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A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF THE SONOLOGY ELECTROACOUSTIC ENSEMBLE
Research report January 2020
Supported by the lectorate ‘Music, Education and Society’, research group ‘Making in Music’, Royal Conservatoire The Hague
In September 2017 I submitted my doctoral thesis Music of Possibility to the University of Leeds, and was awarded the degree in January 2018. In the meantime the thesis has been revised and expanded for publication, under the same title. The principal question of my research was to define and analyse what I think of as four central innovations in twentieth century music – systematic composition procedures, electronic/digital technology, free improvisation, and the awareness of the geographical and historical context of musical creation – and to explore ways of unifying and radicalising them for the present and future, with illustrations drawn from my own work as a creative musician during the period (2013-17) when I was working on the thesis.
The ideas presented in the thesis already had their origins in the annual series of lectures I give at the Institute of Sonology, and their realisation plays a significant role in the work I’ve been doing since 2009 with the Sonology Electroacoustic Ensemble. This group brings together students, ex-students and staff from the Institute of Sonology and other departments, and occasionally also outside guests (such as trumpeter Peter Evans, guitarist Han-earl Park and synthesizer player Richard Scott). The ensemble’s work is focused on a collaborative investigation into combining traditional and electronic instruments in an improvisational context, bringing together participants with many different backgrounds and approaches. I try to encourage a situation where all members of the group - including myself and any other faculty members who may participate - have an equal creative input into the music we make, which is presented in between four and six public performances each year, plus an annual five-day intensive workshop which I usually teach alongside my long-term collaborator and fellow electronic musician Paul Obermayer, my partner in the duo FURT since 1986. These workshops involve participants from all three of the KC’s “creative departments” (Composition, Art Science and Sonology), and have also included several Erasmus exchange students.
The ensemble has participated in developing several specific research projects by Sonology Masters students, but, apart from this, it embodies a way of conducting research in diverse areas: sound design, amplification and spatialisation, improvisation as a method of composition particularly suited to the electronic/digital domain, the development of electronic instruments towards a comparable degree of fluency to traditional acoustic instruments, and many others. At the same time, although the membership of the ensemble naturally varies from year to year, its evolution over the years of its existence forms a deepening basis for participants to draw upon. Recordings of many of the ensemble’s performances since 2010 may be consulted at the following playlist on my Soundcloud page:
The purpose of the present project, then, is firstly to document the current state of this evolution, and secondly to trace its continuation over the course of a year, beginning slightly before the workshop held in late October/early November 2018 and extending slightly past the following one which was held a year later, in order to obtain an overview of both the cyclical development of the group’s work over the course of a year and the similarities and differences between two successive workshop sessions with completely different personnel. Issues that form the context of my analyses and discussions include:
– musical heritage and its role in the present and future, and innovation in finding ways of combining the traditional instrumentarium with the digital world, since the ensemble always involves a different combination of acoustic and electronic/digital instruments
– a close relationship between pedagogical and creative work, and a regular opportunity for public performance – emphasising my conviction that improvisation is best thought of as a method of composition with different but no less sophisticated and valuable possibilities compared to other methods
– integration within the curriculum, for example in complementing Johan van Kreij’s Sonology classes in live electronic performance, which concentrate more on working with smaller groups and deal with digital performance technology in more detail, and giving electroacoustic improvisation a central place within Sonology (almost everyone currently in the faculty who is at all involved in live performance has performed with the ensemble at least once)
- creating in each new academic year a “collective creative personality” out of a mixture of old and new members from many different musical-aesthetic backgrounds, but without falling into superficially “eclectic” approaches
The results of these activities have fed directly into my own compositional work, particularly in the context of my codex series of scores for improvisational performers, in which since 2000 I’ve written 22 pieces, some of which are for one-off occasions while others have been performed many times around the world by diverse ensembles, some with more and some with less (or no) connection to “classical” traditions. (This series of works is fully documented in Music of Possibility.)
The present text is intended to constitute a modest body of knowledge concerning this kind of composer-performer ensemble, serving not only to give an extra momentum to the work the ensemble is already doing within the KC, and a basis for its continuation in the future, but also to communicate the insights deriving from this work to people in our institution, and elsewhere, who might be wishing to initiate or further develop the realisation of related ideas.
My belief is that while musical innovation in the twentieth century concentrated on new musical sounds, forms, expressive means, influences, technical procedures, and so on, a new direction for innovation might be found in the way music is made: for example how it’s composed (using improvisation, technology, notation, or some combination of these), and by whom it’s composed, that is to say whether involving a single composer or some kind of collective, with parallel and/or complementary roles. These are issues that most of my own work over the last 15 years at least has been dedicated to exploring. My doctoral thesis in its published version comprises a first step towards making the knowledge derived from those explorations more widely available. This research project is intended to form a second step, with a different kind of integration and balance between theory, practice and documentation, and of course drawing and building (in a way the doctoral project couldn’t) on what amounts by now to several decades of work in diverse contexts as performer and composer, using improvisational, technological and notational methods, many different degrees and forms of collaboration, and in many different pedagogical and professional contexts. In Derek Bailey’s words:
Improvisation has no need of argument and justification. It exists because it meets the creative appetite that is a natural part of being a performing musician and because it invites complete involvement, to a degree otherwise unobtainable, in the act of music-making. (Bailey (1992), p. 142)
improvisation in the conservatoire: why?
No doubt many people have considered this question and have their own responses, and such responses might have a certain amount or even a great deal in common, but the reason I’m asking it explicitly now is that an attempt to answer it from various different angles can help us to outline some practical and specific ways in which working with free improvisation in such contexts might be approached. When I use the term “free improvisation” I’m talking about a method of creating music whose style and structure, as well as its material, is brought into being collectively and/or individually at the moment of performance. (I return to this definition in chapter 6.)
In this first part of this section I discuss the aforementioned question under a number of headings which more or less reflect the division of a conservatoire into departments, together with some remarks about how the method of musical creation under discussion is something that can actually bridge these divisions, which I think we can all agree set up boundaries between people as well as administrative departments, between ways of thinking musically, boundaries that serve bureaucratic aims more than they do musical creativity and potential. A thought that I try to bear in mind when framing this discussion is that improvisation is in a sense the most “complete” form of music-making since it in fact contains all the others. The headings are:
(1) improvisation for composers (in the broadest sense)
(2) improvisation for classical vocalists and instrumentalists (including specialists in particular historical periods)
(3) improvisation for music educators
(4) improvisation for improvisers
Let’s look first at improvisation for composers. Anyone who knows anything about what I do will know that my activity in free improvisation is an integrated part of my practice as a creative musician (I use that term as being at the same time more general and more precise than “composer”). But it’s important to point out here that this integration isn’t just a matter of making music which involves diverse kinds of fusion between notation, spontaneity, fixed-media and interactive electronics, for example, but of something that takes place on a deeper level. This is something I’ve discussed in some detail in Music of Possibility, but suffice it to say here that I think of even the most systematic “post-serial” compositional framework as being a way of “building an instrument” (with its own temporal as well as sonorous structure) as a context for more or less spontaneous actions and reactions, or as being a way of creating an analogous kind of “dialogue” between system and spontaneity to that which might come into being between the people taking part in a group improvisation.
This idea has its origins in a situation I would often find myself in some years ago, and in which many composition students I talk to find themselves in too, of getting to a certain point in a compositional process, even at or near its very beginning, and not knowing how to proceed. I would tell myself: “but if you were sitting in front of an audience with your instrument, about to begin an improvisational piece, this problem would never occur!” So the question was then how to make use of that sense of just launching oneself into the music, when not sitting on stage ready to perform. I’ve found that to be a greatly inspiring idea, and it’s contributed strongly to the way my compositional productivity has increased in recent years, and, needless to say, it’s something one needs to be able to feel as a result of regular and committed activity in musical improvisation. There are many other ways in which this practice can feed into other methods of composition: for example, a conception of composing as not necessarily something done by single individuals, since improvisation will often produce sounds and forms which it would be difficult or impossible to imagine emerging from any context but a collaborative one. Understanding the possible relationships between oneself and one’s fellow composer-performers in improvisation leads I think to a greater openness to the potential of collective composition without anyone’s creativity or individuality being compromised.
Free improvisation also depends crucially on developing ways of making interconnections between sounds that aren’t based on traditional categories, particularly when electronic instruments are involved, and indeed developing these ways afresh for each instrumentation, perhaps for each performance. (This issue is implicit in all the analytical comments to the recordings in the following chapters.) I would say that as a composer I’ve never really felt restricted to traditional ways of doing things, but then perhaps that’s because improvisation has been part of my musical activity since before I began to write anything down.
My second heading involves “classically trained” performers, in which context I’m not making a distinction between those specialising in 19th or 20th century music and those specialising in 14th century music or any period in between. There are two issues I want to mention here.
Firstly, of course, performers involved in contemporary music will often find themselves faced with a score that involves improvisation in some way, and this often leads to unsatisfactory results because players are simply expected to be able to handle it even though their education hasn’t prepared them for this in any way, and certainly not to the extent where they might involve themselves voluntarily in improvisation outside what some score or other asks them to do. Composers are often not much help in such situations, by giving performers instructions that equate more or less to “make a generic noise here”, or hedge around their “improvisatory freedom” so much with specific instructions as to what to do and what not to do that the performers’ imaginations wouldn’t have much room to take flight even if they were in a position to do so. A personal anecdote might suffice for now: in the process of preparing for the premiere of a large-scale work with the Musikfabrik ensemble in Cologne, I had the opportunity to spend half a day with the whole group in which I went through a shortened version of the workshop process I will describe in chapter 1 below, and I was surprised to hear that nobody had ever done such a thing with them before. I need hardly add that this experience led to fruitful results when the actual performance came up.
Secondly, and less quantifiably, experience with free improvisation can serve to widen a performer’s relationship with his/her instrument, in a way that might encourage them for example to think more about creating their own music, or to enter into a wider range of collaborative situations with composers, or simply to broaden their interpretative potential even in music that doesn’t involve improvisation as such. Derek Bailey writes in Improvisation, its nature and practice in music:
There is no generalised technique for playing any musical instrument. However one learns to play an instrument it is always for a specific task. (…) The standard European instrumental education thinks of itself as being an exception to this rule. It is of course a very good example of it. It equips a musician with the ability to perform the standard European repertoire and its derivatives, and perhaps more than any other discipline it limits its adherents’ ability to perform in other musical areas.
Although some improvisers employ a high level of technical skill in their playing, to speak of “mastering” the instrument in improvisation is misleading. The 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)
Bailey also remarks that “the only places where, to my knowledge, improvisation is successfully taught in the classroom is in those classes conducted by practising improvisers.” (p. 118) So I think that if the improvisational method is going to form part of a more general musical education, which I think it should – hence my heading “improvisation for music educators” -- those doing the educating should be more involved in it, and, once more, out of choice and desire rather than just professional duty, which means that those of us who are already involved in it need to have ways of sharing what’s behind the choices and desires than we feel ourselves, which is a principal purpose of my ongoing research project – to eventually add to the rather small literature on the subject a practically oriented text which can have a wider application than the specific situation I’m working in at the Royal Conservatoire.
Lastly, my heading “improvisation for improvisers” is intended to express the idea that making music in this way is a fulfilling, meaningful and communicative musical activity in itself, rather than just a means towards widening and improving one’s abilities in non-improvisational forms of music-making. I would hope that as many people as possible “qualify” from their experience of improvisation in an educational context with a desire to continue with it and make it a part of their musical lives, which might even have wider implications outside music – as Marcel Cobussen puts it, “[i]mprovisation in music – not simply as a spontaneous action, but as an interactive event between humans with multiple perspectives – thus contributes to provide us not only with alternative ideas on ethics and morality but also with concrete suggestions for ethical and moral behavior.” (Cobussen (2017), p. 177)
prelude: SEE performance, 17 October 2018
This performance took place at the first Sonology Discussion Concert of the 2018-19 academic year. The lineup was:
Justin Bennett (analogue synthesizer) – Sonology faculty member
Lauge Dideriksen (violin) – fourth year Bachelor in Composition
Mauricio Galeano (electric guitar) – guest
Cindy Giron (electronics) – second year Master in Composition
Yannis Patoukas (electric guitar) – second year Master in Sonology
Volkan Turgut (euphonium) – third year Bachelor in Sonology
Marko Uzunovski (live mixing) – KC technical staff (Sonology Bachelor graduate and since 2019 graduate of the KC’s “Aus LICHT” Master programme)
I assembled the personnel for this performance to feature participants in the ensemble from previous versions of the ensemble, one of my Sonology colleagues who has also taken part in previous SEE performances, and the Uruguayan guitarist Mauricio Galeano, who was visiting the Netherlands to work with me on one of my compositions and was interested in taking part. As usual I chose a more or less equal division between electronic and acoustic instruments, here with the two electric guitars forming a link between the fully electronic side of the ensemble and the two more traditional instruments on the other. The durations of SEE performances are generally contingent on the amount of space in the Sonology concert programmes, which is why most of them tend to be around 15 or 20 minutes in length. I include Marko Uzunovski in the personnel since his role (which has evolved over several years of working with SEE) encompasses a great deal more than being “just” a sound engineer. His responsibility for creating a dynamic balance between the participants in a performance like this involves responding to constantly changing musical circumstances by making creative decisions of his own, which might well then cause the musicians on stage to alter their individual and/or collective direction(s).
