What is improvisation and why improvise?

Johannes Bergmark

This text is a written-down lecture, with quite an improvised form. It doesn’t always follow a logical or systematic structure, but I’m not sure that is so necessary. I hope some of the ideas are new and interesting, even if many threads are taken but left without solution. Different versions of this lecture have been held at Musikklaboratoriet and at the seminar “Death to composers!” in Oslo during the festival Oslo Impro in April 1997. The text was published in [Parergon] no. 1, Oslo 1997, but has since been changed further, in connection with new lecture versions at UNM (Ung Nordisk Musikk, Young Nordic Music) Oslo 1998 and Fylkingen’s Improvisationsdagar (Improvisation Days) 1999.

The disturbing neighbour.

A late night I was disturbed by my neighbour playing music. It sounded like he was playing the same song over and over again: a dull ballad with monotonous guitar chords and a sleepy male voice. After a while I had enough and went to ask him to put down the volume. He apologized and promised to do so. But when I came down I noticed no difference. I complained again. He was surprised: “ Is it really that thin walls? OK, I’ll shut down completely.” But no difference could be heard, the same sloppy ballad. Now, I began wondering and went on a search in the house: it turned out to be the wind, blowing overtones in the staircase.

I’m often very intolerant towards noise. When I was a janitor, I once pushed a full plastic container. The wheels were whining loudly and I was annoyed. But after a while I started imagining that it was sounds from a saxophone: actually there were some similarities to Evan Parker’s solo playing which I like a lot.

On the same work place there was an air pipe which sounded like clarinet playing in Balkan music.

Where does improvisation come from?

We don’t know much about how sounds from the beginning turned into music. The first music might have appeared randomly, involuntarily or not even by humans. Music might have been that which appeared when a sound structure in a mainly non-symbolical way related to a mental, bodily or spiritual structure. There are theories that say that music and dance began from imitating animals, to get power over their spirits, a magical view, to through the sound create or contact something else, a being or a force. Today we call this, with sound structures associated life, “music”. Music is not the same as the sounds of music.

In the first book which exclusively deals with improvisation, its author, the guitar player Derek Bailey, says that the first music had to be freely improvised. In that case, this is the oldest musical form. But is actually every new creation an improvisation, e.g. every new note a composer writes?

Jazz is the most common art form that has improvisation as a basic element. But most musical genres have a degree of improvisation, even classical music.

Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, Bach, were known as improvisors. But european improvisation died out, only organ improvisation remained (and silent movie accompaniment in its time).

What is improvisation?

Attempts to define improvisation usually end up defining everything as improvised – or that nothing is improvised.

If you want everything to be improvised, it is because no situation can be controlled. However detailed notes we write, we have to let the musician interpret. Everything made by people is coloured by them.

Music on tape is exposed to the characteristics of the amplification equipment, the acoustics, the sounds of the audience, the placement of the ears and the sound technician or diffuser.

Whatever we do we are in the hands of fate: we “must” improvise. A problem with this view is that it treats as equal what comes out of a conscious decision and the intuitive or random reaction that accompany the intention of being true to instructions. Even if in improvisation there are elements of intuition, unpredictability, lack of control and acceptance of chance, that is not the essence of improvisation!

The other extreme means that nothing can be improvised. This opinion is popular among those who mean that we are slaves under the conditions of the psyche. Freud used the concept “psychic determinism”: the behaviour is guided by experiences, knowledge, and unsolved conflicts that we can’t escape even if consciousness forgets. We can’t do anything new. Our personal history and music history have in principle predicted everything.

Our creating is a symptom. Thus, this opinion means, the very idea of improvisation, that you create in the moment, falls. The opinion thus says that we’re not responsible for our psyche or our actions. We should blame something else, our parents, the weather or the state.

Of course, there are in improvisation also a number of conscious choices, things we want to achieve or avoid.

Both these opinions, that everything or nothing is improvisation, also appear among improvising musicians, and both of them take away the responsibility of being able to improvise from the musician. I think it can be meaningful to have a concept about improvisation that can be used, that signifies that which we know exists, something we can make the musician responsible for. A concept can not mean everything or nothing. The fact that we can’t decide exact limits for where improvisation begins or ends, or distinguish the conscious from the subconscious, doesn’t mean that we have to turn the concept into something meaningless. Everything isn’t chance, unpredictability, symptoms or planning. Free improvisation exists and appears every day.

From where did improvisation come to us?

The revolution of improvising in the western world came through jazz. Jazz wasn’t only revolt, but also an expression for a desire to live and create beauty at the same moment.

