The Audience


(…) with [free jazz] … it’s more like, I don’t want to say abstract because I don’t think it’s more abstract, it’s more subjective … the better that we’re connecting, and that we feel honed in and focused … probably, the more attention we can pay to the music. Not even each other but the music, probably, the better it’s going to be for everybody else. And that creates a kind of feedback loop (pr6, PCT)


During the post-concert talk, the existence of a feedback loop between the ensemble and the audience was discussed. A dynamic between the music and the expectations of the audience was in evidence as we attempted to:


(…) create different states of consciousness … moving their minds and emotions in a way that challenges their expectations and the conventional assumptions about what music is (pr4)


Although in constant flux, even partial alignment of the intentions of the performers and the attention of the audience seemed to heighten the collective experience.

[1] For example, Derek Bailey’s Company Week (1982), where improvised music was made by ‘ten musicians most of whom had never previously met and some of whom had not previously improvised.' (Bailey, 1993: 135)

[2] That is not to say we played this way exclusively: it was one of the many methods we could use or chose not to.

Stage Four: Triangulation

The following uses the key pr for Player Reflections and PCT for Post-Concert Talk.

Allow me to start with two declarations. Firstly, there existed pre-conceived ideas. Not necessarily deliberate and certainly not as a group, but on reading the player’s pre-tour reflections, some were immediately conceiving of eventualities and speculating on the unknown based on their experiential knowledge:


I wanted to work in advance on having some quick reacting sounds I could generate myself instead of having to always react to what was going on by processing existing sounds of the other instruments (pr5)


It seemed the completely open improvised platform had guided each player’s preparation as they tried to predict what their role might be. Personally, I chose to play larger, rock-sounding drums as I had in mind the playing style of fusion/contemporary jazz drummer Jim Black: a pre-conceived idea of my own making. 

As discussed above, one of my main objectives for this research project was to challenge the instrumentation of the jazz ensemble. By excluding bass and any accompanying instrument (piano, guitar etc.), it seems I had freed up the roles of the players:


 (…) using [electronics] was a brilliant move as a substitute for other more conventional instrumentations and conceptually put this ensemble in a different zone before we ever played a note … I was amazed at how full and rich the ensemble sounded without any bass or harmonic instruments (pr4)


And this led to an unexpected development:


I enjoyed the sonic openness of this line up, it felt like it could change direction really quickly (pr5)


Although this unconventional instrumentation was another pre-determined action, it contributed to a higher probability of creating non-idiomatic music, and the sonic openness of the lower register influenced the speed at which we could transition, becoming part of our construct moving forward.

Secondly, there existed inherent boundaries. Whether it was the length of each set; the acoustic characteristics of each performance space; the lack of monitors for electronics in certain venues affecting the communication of the group; or the interaction (or lack thereof) with each audience, we were dealing with living parameters in every performance. Here – as with every improvised performance – the challenge of dealing with these boundaries gave momentum to each set:


(…) the sound of the room in free improvisation contexts is really important in helping shape the music because I tend to use a wider range of sonic palettes than I normally would in a conventional jazz gig (pr4)


And ‘because of the greater demands and responsibilities placed on the performer’ (pr4) due to the environment, we had to be more mindful of this in each venue:


Given my sound is reliant completely on the venue’s PA, it did make a large difference to me (and I think consciously or not to the other musicians) when I felt most comfortable with the sound (pr5) 

Challenging the Roles

As previously mentioned, this was our first time playing together as a group. Although there are documented examples of this type of free improvisation, it is still quite unique, even with experienced free improvisers, where: [1]


[it might] often take a while for a group sound to develop and [I] was curious about diving in at the deep end with no rehearsal … not something I do a lot of, despite free improvising a lot (pr5)


Nevertheless, what became quite clear from the very first note of performance was ‘the collaborative spirit and intense listening that the group members demonstrated’ (pr4) during each improvised set, and a determination to challenge the roles of each member of the jazz ensemble. 

In a more conventional jazz setting, the majority of the music is made up of individual solos. Whilst the rhythm section generally plays throughout the performance, the soloists are usually tacit for each other’s solo. In our music however, there was much more contribution from all improvisers throughout the performance as we worked together as a group to create our original soundscapes:


(…) with this group … everyone’s free to play and improvise all the time, and find different ways … and listen for their entrances and move the music and the energy of the piece in different ways (pr4)

Due to the unconventional instrumentation, the relationship of the rhythm section to the soloist was also challenged. In a traditional quartet, the drums mostly play time within the rhythm section, interacting where necessary; whilst the front-line instruments linearly improvise on top of this. Our instrumentation meant this was much less likely to happen. 

