Composing and Improvising Music

A useful distinction between improvisation and composition is a subject that every composer faces. I use the word 'useful' because the distinction is made right and just by its ability to serve the musical interests of the composer. There are different lines to draw around each word, different meanings to asign, and different intentions to have. Each composer deals with this in a personal way, according to his or her temperament, musical consciousness, musical culture, and choices for instrument. Where improvisation ends and composition begins (and visa versa) is a nut that is never really cracked. To really think about it, deeply, is an object for contemplation itself. Many rich hours can be spent at the piano in exploration of the edge between the two worlds.

When I improvise, do I compose?
When I compose, do I improvise?

Western culture deals with this koan with the emergence (at least since the 12th century and Hildegard von Bingen) of the defined role of a composer. This is a rather unique position, unique to the West (or specifically, the Western attitude, which can live anywhere). A composer is the person who figures out and plans what others play. The Western composer generally lives music alone, isolated with his or her pencil, paper, and instrument (and now, their computer). The composer bushwacks as pure autonomy (or 'agency'), and maybe, just maybe, ends up with a map of musical territory that he/she must convince first musicians, and then a general audience, is a worthwhile territory to explore. Composers try to hear at the edges of their own ears. And then comes the real task - the reflection of those edges in a written piece.

I have written before about the flow of musical creativity along two distinct, but complementary, irrigated paths. A comparison of the composition modes of Mozart and Haydn delineates the modes of inner ear, and outer ear. A composer who works the Mozart path hears inside his awareness and hears a composition without actual sound. A composer along the Haydn path plays with actual sound (via an instrument) and hears a composition from sound, first. The Mozart path is distanced from actual sound; the Haydn path is immersed in sound. If distance is associated with the 'masculine' gender, and touch is associated with the 'feminine' gender (both being available to men and women equally), then in simple terms, the Mozart path is masculine and Haydn path is feminine.

But another truth is that both look the same when viewed through the perspective of certain non-Western music cultures. Compared to musicians, say from Japan, India, or Africa, the Western musician who composes in either the Mozart or Haydn manners looks like a person who likes to be alone with music at its creation. In these other traditions, the whole idea of a 'composer', as a person distinct from a communal experience of music, is pretty strange.

Most pieces of music in these cultures are not even thought of having been created by a single person of human form. The music comes from a tradition, from ancestors, from a God or Goddess, or from nature. The musician's role is not to be original with new music, but faithful to its origin. At the very least, music is not to be generated alone and away from others, but created in a communal environment with other musicians and allowed to live and breath, change and grow. Every culture has its musical patterns - nobody completely makes up everything. But the characteristic of non-Western music tradition most notably different than that of the West is not that music is a communal activity, and that it is generated communally.

Thus I suggest that the Western composer creates inwards and the non-Western composers create outwards. (All caveats acknowledged now, because this is still simplistic - the world is not made of only two poles). The Western composer sits in agency/autonomy; the non-Western composer sits in communion/relationship to do the same. Or again, there is distance in the former and embrace in the latter. Both reflect charged time in music. And both can create music that is really good or really bad, for no culture or manner of composition has the corner on quality.

So what I am talking here about is a multi-layered, or multi-leveled, approach to reconcile these two separate dualities. One is the masculine/feminine distinction in the modes of inspired flow in the the Western composer. The other is the masculine/feminine distinction between Western and Eastern composers. These are not the same distinction, but rather are distinctions on different levels of being.

The two levels here are a material level and a conceptual level. The distinction between Western/non-Western composers is distinction at the material level. Literally, we materially witness the person that is the Western composer in an isolated creative workspace, and we see the peson that is the non-Western composer in a communal creative workspace. In the moments of creation, the former is alone, the latter is with people.

Furthermore, the distinction between Mozart/Hadyn inspirational flow is a distinction at the mental level. In this sense, the mind irrigates music according to an interior glimpse—the capacity to witness— and an exterior grasping—the capacity to outwardly experiment. Thus two levels, and two variations at each level, form a simple chart of the capacities of a composer.

mental level: Mozart/Witness (masculine) - Haydn/Intuitive (feminine)

material level: Agentic composer (masculine) - Communal composer (feminine)

Each of the four capacities can help you make beautiful music. Things can mix in various ways. A communal can mix with witness. Agentic can mix with intuitive. My suggestion is take this into consideration in your creative work space, and to experiment. Consider what you already do, what seems familiar. And consider what you don't but might try. (Do you know how?) This is a chart to let you know what is in here for you to energize when you are moved to.

At the essential (or spiritual) level of composition, there really is no distinction worth making. That is the point—boundaries and distinctions cease to mean anything at the most essential vibrations of being. You are transparent to, and full with, inspiration, insight, and intuition. It is a matter of giving and allowing your intuition to have the life it seems to need, the animation it seems to require, and extension from consciousness into musical form necessary for things to be right in your world. Something calls you, something grows in you. Essentially speaking, it is not just yours anyway, not your property or yours to own. It is part of everyone, and you simply do what you can to make it so that others have the chance to recognize that.

Chicago, Illinois
November 2005

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