A thread about improvisation

One of my favourite things to do is to take little musical journeys. I’ll start off reading about/listening to something, discover related things that I read about/listen to and repeat. Today I ended up here:

Evan Parker is a name I know but honestly not someone I have consciously listened to before. Really love the mix of electronic and acoustic elements in the video.

Improvisation is something I have always had an interest in. It’s not something I have really done that much of with others though. I played in a band for a while where the process of composition was often started/influenced by improvisations we’d play. But, never has improvisation been the focus of a performance. This is something I’d quite like to change. I may have to stop being quite so much of a hermit first and actually make some (local) musical links!

Anyway, here’s a thread about improvisation. Share some music, your thoughts, your experiences. I’m interested to read what you think.


This is a thought that has been occurring to me with increasing frequency.


Do it! Start your own scene. You’ll be surprised how many others come out of the woodwork to share your passion. May take a little time to find them, but they’re there. So many people just wait for others to lead. Put your hand up.


Definitely get out and meet people, make music with them, and generally cross pollinate as much as possible!

Everything I do on the modular synth is improvised with a variety of techniques. I don’t use a conventional keyboard, MIDI control, computer sequencing etc. (though I am trying to cheat with my recently acquired teletype). I do live sets ranging up to about two hours, sometimes with a collaborator (guitar, violin, etc.) or as part of a small ensemble. Genres range from atonal experimental to melodic ambient to acid techno, each requiring a different attitude and technical approach.

I call the modular my “portable orchestra”, and after nearly 6 years I continue to be surprised at how expressive an instrument it can be. I also play piano, guitar, and some wind instruments–the modular is every bit their equal to me.

YES, absolutely. I did exactly that a little over three years ago: there was no scene in San Diego where an analog synth dork would fit in, so I put together an event. I had no experience in putting on shows, but no one cared! People just showed up and started finding ways to contribute. After a while doing a monthly show focused on analog instruments, I had a resident DJ, resident visual artist, and had introduced a lot of people to each other. Now some others have stepped in who are better at promoting and I’ve mostly stopped hosting club shows. There’s always somewhere to play now, and it’s wonderful to see the scene grow.

Here are a few live set clips, all improvised on about 9U of Eurorack and sometimes using a Roland TR-8 for untz:





My own journey into improvisation started just over a year ago. This - after studying and making electronic music for over 30 years, was quite a shift for me. Most of my music in that period took months of contemplation, conceptualization, and programming prior to performance.

By a twist of fate, I participated in some group electronic improv. last November. By January I was organizing weekly get togethers. And in February I formed a band around it, Punjabi Tea House. Now, a year later, we’ll play our first public gig on January 12 at El Rio in San Francisco. It’s been quite a year for me!

I admit that for a very long time I found it difficult to disassociate the idea of improvisation from the genre of jazz free improvisation (like the Evan Parker video). This later sort has a well established scene here in the San Francisco bay area, but isn’t really my cup of tea. Stumbling on folks interested in making music in a more beat oriented synth style has been awakening.

For 2017, my aim is to get out an play more in public - though finding it hard to find a suitable scene and venues up here in SF… @jnoble, maybe I need to come down to San Diego!


For those in SF Bay Area - I still organize open electronic improv. nights in Mountain View, about once a month or so. In fact, we’ve got one coming up on Jan 2nd, (“ringmod in the new year”?) - If you’re interested, message me.


If you want to learn improvisation, listen to Miles Davis. A lot. People say he never played a phrase the same way twice. Keyboardist Keith Jarret also used to do full two to three hour long concerts totally improvised and never lost his audience.

Improvisation can mean different things to different people. But it’s probably safe to say that the best improvisers know their instrument and the frameworks of music fully.


(still wrestling with moving shit, but can’t resist chiming into this thread)

I find improvising to be one of the most satisfying, challenging, and inspiring creative acts to engage in. It can be a tricky thing to get in to, largely dependent on your musical background, as some styles/approaches/instruments lend themselves (historically) well to improvisation.

I definitely suggest getting out and meeting people, if for no other reason that there are people likely in the same exact position as you, so getting together and playing can be a big growing experience.

