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Exploring the World of Music

Composers and Improvisers

How are a composer and an improvisor alike? How are they different? The marriage between fixed elements and new variation is examined in American rock, Indian raga, classical and contemporary Western music, jazz, and Arabic classical music.

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Exploring The World Of Music Program #11 “Composers and Improvisors” Transcript



There are as many ways to approach the creation of music as there are creative artists. The process falls on a continuum between improvisation, musical creation that takes place during performance. And composition, musical creation conceived before performance. Compositions are preserved, either through memory or notation, so that they can be repeated over and over again.


Stephen Leek

A composers role, I think, is to provide enough information to pass onto performers what they would like recreated in sound.


Simon Shaheen

The idea behind improvisation is to create an instant composition without preparing it or preconceive it as composition.  It is , it’s a composition  that is being composed on the spot.


Jim DiSpirito

I think that composing and improvising are very closely related because they are both somehow the shaping of musical ideas. To me compositions though, represent a formalization of those ideas into a particular  structure or a shape. Improvisation is also shaping of a musical idea but it is always somewhat free from having  to do it the same twice or bringing  other people in on it necessarily because it’s your own personal expression.



While most musical cultures have elements of both composition and improvisation the degree to which a performer may add to what is given by the composer varies significantly from culture to culture and genre to genre. In North Indian Classical music, performers work with a small amount of precomposed music. The bulk of the performance is improvised.


Buddhadev Das Gupta

A Raga has got only six or seven or eight  basic phrases, each lasting for  five seconds. Now if you are going to give a two hour recital what are you going to do? Even that precomposed portion, the theme, that would possibly last for a minute at best, how are you going to fill in the rest of two hours? Improvisations and improvisations.



Since the late 18th century composers of Western art music have left little room for improvisation. Instead they have relied on the score  as a blueprint for performance. However, the interpretation of that score by the musicians is an essential element.


Timothy Ying

Even though you have that limited parameter there’s an infinite variety in the number of ways that a given passage can be played. For instance, you can have the same passage of music and one person could play it very noblely and heroicly. And another person could play that very same passage of music and bring out maybe the more thoughtful and reflective quality of it. And the interesting thing was both of those qualities were there in the music, but these two performances bring out different aspects of the same masterpiece.



In the latter part of the 20th century many composers have experimented with elements of both composition and improvisation in their music. The Australian composer Stephen Leek works with voices and vocal techniques to create a rich tapestry of sound.  While his compositions  are notated, Leek often leaves room for a certain amount of improvisation during the performance.  Nevertheless, his scores are crucial in providing direction and structure for the performers.


Stephen Leek

An example of perhaps the way I might manipulate some material or work with an idea is in Wirindji, which is the first movement of Great Southern Spirits, where I had a very simple little motif, which goes like this (plays). That’s fairly  traditional,  fairly ordinary  sort of  motif  or idea, and so when I started sort of playing around with it, I discovered I could do lots of different things to it to create some  different  sorts of  colors.  So the opening of Wirindji, for instance, starts like this (plays). There already we start to see the germination of the larger piece, the small idea (plays) and it goes on (continues playing) just repeating the same idea, the same idea but spread out over a couple of octaves (plays). I think a composers role in passing on information which other people can interpret is to be as clear as possible. Sometimes there isn’t the language for that to happen explicitly.


Sometimes you have to invent new symbols or something to suggest the sorts of sounds that you want. Because there are no finite symbols for  every sound. Sometimes you have to create graphic scores or have a combination between standard notation and graphic. In interpreting the scores the performer  is always open to some sort of  interpretation.  In Great Southern Spirits, for instance, the Kondalilla movement opens with the sopranos being given a boxed set of information that says “individually adlib repeat  material, adlib” so a singer might come in alone with something like (sings). I’ve given the dynamics, I’ve given the articulation I’ve given the sound, I’ve given the pitch, but really the duration of the overall shape and form is up to the performer’s discretion. I think that this sort of compositional involvement by the performers allows them to feel like they are actually contributing to the piece and in fact they have a sense of ownership of the work as well.



