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December 4, 2012

I've been thinking about how much audiences seem to value the element of spontaneity in their musical experiences -- and how much this element is lacking from some types of music, notably western opera and classical concert music, today.

Through music history, "in-the-momentness" has taken on many forms, from the way in which composers like John Cage used chance as a compositional tool, to rock musicians performing stage dives in concert arenas, to jazz musicians improvising solos. Even classical music and opera once embraced its off-the-cuff side through improvised cadenzas in solo concerti and operas during the Baroque and early classical eras.

But over the past couple of hundred years or so, it's fair to say that classical music and opera have left little room for the extemporaneous act. And sadly, it's that very quality that often makes art come most alive for audiences.

In recent years, some artists have been making efforts to inject a little spontaneity back into classical music and opera events.

Organizations like Opera on Tap and Classical Revolution have done much to loosen things up by creating experiences that, because they often take place in casual settings like bars, at least allow for more in-the-moment interactions with audiences.

But I'm wondering if it's time for classical music and opera organizations -- including the big ones who typically attract the best talent -- to make more of an effort to bring spontaneity back into the fold in terms of injecting it into the art itself, and not just by creating an atmosphere/setting conducive to less formal/practiced behaviors.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about: It's common enough for opera singers to stand in front of a piano at an art gallery or museum and sing some lovely arias by the likes of Schubert and Wolf. But what if the singers involved were to respond in the moment to a work of art (or entire exhibition) in a museum by creating improvised music rather than always singing perfectly polished pre-existing material?

The outcome doesn't have to have lyrics, an instrumental accompaniment, or even a melody. The singer's response could simply take the form of a beautiful, powerful voice and body "in conversation" with a painting hanging on a wall. The same experience could be created using instruments other than the voice.

Obviously, it would take a brave coterie of singers and instrumentalists to do this. Classically-trained performers aren't typically trained to improvise, though I'm finding that musicians coming out of conservatories these days do seem to have acquired a broader musical palette than was the case in previous generations, and have developed considerable chops in areas such as improvising and pop music backtrack playing.

In fact, I bet there are quite a few top-of-the-line artists out there who are closet improvisers. I wonder if they can be coaxed into coming out of the closet and having a go at celebrating the spontaneity in their art?


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