The first jazz was without written notes, to a great degree collectively improvised and orally communicated like, most of the time, folk music is.

For the musicians in europe, the goal was to play like the black musicians, but at the same time they couldn’t improvise. They transcribed the music from the records.

Bebop, from the 40’s, split up jazz into a popular and a musically exploring form, to put it in quite coarse words.

From bop came a music that was consciously ritual. It was similar to occult research. The free jazz wave from the 60’s got it’s name from Ornette Coleman’s record Free Jazz, with a “double quartet” and only one piece, tuned down on the first side and up on the second side. There’s a melodic theme and a jazz groove, but solos are mixed freely. John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Sun Ra and the musicians’ collective AACM in Chicago made similar things. All these were black and often emphasized a state of trance with great liberty and energy.

Even if the music wasn’t “about” politics, there’s a strong association to insurrection, critique and black consciousness, liberation from racist fees, white dominance and european culture. To the same degree that self-respect increased, the respect for the classical music culture was given up. The choice of instruments often became exotic and experimental, a.o. things many used toy instruments.

But also in white culture there are needs that lead to similar results. In europe, free jazz made an impression, black musicians were more respected and well payed than in the USA, and some moved here. European musicians started to work in free ways. An example is the record Machine Gun with Peter Brötzmann Octet, recorded May ‘68, which is a brutal free jazz with improvisation where both melodic phrases and chaotic noises are used.

Hugh Davies, one of the first free improvisors, said that when a group of english people played in Berlin, the germans called their way of playing the “english disease”. But half a year later they were playing in the same way: an intense listening to small details, a silent but intense interaction between the musicians, they often had small groups and a more silent listening was demanded by the audience. Still today this music is played in London, mostly on clubs where you can go up one floor and be in peace.

Hugh Davies might also be the first example of the electro-acoustic element in improvisation, mostly through minimal metallic instruments amplified with magnetic pickups. This way of playing has gradually grown and now there are lots of examples on improvisors that play amplified objects or homemade electroacoustic instruments.

Recently the number of electrical instruments, synthesizers, samplers, tape recorders, radio, gramophones, treated feedback, live sampling, scratch, dub, dj:ing, laptops etc have increased enormously in improvised music but often, because of the more and more misleading association to jazz, they are labeled other names: live electronics, ambient, noise etc. For those who gather their instrumentarium of boxes on a table there is an obvious model and precursor: David Tudor. Important to mention is also the swiss duo Voicecrack. Two swedish examples are the duos The Sons of God and Lindström-Runolf. A danish-czech is Martin Klapper. In austria there are e.g. Pita and in britain e.g. Adam Bohman. Even in the legendary trio AMM, radio was used as an improvisation instrument.

The english style reveals, moreover, that free jazz wasn’t the lone influence on the europeans. The richness of sound and the dynamics in european contemporary music and also electronic and concrete music made obvious traces in the free music of the europeans. The pioneer of improvised voice, Phil Minton, moreover had the action-painter Jackson Pollock as the model for his “action-singing”!

The method of free jazz then was combined in the (no longer only) “english” style with a sound language which didn’t sound like free jazz, more like the ideals of the Second Viennese school of variations in all parameters. (It should be mentioned that the influences not always are reciprocal: Pierre Boulez denounces improvisation, but e.g. Richard Barrett is doing it and as a composer is also inspired by it.)

Maybe it was a natural language for the polite but anarchistic english, which didn’t feel the same need to explore states of trance or insurrection, but wanted to create in a free and democratic way, which let them explore sounds with intuitive methods.

A special case is Stockhausen’s idea of “intuitive music”. Here, the total authority of the composer is loosening up but he is keeping his role as an author. It can sometimes be seen as a bizarre attempt to force musicians of a classical school a kind of creativity they’re not trained in. And when they become – should then a composer sign a direction that can be interpreted with such a great liberty by the musicians that they could as well have been listed as composers? Vinko Globokar protested against this once in a conflict where he crossed out his name from a record that Stockhausen gets the royalties for. But at least in denmark, there is still a network of inspired intuitive musicians/composers.

The previous paragraph led to a debate with Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen about the needs or use for “intuitive music”. After this, we at least agreed that the form has been a liberation for certain musicians with classical training. Personally, I find it mostly uninteresting, both in form and results. It doesn’t mean I denounce any form in general. “Intuitive music” as a single phenomenon I think is a historical special case which has had meaning through shaking the conservatism of certain classical institutions (which of course is still needed but without compromises – if these institutions at all have any reason to exist!) since it is mostly classically trained musicians that have been dealing with it. In this way, the italian Gruppo di improvisazione Nuova Consonanza, the swedish Harpans Kraft and Stockhausen’s group helped to turn certain concepts upside down.

