Variations and Improvisation

Dear All,

After coming out of a concert this weekend, I realized that there are two areas of “adaptation” that we’ve not so far included in the syllabus and are missing from the Hutcheon book: musical variations on a theme and (jazz) improvisations. Both assume that there is some central identifying text/motif/formula and that the critical issue is measuring how far a composer/performer can wander from that center and “adapt” it to a new context. In some cases (e.g., Coltrane) the navigation away from the core can be very complex and it may be very difficult to keep the core in mind and to predict when the performer is about to return to the central node. In some variations (e.g., the Beethoven “Diabelli” or the Bach “Goldberg”) the theme can be stated quite simply at the beginning and we then have to follow the series of adaptations that follow. But in other cases, the theme may be held in abeyance and not be fully or expansively presented until later in the sequence (e.g., the “Nimrod” variation in the Elgar “Enigma” variations, or the variation no. 18 in the Rachmaninoff variations on a theme by Paganini). I wonder, does this “delayed” full statement ever occur in jazz improvisation or do we always expect to get the basic statement before the adaptation?

I recognize that this raises a very challenging re-description of our understanding of “adaptation” and may not be appropriate for our current course, but I’d like to hear whether any of you might find this a productive direction to take our discussions, later in the semester.

One thought on “Variations and Improvisation

  1. I forwarded this entry to a friend of mine who’s a practicing jazz and latin jazz musician in the city. He also trained at the New England Conservatory in Jazz Studies. Sadly, I can’t speak too much into the jazz situation because my knowledge base is quite limited.

    The issue of Theme and Variations in the Western art repertory definitely came to mind while reading Hutcheons this week. I tend to view T&Vs as a sort of musical puzzle; it’s almost like the composer is issuing a challenge to his/her listeners. How far can I go before you can no longer pick out the theme?

    The “Enigma” variations is an interesting case. It’s actual title is “Variations on an Original Theme.” Elgar’s audience (esp. in turn of the century Britain) was used to having a theme be something that they recognized outside of the piece itself. (Compare to say, Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Henry Purcell.) Elgar was messing with the very ground on which his audience stood, as if to say, “Good luck trying to find my theme! *insert evil laugh*”

    To broaden this out a bit, perhaps a question to ask is: how far is too far in the process of adaptation?

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