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Thread: What defines a good improvisation?

  1. #16
    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    I think that the jazz angle is just confusing the issue - please read my post above (#3). This is a totally different kind of improvisation and is, as you hint, more embellishing what is already there than improvising 'cold'.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

  2. #17
    Chief assistant to the assistant chief JHC's Avatar
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    Well some jazz musicians are not satisfied with embellishments and wander down a path that is only known to themselves however I must admit I had only skipped over the previous posts and upon a second read of your third post find you have covered it quite well. When you as an organist are asked to fill in a spare 5 min or so do you actually work around an existing piece or do you start off on an unknown journey?
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  3. #18
    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    ^^
    What he said. And as JHC alluded to, in Jazz improvising, the soloist is beholden to the pre-existing chord progressions, melodic material, rhythms, time signatures, the form of the piece, and the other instruments in the Jazz ensemble.

    The improvising organist is completely on his or her own - they start with the silence and have only their musical imagination on which to paint everything - harmonies, melodies, meters, rhythms, structure, textures, etc, etc, etc.
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

  4. #19
    Chief assistant to the assistant chief JHC's Avatar
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    Not 100% correct! jazz soloist’s can and do change key, rhythm, time sigs etc and an ens can finish up playing an entirely different “tune” or a 32 bar number when they started with a 12 bar.
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  5. #20
    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JHC View Post
    Well some jazz musicians are not satisfied with embellishments and wander down a path that is only known to themselves however I must admit I had only skipped over the previous posts and upon a second read of your third post find you have covered it quite well. When you as an organist are asked to fill in a spare 5 min or so do you actually work around an existing piece or do you start off on an unknown journey?

    To give you but two examples:

    A couple of weeks ago, I played again at Salisbury Cathedral, for a visiting choir singing Choral Evensong. Since I also had to play for the rehearsals in the Cathedral School, I had very restricted time to practise on the cathedral organ. Therefore, I chose to improvise the final voluntary. I took as my theme the hymn tune Orientis partibus (in F# major), and I improvised a French-style toccata around this theme. Other than using the hymn tune for the motif, the piece was entirely my own. At the start, after an introductory chord on the tutti, I played the theme on the G.O. flue chorus, with the Swell coupled with my right hand. My left hand played semiquaver figuration on the full Swell. The Pedals interjected with octave notes played staccato. Then, after a modulation through D major, B-flat major and into G major, I moved my left hand down to the G.O. and played the theme on the Pedals (up to Mixture). After various episodes, using the theme (or fragments of it) in various keys, I used a small bridge passage and imperfect cadence, in order to lead into D major, with the theme played on the full Pedal (with 32ft. Double Open Diapason and the 32ft. Contra Posaune) with the theme in augmentation and semiquaver chordal figuration on the full G.O. and Swell above. Following this, the theme was played in harmonisation (of my own), with a 'full' texture, leading to a short coda, where I concluded the piece with a clavier flourish, a Pedal downward scale, and several long chords, gradually resolving some dissonance of the inner voices and ending with three chords on the tutti - the two 'Father' Willis Tuba stops being added for the end.

    This Sunday evening, at my own church, I also improvised the voluntary (as I often do). I elected to play a passacaglia, the theme of which I also improvised, in D minor. I kept to the classical form, announcing the ground bass quietly on Pedal flutes and gradually built up the variations above, making both the rhythm and texture more complex, until a final statement in the tonic major and a brief coda, which brought the piece to a close.

    In fact, often due to pressure of my teaching work (but also because I like to improvise, partly because it is easier to capture the mood of a service with a spontaneously created piece), I improvise organ music around seven to eight times each Sunday. The other week, during the Offertoire, I improvised a trio, using three contrasting 8ft. Open Diapason stops (all of which were moderate in tone, including that on the Pedal Organ). I maintained the strict three-part texture and used such devices as imitation and canon, when developing the theme (in A minor), which was also improvised.

    This is a completely different type of improvisation to that which is common in jazz - much of which I like very much, might I add. *

    I hope that the above helps to explain the difference in approach to this fascinating subject.



    * Not 1940's big band style so much, but a variety of styles, from Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett, big band style (but later - around the 1970s - '80s), Stan Tracey, Dave Brubeck, Will Todd, etc.
    Last edited by pcnd5584; May-20-2014 at 11:16.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

  6. #21
    Captain of Water Music
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    pcnd - I have to ask - how on earth do you remember your improvisation in such detail? Do you plan your 'route' beforehand, or ..... ?

  7. #22
    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nikam View Post
    pcnd - I have to ask - how on earth do you remember your improvisation in such detail? Do you plan your 'route' beforehand, or ..... ?

    I thought about the overall shape of the improvisation whist the choir were singing Naylor's Final Responses. However, as I wrote in an earlier post, the fingers (and feet) must be led by the thought process - not the other way around. Fortunately I have a good memory for what I did - and, interestingly enough, for the stop-lists of even quite large instruments which I have played - right down to the piston settings for the main channel. (However, I occasionally forget why I have gone into a particular room in my house and I would not wish to play major repertory from memory.)


