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Specialisms Improvising Ornamentation

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Improvisation is a theme that concerns everyone who is active in music – be it as a performer, a teacher, a musicologist or an administrator. Nevertheless, there are many musical fields and genres that still neglect improvisation considerably. Through this conference, the European Music Council provided information about different types and aspects of improvisation. The opportunity to make some practical experiences was provided. The positive effects of improvisation was demonstrated and ideas were developed, how the recognition of improvisation can be improved.

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In the music industry, improvisation is the art of composing and recording at the same time; that is, it is to invent on the spot! An improvisation can be a harmony, a melody, a solo, a riff, a rhythm, etc. This art differentiates creative musicians from reproductive musicians. Reproductive musicians are those who only reproduce or perform already-made songs. They usually have technique and good reading, but they are completely restrained musically (dependent on a setlist) and do not know what they are doing, they are just following a cake recipe. Creative musicians, on the other hand, are not limited to just playing already-made music; they are able to change them, improve them, create new melodies or harmonies automatically. These are musicians who know what they are doing, they are the ones who understand what is behind the chord notation and the notes. They can have musical dialogues. To be able to improvise, it is necessary to know the subject in question. For example, in the field of lectures, anyone is able to improvise a speech about “happiness”, since everyone has some concept on this topic. Perhaps the fact that it is an improvisation impairs the quality of the speech; many would speak without using beautiful words or profound reflections. Now, how many people would improvise a speech about the importance of the Schrödinger equation in quantum electromagnetism? In music it is the same. We need a good vocabulary (knowing how to choose appropriate words) and we also need to know the context in which we are inserted, so that the words make sense. This explanation is interesting, but let’s talk about something more practical now: how do you learn to improvise after all? Well, there are some secrets to becoming a good improviser. We will talk specifically about solos here in this topic, but the concept is the same for the other aspects of improvisation in music.

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Improvisation emerged in France in the second half of the nineteenth century due to the contribution of the new symphonic organ by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, as well as the famous organists César Franck, Camille and Saint-Saens. Aristide Cavaillé-Coll created the symphonic and orchestral French organ which made it possible to play great works and notable improvisations. César Franck was the first organist to accomplish his majestic and famous improvisations, as well as to perform his own compositions. This new Cavaillé-Coll organ built in 1859 for the church of St. Clotilde, offered different possibilities to perform new types of music, by imitating a symphonic orchestra with a lot of coloring and dynamics (Gravet, Nicole, 1996). It was considered the key instrument to performing of compositions for organ by the famous César Franck; not only because the composer gave the exact indications to use the adequate registration, and the instructions based on the possibilities of this great instrument, but also because the characteristics of construction of this grand instrument, also play an important role in his music for organ. The taste for the art of improvisation first surged for César Franck in 1840, when he joined the class of organ of François Benoist. The curriculum for the organ class was delineated to prepare the student for the annual competition of the first prize in organ. An improvisation for accompaniment was introduced in low continuo and an improvisation of a fugue for four voices (Guédon, Joseph, 1905). The performing of pieces for organ was not part of the curriculum, as three quarters of the studying was dedicated only to improvising.

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To conclude, a “composition” from this experimental school might be entirely devoid of conventional notation, consisting rather of a verbal instruction, a prescription for duration, or an idiosyncratic graphic code. Some works required performers to combine at random “building blocks” of brief musical phrases or entire sections presented by the composer; it has been asserted that such a process embodies a more profound creative collaboration between composer and performer than does the interpretation of a fully notated work or the express but limited freedom accorded performers at crucial moments in certain fixed compositions (e.g., the da capo section of an 18th-century aria or the cadenza near the end of a solo concerto movement).

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Gravet, Nicole. “L´Orgue et l´art de la registration en France du XVI e siècle au début de XIXe siècle.” Editions Ars Musicae, 1996.

Guédon, Joseph. Nouveau Manuel complet de L´Organiste, Paris, Encyclopédie-Roret L. Mulo, Libraire-Éditeur, 1905.

Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Edited by John Tyrrell and Stanley Sadie. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2001.

Guide de la musique d’orgue. Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1991.

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Specialisms Improvising Ornamentation
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