DISCOVERY IN THE UNFORESEEN

Jason Gibbs

When asked to describe what I do as a musician I usually say that I am a composer and/or bassoonist-both vocations that place me at the heart of European classical music culture. While I have learned much of what I value about my musicianship from this tradition, I find myself identifying with it less and less. As I have developed as a musician I have, through a combination of personal skepticism and greater awareness of other ways of making music, gradually come to question many of the values and beliefs of European culture and its music-making. These beliefs assert themselves as self-evident (just as other cultural traditions have their own certainties) and narrow the range of what can be called music.

Clarity is the core value of the Euro-American musical tradition. Being rational and consistent-making sense-is a major part of our collective superego. This clarity works through the following beliefs:

  1. sound should be pure without extraneous noise.
  2. pitch should be steady and unwavering, or have a controlled vibrato.
  3. musical notation coordinates the performance of musicians.
  4. from outside the music ensemble, a director ensures that the notated instructions are carried out with exactitude.
  5. the composed musical structure should articulate important formal and harmonic events.
  6. the performance context should keep the audience separate from the musicians.
  7. the sounds of music should be kept distinct and apart from the rest of the sounds of the outside world.

This is a musical system that relies upon predetermination and expert direction. Although myriad contemporary classical compositions disregard these restrictions, these guidelines apply to the core of the tradition.

One of my favorite bassoon quotations is from an interview with the Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski who said something like "they can put satellites in orbit around the planet, yet people still play the bassoon." (It was clear from the context that he was marveling in appreciation of the instrument). By current standards of efficiency and rationality the bassoon would never be constructed. It doesn't play in tune very easily, it is difficult to play with agility in its lowest and highest registers, and has a fairly restricted dynamic range. These are all difficulties that we bassoonists work hard to overcome and compensate for in order to perform our repertoire. (Wouldn't it be easier to connect a MIDI cable to a sample bank, than to scrape reeds and practice long tones?)

Improvisation is the vehicle that has enabled me to explore beyond the cultural restrictions that I have consciously and subconsciously adopted. In studying to play my instrument I was most concerned with producing a clear tone of definite pitch played with absolute precision and in mastering the scale and arpeggio patterns that are common in classical music. When I began to improvise I realized that my instrument had other voices than those I was taught and that I would have more to say musically if cultivated other possibilities. It did not take long to discover lovely sounds that I had never been encouraged to discover, much less use. I found pitches outside of the scale. The keys of the instrument themselves make sounds. I have not found a limit to the possible range of timbres and multiphonic non-harmonic pitches. Many of these nuances can only be notated in cumbersome and imprecise ways, and are therefore less available to the musician following musical notation.

The Latin root of the word improvisation means "unforeseen," -in-provisus "not provided." The control instilled by western culture provides its participants with music that reflects and celebrates this control. Our music and sound environment, on the other hand, provides all of us with a wonderland for expression and perception. To allow for the unforeseen is to allow for the possibility of unimagined beauty. I do not refuse the tradition that I have come from. On the contrary, I marvel at the attention to coordinated detail, as well as the large-scale formal and temporal possibilities. I nevertheless look forward to the possibility of straying from the control of things that I can foresee.


 +++ originally published in Freeway, vol. 3, no. 1
(Winter 1994)