The ensemble setup has varied widely over the development of the SEE, from using a multichannel surround system running specialised spatialisation software on one hand to using compact local amplification of the electronic instruments and no amplification of the acoustic ones on the other. For most purposes, though, performances have settled on a layout which involves the performers being placed in a semicircle on stage, with a semicircle of up to 8 loudspeakers behind them on stands. The advantage of this system is that no separate onstage monitors are necessary, and the sound image for the audience is spread across the stage in a way that realistically reflects the positions of the players, also when players are using stereo outputs which can then be fed to a suitable pair of speakers within the array. If other loudspeakers are available, which they generally are in Sonology concerts, Marko will often bring these also into play, either as a general feature of the whole performance or for particular purposes. However, the stereo mix of this and all the other recordings accompanying the present text was made by myself on the basis of the “dry” signals being sent to the FOH mixer (taking into account, of course, the relative positions of the players), so that Marko’s contribution is somewhat obscured; nevertheless it should be stressed that this contribution is always crucial for creating the music you hear in the recording, subtle though its influence might be. In order to emphasise the way the music consists of interweaving between acoustic, electric and digital instruments we generally alternate between computer-based instruments and others along the semicircular line. This has the added advantage that the stereo outputs of those instruments which have them can be spread out over the loudspeaker system without having to interlock more than is necessary.
My stereo mixes arise from a wish to extract what I think is a clear and balanced “view” of what happens in the music, which might deviate to a greater or lesser extent from what the audience heard, since for one thing I don’t refer to the latter – usually there are parallel recordings made with a stereo microphone setup but I’ve never paid very much attention to these, since the sound-image recorded from microphones which are “listening” principally to loudspeakers tends to be somewhat flat and unfocused. Working from the multitrack recordings enables me to hear and assess each performer’s contribution to the whole, sometimes to bring to the surface musical elements which might have been more submerged in the live situation, sometimes to pull back sudden jumps in volume which in most cases will have been inadvertent. Having said all that, I intervene as little as possible in the recordings, and certainly no editing has been carried out. While the official purpose of the present project is documentation and analysis, I am concerned to produce the recordings in such a way that they sound as attractive as possible, as a totality and in terms of each individual participant. In general, the overall mixes have been processed using EQ (Cockos ReaFir), mastering compression (Waves H-Comp), limiting (Waves L2 Ultramaximizer) and reverb (Waves TrueVerb, using a slightly modified version of the “Studio A” preset). The individual tracks have been set at a default level for each piece, which might then be altered at specific moments; occasionally they might also be treated with compression and/or EQ as necessary.
It has often been suggested that recording improvised music is in principle inappropriate. Obviously this is not my view: I don’t see improvisation as being any different from any other method of composition in this regard. While it might be thought that there’s a contradiction involved in preserving a spontaneous and ephemeral musical event in this form, I think the truth of the matter is that the recording presents us with a different kind of experience, that there are some spontaneous moments in musical creation where something particularly memorable and intense takes place that somehow transcends its evanescence, as for example in all those “classic” jazz albums which were generally recorded over a short period when the group was working at “white heat”. While, as previously mentioned, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to edit the recordings under discussion here, I would normally have no hesitation in doing so if I thought this would enhance the musical qualities of the material, an attitude which has its precedent in Teo Macero’s production work with Miles Davis, and which has led in the context of FURT’s recordings to such results as a piece edited together by alternating almost 30 times between two performances that took place almost a year apart in different countries.
While no doubt a certain consistent aesthetic attitude will be apparent when listening to the recordings, this will be even more the case when reading my brief analyses of the recorded music. My intention is not to produce exhaustive or objective accounts of the music but in general to draw the listener’s attention to features I find particularly interesting and which serve as examples of the way I hear and understand this music, both as a participant and as a listener after the fact, particularly in terms of what were its more or less successful, more or less highly developed aspects. I focus particularly on how the music develops and transforms itself as a whole, how its structural progression is articulated by means of discrete sections and/or gradual processes, which factors lend a particular piece a strong and memorable identity (or not), the presence of particularly “inspired” moments and whether their potential is realised or not fully appreciated at the time, and other aspects which no doubt add up to some kind of picture of how I myself hear and understand improvisation (and by extension other modes of composition). I would never express this, however, as a set of defined criteria regarding what makes a good improviser or a good improvisation. Any such formula could be superseded or contradicted at any moment. This creates both a challenge and an opportunity for the pedagogy of improvisation, since any “curriculum” relating to the kind of practice-based work discussed here must itself involve improvisation at every level.
It’s particularly apparent, I think, that the music produced in the workshops generally has a provisional quality, an air of potential rather than realisation, compared with the music of the concert performances, even when these have involved the same people and took place only a few weeks after the workshop. Partly for this reason, I wanted to begin the audio documentation of this research project with a performance by a more “experienced” group rather than with the workshop. All of the participants apart from Mauricio had taken part in several previous SEE performances.
This piece is characterised more than most SEE performances by a relatively clear division into sections which often succeed one another quite abruptly (and which generally last between 2 and 3 minutes apart from the last one), and by a greater amount than usual of solo/accompaniment activity. The following brief analysis draws particular attention to this feature. (Succeeding analyses are intended to draw the reader/listener’s attention to other relevant features of the music.)
Section 1 (0’00") A violin solo with slow, initially low-pitched accompaniment, varies in density as different layers are added and subtracted. the accompaniment eventually expands to submerge the violin around 2’10", then thins out into a new shadowy texture from which individual voices intermittently rise to the surface and are reabsorbed.
Section 2 (3’09") An aggressively distorted electric guitar solo interrupts the preceding calm; as it disintegrates into shards, it leaves behind it a disjointed texture, much more active than that of section 1. Sustained sounds reappear intermittently but this section is characterised by a rate of change very different from that of section 1. As at the end of that section though, this activity dissolves into a sparse and restrained texture which is abruptly terminated by a soloistic entry.
Section 3 (6’13") – this time by the euphonium. This shorter section is characterised by longer entries than in the previous one, but these are now typically more internally complex, like the guitar entry at 6’54" or the electronics at 7’45", and interspersed and/or overlapped by more static sound-forms, the last of which forms the next section.
Section 4 (8’24") In this section almost no soloistic material appears, but instead most of the activity seems to be oriented towards blending together into a single multilayered structure.
Section 5 (10’30") Here the previous texture seems to dissipate spontaneously to be succeeded by more or less unpitched and indistinct, more or less percussive material, sometimes thinning out to almost nothing, with clear pitches making occasional appearances.
Section 6 (13’16") A clock-like ticking begins at this point, and forms a “textural centre” around which other materials gradually accumulate; once the ticking stops, another tangle of linear forms like those of section 3 has emerged, which eventually winds down to silence.
Section 7 (15’41") is initiated rather hesitantly by one of the electric guitars, and seems under constant threat of falling back into silence. At 16’57", radio voices are heard in the background, emphasising the random collisions between sounds that characterise this section.
Section 8 (17’45" approximately) The voices seem to play a principal role in triggering a crescendo into an opaque coagulation of sound from the entire ensemble which fulfils a “climactic” function, remaining at a high density and intensity for some considerable time. Eventually however it does collapse in on itself and fades gently to silence.
I wonder whether the somewhat similar section-durations are more the result of what’s actually in the music, or more the result of the way I listen to it (or the way I listened to it on this particular occasion). When composing notated or fixed-media music I’m always highly concerned with durational proportions, which are always precisely calculated according to more or less systematic schemes, often on several structural levels simultaneously, as can be seen in the analyses contained in part 3 of Music of Possibility. I suppose therefore it’s no wonder that I would be sensitive to durational consistencies in a piece like the one under discussion, having trained myself through my compositional practice to perceive “rhythms” on the scale of minutes or more, and to attempt to share that perception through the way my compositions articulate themselves in time. In the course of creating music through free improvisation, thinking in terms of proportions probably requires some kind of precomposition, since improvising, inextricably linked as it is to the evolving moment, is subject to all the same divergences between experiential and clock time as in the process of listening, so that something that might “feel” as if it has a particular duration might not actually have it at all. Learning to appreciate and work with these divergences is, I think, an important aspect of developing one’s abilities in free improvisation – although, like many such skills described here in the context of improvisation, in the end it’s closely related to skills required for other methods of composition. Seeing compositional phenomena through the prism of improvisation, as it were, has been a centrally important factor in the development of my own notated and fixed-media music, and I believe that improvisation as a “composition teacher” could have considerable value for others also.
SEE performance 17 October 2018
chapter 1: the 2018 workshop
Since 2016, the work of SEE in each academic year has begun in earnest with a five-day workshop forming part of the KC’s workshop-week system, in which four weeks of each academic year are reserved for students of all three “creative departments” to take part in a wide selection of intensive sessions, many of which are led by guest teachers from outside the school. The number of participants in the SEE workshop has varied between 10 and 16 students – normally I open 14 places in the expectation that a few would drop out between the call for applications and the workshop itself. In 2018 there were 11 participants:
Rafaele Andrade (cello/computer) – Erasmus student at Sonology
Timo Carbone (accordion) – first year Master in Art Science
Georgia Denham (voice/computer) – Erasmus student at Composition
Marlene Fally (voice/computer) – first year Bachelor in Sonology
Raphael Fischer-Dieskau (electric cello) – first year Bachelor in Art Science
Andrea García (piano) – one-year Sonology Course
Mehrnaz Khorrami (violin) – first year Bachelor in Sonology
Marco Manconi (modular synthesizer) – first year Bachelor in Sonology
Myrtó Nizami (piano) – first year Masters in Composition
Sebastian Scholz (analogue electronics) – Erasmus student at Sonology
Hilde Wollenstein (clarinet) – first year Bachelor in Sonology
plus Paul Obermayer and myself on computers and keyboards. Paul and I also led the 2016 workshop together, while in 2017 I led it in alternation with vocalist and composer (ex-Sonology Masters student and current DocARTES researcher) Marie Guilleray, who had been a regular member of the ensemble during and after her Sonology studies.
Paul Obermayer’s participation in the workshops is primarily as a performer, and he tends to leave most of the talking and “directing” to me, although, being less concentrated than I am on shaping the structural progress of the sessions, he’s often in a better position to make decisive and insightful comments about what has just been played, what might be explored next, and other matters more immediately concerned with being “in the music”. Between us, therefore, we have a quite comprehensive overview of what is happening in the workshop and how its music is developing, and of course we also discuss and make decisions on the structure of the workshop in between the sessions themselves. Our comments on the music played as the workshop continues should also act as possible examples of how to think about, discuss and assess a way of making music whose defining characteristic is a freedom from preordained restrictions. Apart from this, our participation in all of the music played after the first day of the workshop is intended to act as a demonstration of some of the possibilities of electroacoustic group improvisation, bringing to bear our more than thirty years of experience of playing together and refining our approach to the technical resources we use for performance, individually and as a duo. I wouldn’t wish to be regarded as a theoretician of free improvisation or of any other method of composition, but as a practitioner for whom formulating and expressing whatever understanding of the music I’m able to develop not only feeds back fruitfully into my own practice but also might conceivably be found helpful and enlightening to others.
It can be seen from the lineup listed above that the workshop featured a great diversity of instrumental resources, from traditional instruments, through instruments and voices enhanced one way and another through electronic/digital means, to completely electronic instruments, in some cases capable of functioning either as standalone devices or as processors for external sources like other players. This diversity played an important role in the way the ensemble would be gradually split into smaller subunits, as we shall see, but the initial priority is always to find a shared starting point from which the ensemble’s music can begin to evolve and take on a composite “compositional personality”. Since this will almost always be the starting point in such workshops, whether in the KC Workshop Week context or elsewhere, I’ve evolved a set of ideas and techniques which I almost always begin with, after which the way the sessions are led becomes increasingly “improvisational” (responding to the people and the situation rather than imposing external ideas on these) and indeed decreasingly like “leading”, although I will always try to ensure that certain things happen, for example that each day and/or each half-day session ends at a point where further possibilities seem to present themselves, rather than at a point when the ensemble seems to have exhausted its capabilities for that session, that is to end in a state of openness rather than of conclusiveness. (There are obvious implications here also for how an individual improvisational piece might come to an end!)
I find it important to make clear at the outset where free improvisation originated, around the beginning of the 1960s in various places and from traditions ranging from jazz to notated composition – crucially, at a point in music history where the idea had emerged that any sound may be combined with any other in a musical context, without any necessary dependence on received ideas of which sounds fit with others, as in traditional harmonic and rhythmical thinking, so that free encounters between sounds become possible, with the structural framework that provides their context and connections evolving also in real time rather than being agreed or assumed in advance.
While it should be understood that neither received harmonic/rhythmical ideas, nor anything else, should be thought of as “forbidden” in free improvisation, it will always be clear from the makeup of such a group as the SEE that these will necessarily function more as “special cases” within a more generalised view of musical structures and relationships than as privileged points of reference. Some 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. None of this should be seen as imposing “restrictions” on what the ensemble can do, but on the other hand implying certain kinds of musical relationship which can encompass all the participants and which can act as points of departure for an unlimited range of possibilities. Therefore I begin the workshop by concentrating on two of those kinds of relationship in particular, emphasising to participants all the time that the purpose of these initial exercises is not necessarily to make music but to create the conditions for music to be made – I say this in order to minimise any tendencies towards thinking that what the ensemble does needs to be interesting to listen to (at this stage!), which might lead the more confident participants to do “too much” and others "too little’.
Before anything like that could happen, though, the ensemble needed to be set up. The Varèsezaal is one of the most suitable rooms at the KC for a project like this because it can accommodate all the players and their equipment without becoming cramped, and because its installed sound system enables four different stereo pairs of speakers to be used simultaneously (front, back and either side), which is crucial in allowing the electronic and amplified instruments to be identified during playing by the spatial position or spread of their sound. Generally, the participants requiring tables will be set up around the edge of the room, with (amplified) acoustic instruments in the centre.
