Over the holiday break, my sister got a CD from our parents as a gift, Keith Jarrett’s Paris Concert. I had heard some Keith Jarrett here and there at home since my dad has a few of his CDs, but I hadn’t paid much attention to him. I knew that he played jazz as well as classical music, and I remembered recently that I had been listening to Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa, on which Jarrett plays piano, for much of last semester. So, I made a mental note to listen to Jarrett’s CD, especially its 38-minute long improvisation.
I heard bits and pieces of this improvisation over the next few days as my sister listened to it now and then, but I didn’t listen to it fully until I was in the car, on my way back from New Hampshire. I borrowed my sister’s iPod, put it on, and promptly fell asleep listening within five minutes. I woke up suddenly; I was in the middle of thundering piano chords. The sustain pedal had been welded down and Jarrett’s left hand was laying the bedrock for the right to carefully play a tender melody over it. I was quite moved. I thought of two things. First, it sounded like rock piano-playing to me. It was almost cheesy how strongly it appealed to my emotions. Second, I wondered — as Jarrett delicately ended the piece with beautiful arpeggios — how he could have possibly ended up here after starting the piece in such a straightforward way.
Listening to the piece over and over reveals how Jarrett gently moves from one style to the next as he plays. He starts the piece in a baroque fashion, following general rules of counterpoint handed down from before Bach’s time. As he begins the improvisation, melodies come and go to him and he chooses which ones to pursue. Some are simply diversions, and at other points you can hear him forcefully repeat a phrase a few times, hesitating before launching off into something new. You can tell that he’s waiting for an idea to arrive.
It’s interesting to see a contemporary pianist who very much enjoys classical improvisation, an art which has seemingly disappeared over the last century. In Milos Forman’s Amadeus film, there are many scenes with Mozart gaily improvising in the way we now think of jazz musicians doing the same. It was a really common skill that many musicians had in that time, and I personally would love to see it regain its lost popularity. Unfortunately, current education on classical instruments emphasizes pure performance from written work. Even cadenzas, small improvised sections of music in classical pieces, have now been written out by professionals. A student now learns a cadenza by reading and memorizing it. As a result, there is no difference between it and the rest of the composed piece.
The reason for this decline in classical improvisation is hard to explain. My only hope is that, with time, this old art can be rediscovered and taught to a new generation of classical musicians who can advance it the same way as Jarrett.