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An AAJ Interview with Larry Ochs

By Published: February 28, 2009
AAJ: As a follow-up (and hopefully precursor to some questions about composition), Mr. Bailey also relays an anecdote in which Mr. Lacy is approached by composer/improviser Frederic Rzewski and asked to "describe in 15 seconds the difference between composition and improvisation." Since this interview is being conducted via e-mail, I can't practically restrict you to a time limit (or spontaneity). However, in 40 words (or less) could you describe the difference between composition and improvisation ?

LO: (Composition = "Follow me. "Yes, boss"; Improvisation = "Let's make a deal. "Okay but with whose rules?")

Or, perhaps more obliquely: "We wanted to create that piece through improvisation, but we didn't have time to make it work that way, so we composed it."

Or: composition fulfills our desire to know before we go. Improvising is about learning as we go. Most audiences shy away from improvisation because they need to understand what it is they are hearing—to be comfortable with what's going to happen—before it happens. It's more rewarding for the great majority to hear a Beethoven piece for the ninth time. They know if it's "good" then. But some of us enjoy surprise, and we prefer to be in a situation as the music is being created, or in a situation where the possibility of surprise and revelation is possible. But we are in the great minority.

AAJ: (in your answer to differentiating between being a composer and improviser) you state : "when I improvise, I'm also composing, I'm looking for a form to emerge from the improvisation." Are you able to recognize a form as you are improvising or does this recognition occur much later (e.g., when listening to a recording of the improvisation)? In any case, what characteristics might you look for as clues to an emerging form?

LO: Just about anything that becomes or could become a tendency in a piece. That is: what's the piece focusing on. In most traditional musics, we tend to focus on themes and variations, moods that ensue from the themes, etc. In improvisation the palette we're using is actually all the same materials you hear used in traditional music but because the overt story-lines are often missing, it gives us the opportunity to focus in on the other things a little more. This is a very long-winded way of saying that all the characteristics of sound can serve as the "form" or part of the form of the piece. Take timbre which is just the quality of the sound itself. Well, if all the instruments are playing in close range to each other (or playing sounds that have longer than average duration), maybe the piece will become a piece about group timbres. Maybe the timbres will meld into a group sound out of which a few thematic solos will emerge that will make the piece more story-like. Or maybe all the solos will be about timbre too, but will sound "soloistic" because they simply raise in volume above the group sound.

Or maybe in an ensemble of mixed instrumentation, it will become clear that I am directly interacting with, say, the guitarist, while the cellist and the vibes player are doing a separate but related duo at the same time. So I?ll make an effort to play directly with the guitarist while paying attention to the other duo at the same time. (Just an example.) So the form of the piece will involve the interaction between two duos.

You have to try to look for form as you're improvising, if you're interested in that. It's also possible to just be in it for the process as it happens. Improvisation is something that happens in time. It can begin, and then end, with no thought to "the form;" that's an equally valid attitude for improvisers. I guess I prefer looking for forms and then trying to keep any piece there for awhile. But I've heard great concerts where form was not part of the equation.

AAJ: Could you please elaborate on why do you think the growth potential for improvised music is currently much higher than that for composed music?

LO: Okay, I did say it, and I do mean it, but the argument is full of holes; I couldn't really justify the statement. But I am not taking it back's a feeling; it's an expression of optimism in part due to the noticeable development of thinking in the world of improvisation. It's due to my seeing how many "younger" musicians are far more advanced in understanding improvisation outside of traditional forms. And then there's the fact that the un-named discipline we practice which involves improvised music, which Braxton calls "creative music," is very young, and so it follows (I think) that the potential for growth is enormous and evolving all the time.

When I say "improvised music" I'm speaking about the trend in Europe and the United States involving musicians "originally" interested in many different musical disciplines who have become interested in "improvisation" outside of the "standard" (or familiar) music disciplines. So we have rock or art-rock musicians like Frith and Cutler and Cooper, jazz players from all over the planet, Asian improvisers, computer electronic artists, classically trained players who have delved into graphic scores and other new music forms involving chance (for example), all going: wait a minute: we can take the art of improvisation, which is something all these disciplines work with to some degree, as a common ground, and go from there in creating a music without boundaries, each group of players defining its own parameters for the group-sound.

So, although the argument is full of holes, it stands to reason that this new discipline has a huge growth potential because these new combinations should produce highly unexpected results—in the best moments. But there is a real need for the improvisers to understand what they are doing in a compositional way, I think. The more everyone is working from structures of their own group's understanding, the stronger the discipline gets.

I want to emphasize: I'm not advocating structured improvisation over unstructured or spontaneous (usually called free) improvisation. Both have their place. I just heard a beautiful set the other night of spontaneous improvisation by winds player Frank Gratkowski and percussionist Gino Robair. Completely clear at all times. A real breath of fresh air.

But ultimately the exciting developments in "creative music" or our music will come from a merging of advanced listening abilities with developments in the reaction by improvisers in real time, that combined with an understanding of how compositional form can help to bring music to life and/or to reach and move the listener. Ultimately, it all has to work together. But the element with the most untapped potential is improvisation. There's power in that ability, and if a composer understands how to harness it and use it to send the music "out," then—for me—that composer has a long unexplored road in front of him(her). Thus the feeling for more possibility down that road. I just think that there's less surprise left on the road of through-composition, but—like I said—you could argue otherwise, and I wouldn't be able to "disprove" it.

I also have long-held political feelings that lead me to trumpet the art of improvisation in that any composition realized by an improvising group is truly accomplished by the entire group's cooperating and working together, rather than strictly following one person's orders. There's more thinking going on by everyone involved. No one can just show up, follow orders mechanically, pick up the check and go home. You've got to be awake; you've got to want to be there. Or the outcome will suffer...

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