sur l’improvisation

20 July 2007 - muzikologi

improvisationnouvelle querelle des bouffons : l’improvisation est elle tout aussi structurée que la composition ? la reponse est toute simple, il suffisait d’y penser – mémoire de 3ième cycle sous la direction du Dr. tom perchard – a obtenu un First – (en anglais)

how could it be argued that free improvisation can be as composed as composition itself?

Traditionally, composition is defined as “the activity or process of creating music, and the product of such activity”[1]. That meaning has been “applied to pieces of music that remain recognizable in different performances as well as to the action of making new pieces.”[2] Interestingly, in a Blackfoot Indian myth, “compositions are recognized as discrete items when they can be exchanged for other goods.”[3] Further, “A powerful rationale for reproducing an existing series of compositions is provided by beliefs that the series preserves the ‘flavour’ or ‘scent’ of an ancestor.”[4] The idea of a flavour being preserved is close to Mauss’s notion of Mana[5], and to the story of Beethoven going to Haydn, requesting to receive Mozart’s spirit from his own hands. This also correlates with the tradition of preservation and exact reproduction of Western Art music manuscripts and the obsession with originals (urtext), as well as the concept of authenticity of performance, most especially in the case of distinct musical styles. “In the 20th century, a tendency to treat compositions as fixed texts, capable of transmission by means of notation or sound recording… as well as by expanding networks of commerce and communication”[6] became notably distinct. Composition then became “a form of research, in which alternatives to any existing set of presuppositions may be formulated and tested.”[7]

In contrast, improvisation is seen as “the creation of a musical work, or the final form of a musical work, as it is being performed. It may involve the work’s immediate composition by its performers, or the elaboration or adjustment of an existing framework, or anything in between… By its very nature – in that improvisation is essentially evanescent – it is one of the subjects least amenable to historical research.”[8] Netll also remarks that “The term ‘improvisation’, in suggesting a failure to plan ahead or making do with whatever means are available, may have negative implications.”[9] Another definition states that it is a “performance and event-based musical act deriving its structure and characteristic style from a combination of longstanding [internalized] cultural models and individual interpretations of them”[10]. In support of this, and in the context of jazz improvisation, “each musician works within a tradition in which certain stylistic features in regard to rhythmic construction, melodic formulas and phrasing are learned, absorbed, memorized by the performer, and stored in the memory to be called upon in certain stylistic contexts.”[11] In an unusual stance, and which could be considered as cognitive phenomenology, Ed Sarath proposes that “the improviser experiences time in an inner-directed, or ‘vertical’ manner, where the present is heightened and the past and future are perceptually subordinated”, in contrast to the “’expanding’ temporality of the composer, where temporal projections may be conceived from any moment in a work to past and future time coordinates.” [12] To put it more simply, “while the improviser can recall past ideas, this must be done while creating in the present, whereas the composer can practically ‘freeze’ time and contemplate the past at length.”[13] It is a matter of “temporally binding relationships [being] deconstructed, [whereby] a more heightened state of awareness ensues, where temporal sequences are subsumed within an overarching present.”[14] Expressed in terms of information theory, “the artist in heightened awareness may conceive event chains as both higher- and lower-order Markov processes.”[15]

This overview indicates that a strong dichotomy between composer and improviser is thought to exist, a dichotomy connected to time, whether under the permanence aspect of the work being considered (the possibility to study or comment on it), its transmissibility (as a material object, i.e. the score), its structure, or its reproducibility. Hence Berio’s view of improvisation as “a haven of dilettantes [acting] on the level of instrumental praxis rather than musical thought… [i.e.] a coherent discourse that unfolds and develops simultaneously on different levels”[16]