I can add that group improvisation with a leader also exist in other forms, e.g. direction of different kinds, Butch Morris (New York) that directs rather big orchestras, Rova Saxophone Quartet (San Francisco) that direct each other and Sergei Kuryochin (Sankt Petersburg) who directed both musicians and other things in big happenings.

One of the first groups that was doing free improvised music, as opposed to “free jazz”, in sweden was Iskra, started 1970 and existing more than 20 years. Their first record (1975) sounds like anything is allowed to happen, and the idea to improvise opens up for a democratic playfulness. African rhythms, drones, groove, folk music and general noise have been parts of their music.

The oldest still existing swedish free improvising group is Lokomotiv Konkret. Their first record (1978) is partly powerful in Peter Brötzmann style, partly influenced by Anthony Braxton’s stylishness and rich inventiveness but also has an “english” element. They still have one of the strongest voices in scandinavia, but now without any jazz element.

Is there anything unique, characteristic, for free improvisation?

An improvisor wants to be honest and true-hearted in real time (something hard enough), and not only true to an idea.

Sometimes, free improvisation should be described as a genre, on the same level as other genres, but some improvisors are opposed to that. Derek Bailey has argued that it isn’t a kind of music, but a way to do music, and that of course is striking. But, that applies to many other, maybe all genres, even if these haven’t stressed it explicitly. There are also examples of improvised “zapping” between styles, by e.g. Eugene Chadbourne, Jon Rose and Micha Mengelberg. But the “zapping” is also a style, maybe, just as there is an “english” style of many varieties, a norwegian “fjord jazz improvisation”, a massive noise-style, a happening-like comic style, the slamming style of the rock generation, a meditative ambient style, an abstract electronic or concrete sound collage style. But they are more or less subgroups. I think I belong myself to all of them to different degrees.

Free improvisation isn’t always “avant-garde”. The wish to be surprised is often there, but that can be said about many musical styles.

Many improvising musicians are multi-instrumentalists, many are using unusual sound sources and objects to make sound on, some build their own instruiments. In this way these are a breed between contemporary artists that mix many materials and methods, and contemporary composers that research unusual sounds from instruments or make electronic or half-electronic sound collages.

So, it’s impossible to define free improvisation by stylistic generalizations, but that’s also difficult with other styles. And it is a problem only if you need to define, not if you’re going to play. You can say “often” and “sometimes”, and as soon as you hear the next improvised concert the definiton might be wrong again.

Is there a contradiction between improvisation and composition?

Many improvising musicians also deal with more prestructured music. They don’t always see a radical difference between these activities.

For many other improvising musicians, though, the difference between improvisation and composition is a central criterium. But there are of course other criteria that can be important, and maybe even more important, than this distinction.

Does free improvisation have an ideology?

Many improvisors have ideological ideas, even though the drive is the desire to play itself. (The term “experimental”, which sometimes is put on improvisation, is confusing: you play the music you desire and decided to play. No defined hypothesis is put to test. From another point of view, improvisation is in it’s nature experimental: it means a putting to test new ideas and attempts to follow them up, one by one or collectively. And actually, it’s often in the concerts themselves, that the inventions and the discoveries, musically, appear, since you often want to avoid to be inhibited by achieved techniques.)

When the free music wave came back to USA – this time to the white USA, first to Henry Kaiser in San Francisco, then to Birmingham in Alabama, where Davey Williams and LaDonna Smith are pioneers. They started in the 70’s, are anarchists and surrealists and have made a point of including people that are not musicians. Here, the music is also part of a totality to change life and the world where hierarchies, repression and self-repression are broken down and everybody participate in the poetical transformation of life. In some cases the quality of the music comes in the background to give room for other poetical purposes. It becomes liberating rituals, which haven’t only been of “therapeutic” significance but inspired professional as well as amateur musicians to create by themselves, who otherwise would have given up in the sick and dangerous suspiciousness against different people that USA and many other places in our world are soaked in.

Davey Williams has written a lot about free improvisation and often made parallels to surrealism. He has likened improvisation to a dream state, and compared it to automatism, which the first surrealists called the medium-like state of mind they put themselves in to write, like “freely improvised”, without conscious control.

What’s the point of improvisation?

I don’t think a musician has a duty to have any specific opinion about its music. But such an opinion is there anyway, implicitly. If you follow a convention, regardless of your reasons, you unfortunately contribute to its consolidation. But a consciousness about it immediately makes it less certain.

