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By Frank J. Oteri

On the most basic level, the words "orchestra" and "improvisation" conjure up concepts and models of behavior that are seemingly polar opposites&ldots;

The notion of an "orchestra" points to a unified together-ness tightly organized and controlled, with every musician's individual interpretive gesture kept closely in check by a conductor whose marching orders, in turn, are to convey the creation of the composer whose printed noteheads sit in front of every musician on stands like the words of a sacred text. The tradition of the "orchestra" is to faithfully recreate something, most of the time something that has been done many times before. It's no small coincidence that seasons of most orchestras are planned years in advance.

"Improvisation" on the other hand means freedom, spontaneity, the unexpected, the unknown and the unknowable. Improvisation always strives to be new or to put a new spin on a preexisting idea. And some of the greatest concerts of improvised music have been impromptu events, with little or no advance planning.

At the extremes, the orchestra is a metaphor for fascism while improvisation is a metaphor for anarchy. Of course, extremes are rarely reality and the coexistence and symbiosis of orchestral and improvisational concepts have fueled creative thinking about music in many cultures for many centuries. Anything involving human interaction contains spontaneous elements. No two performances of an orchestral work, no matter how tightly controlled, are ever completely the same. By the same token, no improvisor ever creates music that is completely without precedent. In fact, basic contours of many of the great improvisors often carry-over from solo to solo. It is indeed a truism when improvisors state that their rehearsals have been their entire lives of performing.

In the related resources on this site you will find several interesting essays: George Lewis, whose Virtual Concerto will be performed by American Composers Orchestra on Wednesday, April 28, 2004 at Carnegie Hall, outlines what needs to be done and what has already been done to open up the symphony orchestra to improvisation. Pianist/composer Vijay Iyer explains how composition and improvisation are two branches from the same tree. In addition, I have compiled a brief list of some of my favorite recordings in which improvisational individuality and orchestral togetherness come together in exciting ways.

Frank J. Oteri is a New York-based composer and the Editor of NewMusicBox,
the Web magazine from the American Music Center.


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Last updated 3/28/04