Improvisation is a central ingredient in many musical traditions. This is certainly the case with Jazz. While the underlying form of jazz is based on composed works, in essence, to be a jazz musician means to be an 1mprovisor.

Joshua Redman

We improvise in every aspect of our lives, I’m improvising now when I’m talking to you because I don’t know what I’m going to say before I say it.

Improvisation is something which is basic to human life. In Jazz what you acquire to do is to play what you feel at the spur of the moment. But you  are also required to improvise within certain contexts.  You have to be aware of the written melody that you played, you have to be aware of the harmonic sequence. In most cases you’re going to be improvising  within and around that harmonic sequence. You have to be aware of the length of the song, of the form of the song because in most cases in Jazz you’re going to be improvising around that form. Usually the prewritten part of the performance is very short relative to the  whole performance.   You begin by stating a melody which is over a sequence of harmonies and within a certain form. That will be in a sense, the composition. And after that you launch into improvisation. Jazz is a language that has been defined and refined over a period of about a hundred years.  And anyone who is trying  to be an improvisor in Jazz has to be familiar with that language. The language consists of many different things. It consists of certain melodic fragments, melodies that every Jazz musician will know and can become familiar with. Charlie Parker, one of the most important  improvisors  in Jazz created melodies which were so strong and which influenced so many people that they’ve become cliches of the language. For example, (plays), you would never want to play a whole improvisation with that, with that one idea, and in fact, most improvisations I play don’t have that idea in them. But they may make reference in some way to that idea. The  language of Jazz is not just melodic cliches, it’s also the harmonies that we use in Jazz and the way the melodies that we use relate to the harmonies.

For example, if I kind of outline a certain chord  (plays), that chord  wants to go somewhere else, it wants to go here (plays). Now if I’m going to improvise over those chords I’m going to try to create a melody which fits with those harmonies.  So you have to have not only a knowledge of the language, a sensitivity to what everyone else is playing, but also a sense of where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re going. That’s tough,  it’s hard, but it is also one of the most fulfilling and enriching forms of musical expression. And I think that is why most people who start playing Jazz don’t stop.


In Arabic classical music there are genres of  composed  repertoire  as well as genres that are entirely improvised. Unlike improvisation in Jazz where performers are guided by a progression of chords, improvisation in Arabic music is completely melodic and is based on a system of scale types known as maqam.


Simon Shaheen

Improvisation, we call it in Arabic, Taqasim (**horizontal accent over 2nd “a” and “i” in “taqasim”) , and taqasim is one of the most important  genres in Arabic music. It  shows the knowledge,  the experience,  the abilities  of the musician. Whether its a vocalist or an instrumentalist. When we play taqasim we have to make the main choice, which maqam  I’m going to choose as my main mode in the improvisation. For example, if I use a maqam that is called rast, R-A-S-T, then this is the main maqam. I should start with this maqam and I can modulate to whatever I want, but at the end of  the taqasim I have to go usually  to the rast.  The most important feature in taqasim is the ability  to build  up a melody  and the more you modulate the more intense the improvisation becomes. The most important thing would be to understand that it has to be created on the spot.  And it very much depends on the artistry and the knowledge, the experience of the musician. Now it is true that much of the ideas, the music ideas, with experience, they might repeat themselves but it’s never the same, you can never hear an idea repeated twice the same. It could be close, but it’s never the same. And the whole idea is to, maybe you repeat some ideas, but to come up with some creative concepts that are very new and very maybe revolutionary also, musically speaking.



All musicians are steeped in the musical language of their culture. And each composer has his or her own way of working with musical materials. But the actual process of creating music goes beyond the theoretical as artists bring their own inspiration to the task of shaping musical material.