William Blake said that you change the world also when you sleep. It is important what we do or not do, dream or not dream, and improvise or not improvise. Surrealism wants to abolish the contradictions between dream and waked state, or with the concepts of Herbert Marcuse, between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. It’s a desire towards freedom, a will away from market thinking, watch, borders, money and bosses. But that is or should be a natural part of all artistic work.

Few free improvisors make the connection to surrealism, and few surrealists are associated with free improvisation. But for me they are inseparable. My playing has caught a lot of inspiration from a.o. Hal Rammel, surrealist, improvisor and inventor in Wisconsin.

Davey Williams also wrote: “We don’t need anyone to tell us what to dream, why should we need anyone to tell us what to play?” In this way, many improvisors think and feel. When you talk to them, it is usually about how it sounds, and how communication works or not. The important is a “real time” adventure and to meet as free and equal creative individuals. And too much guidance or direction is disturbing.

More than that it’s impossible to say about the ideology of free improvisation. However, there are people that think that the term “free improvisation” gives the impression that we proclaim ourselves as liberated. When an improvisor (sometimes coarsely and stupidly) defend their music with ideological arguments, we are attacked for having the opinion that the music would have a contained “message” of freedom, or that itself or its musicians would constitute “examples” of freedom. Unfortunately, this is considerably exaggerated and a coarse misconception ...

I can take myself as an example: as I had a surrealist viewpoint, I first wanted to see automatism as equal to free improvisation, until I found out that free improvisors mostly didn’t think in these terms, rather (if at all) in political. Automatism is in my present opinion a special case of free improvisation, where the music appears to be created by itself and the contradictions between thought and action, mind and body, sender and receiver, disappear in the musician. It probably happens for many musicians without them thinking about it, it doesn’t have to be a purpose. Many musicians probably want to avoid it! One that coarsely says he does automatic, and not improvised, music is the noise musician Masami Akita (Merzbow).

Improvisation is of course a kind of “artistic creativity in the moment” where the unconscious plays a greater role than in other activities. For Cecil Taylor, to play in a state of trance is more important than if it’s improvised or not. For other improvisors, the central point is to always have a free choice, like for the swedish philosopher and improvisor Christian Munthe. What you use as a description is a mirror of what you think is important yourself. In reality it might be quite similar?

To draw conclusions from what the musicians are doing, one fellow attitude is a principal openness that unpredicted things might appear at any moment, and are welcome to do it. A kind of amiability and friendliness in principle in the method, to the sounds, the instruments, the fellow musicians, to the moment. You have to be able to make music out of whatever comes! In principle, because sometimes ideals of the sound quality takes over and contradicts the will to be surprised, according to character and mood. Moreover, there are of course limits to how much you can tolerate disturbing “surprises” from drunk audience, cash machines and other predictably miserable “unpredictability”.

Who has freedom?

If the definition of “free” in improvisation is only freedom from rules, it becomes difficult to understand why you want to do any kind of sound. The freedom you chose, what do you use it for? Why not just be lazy, and be content with feeling free? Freedom, we have been taught, is to be able to express ourselves and to be able to choose what to do. It’s about being able to, and to be allowed to do things, not about what you actually do. What do we have to express? What should we choose? For me, this kind of music is about making poetical actions, and by doing it in public hopefully inspire others to take their liberties, as it is rightly called. “Freedom” is empty, but poetry is freedom with erotic substance. So we come from the question of freedom to the will to poeticize life and eroticize reality.

For a musician, this freedom is probably often paradoxically used to develop rules. It’s the rules that let the sounds communicate as music, but neither rules, nor sounds, can create music alone.

Improvisation is a meeting-place, where it is possible that freedom, the moment and beauty can become identical, the privilege of this kind of music. It is a strength in this beauty, which can integrate chaos, chance and surprises instead of seeing them as a threat.

Free improvisation is a room where you can expand freedom, examine the possibilities of freedom, experiment with the possibilities of life and invent new freedoms. Davey Williams again: “Free improvisation is not an activity resulting from freedom, but an activity aiming towards freedom”.

This freedom is addictive and contagious. A new landscape is opening and the first time it happens it’s awesome. Before you experience it you can’t know that it exists. Many artists have described this with different words – unfortunately sometimes in religious terms. This spot in the mind corresponds to a human potential of enormous powers, through which probably a lot of difficult problems could be solved.


Derek Bailey: Improvisation: its Nature and Practice in Music, 2nd ed.

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Updated the 23rd of March 2010.