Though recreation of compositions has dominated Western music for the last two hundred years or so, improvisation has not been far below the surface. Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mendelssohn were accomplished improvisers; Johann Hummel even advocated for free improvisation, not just among performers and composers, but among the general public (quoted in Sarath, 2011). It was also, and remains common in organ performance. But as the years wore on, improvisation began to slip away from common practice of performers. It made a resurgence in the 1920's as jazz became a popular form of music, and this led to a lasting influence on Western music. But in the world of Western classical music, improvisation remained rare, and was even scoffed at by John Cage (during certain parts of his career).
Part Three - Pauline Oliveros, Loren Rush, Terry Riley, et. al.
In 1957, Pauline Oliveros (b. 1932), Loren Rush (b. 1935) and Terry Riley (b. 1935), three composers in San Francisco, assembled at KPFA studios. Riley was asked to provide the soundtrack to a short film about sculptor Claire Falkenstein called Polyester Moon. Instead of writing and performing a piece, the trio decided to improvise it. Rush had been a program assistant at KPFA, and so had access to the station's Ampex tape recorders. The trio recorded several improvisations and picked what they felt was the best one for the soundtrack.
The Ampex 351 (1958), an example of tape recorders from the era. Photo by the Villa Raspa Factory Organizzazione.
The experience of improvisation was so thrilling that the trio decided to meet regularly. They also continued to record themselves, but not just for novelty or posterity: recording enabled them to improve their work through critical listening and discussion, without prescribing “guidelines or structure” for their improvisations. Oliveros notes that improvisation with such imposed guidelines often "fell flat". The use of recordings liberated them from "unnecessary controls", allowing them to "develop trust in process through spontaneity." (Bernstein, 81)
They improvised as a trio, but also with guests. Laurel Johnson, a friend of Oliveros', was an untrained musician and frequent collaborator in the late 1950's. A man named Bill Butler is also listed on the RadiOm website, where recordings of these sessions can be heard, but no information can be found about him. They were also joined occasionally by their composition teacher, Robert Erickson (1917-1997). All three were students at San Francisco State, but studied privately with Erickson, who encouraged his students to improvise. (Fischlin, 53).
Loren Rush, photo from My KPFA - Conversations
Loren Rush remembers Erickson's role in the improvisation sessions as more proactive: "He would ask us to try things, not very much ... And we were perfectly willing to do it, because we were just making music." (Carl, 126)
Terry Riley, photo from New Albion Records
The original trio of Oliveros, Riley and Rush stopped improvising together in the late 50's, and each pursued their own separate interests. But improvisation remained a critical part of each of their work, and in the work of their friends Ramon Sender and Phil Winsor. Instrumental improvisations were used as the raw material for tape-based compositions, as in Oliveros' Time Perspectives (1961). Her earliest electronic compositions were also improvised. (Fischlin, 53)
Pauline Oliveros ca. 1966, photo from Sonoloco Record Reviews
"Improvisation was an all-important tool for all of us in the development of much collaboration and of the community that was continuing to increase its numbers. Even though we improvised together often, each person retained individuality and a style that was specifically different. Even so we bounced off of each other's work with glee." (Bernstein, 82)
Bernstein, David W. "The San Francisco Tape Music Center: 1960s counterculture and the avant-garde." University of California Press: 2008
Carl, Robert. "Terry Riley's In C." Oxford University Press US: 2009.
Fischlin, Daniel & Ajay Heble. "The other side of nowhere: jazz, improvisation, and communities in dialogue." Wesleyan University Press: 2004
Potter, Keith. "Four musical minimalists: La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Philip Glass." Cambridge University Press: 2002
Sarath, Edward. "Message from the President." ISIM Newsletter Spring 2011, Vol. 7, #1. International Society for Improvised Music.