I also find talking (critically) about improvisation to be very important. There’s an old school mindset where “you don’t talk about improv”, which I think is a big copout. So improvise some, record yourself, listen to yourself, and maybe write down what you think. And/or play with others, and talk about how it went. Did you enjoy it? What did you enjoy? Why?

And listen to lots of other people improvising, both good and bad. I find that I take a lot away from listening to a ‘bad’ improvisation too as I get to unpack what I didn’t like about it.

Aside performing and making videos, being part of a monthly improv night has been a huge part of my development as an improviser. I’ve played in hundreds of trios now at this point (10 year anniversary coming up this year!) Being thrown in that position over and over again (as well as listening to people being thrown in that position over and over again) has been invaluable. So if there’s some kind of ‘open mic’ thing that’s open ended, I can highly suggest getting into that.


Or you can just wing it, man.


This. :slight_smile:

“If it sounds good, it is good.”
–Duke Ellington

Keep doing it and eventually you’ll have your own style.


Still a thread about music improvisation? Meaningful results aren’t produced simply by winging it. Not in music or much anything else. That’s just an inexperienced approach to it.

Sure, you’ll find a buddy who thinks you’re doing something awesome. Maybe that’s all you’re interested in.

Real musical improv is a lifelong endeavor in understanding. Suggest you do a bit of investigation before writing it off as just something as unaccomplished that winging it will do.

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I’ve been winging it for nearly 40 years. :wink:

I decided to record my winging it and had the three resulting albums picked up by my very favorite netlabel.

There’s more than one way to do this.

Merry Christmas!


Define “meaningful” in the context of improvisation. Or even within music itself.


@Toaster his choice of miles and keith is telling

it seems obvious that @carvingcode has a different frame of reference than you when it comes to improvisational beauty (both aesthetics & technique)

this is fine

we can each share thoughts about this freely if we acknowledge that our views are our views


which makes me curious…what makes you value jazz improv so highly? is this what you play too @carvingcode?


i agree wholeheartedly with the first statement

but i don’t think toaster was being dismissive of improvisation as an art

he has a totally different concept and definition than the angle you are used to

i can appreciate what you meant by citing and recommending jazz legends (especially after thread launched w/ evan parker) but there is more to improvisation than jazz

theres more to improv than acoustic virtuosity
theres certainly more to improv than formal western conventions


Like @glia, I agree with the last sentence there, but I think some of the rest of your post falls into a romanticising of hard work or sweat as Anthony Braxton would put it (though he’s coming from a race/class pespective).

It can be important to take something seriously, but that is not the be-all-end-all, and one can certainly arrive at great improvisation without that, especially if one is working outside the context of traditional instrumental virtuosity.

[quote=“carvingcode, post:14, topic:5835”]
Meaningful results aren’t produced simply by winging it[/quote]

And not to come off as glib, but when it comes to improvisation specifically, I think the exact opposite is the case. And not necessarily in the obvious ‘winging it = improv’ way, but in the fact (I think) that you need to be fresh, naive, and in danger when you improvise otherwise you risk just being the articulating body for your context and frames of reference (and/or “licks” in a traditional sense), which is fine if that’s what you’re in to. And to paraphrase Cage, in I’m sure what would be a disagreeable context to him given his dislike/distrust of improvisation, I improvise to hear the music I haven’t heard yet, not the music I have.



havent gone beyond superficial study of cage and this fact eluded me

makes sense tho

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Yeah he’s pretty fundamentally opposed to the idea of improvisation. In that his whole thing was about using random processes to step outside of yourself, and saw improvisation as the perfect example of the opposite of this, just people regurgitating licks, absolutely limited by their experience as performers.

I can see where he’s coming from, but it’s definitely a misinformed position to take, or rather, a really good example of a composer’s opinion about improvisation.

I have definitely played things beyond myself in improvisation (not specifically physically, but including that too), and I don’t believe that to be unusual among improvisers.


Some interesting points above. While I very much appreciate the “virtuoso” improvisation of say, Miles Davis, I certainly subscribe to the view that it is not the only type that has meaning, for an individual performing or the audience listening.

To give some personal frames of reference (in no particular order):


king crimson

improvised music from japan




Just ‘meaningful’. Standard dictionary meaning will suffice.