Thoughts on Improvisation: Confessions of Cardew and Tolstoy

PDF pageEmail pagePrint page

In preparation for a masterclass at the St. Petersburg School of Improvisation, I have been re-reading Cornelius Cardew‘s Treatise Handbook and Towards an Ethic of Improvisation. So many of his words tie in to what has been going on in the background of my life: the press and forum debates over the recent Geneva Competition (two second prizes awarded, no first), my reading Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature, and Tolstoy’s Confession.

Let’s start with the Geneva Competition debate of technical mastery vs. artistic mastery. I find this argument to be rather old hat, so didn’t contribute to the forum fury it unleashed. However, I was touched by how Cardew tied this matter in with eroticism (mention sex, and you immediately have my attention) and the heaviest question (according to Tolstoy) that plagues us: what is the point of life?

From Cardew’s Towards an Ethic of Improvisation:

Postulate that the true appreciation of music consists in emotional surrender, and the expression music-lover becomes graphically clear and literally true. Anyone familiar with the basis of much near-eastern music will require no further justification for the assertion that music is erotic. Nevertheless, decorum demands that the erotic aspect of music be approached with circumspection and indirectly. That technical mastery is of no intrinsic value in music (or love) should be clear to anyone with a knowledge of musical history. […] Elaborate forms and a brilliant technique conceal a basic inhibition, a reluctance to directly express love, a fear of self-exposure. […]

Love is a dimension like time, not some small thing that has to be made more interesting by elaborate preamble. The basic dream – of both love and music – is of a continuity, something that will live forever. The simplest practical attempt at realising this dream is the family. In music we try to eliminate time psychologically – to work in time in such a way that it loses its hold on us, relaxes its pressure. Quoting Wittgenstein again: “If by eternity is understood not endless temporal duration but timelessness, then he lives eternally who lives in the present”.

Eternity, infinity – here lies the connection to the everlasting question of Tolstoy, one that plagued him and drove him (and drives many others) to deep depression: “Why should I live, that is to say, what real, permanent result will come out of my illusory transitory life–what meaning has my finite existence in this infinite world?”

The question of connecting the finite to the infinite lies in the practices of religion, yoga and many other philosophies that lie outside my area of expertise. It raises the question of faith, a non-rational subject on which Tolstoy writes very sensitively and rationally. But what if we take Cardew’s suggestion, as quoted by Wittgenstein, by working within time and not viewing the eternal (infinite) as endless, but timeless. Improvised music, created on the spot, is eternally in the present. Cardew writes:

From a certain point of view improvisation is the highest mode of musical activity, for it is based on the acceptance of music’s fatal weakness and essential and most beautiful characteristic – its transcience. The desire always to be right is an ignoble taskmaster, as is the desire for immortality. The performance of any vital action brings us closer to death; if it didn’t it would lack vitality.

Arguable, but food for thought. For further reading, see also Sketches Towards a Performance of Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise by Alex South and Richard Craig.

Share

Facebook Comments

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on Improvisation: Confessions of Cardew and Tolstoy

  1. Not sure I agree that brilliant technique necessarily goes along with expressive inhibition, or that technical mastery has “no intrinsic value in music (or love),” as Cardew states in the passage you quoted.

    One of my favorite quotes on this subject is from the great American author John Barth:“My feeling about technique in art is that it has about the same value as technique in lovemaking. That is to say, heartfelt ineptitude has its appeal and so does heartless skill; but what you want is passionate virtuosity.”

    Barth, at his best, was a passionately virtuosic writer who seemed not inhibited in the slightest by the technical mastery he had attained. I think the same is true of many musicians and performing artists in many fields. Brilliant technique alone (heartless skill) won’t ever substitute for expressive value, but at its best (and in much of the music that floats my particular boat) technical accomplishment can provide a thrilling energy that adds significantly to the expressive value created. It’s about having the means at your disposal to make your artistic expression accurately; for much of western music (and for many kinds of eastern music as well) that requires tremendous skill: both intention and the tools to express your intention to others.

    • Thanks, Tod. Cardew was rather polemical in his writing, for a number of political as well as philosophical reasons. I think it’s interesting that he, Wittgenstein and Tolstoy all repudiated their own philosophies as they reached a certain age. A sign of wisdom? I’ll have to check out John Barth.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please show me you are a human. Type your comment first, then do the equation. * Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.