The Audacity of Improvisation



Robert Levin (above) considers improvisation an audacious act that is “ultimately an act of profound humanity.” He takes into account the roles of the performer and audience—a unspoken communication, a temporary bond.

Levin would know more than most people. As one of the world’s great improvisers at the piano (and fortepiano), he’s recognized for his peerless approach improvisation in the style of Mozart, and others, an unusually elusive art form noticeably removed from living traditions such as jazz.

Yet they may have more in common than you might assume.

In a recent Seed Magazine article, writer Amanda Rose Martinez looked at the process of improvisation on a practical and scientific level. Levin was featured in the article, where he described getting into trouble in the middle of a cadenza.

“I was going whole hog,” Levin said, thanks to the permission Beethoven gave his renderers to modulate or change keys during his cadenzas. “I had gone really far afield and was in F sharp major. That’s as far away from C major as you can possibly get because if you keep going, you start to get closer to the other side.”

“It’s like the world,” Levin said, drawing a parallel to the structure of musical scales. “You go more than 12,500 miles around the equator and you might as well keep going.”

At this point, Levin pounded some F sharp major chords, and for a split second, he paused. “I was shocked at how far off I was and how crazy this all was,” Levin said. “I thought to myself: ‘Oh my god! How am I going to get home?’ ”

Levin did find his way back home, as usual, with renewed appreciation of the act he’s devoted his life to.

The article goes on to give a fascinating outline of recent scientific findings aimed directly at unlocking the mental process of improvisation.

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(photo: Robert Levin in rehearsal with the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra by Frank Wing)

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