Free Improvisation - Method and Genre

Artistic Research in Free Improvisation and Improvisation in Experimental Music


Michael Francis Duch

The National Norwegian Artistic Research Fellowships Programme


Department of Music, NTNU, September 2010

This project concerns artistic research in Free Improvisation as both a method and what was arguably becoming a genre within Experimental Music in the latter part of the nineteen sixties. A central issue in my project has been to seek to identify what separates Free Improvisation from other improvised musics, as well as to identify experimental compositions from the abovementioned period that can be related to the characteristics of freely improvised music. A focal point for this research has been the composer and improviser Cornelius Cardew, and the impact the ensemble AMM had on his attitude and approach to music-making in the same period. Cardew’s growing interest in radical politics towards the end of this decade is related to his radical music making during the same period. This interest can be viewed as a democratic and socialist approach to music, as opposed to John Cage being inspired by individualist anarchism.


The concept of freedom has also been a central topic for discussion, particularly concerning the boundaries between composition and improvisation. I have therefore used compositions by Cardew, as well as the New York-school and Fluxus-composers, as a departure point for practice methods for Free Improvisation, seeking to both identify and separate indeterminate and experimental compositions with little or no improvisation involved, as opposed to a form of composed improvisation - or what Cardew referred to as ”guided improvisation”.



I have focused on investigating and trying to understand the compositions I refer to by my own experience through performing them in various formats, as well as interpreting and performing them with students through teaching in the form of workshops at various Universities. Combining historical practices with my own artistic activity and research lays the ground for placing my artistic research within this tradition. As such, my approach to this topic has opened up for different perspectives and discourses concerning the topic of freedom in improvisation, both as a method and genre. My supervisors during this research-project have been Bjørn Alterhaug and John Tilbury.


My research on free improvisation and its relation to experimental music has been that of an artistic rather than a traditional academic one. The knowledge I have acquired through my research has been largely attained through my own experiences by freely improvising and performing experimental compositions. The following essays have been written based on these practical experiences, and are thus to be viewed as my critical reflections on my own artistic research. In addition to this I have studied the research and writings made by others within the same field, and I have compared my findings and views with theirs. A central paradox in my research has been the exploring of free improvisation through various composed experimental musics; something that will be discussed in my essays included here. This is also why I have chosen Cornelius Cardew as a focal point for my research, since he was actively involved in free improvisation and experimental music: as a performer, composer and writer.


I believe my historical research on the writings, compositions and recorded music of Cardew and his contemporaries, in combination with my artistic research during this period, has been particularly fruitful. An obvious example being when I have performed composed experimental music or when I have used improvisational exercises by others. I would certainly not have gained the same knowledge by only doing traditional historical research, or research exclusively based on my own artistic projects. In my experience, having had the opportunity to combine the traditions of academic as well as artistic research is one of this programme’s main strengths. This combination, I believe, is particularly important for art and musics that are abstract and experimental, and therefore often can be difficult to evaluate. I therefore find it interesting that Eddie Prévost offers meta-music as a possible optional term for free improvisation, suggesting that this music is different from other musics and, thus, cannot be evaluated based on the same criteria as we use when evaluating and criticising other musics (Prévost, 1995)


Although I have chosen to highlight three recordings that are to function as my main documentation as well as artistic results, I have also been involved with several other recordings during my research period. These are listed and included as an appendix. The recording of Kim Myhr’s Stems and Cages for Trondheim Jazz Orchestra was a valuable experience, as it confronted the problems of free improvisation in a large ensemble, which in this case consisted of 13 improvisers. Myhr chose to solve this challenge by gathering the whole ensemble, making us improvise together.  This was recorded, and Myhr later composed his piece based on the collective improvisations of the ensemble. The recording of Eirik Hegdal’s Elevator is a composition that involves almost no improvisation at all, but which was originally intended to do so. The trio “en en en”, consisting of Hegdal, Tor Haugerud and me, was originally supposed to improvise between the different parts of the composition of Elevator. Our music and way of playing can be heard on the CD Rød & Blå, which was released together with Elevator in the spring of 2010.


