Today I moderated a discussion panel with Frederic Rzewski, Lisa Moore, Eliane Lust, and Martin Bresnick. They were all at DePauw for this year's Music of the 21st Century festival. This year's theme was Music and Politics, kicked off with a symposium featuring talks by Bresnick and Carson Holloway. At today's discussion, Frederic commented that Clara Schumann started playing pieces from memory as an attempt to recapture the spontaneity that improvisation had been giving to piano performances. While I knew that Clara has been credited with starting the tradition of piano recitals performed without music, I had never associated it as a substitute for improvisation before. What particularly strikes me is that for the last three years I have been having musicianship students perform "comprovisation" exercises. The students have the choice of fully improvising, embellishing a skeleton melody they compose, or fully composing the exercise. If they do fully compose, I make them perform the piece from memory. My justification for this has been that it makes them fully own their own creativity, knowing their own work enough to reproduce it on demand. I was somewhat inspired by a classmate at Eastman, Abram Wilson. In our studio classes, he would always perform from memory, as he said it was the closest thing in classical performance to jazz improvisation.
Lisa Moore refuses to perform from memory, as it requires more time to prepare. Eliane gave a specific number: memorized recitals take five times as much preparation as recitals with scores. I've never felt this, as I can memorize things very easily. The act of preparing a piece for a big performance lodges it in my memory, requiring no extra work to ensure it stays memorized. And some performances do suffer from the musician hiding behind the score. Lisa's recital tonight did not have this flaw. She was incredibly engaging. But at last night's recital, solo and duo piano works performed by Frederic and Eliane, I sometimes felt a disconnect as the performers stared intently at the scores. The moment that reconnected the audience and performer was created by Frederic improvising. And that brings us full-circle.