The Varèsezaal only has one (upright) piano, so that for any additional keyboard players one or more electronic pianos will be required. Setting all of the gear up and giving my introductory talk generally takes up the first morning session of the workshop, so that after a lunchbreak everyone is ready to begin playing.
As mentioned earlier, I then begin with two “archetypal” kinds of musical relationship, the first of which I explain to the players as follows:
(1) Play a quiet, continuous sound (instruments not capable of this should use iterated sounds that blend as far as possible into being perceived as a continuous texture), chosen initially at random and then changed only in dynamic level, so that you never hear yourself above the general level of the overall texture but rather are submerged within it. As soon as you become consciously aware of the sound you are making, make it quieter.
I allow this texture to “settle in” over a minute or two before signalling an end, and pointing out that my signalling is intended only as a way of making the workshop sessions more efficient in terms of time! The exercise is then repeated with every player asked to choose a sound as different as possible from the first one, and one of the possibilities then is to continue with these varied repeats for a while, especially if I feel the central concept of the exercise hasn’t been completely grasped by everyone. One thing I try never to do is tell any individual in the group “you’re getting it wrong”. I think it’s obviously preferable for people to learn more from the context and from what their fellow participants are doing than from what I’m saying to them – or at least to feel that they’re doing so.
Once this first idea can be put across by participants with confidence, I add something further to it which is, after a little while of the texture being played, to make a slow hands-raising gesture so that the overall dynamic of the texture gradually increases from quiet to loud, while each individual still keeps his/her sound beneath the surface and not individually perceptible, as far as possible. And then this “vertical” approach to relating sounds is set aside temporarily, so that the second, “horizontal”, approach can be explored.
(2) Play short sounds, with a few seconds of silence between each one, making sure that each sound is as different as possible from all the others in timbre, dynamic, articulation and pitch, as applicable.
This time the intention is that sounds relate to one another as a sequence in time, where each brief sound forms part of a constantly renewed chain of events, whose model is the “molecular” kind of group improvisation, a music based on points of sound, as exemplified by groups such as the Music Improvisation Company, Spontaneous Music Ensemble and Nuova Consonanza, and pioneering players such as Evan Parker, Derek Bailey and John Stevens. As with the “laminar” model explored previously, organising the workshop in this way enables me to introduce in a natural way a historical context for free improvisation, something which I think is often missing from workshops of this kind. Just as with any other method of musical creation, the practice of improvisation brings up issues that can be fruitfully addressed by exploring that context.
Usually this exercise also needs to be run through a few times, in order to achieve the right kind of density (for the aforementioned kind of structure to be audible), by perhaps being more specific about the possible range of silent durations between successive sounds – for a group of a dozen or so players. Another problem that usually occurs at the outset is that people interpret “short sounds” too loosely, for example as groups of sounds or even as more or less sustained ones, so that usually I have to insist that we begin from a position of disciplining ourselves to stay within the specified parameters, rather than trying to make something that sounds like what we think music should sound like.
A problem that often arises in both of these exercises with some electronic instruments is that the players often haven’t thought much about being able to make rapid and/or controllable dynamic changes (for which a volume pedal is often a simple and effective solution), in order to be able to combine their sounds fluently with those of acoustic instruments, which is one reason I place such emphasis on dynamics.
At this point we have become comfortable and fluent with two ways in which the diverse sounds of this ensemble can be meaningfully combined and related to one another, and the next stage is to begin to combine the “vertical” and the “horizontal” in different ways so as to expand the range of possible relationships and give the ensemble a coherent basis from which to develop further and to which to be able to refer back whenever necessary. The concepts introduced over the course of the workshop are intended to build gradually into a structural vocabulary which can be interpreted in different ways by each individual. Each stage in the process becomes as it were the background for the following one. The first two kinds of texture are first combined as follows:
(3) Begin with a long quiet sound. Individually, when you think this first sound has gone on for long enough, stop or fade out, and play a short generally louder sound, followed by a silence. If you are still playing a long sound when the first short sound takes place, use that as a trigger to either suddenly stop or change the long sound. Subsequently, only start or stop or change your long sounds in immediate response to someone else’s short sound.
It usually takes a few attempts to get this exercise working properly, so that an outside observer (like myself, since I haven’t played yet) can hear and follow how the sounds are triggering each other and how thus each contribution by each individual to the overall sound becomes part of something else – each individual is not only playing but also so to speak “being played”, other players’ instruments become components of one’s own instrument, and vice versa. Another way of looking at this is that it emphasises group improvisation as a compositional activity – “com-posing” (placing together, putting in contact) sounds into a collective structure – and indeed as involving a form of orchestration. But at this stage I am still emphasising that we are working on preparatory exercises and not necessarily yet on music. A certain visual awareness between players will also begin to emerge, as people might be waiting in silence, or within a long sound, for an opportunity to begin or to change, or to stop and think about timing the next short sound, and will be looking around for a triggering event so that they can act more or less simultaneously with it, rather than with a delay, which is one possibility but one which can rapidly become predictable and prosaic.
Depending on how time is going by, different variations on (3) can be tried out, like splitting the group into two equal halves and assigning one group to short sounds and the other to long ones (and then swapping the functions of the two groups). This is a strategy I used to use regularly, although nowadays I would prefer not to delimit the “function” of different subgroups of the ensemble in such an inflexible way. Although perhaps the “condition of music” hasn’t yet been reached at this stage, I prefer to keep the situation as non-hierarchical as possible.
By now the first workshop day will be drawing gradually to a close, and at this point I suggest that we continue by playing a freely improvised piece of around 10-15 minutes’ duration where there are no “rules” to follow, but where on the other hand everything that’s been done up until this point in terms of relating sounds, creating textures, triggering starts and stops and changes, and so on, is constantly borne in mind as a background to the music played, as a sort of “history” which the music is building on. I introduce two more concepts at this point. Firstly, given the number of participants, everyone should be disciplined about spending approximately equal amounts of time playing and not playing, bearing in mind the fact that the more players that are active simultaneously, the more an “entropic” situation can ensue where anything that happens sounds more or less equivalent to anything else. In this way, not playing becomes as important a contribution as playing, since it opens up structural and textural possibilities difficult or impossible to achieve by a dozen players active simultaneously. Finding the right place to stop (for example in response to some “short sound” one hears) can also be a more striking and memorable contribution to make than any amount of attention-grabbing activity.
I point out that time often seems to go by at greatly different rates depending on whether one is playing or not, periods of not playing seeming to the individual to be much longer than they are and periods of playing much shorter. In the latter case it’s important to bear in mind that the overall sound-form of the ensemble should be a more important factor than whether any individual has developed whatever they’re doing to the extent that seems from an individualistic viewpoint to be appropriate – one has to be prepared to “let go” of such concerns at any moment, even before making the decision to begin a contribution. Secondly, in order that players begin to develop an intuitive feeling for duration, I give a signal one or two minutes before the music is supposed to end, so that players can start thinking about how this is going to happen. I emphasise that finding an end for a piece will involve everyone at some point deciding to stop playing, which may seem obvious, but with inexperienced players there’s often a tendency to think that their next sound would make the perfect ending. (This is a bit like people thinking they have the perfect last word in an online discussion!) But it should also be clear that the signal doesn’t mean “everyone stop playing now”. I also participate in these free improvisations, as does Paul (who also participates in the preceding exercises, to provide an exemplary contribution).
It can happen that the first piece we play seems to me successful - not only or even principally from a personal point of view, but also taking into account what I perceive to be the feeling “in the room” from the other participants. If this isn’t the case I suggest that we play another one, bearing the same things in mind and thinking about making it as different as possible a composition from the first one. Playing several pieces also has the advantage of demonstrating different possibilities for beginning a piece, ending it, and structuring time more generally.
The first day of a workshop generally goes according to the plan outlined above, and the 2018 workshop was no exception. Apart from acting as a point of departure for the players, the first day also serves to give Paul and myself an idea of what subsequent direction(s) the workshop might take. In advance of the workshop week we had established a fairly systematic plan for continuing from the first day, involving a discussion and demonstration of our duo music on the second day, followed by a process of splitting the group up into two, then three, then four subgroups and finally into duos, each of which would play separately and the results discussed by the others, as well as playing pieces in which one or more of the subgroups would function as a “focus”, interacting principally among themselves while other players would “accompany” them in different ways, bringing in the concept of what it might mean to explicitly support another player’s contribution over a more or less extended stretch of time. These kinds of relationship would then also enter the group’s interactional vocabulary without necessarily being specified in any kind of score for performance, since the aim of the workshop is to work as intensively as possible towards a situation where no prior agreements or prearranged structures would be necessary. I’m not against including these if they do turn out to be necessary, or in other situations where a pre-composed structure might be desirable for various reasons.
A few words might be appropriate on the subject of “soloistic” and “accompanimental” activity, since I tend to use these terms in a somewhat specialised way in a free-improvisation context. A “solo” doesn’t necessarily imply that the activity in question is in the foreground of the music, or particularly virtuosic, or anything like that: instead it’s defined in terms of the soloist’s relationship to the rest of the music, namely that he/she plays without conscious reference to the ongoing musical environment. The reason for this formulation is to outline the possibility of a music comprising layers of activity which are not perceptually related to one another, assuming that this is in itself a potentially desirable musical situation, emobodying an expansion of the vocabulary of possible relationships within an evolving improvisation. An “accompaniment” then is a type of activity which is directed towards one or more simultaneous strands of activity, such as a “solo”, by supporting it, parallelling it, interrupting it and so on. What I’m describing here is actually one possible formulation of certain aspects of my own practice which might or might not be consciously applied in performance, for example conceiving a contribution as (in this sense) “accompanying” two or more other ongoing activities simultaneously, although that contribution might then be conceived by yet others as “soloistic” and treated accordingly. The principal purpose behind splitting a larger group into subgroups, each of which then functions as a “soloist” in the sense described here, is to give the members of such a subgroup greater focus in thinking about which aspects of the ongoing sonic environment to interact with, so that (for example) a trio can be conceived as self-sufficient, its components mutually complementary and independent of its surroundings. With more experienced players and ensembles phenomena like this will tend to emerge spontaneously: by specifying them in a workshop I hope to encourage players to be open to such possibilities because of the way they expand the musical potential of a large group, particularly in terms of its structural flexibility, its capability to make rapid and radical changes in its texture and activity.
The framework of splitting the group into successively smaller subgroups was adhered to in broad terms, although other ideas were injected into the process as necessary, like for example playing a sequence of (tutti) pieces where everyone would begin together and I would give the signal to end after a very short time, to encourage different possibilities for bringing the music to an end, since at a certain point this issue appeared to be problematic. On the other hand we didn’t get as far as splitting the group down as far as duos. One reason for this was that the attendance of some participants was somewhat erratic and unpredictable, which is far from an ideal working situation!
Nevertheless, by halfway through day 4 something like a coherent programme for the performance had come into being. One of the subgroups we had explored during the week consisted of three players of acoustic instruments (Mehrnaz, Raphael and Hilde) each paired with a player who would perform live processing on their sound (Georgia, Sebastian and Marlene respectively), so this ensemble was included as the fourth of five pieces in the programme. A logical counterpart to this grouping would be everyone who didn’t take part in it: Myrtó, Timo, Rafaele, Marco and Andrea, plus Paul and myself, and this was the instrumentation of the second piece. Between these was placed a duo for me and Paul. The programme was completed by two tutti pieces: one, at the opening, involving four specified subgroups (see below), and the other, at the end, being a free improvisation (though obviously informed in various ways by the preceding four pieces):
1 tutti (4 subgroups)
3 FURT duo
4 live processing sextet
5 tutti (free)
The opening piece was therefore the most “pre-composed” of the five, in order to create a context for the rest and a foothold in the terrain of live improvisation for those with little or no experience in this area. Three of the four subgroups had been arrived at during the workshops when each played two pieces on its own, with discussion in between, so that each had a certain shared experience to bring to the concert. I had constituted each trio so as to combine acoustic and electronic instruments, as well as keeping the two cellists and the two keyboard players separate from one another for the sake of each trio being as heterogeneous in sound as possible, so that each would have to find a common ground rather than having it provided by the instrumentation. Two of the participants were absent during the work with the trios, so they were incorporated together with Paul and myself into a fourth group. The form of the piece was conceived so as to be as simple and clear as possible, so as not to restrict players’ imaginations by their having to concentrate too closely on following a score, but instead to provide a context where they would interact in ways that might not occur spontaneously. Its form was as follows:
The duration of each section was thus the responsibility of whichever group was about to begin the following one, although my suggestion of about five minutes per section didn’t survive into the concert, in which the whole piece only took seven and a half minutes to play, instead of 20! This suggests that the next workshop (and further rehearsals with the current group) could usefully spend some time and effort on increasing the group’s individual and collective sensitivity to duration, which is certainly something that becomes second nature to experienced improvisers. In the scheme, each subgroup is also silent before its “solo” entry, so that its “signal” to other players can be exclusively aural rather than involving any kind of visible cueing.
The final day of the workshop was principally concerned with moving the ensemble to the Schönbergzaal and rehearsing the programme in the necessarily different onstage configuration. I hardly need to underline the importance of incorporating a public performance into a workshop like this, not just as a point of culmination of the work done over the preceding days and a way of emphasising that free improvisation is a social phenomenon whose embrace is wider than just the performing participants, but also to incorporate the discipline of setting up in a different venue from rehearsals, becoming rapidly accustomed to these new technical and acoustic circumstances, and retaining the intimacy of working together in a studio while projecting it outwards from a stage to a concert hall.
