Research report January 2021
Supported by the lectorate ‘Music, Education and Society’, research group ‘Making in Music’, Royal Conservatoire The Hague
The principal question addressed by this research project, following on from my 2019 project A Year in the life of the Sonology Electroacoustic Ensemble (Barrett 2020), was rather simple: “how can improvisational practices in other disciplines inform and expand on the ideas and models available to discuss free improvisation in music with a particular view to using it in a teaching context?”
Accordingly, I’ve been researching the areas of theatre, dance and visual art, in order to search out “new inputs” into musical improvisation. In addition, I included in my survey some possible new inputs from within music and sound art itself, for example the particular characteristics of musical technologies such as no-input mixing and how these demand and/or suggest new ways of musical thinking, as a means of generalising my question to express the idea that for the improvising musician there is no such thing as an “extra-musical” influence, since the music is potentially open to any possibility. Nevertheless, many fascinating insights have been gained from the research which seem to have much potential for working with musical improvisation in the conservatoire.
I’ve come across many concepts, themselves tested in the crucible of real collaborative work, which to my knowledge are seldom explicitly applied in the context of free improvisation in music, however simple they may seem – to give a brief example from the writing of Keith Johnstone, a pioneer in improvisational theatre, “[t]he improviser has to understand that his first skill lies in releasing his partner’s imagination.” (Johnstone 1979, p. 93) It’s clear how such an idea can be explained and realised in the context of spoken drama, and it’s also clear that it plays an important role in the rather different kinds of interaction involved in musical performance, and it would almost certainly be fruitful to develop ways of isolating and activating this particular “skill” with an improvising group of student musicians.
It will be apparent that I’m by no means an expert in most of the subjects I’m researching here, and I apologise in advance for any factual or conceptual inaccuracies resulting from the necessary superficiality of my approach; if I have an excuse, it’s that my almost exclusive focus is in what I think can be of use in a musical context, even if in the course of my investigations I’ve still discovered much fascinating material, worthy of much more extended exploration, which will have to take place another time and in another context. I’m “improvising through” my subject matter in perhaps an analogous way to John Cage’s “writing through” Finnegans Wake and other texts, though without the poetic dimension that emerges from Cage’s chance procedures.
I’m concerned here not so much with drawing together preexistent treatments of relationships between music and other artistic disciplines, of which there are many, although much fewer that concentrate on improvisation, but in looking at a personal selection of some examples of what’s been described in terms of improvisation in other artforms, or is recognisable as such, and drawing from these ideas and possibilities which can be applied directly in a musical context and specifically in a pedagogical one. Often, improvisation in these other artforms is already described by practitioners and commentators in terms of music, most often referring more or less insightfully to jazz improvisation. For example, the element of (actual or recorded) spontaneity in much 20th century poetry tends to be related by its practitioners to musical models, as Benjamin Lee observes: “[m]uch experimental poetry of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly in the United States, was devoted to some notion of improvisation. This was due in large measure to the energy, dexterity and cultural cachet of bebop, which in the decades before rock ‘n’ roll managed to signify both youthful rebellion and high modernist difficulty.” (Lee 2012, p. 75) While such manifestations of one artform being treated as a metaphor for another are often of great interest, they haven’t generally been included here unless they seemed to me to furnish the potential to inform musical improvisation in new, unfamiliar and above all practically useful ways.
I wrote in my previous report (Barrett 2020) about why I believe free improvisation to be a potentially important activity in musical education; while many musicians (including myself, some considerable time ago!) have no hesitation or problem in taking their first steps into this world of musical possibility, others might find it daunting or on the other hand trivial. The connections proposed in the present text are intended in part to help address such issues. But, more importantly, they might also serve to outline an extensive network of ideas and practices coming from many sources and directions, concerning what improvisation is and how it works, which could inform and enrich the creativity of improvising musicians. Much writing on improvisation makes a valiant but in my opinion ultimately doomed attempt to talk about its subject in general or abstract terms. One of the priorities of this text is to stay close at all times to actual music-making, including music that hasn’t yet been made. Improvisation is what happens, not what you think (is happening).
I had been hoping to organise a symposium in November of 2020 to bring musicians and other artists together in a concrete realisation of some of the ideas on which the research has been based. I had also planned throughout the year to test the applicability of the “new inputs” I had encountered and developed in the context of my work with the Sonology Electroacoustic Ensemble (SEE). The eventual research output was therefore intended to consist not only of theoretical reflections on my findings, and speculation on their possible applicability to actual musical situations, but also of documentation of a process of experimentation through which those findings could be tested and assessed, and indeed through which the eventual shape of the present text might have ended up taking quite a different form. Since I’m already making considerable use of my 2019 research output in my teaching activity (especially within the new Collaborative Music Creation minor at the KC), I was intending that a comparable combination of text and sound would be the most useful way to encapsulate the results of my work. In the event, this aspect had to be abandoned. On the other hand, the enforced isolation of my own musical activities during 2020 led in some unexpectedly productive directions relevant to several of the issues indicated by my original research question, so I’ve included accounts of some of these also, in view of the priority mentioned above.
On 3 November 2020 I organised an online seminar to which I invited 14 speakers, all of whom are improvising musicians whose work is informed by various kinds of contacts and collaborations with artists in other disciplines:
Magda Mayas (pianist, Berlin)
Simon Rose (saxophonist, independent researcher and author, Berlin)
Michael Vatcher (percussionist, Amsterdam)
Anne La Berge (flutist and composer, Amsterdam)
Stefan Prins (composer and performer, Hochschule für Musik “Carl Maria Von Weber”, Dresden)
Maggie Nicols (vocalist, dancer and freelance educator, London)
Peter Jacquemyn (contrabassist and visual artist, Brakel (BE))
Semay Wu (composer, cellist, media/sound artist, Glasgow)
Ranjith Hegde (violinist and composer, Chennai)
Ute Wassermann (vocalist, composer and sound artist, Berlin)
Johan van Kreij (composer, performer and researcher, Institute of Sonology)
Karst de Jong (pianist, music theorist and educator, Royal Conservatoire The Hague and Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya, Barcelona, visiting professor at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of the National University of Singapore)
Hannah Marshall (cellist and theatre maker based in London)
Each guest gave a brief presentation on their connection to the subject, and more than half of the entire duration was given over to discussions between them, moderated by myself. Hannah Marshall was unable to attend the seminar but agreed to send me a contribution in written form and answer some follow-up questions.
The present text comprises sections focusing on the visual arts (section 2), theatre, film and video (3), dance and physical theatre (4), technology (5), the online seminar (6) and possible next steps (7). There are of course overlaps and some blurring between categories 2-5. The 17 “compositions” distributed through those sections in the form of brief descriptions of musical actions and structures will, I hope, serve to illustrate some of the possibilities for addressing the central question of this research, each as an example of a way of thinking that might encourage readers to imagine their own “translations” of improvisational ideas and practices into music. They are intended primarily as exercises that might be worked on in rehearsals or workshops, perhaps in preparation for a performance which will then discard them and be freely improvised. Each composition consists of an open-ended set of suggestions, which in an actual workshop or rehearsal might be supplemented or changed. Some possibilities for extending the focal concept of a composition are given for most of them, although these in turn might serve as a starting point for further development, or different directions might be taken, according to improvisational responses to the momentary situation on the part of the workshop/rehearsal leader and/or any other members of the group.
It was, as I mentioned above, originally my intention to work on these compositions over the course of 2020 with SEE, which would no doubt have involved their further development, perhaps in some cases replacement by new ideas emerging from practice. (With the extension of this project into 2021 I hope to address this issue.) While the absence of this dimension of the research has meant that I’ve had more time and space to spend on the theoretical side of the work, and to give the imagination free rein for speculative thinking, the unfortunate result is that much of the resulting text implies conclusions of the form “it would be interesting to see how this idea might encourage performers to think and act differently in an improvisation”, without any practical assessment of whether or not this actually happens, or the necessary recorded documentation enabling readers to judge for themselves. In other words, the “artistic research” component of the work is currently highly reduced, something which is especially crucial in the context of improvisational music that isn’t based on any kind of notated score, which might otherwise form the basis for critical reflection and argument. I was intending the research to be a collaborative process where my fellow participants might not only try out the kinds of ideas described here, but also suggest others, and contribute to the shaping of the result.
As a musical component in this prelude to my survey of “new inputs”, I would like to place here a recording of the only performance by SEE in 2020, which took place at a Sonology Discussion Concert in the Arnold Schönbergzaal of the Royal Conservatoire on 26 January. The participants were:
Richard Barrett - keyboard/computer
Júlia Casañas Castellví - viola
Dariush Derakhshani - live coding
Marcela Andrea León García - piano
Ranjith Hegde - electric violin
Myrtó Nizami - piano
Marko Uzunovski - live mixing
This would have been the basis of the group participating in the practical components of the present research project. I found it one of the most engaging performances of recent years in its confident sense of structural consistency and development. The experience of working with these creative musicians and other participants in SEE has been a central influence, and the central inspiration, behind the work documented here, so many thanks are due to those named above and everyone else who has participated in the ensemble over the past eleven years. I would also like to thank all the seminar participants; Paul Craenen and Roos Leeflang for their essential support, suggestions and thoughts over the last two years; Kees Tazelaar for encouraging and facilitating the inception and development of SEE (occasionally also as a player!); Henk van der Meulen and Martin Prchal for their essential roles in making this project possible; and Milana Zarić for reading and suggesting many improvements to this report, as well as for her crucial creative contribution to the musical component of the research, and for the love that makes everything possible.
When looking at what the visual arts might have to offer in terms of ideas that would “translate” into concepts applicable to musical improvisation, I thought it seemed appropriate to begin with the work of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), since he made his celebrated transition from figurative towards abstract art principally through a long series of over 200 paintings made between 1909 and 1917, which he entitled Improvisations.
Kandinsky, Improvisation no.11
Of course, Kandinsky was concerned throughout his creative life to establish parallels between painting and music, and numbered Arnold Schoenberg among his friends and associates. Kandinsky explains and contextualises his use of the term “improvisation” in his book On the Spiritual in Art as one of three “different sources of inspiration” in what he calls his “symphonic” (as opposed to the simpler “melodic”) works:
A direct impression of “outward nature”, which is expressed in pure artistic form. These pictures I call “impressions”.
Intuitive, for the greater part spontaneous expressions of incidents of an inner character, or impressions of the “inner nature”, this kind I call “improvisations.”
With slowly evolved feelings, which have formed within me for a long time, and tested pedantically, developed after they were intuitively conceived. This kind of picture I call “compositions”. (Kandinsky 1946, p.98)
Kandinsky, Improvisation no.35
Improvisation no.11 forms the front cover image of the first English publication of Kandinsky’s book. In many cases this process of improvisation throws up familiar shapes and figures alongside elements that seem to involve a more “pure” deployment of colour and line, as can be seen from the examples above. Kandinsky’s description clearly emphasises the “intuitive” and “spontaneous” aspects of improvisation, as opposed to the depiction of nature or the expression of the more reflective side of the imagination in his other two categories. Kandinsky seems to have regarded what he called improvisation as a method of escaping from figurative painting, as John Gilmour observes:
Improvisation plays an essential role in altering composition practices, Kandinsky thinks, because it is a way to move toward “the free working of color” rather than treating color as derivative from nature. (Gilmour 2000, p.191)
I’ve always felt that musical improvisation can in a comparable way move towards a “free working of sound”: any tendency to rely on received ways of relating sounds to one another, specifically when working in a group, is usually unhelpful, so that the result can often sound like an impoverished version of more traditional musics but (for example) with an undeveloped sense of harmony or rhythm or form. As in Kandinsky, improvisation might actually be characterised as (the trace of) a search for new kinds of structural and expressive relationships between sounds.
Something that can clearly be seen when looking at Kandinsky’s “improvisations” is his concern that each of them should, while preserving its sense of spontaneity, have a distinct character of its own, so that for the most part they are no less memorable and recognisable than the products of his other imaginative methods. There is always an obvious concern with the overall form of the painting, and some defining colour scheme or shape or “motif” forming one or more central ideas around which the rest of the painting is organised. Is this aspect something that belongs particularly to the painting as the work of an individual rather than a collective, which doesn’t have to articulate itself spontaneously inside-time like a musical improvisation does? While the identity of an improvised piece of music isn’t often characterised in this way unless it’s based on some preexistent notated or agreed material, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be.
Before starting to play, look closely at a Kandinsky “improvisation” and identify its defining colour scheme, shape or motif. Think of an analogously identifiable and memorable colour, shape or motif in musical terms. Then play. Everything you do should express this colour, shape or motif in some way, varying it in response to what the other participants are doing but always relating to it. Possible extensions of this idea could include replacing one’s own colour, shape or motif with (a variation on) someone else’s as heard, or adding someone else’s to one’s own. Such extensions could form the basis of a structural process for the piece.
Of course, unlike a musical improvisation, all we see of Kandinsky’s process is the result, however unplanned and “intuitive” the process itself might have been. It isn’t really possible in principle to retrace the steps of the process any more than with Kandinsky’s other two “sources of inspiration”, even if the painting does carry strong traces of the spontaneity of the process, in comparison with the generally more clearly defined and often more geometrical quality of his “compositions”. The result seems more closely related to the spatialisation of time involved in musical notation than to the centrality of the process in improvisation. After all, Adorno asserts in an essay on music and painting that:
the act of notation is essential to art music, not incidental. Without writing [there can be] no highly organized music; the historical distinction between improvisation and musica composita coincides qualitatively with that between laxness and musical articulation. This qualitative relationship of music to its visible insignia, without which it could neither possess nor construct out duration, points clearly to space as a condition of its objectification. (Adorno 1995, p.70)
This position is to be rejected if the existence of improvised music is taken seriously. But if Adorno’s citing of notation as a way in which music as Zeitkunst takes on through notation some of the character of painting as Raumkunst is seen for the limited view that it is, we can find another kind of “musical space” in György Ligeti’s discussion of form in contemporary music:
“Form” is originally an abstraction of spatial configurations, of the proportions between the extensions of objects in space. Transferred to non-spatial domains – the form of poetry or of music – “form” becomes an abstraction of an abstraction. In accordance with the provenance of the term, spatiality remains attached to forms which unfold in time, supported by the fact that time and space are always coupled with one another in the world of our thoughts and imaginations; wherever one of the two categories is present, the other appears immediately by association. In the act of conceiving or hearing music whose sonic progress is primarily temporal, imaginary spatial relations emerge on several levels, initially on the level of association, as changes in pitch (the German word Tonhöhe already contains a spatial analogy) evoke the vertical spatial dimension, the persistence of a particular pitch evokes a horizontal one, while changes in timbre and intensity, such as differences between open and muted sounds, produce an impression of proximity and distance, a general impression of spatial depth. Musical figures and events appear to us to take up certain positions in the imaginary space which they themselves evoke. … [B]ecause we spontaneously compare any new moment that appears in our consciousness with moments already experienced, and on the basis of this comparison draw conclusions about what is to come, we pass through a musical edifice as if its structure were present as a totality. The interaction of association, abstraction, memory and prediction is a prerequisite for the formation of the network of interrelations that enables the conception of musical form.
From this viewpoint we can characterise the difference between music as such and musical form: “music” would thus denote the pure temporal process, while “musical form”, conversely, would denote the abstraction of that same temporal process, whose internal relations present themselves in terms not of temporal succession, but of virtual space; musical form emerges only when the temporal course of musical events can be viewed retrospectively as “space”. (Ligeti 2007, p.186, my translation)
And if Ligeti’s characterisation of music as evoking a “virtual space” within the listener’s mind has any truth to it (which for the present writer it certainly does), and if this is as applicable to improvised music as to the notated music which both Adorno and Ligeti had in mind (which it surely also does), then is it possible to look back at something like Kandinsky’s “improvisations” and see in them some kind of “virtual time” which we can relate fruitfully to the practice of musical improvisation, whether or not this “virtual time” has any relation to the (unknowable) inside-time process by which it reached the form it now permanently has? Perhaps it would be possible to trace the itinerary our eye takes through a Kandinsky painting (or any other, of course) and lay this out somehow as a “score” which would express the passage of this “virtual time”. Of course, many improvising musicians have created performances by “reading” paintings as if they consisted of “graphic notation”, but this isn’t what I have in mind, because in that case it wouldn’t be very long before the eye’s itinerary, its tendency to dwell on certain regions for example, would be dictated by considerations of making an interesting piece of music with a certain overall duration. What I have in mind is *discovering the music IN the painting, ***and only then imagining what it might sound like, or not. (I wonder if this procedure might also be applied to some arbitrarily chosen musical score!)
Many of these considerations might of course apply to any painting by any artist, or indeed any visual stimulus whatever. But another visual artist in the context of whose work the idea of improvisation has been explicitly invoked is Paul Cézanne (1839-1906). “Cezanne’s [improvisations] have to do with interpretations of impressions.” (Gilmour 2000, p.191, emphasis in the original.) Improvisation here seems to consist in going repeatedly to the same viewpoint and painting the same landscape but each time with a different more or less spontaneous variation which goes beyond any external differences in light or weather, as a result of the sensory input from the experience being so rich and complex that each painting of it has to involve what in audio terms would be termed filtering, in order to render some particular “interpretation” onto the canvas:
[In a 1906 letter, Cézanne] writes as if he is so immersed in the natural setting that its richness of color becomes almost overwhelming when he tries to realize it in paint. In addition, his comment that “the motifs multiply” indicates his belief that nature’s plenitude calls forth many alternatives for the painter. (Gilmour 2000, p.192)
[And in 1904:] to read nature is to see it, as if through a veil, in terms of an interpretation in patches of color following one another according to a law of harmony. These major hues are thus analyzed through modulations. Painting is classifying one’s sensations of color. (Gilmour 2000, p.194, my emphasis)
To illustrate these ideas, here are two paintings by Cézanne of the same landscape from almost the same viewpoint: Mont Sainte-Victoire Seen from Les Lauves.
The workings of improvisation might be seen in Cézanne’s different reactions in colour and design to the same situations – choosing, supposedly in the moment, between the “alternatives” he refers to in the letter of 1906. David Hockney (2011) speaks in comparable terms about the way his iPad drawings involve an immediacy and speed of execution that enables him to chronicle seasonal changes in long series of rapidly executed pictures, while the luminosity of the medium suggests subjects (such as the depiction of sunrises) which wouldn’t be suited to more traditional drawing tools. This might be compared to other ways in which digital technology might suggest new approaches to improvisatory music (see section 6).
Prepare some kind of sonic “landscape”, perhaps in the form of fixed-media material, consisting of brief isolated sounds or slowly changing textures or some combination of the two but leaving space for live performance, if necessary notating its principal events against a timeline and/or having all participants listen to and memorise them, then play an improvisation in which this “landscape” is repeated several times, with the “live” contributions relating to it differently each time, making different aspects audible or submerged or emphasised and so on. Possible extension: leave out the original in one iteration but make sure it’s “present” in what the group plays. Possible further extension: leave it out altogether (landscape painting from memory rather than from life).
Matthew Sansom, in an essay relating the Abstract Expressionist movement to free improvisation, (2001) mentions as precursors Joan Miró (1893-1983), André Masson (1896-1987) and Max Ernst (1891-1976), who developed diverse procedures on the model of the “automatic writing” (see section 3) developed around 1919 by André Breton.
These procedures, along with the use of unusual materials, discouraged deliberate control and encouraged the emergence of more unconscious imagery. Such factors provide significant similarities with the procedures of free improvisation, and the previous descriptions of automatic painting are strongly evocative of the processes of free improvisation. A description by [Cornelius] Cardew highlights this: “We are searching for sounds and for the responses that attach to them, rather than thinking them up, preparing them and producing them. The search is conducted in the medium of sound and the musician himself is at the heart of the experiment.” (Sansom 2001, p.31)
Max Ernst in particular developed several techniques such as frottage (placing paper over an uneven surface and producing a “rubbing” with a pencil) and decalcomania (pressing layers of paint against the canvas with glass), to generate, while excluding all conscious mental influences, a suitably rich substrate from which an image would then be “hallucinated” by a process of free association directed towards making the unconscious visible. This is a more highly evolved version of the common phenomenon of pareidolia, in which our overdeveloped pattern-recognition abilities cause us to “see” images, and especially faces, in inanimate objects such as buildings or bathroom fittings or slices of toast. While Ernst himself didn’t speak of his work in terms of improvisation, it’s clear that much of it is concerned with using various more or less unusual techniques to create the conditions for spontaneous flights of the imagination.
