One hundred years ago, the composer Alexander Scriabin was hard at work on his unfinished final opus, “Prelude to the Final Mystery.” Although the work was envisioned as a heady mix of theosophy, dance, visual art, and music, Scriabin was first and foremost a composer, and one of the most important musical factors concerning the work unfolded as he progressed.
Improvisation. Scriabin was beginning to create templates for compositional improvisation. Many of his later small piano works were as much templates of the best hand positions for his advanced scales as pieces in themselves; merely writing music down in a fixed format was not enough for the concept he had of what the “Mysterium” should be. Western music of the past eight hundred years had proceeded from relatively simple improvisation-based practices to being fully written down–for the most part–by the beginning of the nineteenth century. But one hundred years ago music was bursting its bounds, it was demanding to be set free of the prison of predetermined notes. Jazz musicians would understand this–as they would understand Scriabin’s harmony–and often come closer to his conception than classical composers in the ensuing century. But Scriabin was not a jazz musician, nor really a classical musician. His conception went far beyond either, to the limits of human consciousness.
Figured-bass improvisation and cadenzas carried ideas and ideals of improvisation well into the “written phase” of music. The ideal of improvising in a disciplined, semi-notated fashion was one Scriabin was heading for in his last work–one beyond jazz lead sheets and figured-bass notations, one that could accommodate the latest developments in music theory, and allow for a kind of improvisation which equaled the “music built from the ground up” ideal of classical music.
Thus was born Compositional Improvisation™.