The order of performers in the semicircle on stage (see the “prelude” section of this text) was based on various priorities: the way the ensemble would be divided into two unequal halves, the pairing of inputs and processors in the fourth piece, the separation of electronic instruments by interspersing them with the acoustic ones, and the clearest separation of the acoustic instruments themselves (two pianos at opposite ends of the semicircle, for example), resulting in the following order from left to right (viewed from the audience):
The first piece begins with Georgia’s voice/delay system, soon joined by her trio partners Myrtó (on electronic keyboard) and Raphael, with a mostly subtly supportive accompaniment until Raphael suddenly moves from intermittent noises to more assertive, “virtuosic” activity, at which point I join him with cello-derived sounds. Around 2’10" Hilde decides that it’s time for the second trio to enter (together with Sebastian and Andrea), which sets the scene for the somewhat accelerated form of this piece compared to the rehearsals: the third trio (Mehrnaz, Marlene and Marco) have definitively entered by 3’45" which clearly came as a surprise to me, Paul, Rafaele and Timo who take a while to withdraw into our tacet before reentering at 5’40" or so. In the succeeding passage, strong accents from Timo’s accordion act as triggers for discrete bursts of activity which then coagulate into a tutti whose end is itself triggered by a piano-interior sound played by me. I found the truncated duration of this piece rather disappointing, especially in view of the fact that the individual sections seemed to me to have the potential for greater extension, in terms both of duration and of their influence spreading through the ensemble through greater participation in accompanimental activity. One way of addressing this issue might have been for FURT to begin the improvisation, and for the others then to emerge (perhaps with greater confidence) from a musical situation that had already been set in motion. But creating musical contexts is something that the workshop is intended to encourage in participants, for example by playing sequences of short pieces each of which requires players to respond rapidly to a more or less arbitrary starting point in order to give it shape and character. Providing a “safe” point of departure would perhaps not encourage that kind of creativity, creating rather a dependency on the “leader(s)” of the workshop which goes against what the latter is intended to achieve.
The character of the following six-minute septet was crucially influenced by the presence of both pianos, and initially inhabits a mysterious world oscillating between pitch and noise which establishes a textural identity which is broadly preserved through the entire piece, although it does fall into more or less distinct sections, mostly initiated by a single player who becomes a temporary “solo” voice. For example, we hear a discreet but decisive entry of the accordion at around the two-minute mark, which interrupts the relatively point-like texture which has prevailed until that time and initiates a gradual increase in density and activity, until it cuts off just before 4 minutes, when the music again assembles itself from disconnected fragments, this time with cello glissandi taking the lead, finally dissipating once more into a mostly indistinct last minute.
I won’t comment here on the FURT piece except to mention that it forms part of the duo’s album FUNCTION, along with a studio composition, a live performance from the 2016 workshop, and a further performance made in the Varèsezaal after the workshop session on day 4, all of these pieces having in common a set of sound materials based on improvisations on various acoustic instruments (zithers, percussion, mbiras and other instrumental and non-instrumental objects) earlier in 2016.
The live-processing sextet (8’23") has an impressive coherence, the result of its sound sources (clarinet, violin and electric cello) often drifting in and out of each other’s musical territories, in a way which could be compared to the way that some of the electronic processing remains perceptibly dependent on its source while elsewhere departing from it into quite different realms, as at 3’40" when a delay loop suddenly transforms into a distorted pulsation, which itself then acquires imitative “echoes” from Hilde and Raphael. It’s always important to bear in mind that the processing outputs aren’t just “special effects” superimposed on their instrumental sources but constitute instrumental activity in themselves, with just as much potential to shape the course of the music as the input sounds that gave rise to them. At 5’50" a baby crying in the audience becomes part of the music too, as it’s taken up imitatively by Raphael at a point when the music seems to have entered a “holding pattern”, awaiting an injection of new energy. This fortuitous change of direction eventually devolves into sprays of cello harmonics, forming a centre around which other sounds come and go in preparation for silence.
The final improvised tutti piece (10’51") seems to me the most successful performance by the workshop ensemble, although I think this is largely the result of players’ confidence having grown through the experience of playing the preceding ones. Disjointed electronic iterations at the outset are multiplied into repetitive sounds at various tempi, pitches, timbres and degrees of regularity that spread through the ensemble to create a clear musical identity over the first minute or so, at which point Raphael begins to use this structure as a basis for soloistic activity (not dissimilarly to his similarly-placed intervention in the first piece), causing most of the rest of the ensemble to move towards a more sustained texture punctuated by diverse percussive and glancing events. Iterated sounds emerge once more around 3’30", this time leading to an increase in density and activity until once more congealing into a more static texture around 5’00". The rest of the piece continues what seems to remain a series of variations on combinations and successions of sustained and repeated sound-events, until about a minute before the end, when the ongoing texture disintegrates into fragments.
My overall impression of the four ensemble pieces is that there’s no shortage of invention in the ensemble, but something which at this stage was less developed was a certain awareness of the potential of that inventiveness, leading (most spectacularly in the first piece!) to a certain structural shortwindedness. In other words having an idea isn’t yet enough – one should also be able to understand what it is and what it might become; which once more is an issue common to all methods of musical composition. There was already some considerable progress towards addressing this issue in the following SEE performance, as will be clear from the next chapter.
tutti1Download uncompressed audio here
septetDownload uncompressed audio here
FURT: (n+1)-yDownload uncompressed audio here
sextetDownload uncompressed audio here
tutti 2Download uncompressed audio here
chapter 2: SEE performance 12 December 2018
Rafaele Andrade (cello/electronics)
Raphael Fischer-Dieskau (electric cello)
Cindy Giron (voice/computer/phone)
Han-earl Park (electric guitar)
Hilde Wollenstein (clarinet)
Marko Uzunovski (live mixing)
Rafaele, Raphael and Hilde had been workshop participants a few weeks previously, Cindy had been in the previous year’s ensemble, and the Korean-American guitarist Han-earl Park was in The Hague to make a Sonology colloquium presentation on my invitation. Han had been a student of the Sonology one-year course in the 1990s, and he and I had worked together as a duo several times subsequently, including on the CD numbers (released in 2013 by Creative Sources). We also played a duo during the same Sonology concert as the ensemble, a recording of which is included here.
The first quasi-introductory section of the piece (0’00" to 1’46") concentrates on clearly pitched microtonal activity, principally on cello and sampled piano sounds, providing an environment through which the clarinet threads a slow melody, and below which the electric guitar acts as an unstable “bass line” (Han remarked to me afterwards that he had played almost exclusively on his guitar’s low E string throughout this piece). This is a good example, I think, of the group’s increasing confidence, compared with the workshop performance, in perceiving and exploiting the potential of a particular point of departure.
A brief transition leads to another slightly more active section, beginning around 2’12", in which similar elements are recombined, this time with higher pitched electronic sounds, and more variation, although the clarinet seems to continue almost untouched by these changes until 3’35: or so where both the register and degree of activity of the music shift decisively upwards. This resolves into a complex bundle of parallel legato activity from all the sustaining instruments which 4’44" is disrupted by bursts of machine-like electronic sounds, leading to a fragmentation of the texture into several diverse speeds in widely separated registers, the guitar generally highly active while the clarinet material becomes much slower and more intermittent.
The entry of some familiar-seeming synthetic sounds (from Cindy) at 7’37" have the effect of bringing the texture back together in a different way, so that now long sustained sounds form the basis of another process of differentiation and eventually (after 9’10") fragmentation. At 9’30" a brief “solo” on scratched guitar strings acquires an accompaniment, becomes a speeded-up walking bass and inspires more soloistic activity from the clarinet, as well as Cindy’s vocal mutterings and eventually her sampled piano sounds which create a high-pitched irregular texture of trills and other “ornamentations” (10’42"), propelling the music towards what seems to be a point of rest suspended between high tremoli and sparse cello pizzicati. At 12’35" the most static of the high layers frays out into a swooping and pulsating ribbon of sound, which seems to bring the piece to an close at 12’48".
However, this is not quite the end. The awareness on everyone’s part that we have 15 minutes available for the performance gives rise to what I often think of as the piece’s “afterlife”, a coda which seems somehow to express a sense of having passed though some kind of threshold beyond which an entirely new and perhaps unprecedented music might be discovered. Certainly the two “piano” chords with which this coda begins seem to have nothing to do with anything that preceded them. From here to the “real” end, piano sounds with a relatively definite harmonic quality acquire a “wake” of indistinct string harmonics and other fragments, bring the piece to a querulous and inconclusive close, in a way that I think would be very unlikely to arise from the mind of a single composer, but is the kind of structure which to my mind validates the collaborative/improvisational approach while giving the lie to the frequently expressed idea that improvisation (in distinction to more reflective modes of composition) necessarily involves the regurgitation of already-familiar materials.
The question of the possible role played in free improvisation by what might be called “musical heritage” might be usefully brought into a discussion of this piece. While a central feature of the music of SEE is the way its combination of acoustic and electronic instruments encourages both “sides” to explore the other’s territory, so that ideally a new kind of “orchestration” can result, the present piece is strongly characterised by Hilde’s unbreakable attachment to sounds and sound-sequences on the clarinet which wouldn’t be out of place in a much more traditional musical setting than this one. But, I think, only the most dogmatic adherent of “non-idiomatic” music would hear this as a problem. The “lyrical” character of the clarinet isn’t focused on because the alternatives haven’t been considered or mastered, it seems to me, but because they have. The way the clarinet is used here sounds as musical material rather than as reference to something else. In other situations this might not be the case (see chapter 6).
Note that I’m not generally concerned to describe sonic contributions in terms of intention; indeed, I’ve tried as far as possible to describe the music this time in terms of interactions between sounds, rather than in terms of interactions between people. One reason for this is that, even when talking about oneself, it can be very difficult or even impossible to speak coherently about intentions and how they relate to results, and this difficulty only increases with the musical sophistication of the performers. In a real sense, part of the cognition of an improvising performer is situated not just in their own instrument but also in the other instruments, or, perhaps more precisely, not just in their own sound but in all the other sounds, in the totality of sounds at each moment and in the evolution between moments. I think it’s clear that this performance is on quite a different level from that in the workshop concert.
SEE performance 12 December 2018Download uncompressed audio here
duo Han-earl Park & Richard BarrettDownload uncompressed audio here
interlude 1: Search and Reflect
Possibly the most important influence on the thinking behind my research project is a book entitled Search and Reflect: a music workshop handbook by the English percussionist John Stevens (1940-94), first published in 1985, after which it became a rare and sought-after item before being posthumously republished in 2007. Both the book and Stevens himself were a central source of inspiration for many improvising musicians in the UK and elsewhere, and not just improvising musicians either, and that goes for myself also; somehow I never met him or saw him play live, but several of the recordings of his Spontaneous Music Ensemble (especially Quintessence, recorded in 1973/4, originally released in 1986 and reissued on CD in 1997) have been very important to me over a long period.
Search and Reflect consists principally of a compilation of pieces (mostly taking the form of brief verbal directions) Stevens had used in workshops since the early 1970s, that is to say not so very long after free improvisation began. Although I’d formed most of my ideas about improvisational practice before having come across this book, I must have worked together with very many people who experienced its contents through Stevens himself. Many of its ideas have a familiarity about them which might come from my having absorbed them at second hand, so to speak, or from their having some kind of axiomatic quality which anyone taking the implications of free music seriously enough will find their way to. For example, Stevens in his preface characterises the “fundamental elements of music” as sound and silence, which combine to form rhythm, while sounds are defined initially in terms of duration, from the shortest possible (which Stevens calls a “click”) to the longest (a “sustain”). The first section of the book then concentrates on rhythm, understood in the broadest sense, and different forms of coordination. There are obvious similarities here to my own method (described in my previous text) of beginning from “points” and “planes”, and then exploring ways to make connections between sounds by coordinating these with one another in different ways.
At the same time, an obvious difference is that Stevens concentrates on regular pulsations in many of the exercises described, whereas my approach is more to let those things emerge if they will, and for this to give rise to a discussion about how appropriate they are in different situations, opening up wider questions about how “non-idiomatic” improvisation might embrace any and all idiomatic kinds, but as special cases that might require a special degree of sensitivity on the parts both of those introducing them and those responding to such introduction. Perhaps, though, the difference in emphasis comes down to John Stevens having been a drummer and working with primarily “acoustic” instrumentalists and vocalists, whereas my approach is not only conditioned by my being a “digital instrumentalist” but also by the ensembles I usually work with necessitating the exploration of common ground between acoustic and electronic performers, where some of the people using electronics might be processing sounds rather than generating their own, while others might have setups like modular synthesizers which aren’t so readily capable of producing pulsations except in a machine-like way.
Similar considerations apply to Stevens’s following sections, which explore microtones, “soundcolours” and rhythmical subdivisions in ways that assume that the instruments (including voices) taking part will be primarily oriented towards playing specific pitches at specific points within a rhythmical grid. Of course, the advent of electronic music resources in music more generally has brought about fundamental changes in the way it’s possible to conceive and realise music, and to hear it as well, so that non-electronic music is deeply influenced as well (an issue I discuss at greater length in Music of Possibility), but it’s worth remarking that this is true of improvised music as well, since it’s been possible for those resources to be made more portable and flexible than was the case for the first decades of electronic music’s existence. There are nowadays very few improvising musicians on any instrument whose work hasn’t been touched in some way by this situation, whether like myself they moved over to using the new instrumentarium exclusively, or whether on the other hand their way of working, of thinking in music, has evolved in response to the possibilities demonstrated by it. What I’m saying here is that the consciousness-expanding potential for players of “traditional” instruments gaining experience with free improvisation is taken a stage further, a level deeper, when this involves the participation of electronic instruments.
