Improvisation and Composition

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Carr, I., 2001. Improvisation and Composition. Body, Space & Technology, 1(2). DOI:


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Brunel Interfaces Conference 2.12.2000

In 1959, Gunther Schuller wrote: `The art of improvisation, once the backbone of all music-making, had died out in the early part of the 19th century.’ He was referring specifically to Europe, but of course elsewhere in the world – India, Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Asia – it remained a prime source of music-making, because improvisation is a natural human activity, not only in music but also in life. In the 1970s, I was asked to conduct a weekend workshop at a music college in the West Country. The students were in their late teens or early 20s, and they assembled in a room accompanied by the college Principal. After talking to the students for some minutes, I turned to the Principal and said, "But they’ve never ever improvised," and he replied, "I tell them not to improvise until they learn to read." This unwisdom shocked me and I asked him, "Did you refrain from talking until you learned to read?" His jaw dropped in sudden realisation of the unnaturalness. Speech is a form of improvisation and we make sounds before we make words, words before phrases and phrases before sentences. These improvisational oral and aural processes also suit music, which is the invisible art perceived only through the ear. The text of a novel or play is the literature, but the score of a symphony or song is not the music. Keith Jarrett once said, "music is more than the notes, more than the spaces between the notes, and more than anything anyone can write on paper, no matter what notation they use." Yet some classical musicians, including the late Norman Del Mar, have believed that if music isn’t written down, it’s not worth serious consideration.

In the 20th century, the art of improvisation was reinstated by jazz musicians as a major force in music-making. Like Mozart, Bach, Handel and Beethoven, jazz musicians are music-makers who improvise, compose and are active performers. Mozart had the habit of improvising something for the town in which his composed music was being performed, and when, during the last century, Keith Jarrett toured performing Mozart piano concertos under the baton of Christopher Hogwood, the latter eventually managed to persuade him to improvise a 20 minute piece for each venue. The advent of recording afforded the possible aural permanence of both improvised and precomposed music, thus levelling their importance as durable art.

In fact the two activities are closely connected. Improvisation, at its best, is composition in motion with all the fittingness and inevitability of precomposition, and composition at its best has something of the immediacy and dynamism of improvisation. Jarrett, who ranks with the greatest improvisers, has lamented the fact that improvisation is often regarded as "an-off-the-top-of-your-head, pattern-related, non-intellectual thing. Whereas in reality, with consciousness, improvisation is a much deeper tapping of something than any other process." I would add that improvisation can be one of the most intense forms of self-examination and discovery, though paradoxically, it only reaches that state when the musician is aware only of the emerging music and is oblivious of himself or herself.

I gave three jazz examples of improvisation reaching the level of composition in motion. First was Miles Davis's solo on "So What" from the 1959 album Kind of Blue. Second was Louis Armstrong's performance of "West End Blues," recorded on June 28th 1928. Armstrong's majestic solo trumpet introduction, was improvised, and became a permanent fixture, and his dramatic final chorus in which he sustains a high trumpet C for four bars, then produces a series of cascading phrases, became the permanent last chorus. Third was Armstrong's November 1931 recording of Hoagy Carmichael's "Up a Lazy River", in which Armstrong's scat vocal is so brilliant chromatically, rhythmically and harmonically, that it perfectly anticipates bebop by some eleven years. When the artist surprises himself, he is indeed breaking new ground, and after Armstrong's final ecstatic vocal break, he laughs and intones "you dawg!" Similarly, when he received the pressings of "West End Blues", he and pianist Earl Hines were so astonished by the power and subtle emotional resonance of their accomplishment that they listened to the 2 minutes 17 seconds piece over and over again for almost two hours.

I also included two classical examples of composition so dynamic that it seemed improvised. The first was the final movement of Beethoven's Razumovsky Quartet opus 59 number 3. This anticipated Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" with dazzling contrapuntal lines and alternating either rising or cyclical underlying harmony notes. The second example was the 4th movement of Milhaud's "La Creation Du Monde", composed in 1923 and still sounding contemporary today. "La Creation" is one of the finest jazz-inspired classical works and the 4th movement consists largely of a repeated 4-bar chromatically descending harmonic sequence, over which Milhaud's "improvised" lines are distributed between trumpet, trombone, clarinet, oboe, bassoon French horn and alto saxophone, and there are dynamic drum rhythms to boot.



Ian Carr





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