Introduction: This conversation began as an interview, but swiftly became an interesting exchange between Daniel Rojas and Avan Yu. So Anita Levy took a ‘back seat’, assuming the role of most interested listener.
Anita: Can you begin by telling us a little about where you came form, and how that background affects you?
DR: ‘I was made in Peru, assembled in Chile, and exported to Australia when I was six years old’.
I’ve always loved Latin American music, and at the same time I’ve been fascinated by classical music. At first I felt that they were mutually exclusive – that classical music is high art and Latin American music is folk, popular, indigenous, with no place in classical music. And then as I studied composition at the University of Sydney, both of my teachers, Anne Boyd and Ross Edwards, really encouraged me to look at my cultural background, drawing inspiration from the styles I had encountered in my childhood. I realised it was really part of who I was.
In a lot of Latin American music there’s this really interesting mix of melancholy and joy, spontaneity and improvisation.
AY: Is your love of improvisation something which has emerged from your piano studies? or something which came about recently?
DR: I have always been improvising, making music up on the spot, even before I learned to notate it. I always thought it was just the natural thing to do, that everyone did it.
When I was about four or five, I’d be singing, making things up. Later on when I learned an instrument, I’d do the same thing on a piano. When I started learning how to read and write music, I realised that the great composers wrote down their music: so I was going to do the same. I fantasised about being like Mozart and Beethoven, like Stravinsky and I wrote down my music. And then I discovered a library which actually had music scores. I’d borrow them and follow the music, amazed at all these dots. This was what these dots sounded like. This was what these sounds looked like on a page. This for me was a revelation.
AY: Has your improvisation developed and changed over the years? in what way?
DR: My improvisation has changed a lot over the years. I think over time technically you improve and musically you improve. The older you get, the more you understand about music, the more you understand about life. This comes into your improvisation: a greater maturity.
Over the years I’ve dabbled in various genres as well – not only in classical music but also jazz, Latin American and other forms of world music. Over time I incorporate these things into my improvisation.
AY: I think, though, that improvisation is not entirely random. There is a big difference between an amateur playing random notes on a keyboard and somebody improvising who knows how to improvise. And the more experience you have, the more complex and interesting that improvisation will become.
DR: Absolutely. The quality of the ideas matures. And your negotiation of structures also matures.
AY: Do you think about form when you improvise?
DR: I do. Sometimes more consciously than other times. Sometimes I do it completely unconsciously.
AY: I know in jazz if you do a number with a group of musicians, you have to decide ahead on the structure.
DR: Exactly. You need to follow the pattern of the song. I do that as well. But I actually like free improvisation, where you actually have to create the forms yourself.
AY: What do you think of what Keith Jarrett does in his free forms? He’s plays standards but then some of his music is really random and interesting. Is this your style as well?
DR: Some of it, yes. He’s been a big role model.
But then I also look at various other genres outside jazz as well, like classical music, Bossa Nova, Latin American, Peruvian music, Afro Cuban music, Afro Caribbean music, Argentinian tango. They are the genres that I mostly resonate with. So I mix all those up. But I love what we have in classical music and contemporary music as well.
Sometimes I like to explore colours, textures, moods. And at other times I like to explore thematic ideas, rhythmic ideas. Then invariably two or more of those things come together and you start forming the identity of a piece.
I use improvisation a lot to compose, as well. The way I compose, I’ll sit down at the piano, I’ll make something up and improvise, whatever comes up.
AY: So would you recommend improvisation for young people? What benefits do you see in improvising within musical education? I find this is generally lacking in the classical training. When you talk about composers like Mozart and Beethoven, they were all great improvisers. And even people like Wilhelm Kempf, who used to improvise cadenzas on the spot
DR: That’s what I do when I perform my piano concertos. I improvise the cadenzas. And in the performers’ notes for my first piano concerto I asked the performer to improvise a cadenza. But I did include an optional one within the score that Zubin Kanga created for the world premiere.
AY: Do you have a clip of that on your website?
DR: I have me improvising that cadenza: www.danielrojas.com.au
AY: Let’s go to improvisation in educating young people. Nowadays when you learn classical piano you learn scales, you learn studies, sonatas. There is no element of improvisation. Improvisation is simply not part of the syllabus. And my question to you, since you are a great improviser yourself, is what can a young person get from doing improvisation at a young age?
DR: They get to understand that music is a lot more organic than sometimes it’s made out to be, that they have choices of interpretation, that they can be creative, with any score.
AY: So that they can feel they are not playing ‘dead people’ music.
DR: That’s true. Even if you are playing ‘dead people’s’ music, the music has sforzando. it has crescendo, diminuendo, it has phrase marks. But you are the interpreter. Right? When you improvise, you realise that you have all these freedoms. So it’s good practice for you to be creative with scores which are written. That’s an immediate application. If you are improvising you can say ‘I want to create a phrase, or improvise with a phrase which culminates at a particular note, or perhaps changes tempo at this particular place, or uses dynamics in this manner.’ You can then apply the same level of creativity in the interpretation of a piece which was written down by the composer. So it actually stimulates the creativity in you when you are performing.