Yet, Frank Tirro[17] has successfully managed to argue otherwise. From an analysis of solos performed by well known jazz artists and from an experiment he himself conducted, he concludes that “Musical development and the expansion of motivic material in the extended improvisation of a great jazz performer is comparable to that found in notated compositions of Western music.”[18] Therefore, “The best jazz solos are indeed constructive in nature and may be evaluated syntactically as are other teleological compositions of the notating Western composer.”[19] Further, the same processes of “a coherent syntax and a hierarchical structure which provide a means for deferred gratification through a perception of the music’s embodied meaning”[20] are common to both. Here, meaning denotes the predictive capacity of certain musical statements, so that “listener expectation, analysis, and criticism go hand in hand”[21]. The only difference being that “in jazz, process and product occur simultaneously”.[22] This is because “the skilled improviser begins with neither a completely free or totally blank situation nor rambles aimlessly to an inconclusive termination, but instead develops motives with cyclic treatment.”[23] These treatments consist of: “creation of new phrases…, consequential choruses out of antecedent situations…, and manipulation of musical ideas stemming from remote past events.”[24] In addition, memory plays an important role: “patterns, collections of patterns, or modifications of patterns”[25] can be recalled, forming “the framework upon which, or against which, the improviser builds his new compositions”[26].

Looking at Stan Getz’s performance of Lover, Come Back to Me, Tirro was able to outline the following constructive processes:

1)“Placing of the structural notes of the theme askew with reference to their regular metric positioning.” [27]

-2)Reworking of previously stated material before the bridge.

-3)Reworking of previously stated material at end of the bridge.

-4)Motivic development

-5)Past events acting as preparation for a present event. The first example below is a recording made by Getz in 1952, the other two are from a work played nine years later. Once an improvised idea has been stated, it is not necessarily lost by the improviser[28].

Tirro then proceeded to check the above observations by putting together a five-piece jazz combo made of professional musicians, giving then an unfamiliar and difficult piece (Marshmallow) to prepare for public performance. Recordings of all the rehearsals and two public concerts were compared. A single passage was selected for observation to determine if ideas were repeated and evolved or free and ever changing, as the spontaneous approach to improvisation might lead one to believe would be the case. The results of this laboratory situation were compared with recordings of parallel situations in which the performances were on commercial recordings and played by recognized jazz masters.[29] Tirro found that (see score examples on following page):

-One version echoed a recording made by Charlie Parker (Ko-Ko) without duplicating it.

-Of the recorded twenty-two versions, the first two bore little relationship the pattern eventually adopted.

-Of the subsequent twenty versions, seventeen bear the imprint of the idea.

“…If it happens that a certain improvisation is recorded and later written down, then it lives the rest of its life as a composition rather than an improvisation”[30] At the time of writing this essay, Gehring’s assertion has become an easy proposition, thanks to the existence of affordable recording technology and digital editing software. It is therefore realistic to hope that further studies of improvised musical situations may take place, so that it can regain its lost status, since “Even well into the 19th century it is clear that improvisation remained an indispensable ability for most professional musicians”[31]. For “There is scarcely a single field in music that has remained unaffected by improvisation, scarcely a musical technique or form of composition that did not originate in improvisatory performance or was not essentially influenced by it. The whole history of the development of [Western art] music is accompanied by manifestations of the drive to improvise.”[32] This flatly contradicts Berio’s statement quoted in the opening section of this essay. So it may be of  interest to deconstruct it.

