an excerpt of an interview with Bill Dixon that appeared in the Fall 1975 issue of Quadrille, a publication for alumni and friends of Bennington College, pages 6-11.
Improvisation as an art is very misunderstood. When you go to a conservatory for music you study composition. That means composing solely by notation. Improvisation somehow lost its way in western music because at one time white musicians had to do it too. It was once a part of that music. I am speaking in Western terms. Obviously three-quarters of the earth’s population doesn’t do music the way we do in the West. We forget that sometimes. Improvisation, in the West, has generally been something that one did when one was going to add something unusual to a composition. It was a component of composition, not something in itself.
When I was a visiting professor of music at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was a member of the theory committee and I once said to the committee, “if you had a guy working on his Doctor of Musical Arts in composition, would your educational program allow him to come in and say, ‘I have a piece that goes on for an hour,’ and let him stand up and improvise that piece?” They said, “Absolutely not.” I said, “Suppose he came in and had a long piece of paper stretched out on a music stand with notation that was unintelligible to you scrawled on it, but he tells you that he is playing the piece, but in actuality he is just (sic) improvising. Why would that be unacceptable to you?” They said, “Well, it’s not composition.” I told them, “But, it is composition. It just so happens that the person is doing it at the time you’re hearing it, which requires the coming together of a whole lot of things this person has had to know. A whole lot. And in the same way that the notational composer has had to get a whole lot of things together before he can put them down in written form. The only disadvantage is that if it doesn’t ‘happen’ for the improviser everyone is going to hear it.”
It is just that in the West, we have come up with the idea that notational composition is refined, it is of the highest order. And improvisation is less than that. Now we know that Bach, Beethoven, Hayden, Mozart were all improvisers. We know that from history. Before people became so caught up in notation, that was part of the way people did music.
In black music, improvisation has not been an adjunct, it has been the music. We have worked on improvisation. We have worked on it the same way other people have worked on notational composition. You should be able to listen to two pieces, say a notational piece by Webern and a John Coltrane piece where the sketches are laid out like say on “Welcome,” as two beautiful pieces of music. They should be judged on the basis of beauty rather than saying, “Oh? Trane? He’s just improvising, whereas we know how long and laboriously Webern worked.” I can tell you this. I can play a piece of music and no one will know whether it’s improvised right then or whether it was thought out 25 years ago, or whether it’s notated. So can Cecil (Taylor). So can a lot of people. Does that make it less?
In the last 20 years, more musicians of all persuasions have been forced to deal with improvisation, sometimes in very bizarre ways. It is acceptable in certain circles for John Cage to talk about chance or indeterminacy or something like that and then roll dice to decide which of the things he is going to do or use in a piece, but these are literary terms. These are intellectual terms. They are less interesting to me as music producing devices than they are rather interesting as conversational devices. My feelings are that improvisation as practiced by black musicians has a stigma attached to it because the people who have done this the most and developed it were not white.
Notation is a very limited thing anyway, for everyone, I mean, as an absolute. At best it can be only a very hip guide, if you know what it is you want to be guided toward. If you think you are going to play a piece of music that was done in the 12th century the way it was done in the 12th century, you’ve got to be a fool. Unless, that is, you have some guy from the 12th century hiding in the wings who could give some good idea how it is supposed to sound.