Graeme Miller Interview

bcmg Composer Q and A

Convergence of the Twain

First publishing in ‘new notes’, spnm January 2005

In the first of a series exploring different approaches to collaboration, Peter Wiegold discusses the role of improvisation and the tension between composer- and perfomer- control.


“Most kinds of music, historically, have allowed room for some kind of improvisation or collaboration – some freedom for the players to elaborate. Whether the blues, gamelan or Monteverdi, there is ‘reflexivity’, room for the players to breathe in and around the music.

Western classical music, though, has also evolved an extraordinary art of ‘composition’ – which eventually needed the composer to take control of virtually all levels of the music. What room now for player involvement? Could there be a frutiful blurring of the boundary between score and improvisation?

In a debate last year, I heard (professional) jazz musicians say, ‘I feel sorry for classical composers, what they would really like to do is improvise their music, but they don’t have the skills, so they have to write it down’ . This is very silly. Bach was a great improviser, but he needed to write down the B-minor Mass.

On the other hand, there is a quality of subtlety, inflection, colour and personality in a successful piece of improvising, whether in jazz, Indian music, free music, or wherever, that couldn’t, and shouldn’t, be ‘captured’ by notation. It isn’t meant to be – it is of the richness and wholeness of that moment.

I have heard free improvisers argue that composition and improvisation are essentially the same thing, that improvisation is sped up composition. But this is wrong. There are essential differences.

There are things that composing can do that are impossible with improvisation. Formalities, proportion, exact repetitions, the sculpting of line, dialectical, critical change, ‘scoring’ and so on. On the other hand I have heard the most exquisite turns of phrase, or subtle textures, that could only arrive out of the unique conditions of a certain moment, and, moreover, improvisation can have another, different, formal quality, that of an absolute and flowing evolution.

The difference, the chemistry between composition and improvisation, is what is interesting. The clash, the points where one challenges the other. The point where one becomes redundant the other ascendent.

A well-known composer once said to me ‘I won’t have anyone tell me the order of my notes’, and I respect that. But what exactly is composer control? The shape of a cymbal crescendo? The degree of sul pont, stylistic fluctuations in tempo, the hardness of a pizz? I have sometimes loosened the edges by just 1% or 2% in a piece, freeing players to colour a sound, inflect a note, add a closing flourish. ‘Play a high trill’, ‘a high trill on these notes’, ‘high shattering trill’, ‘high trill with glissandi’, ‘high trill blending with the crotale trill’, ‘high trill getting higher and higher till it cracks…’

There is a very interesting moment when the player knows they have the reins. And this power and freedom folds back very well into straight repertoire. Conditions set for players can be formal (with instructions like ‘4 bars’, ‘decorate this line’), role ( ‘punctuation’), character (‘ghostly’, ‘glassy’), specific (‘arpeggios on these chords’) or open (‘take this somewhere…’).

Everything is a question of who you ask to do what when. And how you ask them. Because perhaps the biggest border line that is crossed is that this then becomes an issue of communication. The composer or director then has an active relationship with the musician, needing not just to ‘notate’ their ideas, but represent them in the space, embody them, communicate them.

It is important that ideas are invoked in the room, and not merely described. And the words you need with one clarinettist will be different form those needed with another. And then, further, as the player responds, so the composer can respond to that, so the players creative potency becomes a critical factor.

It is a joy being with good players. They have a natural intelligence about how music works, and how to make it work, about what ‘sounds’, about what speaks. Good players are great problem solvers, and are often very brave when it comes to facing challenges.It is no longer good enough for composers to moan about players. There are many, many players who will bend over backwards to make music happen.

And many of them feel, quite naturally, that they might in some way be part of the imagining of the music, the making of the music. Perhaps this is because of the general culture that we now grow up in, perhaps through the evolution of contemporary musical language. There are certainly interesting parallels in other fields.
But ‘player empowerment’ need not mean switching to some kind of flat democracy. It is better to keep the tension, the tension between the score, the director, the players. Each can have a different, critical role. The triangle is fascinating, to have the best from pre-prepared notation, the best from creative direction, and the best from each individual player.

Part of making a success of this is a fluidity that can move from full notation through to open improvisation, being able to be at any point on the continuum as appropriate. To tip the ship in any direction. To be able to hold, and to be able to let go.

At the centre of this might be the notion of ‘realisation’, a word familiar from Baroque music, but also a good way of describing how folk and many other musicians work: to have a firm centre to the musical progression that is realised, elaborated, coloured, and taken for a ride by the musicians – sometimes fixed in rehearsal, sometimes improvised in performance.

I have talked of creative direction. While this third role may not always be necessary, I personally find it a fascinating one – partly to conduct, partly to play, to focus the activity and, both to set a direction for the music and be prepared to let that go. I like being someone who can alternatively provoke and participate, being both a part of it and separate from it.

These are very interesting times as boundaries loosen and musicians feel able to reinvent their working methods, learning from increasingly wide sources. The ‘If…’ festival this February with its theme of ‘new bands – new ways of working’ will aim to celebrate this.

I believe that aim common to all of us – composers, performers and audiences – is a sense that an occasion is unique, that it is special. This, of course, happens with fully-notated music, (although there are too many concerts where people play safe); it also happens with completely free improvisation (although peculiarly a lot of it sounds very familiar). But it can also be very interesting to have a concert that goes from Mozart to a fully-written contemporary piece, to a partly collaborative piece. When one thing informs another, crosses another, undermines another, there is always potential for electricity.”

© Peter Wiegold, December 2004


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