The second half of Stevens’s book concentrates on improvisation per se. Here are two prefatory comments that I think are particularly valuable:
… a priority is given to the development of ‘aural sight’ – the awareness of and ability to listen to and identify the sounds within the group environment… Communicative interaction is only possible if those taking part can hear each other clearly. (p. 60)
Each individual should try to maintain a balance between being a receptive ear and having creative freedom. Some pieces require the performers to direct their attention away from their own playing – for example, identifying the different sounds within the group, listening out for one specific sound, or searching for the silences in the music. (p. 60)
The pieces following this introduction concentrate on the “click” and “sustain” sounds mentioned in the introduction, in a way that’s more formalised than my own work with “points and planes”, where until now I’ve tended to “direct” the workshop in a more or less improvisational way once the initial ideas have been absorbed, responding to the particular people and circumstances. An extensive section is built around the concepts “search” and “reflect” from which Stevens’s book takes its title:
“Search” means listening for and identifying all the musical elements in the environment. “Reflect” means attempting to reproduce as nearly as possible the form and sound quality of the identified figures (“sound-shapes”). (p. 69)
Many of the pieces use higher-order concepts such as motifs, melodies, rhythmical patterns and so on, which again situate the ideas behind the book in a particular time and culture, the “pre-digital” if you like, but also in a particular kind of attitude towards improvisation which depends ultimately on those “sound-shapes” and interactions between them, whereas much of the innovative work in improvisation in the 21st century has followed earlier examples like the ensemble AMM (still performing now after more than half a century) in concentrating on “laminar” structures which depend on relationships between layers rather than between events, or has developed means of expression and articulation which are so to speak native to the digital domain (FURT might be considered an example of this).
Search and Reflect is, in conclusion, a fascinating and inspiring source of ideas for anyone following in the footsteps of John Stevens in “teaching free improvisation”, or, more precisely, creating an environment within an educational context where musicians can learn improvisation for themselves and as a collective. I believe, though, that technological (and therefore aesthetic) innovations since it was written encourage us to take a more inclusive view of musical possibilities – just as, in the sciences, a new theory succeeds by being deeper and more generalisable than its predecessors, here also the expansion of our technical resources brings with it a more fundamental reassessment of how music in general, and improvised music in particular, might be reconceived, however paradoxical that might seem in view of improvisation having been for obvious reasons the first music that was ever made.
chapter 3: SEE performance 6 February 2019
Rafaele Andrade (cello/electronics)
Andrea León Garcia (prepared piano)
Mehrnaz Khorrami (violin)
Sohrab Motabar (computer)
Myrtó Nizami (piano/keyboard)
Volkan Turgut (bass guitar/euphonium)
Marko Uzunovski (live mixing)
This time, four of the workshop participants played alongside two longer-term SEE members. Volkan had appeared already in the performance of 17 October 2018, while Sohrab, now in the second year of the Sonology Masters, had been taking part regularly since his time as a Bachelor student.
Regarding the integration of pedagogical and creative work embodied in my work with SEE, I would hope that the value provided by my own participation in performances to the students consists not only in the fact that I take part but also in how I contribute to the music. While I’m not concerned that my contribution should be in any way didactic, I’ve become aware, especially when listening to the recordings, that my actions and reactions during a performance seem often to be oriented towards making it clear that I’m listening to everyone in the ensemble, by picking up perceptibly on what one or more of the others is doing, and perhaps then developing it into something that can give rise to a more extended network of relationships between sound-forms and/or their originators, or shaping my own contribution so as to mediate between two or more others and providing an audible link between them, for example by relating to one instrument in terms of timbre and another in terms of articulation.
Although such occasions have to arise naturally out of the music, rather than being contrived by myself (which would contradict their improvisational nature!), a particularly transparent example of the latter occurs in this piece. The presence of two pianos in this and the subsequent performance on 27 March lends a particular sonic identity to the music, and I found myself several times creating links between the pianos and the rest of the ensemble. At 3’00" I employed sounds derived from recordings of playing directly on piano strings as a counterpoint to the sound of playing on actual piano strings (3’00"), but adding glissandi a little later in order to form a simultaneous connection to glissandi being played by the violin. A different kind of connection between the same instruments was made a little later (4’10") by continuing the same type of sounds against real piano-interior sounds but this time parallelling a sequence of short burst-like phrases in the violin. When the euphonium enters (4’50"), those same piano-interior sounds are now given a more “melodic” shape to accompany this new entry. The foregoing description makes my musical actions and reactions sound like a calculated strategy to act as a kind of “connective tissue” in the musical structure as it develops, but it was much less conscious than this, being rather a reflection of one aspect of a more general approach to group improvisation which through practice has become my “second nature”. Of course it isn’t often possible to imagine such a clear-cut description of the apparent motivating factors behind a particular contribution.
On the scale of the composition as a whole, this piece seems to evolve in a relatively “classical” way, rising to a clearly identifiable climax and thereafter subsiding towards its eventual transition to silence.
A dark and tangled texture rapidly establishes itself at the start, occupying a wide frequency range between the distorted bass guitar and high piano trills, also embracing less distinct sound-layers; towards 2’00" the music’s constituent layers become more transparent and less dense in themselves, after which piano-interior sounds gradually come to the fore until they dominate soon after 3’00" (see above). At 3’37" the texture suddenly empties out and slows down with the exit of the bass guitar, creating space for the piano/violin bursts mentioned above, which are eventually left alone.
The entry of the euphonium at 4’50" marks a turning point in the piece (as it will, more decisively and with more effective timing, in the 27 March piece discussed in chapter 5). Rather than pulling the other sounds into its tonal orbit, the euphonium has rather the effect of generating a texture of comparable density to the beginning of the piece, but now with much less focus on pitches than before, and with the overall balance more heavily weighted towards electronic than acoustic sounds. The voice of the euphonium is eventually submerged by this deluge of noise-layers, which continues until some isolated piano pitches from 7’45" trigger its gradual dissolution.
Around 8’52" a texture of electronic glissandi establishes itself, joined around 9’45" by an imitation on the violin, into which shards of electronic noise obtrude, leading to another opaque noise texture. This is stopped dead by a low piano sound at 11’39" as if the music was waiting for a suitable cut-off signal. The music then takes on a disjointed and fragmentary character in which the bass guitar is the only consistent thread, joined eventually by a rhythmic pulsation on violin pizzicati and electronic “blips” both stopping suddenly at 13’23" so that the preceding fragmentary character reasserts itself.
This continues until the (distorted) bass guitar is heard alone at 15’38", joined by rapid violin-like electronic activity a few seconds later, which provides the starting point for the piece’s “climactic” section, which retains a high intensity until around 17’00" when its gradual disintegration begins. This is more or less completed by 17’30", from which point a “pointillistic” structure of plucked sounds and noises assembles itself. From here any sound might be the last one, and the eventual end is signalled by a repeated descending major third motif in the piano, which no doubt acquired its signalling function by reason of its clear intervallic character suddenly attracting the attention of the entire group.
SEE performance 6 February 2019Download uncompressed audio here
chapter 4: SEE performance 27 March 2019
Wilf Amis (electronics)
Andrea León García (prepared piano)
Sohrab Motabar (electronics)
Müsfik Can Müftüoğlu (electric guitar/electronics)
Myrtó Nizami (piano/keyboard)
Volkan Turgut (bass guitar/euphonium)
Michele Abolaffio (live mixing)
All of the participants this time had taken part in previous performances apart from Müsfik, a student on the Sonology one-year course.
The first section of the piece once more organises itself around the two pianos, beginning from a rather clear separation between synthetic-sounding electronic materials and piano activity. The form of the piece is basically laminar, in that most of its gradually evolving moments consist of interacting layers whose perspectives often shift without the ongoing development of the music being interrupted. More or less regular repeating sounds become an occasional tendency, reappearing in different speeds and guises many times. In comparison with the preceding performances, especially 12 December 2018, there is practically no material that could be described as melodic or even linear until the first entry of the euphonium at 8’24" which leads in the direction of more active textures whose constituent layers consist more of gestures than planes. However, by 9’30" or so the music has become more static than ever, centred on a dense drone which acquires more layers as it sprouts various sound-objects that seem to scratch away at its surface. At 11’35" this texture disintegrates and leaves space for the entry of a slow electronic pulsation (continuing the “theme” of repeated sounds) to which the euphonium at 12’00" adds a somewhat sombre melody, eventually augmented by irregular sampled loops of itself. I found this a particularly affecting and memorable moment, which seems simultaneously to relate to inherited sound-forms and to sound strikingly original. At 13’20" medium-high register inside-piano sounds are briefly left alone and form a centre around which a new chaotic textural configuration briefly establishes itself before being cut off by piano (keyboard) arabesques at 14’20". These are eventually sampled and looped, with the live piano emulating the repeating loop, leading to a rapid final fadeout.
I hear a clear progression from the 2018 workshop to this final performance in the 2018-19 academic year. Despite one participant being new to the ensemble, the interactivity of the music has matured and found a flexible “collective personality” which encompasses the subtle textural unfoldings of the first half of this piece, a responsiveness to the possibility of musical turning points as in the sequence of events beginning at 11’35", and a sense of quasi-thematic consistency that runs from beginning to end and gives the piece an individual profile as a composition.
SEE performance 27 March 2019Download uncompressed audio here
chapter 5: SEE performance 10 October 2019
This performance took place as part of Is This Thing On? – public dimensions of artistic research, a conference organised by Gabriel Paiuk under the auspices of ACPA (the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts at Leiden University), where I am also active as a doctoral supervisor, the Royal Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Art. The following text is based on my spoken introduction to the performance, which I entitled “Improvisation as Engagement”. The performers were:
Irene Ruipérez (flute)
Riccardo Marogna (saxophone/electronics)
Myrtó Nizami (piano/ keyboard)
Lauge Dideriksen & Mehrnaz Khorrami (violins)
Sohrab Motabar & Richard Barrett (electronics)
Marko Uzunovski (live mixing)
Riccardo Marogna had graduated from the Sonology Masters programme the previous year; both he and Irene Ruipérez, who is currently on the Sonology teaching staff, have been regular SEE participants over a longer period. It’s worth remarking on the seven different nationalities (Spanish, Italian, Greek, Danish, Iranian, British and North Macedonian) here present in an eight-piece ensemble, which is fairly typical and at the same time indicative of how the practice of free improvisation can become a space in which creative musicians from many different backgrounds and cultures can come together to produce a musical result which embodies that diversity without making something superficially eclectic out of it. I would like to imagine that the question of the public dimension of the artistic research of my co-workers and myself will be something implicit in our music. There is as always a risk that it won’t be; but this is the kind of risk that’s always present in freely improvised music.
Returning to Derek Bailey’s previously quoted assertion:
Improvisation has no need of argument and justification. It exists because it meets the creative appetite that is a natural part of being a performing musician and because it invites complete involvement, to a degree otherwise unobtainable, in the act of music-making. (Bailey (1992), p. 142)
To this I would add that this “complete involvement” is, or can be, one which extends to those listening to improvisation in music. And how much more true are these things, I think, when the music in question is improvised collectively in all its aspects from the smallest details to its overall structure and expressive identity. It’s a way of making music which can embrace, and indeed combine, on the one hand a concept of music as fiercely individual, as bearing witness to personal and cultural history, and on the other hand a concept involving a dissolution of the creative musician’s ego into a collective where it’s no longer possible to hear who is making which sound, even for the performers. Free improvisation is a method of composition which can involve a fundamental questioning of such ideas as authorship, history, the nature of musical structure, the nature of teaching and learning, the role of technology and instrumental technique, the position of music within society, as well as the converse, the expression of a sense of community within music, and many others, each of which would deserve an extended discussion. As such I think it’s a form of engagement with issues and questions that go far beyond what happens during a musical performance, without ever being a source of easy answers to those questions.
In order to concentrate on the idea of “improvisation as engagement” I want to return to the question of the individual as against the collective, which I mentioned earlier. Much of the stated opinions about free improvisation by theoreticians of the movement, starting with figures like Franco Evangelisti and Cornelius Cardew in its early days, tended to stress the collective aspect: the loss of ego in a collective sound, the non-hierarchical relationships of free improvisation as opposed to the supposed hierarchy between composer and performers in more traditional methods of composition. Alvin Curran of Musica Elettronica Viva wrote of the “suspension of the individual’s self”, Eddie Prévost of AMM stated that “a preoccupation with… one’s own ego at the expense of the ensemble is destructive” and elsewhere of the importance of resisting “individual attempts to impose their will on events.” There are many other such examples. In other words, the previous histories of the participants are less important than what Evan Parker called “a sort of group introspection” where “[t]he rationale for doing anything is determined by a kind of consensus that the group itself generates”. On the other hand, George Lewis (1996) writes of the rejection of this position by African-American musicians who found their way to free improvisation through other routes:
[T]he African-American improviser, coming from a legacy of slavery and oppression, cannot countenance the erasure of history. The destruction of family and lineage, the rewriting of history and memory in the image of whiteness, is one of the facts with which all people of color must live. It is unsurprising, therefore, that from an ex-slave’s point of view an insistence on being free from memory might be regarded with some suspicion-as either a form of denial or of disinformation. (p. 109)
This is in the context of a discussion of what Lewis calls the “Afrological” (as opposed to “Eurological”) approach to improvisation as often being centred on an individual who “tells a story”. Of course, he is a more subtle thinker than to imagine that these categories are mutually exclusive and he goes on to say that his
construction of “Afrological” and “Eurological” systems of improvisative musicality refers to social and cultural location and is theorized here as historically emergent rather than ethnically essential, thereby accounting for the reality of transcultural and transracial communication among improvisers. (p. 93)
What I would like to point out here, though, is that the individual storytelling through sound on the one hand, and the submergence of the individual into a sonic collective on the other, the personal and cultural history of the musician on the one hand and the structural evolution of a particular freely improvised composition on the other, are phenomena which can coexist in the same composition, even at the same time, and this leads not only to a unique range of structural and expressive possibilities but also to implications as to how such a dynamic balance between the one and the many might be “scaled up” into other forms of social interaction. So there is a sense in which improvised music can embody a microcosm of society of equals, evolving not from external rules and regulations or from an internal hierarchy but from its own continuously changing interrelationships, which, once more, will include the “listening participants”. At the very least it can serve as a model for how to approach other forms of music-making in a more egalitarian and fruitful way. Again I think this is a possible answer to the question of the public dimension of artistic research.
