From the wall at Labyrinth Speakeasy:
IMPROVISING: SOME THINGS TO BEAR IN MIND
Listen and respond. It’s up to you how it sounds.
Don’t talk if you don’t need to.
When someone else leaves their instrument, stay with yours until they’ve established themselves on another one.
Listen for spaces in the sound (registers, types of attack, etc.) and
look for sounds that help complete and/or define them. You are an
If you don’t like the sound another instrument is making, look for an
instrument that makes it sound better (i.e., if it is shrill, go to a
bass instrument, if it is fuzzy go to an accenting instrument,
If you have an idea for a direction the music could take, and you hear
a space for it, don’t hold yourself back. You are a
If everyone seems to be at an impasse consider reiterating an earlier
part of the music or a variation of it. Most likely others will
be playing different instruments at that point and different
sonorities, meters, and/or tonalities will develop. Each player
is, to whatever degree he or she feels like it, a custodian of form.
If you feel stuck but don’t want to abandon what you are doing, change an element of what you are playing such as:
Register –play the same part in a different octave or key
Duration –play the same part twice as fast, half as fast, etc.
Dynamics –play the same part louder or softer
Attack –play the same part with a different accent or set of accents, i.e., stacatto, legato, rubato, etc.
Assembly –Play the same part backwards, cut in half
and repeated, second half before first half, leave out every other
Contrast –play a different part four times and return to your original.
If you feel lost listen from the bottom up, find a beat and work from
there, or respond to something in the bass register (harmony builds by
overtones from low to high).
If others seem lost, simplify what you are playing, set them a beat or pedal tone, be consistent for a while.
Don’t be afraid to simplify. Silence accents sound. Play simply that others may simply play.
LISTEN. CO-OPERATE. HAVE FUN. These are not rules!
Performance is co-operation.
Listen to everything until it all belongs together and you are part of it.
From each according to his ability to each according to his need.
Everyone is a leader. Growth
happens. Whenever it does allow it to emerge. Learn to
follow when it makes sense. Let anyone lead.
Performing in a free improvisation is no mere cipher for a new kind of human relationship –it is that new relationship.
The successful performance occurs
when musicians and audience choose the occasion and exercise
self-determination. At such moments there is a certainty, if only
momentary, about what it means to be a human being.
The music makes itself –just as man
makes himself. Here are volition, intention, determination
tempered by acceptance of eventuality. Here is definition by
action. I am what I am because I do what I do, acted upon and
-Eddie Prevost, No Sound is Innocent
To achieve music based on (and expressive of) a community of equals it
will be necessary to undermine the established practices built up over
centuries that divide musicians into composers and performers.
These practices are obviously analogous to the social models of capital
/ labor, ruler / subject, etc. In short they function by division
and inequality. Traditionally the performers of music have been
excluded from the processes of conception and/or composition. The
acceptance, conscious or unconscious, of these models cannot help but
produce music that affirms the social concept on inequality.
To create music that affirms the social concept of equality it is
necessary to include the performers in the processes of conception and
composition. To achieve this we will have to improvise.
For the most part improvisation is an underdeveloped area of music. The
standard practice in composed music has been for the performers to
carry out a set of instructions given them by the composer. To a
less rigorous degree the same paradigm has applied to popular and folk
music. In traditional (non free) jazz, improvisation, while
encouraged, was largely an extension of composition, binding the
improvisor to a fairly standardized set to practices –this was also
common in european music until the nineteenth century. A similar
idea underlies the practices of indian music (although the music
has no external composer as such, but a traditional basis in tonal and
rhythmic elements). In both these instances the areas in which
individual choice is encouraged are subservient to the formal and
functional preconceptions of the music. The creative input of the
performer is confined to exploring variations on pre-existing
The "indeterminacy" of Cage, Brown, Feldman, et al (and later
Stockhausen), imposed a similar set of limitations on the
performers. Performers could chose from among groups of notes,
sets of parts, etc. In Stockhausen’s Es performers were
instructed to play "…only when one has achieved the state of
non-thinking, and to stop whenever one begins to think…". In
Aufwarts the instructions were to "Play a vibration in the rhythm of
your smallest particles. / Play a vibration in the rhythm of the
universe." These approaches maintained in different ways the
dominating presence of the composer, analogous to the political model
of the "constitutional monarchy" – the subservience of the performers
is still implicit. The work of Pauline Oliveros ("Deep
Listening") is another development issuing out of the composer
David Tudor is supposed to be the
great pianist of the modern western music because he’s so
detached. You’re damned right he’s detached. He’s so
detached he ain’t even there. Like, he would never get
emotionally involved in it; and dig, that’s the word, they don’t want
to get involved with music. It’s a theory, it’s a mental exercise
in which the body is there as an attribute to complement that
exercise. The body is in no way supposed to get involved in it.