Max Ernst, frottage The Fugitive (L’évadé)
Divide the ensemble into two equal halves. Initially, group 1 plays a consistent texture with a certain internal complexity (each member bearing in mind that sound materials should be chosen in a spirit of generosity, thinking about what can fruitfully be taken up by their colleagues in group 2). After this is established, the members of group 2 draw implicit musical “images” from the texture, for example taking one or more pitches audible within it and linking them together into a melody, or making various kinds of “echoes” of perhaps accidental sound-events in the texture. Group 2 members should think of creating sound events clearly delineated in time and identity. On an agreed signal the two groups exchange functions. Possible extension: each member of the ensemble alternates individually between “substrate” and “frottage”.
Max Ernst, The Eye of Silence (L’oeil du silence)
In a development of the kinds of techniques developed by Max Ernst, the Abstract Expressionist painters brought the process of painting to the foreground, which Sansom cites as a connecting factor between such art and free improvisation: “The emphasis upon process and material qualities enabled by ‘freedom’ from the image and more (traditionally) formal concerns is paralleled by ‘freedom’ from functional harmony and/or traditional modes of compositional construction, resulting in a direct engagement with the medium of sound and the processes of musical creation.” (Sansom 2001, p. 32, my emphasis) The way artists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell describe their working process is indeed so closely related to the corresponding kinds of statement by improvising musicians that there’s hardly any possibility here to imagine the Abstract Expressionists as potentially furnishing a “new input” to improvisational thinking in music. As Bjerstedt (2014) points out:
the concept of rhythm is often employed in connection with the (more or less regular) recurrence of elements in visual representation, prominently so in works of, for instance, Pollock, Mondrian, and Miró. In this context, rhythm – like structure – is the product of visual repetition. (p. 113)
These particular inputs took place more than half a century ago and contributed crucially to how musicians conceived freely improvised music from its beginnings. Here for example is the guitarist (and artist) Keith Rowe, as a founding member of the AMM group one of the pioneers of free improvisation in the 1960s, describing his switch to what became known as “table-top guitar” technique with direct reference to Pollock placing the canvas on the studio floor:
Suddenly trying to play guitar like Jim Hall seemed quite wrong… Who am I? What do I have to say? I probably thought about that for between five and eight years, just constantly reflecting on how to do it, and, in a flash, I found the solution. Look at the American school of painting, which was very provincial in the 1800s: they really wanted to do something original but didn’t know how to do it, the clue was to get rid of European painting, but how could they ditch European painting, what did they have to do to do that? And Jackson Pollock did it – he just abandoned the technique. How could I abandon the technique? Lay the guitar flat! All that it’s doing is angling the body [of the guitar] from facing outwards to facing upwards – the strings remain horizontal, the strings are the same. (Rowe 2001, n.p.)
The French artist Jean Dubuffet (1901-85) was himself an improvising musician and released a number of recordings, including Musique Phénoménale recorded with fellow artist Asger Jorn (1914-73) and released in 1961 as a boxed set of four 10" LPs. What is interesting in the present context about his approach both as artist and musician is that his principal source of inspiration was the “outsider art” produced by self-taught individuals existing outside the art world, indeed not infrequently outside regular society in mental institutions. He held “to be useless all those types of acquired skill and those gifts (such as we are used to finding in the works of professional painters) whose sole effect seems to me to be that of extinguishing all spontaneity” (quoted in Sansom 2001, p. 33). Improvisation is frequently mentioned in the context of outsider art on account of such artists often using whatever materials are to hand in creating their work, rather than purpose-made art materials with their associated skills and traditions. Does this kind of process have musical implications? It’s easy enough to pick up an instrument one isn’t familiar with, and make some kind of sound on it, but it seems likely that this kind of activity can only remain interesting for a short duration, unless one goes on to invest in it the kind of intense commitment with which an outsider artist might engage with their materials. In fact, that kind of engagement is no different in kind from the dedication of a virtuoso musician. Using “whatever materials are to hand” also has a long pedigree in improvised music, beginning with such manifestations as Keith Rowe’s use of radios to generate “found sounds” as one of the layers in AMM’s “laminar” approach to improvisation.
Given that the “input” from Abstract Expressionism is thus both obvious and deep-rooted, I don’t think it’s appropriate to discuss it further in the context of the present study. In my book Music of Possibility I contemplated the relationship between (what I imagine to be) the techniques used by Francis Bacon (1909-92) and my own compositional practice in combining precomposed and spontaneous actions for complementary and/or overlapping structural and poetic purposes, citing:
the way that exquisitely nuanced, sometimes even photorealistic areas on the one hand, and seemingly randomly thrown splashes of paint on the other, not only coexist but are somehow perceptually interchangeable. It’s not always clear at a first or even second glance whether some element of a painting is the result of painstaking and precise brushwork on the one hand, or a rapid and seemingly spontaneous swipe with a sponge on the other. (Barrett 2019, p. 65)
Francis Bacon, Triptych August 1972
This complex interpenetration and confusion between spontaneous and considered activity, and Bacon’s way of using it to capture a moment or an aftermath with an ambiguous and disturbing emotional charge, probably lies outside the range of possibilities the present text is intended to address. I mention it here as an example of a (much) further extension of the kinds of ideas explored in the compositions in this section. Another artist mentioned in Music of Possibility is Andy Goldsworthy (b. 1956), whose work:
clearly blurs the distinction between the “natural” and the “artificial”, in that his interventions into nature, clearly designed from the standpoint of a conception of beauty which could only be human, nevertheless frequently acquire their identity (and their beauty) from the non-human processes which are poised to return the materials to their original state (which itself is always a state of becoming). (Barrett 2019, p.222)
In Goldsworthy’s work, as in much musical improvisation, the place where a work is made defines its material, and the material is then worked on using an incrementally expanding vocabulary of forms – river, spiral, cairn, archway, aperture and so on. But the improvisatory method by which Goldsworthy deploys and expands his knowledge of the natural materials isn’t the end of the process: a spiral string of leaves linked together by thorns unravels and begins its journey down a brook; a nest-like assembly of twigs built on seaside rocks is picked up by the tide and carried out to sea, disintegrating as it goes; other works have much longer or much briefer lives, whose durations are “composed” into them as they come into being, sometimes for no longer than it takes to photograph a handful of dust thrown into the air, while other works might leave traces for many years. These processes of decay and dissolution might be imagined also as musical processes.
Everyone begins by playing short repeated sounds in synchrony (counted in or conducted or coordinated in some other way) in a rapid tempo, 240 bpm at least. Change your sound to another short repeated sound at irregular intervals approximately the length of a long breath. Within each “breath”, sounds may change slightly in pitch, dynamic, timbre etc. Once this structure is established, begin to change your individual tempo slightly. At the same time, start to substitute silences for one or two of the sounds in each “breath”. Gradually increase this substitution until each “breath” contains only one or two sounds, or possibly none. The music ends when everyone is silent. Possible extension: in each new “breath”, choose a sound you can already hear or have just heard someone else play.
The mention of breath, and indeed the natural forms which Goldsworthy’s work amplifies and stylises, might be considered to lead naturally to a consideration of the art of Japanese calligraphy, which combines graphic and performative aspects in a fascinating way. Even for the viewer who isn’t aware of the meanings of the (originally Chinese) characters used in this kind of work, which goes some way beyond the functionality of writing, perhaps in a similar relation to is as singing might have to speaking. While the execution of its brush-strokes must be done rapidly and without the slightest hesitation, these actions are preceded by intensive preparation both of the materials used and of the calligrapher:
The combination of sumi (black ink) and brush used to create Chinese ideograms is called shodo or “The Way (do) of Writing (sho).” To create sho as an art form requires not only physical preparation but also mental preparation. The sho creator must learn breathing control and how to concentrate energy or ki (chi) in the lower part of the abdomen. (Since ancient times, the martial arts disciplines of Asia have required this same centering of a person’s ki energy in the lower abdomen.) The sho creator, by concentrating and internalizing energy, can then pick up the brush and in a matter of seconds execute an ideogram. (…) In shodo it is considered sacrilege to go back and touch up the work. Any adjustment or touch-up would be apparent, and would interrupt the ki, and therefore the created work wouldn’t be an honest representation of the artist’s energy and personality. (Sato 2013, p. 10)
The emphasis on breath control is as musically suggestive as the illustrated diagrams of movements made with the brush:
[W]hile the brush is in motion you should be aware of your breathing: when you inhale, when you exhale. Usually the sequence is to inhale, hold breathing, move the brush and begin gradually exhaling; finish exhaling when one section of the ideogram is completed. In the art of sho, spirituality and physical activities have to coincide, therefore breathing control is of utmost importance. (Sato 2013, p. 31)
The illustration shows seven variations on the same character (ze). (Sato 2013, p. 58) The diagrams are of course incomplete in that they show only two dimensions, while the third dimension, that of the changing thickness of the stroke, is omitted, although it can easily be observed in the finished characters. A process of improvisation is taking place here at a microtemporal level, so to speak, in the beautiful combination of precision and instability which characterises the physical relationship between calligrapher, brush, ink and paper and which can be traced in its finest details by the viewer.
Begin with a long silence, during which all participants attempt to prepare themselves by imagining a single complex motion in sound (bearing in mind the forms of calligraphic characters) which might last between the duration of a single staccato and a few seconds. On a signal (with an upbeat or intake of breath) from one of the participants – an order can be specified so that everyone has a turn – everyone plays their sound, after which another long silence begins. Each sound might be different in some or all regards from the previous one, or a variation on it, or identical to it.
The purpose of this section is of course not to provide an exhaustive survey of even one person’s view of ideas and procedures from the visual arts that might inform musical improvisation in general, and free improvisation in an educational context in particular, but to employ a few examples of how this process might take place, which might act as a starting point for discussing with students how they themselves could use related ideas to inform their own contributions to a workshop or performance preparation.
Calligraphy by Fujiwara Sukemasa (tenth century CE). Nakata 1973, p. 59
When embarking on the present research, it seemed to me that the theatre, being like music a “time-based” artform and indeed one with long, well-documented and continuing traditions of improvisation, would probably furnish more valuable models for musical improvisation than for example painting. The tradition of opera also, with its endlessly renewed strategies for unifying music and drama, would seem to point in the same direction. This turned out not really to be the case, as will be seen in this section, whose most potentially fruitful aspects might seem to be located in this somewhat unexpected incommensurability, and in the distinct ways in which improvisation is defined and employed in theatre and music.
Antony Frost and Ralph Yarrow (1989, p.3) trace the origins of improvised drama to shamanic “performances”, which is to say many thousands of years before the beginning of recorded history, although a more familiar early manifestation of it is the Italian commedia dell’arte which dates back to the 16th century. While the content and structure of a performance might be improvised, this is on the basis of familiar stock characters whose relationships are practised and rehearsed. The use of improvisation in theatre is in fact largely characterised by spontaneity and fixity occupying distinct stages in the work-process, rather than being interwoven in all of them as is perhaps more characteristic of music (or for that matter painting). Discussion of improvisation in the theatre generally centres on it as part of the process, that is to say part of the preparatory process for something which will eventually take on a more or less fixed form, rather than the whole process. Even so, improvisation in drama is often described in terms which would seem equally to apply to music:
Improvisation is … immediate and organic articulation; not just response, but a paradigm for the way humans reflect (or create) what happens. Where improvisation is most effective, most spontaneous, least “blocked” by taboo, habit or shyness, it comes close to a condition of integration with the environment or context. And consequently (simultaneously) expresses that context in the most appropriate shape, making it recognisable to others, ‘realising’ it as act. In that sense, improvisation may come close to pure ‘creativity’ – or perhaps more accurately to creative organisation, the way in which we respond to and give shape to our world. The process is the same whenever we make a new arrangement of the information we have, and produce a recipe, a theory or a poem. The difference with doing it a l’improviste, or all’improvviso, is that the attention is focused on the precise moment when things take shape. As well as being the most exciting moment, this is also the most risky: what emerges may be miraculous or messy – or a panic retreat into habit or cliché. (Frost and Yarrow 1989, p. 2)
Keith Johnstone (b.1933) produced the influential book Impro: improvisation and the theatre (Johnstone 1979), which, alongside Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin (1906-94) (Spolin 1963), created the vocabulary of ideas and activities which still dominates theatrical improvisation. According to Frost and Yarrow,
Keith Johnstone stresses two narrative skills, free association and reincorporation. … Free association means spontaneous response, ‘going with’ whatever has been offered, by oneself or by one’s collaborators. It means letting one idea generate the next without trying to force it into shape: without trying to make it mean something (it undoubtedly will mean something). It means accepting, too, that part of the meaning (the true ‘content’ of the story) will be the performer’s revelation of him/herself.
Johnstone abandons the notion of content, and concentrates instead on structure – the key to which is reincorporation. When telling a tale, either singly or with others, reincorporation means making use of what has already been introduced. It means coming back to ideas previously established, and then using them in ways that both bind the story together and take it forwards. Free association takes care of invention and development; reincorporation takes care of structure. … Apparent randomness is given sudden illumination by reincorporation. (p. 134-5)
The emphasis on “reincorporation” emphasises a theme that runs through writings on improvised theatre. On one hand there’s a certain pressure to incorporate features that seem to simulate the kinds of structure familiar from scripted theatre. Conversely, another idea often met with is that of working with themes, situations or characters suggested by audience members, so as to underline the actors’ virtuoso spontaneity. Both of these features give an impression of an assumption that improvised drama is in some way impoverished relative to scripted drama, and this needs to be addressed firstly by clear structural recapitulation and secondly by giving the performance a sport-like character (sometimes even a competitive one). What is supposedly lacking in the simulation is compensated for by the improvisational skills on display. Free improvisation in music seems to be comparatively untouched by such expectations (although improvising on a given theme has a long history in music, going back at least to 1747 and the story of how J S Bach’s Musical Offering was improvised and then later written down on a theme suggested by Friedrich II when Bach was visiting his palace at Potsdam). Nevertheless, the idea of reincorporation, being something that seldom occurs in improvised music, is something that perhaps could be fruitfully explored.
Each member of the group thinks of a compact and recognisable musical event, possibly preparing it beforehand, bearing in mind also that it should be something your fellow players will be able to “use” in different ways. Play it at or near the beginning of the improvisation, and now and again thereafter as seems appropriate. When you aren’t playing it, either be silent or react in some perceptible way to something you hear (it doesn’t matter whether or not you identify it as someone else’s “recognisable event”). If you hear the same event from someone else more than once, respond each time in a different way.
Spolin (1963) places the questions “who, what, where” as central in her manual of improvisational techniques and exercises for actors, which are of limited applicability to music, although again she begins with some considerations which are sufficiently general (or vague?) to be recognisable to most practitioners of improvised music:
Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves. It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people’s findings. Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly. In this reality the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery, of experiencing, of creative expression. (p. 4)
The acting games described herein, and in other handbooks of improvisational technique, remain close to the kinds of interactions that might commonly occur in realistic scripted drama, or in real-life situations. Tom Salinsky and Deborah Frances-White (2008) ask several times in their Improv Handbook why the kind of improvisation they discuss has barely developed since its beginnings, and perhaps this inbuilt conservatism is one of the reasons.
Music, on the other hand, doesn’t need to relate to real-world situations at all (although it can). While “musicality is a dimension of perfectly ordinary reality” (Cardew 2006, p. 133) it seems to be based on a particular way of listening (which might be mixed with others, for example when there are words or movements), of experiencing sound and time. Theatre in which timing is used in a particularly musical way (in the work of Samuel Beckett for example) is recognisable as such, for example in its use of pauses. (A silence in music is something happening.) Theatre improvisation has evolved many pragmatic principles which flow from assumptions about what a narrative might consist of, that don’t necessarily apply in music. To find ideas and principles from the spoken theatre that could be more valuable in the context of improvised music, it might be necessary to look outside explicitly improvisational approaches to drama. Here for example are three highly suggestive passages from The Empty Space, written in 1968 by the director Peter Brook (b. 1925):
We [Brook and Charles Marowitz at the RSC] set an actor in front of us, asked him to imagine a dramatic situation that did not involve any physical movement, then we all tried to understand what state he was in. Of course, this was impossible, which was the point of the exercise. The next stage was to discover what was the very least he needed before understanding could be reached: was it a sound, a movement, a rhythm—and were these interchangeable—or had each its special strengths and limitations? So we worked by imposing drastic conditions. An actor must communicate an idea—the start must always be a thought or a wish that he has to project—but he has only, say, one finger, one tone of voice, a cry, or the capacity to whistle at his disposal. (Brook 1968, p 57-58)
Slowly we worked towards different wordless languages: we took an event, a fragment of experience and made exercises that turned them into forms that could be shared. We encouraged the actors to see themselves not only as improvisers, lending themselves blindly to their inner impulses, but as artists responsible for searching and selecting amongst form, so that a gesture or a cry becomes like an object that he discovers and even remoulds. We experimented with and came to reject the traditional language of masks and makeups as no longer appropriate. We experimented with silence. We set out to discover the relations between silence and duration: we needed an audience so that we could set a silent actor in front of them to see the varying lengths of attention he could command. Then we experimented with ritual in the sense of repetitive patterns, seeing how it is possible to present more meaning, more swiftly than by a logical unfolding of events. Our aim for each experiment, good or bad, successful or disastrous, was the same: can the invisible be made visible through the performer’s presence? (Brook 1968, p 60)
In everyday life, ‘if’ is a fiction, in the theatre ‘if’ is an experiment.
In everyday life, ‘if’ is an evasion, in the theatre ‘if’ is the truth.
When we are persuaded to believe in this truth, then the theatre and life are one.
(Brook 1968, p 171)
While these ideas don’t address improvisation as their central focus, I would say that they probably have much more of value to say to improvising musicians than many writings that do. Brook is questioning what theatre actually is, which writers on improvised theatre tend to stay clear of. Working on improvised music seems to me to put the practitioner in immediate contact with questions of what music is or could be, with each performance embodying one or more provisional answers. One of the things it could be, perhaps, is a “play” between participants who take on different roles. While divisions of musical labour are quite characteristic of much music in the jazz tradition – soloist, harmonic/textural support, rhythm section – one of the innovations of the free improvisation that grew out of that tradition was that any instrument could fulfil any one or more of these roles at any time, shift between them, and invent new roles arising uniquely from the ongoing musical situation. As I explained in A Year in the Life of the Sonology Electroacoustic Ensemble (Barrett 2020), I often find myself in the role of a “glue” that links other musical layers together, an example of which can I think be clearly heard – in the first half especially – of this trio piece performed in 2016 at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam together with Evan Parker (tenor saxophone) and Michael Vatcher (percussion):
Assign one or more members of the group (not necessarily the obvious ones!) to two or more of the following roles: melody instrument, harmonic/textural background, rhythm section, so that around half of the group is thus occupied. This half begins alone. The other half then explores ways of creating links between these roles. At a certain point the first half stops playing. Possible extension: roles could be distributed randomly (for example using cards) and exchanged during the performance.
Keith Johnstone himself has some suggestive comments for teachers of improvisation:
I began reversing every statement to see if the opposite was also true. This is so much a habit with me that I hardly notice I’m doing it any more. As soon as you put a ‘not’ into an assertion, a whole range of other possibilities opens out—especially in drama, where everything is supposition anyway. When I began teaching, it was very natural for me to reverse everything my own teachers had done. I got my actors to make faces, insult each other, always to leap before they looked, to scream and shout and misbehave in all sorts of ingenious ways. It was like having a whole tradition of improvisation teaching behind me. In a normal education everything is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted to develop it. (Johnstone 1979, p. 16-17)
Many teachers don’t seem to think that manipulating a group is their responsibility at all. If they’re working with a destructive, bored group, they just blame the students for being ‘dull’, or uninterested. It’s essential for the teacher to blame himself if the group aren’t in a good state. (Johnstone 1979, p. 40)
I say to an actress, ‘Make up a story.’ She looks desperate, and says, ‘I can’t think of one.’