Owing to the added fluidity of our re-assigned roles, also meant that each instrument was more active throughout the performance and, therefore, the demands on each player were increased. Evidently, this impacted the endurance of each player, as music made in this way (with multiple roles and quick-changing narratives) demanded constant concentration:


(…) even if you’re not playing, in this context, you’re always engaged (pr4)


Not only were the roles of our instruments challenged, but the acoustic capabilities were expanded too, as each player got:


(…) really unexpected things out of their instruments that are not the usual role of saxophone, trumpet and drums, you know everyone’s taking different roles, sonically (pr5)


As our acoustic instruments were further adapted by electronic processing, the original sound source was hard to locate. Indeed, as we became increasingly inspired by what unusual, other-worldly sounds we could create, the ‘willingness of the ensemble’s members to take risks’ (pr4) facilitated this creativity as we strived to create original textures on our acoustic instruments by using them ‘in very unconventional ways.’ (pr5)

Guided by Sound

The freedom to challenge our roles was key to the development of this music and led us to original and creative textures:

I think purely sound … blocks of sound. It’s like … moving sound and energy (pr6, PCT)


The more we played, the more trust we developed onstage, and this led to us to the formulation of structural devices that aided the narrative of the piece as a whole:


I found that the transitions between different types of musical events became more intuitive and quicker within the ensemble … that within these transitions, more complex structural forms began emerging (pr4)


Intuitively and as a group, we were creating blocks of sound (complexes) with emotional identities that we could shift around and transition between, and this narrative contributed to our larger form:


[we’re trying] not to fall into a pattern where a transition to something new meant stasis in that newly arrived landscape – but rather a more nuanced idea of transitions as formal structures that can project forward and backward, creating an overlapping dialogue of musical objects (pr4)


We were ‘creating much of the detail of [our] music in performance.’ (Berliner, 1994: 92)

Led by our intuition and guided by our embedded musical histories, the importance of sound(s) in the moment, our processing of said sound(s), and our reaction to it was paramount, and there was no differentiation between acoustic and electronic sources:


I’m not thinking electronics at all. I’m just experiencing the sound (pr4)


Solely dependent on monitors for any processed/electronic sounds, however, the amplification in each venue was of great importance. Similar to any other live performance situation, any interference or delay in the aural feedback loop, affected our reaction times and, in this case, had a negative effect on the performance.

Resultant Structure


(…) generally speaking, improvisers don’t avail themselves of the many ‘frameworks’ on offer. They seem to prefer formlessness. More accurately, they prefer the music to dictate its own form (Bailey, 1993: 111)


As discussed, the narrative representation of weaving together blocks of sound to tell a story became very important to the macro picture of each set. In fact, a collective language of improvisation began to develop intuitively as we gradually gained fluency in the multiple ways we could create each sound complex. As Gavin Bryars explained in Improvisation (Bailey, 1993):


We developed a collective language. Not a consciously articulated language, but step by step - each step by a different person - a symbiotic thing. The total exceeded the sum of the individual parts (Bailey, 1993: 92)


As this group progressed, we too became more able and adept at transitioning between these blocks with speed, and this ebb and flow seemed to replace the natural tension and release of traditional harmonic cadencing found in many forms of jazz. [2] Thinking about group improvisation as sound complexes with resultant structures has a long tradition in the history of jazz music: an early example being John Coltrane’s large group improvisation Ascension (1966). As Ekkehard Jost recalls:


In Ascension … the parts contribute above all to the formation changing sound-structures, in which the individual usually has only a secondary importance. Quite plainly, the central idea is not to produce a network of interwoven independent melodic lines, but dense sound complexes (Jost, 1994: 89)


On reflection, the individual was also of secondary importance in our music as we also favoured the creation of group ‘sound complexes’, even though solo-type moments of improvisation existed within this. 

The individual parts contributing to ‘the formation changing sound-structures’ is salient here also. In preparation for (no)boundaries I did contemplate dividing up each set into pre-ordered solo, duet and trio vignettes, alongside full-group improvisation. Having had some success with this format previously in freely improvised music, I thought it might help delineate the sections. However, trying to limit any pre-conceptions, I decided to play complete sets with no breaks, and relied on the intuition of the group onstage in the moment to guide its evolution. As it turned out, these same delineations ended up occurring anyway, but in a more organic way, and the conception of each set as a single entity resonated with a band member:


I tend to find that a lot of the gigs I do with electronics seem to end up in this way. It becomes, quite often, one set… or two… complete sets and I don’t know why that is - it just seems to make more sense. It seems to be more about the journey and it almost feels like it’s kind of wrong to stop something and then wait for applause and then start something again. It feels like it’s this zone that you get into (pr5)

Rarely found in other forms of improvised jazz music where individual pieces are the norm, a member evidenced his thought process concerning this as it related to solo performance, stating his initial impulse was to, similarly, split each set up into short pieces and, as that became unsatisfactory, he asked:


(…) what if the whole set was one long thing? Like a movie, you know, or a big book? With all these different characters and scenes (pr6, PCT)


In this research project, we were free to create our own narratives in abstraction from pre-determined forms, but they were interconnected nonetheless. How we – as a group – made sense of these narratives in one logical set of music, was the challenge.