An essay by Knut Vaage and John Ehde

“Improvisation is the activity of making or doing something not planned beforehand, using whatever can be found. Improvisation in the performing arts is a very spontaneous performance without specific or scripted preparation” (Després, Burnard, Dubé, & Stévance, 2017).


Improvisation formed a vital part of the creative research of our individual project. The following text takes a closer look at the phenomenon.


A carapace of creativity


Musical communication, or communicating with sounds or diverse sounding means, has always been a vital part of human activity. Making music without a written score was probably more common in earlier times than the creation of an actual “fixed” composition. The art of finding and combining musical elements into an enticing moment or a coherent musical form was considered a great and valued skill.


In the Middle Ages, “the Creator” (God) was considered the source of inspiration and wisdom. Man, in comparison, was considered small and impotent. Humans built vast cathedrals and monuments to salute divine glory. “Creatura non potest creare” (Augustine): “He who is created cannot create”. But was it not humans who invented and built those ingenious structures, thereby contributing works with almost phantasmagorical creativity? (Coessens, Crispin, and Douglas: 2009)


The carapace of creativity (John Ehde’s expression) refers to a skillset for creating something in the moment.  Traditions for spontaneous and for oral musicianship remained strong throughout the ages, with improvisation and experimentation as necessary means for musical achievements. In Western classical music however, it would seem that we have lost that ability to improvise. During Renaissance and early Baroque periods, the ability to improvise, to fill in an idea or to create one’s own compositions spontaneously, was an integral part of performing musicians’ education and daily practice.


As the body of notated music grew, becoming more precise and complex, the need and room for improvisation decreased in classical music tradition. We know that great masters like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Liszt and Messiaen continued to improvise publicly as creative musicians. It is said that Liszt, as a showcase in his concerts, improvised over given themes from the audience which were collected before the actual performance.


By the 20th century, improvisation had almost vanished as a general skill amongst musicians. Composers strive to notate their music as clearly and defined as possible in order for their often very complex music, can be understood and performed as closely to the original idea as possible. Exceptions are to be found in aleatory passages, where players may “feel free” to choose among stipulated examples and figures to create improvised soundscapes and musical atmospheres.


Improvisation in our time


It seems the skill of improvisation was continued and developed in the art of jazz music. The development of the recording industry has saved improvised solos we may listen to these great masters of the “now” and enjoy their skills again and again. Attempts to notate recorded jazz improvisations have been made as a way of studying and “fixing” them, as we do with photographs.


This “fixing of the now” may well be part of a growing trend we see today to reincorporate improvisation as part of composition and teaching. The “crossover” combination of contemporary classical music, modern jazz and other styles also contributes to a broader understanding of what music can express. Improvising, to a smaller or greater extent, is clearly becoming a vital part of many musicians’ expressive palette today.


“Not knowing what you are going to play 15 seconds later is a most horrible feeling!” (Guitarist Paco de Lucia, on improvisation)


Jazz improvisation and “the idea”


Most jazz improvisation is based on a melody and/or a cycle of chords or free improvisation. Our improvisation is not based on those elements but focuses directly on sound and form. We search for new combinations of extended techniques, exploring how long one element can maintain energy before having to end or a change is required. One of the things we have in common is that both are related to development of an idea. 


Nothing can go wrong


Catching the moment and “composing on the fly” usually works best if one empties the mind, opens all senses and simply listens to what is going on around one. That takes courage! Research shows that during acts of improvisation there is decreased activity in the part of the brain called “lateral prefrontal cortex”. This area of the brain is associated with self-monitoring; a reduction of activity there indicates less inhibitions of risk taking.


Being aware of your surroundings as well as basic structures of the present composition, together with a sense of freedom from “musical obligation”, can create a weightless sense that nothing can go wrong. This can be a pleasant safety net to hang on to, as no one except yourself really knows what is going on (or not!) in your mind.


The opposite is also true


When improvising with fellow musicians, it is as important to catch, develop or comment on an idea, as it is “go against” that idea by creating something contrasting. The combination of opposites/contrasts may create exiting combination of textures which work together as an improvised sort of counterpoint. In jazz music, this is often the case, in which a steady baseline groove combines with some lighter, freer movement in soloistic upper parts. Sometimes it can be important to absorb yourself in an idea which initially does not catch your interest. Allowing that idea some time to become part of your playing and giving it your own touch might suddenly give it a new value in the total context.


In our project we often worked spontaneously using opposites: fixed rhythms meeting glissandos, glass meeting wood, airy sounds meeting metal, etc. It has been fascinating to discover the hidden and enticing redemption in these “truths”, truth in this context meaning: when being totally absorbed in the creative process there is no alternative, except what comes to your mind in the given moment.




When improvising it is of crucial value to have faith that what you are playing is the only right statement here and now - or at least to be convincing about it! It is equally important to trust your fellow players and that they will catch you if you run out of inspiration. They are hopefully capable of supplying necessary raw material for continuing the improvisation and carry it to the point at which you have gained enough inspiration to join in again. This can be a wonderful kind of teamwork which we often have experienced in our sessions. If you get lost, there will be someone to help you out and get you back on the path!




What characterises a good improviser is that he is a good listener. If there is a convincing initiative from somewhere else or if it is hard to find your way in the actual context good advice can be to lay low, listening or to add some light tonal accompaniment.  The great Finish saxophone player, Juhani Altonen once said, “to find personality and security in your playing, it is always best to start out just playing long notes or melodic lines, hereby finding your way into the context”. That is also true when improvising over given harmonies. When improvising, it is also important not to “want” anything, just let it happen.

“Man will nicht´s, man lässt es entstehen” (Sergiu Celebidache, Romanian conductor) “One does not use willpower; one lets it arise”


Intuition of form


Having trust in your own ideas and your fellow musicians will, in one way or another, create an organic whole and an intuitive form. There is a direction to be traced.  It might be good to have a masterplan to start out with, but it might often be the case that you depart from the initial plan and return to it at a later moment. Creating logic and natural endings may occur, but somehow the magic always does its thing, and we end together.


The inner experience                                           


Improvising can be explained as a communication without words. It is like speech - we can talk and discuss, agree, and disagree - but there is still a positive dialogue and good chemistry. In music we do not have the boundaries of language (although we have different styles; jazz, free jazz, bebop, rock, contemporary, etc.), and as such the language of music is universal. Anybody can join in on their own premises and develop their skills from there. The greatest improvisers can invent wordless stories of immense drama and beauty, organic stories that will never be told in the same way again.

S C R O L L   D O W N

Foto: Bente Elisabeth Finserås