This in itself is of course not going to address the climate change crisis or the rise of far-right demagoguery in many parts of the world; we all have responsibilities in those areas, but as artists one thing we can do is imagine through our work a world that’s worth struggling for, and to express the possibility of freedom through the way we use our imaginations and the way we encourage (in this case) listeners to use theirs.
As it often has done, the ensemble begins this performance with a more or less random assemblage of textural elements out of which a more sharply-etched musical character emerges more or less rapidly. In comparison with the 27 March performance, this group is more heavily weighted towards acoustic instruments, although Riccardo’s live processing of his own saxophone forms a link between these and the two digital instruments. In this performance there is no tendency for the music to organise itself around a drone or even around a recognisably consistent musical model like a rhythmical repetition or a melody. The resulting music is therefore more concerned with changes of shape than with the shapes that are changing. At any moment there will be several active streams of events, some of which are just beginning, others maturing and still others withdrawing or disintegrating, and whose interrelationships are sometimes imitative or soloistic/accompanimental, at other times complementary. I think of this piece as an example of the way that the presence of distinctive and fluent electronic “voices” in an ensemble encourages kinds of action, reaction and combination among the acoustic instruments that would probably be much less likely to arise in an acoustic-only context. I would draw the listener’s attention in this recording to the spontaneity and inventiveness with which all the performers make their many and varied contributions. The constantly shifting balance between musical materials in this piece make it impossible to describe it in terms of sections and/or turning points, except the way that around 15’40" a pizzicato violin and a harmonica lead the music out of an extended saxophone-led paroxysm to a final four-minute passage distinguished sharply from the foregoing music by its sparseness and timbral consistency. I had stopped playing and was content to listen and try to understand this strange and etiolated music.
SEE performance 10 October 2019Download uncompressed audio here
chapter 6: the 2019 workshop
The participants in this workshop were:
Wilf Amis (electronics) – first year Master in Sonology
Milu Chen (bass guitar) – first year Bachelor in Art Science
Suhmi Chung (piano) – one-year Sonology Course
Dariush Derakhshani (electronics) – one-year Sonology Course
Kristupas Gikas (tenor saxophone/flute) – one-year Sonology Course
Ranjith Hegde (electric violin/electronics) – one-year Sonology Course
Michael Kraus (modular synthesizer) – second year Master in Sonology
Nina Paesmans (amplified objects) – Art Science
Christian Schwarz (electric guitar) – Art Science
Kristján Steinn Kristjánsson (electric guitar) – third year Bachelor in Art Science
Farzaneh Nouri (electronics) – first year Bachelor in Sonology
Myra-Ida van der Veen (keyboard/computer) – first year Bachelor in Art Science
Ary Werthein (keyboard) – third year Bachelor in Art Science
The makeup of this group was quite different from other years, in that there were no students from the Composition department, and seven Art Science students rather than two in 2018. None of these latter students seemed to have become accustomed to thinking about making music in any stylistic contexts but the most familiar ones, and several had very little prior experience of making music at all, leading me to wonder why they had signed up for a workshop on improvisation connected with the Institute of Sonology. In addition, two hadn’t brought anything with them on the first day that could produce sound, one of whom had no clear idea of how to do so. This made for a somewhat slow start, and subsequently to some challenging situations.
The first day proceeded according to the scheme described in chapter 1, and continued with free improvisations. I noticed as the day went on that, while the improvisations tended mostly to fall into the same amorphous and uncharacterised kind of music characterised by extended drones, with occasional irruptions of familiar (rhythmic/harmonic) materials which had little perceptual relation to their context, my signals to indicate that the music should end in the next two minutes tended to bring a concentration to the music that hadn’t previously been there. This seemed to be an indication that we should concentrate for a while on just “endings”. I asked everyone to play each sound as if it were the last sound that would occur in the piece. When we then returned from this exercise to play what turned out to be the final piece of the day, its ending was beautiful and unexpected and original, which as I mentioned in chapter 1 is always a good point at which to close a day’s session.
The second day began with a free improvisation lasting an hour, with three objectives: firstly to give subgroups an opportunity to form spontaneously and develop their music, secondly to push all the familiar materials to the point of exhaustion so that people would be left with no choice but to invent something spontaneously, and thirdly, remembering the previous year’s workshop concert, possibly to counteract any tendency to move on too rapidly from one undeveloped idea to another and thus to make the music short-breathed and perfunctory. The idea was perhaps too optimistic in all three areas, so the focus shifted in the afternoon towards exploring solo/accompaniment structures in order further develop group interactions. After this I felt it necessary to return for a while to exercise 3 (see chapter 1) since it still seemed that much of what most of the participants were playing was motivated and sustained much more by their own individual ideas and preferences than by the actual musical situation they were in. The exercise seemed necessary as a way of refocusing everyone from a more solipsistic way of listening to a more collective one, and was both more extended and more successful than the previous day’s work on it. The second day ended with a free improvisation to create the opportunity to integrate all the ideas which had been played and discussed so far, in which it was partially successful except that drone-like structures still dominated.
On the third day we divided the group into two more or less equal subgroups. Each played a free piece followed by a discussion, and then this scheme was repeated so that the members of each group would have had the opportunity both to accustom themselves to this new configuration and to think about its possibilities and characteristics before playing for a second time. As it turned out, one group created a fruitful musical space with an interesting conclusion in its first piece but was indecisive and less focused in its second, while the other group took some time to arrive at any kind of musical definition in its first piece but then built its second from a unison pitch which continued throughout. After this the groups were asked to play again but this time concentrating on what happens at the beginning of a piece and what kind of influence this exercises over what follows.
This session led to a difficult discussion, which centred on the meaning of “free” in “free improvisation”, given that some participants didn’t feel themselves to be sufficiently free but rather to be constrained by stylistic assumptions they asserted that I was making. This kind of question of course goes to the heart of what this method of making music consists of. I do use the term “free improvisation” somewhat loosely, not to mean “everyone does whatever they feel like doing at any moment” but rather with the assumption that any kind of freedom comes with responsibility, and the more free we are the more responsibility we have to “look out for one another”, not just in a musical context but also in all kinds of social and political situations. The central purpose of the three opening exercises is to encourage the idea that everyone is responsible for upholding everyone else’s freedom, as a condition of being able to exercise one’s own. “Free improvisation” as mentioned in the “prelude” to this text is, as far as I’m concerned, a term that denotes a way of making music where any and all structural levels from individual sounds to the shape of entire pieces may be the result of spontaneous actions and reactions. As such it involves a freedom for each participant to act and react which is clearly greater in extent than in other methods of musical creation. But, just like a musical instrument, it’s something which requires practice and fluency if it isn’t to sound arbitrary and inexpressive. In particular, received musical ideas and objects should, I believe, be deployed - if at all - with some thought as to what effect they might have on the unfolding of the music and on the other participants. One of the ways in which one might assess one’s own contribution is in terms of generosity – in terms of the extent to which it invites other participants to imagine their own music in response to it. This isn’t a stylistic commandment, but it certainly has stylistic implications. The most vital and interesting contributions to the music of a group like this don’t always come from those participants who are most obviously accomplished instrumentalists, since an art of listening (both while playing and when not playing) also needs to be developed and nurtured, a process which indeed continues throughout one’s life.
I was also told that some of my suggestions contradicted others, and replied that what I was actually trying to do was try out different – and indeed possibly mutually contradictory – ideas. It seems to me that if the term “logic” can be applied at all to music, “musical logic” is something that doesn’t need to proceed by dialectic means. Contradictions may simply coexist just as readily as they may lead to a resolution. Music may embrace language-like features but it may just as easily disregard them.
In the subsequent lunch break, the discussion continued without me, and the music played afterwards was noticeably both “freer” and more coherent. The following day we began by reseating (and thus rewiring) the ensemble to match the stage setup that Paul and I had worked out for the concert, so as to be able to break the whole group down into two more or less equal halves (with more musical balance than the division used in the preceding days, which had been more or less arbitrary and based only on who happened to be situated on or nearer one side of the room or the other).
We began by having each half (now referred to as group A and group B) play a piece separately, to accustom themselves to the new setup, and then repeated this, giving an opportunity to make more musical use of that familiarity. The second pieces were a considerable improvement on the first ones. The next step was to divide groups A and B again in half, in this way:
A1: Suhmi, Dariush, Kristupas
A2: Michael, Kristján, Farzaneh, Milu
B1: Myra, Nina, Ranjith
B2: Ary, Wilf, Christian
Each of these trios (plus one quartet) was chosen so as to contain at least one digital instrument and at least one acoustic/electric instrument. Rather than have each trio play a separate piece, we proposed a longer one in which trio A1 would play alone for two minutes or so, then “crossfade” with the second, after which quartet A2 would play alone, and so on around the room with B2 leading back to A1. The first such composition circled the room three times; after a hesitant beginning and a slightly more active second circle, the third began to come more satisfactorily to life. The second piece then went around twice, giving everyone except the ongoing solo group and the next solo group to play the possibility in the second round to “accompany” the solo group. After the second round was completed the entire group would find a collective ending. We decided this would be a suitable structure with which to begin the concert, this time notated as follows:
This scheme is clearly related to the piece which opened the 2018 concert, but this time with a less extensive “accompaniment” component, which seemed appropriate so as not to fall into arbitrary and unclear textures, which on the basis of the rehearsal period seemed more of a risk this time. The clarity of this simple opening structure was intended act as a formative influence on the music that was to follow.
Since the 2018 concert had been so brief, I approached my colleague Justin Bennett, who was simultaneously directing a workshop on field recording, and asked if his group would like to present something in the concert as well. He agreed to contribute a collective piece of 10-15 minutes’ duration, which in the event also provided an interesting contrast with the improvising ensemble. (I haven’t included that item in the documentation of course.) Adding durations for the various pieces, we arrived at the following programme:
tutti (trios/quartet) 20min
group A 10min
FURT duo 10-15min
Justin’s group 10-15min
group B 10min
tutti (free) 20min
The first observation to make is that paying more attention to durations did have a beneficial effect this time, with the first piece lasting sixteen and a half minutes, and also developing many of its materials in an interesting and consistent way, although, here and elsewhere in the concert, the various instances of “pre-cooked” musical materials that turn up tend to be more or less ignored and left to themselves, so that they don’t contribute much to the overall unfolding of the musical structure.
The first piece begins with prepared piano samples, live piano and mostly staccato saxophone, creating a coherent and evolving texture which is interrupted at 1’15" by aggressive piano glissandi. These have the effect of ushering in the second group, whose music is somewhat less well-defined and stylistically unsure of itself. Group B1 enters subtly around 3’00", with the electric violin only gradually detaching itself from amplified scraping sounds. Group B2 enters at 4’59" with jazz-derived electric piano chords and an analogue sequencer loop which seem to have little to do either with one another or with the preceding music. At this point the music loses focus and energy, although the second entry after 6’50" of group A1 (rather similar to the first) together with accompanimental material gives a welcome depth and complexity to the sound-image, although it would have been clearer if the players of electronic and electric instruments hadn’t been so attached to adding reverb to everything they play. The second half of the piece is, as intended, considerably denser than the first, but at the same time more concentrated, and despite the density there’s a sense of every component being heard as part of a multilayered whole. The descending glissandi on electric violin that begin at 11’00" are a highlight, transforming into bowed tremoli in response to the shaken percussive sounds that enter soon afterwards, another response to which is a texture like crackling vinyl. By 13’00" the tutti is assembling itself into something with an almost orchestral grandeur, after which it begins gradually to disintegrate from 14’18", first into a nervous electronic polyphony, then at 15’10" into a relatively empty musical space into which various more or less short-lived musical figures are floated.
Group A’s piece begins intriguingly with sounds like irregular electronic heartbeats, a tonal sequencer texture and some distant jazz-inflected saxophone. The arrival of a heavily reverberated electric guitar soon afterwards seems to lock the music into a comfortably “ambient” mode of expression, where it remains for much of its brief duration, and which no subsequent contribution seems to have any intention of disturbing or complementing. Without wishing to be prescriptive, my impression was that moments like this are far more expressively meaningful when they’re arrived at as the result of a musical evolution rather than being settled into from the outset. While I wouldn’t claim for a moment that the mode of expression exemplified by this piece is in some way invalid, I was struck when listening to it that one of the qualities I most value in experiencing improvised music (and not only this) as a listener is that of openness and a sense of imaginative possibility (hence the title of my book!), which are not at all apparent here. I was reminded of a room full of people all gazing contentedly into the screens of their mobile devices. This is perhaps an image to bear in mind when trying to activate that openness in future workshops.