    For the record, Sir George Thalben-Ball, doyen of English organists, had an excellent memory. Paul Murray tells of the occasion when GTB provided Dupré with a purposely diatonic improvisation theme. 'He played a very nice four-part fugue, and did a reasonably good toccata, but there were none of the brilliant fireworks one usually associates with Durpé, because there were no chromatics or rapid passagework.' The next day Murray discussed this with Thalben-Ball, and 'GTB played a good deal of what Dupré had done the night before.' *

    Incidentally, please do not think for one second that I would presume to place myself in this category of player. If I had a quarter of the talent which either Dupré or Thalben-Ball had (to say nothing of Pierre Cochereau), I would be the happiest organist alive. (Thai is, aside, of course, from Frédéric Blanc, Michel Bouvard, David Briggs, MIchel Chapuis, Olivier Latry, Philippe Léfèbvre, Jos van der Kooy, Markus Willinger, Neil Page, Nigel Allcoat....)

    But, no - in answer to your unspoken question - I did not sacrifice a yak beforehand, or draw weird per-medieval symbols around me on the floor, in chalk....



    * p. 129; George Thalben-Ball (a biography), by Jonathan Rennert. David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Londodn, North Pomfret (Vt.): (1979).
    Last edited by pcnd5584; May-20-2014 at 11:53.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

  8. #23
    Chief assistant to the assistant chief JHC's Avatar
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    Well I take my hat off to you 5584 more like composing on the hoof.
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  9. #24
    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JHC View Post
    When you as an organist are asked to fill in a spare 5 min or so do you actually work around an existing piece or do you start off on an unknown journey?
    That can depend on the occasion (well it will for me at any rate). In a liturgical situation, if I've just finished playing a hymn, then it can make a little more sense to extemporise on the hymn tune. Whereas, at another point, it's more sensible to create a free improvisation. Example, I used to play for University graduation ceremonies, and I was very conscious of making pre-ceremony improvs sound as far from anything liturgical as possible (minimalist techniques often came into play there, along with chord progressions and even references to contemporary songs (mind you, I do that in churches too, only with an appropriately Baroque embellishment so no-one notices ... sometimes )
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

  10. #25
    Chief assistant to the assistant chief JHC's Avatar
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    I wonder if it would make any difference if you did the same on a piano would it be easier?
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  11. #26
    Commodore con Forza Soubasse's Avatar
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    Speaking personally, I always improvise very differently on piano, but I find it trickier to be honest! I've been an organist for about 30 years so I'm much more at home on that instrument. When I improvise on piano, I'm always wanting to play things with my feet
    Music is made to transform the states of the soul, for an hour or an instant (J. Alain)

  12. #27
    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JHC View Post
    Well I take my hat off to you 5584 more like composing on the hoof.

    Which is exactly what improvising is supposed to be.

    As Pierre Cochereau said - it is the illusionist's art. One neither has pencil nor an eraser. One cannot undo what has been done. Or, if you prefer, one cannot 'un-hear' what has already been played.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

  13. #28
    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by JHC View Post
    I wonder if it would make any difference if you did the same on a piano would it be easier?
    Not necessarily. But it would (as Soubasse has said) be different.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

  14. #29
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    Interesting to see the various comments on French improvisors....
    In the late generation I would quote: Dupré, Messiaen (he played quite often in La Trinité in Widor's style), Guillou and the greatest (IMHO): Cochereau.
    In the present generation: Pincemaille, Escaich, Blanc. As for me I would'nt even quote Latry (boring and repetitive playing), Lefevbre (out of date).
    In the new generation: Baptiste-Florian Marle-Ouvrard, Samuel Liégeon.
    Of course it's debatable, but I have been listening live all of them!!

  15. #30
    Captain of Water Music pcnd5584's Avatar
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    This is interesting, Thierry - I would agree entirely with your choices* (and reasoning) - except for the new generation, since I have yet to hear them. And Messiaen. This is extremely intriguing. Do you know if there are any recordings of him improvising, particularly in the style of Widor, please? This is perhaps the last genre I would have expected, given the harmonic language of his printed works.

    How I could have omitted Pierre Pincemaille from my list is beyond me - the man is a sublime genius. To watch him improvise on the box set of DVDs featuring Cavaillé-Coll instruments (produced by Fugue State Films) is both inspiring and stunning - not least because he had the most intractable instrument on which to pefrorm, yet he handled it with deftness and without fuss.
    In the process, by my reckoning, he also produced by far the best improvisations.

    * I named Latry and Léfèbvre due to the fact that, were I Titulaire at Nôtre-Dame, I would be extremely happy. Although I would be happier still if someone were also to invent a time machine and connect it to the great organ there, and put the whole thing back to the way it was in about 1977....
    Last edited by pcnd5584; May-26-2014 at 22:09.
    Pierre Cochereau rocked, man.

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