‘Any story,’ I say. ‘Make up a silly one.’
‘I can’t,’ she despairs.
‘Suppose I think of one and you guess what it is.’
At once she relaxes, and it’s obvious how very tense she was.
‘I’ve thought of one,’ I say, but I’ll only answer “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”:
She likes this idea and agrees, having no idea that I’m planning to say ‘Yes’ to any question that ends in a vowel, ‘No’ to any question that ends in a consonant, and ‘Maybe’ to any question that ends with the letter ‘Y’. (…)We used to play this game at parties, and people who claim to be unimaginative would think up the most astounding stories, so long as they remained convinced that they weren’t responsible for them. (Johnstone 1979, p 194, 198)
At the centre of his thinking, and something that has an obvious application to musical improvisation, is the idea of an “offer” and its being “accepted” or “blocked”:
I call anything that an actor does an ‘offer’. Each offer can either be accepted, or blocked. If you yawn, your partner can yawn too, and therefore accept your offer. A block is anything that prevents the action from developing, or that wipes out your partner’s premise. (Johnstone 1979, p 164)
Good improvisers seem telepathic; everything looks prearranged. This is because they accept all offers made—which is something no “normal” person would do. Also they may accept offers which weren’t really intended. I tell my actors never to think up an offer, but instead to assume that one has already been made. (Johnstone 1979, p 169)
This principle, known sometimes as the “yes, and” technique, has been successfully transplanted from its origins in improvised drama to use in such situations as business meetings (the idea of status transactions has a central place in Johnstone’s thinking), which at least to me suggests that it should be treated with a certain suspicion! Ultimately, though, a musical improvisation isn’t a conversation, since it generally focuses on simultaneity rather than succession, which leads to the question of whether it’s possible to imagine a way of approaching it that begins from the linearity of a conversation but “tilts” it from the horizontal towards the vertical, so that what was initially successive becomes simultaneous (or what was “melodic” becomes “harmonic”). When I think of “accepting” in Johnstone’s sense I think of letting what I hear effect some change in my musicality and then to express that change in sound. “Blocking” would be to ignore what I hear – although this is always a possibility, made perhaps less problematic in musical improvisation than in the theatre by, once again, the possibility of simultaneity.
Assign a number to each member of the group. The music begins with each member in numerical order making a brief contribution which (apart from the first!) continues perceptibly from the previous one. When the second “round” begins the contributions begin to overlap with one another, and this overlapping process continues until each “round” consists of almost simultaneous entries while still bearing in mind the principle of each contribution “answering” the previous one. Then the whole process could begin again. Possible extension: use two sequences of numbers rather than one, so that two instances of the aforementioned process are taking place concurrently.
In so far as theatre depends on spoken language, it can only ever involve “idiomatic” improvisation, to use Derek Bailey’s formulation – “non-idiomatic” improvisation in Bailey’s sense would only be possible by abandoning the necessity of staying within the boundaries of a vocabulary already familiar to the audience. (Such a possibility was indeed explored for a while by Peter Brook’s International Centre for Theatre Research in the 1970s, particularly in the 1971 piece Orghast, performed using the pseudo-archaic language of that name invented by the poet Ted Hughes – see Smith 1973.) Film, on the other hand, isn’t necessarily constrained in the same way; indeed in the earlier decades of its history film was unable to include spoken language, and the possibility of silence (or of music) is still always present. Like theatre, improvisation in film tends to occur as part of a process rather than the whole process, although an improvisatory approach is possible at various stages in production, leading here not to a repeatable “text” but to an immutably recorded result, thus something more akin to a music recording than to a theatre script. As Maria Viera observes in the context of the work of director John Cassavetes (1929-89):
Filmmaking is a particularly fluid process susceptible to re-thinking and re-working throughout the entire production process. A director will rewrite lines in rehearsal and improvise on the set for reasons as varied as weather changes, equipment failure, or actors’ moods. Intentions which have been in place since the beginning of production are routinely abandoned in the editing room. These are the creative conditions of filmmaking. No matter how meticulously planned, circumstances arise which force a director to improvise on the set or in the editing room. (Viera 1990, p. 35)
Nevertheless, “Cassavetes’ work is not, in fact, improvised; but improvisation is what his work is about.” (Viera 1990, p. 35) What does this mean? It seems to be connected with the way that Cassavetes’ films explore a complexity of rival positions without seeming to exercise a single authorial attitude, a centred point of view, thus exemplifying the decentred aspect of group improvisation. Another example of improvisatory ideas finding their way into the film-making process is the work of Jean-Luc Godard (b. 1930) – "by freeing the montage from the constraints of the match cut, it was suddenly possible [for him] to to improvise during the montage." (Mouëllic 2013, p. 51) Actual free improvisation in film-making would extend to every participant in the production and every stage from rehearsal and location-scouting to the finished cut. But, on the other hand, the role of a director like Cassavetes or Godard might provide a model of an altered role for the composer of improvisation-related music – beginning from a “shooting script” allowing creative input from other participants, “accepting their offer” rather than suggesting or demanding changes, then overseeing the production process – a form of writing that doesn’t aim to limit or restrain but rather to encourage emergence and revelation, which Gilles Mouëllic likens to the kind of compositorial input that occurs in jazz (Mouëllic 2013, p. 28) but which of course doesn’t need to be limited to any particular style. I had the unexpected opportunity in the summer of 2020 to explore the potential of just such a compositional production process.
In late April of 2020, in the midst of the Covid lockdown in Belgrade (curfew between 5pm and 5am and all weekend), I was contacted by the Boston-based singer Tyler Bouque with an invitation to take part in the Alinéa Ensemble’s “Everything but the Kitchen Sink” project, combining interviews with diverse composers and video performances by the members of the ensemble of selected solo compositions.
One of my principal motivations as a creative musician is for my work to embody a response to its social and political conditions, not in an anecdotal way but by turning those conditions into opportunities for creative renewal, and for the opening of new possibilities for how the music might further evolve and expand the perceptions and consciousness of its participants, among which its listeners should be counted as central. I use the formulation “creative musician” rather than “composer” in order not to place real or imagined limits on the activity, taking a cue in this regard, as in others, from the example of Anthony Braxton, with all that this implies. In the pandemic of 2020, then, I had been exploring ways in which the music I’m making can respond to changes in its situation, and turn these changes in a creative direction, rather than hunkering down and composing the same music I was composing previously and waiting until the crisis has passed, or whatever.
In the spring of 2020, I began by working on binaural versions of various multichannel fixed media electronic pieces, in order that listeners might get some kind of impression of their spatiality in the absence of concerts with 8-channel sound systems. When heard on headphones, these versions of Vermilion Sands, disquiet and luminous have a more open and transparent sound than the conventional stereo mixdowns I had previously prepared, even if three-dimensional spatial definition isn’t as convincing as is often claimed for this kind of software. (The freely downloadable Sennheiser AMBEO Orbit plugin was used.) On the other hand, I began to imagine what the possibilities might be for a music specifically composed for this format, treating its idiosyncrasies as characteristics of that “instrument” rather than comparing them unfavourably to another one.
Milana Zarić and I assembled a duo recital for harps and electronics on video at the end of May and beginning of June, of which the final element is a fixed media piece (entitled sphinx) which we composed together and which was so to speak native to the binaural domain. This idea wouldn’t have come into existence under other circumstances, and it’s not a compromise to them but, as mentioned previously, a response that opens up an unanticipated new way of doing things. The process began by recording some improvisational harp material, some freely played and some concentrating on specific sounds and techniques. This was then categorised, transformed in various ways and composed into a structure whose components were characterised by different configurations within the virtual binaural space.
While thinking about how sphinx was to be composed, I responded to the Alinéa invitation by suggesting that, instead of a performance of a solo piece, I would contribute an entirely new composition. This would consist of partially notated material for six members of the ensemble (voice, violin, cello, contrabass, piano and percussion), which they would record individually and send to me, and on the basis of which a binaural fixed media composition would be made for their virtual concert series.
The text used in the piece consists of eight poems from the collection eye-blink by the English poet Harry Gilonis (Gilonis 2010), which for a couple of years already I’d been considering as the basis for a musical composition. The 64 eight-line poems in the book are distant rereadings (as opposed to translations) of poems by eight Chinese poets of the T’ang period: their origins and their actuality are constantly interweaving, mirroring and shadowing and sometimes distorting one another. (This is the same body of work on which Gustav Mahler drew in Das Lied von der Erde, again using translations and indeed eventually additions of his own.) I take the title to refer to the way that a written Chinese character gives rise to a concept or image “all at once” rather than the latter being revealed gradually through a linear sentence as in Western languages, a feature which is reflected in a musical structure consisting of a sequence of sixteen “sound-images”. Six of the poems appear in the music as complete but brief “songs”, while the other two occur simultaneously in longer, more static moments, one line at a time, in between the others. The format of the text here reflects the order and simultaneity in the music; the eight poems aren’t in this order in the book and are all formatted as one eight-line poem per page.
This division into longer/static and shorter/active structural elements was the first and most influential decision in the composition process (and in fact reflects an exploration of this kind of relationship that characterises much of my recent work). The structural framework for the composition was then filled out by assigning a duration to each of the sixteen elements (including two sections in the “short” sequence with no text – the sixteen-second introductory sound before the voices enter with the first “long” section, and, later on, an eight-second silence), and a harmonic aggregate to each of the static ones. The “short” and “long” sections are heretofore referred to as S1-8 and L1-8. The time-structure of the piece is:
I reserved the possibility of altering the overall time-structure according to the dictates of the eventual sonic materials, although in fact all of the original durational proportions (see below) are retained precisely, with the exception of L8, which is extended by 132" (the next duration in the duration-series used for the L sections!) so that the original total duration of 15’12" becomes 17’24" (augmented by a further few seconds of silence in the final soundfile). The non-vocal material of L8 was the first part of the piece to be composed, since it consists entirely of electronic sounds and could be completed while I was waiting for the vocal and instrumental recordings to be made, and it seemed appropriate to extend it with a long fade during which its 8 layers (pitches) drop out one by one until only the lowest and highest sounds are left.
The eight harmonic aggregates are as follows:
which may be described as 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8 pitches adding to 36, forming three twelve-tone series in terms of pitch-classes, expanding gradually in register, aggregates 3 and 6 with intervals getting larger from top to bottom (approximating to the odd-numbered partials of a harmonic series in aggregate 6), aggregates 4 and 7 with intervals getting larger from bottom to top, aggregates 5 and 8 symmetrical. Aggregates 4 and 5, and 7 and 8, have one and two pitches in common respectively, and these pitches sound through the linking “short” sections.
The score of sections L1-8 was then completed by assigning pitches of the aggregates to voice and instruments in different ways, ranging from almost free improvisation to precise pitches and rhythms, and placing an emphasis also on timbral character and variation. The binaural spatialisation involved defining 24 discrete virtual positions – 8 at ear level, 8 raised by 45 degrees and 8 lowered by 45 degrees – and assigning tracks to them, generally in some kind of symmetrical formation. In the L sections the two voices always appear at front left and right positions (and sometimes others as well, as in L6 where there are 8 voices altogether, 4 left and 4 right), while in the S sections the single voice may be at front centre or might be distributed line by line through the virtual space. The solution of using 24 virtual positions was arrived at after making sketch versions of two sections and deciding that work could be speeded up by creating an empty template DAW session with tracks correctly positioned, which could then be used as the starting point for the binaural mix of each section.
In some cases the recorded materials of L1-7 were taken over with very little alteration into the composition. The sustained sounds of L1, for example, were treated only by introducing very slow microtonal fluctuations in pitch, in order to enhance their spatial separation. On the other hand, other materials were subjected to much more processing. The A-C# alternations in all the instrumental parts of L2 were first laid end to end and then the resulting soundfile decomposed into grains sampled at random positions, so that the result is a dense web of rapidly varying articulations, speeds, timbres, spatial positions and filter parameters.
The material for sections S2, 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 was organised quite differently. (S1 consists only of a gradual fade-in of the sound materials of L1, and S6 is silent.) The vocal material for S2, 4 and 8 was precisely notated, while that for S3, 5 and 7 consisted only of the text with the direction to improvise on it, some suggestions of the vocal techniques that might be used, and the request that two different recordings be made. (In each case the vocal part in the actual piece was made by editing between the two takes.) There was no specific instrumental material for these sections, only directions for two recordings (labelled B1 and B2 in the score respectively): the first consisting of a 36-note series based on the pitch-classes of the eight harmonic aggregates, transposed differently for each instrument, to be played as a repeating loop, each time leaving out about half of the notes and replacing them with freely chosen sounds (a technique used in several of my codex scores); and the second requesting six minutes or more of free improvisation which might or might not refer to any of the notated materials used elsewhere in the piece. The purpose of B1 was to generate a sequence of mostly brief sounds exploring the entire pitch and timbral range of each instrument, and of B2 to create an opening to any and all unexpected possibilities – for example the repeated muted-piano sounds which are a central feature of S6. If the ensemble had been preparing the B1 material together (especially if I were there to provide guidance and/or clarification), the players would no doubt have come to a consensus about how it should sound; since they hadn’t, each player brought a different and distinctive approach, from the isolated staccati of the cello to the melodic sound-sequences of the violin. This of course once more provided an opportunity rather than a problem! In most of the S sections the instruments are multiplied on one another to varying degrees – for example S6 is “scored” for 5 violins, 3 cellos, contrabass, 4 pianos and percussion – while in S4 the voice is only “accompanied” by fragmented versions of itself, and in S8 the (heavily filtered) voice sounds through a crossfade between two alternating piano chords held over from L7 and a widely separated F#-C dyad (also present in the piano chords) on synthetic sounds which continues into L8.
The working process (excluding sketches and dead ends, and with various exceptions) had the following form:
(1) all recorded parts were individually “mastered” (using EQ, compression and limiting), and the stereo recordings of voice, violin and cello mixed down to mono (the bass part was already mono and the piano and percussion parts were left in stereo owing to the nature of the instruments), to give maximum flexibility in further processing and mixing.
(2) The necessary materials for each section were extracted and mixed/edited together, often with a stage of processing outside the DAW at some point before or during the mix, and also often with processing within the DAW, for example pitch-shifting and/or reverb.
(3) The resulting tracks were extracted and imported into the aforementioned 24-channel binaural template session and then mixed to stereo. Sometimes I would go back to the previous stage to make revisions that weren’t convenient to do in this session, for example changing the temporal relationships between sounds within a section.
(4) The stereo sections were assembled in a further session at their assigned points in the time structure, first the L sections and then the S sections. In most cases I would then go back to stage (3) and produce a revised version with changed balances and/or other alterations which would then once more be inserted into this final session.
(5) Finally, the balance between sections was adjusted within the final stereo session until a definitive mix was produced.
It might be said that this piece is consistent with my previous work in exploring contradictions not by reconciling them but by putting them into a dynamic relationship, neither balanced nor unbalanced – like spontaneity and simultaneity, or acoustic and electronic sounds, or abstract and referential ideas… if what I’m doing has an individual aspect this might be what it is.
For example: I thought for many years about Stravinsky’s comment that music isn’t able to express anything outside itself, (Stravinsky 1975, p. 53) and, while I do have sympathy for this idea, I wanted to be able to find a way of thinking musically where both this and its opposite are true and perceptible. This is a way of thinking that really only finds its means of expression in the music, and doesn’t lend itself to being reduced to words, but one way of hinting at it is to say that Stravinsky is quite right but on the other hand we can imagine that there is nothing outside music, that it’s overlapping or coextensive or interconnected with many other things. I don’t want to draw any kind of borderline between what is music and what isn’t.
For me the sound is the most important thing, but folded into that idea is the understanding that a sound is never just a sound – it always has a shape, a structural context, a social and historical context and so on. Eye-blink is a further extension of that idea, by taking recorded materials with varying degrees of precision and composing them into an ensemble piece in the binaural domain which hasn’t been played live, and which indeed couldn’t be, since there’s no reason to make a simulation of a live ensemble when there’s the opportunity to use the digital composition environment to make something real with the performative energy of these sound materials. I decided in advance that I would accept whatever material I was sent, so that for example the kind of guidance I might otherwise try to give performers during rehearsals would instead be incorporated into the composition process. Sometimes I would sift through a relatively large amount of material to find just the thing I originally envisaged, while at others my original idea would change direction or disappear altogether as a response to the recorded sounds. I was somewhat taken aback initially by the piano clearly not having been tuned for a while, but this feature also had to be used and transformed compositionally. Somehow this seemed to be a strangely intimate way to work, despite the lack of direct contact or dialogue: while being free to change the sounds I also opened myself to be changed by them.
The music that interests me most, whether as a listener or as a composer, is music that’s working at or beyond the limits of technique, imagination, technology and so on. Launching myself into this project I wanted to have some clear questions at the outset, and some conception of what the answers might be, while always retaining an openness to unforeseen possibilities. I amassed a huge pile of notes concerning how the piece might end up once the materials were in. So it wasn’t so much a case of writing an unfinished piece as of writing many possible pieces, as a way of keeping my mind open, since I knew all along that its eventual form would be more or less different from any of my prognoses.
eye-blink (1) has been released together with binaural versions of the 8-channel electronic pieces strange lines and distances, Vermilion Sands, luminous and disquiet on the digital label STRANGE STRINGS which Milana Zarić and I set up in October 2020.
Also on this label is the album mirage, which contains the collaborative composition sphinx together with four other duos for harps and electronics recorded live (see below). The opening piece and title track is in fact a reconfiguring of structural ideas and sound materials from sphinx, which thus, after becoming fixed in that composition, return to a state of flexibility as the elements of an improvised performance – the improvisatory production process entering a new and unforeseen phase. (Of the other three pieces, Restless Horizon and nocturnes are collaborative compositions developed through improvisation, while šuma forms part of my 2016 electroacoustic sextet close-up – see Barrett 2019 pp. 105-151.)
Something I hadn’t expected before 2020 was to have been involved rather more directly in video production than previously. I’ve already referred to the duo concert Milana Zarić and I produced at our home studio and premiered on Youtube on 7 June. In an effort to make this production something different from just a video of a performance (and thus inevitably a more or less pale imitation of a concert), we decorated the studio with three paintings by the Serbian artist Stojan Ćelić (1925-92), the title of one of which, Restless Horizon, was taken for one of the collaborative compositions as well as the whole programme; we also placed the loudspeakers and as much as possible of the technical apparatus of the performance out of shot. While the video was shot on a mobile phone placed on a stepladder, a multichannel audio recording was made which was subsequently mixed and synchronised to the images. For the final piece, the binaural fixed-media composition sphinx (see above), we made a more abstract video since obviously there was no live performance to film.
A further step in exploring this medium came with our duo concert in the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Šabac on 17 September. This performance took place under concert conditions (but without an audience), rather than studio conditions as in Restless Horizon, which was recorded over four days, and this circumstance, along with developments in our thinking about the three pieces the two performances have in common, gave a further dimension to the music which made these versions more intense and structurally intricate than the earlier ones (viewers may judge for themselves!), which is why these performances were chosen for release on our album mirage. This time, instead of realising the video ourselves, we collaborated with the Serbian artist Incredible Bob, who improvised a different light-performance for each piece which was then augmented by further layers of abstract visual material once the concert had been recorded and filmed. Each composition thus takes on a distinctive visual identity along with its sonic character, with improvisational input at each stage of the production process.
Sound is movement. And of course dance and music have a deep and long-standing association – it was something of a surprise when researching this area to find that most texts dealing with improvisation in dance make almost no mention of music. This omission will be mentioned again below, but one of its benefits for the present discussion is that many of the ideas that emerge from improvised dance do so independently of any influence from musical thinking, so that they might more readily function as “new inputs” than otherwise. Also, many dancers who use improvisation have been highly articulate and detailed in their insights into and descriptions of their artistic process, furnishing some highly suggestive ideas ready for “translation” into music, as I hope will be seen in this section.