The FURT duo, as in 2018, was based on sound materials and structural ideas we had been working on in connection with the upcoming release of a recording. In this case the materials were principally synthetic in origin, and (unlike in 2018) they hadn’t been explored in preceding concerts. The performance at the workshop concert didn’t always get properly to grips with the material, although happily our next concert (in Padova on 12 December) explored it with much more successful results, so that the album Accident & Emergency, released in January 2020 on FURT’s Bandcamp label, consists only of the unedited live performance. The difference between what Paul and I would regard as the inspired chaos in Padova and the uninspired chaos in Den Haag might be difficult for some listeners to discern! – but that is a discussion for another place.
Group B’s piece struck me at the time of the concert as incoherent and problematic, although, when mixing the recording and listening to it while preparing the present text, my opinion changed somewhat. The combination of instruments, ranging through a wide spectrum between Ary’s generally jazz-tinted electric piano at one extreme and Nina’s amplified scrapings on the other, was bound to create a challenge to the players to make sense of playing in the same place at the same time, and in retrospect they made more of a success of it than I had thought at the time. Central to this was Ranjith’s agility in negotiating transitions between pitch and noise, and also between rhythmical regularity and irregularity, so that for example Myra’s drum-machine intrusion from around 5’16” doesn’t throw the ensemble off balance as much as it might, and at 5’55” they find a memorable way of escaping from the structural inertia that such material inevitably brings with it. From the resulting hiatus until the end, though, the music heads rather too obviously towards its conclusion, even between 7’45” and 8’00” attempting to find a “tonal” kind of closure and not quite succeeding in doing so.
The final improvisation, almost twenty minutes in duration, begins somewhat amorphously although the resulting texture is not unattractive; various different elements rise to its surface over the first three minutes but none forms a point of musical focus until a rapid rhythmical pulsation switches from irregularity to regularity and forms a centre around which other mostly much slower layers of sound coalesce. This lasts until around 4’30” when a space opens up, framed by low frequencies and intermittent noise and inhabited most frequently by acoustic and electric piano and with other less frequent visitors. Again the texture has depth and sensitivity and is particularly remarkable for the way it shifts to accommodate one principal voice after another. The way in which this piece as a whole finds room for each performer at some point, albiet sometimes fleetingly, can be regarded as its most successful aspect. After all it’s often difficult enough for even an experienced ensemble of this size to create space for every disparate participant. On the other hand nothing with a consistent character evolves until around 11’00” when unpitched scraping and bubbling sounds come to the fore for a longer time. There is often a sense that the music is pulling in contradictory directions, equivocating between, on the one hand, stable pitches with tonal harmonic implications, and, on the other, a collective sound-orchestration attempting to create an idiom of its own. At 15’40” a duo for saxophone and accordion with variously confrontational “accompaniments” almost but not quite finds an unstable equilibrium exactly halfway between these extremes. Instead of holding this poise, though, at 16’26” it’s swept aside by a dense tidal wave of sound which then disintegrates into another combination of ambient tonality and noise-trails such as have taken up a large part of this piece.
This concert, still more than the workshop that preceded it, caused me to think long and (I hope) deeply about the issue of familiar or seemingly referential material in free improvisation, and in particular why the performance on 12 December 2018 (qv) seems to me a successful example of how such things might be integrated (or not) into an improvised piece, while much of what happened in the workshop concert under discussion seemed not to be. One possible answer is that it’s a matter of the conviction with which these materials are deployed. In the workshop concert they were, more often than not, abandoned after a short time as if they’d been “tested” in the piece and then put aside either because the person producing them found them inappropriate after all, or because of disappointment that they hadn’t managed to draw the other participants into relating audible to them. Either way, they often come across, to this listener anyway, as a failure of the imagination (failure to think of something that will both make its own point and encourage others to respond creatively to it) than as an enhancement of the music. The challenge, then, is to make an assessment like this as clear as possible without implying that there are fixed principles governing what does and doesn’t make a “good” improvisation (or improvising musician). One way to approach this would be to suggest that if a participant is going to dump their stylistic baggage in the middle of the music, so to speak, then they should really do that, and take responsibility for it, rather than taking what might be described as a “passive-aggressive” approach, which of course is the very opposite of the kind of generosity that’s more likely to lead to the most engaging and memorable kinds of musical result. And of course this actually applies to any kind of musical contribution to an improvisation, not just the quasi-referential kind; and, as ever, it’s an issue which isn’t confined to the improvisational method of composition.
tutti (trios-quartet)Download uncompressed audio here
group ADownload uncompressed audio here
FURTDownload uncompressed audio here
group BDownload uncompressed audio here
tutti (free)Download uncompressed audio here
interlude 2: Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble 24 November 2019
I have worked regularly with this group since 2003, during which time its size and membership has changed many times, as Evan’s concept has evolved alongside the technology used by the electronic performers. Initially the ensemble was conceived in 1990 around his regular trio with Barry Guy (bass) and Paul Lytton (percussion), “accompanied” by three performers of live processing (Lawrence Casserley, Walter Prati and Joel Ryan) applied to one or more of these instruments, and Marco Vecchi taking care of multichannel mixing (and also some other processing) of the entire group. At the Donaueschinger Tage für neue Musik in 2003 Joel Ryan didn’t take part but the rest of the group was augmented by Paul Obermayer and myself as a third element in the ensemble, playing electronic instruments which weren’t concerned with treating the sounds of the acoustic ones. (This performance was released on the CD SET by Psi Records in 2009.) Over the succeeding years this ensemble gradually expanded to reach its maximum size at the Jazz em Agosto festival in Lisbon in 2010, with 18 participants. A 2014 concert at the Huddersfield Festival featured a substantially new lineup, whose latest variation performed at the same festival in 2019, with the following musicians:
Peter van Bergen (sopranino/bass clarinet)
Evan Parker (soprano saxophone)
Peter Evans (trumpets)
Sten Sandell (piano/synthesizer)
Adam Linson (contrabass/electronics)
Mark Nauseef (percussion)
Paul Lytton (percussion)
Richard Barrett (electronics)
Paul Obermayer (electronics)
Sam Pluta (electronics)
Matthew Wright (electronics)
I am including the present “interlude” in my research report firstly because Evan’s group has been the most significant influence on how I work with SEE, and secondly because I felt that this particular performance took the ensemble’s work to a new level in a way that might usefully be discussed in the present context.
Some performances by the ensemble have involved a precomposed structure by Evan, expressed usually in the form of a score on a series of filing cards each of which might specify one or more “soloists” (usually Paul Obermayer and I would be treated as a single performer!) and possibly also which acoustic instrument(s) would be processed by which live electronic performer(s). Much of the ensemble music on the CDs released by ECM (The Eleventh Hour and The Moment’s Energy) was composed in this way, although in the CD production process the duration and order of the resulting sections would often be changed. During the preparation for the November 2019 performance, Evan remarked that he didn’t find this way of doing things satisfactory any longer since it ran the risk of people concentrating their attention on following the instructions to the exclusion of the “organic” flow of the music. He decided instead for an unbroken single set of 90 minutes’ duration, and that this would involve a musical landmark produced by the percussion section every 30 minutes or so, to enable the music to reset itself and embark again in a different direction. The piece was to open with both percussionists playing gongs, after which they would be joined by the piano, and eventually by the rest of the group. After 30 minutes the percussionists would focus on metallic sounds, joined first by the FURT duo and then by the others. After 60 minutes both percussionists would enter with their orchestral bass drums; and after 90 minutes the music would be brought to a close by gongs once more. Within this spacious framework, Evan also specified that somewhere there should be a duo for FURT, another for Peter Evans and Sam Pluta (who also form a regular duo outside the ensemble), and a few other such hints, without saying when these events should take place or for how long. He stressed the freedom we all had to take more or less long breaks from playing, asking us “don’t overplay, but don’t underplay”. There was a long and necessarily complex soundcheck but no rehearsal as such; and with this behind us we embarked on the performance. Not having access to a recording as yet, I won’t try to analyse the music in detail, but will attempt instead to put together some thoughts and impressions from my own perspective.
Choosing the participants for a performance like this is an act of composition, which in this case of course has an extensive history and evolution behind it. While performing freely improvised music always involves risk-taking, it seems to me that most of the risk (of producing a collective composition which doesn’t sustain and develop itself with a consistent musical intensity over its entire duration) comes down to how much mutual trust exists between performers, given that each individual has the requisite skill and imagination to begin with. Another aspect of composition here is Evan’s confidence in his players to negotiate their way through the few points of focus he has mentioned, which in itself enhances those players’ sense of responsibility towards each other and the music. Specifying in advance some events that he’d like to happen (although if they didn’t this wouldn’t be a disaster of course) without specifying when they should happen generates a particular kind of attentiveness and sensitivity. (I recall from the performance thinking that the Evans/Pluta duo actually emerged twice: the first time it was apparently felt that the focus of the music should be elsewhere, and the duo was quickly reabsorbed into the ensemble, while the second time, which began with relatively similar material, the rest of the ensemble was ready to create the space for it to emerge and fill the “musical field of vision” for a longer time.) This kind of suggestion would, I think, be much more difficult to realise in a context like SEE. The facility of trusting one’s fellow performers and of knowing one is trusted by them is something that, just like instrumental or listening facilities, develops through experience and practice. Each player’s imagination is deployed not only to create and shape their own individual contribution, but also (especially with such a large group) to keep hold of an image of how the global ensemble sound is forming and reforming, even if it can’t be heard as such in all its details. Something that struck me during and after the performance was the way it didn’t feel like an eleven-piece group because of the way it could so nimbly shift its direction of movement in a way that’s more commonly met with in much smaller lineups.
The personnel of this version of the Ensemble differs from the original “acoustic instruments + live processing” concept in that all the electronic instrumentalists are concerned with contributing their own sound rather than (or in addition to) treating the sounds of the acoustic players. I don’t think it’s too fanciful to suggest that the addition of FURT in 2003 was a decisive step in this direction. An over-reliance on live processing can tend in the direction of sound textures that become monotonous through a constantly high density of delayed reflections of the acoustic material. Also, it’s trivially true that the processed sounds will always take place simultaneously with and/or after the sound being processed, making it difficult for the processor-players to initiate any new structural turns in the music. FURT on the other hand operates on the basis of being able to steer arbitrarily close to the acoustic instruments where appropriate, in terms of timbre, articulation and/or any other perceptible features of their sound, while also being able to diverge into what might be termed more idiomatically electronic modes of musical being, in other words forming a more equally balanced complement to the extended instrumental vocabularies of Evan and the other instrumentalists. Musicians like Matt Wright and Sam Pluta have followed similar paths (while retaining an interest in live processing as one among several possibilities). While Evan used to regard FURT’s contribution as often providing a kind of linking element between acoustic instruments and processing, the current lineup – in which the presence of two percussionists rather than one is another important factor – is one in which any member of the group can take up this or any other role in the music’s structural network.
An unbroken duration of 90 minutes is also a rather unusual feature for an improvisational performance, since these will more typically be broken up into two halves. When fORCH (the 8-piece version of FURT, formed in 2005 and sporadically active since then) has performed concerts, we’ve generally opted for a first half based on some kind of more or less precisely precomposed scheme followed by a second half of free improvisation (no doubt influenced by the example of paragraph 5 of The Great Learning, as discussed in my essay on CONSTRUCTION). Evan’s strategy here is more akin to the “seeded improvisation” concept: his precompositional input consisted of a few more or less precisely located points of arrival/departure within a matrix created by free playing.
My impression was of taking part in some kind of milestone for the “improvisational method of composition”, in terms of having a group of this size articulate a form on this kind of scale, in terms of creating such a massively multidimensional space of possibilities between different modes of instrumentalism (both between and within the acoustic and electronic domains) and in terms of “the moment’s energy” which can transform an ever-present potential into a uniquely memorable musical event. On some occasions the performing collective finds itself moving into some kind of auspicious “alignment”, so that the music begins in fertile territory after which its own internal dynamics propel and shape its growth and differentiation in constantly renewed directions. An almost identical group had played a shorter set at the Ad Libitum festival in Warsaw six weeks previously, which at the time had felt like a beautiful, intricate and powerful composition, but from my viewpoint the Huddersfield piece was on a different level of achievement. I spent some time talking to both percussionists after the latter: I had the impression that Mark Nauseef shared my impression of the aforementioned “alignment”, while Paul Lytton had a more distanced and critical response, which seemed to me perhaps the result of a less involving listening perspective from his position on the stage. An audience member I spoke to (who wasn’t aware of Evan’s suggestions) described the form in terms of seven or eight “waves” which would begin in a situation of low density where a new idea would occur, build up into a complex sound-structure and then “break” to reveal a substrate in which the next idea could make its appearance. This comment actually didn’t chime with my own experience, influenced as the latter would have been by the structural strand represented by my own contribution, which brought me to the realisation that perhaps I ought first to hear the recording of the performance before making any more hyperbolic claims for it being a milestone in the history of free improvisation! Nevertheless, my own perspective as so described is part of the reality of the music.
