• Mitch Riley


In all my years of music training, I can’t recall improvisation ever being encouraged (perhaps by one or two teachers in high school?).

All of us should be creating in our field. This doesn’t mean we should all be writing symphonies or plays or novels, but we should be engaging in a creative way with our skills.

We have to drop this false idea that ‘composing is for composers’, ‘writing is for writers’, as it is impoverishing the arts - actually, our society. We should all be creating.

Perhaps as a singer you feel you do not have the technical skill to compose. You don’t understand harmony well enough. You don't know anything about orchestration. I certainly don’t feel confident enough to organise and develop material in a complex way over a large timespan. But perhaps our idea of composition has been so heavily influenced by thick musical scores and the image of the composer working at the piano or desk that we are failing to see the possibilities.

The key is discovering what is unique to the singer, our own way-in to composition. That uniqueness is that the voice is part of us, the gateway of language and sound, and it exists in our body which exists in space. The history of western vocal composition does not take this into consideration. The voice is considered an instrument almost independent of the body which harbors it, except for when that body must portray a character, and even then, the composition just assumes that something will happen with that body.

The singer is in control of this instrument. We can free sound from the constraints of language. Combine movement and sound. Sound and space, direction, posture. Every detail recounts something for the audience. Once we step outside of the operatic aesthetic, we realise the expressive capabilities of the voice and the voice in space are only partly represented in this form (even if it is incredible).

Specialisation is important. Virtuosity demands it. But it is to the great detriment of the arts and society that creating has not remained the domain of all artists - heck, all people!

Maybe the old arts are becoming stale because we ourselves are becoming stale. In ceasing to create, we have lost access to our own imagination, to our own folly and madness. We can only see things as they presently are, and we can no longer open ourselves to the danger of revealing something new. Opera is opera. Theatre is theatre. Cinema is cinema. What does that even mean? We hold to our strict definitions, even if we are unable to articulate what those definitions are. We are becoming poorer. We are seizing up, like metal rusting, becoming hard. We must find the joy of creation.

With the loss of creation, we have also lost a fundamental part of human experience, of sharing, of being vulnerable in the presence of another, a level of listening and attentiveness to another which is even deeper than chamber music. We have institutionalised the arts, everyone has their specific role, every form its particular boundaries. We must smash them. We must connect with each other, sing together, move together, break language together, break definitions, break boundaries and discover our own unique creative voice at this moment in time with the experiences and memories and feelings and sensations which are unique to each of us.

We are so afraid of losing the past. What will happen to Mozart, to Mahler, to Shakespeare and ...? They will still be there, their presence even more potent as they inspire NEW creations, help to open us up to our own expression in the context of our very different world. And how magical, how moving it will be to return to a work we treasure, to be moved by a melody or harmony or poetry from hundreds of years ago, and know that we too have shared this experience of creation, that we have spoken with Bach, had a dialogue with Donne.

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