Improvisation in dance is able to span a wide range between concrete and abstract modes of expression and, crucially, to embrace simultaneity while freeing itself from the restrictions of a received syntax, and might therefore seem closer to musical improvisation than the other artistic disciplines discussed here, and indeed combinations of freely improvised music and freely improvised dance are by no means uncommon. During the 1990s I was regularly involved in free improvisation for dancers and musicians, principally in the context of the Magpie Music & Dance company based in Amsterdam and directed by Katie Duck (b. 1951), one of the most significant thinkers and dancers in the history and practice of improvised dance. My own improvisational practice became strongly conditioned by thinking through linkages between sound and movement, despite (or because of) the fact that my instrument is electronic, so that the involvement of the body in music making, if this is seen as desirable, has to be invented – one might say composed, or choreographed, according to the sound-forms one is working with and the somatic-cognitive dimensions they seem to imply – rather than being inherent to the nature of the instrument. But the influence of working with Katie Duck (not to mention other dancers active around the company, such as Michael Schumacher, Sharon Smith, Martin Sonderkamp and Eileen Standley, and lighting improviser Ellen Knops) has contributed to the evolution of my improvisational work in other ways too. As Melinda Buckwalter (2010) explains,
As far as Duck is concerned, it is not the job of the improvising dancer to make the improvisation happen, that is, fill the space with interesting movement, but instead to allow the chance for something to happen by exiting. Exiting creates empty space, potential, for something to occur by chance. In other words, an improviser doesn’t decide to take a solo but may find him or herself dancing one. (p. 88)
Allowing exits from a musical improvisation to articulate structures and especially to expose musical events and layers which weren’t necessarily intended to be the focus of attention is a recurrent theme in my own workshop-leading, and a way of creating musical forms out of chance encounters (or chance isolations) which is closely related to Duck’s idea as described here, and as I experienced it in performing with her and her dancers. Sharon Smith emphasises the seemingly paradoxical quality of this principle:
In a world that is set up for entrance, Duck introduces exit as the most important element within Duck’s practice. For her, a performer engaged with performing should always be in the state of ‘looking for exit’. This notion gives the mover a mental focus on ‘future’ that strengthens her physically being in the present: in time. Exit is the main choice that an improvising performer should make.
Once we decide to do something, we must move away from it, change direction, shift our focus to another sense. On every level we are working away from inscribing our self upon site as an autonomous protagonist of that inscription. Always there is the opportunity to trick ourselves out of the compulsion to fixate, to control, to assume or to preserve our focus or our own centre. Duck encourages us to let time pass, to let choices pass. This shifts the mind-body from a pre-determining position – from before movement happens – and trains the mind-body to be always on the other side of action, towards the ending of that action. This is the necessary paradox for performing in the present tense. Time and space do not rely on the performer to make something happen or to transform site by doing things. Improvisation is as much concerned with letting space and time affect and infect event by practising an active understanding of ‘not doing’. The performer lets go, leaves rather than enters. In this respect Duck does not work with entrance, only with exit. (Smith, undated)
Alternate playing and not playing, paying special attention to how you stop, which may be in response to someone else’s playing or signal, or according to what seems appropriate to you. During each duration when you aren’t playing you have the opportunity (but not the obligation) to give ONE signal, which may be interpreted by others as “if you’re playing, stop, or suddenly change to playing something different; if you aren’t playing, start”.
The aim of this approach is twofold. Firstly, it directs the improviser’s mind towards what might happen next, rather than limiting it to negotiating the present moment and remembering what’s already taken place. Secondly, it creates the conditions for revelatory chance events to occur.
It is not choice that interests Duck so much as chance – she is interested in the aesthetics of chance. As she sees it, choice (when as well as what) and chance (the intersection of events) are the composers in improvisation. The dancers don’t compose, that is, make something happen directly through their choices – at least she is not interested in this type of choice, which is basically choreography in her book. Rather she asks that her dancers make choices that “create space” (or possibilities) for the dance to happen amid. (Buckwalter 2010, p. 61)
Through their choices, [dancers] can only create the conditions for the possibility of coincidence to happen, placing themselves in a very different relationship to time than the usual being “in time.” (Buckwalter 2010, p. 62)
These conditions apply also to the relationship between music and dance, and therefore could also be applied to relationships within music. But what is meant by chance here isn’t the dispassionately coincidental relationship well-known from the collaboration between John Cage (1912-92) and Merce Cunningham (1919-2009), where dance and music are understood to take place in the same time and space without coordination except in terms of overall duration. As Thomas Kaltenbrunner (1998) puts it:
Cunningham did not want to create atmosphere, character, emotion or illusion. The dancers were not as individuals on stage; they did not present themselves, they only presented movements. (15)
Chance encounters in Katie Duck’s company are firstly actively pursued rather than adventitious, and secondly are exploited for their poetic dimension, as “surreal” juxtapositions, fortuitous meetings – between former or potential lovers or enemies, for example – which might be rendered more or less explicit by the performers. The “dramatic” possibilities of the unplanned moment unfurl in an instant, and then might just as rapidly evaporate. Props and spoken words often play a part also, often shifting the performance onto a different expressive level, but again might appear and disappear unexpectedly. Vocal interjections are a not uncommon feature of the musical performances of one of Katie Duck’s longest-term collaborators, the cellist Tristan Honsinger, but tend not to occur so often in improvised music, especially of the electroacoustic variety, although actually they occurred not infrequently in FURT’s earliest work (between 1986 and 1992, roughly) and they continue to emerge from time to time in the form of sampled voices, canned laughter, animal sounds and so on. Of course, in all of these cases, the dimension of timing is of central importance:
Katie Duck points out that because dance is a “time art” (i.e. a performing art, or an art form that unfolds in time), duration is of major concern, but that the dancer’s relationship to time is very different when improvising than when dancing set choreography. In improvisation, dancers choose not only what movements to make but when to make them. Because choice is available to the improvising dancer, time becomes a tool. (Buckwalter 2010, p. 60)
This crucial difference between pre-composed and improvisational work might be emphasised also in a musical context. Improvising musicians have not only sounds as their working materials, but time also, in exactly the sense noted above. Many of my own improvisational exercises are concerned with subverting performers’ ingrained ideas of the relationship between their sound material, its entry and exit points, and its duration, so as to open up their structure-vocabularies to possibilities they might not have considered. (This is of course also a reason for employing systematic procedures in non-improvisational forms of composition.)
A rather more venerable form of performance whose constituent elements exist in a partly spontaneous mutual balance is the Noh theatre of Japan, which was codified in the 14th century by the actor and playwright Zeami Motokiyo (c. 1363 – c. 1443). According to Kunio Komparu (1983):
What is valued in Noh is the kind of beauty generated by the spontaneous and unpredictable harmonizing of a combination of performers who come together to produce a given play only once, rather than the polished recreation by a carefully coordinated group effort. (pp. 165-166)
Noh performances are based on memorised texts and (mostly extremely slow) actions but involve little or no rehearsal. Another feature of Noh which differs from most Western approaches to theatre is that the interior and exterior worlds of an actor should not necessarily match (see Oida 1997, pp, 39-42), an idea which seems to lie behind the conception of butoh, a dance style originated at the end of the 1950s by Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986) and Kazuo Ohno (1906-2010). The aesthetic of butoh is rather difficult to pin down, although it and its influence are easy enough to spot; it depends on the dancer internally visualising him/herself as an embodiment of something the audience isn’t aware of or, seemingly, intended to see. Sondra Fraleigh (2010) says of Butoh dancers:
They consciously morph: from culture to culture and from birth to old age – transfiguring from male to female, from human to plant life, disappearing into ash, animals, bugs and gods. (p. 45)
The dancer Min Tanaka (b. 1945), whose work emerges from the butoh tradition but has also involved frequent collaborations with improvising musicians, notably Derek Bailey, prefers “that the speeds or timings of the inner and outer world of the dancer be different.” (Buckwalter 2010, p. 60) Are these kinds of embodiments useful to the improvising musician? This might be an area worth investigating, as might be the idea of “thinking” and “doing” on different temporal levels. Probably, and this no doubt applies not just to Butoh but also more generally to potential relationships between improvised music and improvised dance, and how musical thinking and doing might be enriched by these relationships, the most effective way to learn is through actually working with dancers.
While the personal development of creative musicians is often, to the point of cliché, described in terms of “discovering one’s own voice”, it might seem that the fact that the human body is the dancer’s instrument might bypass that kind of process, in that dancers are working not only with the omnipresent force of gravity but also with physical attributes they have no conscious influence on (how tall they are, for example), so that the “voice” so to speak is already there, and needs only to have its innate capacities developed through training. Perhaps in fact this would be a more useful metaphor for creative musicians.
Curtis Carter (2000) states:
The primary instrument through which improvisation in dance takes place is the human body and its interactions with other bodies. The full range of human attributes, including the physical, conceptual, and emotional resources embodied in the body are thus available for improvisation in dance. This virtually unlimited range of bodily actions, essentially free from preconceptions of movement styles and frameworks, is an important feature that distinguishes improvisation in dance from improvisation in the other arts such as music or painting. (p. 183)
Is it really not possible in a musical context to be “free from preconceptions of… styles and frameworks”? This would be one way of defining “non-idiomatic” improvisation. I am doubtful that it’s realistic to view one artform as “virtually unlimited” while others aren’t. The familiar presence of human beings moving in a space might be imagined as a limitation of dance, relative to the potential of music to create spaces and presences which might be only very obliquely rooted in everyday human activities. However, when the real space of dance is articulated by movement, it isn’t constrained by anything analogous to some sounds (or musicians) rendering others inaudible by being too loud. The space of dance is transparent; the viewer’s eye can range across and through it at will, devoting attention to this or that person or action regardless of what else might be happening simultaneously. Of course it is possible to imagine a music for which something like this might also be the case, and indeed this coexistence of transparency, density, interaction and perspective between elements, motion and stillness, through which listeners can trace their own pathway, is a condition that much of the music I’m involved in as composer could be thought of as aspiring to. Thinking of an unfolding structure in musical improvisation as a space containing interactions between agents (which might be coextensive with players or sounds, as agents in a danced structure might be coexistent with dancers or movements), with the limits and gravitational characteristics of the space actually generated by those same agents and interactions, in a way that might be likened to Einstein’s general relativity. The space isn’t a given, as in dance; it’s something that might often need careful maintenance.
Dance consists of stillness and motion in a comparable way to that in which music consists of sound and silence. But, referring back to the aforementioned “exiting” that’s so important to Katie Duck’s thinking, dancers can either be still in view of the audience or can leave the visible performance space altogether, an absence which might be regarded as a stage beyond stillness and from which they might reappear at a different place from where they left, with a different costume, acquiring or discarding a prop, and so on.
“Flow/pause/exit” is an exercise Duck uses with a group to practice remembering to pause or exit. Dancers move (flow) and are allowed the options of pausing in the space (not moving, but remaining alive and attentive) or exiting to shift the attention of the viewer onto the performance space and what might happen there next. (Buckwalter 2010, p. 88)
Build your contribution and its interactions around three states: active, still (producing a quiet sustained or iterated sound which signals your presence without intentionally drawing attention to it) and absent (silent), bearing in mind the idea of dancers in a space who might be active, still or absent. After an absence, consider reentering with some clearly perceptible difference from your previous presence(s). Begin and end with an empty space. In the course of the piece, there might be various mixtures of the three states as well as times when everyone is on one or other of them (including absence).
Dance improvisation has in common with improvised music a polyvalent attitude towards highly developed and specialised skills (this was discussed in relation to music in the seminar sessions transcribed in section 6). In The Empty Space, Peter Brook extols the virtuosity of the dancers in Merce Cunningham’s company:
Merce Cunningham’s dancers, who are highly trained, use their discipline to be more aware of the fine currents that flow within a movement as it unfolds for the first time—and their technique enables them to follow this fine prompting, freed from the clumsiness of the untrained man. When they improvise—as notions are born and flow between them, never repeating themselves, always in movement—the intervals have shape, so that the rhythms can be sensed as just and the proportions as true: all is spontaneous and yet there is order. (Brook 1968, p 67)
While the dancer and choreographer Yvonne Rainer (b. 1934) followed Cunningham in eschewing character, she also disdained the “freedom from clumsiness” admired by Brook:
1) The artifice of performance has been reevaluated in that action, or what one does, is more interesting and important than the exhibition of character and attitude, and that action can best be focused on through the submerging of the personality; so ideally … one is a neutral “doer.”
2) The display of technical virtuosity and the di play of the dancer’s specialized body no longer make any sense. Dancers have been driven to search for an alternative context that allows for a more matter-of-fact, more concrete, more banal quality of physical being in performance, a context wherein people are engaged in actions and movements making a less spectacular demand on the body and in which skill is hard to locate. (Rainer 1974, p. 65)
Is it possible for a musician to be a “neutral doer” in Rainer’s sense? After all, playing a musical instrument generally isn’t something that could be confused with carrying out some unskilled task involving (in this case) the production of sound. Rainer’s work is characterised by “finding new uses for everyday movements of people without formal dance training and with putting together in a performance simple ‘one- and two-motion phrases’ requiring no particular dance skill and minimal energy.” (Buckwalter 2010, p. 187) The ordering of these movements would then either be left free in the performance or “arranged indeterminately”.
Don’t use any of your highly developed skills (perhaps play an instrument you aren’t fluent with) but instead base your contribution around simple events repeated with or without variation. Try to play in such a way that this isn’t a limitation but a point of intense focus.
Yvonne Rainer wasn’t alone among dancers who rejected technique. The dancers of the New York-based Judson Dance Theater, founded in 1960, of which she was a member, had a shared aim in redefining dance, and many of them played important roles in developing improvised dance, particularly by integrating “pedestrian” movements not previously considered as the materials of dance, such as sitting, lying, rolling and falling. This innovation led directly to Judson member Steve Paxton (b. 1939) inventing and disseminating the discipline of Contact Improvisation (often abbreviated to CI or just “Contact”), which, since its beginnings in the early 1970s has become one of the most widespread and influential techniques in contemporary dance. One of its starting points, comparable to the way in which freely improvised music dispenses with any division of labour between composer and performer, was in overcoming hierarchy:
When dancing for Cunningham, Paxton became critical of the hierarchical social structures within the company. The dictatorships and star systems were in stark contrast to the ideas of Isadora Duncan and [Rudolf] Laban, whose work had promised freedom and egalitarianism. Another criticism was the tendency towards vacuity within the high technical perfection, which left audiences watching such dance performances with the feeling that their own movement was not worth exploring. (Kaltenbrunner 1998, p. 21)
Nevertheless, CI involves a great deal of skill in its own right, and acknowledges influences from martial arts, Tai Chi and yoga. It is based entirely on duets and is pithily described thus by Steve Paxton:
Each party of the duet freely improvises with an aim to working along the easiest pathways available to their mutually moving masses. (Paxton 1975, p. 40)
Buckwalter expands on this:
Contact is built around an initial investigation of the reflex reactions of two bodies sharing weight through a moving point of physical contact. The dance that results is whatever the body does to survive following this task. The form puts the reflex reactions on display for observation and study by dancers and viewers alike. However, Contact is unlike most dance forms in that the more the form becomes fixed in its vocabulary and techniques of execution, the less successful it is in fulfilling its initial task of putting the body off its guard. As dancers become familiar with the ins and outs of the basic movements that arise, they may create a flowing dance of negotiating how they will shift from one maneuver to another. To counteract this tendency, dancers challenge themselves to find the improvisation in Contact Improvisation in any moment, to look for unfamiliar territory within the familiar, to continue the investigation that is Contact’s heart and soul. The dialogue that arises between form and improvisation becomes palpable, pushing dancers to new spine-tingling heights and interpolations of where the “rules” of Contact Improvisation might lead them (Buckwalter 2010, p. 42)
Fall after Newton is a documentary about the first 12 years (1972-83) of CI development. Some excerpts can be seen here:
A key principle in contact improvisation draws on this concept – a defocussing of the eyes. We are not fixed on any particular point in space but try to take in everything around us. This peripheral vision provides us with impartial information from the total field of vision (normally almost 180 degrees). This extended spatial awareness is especially necessary when dancing within groups – it helps to prevent collisions with other duets and consequently furthers the essential freedom and openness needed during contact. (Novak 1990, p.70)
A whole range between activity and passivity occurs within every moment, and moments may also decelerate to stillness, although clearly this is a different kind of stillness from that found in butoh: it’s a pause rather than a condition, regardless of its duration. Whatever form the performance has is emergent from a specific kind of activity rather than being the subject of conscious focus by the participants.
Is it possible to imagine a musical analogy to this kind of approach, an equivalent to contact and/or gravity? When researching the ideas behind CI I was immediately reminded of my duo work with guitarist Han-earl Park (see Barrett 2020), for example in this duo recorded in 2011 and released by Creative Sources on the CD numbers.
It’s always possible to hear the difference between the two performers although the sound-shapes their instruments articulate are in constant movement through and around one another, at a high rate of activity which indeed seems to focus only on the sounds occurring within an extremely brief time-window rather than on phrasing or longer-term structural elements and processes. My experience of working with Park is very much of a precarious balance which could be upset at any moment, almost as if one of us could get injured if we don’t keep the point of balance moving according to the internal dynamic of the sounds. This is facilitated partly through both of us using a volume pedal in a way that’s at least as dynamically active as anything else we’re doing – not setting or changing a level but integrated into the precipitously evolving sound materials. Probably, as with CI, this kind of sound-form is most readily approached by a duo.
Split the ensemble into duos whose members always enter and exit together. While a duo is active it operates as rapidly as possible, without considering memory or anticipation. When one member of the duo can’t keep the music in the air and stops, the other stops immediately, and the duo doesn’t re-enter until there is space for their activity to be heard, for example if there’s a silence or only one other duo playing. Try not to think of periods of inactivity as waiting to enter or as articulating a larger form, instead becoming an audience.
A striking feature of most of the texts on CI is that music is nowhere mentioned, and, in fact, music is regarded as unnecessary to this kind of activity. As Simon Rose remarks in section 6 of the present text, the role of music was subject to the same kind of questioning, as part of the historical redefining of dance mentioned above. “Using time as a tool” involves breaking out not only of the temporal constraints of choreography but also of following the rhythmical and structural cues given by music, whether through Cunningham’s simultaneity of uncoordinated activity or, more radically, by dispensing altogether with any sound apart from that arising from the movement of the dancers. The way was then open for the reintegration of music into dance in a more flexibly interactive and non-hierarchical way, as in the work of Katie Duck.
The more I looked into the literature on improvised dance, the more I encountered ideas which might have direct application to musical improvisation, or at least which might give rise through contemplation to a fruitfully oblique application. Much of the literature indeed involves practical exercises, one reason for which no doubt is that the physical safety of participants is at issue, as well as their physical fitness, when there are moving bodies in a space without a preexistent choreography to prevent them from colliding or otherwise coming to grief. (Is it possible to imagine a music that incorporates danger in this kind of way?)
Differences between modern dance and contact improvisation are clearly seen when considering “falling” and the consequent contrast in aesthetic standards: ballet and modern dance work with geometric centres; almost everything is based around the balanced torso and not “off centre”. Contact improvisation works with the centre of gravity, the awareness of one’s own weight, questioning how we can use this corporeal mass to move in space. This also includes of course, being above, below or next to the centre and continue moving. In contact improvisation we are invariably falling, which provokes fear, and therefore must know how to approach the floor, how to fall without hurting ourselves. (Kaltenbrunner 1998, p. 14)
While writing on theatre improvisation tends to focus more on the audience, writing on dance improvisation often focuses almost exclusively on the experience of dancing. In CI the audience is encouraged to be as close physically to the performers as possible, in order as far as is practical to share in that experience – “there is usually no clearly defined boundary between the stage and the spectators.” (Kaltenbrunner 1998, p. 10) If it’s possible to generalise I would suggest that musicians often occupy a position somewhere between these two. But the thoughtful provision of preparatory exercises by improvising dancers can I think be valuable for musicians to consider, and I feel myself to have hardly scratched the surface of this rich reservoir of possibilities.
