A thread about improvisation


Emphasis mine.

I disagree entirely that electronic tools (aka instruments) are not advanced enough. My modular synth (to pick something at random) is as capable of advanced musical expression as anything, whether that be melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, emotionally, or any other -ally you can think of.

For sure there is plenty of bad electronic improvisation, just as their is bad “traditional” instrumental improvisation, but I think your quote above is more true of poor collaboration skills than anything inherent in any type of instrument. And this gets amplified when instrumentalists from different worlds collide, and spend more time playing what THEY know, when they should be listening more.

In the right, sympathetic hands, with no planning, a rock and, say, a Commodore 64, could happily improvise music together.


I hear where you are coming from, but I think that’s one of the reasons that most people who work with electronics (in an improvised context at least) end up being part luthier/programmer/technician. You build the instrument you then learn how to play.

And in a more general sense, it depends on what you want from the instrument too. For example, there are things that a computer can do (and aid a performer with) that would never be possible otherwise. (a simple example of this would be real-time audio analysis being used to control processing parameters)

I couldn’t help but smile at the accidental (?) pun in this context.


It was improvised. As in, completely accidental, but entirely on purpose, upon reflection. :wink:


So, on improvisation - I had the honor of playing with Mike Metlay’s Different Skies group twice - once in 2007, and once in 2010. The concept of DS is to bring a group of musicians, usually around 20, together in one spot for a week with the goal of giving an hour-and-a-half concert at the end of the week.

Some folks brought worked-out pieces, ready to be assigned; others brought basic “fake book” charts; yet others brought ideas for pieces; and some brought their instruments and a willingness to listen to what was going on to make a piece of it.

In addition to the daily rehearsals (about 8 hours a day, with a break for lunch), evenings after dinner to about 10PM were “all-star jam” time - everyone’s faders up, and improvisation with no cues other than listening to what was happening and making a contribution - and of course the recorder was running, capturing it all. The 2010 all-star jams were standouts - Mike was able to pull two full CD’s worth of compositions out of the Wednesday and Thursday jams alone, when we’d really gotten to know each other musically. (There were a couple other years with great results, too; I just didn’t happen to play then.) There’s a recording of the concert, which is fine, but the jams were much better that year, when the wordless communication happened and something unplanned but beautiful, or hair-raising, or mind-expanding would happen.

Mike did it for 10 years, and I only wish I could have gone every year.


File under: for debate// two pence worth//happy to be trolled:

I do love a lot of music labelled as improvisation. I hate lot of it too.

It is one of those loaded slightly superior tags that get lauded about and I am naturally suspicious of any claim that improvised music somehow has more worth than other kinds. More worth than composed and planned music? well clearly thats stupid. It ties in with that counter culture notion that composers are fascist dictators. yeah, sure… but composed music doesnt really need sticking up for . Where improv really gets snobby is over its less educated close cousin ’ Jamming’.Not sure where this is going to go but lets keep in a key and have a beat…god, how scummy is that. Improvisions and pre composing are both tactics. the worst thing to be said about Improv is that it has that improv feel to it, figity, a genre like all the others- to often running scared of the riff. Of course, there are lots of wonderful things to be said about it too.

And as a ps, especially if you read The Wire, ‘extended techniques’, ‘deep listening’…


It gets a bit religious doesn’t it? Thou shalt this, thou shall not that.

Well, you know what I say?

Monolase app

I think the problem I had for a long time with improv was that I would try to enjoy it on the same terms I enjoy arranged music.

Not that certain qualities are exclusive to either approach. But perhaps arrangements give more consideration to space and contrast. Or communicating a specific mood, a unified voice or a recognisable direction. Something more obvious to hold on to, to contemplate.

Improv can seem broken or disparate. Like each player is in their own bubble. Virtuosity for the sake of it etc. I believe this is where the perceived pointlessness comes from. But then if it’s hitting you right it can be quite special. The ultimate one off. Humans indulging like they’re part of a post scarcity society. Each player is in their own bubble. A completely free individual but an integral part of a courageous tribe. From Jupiter.

It can be bad for sure. The infinite solo that sounds like a random number generator. But when somebody is blazing you pick up on the emotion. And you can certainly hear it. I think we’re pretty good at detecting authenticity. Same goes for more ‘intellectual’ improv. If it sounds ‘smart’ then i’m bored. It’s a fine line and respect to those who give it go, because as a musician I find the idea difficult and terrifying.

I studied classical guitar for a few years and can pick up a guitar and go for a long time without knowing precisely what I’ll do next. I’ve accumulated lots of small pieces that serve as possible tangents, kind of like a mind map. Each time I play - a new variation is added to the mind map. It feels great to play but I would never consider it to be good music. It’s a little habitual and I tend to be more surprised by something like an unusual work flow experiment.

But I’d love to have the chops/confidence to explore this more as part of a group making electronic-ish things.
And I really like what @Rodrigo said about building the instrument you then learn how to play.





[quote=“dylanw, post:67, topic:5835”]
I think the problem I had for a long time with improv was that I would try to enjoy it on the same terms I enjoy arranged music.[/quote]

There are definitely “modes of listening”, which apply to tons of different kinds of music (controlled studio listening, live rock band, dance party, etc…), whereas what you are listening to, or “the carrier of content” varies based on the context. Same goes for historical context too.

I agree, but I wouldn’t say that’s necessarily a characteristic of ‘improvisation’ or ‘improvised music’, but rather speaks of the type of person that is typically drawn to that. Those people would (probably) make shitty arranged music too, so it likely doesn’t matter how they are making it.

Reminds me of the way that people often use improvisation as a negative qualifier.

I’m not a fan of jazz, much less piano jazz, but Thelonious Monk is a fucking badass.


yes, me too :slight_smile:
what if we don’t wanna play military rudiments
t.monk is amazing, because he is obviously 'making things up
so’s rakim
and yet, piano is a percussion instrument
and it can sound really beautiful
bill evans talking to his brother,
echos your statements on improv-

'a professional musician must fight to preserve the naiveté that a layman already possess…
-bill evans



(that’s a great Evans quote too)


thank you @Rodrigo
you inspire us :slight_smile:


thank you @Rodrigo, great points/clarification you make here and in your blog post.

I feel I leveled up a tiny bit by reading it. You made clear some things that were hazy for me. Looking forward to reading more about dfscore when I have a moment and more of your writing in general.


if a goat floats, anything goes

^is that the saying?

(edit: no Rod, that’s not an actual saying :grin:)


I was going with “whatever floats your goat”, but that works too.


’there’s no jazz anymore…


…bonus points for best-titled phd thesis of all time.


said better than i could:

Was this completely free-improv? Or did you have a little bit of structure planned for the performance?

Marclay: It wasn’t our first performance together, so we’re used to our sounds. But it was a total improv.

Lee: We don’t plan anything. It’s really really about being on the spot and creating something together.

Marclay: That’s the magic of improvisation. You hope for the best. Never know what’s going to happen, [or] where one musician will lead you. And it doesn’t matter how much you plan—if we even plan anything—it’s never gonna go there. It’s going where sounds are leading us. But of course it’s a risk. You take a risk; it can fail, right? And it does sometimes. [laughs]

Lee: But I think that’s what makes improvisation special, because you really have to draw upon everything you know—as musicians and human beings, in a way. It’s all about responding as a person, and not as a machine.


I love that place. How did it go?


I’m glad someone finally brought hip hop and freestyling into this discussion.

Shit is too swift to bite, you record then write it down