I was once in the audience for an interview with the American Playwright Edward Albee. His manner was one of intriguing evasion and resistance, not at all unlikeable, but perhaps more tolerable from a distance.
During the interview he told an anecdote about attending an evening of theatre in which the first performance was the “playlet” Ohio Impromptu by Samuel Beckett. After it he found himself out on the streets of New York City walking home despite there being more performances taking place. He said he’d ‘had enough,’ though not in the pejorative sense this phrase usually evokes. The work had been everything he needed from an evening in the theatre and anything additional would haver spoiled or unbalanced the experience, so without even being conscious of his actions, he’d simply left. Not unlike a character from an Albee play, he only began to reflect upon the implications of his behaviour after the fact.
The anecdote has stuck with me, and I was reminded of it while attending a London Sinfonietta gig last week. Perhaps the Ligeti Chamber Concerto, in a nuanced and elegant rendering, is all that is needed from an evening of music, but this isn’t quite what I mean. The first piece on the program was Giacinto Scelsi’s Kya. The first movement is completely captivating, and breathtaking. The second movements is ok, and by the third movement I found myself grieving for the loss of the first movement. It was a powerful reminder of knowing when to say when. The second and third movements seemed to have nothing new to say, and didn’t even say this as well as the first.
I happened to be attending the concert with a friend who knows Scelsi’s work quite well, and has an interest in the tension between improvised and notated music. Scelsi’s most characteristic, ‘second-period’ music was largely created by someone else transcribing his improvised performances, making them also an ‘impromptu’ of sorts though, ironically, captured for posterity inside ‘the work concept’.
I guess the most important part of a good impromptu is knowing when to walk away.