Nina Martin, for example, invents exercises to overcome a situation very often encountered in less experienced improvisation in music – a default structural rhythm marked by cautious dynamics and “creeping” entrances as dancers assess how material is building, their personal interest in it and how they will fit in. To give an ensemble options other than glacial time in performance, for example a “jump cut” or dynamic shift, she has developed practices such as “number scores”. In one of these, the score is just a predetermined sequence of numbers representing the number of dancers in the performance space.
Martin reckons that the average attention span of the improviser in any given material is often about three minutes. Because of this, improvisations develop predictable rhythms… Martin encourages them to stay with something longer than might be habitually comfortable and to practice making extreme timing choices. (Buckwalter 2010, p. 62)
Construct a “number score” along the lines of Nina Martin’s idea and for similar purposes, to regulate the number of players active at any time, in this case articulating “jump cuts” between sound and silence, bearing in mind that a period of activity doesn’t need to be FILLED with activity – the option to make a sound or sounds is no more than that. But there should still be a clear distinction between presence and absence. The signal to move to the next “number” is assigned whenever possible to someone who won’t be entering or leaving at that cue.
Another potentially valuable idea, according to Barbara Dilley, is to think of connections between actions by different participants not in terms of imitation but in terms of influence, which “helps open the study and brings our natural tendency toward imitation to consciousness while widening the lens of imitation to include more subtle exchanges” (Buckwalter 2010, p. 16), acknowledging human beings’ evolved imitative skills and at the same time generalising them. This might be approached in a musical context by responding to a sonic stimulus in a “parametric” way, following its rhythmical character but not its pitch, or vice versa, not to mention higher-order and more complex responses, which might then give rise to a chain reaction with a structural-expressive character of its own.
Divide the group into two (or more) more or less equal subgroups, probably better interlocking with one another in space rather than being separated, giving each subgroup an order of entries so that each member of each subgroup knows who in that subgroup they will be following and who will be following them. The “no.1” player in each subgroup plays a sound-event with a certain perceptible structural character (therefore typically not just a single sound!) with a beginning and an end, after which the “no.2” players (independently of one another) follow it, either immediately or without too long a pause, with another sound-event that imitates ONE aspect/dimension/parameter of the preceding one while otherwise doing something different. The subgroups then continue in this way independently, looping back from the final player in the sequence to the first one again. Possible extension: at some point shift to a different division into subgroups.
Another facet of working with influence: being able to accept influences, to pick them up and put them down; letting them arise, dwell and fall away like they are thoughts in meditation. (Buckwalter 2010, p. 16)
Again, some exercises might involve delimitation on the kind of motion available to the dancers, such as these two devised by Simone Forti – actually for performance before an audience – in order to focus on very specific types of movement:
For example, Huddle (1961) is a structure in which six to nine people form a tight cluster and take turns climbing over and rejoining it without ever detaching from it. Because Huddle is self-perpetuating, Forti recommends that it be done for about ten minutes… Slant Board (1961) has three or four dancers climb on an eight-by-eight-foot board propped up against a wall at a forty-five-degree angle by holding knotted ropes, with instructions to keep moving up and down, back and forth. (Buckwalter (2010, p. 13)
Composition 15 (for pitched instruments)
Select a narrow pitch range available to all instruments and spanning as many semitones as there are players, or perhaps slightly more if there are more instruments of fixed pitch. Every sound-event that everyone plays, whether a single sound or a succession of sounds, should find a (quite possibly microtonally inflected) pitch within the range that nobody else is playing, so that the distribution of pitches within the range is constantly changing but there are no unisons.
Something musicians can usefully learn by watching dancers (if not
actually performing with them) is the musical analogy to an extended
kind of proprioception where one is constantly if not always
consciously aware not only of the relative positions of our own limbs
(the way they occupy the shared space – which could also be applied to
sounds) but of the relative positions of all the other participants as
if they too were limbs, remembering the decentred nervous system of the
octopus, whose tentacles very literally have “minds of their own”. We
can develop a sense of “peripheral hearing” on the analogy of the use of
peripheral vision in CI, so that the way we hear (and therefore
interact) with fellow participants is characterised by a continuous
process of focusing and defocusing, on sounds or textures, on other
players or momentary combinations of players, on fleeting instants or
more extended structural tendencies. We can ask ourselves, as the
experimental dancers of the 1960s asked of music in general, whether the
sound we’re making is a necessary part of the performance, and, if it
isn’t, head for the exit we’ve been thinking about since our previous
While thinking about how far to extend the idea of “new inputs” for the present project, I thought it would also be appropriate to consider one or two issues that come from within music, In A Year in the Life of the Sonology Electroacoustic Ensemble (Barrett 2020) I wrote, regarding how I have developed methods for structuring workshops on improvised music, that:
[s]ome of the instruments present, for example, like modular synthesizers or no-input mixers or signal processing setups, might not be capable of producing pitches or rhythms in a predictable way, and these instruments will need to be seen as occupying an equal place in the ensemble’s music with any of the others – with, of course, necessary implications for the way traditional instruments might be used in such an ensemble.
I felt that this issue needed a somewhat more detailed treatment in the context of the current research. What are these implications I was referring to? But also: what are the aesthetic ideas behind the growth in use of such an instrument as the no-input mixing board (often abbreviated to NIMB), and what kind of new inputs into improvisational thinking might be drawn out of them, once more focusing on a pedagogical context?
Firstly, though, it might be worth filling in some background about this way of conceiving an instrument and the player’s relationship to it. The no-input mixer, according to one of its most committed exponents, the English composer Andrew Leslie Hooker (in private correspondence):
feeds the hardware outputs of the mixer back to the short circuited inputs creating an internal feedback loop which provokes unusual and erratic behaviour and effectively results in its transformation into a feedback-based analogue synthesizer. The output of this paradoxical non-instrument produces a complex field of spectromorphologies with a wide, dynamic range of rich, organic resonances. Control over its internal processes however is very far from being absolute: the device is in fact a semichaotic system wherein the slightest change of a single parameter can completely subvert the totality of the audible result, causing the player to be constantly on the threshold of sonic disruption. The gain slider might transform into a pitch control or the filter knob could regulate the granularity of the sound; in many cases though, the timbral changes are usually caused by a complex group of interwoven elements owing to a profound instability of fluctuating parameters, no single control maintaining its transformed status from one moment to the next.
So the attraction begins with the surprisingly complex organic quality of the sound produced by what can be a relatively simple technical setup, where actually less expensive and sophisticated mixers can give the most interesting results, owing to factors like non-isolated internal wiring which can cause signals to “bleed” across channels and thus increase the unpredictability and richness of the sounding result. The attempt to generate musical expression from this intentionally recalcitrant system requires something quite different from the kinds of techniques that have evolved for traditional instruments, and even for most electronic instruments, centred as these are on a concept of the instrument as a sonic extension of the performer’s musical intentions. Performing with the no-input mixer is more a question of an interaction where one’s playing is a response to what the instrument is doing rather than the converse. Some players prefer a more raw and “pure” approach where the mixer itself is augmented only by equalisers and the necessary limiters, whereas others place no limits on the addition of outboard hard- and software.
The pioneer of the no-input mixer is the Japanese musician Toshimaru Nakamura, who began as a guitar player (as I did in fact), and discovered this new sound world in 1997. In an interview in which he describes his conversion to the new instrument, he remarks:
When I played the guitar, “I” had to play the guitar. But with the mixing board, the machine would play me and the music would play the other two, and I would do something or maybe nothing. I would think some people would play the guitar and create their music with this kind of attitude, but for me, no-input mixing board gives me this equal relationship between the music, including the space, the instrument, and me. (Nakamura 2003)
Elsewhere he talks of not putting himself above the instrument but instead being led by it. Music produced with the no-input mixer tends to be improvisational, since as should be clear by now its “uncontrollability” – one of the features that leads creative musicians to take it up – prevents the player from being able to articulate traditional musical parameters such as pitch and rhythm, so that its “natural habitat” is situations where it’s either played solo or combined with other instruments in a context where the other players are in a position to respond freely to whatever it generates. No-input music also tends to be slow-moving, one practical reason being that, as Andrew Hooker points out in the statement quoted above, the slightest change in any parameter can cause radical change in the sound being made, so that performers tend to proceed with extreme caution, so as to ensure that every small change is perceived, and indeed often spend extended periods doing nothing and listening, rather than “interfering” with what the instrument is doing. Often its sound will evolve gradually or even abruptly during such periods. A more aesthetic reason for the slowness is encapsulated in the reasons for creative musicians being attracted to the medium in the first place: the depth and richness of its textures as they unfold, the seeming autonomy of this instrument which isn’t necessarily tied to traditionally “human” timescales such as those of pulse or breath or bodily movements. In fact the interventions of the player could be seen as primarily oriented towards imposing a more human sense of time onto the mixer’s somewhat mysterious mode of musical operation, and in doing so throwing light not just on how human timescales might be thought of but also at the same time expanding them.
Sustaining instruments each sustain a sound with little or no internal changes; non-sustaining instruments remain silent. Each participant in turn gives a signal, at which point all the sustaining instruments change abruptly to a new sound, different in pitch, dynamic, timbre and so on, as if suddenly perturbed by an outside force, and the non-sustaining instruments play a brief sound or sound-complex. The next assigned signaller listens and waits for the new sound to establish itself, and perhaps considerably longer, before giving the next signal. If any NIMB performer is present they might first demonstrats the effect of suddenly moving one of its controls. Instruments capable of both sustained and brief sounds may alternate freely between these roles at each signal.
It’s no coincidence that these resources began to gain adherents in the first decade of this century, at a time when younger generations of improvising musicians, taking their cue from more senior figures such as AMM’s guitarist Keith Rowe and trombonist Radu Malfatti (as well as the music and ideas of John Cage), committed themselves to a view of improvisation which rejected what they saw as the prosaic and overactive approach of previous generations in favour of a music which became known as “lower-case” or “reductionist”. In this aesthetic, the idea of perceptibly responsive relationships between musicians was disdained in favour of – to use Morton Feldman’s words – “letting the sounds be themselves”. The stage was therefore set for the increasing inclusion of instruments which could be conceived as a physical embodiment of this kind of attitude. To some extent, other instruments or devices such as modular synthesizers and turntables or live coding could be included under this heading, although here the “reductionist” aesthetic is more a matter of choice than of being dictated by the technology, since the modular synthesizer can be and has been used in a much more “activist” way by people like Thomas Lehn and Richard Scott.
Those are a few thoughts about the what and the why of using something like a no-input mixer in improvised music. What can we learn in a more general improvisational context from a musical phenomenon like this, from the ways of thinking about music and performance which inform it and which it informs? Here is Toshimaru Nakamura again: “… technique is not the most important matter. I care more about my relationship with the instrument than how to control it.” (Nakamura 2010) I’ve always been interested in the potential of applying ideas from one domain in a seemingly disparate one, to see how they might open up new creative avenues and possibilities. That of course is a central idea of this phase of my research project, and is also focused on in Music of Possibility in terms of applying concepts associated with improvised music in notated music and vice versa. So my first thought when reading words like these from Nakamura, and hearing from his music how they are brought to life, is: what if we apply them to playing on any instrument? or to a more general approach to improvisation? (or even to the practice of composition!)
First of all I should say that my own experience of performing alongside people who work in this way is one of the more creatively challenging situations I’ve found myself in, one which has brought about an expansion in my own creative vocabulary. Which no doubt is one reason I wanted to bring this issue into the present project.
Obviously, technique in the traditional sense is not the most important matter for an improvising musician. While some of the most prominent names in the history of this music indeed develop a high level of technical virtuosity, this isn’t a prerequisite any more than it is for a composer of notated music – in both cases the imaginative faculty and the fluency to bring it to life are much more crucial. These too, on the other hand, are faculties that need to be developed and practised. As for the relationship to the instrument which Nakamura mentions, this is well articulated by Derek Bailey in some words I quoted in my research report from last year: “[t]he instrument is not just a tool but an ally. It is not only a means to an end, it is a source of material.” (Bailey (1992) p. 99) So the practice of listening to the instrument in order to discover one’s musical material might be conceived of as just as central to the guitar as to the no-input mixer. But the particular way in which this aspect is highlighted by the no-input mixer can be used as a readily comprehensible and demonstrable example of such an approach to instrumentalism in an educational situation.
Beyond that, though, a connection could also be made between, on the one hand, the no-input mixer performer’s “equal relationship” with his or her instrument, and, on the other, the relationship between a performer in a group improvisation and the music made by the other performers, the changing sonic environment in which each performer finds him/herself. Again, there is the aspect of listening, training oneself to listen closely and recognise the potential of what one is hearing, and the possibility that any action one takes might have a profound and more or less unexpected effect on the course of the ongoing sonic environment, or it might have a smaller, more incremental effect, or it might have no effect at all. It is productive to bear in mind when conceiving one’s own contribution to an improvised piece of music not just the way that it embodies a response to what’s going on, or something that needs to be heard, but also the way that it might serve to change and develop the music. The ensemble one plays in thus becomes in a real sense the instrument that one is playing, not in the sense of a traditional instrument where actions and reactions are Newtonian in their precision, but in the sense of something more like a no-input mixer, whose response is nonlinear and unpredictable. Looking at the music, the aesthetic and the practice of something like no-input mixing is therefore something that can fruitfully be brought into play as a pedagogical device for an improvising ensemble. If it has a player of this instrument, so much the better.
Any instrumentalist will know that developing a relationship with their instrument over years of practice will have the effect of making that instrument an extension not only of their body but also of their mind. Since a computer might also be imagined to have “a mind of its own”, in the sense of being able to make autonomous decisions, even if it obviously lacks the desire that motivates decisions made by human minds, one might expect the “mind-extension” aspect of instrumentalism to have a somewhat different quality than in the case of a traditional instrument. Added to this is the fact that one’s physical relationship to a computer-instrument isn’t provided in advance by something analogous to the strings and bow of a violin, but has to be devised by the player alongside the kinds of sounds and sound-forms the player wants to be able to deploy. In this way, working with a computer-based instrument erases the distinctions to a greater or lesser extent between instrument-building, composition and performance, activities which with traditional instruments have been quite distinct from one another and indeed have often been carried out by different people.
My own preference in thinking about such issues is to gather them all under the single heading of musical creation or composition, which includes within itself such methods as improvisation or notation on the one hand, and the design of programs and interfaces on the other. Conceiving and designing a computer instrument and its physical interface is a compositional act. This means that (for me at least) it should involve a high degree of openness, so as to allow for the evolution of one’s musical thinking and practice over an extended period of time. I’ve been playing the same instrument for 23 years (and indeed it’s based on ideas that go back considerably further in time), even though both software and hardware have developed and indeed been completely replaced several times during that period. The development, such as it is, of my performative skills on this instrument has been a continuous process rather than having had to start again each time a new setup is devised. This is because my conception of the instrument has always focused firmly on an intimate physical relationship with sound, rather than on the elegance of my interface or of the code running on the computer. My priority has always been that the technology should enable the maximum degree of freedom in getting the sound into my hands and shaping it in real time.
I’ve written elsewhere (Barrett 2019, p. 40) about how I think digital instruments are particularly suited to an improvisatory approach to creating music, in terms of the way the demands of the improvisatory moment can be seen as a particularly appropriate context for solving the problem of what specific thing is to be done when anything is possible, and in terms of expressing the excitement of discovery that motivates an involvement in electronic music by enacting it, audibly and in real time. Another way of looking at the suitability of the computer to an improvisatory approach is to look at the quasi-collaborative aspect of working with an instrument that possesses its own “brain”. Of course this might be viewed as a difference in degree rather than in kind between a computer and an acoustic instrument, since the latter will also have its idiosyncrasies, its instabilities and its embodiment of perhaps centuries of musical thinking and practice. But with the computer those idiosyncrasies and instabilities might have been purposely expanded and enhanced, with some more or less controllable constellation of random, deterministic and/or statistical variables taking on a critical mass to the point where it’s more productive to think of it as a personality rather than as a tool.
One of the aspects of the improvisational method of composition that I find most compelling, in fact, is the aspect of collaboration, the way in which one’s fellow performers bring about a change in oneself, thus expanding one’s own musicality to include possibilities one wouldn’t have thought of alone. This means that solo performance has never been a main focus of my creative work, while, on the other hand, my work as a “solo” composer of notated or fixed-media music has often focused on developing compositional processes and systems which provide a context for reaction as well as action, almost as if each composition evolves from the conception and realisation of a virtual musical persona with which I can then interact in a more or less improvisatory way.
I’m not going to go into detail here about how my computer instrument is constructed except to say that it involves accessing precomposed (sampled) sounds in diverse ways, from simple playback/pause operations to treatments that might change the character of the original material to a radical and barely recognisable degree. At the same time, various aspects of the instrument might be subject to more or less controllable randomisation, which might function on the one hand to create complexly changing textures whose overall evolution might be under performative control without every detail having to be put there “by hand” (though that is also possible), or on the other hand to create a degree of unpredictability to which I can then respond spontaneously, in the process perhaps discovering new musical pathways that might be worth pursuing (both by myself and by my fellow performers). Currently I have around sixteen hours of sound materials available for use at any moment, some of which date back almost to the first version of the instrument realised in 1997, while others are new to the point of being as yet relatively unfamiliar. These materials take the form of five-minute soundfiles, some consisting of slowly evolving and highly consistent sounds while others are complex collages of diverse brief sound-fragments; some derive from untreated acoustic recordings and others from multiple processes of digital transformation. Some, as we’ll see, might be regarded as “compositions” in their own right even before their deployment as the basis of improvisational performance, while others are more explicitly “raw material” with no discernible form of their own. Many of them have been constructed for use in specific situations and have then gone on to be used in quite different contexts. Some derive from work on fixed-media compositions, while others might function as materials for fixed-media compositions long after their original construction.
For my relatively infrequent solo performances, I’ve generally created a “spine” of precomposed material that runs through the performance and is manipulated only by pausing and restarting, and changes in volume which might include fading in and out from and to silence. This serves two functions: to act as a stimulus for real-time actions and reactions, and to outline a structure for the performance so that those actions and reactions can be as spontaneous as possible. It’s a technique that’s been used and developed in performances by FURT (my duo with Paul Obermayer) for many years. It also serves to determine an approximate duration for the performance, which in general will be around twice the duration of the “spine”. When listening back to a recording of such a performance it isn’t possible most of the time to determine whether one is hearing the live contribution or the precomposed one or a combination of the two. This is the result of specific ways of composing the “spine”, a greater or lesser degree of commonality between its constituent sound materials and those used to interact in real time with it, and how it’s used in the performance. Of course, as previously mentioned, incorporating simple playback/pause operations in a performance is just one end of a spectrum which also encompasses much more “interventionist” approaches to the sound materials (the quasi-physical “materials” of which the instrument in a real sense consists), rather than being different in kind.
I can demonstrate these ideas with reference to my solo piece hylozoon (2019), which was conceived as an element in a concert programme for various combinations of harps and electronics with which Milana Zarić and I toured the UK in the autumn of 2019. The present recording was made in a single take in my studio on 18 September 2020.
Hylozoism is the philosophical idea that the basic substance of matter is in some sense alive. A “hylozoon”, therefore, is a living being composed of this basic substance - in the case of this piece, a living being which is made of sound-substance. What makes it different from my previous solo performances is that the “spine” and the sound-material used for the spontaneous live interactions don’t just have features in common but are identical. In a sense the structure of the instrument, as constituted for this occasion, and the structure of the composition itself are the same thing.
Most of its sound materials were composed using a digital reconstruction (from Arturia) of the EMS Synthi A analogue synthesizer, whose capabilities I was investigating at the time of composition. The rest derive from a recording of my composition book of caverns (1) for E flat clarinet, performed by Richard Haynes. Eventually, hylozoon is intended to be one component of an extended work in progress entitled PSYCHE, which will also feature an instrumental ensemble and fixed-media electronic music and have a total duration of around three hours. This is currently planned to be premiered by the ELISION ensemble in 2022. (The aforementioned clarinet piece is also tangentially related to this project.)
