A thread about improvisation


Sigh… the gig was canceled… :frowning: Still looking for venues…


what exactly

is it


a goat

to float?


Bumping an old thread as I finally started reading Derek Bailey’s book ‘Improvisation. It’s Nature and Practice in Music’ and wanted to leave a quote from it here which sums up how I feel about improvising very well.

“The learning process in improvisation is invariably difficult to detect. Although a large number of books and courses are available it seems impossible to find a musician who has actually learned to improvise from them. The great majority of these studies concern themselves either with organ improvisation, the earliest of which appeared over 200 years ago, or conventional jazz. And the instruction offered usually concerns the manipulation of scalar and harmonic ingredients in those particular styles. What they have to say is, in most cases, helpful for an appreciation of those idioms and, naturally, an understanding of the idiom is essential in order to improvise in it. But, a discourse which concerns itself exclusively with pitch relationships - melodic or harmonic - can say practically nothing about that which is essentially to do with improvisation.”


I love Derek Bailey’s book. But that being said, a group of myself and three other musicians have started having some good luck using John Steven’s Search and Reflect as a text to train ourselves (or maybe it would be better to say entrain ourselves) to each other. It’s not “how to improv” so much as “how to play together in time and in key, with plenty of flexibility leaving the possibility of improv open” (if that makes sense?) Anyway, highly recommended!


It does make sense although in my case the type of improvisation I am intrigued by relies more on things that are not related to being certainly in key and to a somewhat lesser degree, in time.

In the situations I have found myself in over the years the main thing making improvisation work has been a familiarity with the people I’ve been playing with. You know, that great feeling when you all just intuitively know what each other is going to do next and everyone reacts accordingly. That might be where a framework of sorts like the book you mention may help facilitate the process.



What I like about the book, I’ve been describing it as “sneaky music theory” or “theory without the theory”. Which really just means “establishing a shared musical language with your bandmates”. Chapter 2 jumps right into microtones, so you needn’t worry about it being overly traditional-European in approach.

It’s a learn by doing sort of book. Simply reading it wouldn’t get you anywhere.


Sneaky music theory. I like that!

At work I do lots around person centred planning. Quite often with people who the option of a plan is quite alien to. I call it " stealth planning" - you have to wear black :wink:


I am also mainly an improvisor/composer, having played jazz and experimental/free music for a long time. I definitely see firsthand how building a language with your bandmates can really help long term. I used to lead a band called ‘Glows in the Dark’ and we developed our own approach to concepts, like open improv in key, and using the 5 members as a soloist and 2 separate duos, and all sorts of things. Even though we haven’t played together in awhile, I still play with members in new projects, and I’ve found that we can continue to expand on these concepts we developed sometimes 10 years earlier, just because of the familiarity and open-ness we developed on the bandstand.


even better when “reacting accordingly” in this situation = doing something unanticipated/uncharacteristic


Reacting accordingly definitely could be doing something unanticipated/uncharacteristic :slight_smile:
Depends on the situation and context I think.


AMM and the people around them took a radical political approach based on free improvisation.
AMM @ matchlessrecordings

The linner notes of their AMMMusic album is a real manifesto.

Eddie Prevost one of the members of the group has written various books about the practice and concept of free improvisation:

  • No Sound Is Innocent: AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention
  • Minute Particulars

Worth mentioning is also the writings of pianist John Tilbury


Do you happen to know where to get a copy of either of those Prévost books? Can’t find digital or physical copies anywhere, sadly.


not cheap but one book here:



in europe try: matchlessrecordings (the publisher) or rermegacorp
I suggest to go with No Sound Is Innocent first…

By the way, here are the linner notes of the AMMMusic album that contain the 13 aphorisms.
AMMMusic Liner Notes.pdf (129.1 KB)


I feel like the word “improvisation” has too many preconcieved connotations in my mind, often connected to virtuosic rock or jazz players. People playing in their own bubble simultaneously, as someone said earlier in this thread. I like to substitute the phrase “spontaneous composition” for “improvisation” to reorient myself. Go from here to somewhere else without a defined road map, trying to make it sound purposeful even if it isn’t. I find this has helped me stay in touch with the movement of sound from moment to moment rather than just getting as far out as possible, and maybe I get pretty far out anyways.

But that’s just, like, my opinion :wink:


John Cage and Rahsaan Roland Kirk Sound-- 1966)


John Zorn - Cobra - On Improvisation (1992)
From a Derek Bailey’s film “On The Edge” (1992)



re: AMM, and more specifically, writing about improvisation. I’ve found Eddie Prevost’s writing to be almost impenetrable and not easily engaging. John Tilbury’s playing, on the other hand, is beautiful. The Just Reproach, with Oren Ambarchi (guitar, electronics), is a great example of good Improvisation, imo (of course) - it also helps to recognize when the players themselves are listening, and not talking over one another–babbling, with a total disregard for each other.

Acoustic, electronic, electro-acoustic improvisation etc. doesn’t necessarily need to be tied to an idiom / style / genre / whatever… I think (with music and sound art), a lot of it has to do with listening… it’s fascinating to hear how people react to one another, the choices they make (musical gestures, choosing to not play etc.), and where they end up, sonically. I think people get caught up in predetermined musical language, and it’s refreshing to hear music that doesn’t rely so much on a ‘bag of tricks’, as it does on sensitivity and a “fresh approach”, for lack of a better idea / description.

I was delighted to find a recent, unfamiliar Tilbury recording on Bandcamp - http://konvojrecords.bandcamp.com/album/seagull-sonatas - and I’m happy to report that it’s good.

another favorite (not involving John Tilbury) - http://cathnor.bandcamp.com/album/boring-embroidery - this one’s excellent.


Thanks for the recommendations - love a lot of stuff on Cathnor (that weird Marc Baron record!), but haven’t listened to this one yet.

Speaking of AMM, I’m currently reading David Toop’s excellent Into the Maelstrom, and it turns out that one of his main sources on the group (and the general period/milieu in which it was formed) is an unpublished dissertation by Seymour Wright, himself a wonderfully enigmatic improvisor. Wonder if there’s any way of tracking that down…


I think Derek Bailey’s book is still the best on the subject, because, while he had a quite strict aesthetic-ethic to his practice (much like the AMM folks), his book really avoids preaching a certain kind of improv and is more about cataloging the different ways improvisation weaves through different kinds of musics and traditions and letting other voices than his own speak about it.

I could say a bunch of other theoretical thing about improv here… but one of the basic truths about it I’ve found from my own work is: you need to practice a lot. Like anything practice practice practice. People often think improvisers don’t or can’t rehearse (otherwise it’s somehow a composition), while the opposite is true. We need to be playing constantly and in doing train our ears to listen.