AY: And you realise the room that you have, the freedom. Because sforzando can mean very different things. When somebody writes ‘piano’, it’s all relative really. Rather than blindly following orders from a composer, if you understand that he has indicated piano there because he wants a different colour, but not necessarily as soft as possible. And I guess improvisation could free your mind to that possibility and just open it up, instead of having this box of rigid academic scholarly reading.
DR: It reminds you that the teacher is only helping you to understand the score, so that you can then take the liberties that you need to make your own interpretation based on your understanding of the piece. But still you have this freedom as the interpreter of the piece.
AY: So how do you teach that?
DR: How do you teach improvisation? I’ve thought a lot about this, because I do teach improvisation. One of the most important things to establish right at the beginning is that students are allowed to make their own choices. There is no such thing as a mistake. There is no such thing as better or worse.
AY: Wasn’t it Keith Jarret who said that there are no wrong notes in jazz? It depends on what comes after the note. So if you think you have played a wrong note, but then you resolve it, then everything’s fine.
DR: That’s absolutely right. Yes.
We start with playing one single note. What can you do with one note? What can you do with two notes? And two random notes? You don’t even need to think about which note, what works and what doesn’t work. We don’t think in those terms. Later on when you have a bit more confidence, then you can start making those more important harmonic choices. Soon after, we start thinking ‘what sort of harmonic language do I want to use, what sort of sound world do I want this piece to have?’ And we do this consciously at first, though later on it becomes an automatic process. But at first we need to think little more about it. So how are we going to go about creating that sound world? Is it going to be a major sound world? Is it going to be minor? Perhaps it’s going to be really exotic?
So the work is given various options and I help the student to find what they want. If they want something that sounds really exotic, I show them how that might work, which scales they might use and they can start playing with those forms. Then perhaps I’ll introduce a little bit of a beat in the left hand and they try to fit around that. So there’s a bit of structure already happening. Then we can start looking at further implications.
‘So what do you want, what sort of idea do you want to come with next? Do you want to have an ostenato in the left hand?’ Something like that. At some point it becomes like a composition lesson, but instantaneous composition. It’s all step by step, in a context which is very liberating for the pianist. Usually I’m assuming that the pianist has already played music before and has a reasonable technique. I teach individually or sometimes in classes, either for quite experienced pianists or sometimes children. But they’ve usually been playing the piano for a few years.
Improvisation helps them realise that they themselves are composers. I think even when we are approaching another composer’s work, in a way we are composers as well. But in a different sense, not in the sense that we are creating a harmony and a rhythm from scratch. Rather, the interpretation is really our responsibility because the composer, a lot of the time, isn’t around to tell us how to interpret it. We have to find an approach which is our own approach, unless we want to sound like another pianist.
AY: I had an experience playing for a living composer in Canada. His piece was quite rhythmic with a lot of cross rhythms like seven against thirteen, etc. I wanted to be a well behaved pianist learning the music, so I worked out exactly where each note should fit. But his comment after I played the piece through for him was ‘can it be less mathematical?’ When he writes seven notes, seven per beat, he wants seven per beat but with a freedom for me to find. He actually wanted me to find the relationship between rhythms rather than calculating where each note had to fall between that, and so on.
DR: He wanted you to feel where it went rather than cerebrally work it out.
It’s like Chopin’s Fantasy Impromptu. The same thing comes to mind. You’ve got those three against four figures. A lot of pieces are that mid- and late-romantic stage where they really tried to make time less rigid and more fluid. Those composers really had to work hard to work out how they were going to do it, because they were thinking way outside the box.
AY: Because in Bach’s time it would have been wrong to play three against four.
DR: Exactly. It’s the same sort of thing. When I was a kid learning, it was a lot of work for me until I learned to relax into it and actually feel one note against the other. Then I realised it was more about the texture and the timbre it created, rather than about the precision. I started feeling that a lot more, the sum of the interaction rather than the meticulous mathematical contact.
AY: Right. It would be good to see more of this in education programs: the subject of improvisation.
DR: I think so too. It would free up kids a lot more and when they make a mistake they would probably have more tools.
AY: ‘Liberate’ I think is a great word. Because it’s what teens want. They want to be liberated, be free to express themselves. and improvisation can be a great way for them to achieve that, that inner freedom and that inner desire to express what they want.
DR: Very true. A topic often not talked about.
AY: This whole interesting subject relates to piano music. It’s unusual and interesting and relates a lot to you. Because it’s in your work, and in your life, and your background as well: this whole improvisation is that spontaneity in the music.
DR: As a tool for composition as well, which is important. And also as a tool to help us to interpret music in a more creative way. All those things.
Anita: Thank you both for your excellent conversation!
Daniel Rojas having fun with Latin Rhythms.
Daniel Rojas’ improvises the cadenza to his own “Piano Concerto No. 1, The Latin Piano Concerto”, composed in 2006. In this very gutsy rendition, one can hear the strong Latin influences in the orchestra and his improvised solo, including Amerindian, tango and Afro-Cuban gestures, as well as jazz, avant-garde and Classical-Romantic influences.
Daniel Rojas, Pianist (also composer of this work)
Sydney University Symphony Orchestra
George Ellis, Conductor
Performed at the Great Hall of the University of Sydney, Saturday 18 May, 2013.