most elegant form in the moment it is performed. From that moment on, it's relevance diminishes as the moment of creation can never be revisited.

Composition is in its most elegant form in stasis, on the page. During performance, this boundless potentiality diminishes as any interpretation is just one of many possible iterations.”

Nick Storring:

How do you define composition?
Very loosely, I'd define composition is the act of designing a set of parameters which govern the way musical events will (or, will not) unfold in time. How exactly these parameters are articulated/exert themselves, what constitutes a “musical event” and how this all impacts time (rhythm/frequency/timbre/texture are all fundamentally about time on different scales) may vary wildly… 

How do you define improvisation?
Improvisation is the act of a performer composing spontaneously as the music is being performed. Improvisation can emerge from the parameters designated within the scope of a composition, idiom (jazz music) or performance practice (responding to baroque figured based), or it can be its own governing parameter. An improvisational approach can also be also applied to smaller pre-composed elements.   

It seems as though people like to define whether something is “an improvisation” vs. “a composition.” While this is not of much interest to me, my personal definition is rather hard and fast.  An improvisation (unless it's an improvisation “on” something) is something where the musical agents/improvisors do not engage with preconceived musical ideas (these might however emerge spontaneously).  A so-called “structured improvisation” is, as far as I'm concerned, classical musician lingo for “a composition with looser parameters that requires spontaneity on the parts of the performers.” “Structured improvisations” are actually the compositional norm in many genres outside of western art music.  

Ryan Scott:

How do you define improvisation?
Listening and responding, or not responding, and remembering that silence is as much a part of the music as the sound.  Improvisation is both temporary and singular, much like a snowflake.

How do you define composition?
Performing a composition is vastly similar to improvisation.  There are just as many decisions to make about how to play something, but what you play is determined by someone else, and you need to serve whatever is on the page.  Composition is permanent and tangible.  You can actually touch a composition and you can see it.  

Aaron Gervais:

Both are forms of creative music generation, as opposed to straight interpretation. Composition is a form that is not real-time: you plan out most or all of it in advance, because reproducing it later (and typically more than once) is your primary goal. Improvisation is a form that is largely spontaneous: although you may plan some things in advance, you leave the majority of the decision making to the moment of performance, because reproducing it again later is not a primary motivation.

Steve Raegele:

For me, improvisation is not that far removed from composition. I find that the more I compose (i.e. consider my materials over the long term and perhaps set them down on paper or at least commit them to memory) the better I become at improvising. Which really is all to say that my process for improvising becomes more considered and has a deeper well from which to draw in the moment. The reverse is also true in that my compositional perspective is informed by my life as an improvisor. It's really just a big loop for me. The snake is always eating its own tail.

Peter Knight:

In his discussion of poiesis and praxis in the context of art making, Derek Whitehead (2003) acknowledges the subtlety of the distinction between these two forms of action, which bear a relationship to the separation between conceiving and making that I identify in my practice. Poiesis he writes, tracing the origins of the word back to the ancient Greeks, had to do with, “'unveiling'… a making known which produces or leads things into presence.” Of praxis he states, quoting Agamben, that, “art's point of entry into the aesthetic domain is only possible because 'art itself has already left the sphere of pro-duction, of poiesis, to enter that of praxis'.” Whitehead is not referring to any particular artistic medium here, though in the Western classical music tradition the distinction he identifies between poiesis and praxis seems fairly clear: the process of composition brings the musical work into 'being' (poiesis) and the performance of the work brings it into the aesthetic domain (praxis). In my work this distinction, though evident, is not so easily made.

Indeed, reading this paper had me thinking about improvisation and about the relationship of poiesis and praxis in the context of improvisation in which it seems they are indistinguishable. In which the moment of 'production' and the moment of entry into the aesthetic domain are instantaneous. This is how the improviser trains himself or herself – to respond in the moment, to conceive and act simultaneously. Kanellopoulos quotes Sarath in a fascinating discourse on free improvisation: “This attitude [of the improviser] delineates a conception of structure radically different from the one employed in the compositional mode of musical creation, understood as a ‘discontinuous process of creation and iteration (usually through notation) of musical ideas’ (Sarath, 1996, p. 2)” (2007, p. 109). He continues:

Working in compositional mode entails the creation of patterns with the prospect of forming larger structural wholes, and of course these patterns are subject to revisions informed by the wholeness of the piece as it gradually develops. Sarath (1996) argues that the composer experiences an, ‘“expanding” temporality’, ‘where temporal projections may be conceived from any moment in a work to past and future coordinates’. To work in this way means to search for sounds with the aim of developing a ‘piece’; it means to operate within the realm of experience… In improvisation, however, time is experienced ‘in an inner-directed “vertical” manner, where the present is heightened and the past and future are perceptually subordinated’ (Sarath, 1996, p. 1). Thus, the way the 'musical past' informs the 'musical future' is very different from the conscious search for multilayered structural relationships which characterizes composition.' (2007, p. 109)

Kanellopoulos' and Sarath's observations here resonate with my experience as improviser and composer especially with regard to the manner in which Sarath describes the contrasting experiences of time for the improviser and composer. In my practice I feel like I am constantly popping between the two – improvising with a heightened sense of the present then zooming back to search for the 'structural relationships' Sarath identifies as being important to the modality of composition. Sometimes I think of this process as being a bit like 'fishing' (no connection with the title of the work intended). I improvise on an idea without thinking too consciously about what I'm playing, instead just trying to respond moment by moment, I record these improvisations then I listen through them with my composer's sense of temporality to see what I have 'netted.' Musical ideas reveal themselves and logic emerges, partly through preconceived structural and aesthetic considerations and partly through applying intuition to trial and error processes.

This discussion will be continued at our Salon 21 at the Gardiner Museum on April 11 at 7:00pm, Improvisation vs Composition. Register for free here.