Improvisation: Then & Now

“The improvisations sounded like compositions, the compositions like improvisations.” We enjoyed hearing such reactons after concerts with our ensemble “Mumelter’s Concertodrom”, which performed intensively in the 1970s. Today, I may pick up the thread of improvisation again – in conjunction with my own texts.

The concept was commissioned by Jeunesses musicales: I want to develop a concert form specifically targeting young audiences, without explanations, none of the trendy mediation projects of the time. At a Concertodrom performance you could feel like you were listening to a rock concert and, to your surprise, learn that you had just heard a piece of “Contemporary Music”. You could also listen to a wedding announcement from the latest edition of the daily local newspaper, played in a trustworthy manner as a baroque aria, and learn amid tears of laughter that every note you had just heard was invented at the moment. You heard a song by John Dowland and thought it was a Chanson improvisation.

This was only possible with outstanding partners: Some were especially well versed in early music and its realms of improvisation, such as the unforgettable organist and harpsichordist Kurt Neuhauser, who was able to transform gigantic organs including their churches into swing; others came from jazz, such as guitarist Harry Pepl and vibraphonist Werner Pirchner, long before his career as a composer. Max Engel with his cello as main instrument was already a member of Nikolaus Harnoncourts Concentus Musicus at that time, but was just as good at playing New Music and a whole range of other instruments. Everyone, however, was able to switch effortlessly between worlds, especially our singer Doris Linser, who—coming from the Munich State Opera—knew how to improvise just as well as sing “Summertime” or a song by Schubert. Once, when she had to cancel short notice, she was replaced by her colleague Susanne Heyng from Munich’s Gärtnerplatztheater at the last moment – in the packed Great Hall of the Mozarteum Salzburg with radio transmission nonetheless. In the sequence of pictures in the header, part of the main ensemble is grouped around the grand piano (from left to right): Max Engel, Martin Mumelter, Doris Linser-Rainer, Werner Pirchner, Kurt Neuhauser.

At the box office, the audience could hand in themes, texts, twelve-tone rows, which we sifted through during the break and set to music in a selection, but especially baroque Chaconne or Passacaglia themes, which served as the basis for wide-ranging improvisations of the entire ensemble. “You could have continued to play your Chaconne forever,” a colleague once said. The fact that a now-famous violinist shared with me that his wish to become a musician had sprouted up at a performance of Concertodrom, which his parents brought him to as a child, still delights me. And there ist the great number of all those who were then in the audience and remained faithful concert goers.

You can’t go on like that for very long, and I think we stopped at the right moment. My experience with Concertodrom has had a lasting influence on my playing. Almost half a century later, I am considering to combine readings of my texts with improvisations on the violin and other forms of improvisations, solo and with partners. It seems to me that could become a very nice framing. We shall see, we shall hear what comes…

See “Dates” for current improvisation projects and/or readings.