During this concert I was thinking about composition versus improvisation. It’s an issue that has interested me for some time. The performance included improvisations that approached a density and volatility that a great percentage of orchestral composers would be unable to achieve, working with traditional methods. The credit for this lies as much with Joel Ryan’s remarkable methods of transforming acoustic sound, as with the formidable improvising abilities of Uitti and Parker.
Actually I prefer the term “instant composition” for this kind of performance because I have come to view improvisation in close relation to composition. The “instant” aspect, by the way, reminds me of the huge scandal over Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. John Ruskin had written “I never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. When Whistler sued, he was asked in court about how long it took to paint the picture. Whistler replied “Half a day.” His lawyer then said “So, you are charging two hundred guineas for half a day’s work?” The painter replied “No………….for the experience of a life time.”
The worlds of the conservatoire and the university music department have changed a great deal since I was trained (late 60s – mid 70s). I’ve written before that improvisation went unmentioned in those days as a possible modus operandi for a composer. I had to discover the value of this for myself. That was quite a confronting experience and one of many such over the years. I still remember, for example, the shock of hearing a beautiful Indian oboe for the first time during a performance of Peter Brook’s version of the Mahābhārata. It was a painful reaction – “My God, is that what an oboe can sound like!”