The connection between improvisation and composition

One of my most influential teachers in college was Christian Asplund. He taught me many things, being my teacher for fourth semester theory, beginning composition, and then he was my mentor for my capstone project (the composition part of it, I actually had another one for the theatre production part of the project, Rodger Sorensen). He also taught Group for Experimental Music (GEM), in which I participated in its first year, and later on, I was able to be a singer in an opera he had written and directed.

He encouraged thinking outside of what we had experienced before, and the pieces we performed with GEM were sometimes full of improvisation, and other times they had part improvisation. Usually at least part of the piece was up for interpretation, and whereas this is typical for all music, there was definitely more than the usual amount of interpretation in those pieces. He writes pieces called “Comprovisations” which means they were kind of compositions with large elements of improv in them.

This kind of thinking really helped me think about my writing in a new way. I had already been writing music for several years when I met Dr Asplund, but all that improvising together helped me discover that all music longs for form. It doesn’t have to be the same form every time, and it doesn’t have to be consistent, but even in improv, you want to recognize that you are going from one part to the next, and the most satisfying improvisations will feature a “going back to the beginning” or something similar.

When I’m writing today on the piece for a solo instrument, I’m feeling much like I’m back in the room with my colleagues in GEM, and I’m writing phrase after phrase, tweaking the first idea a little each time to make it move forward, and into a key change by switching one accidental at a time, repeating it and adding another so that it feels inevitable when we return to the original key. It is such a satisfying moment when I can write the opening phrases in the original key again, and while I don’t know exactly where it will end, as I’m expecting another minute of the song, I’m happy to have gotten to where I am today.

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