In the 1960s the concepts of more truly collective improvisation were
broadened to more comprehensive and functional levels by free jazz
musicians –Cecil Taylor above all- and ensembles like AMM, which
included Cornelius Cardew –who also founded the Scratch Orchestra— and
Edwin Prevost –who, in addition to playing has written the most
comprehensive book (No Sound is Innocent) on improvisation-- coming
from art / jazz / euromusic backgrounds. These musicians set out
to improvise whole musics, examining and reinventing all the aspects of
music that they scrutinized.
All these explorations have led to different areas (vectors).
Free jazz, embracing its own history and the individualism inherent in
performing with specific instruments, tended more toward sensuality and
unity of purpose, but also relied on the (egoistic) concept of soloing
/ accompanying. AMM/Scratch-style ensembles, consciously rejecting
history and the identities of instrumentalism, tended more toward
conceptualism and abstraction (egoistic in its own way).
Skill is not a virtue but a means.
Over time, owing to the hierarchic model of composer / conductor /
performer prevalent in western music, mechanical skill has come to be
valued over the empathic skills of listening and contributing.
Mechanical skill can subvert natural musicianship by concentrating the
performer’s attention on the single part he/she is playing, distracting
him/her from experiencing the whole music, promoting a consciousness of
individuality when it is not only unnecessary but unwelcome.
De-emphasizing elements of mechanical skill allows the player’s
attention to focus more on compositional and functional aspects of what
they are doing relative to the music as a whole than on the simple
challenge of performing a single part. This encourages an
ensemblist’s rather than a soloist’s approach. The dearly
acquired mechanical skills necessary to ‘master’ a conventional
instrument very naturally limits the player’s awareness toward hearing
the whole of the music through the filtered context of its relationship
to his/her instrument. This encourages egoistic and specialistic
(technocratic) tendencies in both listening and performing.
This is not to say that mechanical skill is a bad thing, only that overvaluing it can create pitfalls.
Cornelius Cardew: (from) Treatise Handbook:
Virtues that a musician can develop.
1. Simplicity. Where everything
becomes simple is the most desirable place to be. But (… ) the
simplicity must contain the memory of how hard it was to achieve.
2. Integrity. What we do in the
event is important –not only what we have in mind. The difference
between making the sound and being the sound.
3. Selflessness. To do
something constructive you have to look beyond yourself. The
entire world is your sphere if your vision can encompass it . .
. You should not be concerned with yourself beyond
arranging a mode of life that makes it possible to remain on the line,
balanced. Then you can work, look out beyond yourself.
4. Forbearance. Improvising in
a group you have to accept not only the frailties of your fellow
musicians, but also your own. Overcoming your instinctive
revulsion against whatever is out of tune (in the broadest sense).
5. Preparedness. …for no matter
what eventuality…or simply Awakeness…A great intensity in your
anticipation of this or that outcome.
6. Identification with nature.
The best is to lead your life, and the same applies in improvising:
like a yachtsman to utilize the interplay of natural forces and
currents to steer a course. My attitude is that the musical and
real worlds are one. Musicality is dimension of perfectly
ordinary reality. The musician’s pursuit is to recognize the
musical composition of the world.
7. Acceptance of death. From a
certain point of view improvisation is the highest mode of musical
activity, for it is based on the acceptance of music’s fatal weakness
and essential and most beautiful characteristic –its transience…
The performance of any vital action brings us closer to death; if it
didn’t it would lack vitality. Life is a force to be used and if
necessary used up.
The player advances to the area, an
unknown totality, made whole thru self analysis (improvisation), the
conscious manipulation of known material; each piece is choice;
architecture, particular in grain, the specifics question-layers are
disposed-deposits arrangements, group activity establishing ‘Plain’.
To develop improvisation as a primary means of making music it will be
necessary for most of us to change the ways we receive music (hear and
listen). The expectations that have developed from centuries of
being exposed almost exclusively to preconceived music carried out by
non-autonomous performers have made many of (most of) us uncomfortable
with and/or unable to understand the unknown and the unexpected.
We will need to refocus our sense of expectation, learn to embrace the
anomalies implicit in spontaneous self-organization, suspect the
triteness implicit in order that derives from pre-limitations. As
players we will have to re-think our expectations of ourselves and each
other, rely less on roles and more on deeper levels of
cooperation. We will have to learn to accept our symbioses
without feeling disempowered by them (not an easy step in a society
based of selfishness) and develop forms of symbiosis that free, rather
than restrain, us.
There are two kinds of mistakes: the regular ones, and the ones that don’t sound so good.