One way in which the 5-minute soundfiles which form the central part of my computer instrument are often organised is a division into twelve 25-second segments, which can then be accessed individually by the twelve keys of the second octave of my keyboard, with further controllers to determine exactly how and at what point along its 25-second length each segment is heard. (The other octaves access the soundfile in other ways.) The “spine” of hylozoon is thus organised in exactly this way, although of course its temporal regularity is broken up by pauses and resumptions in its playback which sometimes alternate very rapidly. (These operations are controlled by one of the keys on the keyboard, and playback volume by the modulation wheel, bringing them as close as possible to the other physical activities of performing with the instrument and its interface.) The twelve segments are combined into a three groups: one of three segments (containing continuous sounds), followed by a group of four (with a transition from continuous to fragmented sounds) and a group of five (with a transition from electronic to acoustic (clarinet) sounds). Each segment involves a crossfade over its 25 seconds between two different sound types, and the transition between one segment and the next might be smooth (continuing from the endpoint of the previous crossfade, using its destination sound as the departure point for the next crossfade) or abrupt (starting a new and different sound).
This description might make the whole idea sound rather schematic, and unrelated to improvisation, but it should be borne in mind here that what I’m describing is as much an instrument as a composition, albeit an instrument with certain temporal tendencies built into it – in other words, an instrument that emulates a living organism (a “hylozoon”) to the extent of incorporating birth, metamorphosis and death. In this context I’m reminded of an instrument devised by the Australian composer and violinist John Rodgers for incorporation into one of his works: an oboe made of ice, which would gradually become less controllable over a more or less defined timeframe as the player’s breath and fingers caused it to melt, eventually falling apart at unpredictable points along its length. The functions of instrument, as sound-producer, and score, as determinant of the temporal evolution of the music, are combined in a single ephemeral object.
I’ve found, in performances of hylozoon, that the “precompositional” scheme described above is completely forgotten in performance, where all I’m doing is using the “live” part of the instrument to react, from one unprepared moment to the next, to whatever the “precomposed” part throws out from the constant pause/resume actions that themselves are integrated into my spontaneous physical activity. The present recording was made during a period when I was practising and performing (though for virtual audiences, this being 2020) regularly but hadn’t performed this particular piece for many months. I sat down, emptied my mind as far as I could, pressed “record” and played what you hear. The result was to my mind more successful than the ones I’d produced almost a year previously with much more preparation. I entered something resembling a meditative state during the performance and a state of exhaustion as soon as it was over. Paradoxically, the best way to perform this “composition” was to forget about it as far as possible, to exclude it from conscious thought. How much, I wonder, does this process have in common with improvisational performance in a more general sense? Probably a great deal. The use of a computer as improvising instrument, then, has another potential value: to expose and analyse, and therefore perhaps better to understand, the mysterious processes of musical improvisation.
The participants’ individual contributions are presented here in video form without comment, together with a brief introduction to each participant and some relevant links (some provided by the participants themselves, some by myself), followed by a lightly edited transcription of each discussion. It seemed to me that so much of this material was not just interesting but also relevant to the research project that I should only edit for technical reasons or for clarity.
Improvised music has been in a constant state of evolution since it emerged from both jazz and contemporary composition in the 1960s. Various influences have shaped this evolution, such as the development of new technologies for creating sounds and instruments, the increasing acceptance of improvisational skills as a valuable aspect of music education, and the ways in which improvisational practices in other artistic disciplines can inform and inspire the work of improvising musicians. This last influence has become more pervasive in the 21st century as a result of increasing interest in interdisciplinary collaboration, so the central purpose of my ongoing research project as part of the lectorate “Music, Education and Society” at the Royal Conservatoire is to investigate how practices in other disciplines might further enrich approaches to musical improvisation, with a certain focus on educational contexts. This seminar brings together practitioners from the world of improvised music for whom interdisciplinary thinking has been a crucial influence, to share and discuss how their work embodies these ideas, and how they might be developed further.
Of course this is an enormous area to cover, since all of us who are involved in improvised music will be conscious of inputs and influences from all areas of life and not just from particular kinds of collaboration, bearing in mind Cornelius Cardew’s observation that “the musician’s pursuit is to recognize the musical composition of the world.” (Cardew 2006, p. 133) Nevertheless, I came to think that, while very many artistic disciplines involve different applications of the idea of improvisation, the relationship of those applications to what we think of as improvisation in music doesn’t seem to have been discussed in any thorough kind of way, and that such a discussion could lead to an enrichment of the possibilities of musical improvisation, of ways of understanding and approaching it which we can use not just in our musical practice, but also in the process of bringing improvisation to the central place in musical education where I believe it belongs.
While this project of course emerges from within an educational institution, the ideas under discussion ought to have a more general significance and context, rather than seeing the conservatoire as a kind of bubble where people think and do things differently from outside it, which is why the people I’ve invited were chosen primarily for the significance of their artistic work, whether or not they might have connections with the academy.
Magda Mayas is a pianist based in Berlin.
Simon Rose is a saxophonist, independent researcher and author based in Berlin.
Michael Vatcher is a percussionist based in Amsterdam.
Anne La Berge is a flutist, composer and improviser based in Amsterdam, currently teaching in the Institute of Sonology and the composition department at the Royal Conservatoire The Hague.
RB: A question I’ve encountered in my research and which has turned up in several of your contributions is that of time, and how improvisational timing comes about, with reference to what Simon was saying about improvisation as a way of devising theatre. I didn’t myself find very much useful material for musical purposes while researching improvised theatre – the linearity of keeping a conversation going without everyone speaking at the same time seems alien to musical improvisation.
ALB: Music improvisation is not only about the sound one is producing but also how one is listening, and in a dramatic improvisation, it has to be clear that the people who are not talking are listening and cognating, and their silence is an improvisation-communication tool.
MV: The hierarchies inside of drama could be viewed as soloist+ensemble, and it’s harder for a soloist to let go and really become part of an ensemble.
RB: What about the role of narrative, of keeping the thread of the narrative going? – is there a parallel between that and a musical situation which doesn’t necessarily need to deal with narrative at all?
MV: A melodic soloist who emerges from an ensemble and then re-merges with the ensemble – you could call that a narrative.
ALB: You could call all of music narrative, depending on how you listen and evaluate what you’re hearing, but I also think that abstract drama allows the public to link its constituent parts together but it doesn’t necessarily have to be intended as a linear drama.
SR: I’ve written about working with a dancer as entering a transdisciplinary space, and I don’t see how working with an experienced improvising actor would be any different. So we’re listening to each other, for sure, and the transdisciplinary is linked with a more holistic way of thinking about things. The thing about improvisers is that we are adaptable – for me, the trend with improvisation in drama towards “improv game shows” is a really unfortunate development, cashing in on giving celebrities a theme to improvise on, making rules and handbooks, usually aiming towards comedy. But if we go back to the idea that improvisation is an important human capability, there are bigger questions and more interesting and exciting ideas that someone who’s interested in improvisation in drama can bring, and after all, drama and theatre have worked with music for thousands of years.
RB: I was talking about time in response to what Magda was saying about the time taken to get from one instrument to another, as an artificial constraint on what you do as a producer of sound, which creates a different kind of timing in the performance, which seems to me a very interesting area. Does anyone have anything to say about any ways in which the sound that you make is conditioned by working collaboratively, for example if you play differently when working with a dancer than otherwise – when I’ve worked with dancers I notice that I often play a lot less, because there’s a space for the performance to be articulated by silence much more easily.
SR: I absolutely agree… it’s very instinctual. I also think that, with trends in contemporary and improvised dance over the past half century or so, there was a move away from music, and perhaps for good reason, that abstract dance became a free-standing form in its own right. The very place of music became questioned. The drummer Willi Kellers told me that he likes dance without music, just the sound of the feet, and you can’t really argue with that! But nevertheless it goes back to intention – if we decide that we’re interested in doing something together. But yes, I tend to play less, and it has to do with the spatial plane and the sonic plane working simultaneously, but the danger of playing less is that you defer what you do, and you get a kind of hierarchy which isn’t what I’m looking for. Sometimes over the past two years I’ve decided to step forward sometimes, to be a soloist, but I think that requires a deep understanding of the other person. It’s too easy to become an accompanist, that’s not what I’m interested in.
MV: Working with dance improvisers showed me that I could let go of my musical idea and have it be in the space, and that has reinforced my hearing of myself in musical contexts – to make my musical idea clearer and to realise when to let it go, when it’s enough.
MM: Referring to what Anne said about different forms of attention and listening that come about through interdisciplinary interactions, I find that very interesting, how as a musician you can listen not only to sound but also to movement, your own or somebody else’s, how you can split sound up into all these different fragments, because it’s not only a sounding thing but a physical thing. It’s a different kind of attention and mindset, which then changes the way you improvise, and in that way also affect your timing, either playing less and letting an idea just sit there, or giving attention to something that doesn’t need to be sounding.
ALB: When I improvise with poets, it doesn’t really change how I improvise! – because we are sound-objects, and also narrative objects, and we are also exchanging information and roles actively. Now we’re basically talking about dance, which is an effort-shape, and we actually need to use effort-shape to play our instruments too, so on some level we are dancers physically in order just to negotiate sound, even if we’re just pushing buttons, whereas working with a poet you’re going also into another domain… when listening to the discussion I thought well do I play differently when I play with a poet? – and I don’t think so, it’s still about physicality, ideas, time, memory – touching the audience.
RB: To a certain extent we always play differently according to the different musicians we work with as well, which is as it should be of course …
ALB: I’m just trying to get that through my head where we’re going with this, and if it matters, because every time I pick up my instrument, even if I’m alone, it’s different.
RB: If I can just come back on the starting point, what I was trying to get at was how our playing is affected by that interdisciplinary experience, how it might encourage us to rethink what we’re doing. The idea of the physical effort we make in order to create our sounds is obviously an important part of that, but does that depend on which instrument we play, I wonder? Anne, you’re saying it doesn’t, I guess.
ALB: Of course, how you deal with time and space and energy is completely dependent on your instrument, because of what you have to do to get a sound, but as for what you were saying about how things are dependent, I think that one thing working with other disciplines has done for me is to have on some level a much clearer emotional intent, somewhat like what Michael was talking about, not necessarily a sonic idea but to have a very clear feeling in order to be able to interact with clarity with a field that’s outside of my own.
SR: Something I’ve learned from working with dance is that I think a lot more spatially, and in terms of embodiment, that comes much more to the fore, even to the point of participating in dance exercises. I consider my presence in the space of equal importance to the dancer’s presence in the space.
RH: How much does the visual aspect of the movement we make when we play influence the musical decisions we make? Does the physicality of playing influence what we play?
ALB: Magda and Michael were talking about the physicality of playing, and with their instruments because so much of it is moving in this way [demonstrates] even making those movements has a lot to do with sound; for wind players like me and Simon a lot of our physicality is internal, but it’s still an enormous determining factor on the sound, and the emotional quality of what comes out.
RB: And the timing as well.
ALB: Totally. But I was curious about video – what other disciplines are we going to get into before the end of the day?
RB: That depends on who brings them up!
ALB: Because one of the things I was going to say was that when a screen comes on that’s an enormous concern. We’re talking about being present with dancers – Simon and I can just walk in front of them, or they can pick us up, there’s all kinds of ways to be entwined in the dancers’ world or the movement world, whereas nowadays with video it’s quite an overpowering static but moving medium… how do you work with that? One thing that I do is try to position myself in different relationships to the image, by looking at it, not looking at it, which some of us maybe do with dancers too, sometimes playing without looking at them and at other times being completely interactive. How are we working with the two-dimensional image as improvisers?
PJ: I do very often. Most of the time we use the projection as the only light source, so everybody on stage are just part of the stage image, so for these things we mostly wear white clothes so as to be part of the projection.
ALB: And do you feel completely interactive, even though it’s not part of the sound world?
PJ: That’s the basic difference from dance, because every dance movement makes a sound, and in improvised music nowadays, every sound source and every sound is usable in a musical way, so I consider all the sounds that everybody makes as part of the show. If you play a computer, your exact movement, the intensity of the movement, doesn’t change the sound; when I play the bass and put more force on the bow it makes more sound, so the connection between what I do and what comes out is very obvious, and I think it’s a similar thing for video artists – somehow their actions are not directly related to the outcome.
ALB: What I found interesting is interacting in the digital domain, music- and image-wise, because I’ve also improvised with people who throw stuff on an overhead projector, a team of three overhead projector people who do that, and because it’s a physical object that’s responding to nature I have a different relationship with that.
KdJ: Lately I’ve been working a lot with video images and materials, and actually in most of the projects I’ve been doing it was not so much about the spontaneous reaction in the moment itself, but much more a kind of developing process of starting to live with those images in a certain musical context, and for me that brought about processes of creating music that were different than without the images, but not necessarily happening right there in that moment as a direct response.
PJ: I try to do it in direct interaction, so for me it’s a question of combining all the media on an equal level, so that the projection is not a background – it’s as much a front player as the so-called solo dancer or solo saxophone player.
KdJ: But the projection is not improvised, right?
PJ: Yes, it is. This technology is quite new, and not so easy to manipulate, and we’ve been trying this for over ten years now, and I really see how the evolution in the technology helps the video artist to be more and more interactive with the live music and live dance.
RB: What about the fact that when we have something visual and something sonorous, we take in the whole of the visual image instantaneously – it’s a landscape, or a room, or people or whatever – whereas any kind of musical thought or sonic statement is going to take up a certain amount of time in order to make its presence felt. The visual sense operates much more rapidly. Is that a factor when you’re working together in these situations?
UW: I think it depends on the visuals and how you use them – they can be fairly abstract, or blurry, they can come from far away or be super-tiny, become bigger, or whatever.
PJ: The same goes for the music – we can be loud, or soft, leave a lot of silence or fill up the whole thing.
MM: I’ve recently worked with a live video artist and another musician, and we did exactly that as an exercise, it was very interesting to see how we translate the different parameters in the different disciplines – to play a “loud image” and a loud sound, where loud doesn’t necessarily mean loud in volume, or to play with a black and white or a colourful image and how would we translate that into sound, not to define anything quantitatively for everyone, but just to see how we reacted in that moment, and how we could play with these parameters. Also gesturally: what’s a gesture in terms of video, how could those internal gestures that Anne talked about on instruments that we don’t see, be translated by an image. Those translations I find very interesting when working with other disciplines.
Stefan Prins is a composer and performer based in Borgerhout (BE), professor of composition and director of the Hybrid Music Lab at the Hochschule für Musik “Carl Maria Von Weber” in Dresden.
Maggie Nicols is a vocalist, dancer and freelance educator based in London.
Peter Jacquemyn is a contrabassist and visual artist based in Brakel (BE).
Semay Wu is a composer, cellist, media/sound artist and improviser based in Glasgow.
Ranjith Hegde is a violinist and composer based in Chennai, and currently a Masters student at the Institute of Sonology, Royal Conservatoire The Hague.
Ute Wassermann is a vocalist, composer and sound artist based in
RB: Maggie, do you ever have the experience of looking around in a space for something which is going to inform what you do and not finding anything?
MN: Oh yes, it’s not that I’m necessarily looking for anything, it’s just if something jumps out at me – I had done quite a few performances in galleries before, when it was just a beautiful location by which I might have been subconsciously influenced, but [the experience described in my presentation] was quite a surprising and unexpected encounter. So in a sense it was a very powerful experience for me, and it influenced how I saw art from then on. It was a long time ago of course, but it had quite a huge impact. It’s not that I hadn’t been to a gallery and enjoyed paintings, but nothing had ever touched me on such a deep level.
ALB: How old were you?
MN: Well, I’m 72 now, so I probably was about 40, maybe younger.
MN: Yes… was John Stevens still alive? I can’t remember, it was so long ago. And, as I say, I’d done graphic scores before, so it’s not that I hadn’t worked with visuals as an improviser, but I don’t think I’d ever had such an immersion, I think that was what was different, not that visual things hadn’t influenced me before, but it wasn’t as deep.
RB: So it’s the moment of realisation, then… how would you describe the realisation? Since then you’ve been doing performances which weren’t in galleries and didn’t have that specific kind of input, but can you say something about how that experience changed everything else that you do? – if you agree that this is what happened.
MN: I suppose it’s that on a deeper level it made me aware of just being open to whatever arises, and so in a sense it just deepened that awareness, and made me realise just how powerful visual imagery is. I started as a dancer, so I was used to the theatre – theatre, music and dance were already quite integrated, but being a musician I don’t think I ever had been so… I always felt, you know, “I can’t draw”, I had a real inhibition, unless I’m just improvising a drawing, but in that experience I suddenly understood what some artists say about looking in a particular way – I’d never really looked in that way before. It woke another sense in me, that I think hadn’t been so fully alive, maybe I understood a bit more of how an artist might work, or I had an intuitive connection with that, whether it’s a sculptor, or a carver, or a painter. That was quite strong and striking for me. I’ve been a dancer and I’ve worked in theatre, so all that was quite natural, even though it started coming out in a more improvisational way, when I made that experience of owning the lie, and then the dance was released, but as I say I’ve never been an artist, I’ve always felt wounded and inadequate in that sense, even though my workshops are about everybody being creative. So that was quite interesting for me, yes.
RB: But what was also striking was that this experience, as well as the one about Marx’s theory of surplus value, were both experiences which came from realising not just something within music, or within art, but something much larger than that, having to do with the social dimension of what you’re doing.
MN: Absolutely, and I think what was interesting was that – you know, they talk about right-wing, left-wing, and I never quite understand that, but what I felt there was that the quality of interaction in the debate and the discussion was affected by the sounds we were making, which made people able to listen to each other – often in debates you get rows or there’s one long speech that goes on and on – but I felt there was a sense of different rhythms that came because we were doing these improvised sounds, that affected the quality of the discussion and I thought that was really exciting, an amazing experience.
RB: It’s interesting that both Ute and Peter have spoken about objects, and I was going to ask Peter something about playing the bass, because it seems to me that your way of making a sculpture is related to playing the instrument – what we see when the sculpture is finished is the result of that process, whereas when we see you play we see the process actually going on – I wonder whether that’s the way you think about it or if you have any comment on that.
PJ: The way I play is of course completely determined by my sculptural activities – if you hold a chainsaw or a chisel and a hammer for half a day then the mobility of your left hand is gone, but it gives advantages on another side. I’m never as quick or as virtuoso as most bass players are, but I can put a lot of power in my fingers, so there is a kind of compensation, and I think that’s one of the main advantages of being in improvised music – we develop our personal skills according to our instrument and our personal capacities which are all different. For me it’s not the quickness of the playing but the expressivity of the volume, things like that. I was mentioning the product and the process mostly in regards to collaboration with visual artists who are most of the time much more concentrated on making the painting than on how the painting is made. On the other hand, the interesting point for improvisers is that with a painting or a sculpture you never have to make it twice – nobody ever asked Picasso to paint the same picture twice – but in music it’s a normal way of working to play the same tunes over and over again. In the measure that you’re able to play the same tune you’re a good musician, while in the visual arts you have this one artwork which is finished, which can go to the gallery or museum, and that’s it. I think that we in improvised music somehow combine both of those. We are not supposed to play exactly the same thing over and over again, because we improvise, we live in the moment and improvise in the moment, so, according to the circumstances – the room, the audience, the other musicians and so on – every performance will be different, although made with our own voice, our own technique, our own approach to the instrument and space. So in this way improvised music and visual arts come very close, but the collaboration on stage with visual art is something else, because then you have somehow to free or liberate the painters, the visual artists, from their focus on the end product. In this way, collaborating with live video is somehow more easy, because in this moving image everyone is dealing with time, which you’re not if you’re talking about sculpture and painting.