How may an experience like this be sublimated into useful pedagogical material? Actually, Evan’s way of working has been influencing the way I work with SEE since the start. The use of a few well-chosen words as preparation before the performance is something I have always borne in mind, not just as part of the workshop process but also before public performances. For longer performances, the pacing of the overall structure of a piece using landmarks placed at suitable distances through its duration might indeed be a useful and fruitful technique, in order to open spaces for new ideas to enter and form the basis for new developments which aren’t just extrusions of what has been happening previously. I am certainly more convinced than I was previously that the long single set might be a more interesting way to organise something like the workshop concert than the perhaps more tentative way in which I’ve been dividing these into a sequence of shorter pieces. This will play a role in future workshops to be sure, where for example the FURT duo feature could be incorporated into the larger form rather than being separate from it.
chapter 7: SEE performance 11 December 2019
Dariush Derakhshani (live coding)
Kristupas Gikas (tenor saxophone/flute)
Ranjith Hegde (electric violin/electronics)
Myrtó Nizami (piano/keyboard)
Farzaneh Nouri (computer)
Marko Uzunovski (live mixing)
All the members of this version of the ensemble have been workshop participants, Myrtó in 2018 and the others in 2019. In this performance Farzaneh intermittently carried out live processing on Kristupas’ saxophone.
I think it’s apparent from the first seconds that the hesitancy, stylistic incoherence and relative inconsequentiality that characterised much of the workshop music have been left behind.
The music initially assembles itself from a burst of unrelated fragments interspersed with longer silences than are usual in SEE performances; by 1’04" the saxophone has led the music into a relatively pitch-centred and continuous area but then stops playing, waiting for a new entry-point once this area has been further explored. The saxophone re-enters around 1’45", and is soon joined by an electronic complementary voice in an intensifying duet which then dissipates again at 2’34", changing into a sustained high squeal when sets off a soloistic violin episode backed by low muted piano sounds. Again this dissolves into a new texture of continous electronic sounds with little relation to the acoustic instruments, against which the saxophone stutters fitfully until another process of intensification peaks just after 6’00" and then breaks up to reveal a high piano trill which itself then leaves the remaining fragments of the music to themselves. The music then seems to lose focus for a while – its progression through a sequence of distinct “scenes” demarcated by dissolves has come to an end. At 7’37", more low muted piano sounds make a decisive entry and a noise-rich texture whose components are hardly discernible from one another coagulates around it. Once the music has regained this focus it fragments again into sequences of unrelated sound-objects reminiscent of the beginning of the piece, which then assemble once more into the densest passage in the whole piece, completed at 9’37" by a low piano entry. At 10’50" this wall of sound suddenly falls away; eventually at 11’40" a sequence of minimally varied piano figures leave an electronic noise-texture to conclude the piece alone.
Something I found particularly encouraging about this piece is the way that each performer at some point (some at several) takes the lead in shifting the music from one structural area to another, and that when that happens the other performers are generally responsive to this change. The next SEE performance, on 14 January 2020, would involve almost exactly the same personnel, with the intention (strongly influenced by the experience of the two Evan Parker concerts mentioned in interlude 2) of using this December performance as a point of departure for taking the music further into unknown territory. Part of the preparation involved discussing the 11 December performance and thinking about which aspects were more and less successful. For example, while the piano-led conclusion was effective enough it also struck me as possibly too easy and obvious a way to end (relating as it does to the concluding sequence of the 27 March performance).
SEE performance 11 December 2019Download uncompressed audio here
What might be drawn from this project in terms of ideas for (electroacoustic) improvisation in the conservatoire curriculum? Before going on to address this more general question, I would like to look briefly at what implications the project might have in the more particular context of my creative work both with SEE and in other contexts.
The focus on how SEE has developed over the period under scrutiny will surely inform the way I approach its work in the future. The process of documentation and analysis has identified trends, and perhaps problems in terms of the emergence of clichés in materials and/or forms, which I am now in a much better position to preempt through both verbal suggestions and my own performative contributions. I intend to put this into action immediately, as mentioned above, by using the same lineup in the next performance as in the previous one, and using the recording of the 11 December 2019 performance as a point of reference, for example suggesting that if anything in January begins to happen in what seems to anyone like the same way as in December, they might think immediately of going in a different direction, or at least bear in mind that following tried and tested pathways isn’t likely to produce the freshest and most engaging result. Apart from this, the documentation and analyses will provide useful material for those of my monthly Sonology lecture series which centre on improvisation.
The process of analysis has, furthermore, brought the nature of my own playing in the ensemble into sharper focus, particularly my concern to make it clear to the other participants that I’m listening to them and how I’m listening to them and how this serves to shape my contribution. One reason for my often taking the role of creating connections between other performers is that I’m conscious of wishing not to occupy the foreground of the music more than necessary – I could often make a decisive entry which would (I would hope!) change the course of the music if it seemed to have lost momentum or clarity, but generally I find it more appropriate to leave this to others. In this context, I also recall a remark Evan Parker once made in a rehearsal of a particularly large ensemble that he would leave FURT relatively free of specific instructions so as to allow us to provide the “glue” that would bind diverse ongoing strands together. This of course might be regarded as an approach to improvisation which is crucially informed by non-improvisational practices in composition such as orchestration, or, to take a less traditional example, the combination, mixing and interweaving of layers in a fixed-media electronic piece. Having become more aware of this aspect of my participation in SEE will, I think, enable me to deploy it more consciously and more effectively; and this of course is in itself a facet of teaching, as well as an example of how pedagogical and creative work can be intertwined with one another to the benefit of both.
There is clearly a certain stylistic consistency in many of the SEE pieces appearing in these recordings, which goes beyond the consistencies in personnel and no doubt emanates to a great extent from the presence of my own sounds, ideas, preferences and so forth. Something I have long been aware of is the responsibility – if that’s the word – this places on me to make my contributions as varied as possible in as many dimensions as possible, ranging from the most “abstract” and non-instrumental uses of synthetic sounds to the obvious use of sampled instrumental materials and “concrete” sounds (like the ticking clocks of the October 2018 performance), from soloistic to supporting functions within the ensemble, from regular to irregular rhythmical structures, and so on. Of course, on another level, this variety in itself is a consistent stylistic feature! But these consistencies are in the final analysis a byproduct of my efforts to energise the imaginations of my fellow participants. Like any aspect of teaching, like any aspect of creative work, it needs to be as articulate, incisive and sensitive as possible, in the hope that it might go further than this and be something that inspires. The present project has involved me in learning more about my own practice – hearing what I do brings into focus what I am trying to do – and, I hope, being able to use that knowledge not just in the context under discussion but also in the rest of my pedagogical and creative work. I am intending a forthcoming composition for improvising musicians, codex XXIII, to be premiered in Los Angeles in early February 2020, to incorporate some of the findings of this research which might be outlined by a text like this one but which might actually require a musical context for their fuller expression.
Moving on to conclusions with more general applicability: one of the difficulties when talking about improvisation whether inside or outside an educational institution is that there are many different ideas about what it is and what it isn’t, what it includes and what it excludes. While I do have my own working definition so as to be able to enter into any kind of discussion at all, I think of this indefinition as an opportunity rather than as a problem. In the pre-Socratic sense of apeiron, the indefinite is something which contains all possibilities within itself. Seeking a consensual definition for the sake of creating a consistent curriculum runs the risk of squeezing the life and unpredictability out of the subject matter. Additionally, the experience of working with SEE has indicated that it’s very difficult to define the necessary qualifications for participating in an improvisation course, particularly as regards instrumental/vocal proficiency in some musical tradition or other. I may be biased here since I myself didn’t begin my activity as a creative musician with any background in instrumental playing beyond the most basic level. The presence of enthusiasm and commitment on the part of the student, and imagination and encouragement on the part of the educator, are much more crucial factors.
Any inclusion of improvisation in a conservatoire curriculum needs to start from the position that being involved in improvisational practice can lead to a deeper understanding of music in general and one’s own specialisation(s) in particular, whether these generally involve improvisation or indeed performance, or not. My discussion of this issue is articulated in the context of of free improvisation, since that’s a practice which potentially contains all the others, as well as being accessible to any students at any stage in their musical development and coming from any kind of musical background including none. Here the experience of the Institute of Sonology in particular has been instructive, since neither instrumental or notational fluency is a necessary qualification, only (to put it in greatly simplified terms) a curiosity regarding the possibilities of sound and technology, including but not limited to music.
It’s also important to put across the idea that musical improvisation has both a history and a geography, and that knowledge of these can contribute significantly to the formation of a personal vision and the means to realise and develop it. How musical spontaneity is expressed in musical cultures around the world, and in different social and historical contexts, will deepen students’ understanding of how improvisation has evolved in musical contexts that are more familiar to most of them.
The foregoing constitutes the first of two components in my research project. The second half, beginning in February 2020 and entitled New Inputs, will continue the SEE documentation process, in the background as it were, since performances will continue and, I hope, the findings of the research so far will be incorporated into that continuation, as indicated above. The central question of this second half is: how can improvisational practices in other disciplines inform and expand on the ideas and models available to discuss free improvisation in music and to use it in a teaching context? I believe this is an area with enormous potential which has not yet been systematically researched. Some of the disciplines to be examined would include:
(1) Theatre. Of course improvisation is used extensively in both teaching and performance preparation in this area, and there is a considerable amount of literature on the subject. How much of this can be applied in a musical context? One concept I often bring up in my teaching is the maxim of “never saying no” – in a theatrical improvisation, if one is for example asked a question there should be no possibility of turning one’s back and refusing to engage with it, although people in the early stages of developing skills in musical improvisation will often do just this, and explaining it in terms of theatre always helps to define and address such problems. No doubt many other such examples are waiting to be found.
(2) Dance and movement. During the 1990s I was regularly involved in free improvisation for dancers and musicians, principally with the Magpie Music and Dance company in Amsterdam. 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 has to be invented, rather than being inherent to the nature of the instrument. The potential for using such ideas in (electro-acoustic) improvisation should be clear, I think.
(3) Visual arts. Vassily Kandinsky described many of the paintings carried out between 1909 and 1914 as “improvisations”, which trace a pathway between representation and abstraction by embodying “sensations received from inward nature”. Here is another source of ideas to inform pedagogy in free improvisation. An example I’ve also often used when talking about preparing for improvisation is that of Japanese calligraphy, where the artist spends much time preparing materials and contemplating the task to be carried out, before executing the artwork in a few seconds.
(4) Literature, and in particular storytelling. Like musical improvisation itself, the practice of storytelling has extremely deep roots in human culture, and obvious applicability to structuring performances as fusions of known and spontaneous elements, particularly in solo improvisation (see for example, in a jazz context, Sven Bjerstedt’s thesis Storytelling in Jazz Improvisation, Vijay Iyer’s essay “Exploding the Narrative in Jazz Improvisation” and many other accounts from the 1950s onwards).
No doubt other areas might also be investigated for ideas relevant to musical improvisation.
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”, in the spirit of Cornelius Cardew’s observation that “the musical and the real worlds are one. Musicality is a dimension of perfectly ordinary reality. The musician’s pursuit is to recognize the musical composition of the world.” (Cardew (2006) p.133) Here Cardew hints tantalisingly at a whole world of interrelationships between musical improvisation and other areas of human endeavour, which in the decades since he wrote those words has received very little systematic discussion.
The focus of this part of the project will inevitably be more theoretical than that of the present text, since one of its purposes will be to review several bodies of literature and assess their significance and potential in creative musical contexts in general, and (free) improvisation in a pedagogical context in particular. While it would be beyond the scope of this project to look at ways in which this music might reciprocally inform the other disciplines under discussion, I’m also aware that I’ve made several references already to
the possible significance of musical improvisation in wider sociopolitical contexts, without being specific about what exactly I might mean by this, and I feel that the continuation of the project might provide the time and opportunity finally to make a strong and unambiguous statement in this connection.
Adlington, Robert (2013), Composing Dissent: Avant-garde Music in 1960s Amsterdam. Oxford University Press.
Bailey, Derek (1992) Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. Boston: Da Capo Press
Barrett, Richard (2019), Music of Possibility. Chipping Norton: Vision Edition
Cardew, Cornelius (2006), “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation” (originally published in 1971), in Prévost, Edwin, ed., Cornelius Cardew: A Reader. Matching Tye: Copula
Cardew, Cornelius (2006a), “Scratch Music” (originally published in 1972), in Prévost, Edwin, ed., Cornelius Cardew: A Reader. Matching Tye: Copula
Cobussen, Marcel (2017), The Field of Musical Improvisation. Leiden University Press
Lewis, George E (1996), “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives”. Black Music Research Journal 16:1 (Spring 1996) pp. 91–122
Stevens, John (2007), Search and Reflect: a music workshop handbook. Rockschool
Barrett (2019). ↩︎
The result can be heard here: https://soundcloud.com/r-barrett/furt-zenk-zurich-11-may-2012-istanbul-16-march-2013 – I no longer have any idea where the edits are. ↩︎
see Barrett (2019), pp. 16-21 and 100-106. ↩︎
I haven’t included recordings of these initial exercises for two reasons: firstly, I didn’t want workshop participants to feel inhibited by being recorded; and secondly, because hearing how they work when actually in the room with all the musicians is a different experience from whatever might be picked up by a pair of microphones or even mixed from a multitrack recording. ↩︎
It seemed appropriate here to refer to participants by name and to express the analyses in terms of people rather than sounds or instruments interacting; although I generally tend towards the latter in the present text, I wanted to emphasise here that the music could be thought about either way. ↩︎
Issues around “the listener” are discussed frequently in Music of Possibility, so I haven’t emphasised them here – see particularly pp. 214-228 in the book, in the context of a dialogue with cellist Arne Deforce. ↩︎
Adlington (2013), p. 127 ↩︎
op. cit., p.127 ↩︎
op. cit., p.127 ↩︎
op. cit., p.127 ↩︎