Friday, May 2, 2014

Improvisation Written Down

Last night I had the privilege of performing Nos 1-4 of Brahms's Op. 76, two Capriccios, two Intermezzi.  Among the listeners was a young composer/pianist whose performances consist of one-hour-plus improvisations.  He couldn't get over how the Brahms sounded like improvisation.

That was exactly my goal.

Achieving this has not been simple.  When, as an adult student, I was first assigned one of these, it was No. 4, all by itself, out of context.  It made no sense to me at all, so I tried my best to get it to conform to everything I had ever learned about chord progressions, phrase structure, resolutions, bass lines, rhythm--everything in the piece demanded attention and the only kind I knew how to bestow was what I had been taught.

Now, fifty years later, I realize that Brahms's purpose in writing this opus and entitling the pieces as he did must have been to remove them from every expectation of normalcy.  I treat them now, first of all, always in sequence, as they make sense only as a cycle, each piece emerging from the last, one tone at a time.  I was shocked to recognize the degree to which I had previously falsified his meticulously notated note values, principally holding bass notes longer than indicated, trying to fit the sounds to my needs rather than to his specifications.

The pieces responded well to this reading.  Apparently someone besides myself agreed.