RB: I wanted to ask Ute a related question – in recent years you’ve been moving more into composing than you had done previously, and I wonder whether that also has some kind of influence. If you do an improvisational concert then how is that conditioned by your increasing activity as a composer. We could ask this of anybody but I thought I’d ask you first!
UW: I was still hanging onto the question of sculpture, and I just wanted to say one thing – if you think of sculpture in the sense of Joseph Beuys, or maybe Fluxus, it could also be a process and performed live, because sculpture doesn’t need to be a fixed object…
PJ: Sure, but with Joseph Beuys the piece is in a museum…
UW: I’m talking more about actions or performance pieces or happenings, not necessarily Beuys, to stretch the term sculpture. Back to your question, what I find interesting about composition, especially if I work on the notation, is that while writing the composition down I still develop ideas through fixing them, which is a very different process from improvisation, and it kind of feeds back to my way of improvising maybe more in shapes, stronger shapes – but then I try to break it also, to go against it in improvisation, it creates a tension, maybe that’s the best way to put it. It creates a kind of tension which I find very inspiring because… I like rules but I really like to break them, or to stretch them, for me working more as a composer affects my improvisation in the way that I work against it also, which creates an intensity, I don’t know if that makes sense!
RB: And it’s something that happens in real time as well, of course.
UW: Yes, it happens in real time, but I think it also happens because I have quite a few really long collaborations with improvisers, for ten years, for fifteen years or also for five years, and it also happens that with time you also develop an almost composed language together, while improvising in real time, because you know each other so well. And then it’s also really great if you take risks and break that, and go against it, or surprise. So I think that also in these collaborations it’s a similar thing that happens.
ALB: Stefan and Ute brought up the concept of rehearsing, or the practice of rehearsing, and how to build relationships also with improvising. Michael’s gone, but he rehearses endlessly with people. Stefan and Ute, you’re both talking about compositions and also building them on improvisation with rehearsal techniques. How does that play itself out in terms of the deeply spontaneous “Ur-improvisational” moment?
SP: It’s something that goes in many directions. The last time we performed was a while ago but I have been working with collectief reFLEXible [with Joachim Devillé (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Thomas Olbrechts (alto saxophone)] for twelve years, and we rehearsed a lot, and indeed one of the things we did in those rehearsals was trying to find very organically a common language, both a vocabulary and a grammar I would say, structures and ways of reacting and interacting to each other, but also how you do that. But then of course I think I would not have considered if we do an improvisation live for an audience, and if it’s just following the established patterns from all those rehearsals, that wouldn’t have been enough for either of us; so, even though you have this established vocabulary and grammar… even within that, it’s important that you still are able to push each other into different directions.
ALB: And was the grammar sonic, physical, or was it also to do with terms of music, all those musical parameters like sparse, or loud… what percentage of those different tools did you have in order there?**
SP: That’s a good question. I think it had more to do with ways of interaction actually.
ALB: Styles of interaction…
SP: Not even styles – ways of interaction. Of course part of it is non-verbal, so you just develop a kind of language and a trust. The styles would be more the vocabulary, not so much the grammar, in how I think of it. But that’s also something that really changes with the performers, the improvisers. I also have a group with a drummer and an electric guitar player, who come from contemporary music but also have jazz and rock backgrounds – the Ministry of Bad Decisions – and there it’s much more stylistically eclectic, and that’s then also the grammar.
ALB: Do people dare to hurt each other’s feelings?
SP: Probably not enough!
PJ: About rehearsing and the preparation of an improvisation – with this collective [WORP] with Geraldo Si, a dancer with Pina Bausch, normally we are six for this project and we have three people who are always there and three people who were never in it, that’s the concept of the whole thing. We rehearse for two or three days, and the only agreement is that we don’t repeat on stage what worked well in rehearsal. Of course you can’t keep this promise – some things come back in an organic way, but it’s a question of putting the focus. In contemporary dance it happens very often that you have improvisations and then the choreographer picks out the important or well-working parts of the improvisation, and puts a programme together out of them, and this we absolutely wanted to avoid. So that’s the way in this project I use the idea of rehearsing.
UW: I have a similar experience, actually, working with dancers. What I find interesting when working with students is that when we’ve done rehearsals, or improv games or concepts, or just listening, and then we’ve done a free improvisation, this process really affects it, because you’ve focused your mind in a different way beforehand. And then if you let go and do a free improv it’s very interesting how it’s affected by this mental training.
PJ: There I can add that when you combine dance and music, and also projection, we all do a vocal exercise as a starting point, so everybody sings, and then one of the dancers takes over and we all do an exercise around movement, and everybody stepping out of their comfort zone helps the comfort zone itself.
UW: When I do workshops I always do an extended warm-up where people just get into exploration, and aren’t shy any more, it’s very interesting also to have this kind of warm-up space, where you step out of what you usually do but it’s not like you’re “doing art”, so for students that’s psychologically very interesting.
ALB: Do you ever come to the point where there’s a discussion of good and bad decisions, or morality, or social implications, so that people go somewhere deeper into the context of interaction as basic communication? – does that come up? like, what’s a good decision, what’s a bad decision? is there such a thing?
UW: I’m not pushing for that at all.
ALB: But does it come up? – because if you sit in a room with someone for half an hour, that word “good” starts to surface.
UW: That doesn’t come up so much. If you create that warm-up, stepping out of your comfort zone suddenly, it’s not so much about that, in my experience.
RB: My experience of working in workshop situations is that, sometimes when working with people who are emerging from classical performing traditions it’s important to say that this doesn’t have to be “good”, it’s just an exercise that we’re doing in order to prepare ourselves, that’s why we have to carry on according to the parameters that have been set up. Something that was said earlier reminded me of an idea that I bear in mind a lot that came from the percussionist Michael Griener, who once said to me that he practises all day until he has no ideas left, and that’s the time when he can start his improvising concert, when there are no preconceived ideas left in his mind – I don’t know whether he actually does that, but I think it’s a beautiful idea. Part of what we do when we’re preparing for improvisation is not so much to be able to reproduce something precisely, as Peter was saying before, but doing what we can in order to open ourselves to whatever actions and reactions we can take part in once the music starts, and that’s something which can be approached in many different ways, maybe it’s something where musicians can learn from other ways of doing things, in terms of how to prepare oneself, that’s a theme which various people have mentioned today so far.
PJ: I guess it’s also a question of expectations – it you talk in terms of good music or bad music, that means something different to an Inuit throat singer and a Wagner soprano, but is it good or bad? no, they’re different.
RB: We were talking about how it affects ourselves, whether I or you or anybody else finds a particular performance satisfying or frustrating or a total failure or whatever, if it’s something that we have inside our heads, but we develop those feelings over the course of years of experience, our way of assessing what we do, while we’re doing it and also afterwards.
ALB: It would be interesting to hear a painter talk about how they would speak to another painter’s work in terms of what we’re saying now, how we engage in evaluating the moment, or how dancers speak with one another, to stay in that neutral ground. Or not. Ute and Peter have that experience. Do you go into visual art analysis head-spaces sometimes?
UW: I have done in the past, not so much any more, but yes.
ALB: Is it useful in your musical domain?
PJ: Maybe it teaches me more about how different those things are.
UW: For me, studying visual art was a lot about myself, in a way, about finding my language, my originality, at least in art school in the 1980s it was like that, and when we discussed our work we would kind of get into the head of the other person, trying to understand the work and discuss it in terms of art history but also in terms of more personal things maybe, but we would concentrate on getting inside the head of the other person, which I find interesting.
Johan van Kreij is a composer, performer and researcher based in The Hague, currently teaching at the Institute of Sonology, Royal Conservatoire The Hague.
Karst de Jong is a pianist, music theorist and educator based in Barcelona, currently teaching at the Royal Conservatoire The Hague and the Escola Superior de Musica de Catalunya in Barcelona, and a visiting professor at the Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of the National University of Singapore
RB [to JvK]: How much did you say to your colleagues about how to interpret the information that was coming through to them?
JvK: Before I answer: one of the parts of the research is thinking about how to set up a communication, or what this additional channel of communication may reveal or may share, so for this specific performance I wanted to try a graphical approach, meaning that everyone’s activity becomes graphically visible, becoming some kind of graphical score which can then be interpreted. So that’s what I shared, it’s something that can be done in a very free way, and I also shared that I hadn’t revealed everything, so that yesterday for the first time we could test it technically, make it work. I shared that some things would happen during the performance which would be surprises.
Paul Craenen: Is what we heard also what the musicians heard? – just out of curiosity, because I remember from one of our talks that the result of this project could be that there’s an interaction through the server setup but the sound in every space could be quite different.
JvK: Yes but not in today’s performance. Today we saw and heard each other and that’s exactly what was broadcast. I just quickly listened to the Youtube results, and they sound like what each of us heard. However, one of the possible approaches is indeed to include that as well, that everyone hears something different.
Kees Tazelaar: Why was the sound mono?
JvK: Everyone was mono except for me, and I think that because of being very nervous I forgot to turn on “original sound” which would have been stereo.
KT: Because if you had four musicians you could have placed those in the panorama of course.
JvK: That’s something we just discussed between ourselves, that at this moment there’s no control over balance, or monitoring, so that would involve a whole layer of additional complexity, which was just too much for now, so we just had Zoom sound, as we have it right now, and we can’t change the mix or the panorama. But indeed that is technically possible, there are options for that.
KT: Somebody could do live mixing, just like you have in a performance.
JvK: There are very good tools for that, to include someone else who could do that.
RB: One of the important inputs into improvisation in the way we’ve been talking about it today is of course the education process, so it’s important to bring that in as well. I guess that most of us here who are active as improvising musicians have never had a lesson on how to improvise in their life. That obviously begs the question which many improvising musicians have asked, which is, well, what’s the point in educating people to improvise, because they’re either going to do it anyway or they aren’t. I think that the answer to that, and maybe part of the reason for calling this meeting together today, is that actually one of the things that those of us who are involved in improvisation are interested in is spreading the musical richness that can come out of that way of making music to other people who might not have thought of it, or who are even afraid of it, or who in some ways might denigrate it as being just people making things up, which are the first things that come into their mind, all those kinds of criticisms that we sometimes hear about improvisation. So one of the reasons for thinking about these other inputs is, as Karst was saying in his presentation, that it gives us an opportunity to enable the people that we work with as educators, whether it’s in a conservatoire or a workshop or whatever, to see what they’re doing from a slightly different angle, so that they’re creating their own music perhaps without quite knowing that they’re doing it, and then turning around and thinking “I made that up myself.”
KdJ: There’s another issue which is especially interesting if you see it in the light of professional music education, which is that if I see many of the practices of today, I hear sounds like that it’s not necessarily the case that you have to be musically trained, or you can maybe have a very idiosyncratic relationship with your instrument, and if we look at our conservatory population of course we’re talking about students for whom it’s important to have a very high level of instrumental command and virtuosity; we’re talking about students who need to have knowledge of a diverse number of musical styles, and for me also very importantly we’re talking about musicians who need to have aural knowledge, who need to actually really know what they’re hearing, and respond to that in an intelligent way and not just “I do what comes up in me and this is my spontaneous artistic expression”. I still feel that we have only touched the beginning of a discussion on that subject.
MN: It’s interesting what you said there, Richard, because actually I did serve an apprenticeship – I didn’t know that was what I was doing at the time – with John Stevens [English percussionist, 1940-94, see Barrett 2020] and because of that I started running workshops in 1970 in fact, and I did learn from him how to improvise; that’s not what he said he was doing, mind, but we were his guinea-pigs. For me it’s not so much that you teach somebody how to improvise, but it’s more that you create the conditions that allow certain barriers to be broken down – because we are born improvisers. I think it’s fine, I think people can know their instruments inside out, or not know them, I don’t think there’s a competition there, I think it’s possible to improvise from a place of total… just being alive equips you to improvise. However, to know your instrument in depth is another path, and they’re both valid. I heard the parapsychologist Serena Roney-Dougal say that research shows that the conscious mind can hold seven things at once – the rational mind – whereas in the subliminal mind you’ve got an infinity of possibilities, so I’m very interested in what happens when you go into the subliminal mind. It’s not that the conscious mind then disappears, but it becomes a supporting partner rather than a dominant partner. For me there are certain exercises and pieces you can do that allow people to bypass their rational limitations. This doesn’t negate the partnership of the conscious mind, but just stops it being so dominant.
RB: That’s a very powerful idea, which I’m sure we could spend weeks talking about, the relationship between rational and non-rational thinking…
KdJ: I think it’s actually about the ping-ponging between those two, about getting a connection going, which doesn’t mean you always have to be in your rational mind, but you also need it to expand this communication.
ALB: We’re putting the rational and the subliminal into two separate categories, and with recent neuropsychology we don’t have to do that any more – the rational mind is trusting and steering, what we’re talking about is a sort of analytic, verbal mind, but a rational observing mindfulness is hopefully not cutting out your entire unconscious behaviour. If we wanted to get into this, it might be fantastic to invite a neuropsychologist who could help us with some of this discussion.
RB: I often find myself tending to describe things in terms of this rational mind which is standing back and observing the non-rational mind doing whatever it’s doing, but actually that’s not what’s happening, that’s just a way of talking about it, right? – and if it’s not a useful way of talking about it maybe it’s important to try and find other ways of talking about it as well, whether we’re looking at two ends of a continuum or whatever else it may be.
UW: I had an interesting experience when I was teaching a workshop in Mexico at a music academy for classical singers and composers. It was a workshop about extended vocal techniques and improvising. It was interesting that the composers started to sing, and the singers started to compose, and this enriched both sides.
KdJ: That sounds like the spirit of our minor at the KC.
UW: They started composing pieces together, and felt so liberated afterwards, that these hierarchies were broken down, and it opened up a different experience of collaboration for them. Also, for the composers, it was very important to improvise and to feel their body vibrating with their voices, they started to understand the singers better, and vice versa – the singers started to work with concepts. Maybe that’s also about the two minds… but it was very connected, and a very nice experience for both sides. So I think it does make sense to teach improvisation at academies.
KdJ: Teach it or at least enable it, facilitate it, create the environment. You know, the students run with it, right? Anne, you’ve now had experience with the first batch of students [in the Collaborative Music Creation minor at the Royal Conservatoire, The Hague], and they just organise their own sessions…
ALB: And everything that we’ve talked about today has come on board, in just four or five sessions. It’s been confronting for some, but what you’re saying, Karst, is they embrace it, and they’re discovering things – they will be our teachers throughout this entire discovery programme. I have a question for Johan – what was the general feeling of the other players in your band today? Did you have a shaking hands “bravo, bravo” moment?
JvK: Well, I did, for one, I applauded them also… I think we were all also quite busy with the whole situation, so some of our attention was maybe lost in dealing with it. What you refer to maybe is that there was this moment at the end where you found each other, musically speaking, and, while I was playing, I realised that there were a few moments where this actually happened, where I could put all my attention into listening and performing or playing, and not be busy with the situation, but then again, immediately after that I had to be busy with the software and other stuff. So I think we were all happy to have reached the finishing line without losing arms and legs. I’m going to talk with each of them individually about the experience.
KT: I’m not particularly known for my improvisational skills, but I have performed in Richard’s ensemble [SEE] twice actually, and that was an interesting experience for me, but what I was particularly interested in is what happens when you listen back to a recording of free improvisation, because gradually you start to know a recording like that very well, and it becomes something else – you memorise it still, even if the music itself was the result of something unprepared. I was just interested in your feeling about that, because you are all much more experienced improvisers than I am.
MN: When you listen back to something, I think you realise just how much improvisers are composers, because you start to hear on a deep level the incredible ability and skill that improvisers have, to arrange, and work with dynamics, you hear people giving space to each other, you hear different people initiating… so that’s all for me, if I listen back, I think wow, look at the incredible complexity that’s happening through this work, but yes, it is different from when you’re just doing it in the moment, and it’s not recorded.
KT: Is that complexity what defines composition?
MN: No, not necessarily, because you can also do very simple things… when I think of how improvisation has influenced my composition – I never trained to be a composer, I’ve not trained as a classical musician, I’ve not done any of that – however I have been involved in composition, and I feel that maybe, as an improviser, there are certain things that I’m not so inhibited about doing in composition, instead of thinking “that can’t go with that”, or “you can’t put this with that”, maybe there’s more willingness to go “oh, I’ll try that, I like the idea”, I don’t feel so restricted by the rules of composition, which I’m not saying shouldn’t be there, it’s just that I’ve got a different experience from a lot of people, because I left school at 15 and didn’t do a classical education, but I still feel that I can compose, and a lot of that is because of my experience as an improviser. Thinking of people like Barry Guy, Keith Tippett, these are more people from the jazz tradition, John Stevens too.
KT: I’ve just finished a 27-minute electroacoustic work, I’ve been working on it for four months and every time I caught myself improvising I stopped!
ALB: I feel like where to place silence is an incredibly complex compositional tool.
PJ: Isn’t it also a question of somehow surprising ourselves? – if you compose you think about what you’re going to do, and ideally what should come out is what your concept is, while in improvisation – of course, I generalise – it’s the other way around, something comes up that you couldn’t think about, you have to improvise it.
KT: One big difference is that the last sounds that I produced for this piece appear at the beginning of it… and that would be quite difficult in improvisation.
ALB: That is totally not true! I save my whole bucket of the first things I play, I say now check that, remember that, because you’re going to want to bring that back.
RB: That’s your rational mind working there, Kees.
MN: It’s all multidimensional, it’s all connected, it’s just that there’s been a hierarchy where the rational mind is more dominant, it’s not that they’re not connected, it’s just that it’s been given more value.
ALB: That’s the critical mind, because your rational mind can be going “YES, great, yes, put it there!” – and that’s rational!
KT: How about three structures that were made at different points in time that end up simultaneously in the piece?
RB: That’s something for further discussion, but I think something that needs to be remembered there is also, as you were saying at the outset, Kees, that there’s a difference between being in the moment and reflecting on something that’s already been done, so you can’t really change the order of things, but, on the other hand, when you think about some music that you’ve heard, that exists in your memory to a certain extent, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the same order as when it was played. The performance is a location where a particular kind of ordering of things in time takes place, but before that and after that, in so far as this music “exists” at all before or after it’s been played, the temporal relations inside of it might not exist, or they might be completely different.
KT: I’m just a little bit cautious to say that it’s the same.
PC: This was exactly my question – not to come to a conclusion, but, also from an educational perspective, what’s the role of sharing experiences before and after such a shared moment, when you’re in the moment, in sound, and gesture, and visuals: that’s a moment you’ve shared, but of course you can never share in a radical way your subjective experience – what’s the role of talking (you have much more experience, most of you) in improvisational practices? What’s the role of sharing in a verbal way, or maybe in another way, and reflecting on an intention, maybe, or something which emerges, as a kind of new knowledge… can it also influence your next performance?
MV: There are threads here that I would like to connect – from Anne about rehearsal and preparation, from myself and my own instrument, and to make a group sound with the ensemble that I’m working with, but still the purest improvisation that I’ve felt is when I’ve met people just before the performance, and we’re going to improvise. That’s still the purest version. But then, what we seem to be working toward is what do I remember from it, what did I experience, and here I would like to relate a testimonial for a Café Dunois performance in the 80s of Maggie Nicols and [trombonist and composer] Radu Malfatti, where both of them were playing and singing high notes, and a cat chased a mouse from the kitchen into the mute bag… they continued with their high notes, the cat got lost in the mute bag, the mouse got away, and then the cat left, this whole episode took maybe 15-20 seconds and neither of the performers saw it. The public saw it, but here again the public always experiences something different.
RB: My answer to Paul would be that the subjective experience is not the only thing – being able to communicate the subjective experience of making music is not perhaps the main reason why we’re doing it, although it can be one.
Susanne Abbuehl: I would like to say something as well on this question from Paul. I think it’s a very very interesting question, and in education some of the greatest teachers that I have experienced, like Lauren Newton [American vocalist, b. 1952] for example, she verbalises a lot in the practice, but then the question is: is it about teaching, or was your question about full-grown artists, or is it about the teaching situation? And I just also want to say it’s such a pleasure to see Maggie – the first workshop I ever did in improvisation was with Maggie Nicols and Irene Schweizer [Swiss pianist, b. 1941], in Boswil, 35 years ago!