Gerald Shapiro

Camille Saint-Saens(** note: two dots as an accent over the “e” in Saens) said, “I write music the way apple trees grow apples.” I wish that was true for me, it’s not quite so easy.  The process is always different.  Sometimes  I work with a synthesizer and a computer and I make a sequence and I actually make the music in sound like the way you make a pot, it’s wonderful, it’s like molding, it’s like shaping, you know. Another time maybe I’m writing the notes on paper. I might try something at the piano, sit at my desk, write a little while, try something  else, go back, write a  little while. In either case, I don’t think it matters too much. It’s a kind of slowed down improvisation. One time I had a piece to do for a British vocal ensemble called Electric Phoenix, and I didn’t know what I would do for them. I took a walk down along the waterfront, here in Providence, where I live. It was once beautiful, I mean, it’s ruined now. It’s like old dirty oil tanks and bits of trash etcetera. But underneath all of that overlay you could see the gorgeous shape of the land going down to the water and the water surrounding it. And you could see that it had been beautiful and  it had been ruined. And it was this incredibly powerful image for me of  that and required, it seemed to me, either just a scream of complaint or a prayer that somehow that damage could be unraveled. I found a text, Prayer for the Great Family, and commenced to work on that piece and wrote it very quickly. I think that what I’m writing is one long piece. And that I chop off a section of it and I give it out and every piece has  something of the material that came before it.  Every piece is an intersection.  I live a life.   I have children,  I have parents, a wife, each piece is an intersection. There’s a technical study that’s going on. I’m learning all the time. And I’m living a life and I’m learning all the time what’s in my heart, you know, what’s in the world around me. And each piece represents a special intersection between those two things.




In rock and roll both composition and improvisation are important components of performance. And these processes involve the whole band. While the song may be composed initially by one band member often the rest of the group will have a role in shaping the piece for performance.


Mike Glabicki

I often feel I’m being led to a song as opposed to creating a song. I  compose on acoustic guitar, it’s my medium. Just like oils or watercolors. To me I’m lucky because I’m living in the ’90s where I can throw a tape recorder on and record whatever just came through me, and listen back to  it later on and decide what do I want to piece together, you know, make a song.  After you receive something  you want to go with, at that point,  that’s where the struggle comes in because it becomes even harder at that point to have somebody sitting in front of you and still remain unattached from it. Because I continue at that point to bring it into the world, to birth  it. As you raise a child, it’s not just the parents that raise the child. It’s the community around the child. So I’m always open to being shown ways to help that song grow. That’s bringing it to the band.


Jim DiSpirito

Michael brings a musical idea to the group and everybody sort of puts their twist on it. Maybe the groove should move a little over here, or maybe we should put a section in here that emphasizes this, or maybe we should end it this way. Somehow everybody gets involved in the process of trying to  help shape this musical entity.


(talking to each other during rehearsal) “Trying to think of something right now … and then come back out into the new base part.”


“You were supposed to switch, whenever I start singing again, just like we do in the first verse”


“Yeah, I did because I, you know, spaced it a little bit, like I was trying to think of something to go into there,”



“And then I went into it and still it didn’t feel right…” John Buynak

It always reminds me of the Stone Soup story where you have a pot in the middle of town with nothing but boiling water and everybody is asked to bring what they have to the center. So I think that process is very, a very communal way to approach a piece of music.


Jim Donovan

There’s so many different little processes that go on because there’s going be vocal harmonies, there’s going be vocal inflections, there’s how the rhythm sections work together, the drums, the percussion, the bass and the drums, how the guitars work together. It’s really complex but a lot of times, if you listen to a song and you pick apart each part, you realize that there’s no one part that is just incredibly complex. They’re all real simple parts, all put together, weaved together to make this thing that sounds really complex but in its essence it’s really simple.


Liz Berlin

The live performance, that’s the place where we get to sort of try it out on people and see how it works. The parts really take on a new depth to them.


Michael Glabicki

The audience gives to this.  You can visualize it as a tree.   Back to when I receive a seed of it, I bring it until it’s about this big, you know, and I present it to the band, and then we work on the foundation of it. Then when you perform it, it starts to change all different seasons, and change colors and then it gets much bigger. Then you truly realize that there’s something bigger happening, it’s not your song anymore, it’s gone.