“en en en” plays freely improvised music that has close ties to jazz, although it rarely sounds like the busy, loud and energetic music which is commonly associated with free jazz. Like the quartet Lemur, whose music and method I have written an essay about, the music of the trio en en en can also be mistaken for being composed or planned in advance. However, in my experience, this is one of the ensembles that I am involved with that most often offers the least predictable musical outcome. The last of the seven CD’s that were released in 2010, but before this text was written, is a recording of a trio consisting of myself and the Americans Tony Conrad and C. Spencer Yeh. It documents a musical meeting of freely improvised music of a more minimalistic nature that took place in Oslo in the winter of 2008. None of us had played together before, or after for that matter, although we were recently offered to play at the French festival Densités in the autumn of 2010.


The three main projects that are presented on three separate CD’s are described and analysed in three different essays presented here as a part of my critical reflection. I have also been involved with several other recordings which are not yet commercially released; including Stephen O’Malley’s composition Petite Géante which is to be released on Prisma, a studio recording of solo improvisations, a duo with Ingar Zach, a recording with Lemur from Grefsen church in Oslo, as well as Lemur featuring Julia Eckhardt on viola recorded in Brussels in 2008. All of these recordings could have been discussed here as they are highly relevant to my research, and hopefully this is something I can pursue later.


The two remaining essays are not directly related to any specific recordings, concerts or musical collaborations, but are general reflections on the topic of my research. One of the essays discusses the issue of why free improvisation should be seen as both a method and as a genre of its own, while the other discusses free improvisation and experimental music in relation to the ethic, philosophy and politics of anarchism. In addition to these five essays of critical reflections, I have included full lists with details of all my concerts and talks and workshops that I have been involved in during my research period, as well as lists of recordings and references and a comprehensive list of all of the compositions I have worked on and performed during these three years. I believe that the preface will be valuable for the reader in order to understand my interest for this subject as well as my own background and reason for including those that have been involved in this project.


References to relevant discursive fields

My work relates to the main published material in the field of free improvisation as well as improvisation in experimental music written by Derek Bailey, Michael Nyman, Edwin Prévost, Cornelius Cardew, John Tilbury and Christian Wolff, amongst others. In addition to this literature, which is directly related to my research, I have also studied literature on improvisation in general. This can be viewed in the list of references included here as an appendix.


During the period of my research I have worked with other fellow researchers within the same programme, including Andreas Aase, Øyvind Brandtsegg, Tone Åse, Trond Engum, Else Olsen Storesund and Victoria Johnson, as well as researchers from outside of Norway, for example Neil Davidson at the University of Glasgow. The musicians I have worked with during this period, many of whom are central figures within free improvisation and experimental music, are also a part of my references to relevant discursive fields.


Contribution to new artistic developments

Through this research-project I have tried to identify the main differences between John Cage’s indeterminacy, and the use of improvisation in experimental music by composers such as Cardew, Skempton and Wolff. By doing this I believe I have identified the main characteristics of freely improvised music within this improvisational area, and how this method of music-making can be practiced in order to become a better performer within this form of music; both improvising solo and in free ensemble improvisation. I believe I have also identified some ideal elements to be used when composing for improvisers, or “composing improvisations”, which is something I shall discuss further in the following essays.


My own background from jazz has influenced both my view and approach to improvisation in different settings and contexts. This combination of free improvisational practices, rooted in AMM and jazz improvisation, are also something that I have both incorporated in my own methods and used in my teaching. These experiences will therefore be a central issue in my contribution to new artistic developments within my field of research. Whether these methods can be seen as of artistic value, or purely as a means to an end, may also be a topic of discussion. My own personal artistic development will be discussed in my critical reflection in the form of essays, and are documented in the form of three CD’s as well as being presented in the form of a concert.


Final result

The final result of my artistic research will be presented in the form of a concert, three CD’s and a final critical reflection, as well as the Viva Voce. At the concert I will present some of my areas of research through a solo-performance, in addition to performing with two of my main ensembles throughout this period:


  • A trio with John Tilbury (piano) and Rhodri Davies (harp),
  • The quartet Lemur with Lene Grenager (cello), Bjørnar Habbestad (flute) and Hild Sofie Tafjord (French horn).


The music of this concert will address the different methods I have been working on throughout my research-period, and will therefore also include some experimental compositions from the late nineteen sixties.



The final result will be presented in the form of a concert in Nidarosdomen, the Nidaros Cathedral, in Trondheim on Saturday 18th of September this year as well as three recordings and three essays as part of my documentation. This concert will be open for the general public and will also be a part of the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU. The Viva Voce is planned to be held six weeks later on Saturday the 30th of October at Dokkhuset, Trondheim.