Improvisation is “a haven of dilettantes”, who only pay attention to the sonic possibilities of their instrument. Here we have the professional/amateur opposition, whereby only the former has any kind of capacity, and therefore authority, to produce music worth considering, while “coherent discourse” refers to the implied rationality of which music is the expression. The idea of using rationality as a parameter by which to qualify music was originally put forward by Max Weber[33] although he later came “to acknowledge the irrational foundation, the illogical division on which the whole edifice of rationalism rests”[34]. Yet, cannot this process of “dilettantism” help to nourish a “coherent discourse”, as part of an exploration practice? And doesn’t the professional (in so far as the dilettante/professional opposition is valid) sometimes stumbles by chance upon an idea which helps to kick start an entire plan?
This notion seems to have a strong ideological flavour, in that the only music worth considering is the one resulting from an intellectual endeavour and its conscious mastery, possibly learned within the institutions of Western academia. Other types of music wild tend to be seen as wild, childish, untamed and exotic.
To my mind, Berio’s assertion is an excellent example of what Lewis calls the Eurological[35] standpoint, that is the attempt to circumvent the fact music improvisation (or non thought-out music) reappeared in Western musical practice through the practice of black jazz American artists in the 1950’s[36]. To put it more bluntly, “Both aleatory and indeterminism are words which have been coined . . . to bypass the word improvisation and as such the influence of non-white sensibility”[37]. For political reasons, there is a marked refusal and denial at acknowledging what a particular racial group owes another[38]. This denial then feeds the subtext of statements such as Berio’s[39]. “Coded qualifiers to the word ‘music’-such as ‘experimental,’ ‘new,’ ‘art’, ‘concert,’ ‘serious,’ ‘avant-garde,’ and ‘contemporary’-are used … to delineate a racialized location of this tradition within the space of whiteness.”[40] This may well account for the marked (obligato, even) trend of the use of computers (or electronic apparatus) as an aid to improvisation, whereby the act of improvisation is displaced onto a piece of software, itself the result of a well thought-out rational process, therefore fully belonging “within the space of whiteness”[41]. There is also the fact that a conscious thought-out process can have a tangible and durable form, like a written score or set of instructions. Long ago, de Saussure had already commented upon the prestige of written language, in opposition to its oral form[42]. This was due to two facts: first, “the graphic image of words strike us as a permanent and solid object, more adequate than sound in establishing the unity of language through time”[43]. Second, “in most people visual impressions are clearer and more durable than sonic impressions”[44]. This appears to justify the remarks made by Lewis about David Cope’s book: “Improvisers of worldwide stature-such as Parker, Coltrane, Taylor, and Coleman-are (at best) mentioned in passing, while pages are devoted to the work of relatively obscure individuals whose written descriptions[45] of their improvisations far outpace in quantity their audio documentation.”
Berio’s claims also seems to reinforce the high/low brow prejudices which currently inform music making, its practice and listening, giving composers (and sometimes performers) a sense of alienation from audiences, and vice and versa. Another criticism is that supposing that a plan (and its unfolding) is a vital necessity to making music, does it have to be conscious and explicit at all times?
Freud states that “the dream is fundamentally nothing more than a special form of our thinking”[46]. Indeed, Kekule, the 17th century Polish chemist, came upon the notion of atomic valence[47] in a dream. So if thinking can take place outside of the field of our awareness, being a dilettante is as valid a way to actualise it as any other. In the same work, Freud also remarks that the Unconscious is timeless, that in it there are no past/present/future categories, in that memory traces of events acquired long ago are as fresh as if they had been acquired a moment ago. This would go a long way in accounting for a phenomenon observed by Tirro, that “musical ideas stemming from remote past events” can make themselves manifest in the present. The Freudian notion of the unconscious also supports another key observation made by Lewis: “One important aspect of Afrological improvisation is the notion of the importance of personal narrative, of “telling your own story… [which] Eurological improvisers have tended to look askance on.”[48] Since each unconscious is highly personal and has a unique content, then improvisation is indeed the telling of one’s own story, or the continuation, by other means, of the metonymic effect which inhabits each of us. If I do not know why I improvise, I can nevertheless say how I do not know, through the symptom of improvisation. By definition, my symptom and its manifestation cannot be but personal.

[1] Blum, Stephen: ‘Composition’, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed March 2006),

[2] Ibid. [3] Ibid. [4] Ibid.

[5] Cf. Mauss, Marcel, 1978 : ‘Essai sur le don. Forme et raisons de l’échange dans les sociétés primitives’, in Marcel Mauss – Sociologie et anthropologie Sociologie et anthropologie (Paris: PUF).

[6] Blum, Stephen: ‘Composition’, Op. Cit.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Nettl, Bruno: “Improvisation”, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed March 2006),

[9] Ibid.

[10] Moore, Robert, 1992: ‘The Decline of Improvisation in Western Art Music: An Interpretation of Change’, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 23, No. 1.

[11] Kennedy, Raymond, 1987: ‘Jazz Style and Improvisation Codes’, Yearbook for Traditional Music, Vol. 19. (1987), pp. 37-43.

