Classical Improv

I glanced across Maximal Music (Arte Nova, 1997) at the public library and got curious. It’s always nice to see some curveballs included with the usual Bach, Mozart, Miles, and Duke that make up the classical and jazz sections.

The disc is subtitled “Improvisations for Violin and Piano,” and true to form, it consists of 14 purely improvised pieces, ranging from romantic to spiky and avant-garde, relatively speaking. Liana Issakadze doesn’t go nuts with extended technique on the violin, but she does get playful with bowing tricks and pizzicato flurries. Franz Hummell dives into prepared piano quite a bit.

I have to believe both players have been exposed to European improvised music — the likes of Evan Parker, Han Bennik, and so on. The liner notes are written for a normal classical audience, though, and it’s very interesting to see improvisation, which I take for granted, explained in such detail.

Such was the case in the liner notes for Keith Tippett and Andy Sheppard’s 66 Shades of Lipstick (E.G., 1990), which was probably the first improvised-music album I owned. I’d bought a World Saxophone Quartet album that had a more “free” atmosphere, and of course King Crimson’s classic stuff included improvised tracks, but this album of sax/piano duets was my first take at pure improv, a leap I took after seeing the album’s #1 ranking on a magazine’s year-end list. (I think the magazine was even Jazziz, all the more strange because they were crazy for smooth jazz at the time.)

66 Shades is a rather melodic album, and some tracks could be mistaken for composed pieces. But the liners explain the carefully unplanned nature of the sessions, the music “carved like sculpture from the air.” That’s a phrase I’ve relished ever since, and I’ve probably misappropriated it once or twice for this blog.

Maximal Music could likewise be mistaken for composed music, I suppose, but given the variety and the lack of obvious repetition that’s common even in modern classical music, that “composed” feel still amounts to a nicely bumpy journey. Most tracks stick to a single mood, so there aren’t many surprises in that regard; contrast with European free jazz, which covers a lot of different shades and hues in the span of just a few minutes. That kind of free improv can be like a dandelion seed buffeted by the winds, which is one of the things that’s wonderful about it.  Maximal Music seemed to be more about settling upon a structure, then filling in the colors.

They do let the playing get adventurous, including some skewed techniques on violin by Issakadze: different bow angles, rubbery koto sounds on “Seventeen” (one of the further-out-there tracks). Some playful call-and-response crops up here and there; the track “Twenty-One” is particularly fun.

My curiosity about the album came from the idea that a classical label would take a chance on improvisation, but apparently, Arte Nova was no stranger to the genre. The front cover clearly tags this CD as an “Arte Nova Improvisation” series, as opposed to the normal “Arte Nova Classical.” A cursory check finds at least one other CD, mentioned here; I’ll have to scan the Arte Nova catalog at Allegro to see what else there might be.

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