It was Carl Orff who said that 'three quarters of mankind knows no written
music and needs no written music'. Whilst we subconsciously accept that,
to few of us does it rise to the surface and say 'if you assume that
world music is mostly intuitive, it makes your total reliance on written
music somewhat restrictive and ignores the oral traditions which stem from
musical self-awareness'. If our inner voice does manage to persuade us,
what bewilderment ensues: 'How can I play music without a score? I know
some good tunes but I don't know the harmonies.' I at this instance recall
such a floundering moment years ago when a friend at the
keyboard was asked to play a well-known tune and panicked without a printed
We can hardly blame individuals, or even society generally. Growth of
civilisation has brought developments which include written traditions of
such wealth that we attend to them and neglect the unwritten and improvised.
Fortunately oral traditions are still alive and well in some regions in
which they first developed; and even the West possesses a minority of dedicated
performers immersed in the age-old vitality of improvisation. Perhaps the
most surprising is the French tradition of organ improvisation encouraged
by the structure of the Mass. Its most distinguished proponent in the post-war
years has been Messiaen, and for him it was a natural development from the
traditions he studied, understood and used in his music.
Ideally, what it required of us who claim a balanced view of music is
investigation of the diversity of world folk music and the wealth of improvised
music now on CD performed by those who keep the styles and techniques alive.
The gift we then receive is mysteriously beautiful, and strong. We are then
in tune with our musical awareness, long ago buried beneath 'civilised habits'
Basil Ramsey, 22 February 1999