Research into the role of improvisation in conservatory curriculum has been an important topic in the lectorate ‘Music, Education and Society’ and in the research group ‘Making in Music’ of the Royal Conservatoire The Hague. Barrett’s work with the Sonology Electroacoustic Ensemble emphasizes a collaborative dynamic which is based on the “acceptance of improvisational skills as a valuable aspect of music education.” 




Barret, R. (2020). NEW INPUTS I

Barrett describes his particular state of mind while composing, which relies on spontaneous reactions to sounds. Trying to put himself in the position of a musician on stage, he limits the time he allows himself to think about his actions, thus reponding on the spur-of-the-moment and coming up with result which is indeed composed, yet bears a direct link to free improvisation.


Barrett also emphasized the collaborative aspect of his work. He attempts to create interaction between several participants even across different phases of the creative process – for example, an improviser recording a solo, which is later re-worked by Barrett in the studio. The improvised material carries “the traces of somebody’s else thinking, somebody’s else musicality” into Barrett’s work, thus establishing a collaborative dynamic and a unique combination of ideas and sounds.

Barrett’s approach to the improvisation-composition-collaboration continuum can be seen in his BINARY SYSTEMS project. Six improvising musicians – all are long-time collaborators with Barrett – were asked to record solo improvisations, which he used as a basis for fixed-media electronic compositions (the music will be released on the digital label Strange Strings). Barrett regards the process of sorting out the recorded material as a fundamental part of his work, thus highlighting the importance of listening as the core of the collaborative process. The real-time, improvisatory listening-and-response becomes a compositional method which relies on spontaneous reaction to sounds rather than on pre-established musical or theoretical criteria. In this way, free improvisation – which normally takes place in a physical space, and in real time – is translated into a remote collaboration. The working speed is also affected: it becomes substantially rapid, and, one may say, intuitive (“If I started thinking about it, I would stop doing it,” and “if I worked on it for another year, I couldn’t make it any better,” as Barrett acknowledged).


Barrett presented his collaboration with the electric lap steel guitar player Daryl Buckley (Elision ensemble, Melbourne). The music is a complex collage of improvised material on lap steel guitar (also using an array of effect pedals) and electronic sounds (some of which were produced by processing the guitar sounds). Listen to Dysnomia (Barrett / Buckley):

Asked whether he was using any method of classification in order to decide on the organization of guitar/electronic sound segments in the final soundtrack, Barrett emphasized again the “improvisatory state of mind” – relying on the continuity of his imagination and compositional vision at his main creative drive rather than applying pre-decided classification.

Lectorate Music, Education & Society Koncon, with Paul Craenen and Richard Barrett

(9 February 2021, online)

Richard Barrett – NEW INPUTS

Composer-performer and researcher Richard Barrett presented his research project “New Inputs" which situates improvisation at the center of the creative process. Barrett’s approach is that “for the improvising musician there is no such thing as an ‘extra-musical’ influence, since the music is potentially open to any possibility” (Barrett, 2021); he contextualizes musical improvisation with links to works by painters, theatre makes, and choreographers.

Barrett has not only established improvisation as a fundamental part of the working process, but also pointed out how improvisation is reflected in the finalized work. His approach to fixed-media composition, in which the final result is obviously unchangeable, bears clear traces of an ephemeral and collaborative improvisatory drive. Barrett’s approach establishes an important link between improvisation and composition, thus situating improvisation at the very center of (the so-called) art music and the academic curriculum.

Knowing Barrett’s extensive experience both as an improviser and composer, I wanted to ask him about the role of free improvisation in his work. How is free improvisation manifested in his work? How does he translate it into a working method?

Johann van Kreij – “WHAT MAY HAVE HAPPENED…“

The collaborative aspects of improvisation, or, for the sake of the matter, of any other creative process, has become particularly important during this recent period: the physical dimension is severely restricted and the urgency for collaboration in artistic as much as in daily practices intensifies. This experience has led computer music composer and performer Johann van Kreij to develop his research project “WHAT MAY HAVE HAPPENED…“. The project is “driven by the desire to augment the sense of sharing in a decentralized improvisation – a creative musical situation in which the participants are in different locations” (Kreij, 2021). Kreij is working with students from the Royal Conservatory The Hague and from the Singapore conservatory. He is developing a software for remote playing that could be used in such interlocal projects. 


Describing the influences on his research, Kreij mentioned Dick Raijmaaker as an inspiration (Kreij, 2017), in the attempt to formulate a theoretical model for composing by systematically analysing and describing different parameters and components of a (musical) research question. Another influence is the idea of a game play, in which rules are introduced in order to create a musical environment for improvisation (for example, John Zorn's Cobra). Finally, Kreij’s software consists of a visual element: a grid that translates and records the activity of the musicians (for example silent vs. playing) into visual data.

Kreij suggests an artistic approach to the “problem” of interlocal musical collaboration: the physical gap between the musicians is re-assembled by using the visual component. For example, the visual grid in the software relies on Langton's Ant principle: arbitrary movements on the grid will color white squares in black and vice versa, creating an ever-changing pattern which is based on a simple set of rules, resulting in emergent complexity. Kreij’s software/research project is an attempt to visualise free improvisation, by using the visual aspect to augment the potential of the collective interaction and remote playing experience.


Kreij tackles the gap between the ephemerality of improvisation and the “finalized,” recorded musical work in a unique way: what the musicians have played in real time is recorded, and later can be re-mixed (hence the title “WHAT MAY HAVE HAPPENED…“).

Kreij discussed his software and research in the context of the world pandemic, and asserted that the idea of the visualisation is a necessary enhancement for the lack of physical connection between musicians. Through the visual and game aspects, Kreij’s software suggests a particular path of listening and demanding the participant’s attention, which are of course as fundamental in improvisation as they are in music or in any human communication in general. 

Peter van Bergen, Kreij’s collaborator in testing the software, made the comment: the software can be seen as an entity in itself, an integral musical component or perhaps even as an independent musician which adds to the complexity of the situation rather than simplifying anything. Van Bergen emphasized the importance of rehearsing with the software and exploring its potential through experimenting.

Obvious from both presentations is the idea that while our musical environment has radically changed during the last year, the creative drive to continue improvising, collaborating, and creating music together is not diminished. Rather the opposite, the recent period is perhaps an opportunity to imagine new ideas, methods, and approaches, and to establish novel networks for communication.