Three commercially released recordings, each accompanied by an essay where I analyse and describe each one of these recordings, will also function as part of my documentation and of my critical reflection. These three recordings are by the same ensembles that will be presented at the concert: the trio of Tilbury, Davies and myself and the quartet Lemur, as well as a solo performance. The recordings are of freely improvised music as well as compositions relating to the field of my research, documenting different aspects of this project. In addition to the three CD’s mentioned, an additional four CD’s will also function as part of my documentation. Although not given the same weight, they are also of importance in showing the diversity in my artistic research.


Compulsory parts of the program

I have attended all compulsory courses and seminars throughout this period. This also includes both teaching and attending seminars at my own University, as well as talks and workshops at the Universities of Bergen, Gothenburg and Glasgow.


Method of Research

“It was easier to know it than to explain why I know it. If you were asked to prove that two and two made four, you might find some difficulty, and yet you are quite sure of the fact.” Sherlock Holmes (Doyle, 2005:34)


As the quote above implies, not all facts and knowledge can be “proven” or even presented in print, despite being facts or knowledge which one is quite sure of, or “simply knows is right”, so to speak. Describing a particular method of research connected to my work is difficult, as parts of the knowledge I have attained through artistic activity are of a quality that only to a certain extent can be explained in writing. Such “tacit knowledge” (Polanyi 2000) is often mentioned in connection with action learning and research, which is quite complex and still quite young and unexplored as a research method. An artistic research project such as this is similar to action research and action learning because it also involves and depends on reflective processes as an important part of problem solving. The following is a short presentation of this research method as I find it essential to my own work and methods.


In action research/learning knowledge is gained by action and for action, or simply put: “learning by doing”. Tacit knowledge is also an essential part of action research/learning implying a knowledge that cannot be transferred from a person to another in form of writing or speech. Cato Bjørndal has compared the typical action researcher with Sherlock Holmes and the similar methods applied to solve crime by the fictional character of Arthur Conan Doyle; searching for clues, interpreting them, planning and testing new interventions which ultimately leads to new clues. The method of the action researcher, as well as that of Sherlock Holmes works in a spiral-like pattern and is often used in collaboration with others (Furu, 2007:114).


My supervisor, Professor Bjørn Alterhaug, has pointed out the similar characteristics between improvisation and action research/learning:


“Both improvisation and action learning/research have strong roots in, for example, major thinkers and educators such as Donald Schön, Paulo Freire and to a certain extent John Dewey. Freire’s dialogical consciousness-raising work touches especially on improvisation and, not least, those scientific theoretical discussions which currently emphasize that theory and practice are two separate worlds of knowledge. Action learning/research and improvisational work appear to share the fact that in their own separate ways they seek to build bridges between theory and practice and, through their particular forms of practical intervention and participatory dynamics, seek to give expression to social participation and solidarity.” (Furu, 2007:134)


I believe that Alterhaug here identifies the most important aspect of action learning/research; where it seeks to build bridges between theory and practice. Improvisation concerns a great deal of tacit knowledge that is difficult to explain to others in any other way than by improvising. This can also explain why some might say that the only way to learn how to improvise is by improvising. One can say that free improvisation is a method of doing artistic real-time research discovering new sounds and techniques, often in the presence of an audience. It may be a trivial fact, but I still find it interesting that Dr. Watson described Sherlock Holmes as a virtuoso violinist that often engaged in eccentric improvisations, as well as being a master of logic and the science of deduction:


“When left to himself, however, he would seldom produce any music or attempt any recognised air. Leaning back in his armchair of an evening, he would close his eyes and scrape carelessly at the fiddle which was thrown across his knee. Sometimes the chords were sonorous and melancholy. Occasionally they were fantastic and cheerful. Clearly they reflected the thoughts which possessed him, but whether the music aided those thoughts, or whether the playing was simply the result of a whim or fancy, was more than I could determine.” (Doyle, 2005: 26)



Bailey, D. (1993), Improvisation - Its nature and practise in music, New York: Da Capo.

Doyle, A. C. (2005), A Study in Scarlet and The Sign of the Four, London: CRW Publishing Limited.

Furu, E. M., Lund, T. and T. Tiller (2007), Action Research – A Nordic Perspective, Kristiansand: Høyskoleforlaget


Prévost, E. (1995), No Sound Is Innocent, Essex: Copula.

Tilbury/Duch/Davies, Final presentation, 18. September 2010, Nidarosdomen