[12] Sarath, Ed, 1996: ‘A new Look at Improvisation’, Journal of Music Theory, Vol. 40, No. 1. (Spring, 1996), pp. 1-38.

[13] Ibid. [14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid. (Nota: A Markov process is a mathematical function whereby the future value of a variable depends only upon the present value and not on the sequence of past values).

[16] Berio, Luciano, 1985: Two Interviews (London:Marion Boyars), quoted by David Borgo in ‘Negotiating Freedom: Values and Practices in Contemporary Improvised Music’, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 22, No2 (Autumn 2002), pp. 165-188.

[17] Tirro, Frank, 1974: ‘Constructive Elements in Jazz Improvisation’, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 27, No. 2. (Summer, 1974), pp. 285-305.

[18] Ibid. [19] Ibid. [20] Ibid. [21] Ibid. [22] Ibid. [23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid. [25] Ibid. [26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid. All the score examples are reproduced from Tirro’s article.

[28] Ibid. [29] Ibid.

[30] Philip Gehring, “The Aesthetics of Improvisation,” Festschrift TheodoreHoelty-Nickel, ed. Newman W. Powell (Valparaiso, Ind., 1967), p. 88, quote by Turro, Op. Cit.

[31] Moore, Robin, 1992: ‘The Decline of Improvisation in Western Art Music: An Interpretation of Change’, International Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music, Vol. 23, No. 1. (Jun., 1992), pp.61-84.

[32] Ferand, Ernst, 1961: Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music: An Anthology With an Historical Introduction.(Koln: Amo Volk Verlag). Quoted by Moore, Op. Cit.

[33] Weber, Marx, 1921: ‘Die rationalen und soziologischen Grundlagen der Musik’, in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Tiibingen: Mohr; [Eng. trans., 19581), quoted by Molino, in ‘Musical Fact and the Semiology of Music’, Music Analysis, Vol. 9, No. 2. (Jul., 1990), pp. 105- 11 1+113- 156.

[34] Molino, Jean, Op. Cit.

[35] Lewis, George, 1996: ‘Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives’, Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 16, No. 1. (Spring, 1996), pp. 91-122. Lewis created this adjective to denote an improvisation practice in terms of its “social and cultural location and is theorized here as historically emergent rather than ethnically essential”. Its antonym is Afrological.

[36] Lewis, George, Op. Cit.

[37] Braxton, Anthony. 1985. Tri-Axium writings, volume 1. Dartmouth: Synthesis/Frog Peak, quoted by Lewis, George, Op. Cit.

[38] History seems to repeat itself: one may remember the furor which accompanied the publishing in 1974 of Cheikh Anta Diop’s Book, The African Origin of Civilization, Myth Or Reality, which clearly demonstrated the ancient Egyptian origins of culture on the African continent, and that the ancient Egyptians were black. The initial PhD which contained these ideas was turned down when presented at the Sorbonne in 1951.

[39] And not only his, judging by some of the comments made by some students during the Indeterminacy class, at Goldsmiths College, in the Spring of 2007, whereby Keith Jarrett improvisation solos were qualified as ornaments.

[40] Lewis, George Op. Cit.

[41] I have recently created, with another student friend (jackhurst), a two piano improvisation duo. A prominent figure in the Music Department asked us if we had thought about using electronics as part of our practice. As if twenty fingers, two minds, two pianos and our spontaneity were not (serious) enough to create music, as if an extra form of validation (rationality) was required.

[42] de Saussure, Ferdinand, 2005: Cours de linguistique générale (Paris:Payot), Introduction, chapter VI, p. 45-47.

[43] de Saussure, Op. Cit. “l’image graphique des mots nous frappe comme un objet permanent et solide, plus propre que le son à constituer l’unité de la langue à travers le temps’.

[44] de Saussure, Op. Cit.. ‘chez la plupart des individus les impressions visuelles sont plus nettes et plus durables que les impressions acoustiques’.

[45] The italics are mine.

[46] Freud, Sigmund, 1997: The Interpretation of Dreams, Op. Cit., p. 350, footnote 110. The italics are in the original.

[47] How atoms are connected together.

[48] Lewis, George, Op. Cit.

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