Bill Sallak

percussion • research • creation

Actual Free Ornamentation (II)

A bit of a thinkpiece before getting into specific examples...

Baroque: Think Bebop

Any musician, not just those with an interest in improvisation, would do well to read Derek Bailey's Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. One of my favorite things about the book is its decoupling of improvisation from genre, which allows Bailey to investigate aspects of improvisation common to several traditions, including Hindustani and Carnatic music, jazz, rock, flamenco, organ, and yes, the Baroque. Another thing that I enjoy is the contrast that Bailey raises between Baroque performers' discussions of performance practice in their own time, and the goals of the modern-day "historically-informed performance" movement. What becomes clear through the comparison is the extent to which improvised Baroque ornamentation was a language unto itself—one of which very few people are native speakers today.

If it's difficult to imagine Baroque music as having a rich improvisational history, observe the number of parallels between it and a more familiar 20th-century genre: bebop. A bebop combo is basically a Baroque continuo group (someone playing melody, someone playing bass lines, someone filling out harmonies on a chording instrument) that uses more complex harmonies and has a drummer; both practices use shorthand notations (chord symbols/figured bass) to suggest a desired harmonic framework; most importantly, perhaps, both practices make use of improvisation within a fairly tightly controlled language and set of expectations. (Wynton Marsalis: “Jazz is not just 'Well, man, this is what I feel like playing.' It's a very structured thing that comes down from a tradition and requires a lot of thought and study." Or as one of my professors said sarcastically in response to a famous bebop musician's assertion that free jazz was superfluous, because bebop was as free a music as anyone could want: "Get a group to play any jazz standard in the key of B-flat, and when it's your turn to solo, hold a B-natural for as long as you can. Then you'll see how free [insert eye roll] it really is.") And while Baroque and bebop are far from contemporaneous, both of their improvisatory languages are non-native for the vast majority of us—we recognize them when we hear them in the same way most Americans can recognize spoken French or German, but speaking them ourselves is an entirely different matter, one that requires significant devotion and practice.

What follows below is a sort of Dick-and-Jane-esque primer for a language of Baroque free ornamentation, divided into two parts: a toolbox of basic materials, and an ecology that describes the safest ways to use those materials.

A Free Ornamentation Toolbox

1) Agrèments or agrèment-like figurations: trills, mordents, appoggiaturas, and turns, either using symbols or written out explicitly, as well as upper- and lower-neighbor embellishments that don't precisely qualify as one of the types listed above.

2) Passing tones: filling in leaps with scalar figures.

3) Arpeggios: either 3a) articulating individual members of a chord in rhythm, or 3b) stating implied harmonies.

4) Rhythmic modifications (usually dotting): either 4a) expressively double-dotting figures that are already dotted, or 4b) delaying a written pitch so that another ornament can be executed smoothly.

5) Free borrowing of common Bach figurations: anyone who plays Bach over a period of time will notice that he seems to favor some melodic figurations over others. and in cases where scales and arpeggios seem insufficient, employing these figurations might be part of an ornamentation solution.

A Free Ornamentation Ecology

1) Be conscious of space.

My concern over space is twofold. One part refers back to a statement I made in an earlier post: that the number and complexity of ornaments will generally increase as tempi decrease. This is another way of saying that ornaments need to have a space in which to be used—if a passage is already dense, ornaments are probably not needed at all.

The other facet of my concern about space is that it is all too possible, using free ornamentation, to turn any movement of Bach into a moto perpetuo by filling every possible space. Part of what gives character to individual movements of Bach are internal consistencies of rhythmic character, and the articulation of rhythmic characteristics requires both attack and silence. Filling every silence makes rhythmic character impossible.

Perhaps my concern about space can be summed up thusly: don't ornament every single thing.

2) Maintain the prevailing harmony, carefully resolving any dissonances you introduce.

At any given point in Bach's music, there is a harmony that is active, even if it is only implied. Whatever ornamentation you add should work within that harmony. Likewise, passing tones and other non-harmonic notes you add should resolve correctly, i.e., fourths above a root resolve down to thirds or roots, not up to fifths; non-leading-tone sevenths above a root resolve down by step, etc. When Bach creates tonal expectations, they are always resolved, even if they are delayed. Any additional tonal expectations your ornaments create need to be resolved locally. 

3) Maintain the contour and range of the area to be ornamented, as well as the manner of entry and exit from that area.

When adding a specific ornament, you're essentially defining part of the music as an "ornament zone," and the ornament you add should elaborate upon the figuration in the area, not obscure it. If the passage to be ornamented generally descends, your figuration should not generally ascend. If the ornamented area has a range of a third or fourth, your figuration should not span an octave. Likewise, make sure that any ornamentation you add does not disrupt the flow of the music immediately before and after the ornament.

4) Maintain the prevailing rhythmic character.

This ties in with my previous comment about space—just as your ornament should be in concordance with the harmony, contour, range, and voiceleading of the original passage, it should also be in general agreement with its rhythmic character. In particular, try to avoid adding ornaments that use rhythmic values more than twice as small as the smallest prevailing note value, i.e., is the movement is mostly eighth notes, try not ornament with anything smaller than sixteenth notes. (Unmetered realizations of agrèments are an exception to this general guideline.)

Next: Analyzing previous free ornamentation examples in light of these guidelines, as well as discussing some new examples.

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