Perfect Sound Forever


Walter Prati: All'Improvviso: Percorsi d'improvvisazione musicale (Milan: Auditorium, 2010; 81 pp.).

As Milanese cellist, electronics artist and composer Walter Prati points out early on in his brief but insightful book, improvisation is an essential--indeed, an ineliminable--element in virtually every kind of music. He notes that virtually all types of music contain at least some element of improvisation, whether in the form of jazz's melodies extemporized over chord changes, folk's invention of structures within an oral tradition, or classical music's allowance of a degree of interpretive freedom to the performer of a written score. One might even go so far as to say that music originates in improvisation: even a fully scored work has to start somewhere, and that somewhere may as often as not be an improvised melody or harmonic sequence.


When Prati considers what improvisation is, he doesn't look at it as a phenomenon that starts from nothing. That conception of improvisation--as "an act without strategy [un agire privo di strategia]" (pg. 15), whether or not such a thing actually could exist in fact rather than simply as an ideal--falls outside of his scope. For Prati, improvisation would seem instead to take place in the immediate context of an ongoing process--of actions already accomplished, of sounds already there--as they are produced by the improviser's own immediate history of musical choices and gestures within the temporal unfolding of the improvisation. An improvisation entails a time-bound accumulation of actions and the sounds and structures they give rise to, which overall reflects a certain logic binding future actions to past choices. The gesture reveals or projects a certain logic that gives meaning to the gesture that follows. An improvisation is, seen from this perspective, a continuity of events in time.

It is also the product of a certain continuity of thought. Prati points to the cognitive underpinnings of improvisation when he characterizes it as "an action accomplished without forewarning but not without preparation" (pg. 16). When improvising we may feel our gestures as being something in the order of spontaneous upwellings, but in fact they are grounded in the ongoing judgments, based on a number of factors specific to ourselves and to the situation, that we make as we play. And one of the purposes of Prati's book is to let musicians develop an awareness of the musical thought ("pensiero musicale"--quotation marks in the original) immediately preceding the creation of a specific sound (pg. 17).

Prati's perspective on improvised music comes from within the tradition of European art music, and so his essay concerns improvised music "with a component of 'instantaneous composition.'" (pg. 17) To take a compositional stance toward improvisation as he does is to acknowledge and play in light of the operation of given rules and conventions in regard to formal elements and performance techniques, which enable the improviser to make coherent choices in real time. Prati draws an apt analogy between the (often tacit) conventions underlying improvisation on the one hand, and the explicit instructions encoded in the notated score on the other, the interpretation of both of which works through open or undefined parameters. In either case, the performer is licensed "to act freely within certain rules" (pg. 17).


The situation in which contemporary improvisation finds itself is one where boundaries separating types of music have been weakened or erased. Prati observes that the improvisational experiments of the 1960s broke across borders of genre and opened up the possibility of creating music drawing on the "signs and sounds typical of every musical genre" (pg. 18). Not as pastiche--at least not when successful--but rather as a way of regarding the materials making up the various genres as available and ready to hand to be used within new contexts. Prati includes performance techniques as subject to boundary-crossing as well when he notes that new instrumental techniques often adapt the languages or gestures association with one type of instrument to another (pg. 21). When boundaries are approached as invitation rather than prohibition, one can engage musical materials in a relationship of reciprocal availability: the materials are available for use to the extent that one is receptive to using and renewing them. The result was that while rules were still involved, their force was felt less as an external constraint and more as being "internal to the actions of the individual artist" (pg. 18). One might say that from this point of view, it is the artist's project that primarily defines the context, and hence the meaning, of the musical materials rather than the other way around.

Such boundary-crossing created a situation in which younger generations, brought up without knowing the limitations that shaped the listening, performing and composing habits of earlier generations, are faced with a virtually open field of choices. Prati describes them as having "unlimited" possibilities for listening to or drawing on any kind of music (pg. 20), boundaries of genre and correct technique having lost much of their historic normative force. Musical boundaries are permeable, more open threshold than solid wall. I would add that the current availability of virtually everything ever recorded collapses chronology as well as genre for many listeners; all music is encountered as being in some sense contemporary.