MN: In terms of verbalising: with the Feminist Improvising Group, FIG, it was quite interesting that the musicians from a classical background, after a gig, immediately wanted to dissect everything, and Irene [Schweizer] would just go, “I just want to play, I don’t want to talk!” – and I would be quite vulnerable, suffering from chronic anxiety, and immediately think oh my god, this is a criticism, I can’t cope! And it’s not that Irene or I can’t reflect, and talk about the music, but it depends on context: sometimes the last place where I want to talk about the music is when I’ve just come off stage, because I’ve opened, I’ve made myself vulnerable; whereas in a forum like this I’m happy to talk till the cows come home, about different concepts and reflections… It’s the same in a workshop. If I’m doing a week-long workshop, to begin with if I’m doing a go-around there are no wrong answers, I want people to feel safe. Once people feel safe, then maybe critical thinking can come into play. I do feel that’s important, because if I don’t feel safe I cling to the familiar, I will hide. If I feel safe I’ll start taking more risks. So again, with everything it all depends on context, what situation and how we talk about things, how vulnerable we are, whether we’ve been trained in the art of debate – people who’ve gone to university can do that much better than I can. I’m too close to things, whereas people who’ve had a good training in how to have a good old debate without feeling they’re going to fall apart and take everything so personally, I need to learn to take things less personally. Everybody’s different in how they verbalise things.
PJ: There are no rules!
RB: We very often come across people who have all of the advantages of higher education and are still unable to take part coherently in a discussion, so I wouldn’t worry too much about that!
SR: Giving something time is worth mentioning, by which I mean in these relationships where we play… I do research as well, and in academia in particular there’s a tendency to want to find rational results, there’s a great pressure on us to do that, to be able to articulate in the spoken and the written, something that’s meaningful, there’s pressure towards that direction. Something I’ve noticed in diverse collaborations is: to meet and play and allow the meaning-making to be there without necessarily having a big discussion about what we just played, but just getting to know the person better, so the context becomes the content. I’ve quite liked that phrase recently, it’s something I think I got from Chrysa Parkinson, who’s a dance pedagogue working in Sweden. It’s important in these workshops, or sessions that we set up in institutions, that you rightly touched on this idea of the intuitive and the rational, or the different ways of thinking or knowing, but I think that in particular needs to be given time, without necessarily seeking conceptual verbalised results afterwards. And I also believe, and have experienced repetitively, that surprising things will happen if you open yourself up to that, as a kind of process, and it does become possible to rationalise those, in terms of articles and what have you, and academic-style research outcomes. But in terms of developing practice as an improviser, particularly if you’ve got a background as a classical musician, you’re highly trained in that way, and you might find yourself resistant to the kind of thinking that’s required for successful improvisation, although you might be a virtuoso violinist for example – it seems too simple to say, but giving that time, in a repetitive manner, is of most value, and that can be nurtured through the way in which whoever’s leading it constructs the group and feeds the atmosphere – and Maggie’s a master of this. So I’m not going to say any more!
ALB: Something that I find important is just being able to remember what one played, that’s a listening skill but it’s not rational or irrational – one of the things I do, which doesn’t have to do necessarily with analysis but just with “did they remember?” so I’ll say “so what did you like?”, and then actually things that come out have a non-judgmental character, and they’re able to somehow build a language, it may be just a musical memory but that is language, that’s what we’re talking about. And then I’ll go on and I’ll say “what didn’t you like?”, and that’s so much harder for them, to actually then start to build a musical universe for themselves, and we go at that very very slowly, but it’s basically remembering – even physically – what happened.
MN: I feel that improvisation actually does develop the memory. I’m thinking of improvisers like Irene Schweizer, who’s an incredible improviser, and people will think what she’s done is composed, because she can improvise something, go somewhere else, come back, restate a theme, and feel that for me the subliminal mind has actually sharpened my memory…
ALB: But it’s also remembering what other people played, so you can identify “that was them”.
MN: I learned that form John Stevens as well, to listen to the whole, not just to the person next to me – the deeper you go, the more you remember everything, which is maybe a contradiction…
ALB: Magda was talking about ways to exercise the sonic and physical embodiment…
KT: Maybe it’s true that there are people who can fool you, but in general I would say that you can recognise improvised music when you hear it.
KdJ: Not necessarily, no, I don’t agree!
KT: I was trying to be a little bit provocative of course…
MN: I’m going to say yes and no.
KT: That’s a good answer!
KdJ: Definitely no.
PC: I would say that a lot of algorithmically composed music sounds just like it’s improvised.
RB: We’re not in a competition here…
KdJ: Maybe I can say one more thing, which is an interesting experience I have, notably with classical musicians – if you ask them to improvise they start talking! So they try actually to avoid going into this world of playing and listening – they start with the talking!
Hannah Marshall is a cellist & theatre maker living in the UK. She collaborates with a range of groups and projects in the UK and Europe, including performers and artists in theatre, dance, storytelling and film, and co-runs a visual theatre company, The Ding Foundation.
Hannah wasn’t able to attend the seminar, so I asked her to make her personal presentation in written form, after which I would ask some follow-up questions if appropriate. Here is her contribution and our subsequent discussion (also conducted in written form; the emphases are my own):
HM: The influence on my development and practice from theatre, dance, movement, and clown has been present and evolving since my teens. I would like to offer 2 examples of this influence, because to try and sum it all up would be too hard!
Like many students at music college, one of the most influential books I read, and that was passed around under the table, was Keith Johnstone’s Impro. His work and practice came to light through Chicago-based improv comedy and theatre, from which the Comedy Store players got a lot of inspiration, but it was the core ideas at the heart of improvisation, in any context, that affected me, as well as his approach to inspiration in education. The core principles are to do with how and why we edit ourselves, and the practice of saying “yes”. Saying “yes” to what is happening is such a simple and profound counter to much of the argument/counterargument approach that pervades how we all navigate our interactions with each other, whether they be already labelled as “improvised” or not. Let’s not forget that improvisation (and remaining open to the surprise of what may arise) is not just confined to art, but extends to everything including conversations, decisions, dealings with the ‘real world’, work and family – this practice is largely about listening, hearing, looking, accepting and not knowing, but playing with how our offerings, interactions and responses might affect what’s happening, in other words – finding out & discovery. Saying “yes” connects to a fundamental because it contradicts what most of us do when we think we are making a style choice or carefully judged decision about who I AM: we often say “no” to lots of things that we have decided we don’t like, and hem ourselves into a narrow definition of ourselves, that often debilitates a creative process. By saying “yes”, to whatever is thrown at us, we are making a commitment in that moment of making something from it; using it to bring something else into play. When we say “no” to what someone offers or to what is taking place, we either take ourselves out of the improvisation, or we seek to destroy it or impose on it, and ultimately have a frustrating experience. The improvisation, for us at that moment has not really taken place.
In 1999 I went on a long theatre tour with Improbable Theatre, whose work at the time happened to be heavily affected by Keith Johnstone; the show we made was not an improvised show, but the rehearsal and making process were imbued with the idea of “stalking the present”-- of paying enormous attention to what is happening NOW, and becoming both very aware and very responsive. This came to the fore in particular through group puppetry. Much of the material (as with many productions) came up through long improvisations, but the subject matter also brought huge new vistas to me about the nature of time and experience which improvisation is firmly planted in, as it was about people in comas and the methods that a particular doctor used to communicate with them, in the realisation that they were having very vivid experiences which were literally a matter of life and death being played out in their unconscious minds. The experience of making this show was for me an example of the HOW being more important than the WHAT. What I mean is that the approach I took (with another cellist and performer) was the important aspect of our activity in making the music for the show, not the end result. There was always a source to create and change the music, the structure or the story from, when the approach was tapped firmly in to the work of ‘stalking the present’.
The next example I want to give relates to group practice. This comes in many and varied forms in the process of making any performative work (even a solo!). But the way I want to mention it is when the roles, hierarchies and structures of how a group go about producing work, whether the end result is purely improvised or not, is not pre-prescribed, but instead is either discovered, or deliberately enabled to de-structure and reform again, in response to the work that the group are making. I want to mention the People Show theatre company as an example of that. This company had a profound effect on me because the approach was a long term, group based practice (over 50 years and still going), whose playfulness and highly organised anarchy had a fearless eye on what everyone was really involved in: the work. Everyone in a People Show is called by their own name, not the name of a part they are playing. There is no director, but anyone can take that role for a day or so if they wish (fascist of the day!). Therefore being in and part of the group as YOURSELF, nothing more and nothing less, is at the heart of their process. The risk one takes of being rejected or accepted is mitigated by the safe place that the company/group offers to each other. Everyone is equal. Not meaning everyone has the same time on stage or the same part to play, but that everyone is there simply contribute the best that they can, no more, no less. The burden of earning that right is not of interest. Politically this form of group work has influenced my approach to the community of improvising musicians that I connect to. In free music it makes no difference to “The Music” how long you’ve been playing, how famous you are, or how many ideas you have; when the silence comes and sound is brought to it, and ears are listening, we are all bringing ourselves to that moment, and the passing whims of status only serve to distract us from listening to, accepting, and working with each other’s contribution as best we can.
RB: I found it really interesting that you cite Keith Johnstone’s book as an early influence. Of course it contains a great deal more in the way of specific ideas than just “saying yes” – did you find that other aspects of the book also influenced your thoughts about musical improvisation? For example all the material on masks.
HM: I haven’t re-read the book for a long time, but I have done a fair bit of work with masks. But I can say no, the mask aspect of the book didn’t connect much with me regarding music. I should re-read. I guess it was one of those books, and I was at that age too, that just kind of exploded in my head and helped me to work through early forays into improvisation. So the main other influence I got from it was a kind of questioning demystification of creativity as an everyday act, that needn’t be particularly special, but without the practice of it (and by default the ability to improvise), nothing special would happen.
RB: When you talk about the HOW being more important than the WHAT, where does the audience come into the picture? Given that a common criticism/misconception about improvisation is that it’s more for the participants than the viewers/listeners, does that mean that the HOW needs somehow to be explicitly expressed in the WHAT, or that it doesn’t need to be shown to the audience, or something else?
HM: This is a big one. Which I may not successfully answer. I spent a fairly long time thinking about this question last night. I think I am slightly misleading to say the HOW is more important than the WHAT. Let me put it another way:
As adult humans we are concerned with the result of what we are making, the what. That, after all is why we are performing/improvising etc. However that urgent and vital relationship with what we make easily becomes too controlled, tense, or fixated if our sole perspective is on what, and we forgot that what we are doing is intimately connected to HOW we are doing it. What and how are together and work with each other.
If we relinquish the need to control the result of what we are doing (and by consequence to control other people too), as we do in many ways with improvisation, and instead look at what causes the result, the how, we ironically gain a more dynamic and less fearful relationship to the result, we gain more freedom to change it, and less of a need to defend it.
I suppose another way of saying it is we start to be IN control, rather than controllING.
The audience are pivotal in this process because they up the ante. Having eyes and ears on us makes us highly social beings extremely aware of what the audience may take from a performance: they seem to be shining a light on WHAT the result is. So in improvisation where the performers have explicitly agreed that they don’t tell each other what to do… that they will find out… to try at that point to focus on something you have no control over is futile. The presence of an audience actually makes the need for performers to tap into approach, listening, the ignition behind actions and reactions, in other words the HOW becomes even more vital. It is for the audience to make a judgment about WHAT is happening, not the players, and each audience member will have a different take on that. As performers we cannot get into the minds of the audience, but instead we can respect their vital part in the process taking place.
RB: Do you think that the People Show’s insistence on participants being themselves, rather than playing fictional roles, is actually something that derives from the way musicians think about and do things? When you talk about work being “deliberately enabled to de-structure and reform again” do you mean during the process of preparation/rehearsal, or during performance, or both?
HM: Regarding performers being “themselves”. I’m not sure where that came from, the company has been going since 1966, and has had this approach since then. But yes, music and musicians have played a part, and maybe the feeling of being in a band is part of how they approach their work. Essentially they are people in a room. I forgot also to mention that roles such as lighting designer, actor, musician, stage manager can be flipped and malleable – a stage manager or lighting designer might find they have a performing role, due to what happened in the devising process, or an actor might find they are not on stage etc.
When I mention the restructuring it’s in the rehearsal process. With this company there may be moments of improvisation that occur during a production, but the show itself is not improvised – it has been devised through much improvisation and therefore reflects that in its content and feel.
This was a wide-ranging series of discussions, with many threads that appear, disappear and reappear during its course. While it sometimes moved away from the original focus on how different musical improvisation practices are infused by ideas coming from improvisation in other types of creative activity, I think the digressions might end up being just as valuable a contribution to this research in the wider sense of improvisation in musical education, and indeed this wider issue was one of the recurrent themes throughout the three discussions. In the process of transcribing them I found myself constantly comparing them in my mind to the form of group improvisations, especially when the subject of discussion towards the end of discussion 3 moved towards the question of the extent to which improvised music can “sound composed”. While I wouldn’t ever want to push analogies between spoken language and music too far, I was struck at that moment by the thought that while indeed there’s a difference between a more or less free-ranging discussion, such as the above, and a carefully planned essay by a single author, the interactions that articulate a collectively-produced oral document, as preserved here, surely produce just as logically structured a result, and of course just as valuable an insight into their subject, especially this particular subject!
The influence of “extra-musical ideas” is of course commonplace in the context of notated composition, as discussed in Music of Possibility, where I try to emphasise the idea that actually there’s nothing that is really “extra-musical”. There’s a whole world of interrelationships between musical improvisation and other areas of human endeavour, onto which the present project opens a small window. When I embarked on this research I had some partially formed ideas of what its results might be, and there have been a few surprises along the way, apart from the necessary diversion of the project in a more theoretical direction than I was anticipating, although I believe the results support my conviction that what I call improvisation is a way of thinking which can take many distinct but nevertheless connected forms. In the performing arts, improvisation is associated in different ways with overcoming received hierarchies in the division of creative work between composers, choreographers and playwrights on one hand, and interpreters, dancers and actors on the other. Starting from a radically egalitarian zero point like freely improvised music or Contact, aside from their validity and potential in themselves, provides a necessary viewpoint from which different divisions of labour might be reintegrated, without the imposition of a dead weight of hierarchy.
There is a fluid two-way relationship between improvisational artistic practices and a vision of wider human relations based on equality and social justice, not to mention a vision of technology as a vehicle for imaginative discovery rather than of social control and coercion. Improvisational thinking can be encouraged to develop in the minds of students by an approach to pedagogy which is itself improvisational. A beautiful example of this was Maggie Nicols’s contribution to the seminar (section 6), explaining three of her own “new inputs” by enacting rather than describing them. Talking about improvisation without improvising seems doomed to failure in communicating anything but prosaic superficialities, which led to some considerable frustration on my part during the course of this research. Nevertheless this issue was eventually addressed to some extent with the interpolation of the 17 “compositions”, all of which were quite spontaneous reactions to the ideas I happened to be writing about at the time, and were initially written down as rapidly as possible to encapsulate a momentary glimpse of some of the musical possibilities which might unfold from that moment.
Alongside continuing the principal course of the research in the course of 2021, I am also intending to continue exploring the directions that gave rise to eye-blink (1) and the duo work with Milana. Apart from ongoing duo plans, I began work on a project entitled binary systems (after the astronomical phenomena in which two objects orbit one another in close gravitational association) which develops the “filmic” composition strategies described in section 3 above, and in particular the duo-composition idea developed in sphinx. I invited five improvising instrumentalists, from five countries, with whom I’ve worked over the years, to contribute to this project by recording between 10 and 20 minutes of solo improvisation, in the form either of a single “performance” or a sequence of briefer “sketches” or something in between. Each one of these recordings will then be developed into a fixed media composition, not just by overlaying and processing the contributed materials but also where appropriate by incorporating my own. These five pieces (reserving the possibility of a sixth which would bring together all five instrumentalists into an “ensemble”) are planned to have a total duration of 60-75 minutes for release as an album on STRANGE STRINGS. So far I have received all the recordings and before the end of January 2021 I shall be starting work on at least one of the pieces, which will be credited as collaborative compositions. The instrumentalists and co-composers are Anne La Berge (flute/Amsterdam), Daryl Buckley (electric lap steel guitar/Melbourne), Lori Freedman (bass clarinet/Montréal), Ivana Grahovac (cello/Belgrade) and Lê Quan Ninh (percussion/Saint-Silvain-sous-Toulx, La Creuse (F)). While this isn’t the kind of project I would have thought of initiating under circumstances prior to 2020, once more I think it has the potential to open up new possibilities for compositional work that interweaves the improvisational method with others, with a result that couldn’t have been conceived or realised any other way.
My experience of working on eye-blink (1) was of an unfamiliar kind of intimacy with the performers (none of whom I had met) which gave rise to a kind of relationship to their musical contributions of which I’d had no previous experience. One is working with the actual sounds that someone else has made, with their permission to edit and alter this by any means necessary, but at the same time with a responsibility towards them that might be compared to the (admittedly more fleeting) situation in contact improvisation of a partner entrusting one with his/her weight and movement. It’s a kind of situation which I expect to give rise to some valuable discussion as the work continues, but also something that could be worth exploring in a pedagogical context, especially if working remotely isn’t going to disappear in the near future, although it could be a productively creative way of working even if it does.
Have everyone in the group separately record improvisational materials, then have all the recordings sent to each one (or at least those with the requisite apparatus, skills and interest) to be worked into a “virtual ensemble composition”, not necessarily using more than a small part of each participant’s contribution but rather choosing them according to one’s own compositional ideas and priorities. Once all these are done (better quickly and in a spirit of improvisation!) collect them together, listen and perhaps even compile them into a meta-composition which applies similar principles to the ensembles as the first stage did to the solos.
Aside from such compositional projects, I am of course intending to work on the practical dimension of the present research together with SEE, and possibly also other groups of musicians, according to opportunity. The first line of approach will of course be to work on the compositions that accompany this text. While I will retain them in the text for documentary purposes, it seems clear that in practice they will develop further – some may be discarded or thoroughly rethought, while others may evolve in directions not anticipated in the stated “possible extensions”. New ones may well also emerge from rehearsals and discussions. In any case, these compositions are intended as “theories to be tested”, as a starting point for collaborative development, and as examples of how the idea of “new inputs” might be implemented. No doubt further critical and creative reflections will flow from the practical experimentation.
The seminar turned out to be enlightening in (at least) two distinct ways, as far as I was concerned. Firstly it produced much valuable information and many valuable ideas, both in the individual presentations and in the discussion, which will be further investigated over the course of the third phase of this project in 2021. Secondly, the forms “sculpted in time” by the interactions in the discussion sessions, perhaps made more apparent in written form, where durations can be examined in the shape of spatial proportions, and where processes of argument might more easily be seen as taking the form of (musical) development, put me in mind of the idea that we (all of us) are probably using our “improvising minds” more often than might seem to be the case, and that this way of thinking, once recognised, unlocked, practised and developed, can lead to a realisation of human potential which is often very difficult to perceive through the fog of stupidity, bigotry and exploitation that seems to surround us. On that note I hand over the last word to improvising percussionist and thinker Edwin Prévost:
What is lacking is an art which is humane, communitarian and revolutionary by its very nature. Even in the absence of any immediate possibility of its actuality, this effort is necessary, if only to support those who are intellectually and morally affronted by what is currently done in the name of freedom and progress within the so-called social democracies. In reality, of course, having a conscience, and even being angry about the brutality and inequalities of the current world order, are luxuries that most of the world’s population cannot afford. Survival for them is the overriding priority. Political anger can, in such circumstances, be analogous to railing at inclement weather. That being understood, it becomes even more a responsibility, for those who are materially able, to put their own lives in such an order as to generate a common ethos of human activity that is not exploitative or oppressive. Or rather to pose the objective more positively – to develop civil activity in forms which are the most likely to encourage an active and creative response to life and an attendant sympathy for the life objectives of people other than oneself. (Prévost 2004, p. 57)
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