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World Music Matters

Reviving the lost art of classical improvisation

Audio 10:00
Alexander Kato-Willis
Alexander Kato-Willis Facebook/DR

US-Japanese classical pianist Alexander Kato-Willis is the only person since Beethoven to give a full recital of improvised music "making up every note on the spot for the sake of the audience."


Before the 20th century, improvisation was common place. "Bach was known for improvisation, not composition, so was Beethoven," explains Kato-Willis at a concert he gave this week at the Couvent des Récollets in Paris.

He believes the practice died out as people increasingly wanted more control over everything. From a musical perspective, sticking to notation seemed to provide that.

"But it actually gives you less control," he says. "When you write music beforehand you can’t control it, based on the audience." Whereas composing on the spot allows you to change the entire piece, constantly.

That sense of freedom is what’s driven Kato-Willis to jump away from the Mozart themes he so loves and plunge into the unknown, inventing his recitals as he plays.

He began doing this aged just seven.

"It’s almost like speaking for me. It sounds mysterious, but I try to feel what comes off [the audience], it’s like waves."

The pianist says he’s not that bothered about passing on his music, but hopes to pass on a different way of thinking about musical performance.

"More flexible, non-judgmental, the desire to create something that’s truly alive; if I can pass on that way of thinking to some people, that would be good enough for me."

But the pianist goes one step further, putting the audience back at the very heart of music’s raison d’être. "I really believe it’s what you communicate with music and not music itself that’s important."

A radically refreshing idea that deserves to spread!

Kato-Willis is on a European summer tour.

23 June: Maison du Japon, Cité Universitaire, Paris 75014.

Further details on Facebook.

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