All'Improvviso includes a series of exercises in listening and playing to help the performer focus and hone his or her sensitivity to sound and structure. Prati states that the practice of improvisation, like any practice, requires a method of some sort, and he carefully arranges his set of exercises in such a way as to help improvisers develop their own systematic approaches to handling and creating sound either alone or in ensembles. The exercises are directed toward developing skill in engaging the specific musical elements, structures and skills that come into play during an improvisation. Prati encourages reflection as well as action--reflection on listening habits as well as on performance practices.

Prati starts with the basic confrontation with sound as such. The first exercises are directed toward fundamental materials and ways of understanding them. These exercises include listening and describing the sounds heard--a good way of developing the ear by learning to discriminate between sounds on the basis of their different properties. It's a skill as useful in extra-musical life as it is in navigating an improvised performance.

Moving on to music and its production, the exercises address the parameters of timbre, dynamics, and articulation. Different exercises work with different elements, focusing the improviser on each in order to provide a deeper understanding of how each element fits into the greater whole, and how elements affect each other. For example, Prati directs the improviser to play a single note, eventually varying its dynamics (pg. 27), timbre, duration and articulation (28) (as might be expected from a cellist, some of the exercises carry indications of which bowings to use), Keeping pitch constant while changing other variables raises awareness not only of the importance in themselves of these other variables, but of the crucial, if often otherwise unnoticed, way they help to define the affect pitch has on the listener.

Later exercises are aimed at building up structures by taking fragments or cells of sound or notes and putting them in relation to each other or to others' sounds and notes. Prati expands the scope of these exercises, gradually engaging the entire compass of an instrument. As the exercises become more complex in musical material, they also become more complex in terms of participation to the extent that they call for increasing the number of musicians involved.


It is within the context of the move from individual to group that the series of exercises centered on silence take on particular value. For Prati, silence no less than sound is "an element of dialogue between musicians" (pg. 30). Consequently, he offers an exercise instructing individual musicians within a group to maintain silence for given periods in order to let them direct their attention away from their own parts and toward the overall sound (pg. 31).

This turn toward silence is important. The foregrounding of silence and attentiveness is essential to building relationships among musicians involved in a group improvisation. A group improvisation is, in essence, a multi-sided relationship, a form of coexistence. Because a collective improvisation is a collaborative undertaking, the relationships that constitute it take on a fundamental importance. The formal choices and affective responses of my fellow improvisers shape and color the performance just as much as do mine; their choices and responses become part of the sonic environment that I assimilate and transcend and transform, through my own choices and responses, and that, in turn, transcends my choices and responses as well.

In fact, given the absence of premeditated formal structures in free improvisation, the relationships between the improvisers stand as the most fundamental structure underwriting the meaning of the performance. From these relationships derives not only the formal shape of the performance, but also the larger meaning the performance will carry, both individually for each performer and collectively as a kind of summation of those individual meanings.


Whether in the context of an ensemble or a solo performance, there is a significant element of self-revelation in improvisation, just as there is in any kind of musical play. When we improvise--whether inventing musical structures in real time or interpreting a score composed by another--we disclose something about ourselves. We interpret ourselves as we play, translating our grasp of our being in the situation into the formal elements of dynamics, phrasing, timbre, and so forth. These formal and expressive choices that shape the overall performance reflect our way of grasping it, of understanding it as containing a certain meaning or emotional import, and consequently of imbuing it with our own meaning.

In this way, form expresses our interpretation of our involvement in the performance; through it we disclose ourselves as ourselves as such and as one participant among others within this dynamic collective undertaking.

Because we have to bring so much of ourselves to it, fully improvised music can involve our whole person in ways that go beyond the music itself. Prati's generous conclusion is that: "The improvisational art improves us as a person, displays our strengths and defects, provides evidence of a constant search for a possible and honest self-improvement and, of course, provides new colors for a less dismal common horizon." (pg. 18)

[I'd like to thank Cristiano Bocci for the gift of this book. All translations from the Italian are my own.]

ED NOTE: For those curious about more, Prati's book is available here and here.

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER