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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    • Chloe Veltman says

      You make an excellent point. Flash mobs are a great way to introduce surprise. Again, though, the off the cuff ness comes from the setting rather than the music itself, generally speaking, in flash mob situations

  1. says

    Spontaneity in music is a relative term. Every live performance is spontaneous. No two are exactly alike. That is why the most fundamental nature of performance, which can exist only in the instant, cannot be captured by a recording. Spontaneity is actually a measure of consciousness. It’s a measure of our awareness of an ever varying system of proportions positioned in the fleeting moments of time.

    The loss of spontaneity in large opera houses and orchestras has evolved because they are organized like highly efficient factories. The musicians have performed the standard repertoire hundreds of times, to the point that they lose consciousness, and thus spontaneity. And new works must be put together in as short a time as possible to keep costs manageable, so the performances are usually little more than glorified sight readings. Most often with new music, one senses an aggressive grasping at the music by the orchestra and stilted performances by the singers that is very unrewarding. There is no room for spontaneity because all thought is oriented toward just hanging on.

    The cadenzas that you mention might be a way of allowing the musicians to step outside the drudgery and re-awaken their consciousness. Singers like Maria Callas needed no such help because she completely embodied every moment of her performances. Presence is the essence of spontonaity.

    The question of spontaneity is especially interesting in regard to electronic music where performances are accompanied by pre-recorded sound. We sense the deadness of boom-box synth tracks behind singers. On the other hand, genuinely rich and complex electronic music can allow for a great deal of spontaneity in live performance. It becomes a sonic universe in which the performer exists and shapes each moment of her being.

    I began using electronics for practical reasons about 15 years ago. Some forms of spontaneity were lost, but other forms of freedom were created. Even with fixed accompaniments the performances vary greatly. The factors include the moods of the performer, the acoustics of the hall, the varying lighting systems, the seating arrangements, the sight-lines, and the relationship between the performer and the public. The emphemerality of music remains.

    The East Bay probably has more free improv concerts than any place else on earth. Mills College has championed and taught free improv for about 40 years which has resulted in a lively community. I found most of it very poor when I lived there for a few months, but occasionally there were some fabulous concerts.

  2. Neil McGowan says

    ” 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.”

    Actually what opera singers usually do is appear in carefully prepared theatrical shows which exploit every possible angle of surprise and innovation,

    You need to get out more.