Last month, I traveled to Halberstadt, Germany, for the second time to take part, once again, in a contemporary vocal music master class hosted by the John-Cage-Orgel-Stiffung. This time, part of the curriculum was a daily improvisation class. 

Halberstadt is home to the ultimate rendition of John Cage’s “As slow as possible” for organ. The composition plays day and night in a gutted church next to the Cage House (or Cage Haus, precisely), a kind of museum and concert space dedicated to Cage which forms part of a complex that looks like a convent, repurposed many times over. The rendition of “As slow as possible” playing in the church is set to end in the year 2640. This is roughly the time it will take for the organ to break down (the piece started in 2001) – hence “as slow as possible.” There are events scheduled around each harmonic change (here is a lovely write up in the New York Times about the last cord change). The harmony changed last September a few weeks before I visited for the first time. It was the first harmonic change in seven years. The harmony will change again this coming February. “It’s getting very energetic,” one of the keepers of the organ, a tall, Zenned-out older man, Mr. Neugebauer, told me in jest last year, making a kind of wavey motion of chaotic change with his hand. 

And next to this monumental piece of planning, we singers of the masterclass, 11 in total, entered at first one by one and then in groups, an empty room to learn improvisation. It was in a small, ground floor room with a view across the courtyard at the Cage Haus and the gutted church where the organ hummed. There were curtains on the two windows and a forgotten extension cord in the corner. It was a blank slate otherwise. 

Composer and improvisor Christoph Ogiermann never knew what he was going to teach us, he told me, when he started an improvisation class. Makes sense. When I interviewed Mr. Ogiermann for my podcast (you can listen here), I asked him if the fact that he comes from Germany, which I think of as a strict, analytic, bureaucratic culture, has made him go 180 degrees in the other direction. Because one only need be around him a few minutes to know that he has an oppositional attitude which only works because he is German and in Germany. He told me that, yes, he would hope that it is “a kind of freedom thing he’s doing” but that he’s also afraid it’s actually the other side of the same thing. And if you think of how German experimentation out-shocks any other kind of avant-garde (Regietheater, anyone?) it makes sense. 

As part of his improvisation class, we were given a copy of Canadian violin improvisor Malcolm Golstein’s “The Politics of Improvisation” a kind of manifesto consisting only of questions. It begins with: 

What would happen if, in an orchestra, 
a violinist (one of thirty or more) would get so 
carried away with a musical passage, so as to begin 
to express their own individual sense of that passage? 

What would happen to the violinist?
What would happen to the orchestra? 
What would happen to the conductor? 
What would happen to the audience? 
What would happen to the music? 

This opening seems to be designed to send any classical musician, even those of us who don’t play in orchestras, on a downward spiral of anxiety. The violinist gets fired? The orchestra falls apart? The conductor has a heart attack? A fit of anger? Throws a shoe at the violinist? Once you get down to the audience and the music, though you become less sure. The audience is charmed? The music improved? Or changed only imperceptibly? 

The questions go on: 

How do you judge a concert of improvised music? 
How do you judge a concert of Classical, European music? 
Is there a difference? 
Why do we judge concerts/pieces of music? 

Tell me please, do you judge each tree so critically? 

I find the last question, here, one of the least successful of the entire manifesto, because it is not asked honestly. But it could be asked honestly: How do judge a piece of music? How is that different from how you judge a tree? 

Here I will share that rarely did our improvisations escape the judgment of our instructor. Some things Mr. Ogiermann would say after our attempts, often given with the attitude of a correction: Use only your voice this time. Use other parts of the room – the wall, the door, anything. Don’t repeat the same sound more than once. Don’t react at all to the other person improvising. You kept going, though the improvisation kind of finished here. Use the laughter as part of the improvisation! 

The last was shouted out during an improvisation, implying that there was a clear difference between laughter that was “unintended” and laughter that was improvised (we all tended to do a lot of the latter, I noticed, as theatrical laughter seems to have become a contemporary vocal music cliché). It’s easy, of course, to imagine the difference between laughing as part of improvising or laughing at improvising – but I would add again to Goldstein’s manifesto: Is there a difference between unintended laughter and improvised laughter? Can something a performer does during an improvisation not be part of the improvisation? How can you tell? 

At the fist improvisation class, I was unprepared. I was unprepared to improvise – that, in and of itself, raises more Goldsteinian questions. It gradually emerged that I needed to be alone. I was asked to be in the room alone for 4 minutes then repeat what I did verbatim as a performance. This is a kind of anti-improvisation improvisation exercise. 

What did I do? I closed the windows and drew the curtains and - it being 10a.m. and time to warm up – began to sing sirens. I leaned against the wall humming smoothly up and down my range, then crossed to the other side and did the same. 

As with anything that was unintended (I heard Mr. Ogiermann saying “fantastic!” when people faltered while performing their pieces at a final dress rehearsal), Mr. Ogiermann found the non-improvisation to be a success. “Do you know when you crossed to the other wall?” he asked. “At about the halfway mark. Fantastic. This could be a performance.” Then I was asked to do the same, but every time my voice cracked or faltered, to stay with the crack or the falter, lean into it, repeat it. It gradually devolved into something that sounded like radio static. Fantastic

From Goldstein again: 

When confronted with music that incorporates improvisation, 
why do most musicians feel threatened and say “anyone can do that”? 
Because anyone can do it, does that make it less valuable? 
And if anyone can do it, would each person do it the same way? 
And, if the professional has lived with and played their instrument 
for many years, would their realization be different and, of so,
in what way(s)? 

And besides, do you really believe anyone could do it? 

We tended to all dine together in the evenings at the Cage Haus and, at one such dinner, Mr. Ogiermann informed us before we started eating that our dinner was an improvisation. It changed nothing, as none of us were in the mood for any antics after a long day (I did clank my fork on a plate at one point then abandoned the attempt because I saw no one had the energy, least of all me). But really this was bringing to life another question from the “Politics of Improvisation”: Why is “improvisation” a special word… when, in fact, we improvise all day long and in everything we do? 

But do we improvise in our daily life, really? Isn’t improvisation by nature a performance? Isn’t that why we need a special word – to denote the act of courage which is stepping in front of an audience with nothing but yourself to offer? I ask myself this when I improvise alone – I have tried to add this to my daily practice. Before I begin to sing, I simply make sounds. During our interview, Mr. Ogiermann told me that this is how he practices violin, by improvising, finding different sounds he can make. I have not found a way to improvise alone and still feel like I am improvising. So, this is my little task now, to see if I can learn to improvise when there’s no one listening. 

I’ll end with another passage from “The Politics of Improvisation,” one that stuck with me because, almost like a poem, it comes with a little stab at the end: 

Have you ever, in the act of doing something, 
realized it would be more meaningful 
to be doing something else? 

What would happen to a classical musician 
at that moment performing a sonata? 
What would happen to an improvising musician 
at that moment playing music? 

What would happen to your life?