Thinking Out Loud – Improvisation, Complexity and Repeatability

Part 2 of me thinking out loud (I’m adding this opening paragraph 1300 words into this, so I know already that this contains some quite epic conjecture and points that desperately need backing up/refuting with actual research… which is great, as that’s kind of the point 🙂 )


So, in defining what improvisation actually is, I want to get into an interrogation of the context within which whatever it is exists. I’m fascinated by the historical transformation in our perceptions of what ‘music’ even is, as highlighted in Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay ‘The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction‘.

Mechanical reproduction made a few things possible that were never even imaginable before – a lot of the stuff that Benjamin gets into is about the cultural impact of dissemination – access outside of the sacred turf of the concert hall and the gallery, the loss of space as part of the curated experience of art. But perhaps even more important for music is the possibility of repetition without memory. And exact repetition at that. Reproduction not re-performance. No subtle changes, no advantaging to the skill of being about to do a thing the same over and over again, just the ability to do a thing really well and then let technology take over so that everyone can hear that one time you did the amazing thing.

So, let’s back up a little – what were the factors in repeatability and its counterpart ‘knowability‘ – the properties of being able to be known – what were the mechanisms of recall, what were the methods of transmission that dictated how we perceived, shared, performed and experienced music?

The two umbrella concepts were memory and notation. Music was either heard, remembered and recalled or it was performed after transmission via notation. But notation required a quite specific set of process learning – both interpreting the score and its annotations, but also a sense of what the piece was *supposed* to sound like, transmitted by either teacher, or fellow performers – the ability to read music is quite distinct from the ability to turn it into music, and the interface between the interpretive skills around notation and the performative ones on your instrument are where creativity, choice and serendipity come in.

The transmission of expectation in terms of how a written piece was supposed to be played was essentially dynastic, or haphazard. It’d be really interesting to know if local consensuses formed around the ‘right’ way to perform certain kinds of work… did Germans play Mozart differently from people in England? Who were the renowned teachers who influenced the development of performance methodology? How did instrument design move things forward but also detach performance from its original intent? All things I may end up looking into if this concept forms a part of my write-up (feel free to post links to relevant scholarship in the comments below!)

Anyway, both memory and notation have an influence on the development of musical form – reliance on memory favours the memorable. What constitutes the memorable is a fascinating area of study, but a couple of things are clear – one is simplicity. The development of memory-related skills starts simple and builds up to increasing levels of complexity. Therefor within the pyramid of memory-based performance, the simpler the piece, the greater the number of possible performers. Alongside that, obviously, you’d also have the pejoratisation of the simplicity/complexity continuum. Some things would be perceived as too simplistic for the advanced players to WANT to play (this still happens – see almost all white, middle-aged guitar players for evidence).

But if you can crack the simplicity/acceptability double, you’re in.

There’s another factor here though, which relates more directly to improv – and that’s the way that things are more memorable if the elements are familiar. The building of a vocabulary within a style, or a familiarity with a particular set of musical happenings makes remembering things based on them that much easier. My friend and collaborator Andy Edwards can traverse odd time signatures with a fluidity and ease that baffles me. It’s not that he’s magically ‘better’ than me. More that, through repeat exposure, the template for those other forms is familiar to him. When I hear a thing in 13/8, I only hear the thing, not the world of 13/8. When Andy hears it, he already has within his musical arsenal as a performer, composer and listener, myriad ways to *understand* 13/8. Ways to subdivide it that tell different stories, he’s able to recall multiple stylistic contexts for deploying it, and can then as a composer or improvisor, draw on that prior familiarity to let the music evolve. In the context of one of the core themes of this PhD stuff, odd time familiarity opens him to a whole load of new idiomatic elements without our shared pan-idiomatic landscape.

So simplicity is not a fixed state. Simplicity has as much to do with familiarity and stylistic proximity as it does to ‘metric complexity’ – the numbers of notes, the diffusion of rhythmic elements, the lack of short-term repetition is far less baffling for those expecting it, familiar with it’s precedents, than it is to the novice listener.

The combination of the limiting factors of that which was seen as possible to convey with standard notation (as George E Lewis points out, the European Classical tradition was tied to conventional scoring and devoid of improvisation for 150 years from 1800-1950 (Lewis, 1996) ), and the role that memory played in prioritising the kinds of musical development that most easily gained traction, that combination influenced the speed of change within music and therefor the sense of conservativism in the way that music developed. Or, at least, the degree to which developmental diversions were rendered invisible. There is, I guess, a whole fascinating area of fictive historical writing to be developed around crypto-musicology – imagining the kinds of things that could’ve been developing in the houses of the poor across Europe in ways that could never ever filter into the wider consciousness. An ultra-local acceptance and love of microtonality thanks to an old piano being untunable? A broken violin being fixed in a way that gave a completely different sound and set of slack tuned possibilities, much beloved by the family, but invisible beyond the walls of the home, and only possible as a development due to the extended benevolent tolerance of the family environment….

We can surmise about the hyperlocal because the history of improvisation actually does give us some clues about the way that localisations developed – one of the comparisons I get my students to do as part of the Music In Context class I teach is to compare and contrast the upringings of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong – born 2 years apart, but growing up in the different worlds of a relatively middle class upbringing the north eastern US vs the deprivation of being black and poor in the deep south in the early 1900s… A localisation of both musical exposure and life opportunity… the parallels are as interesting as the divergence…

Anyway, all of these limitations changed for ever with the advent of recording. The possibilities to document and disseminate music that contained improvised/extemporised elements brought with them a gradual erosion of the primacy of geographical specificity – an association that often lived on as a brand identity long after it was a result of isolation (see New Orleans Jazz), but also allowed music that was created on the spur of the moment to exist without being easily notable or memorable on first hearing. There was all of a sudden a very real forward lurch in the role of serendipity in the process of defining the zeitgeist.. The sense that ‘magic‘ happened in certain performances was now documentable, and then frameable as hyperbole or ‘fact‘. Discussion of the validity of different types of improvisation were now supportable without having those musicians in front of you and no longer reliant on remembering the specifics of what had just been played. But musicians were also apt to play things that were no longer reliant on being notatable to be transmitted. The development of an integral musical complexity beyond the notatable was already at play long before notation grew beyond the standard European musical staff. Louis Armstrong’s phrasing and elegance with a melody would be almost impossible to notate with any level of accuracy in standard notation, and to do so would prioritise the significance of one particular improvised performance over another. That tendency was already built into the recording process – and would remain an immutable defining tendency within popular music until well into the digital age. Still, very few artists have begun to truly explore what it may mean to self document to the point where one’s catalogue of work is more significant than the elevation of any single performance as ‘the one’.

In short, repeatability changed everything. With repeatability came the possibility to present a work as ‘difficult’, to even intentionally brand it as such, and suggest that a number of listens were required to ‘get it’, without the need to convince performers to act as intermediaries. Instead, the mediators were radio, were record shops, were journalists and culture writers. Recordings changed over time in their relationship to critical judgement, not because the performers subtly changed the music or its presentation, but because culture changed in relation to it. The role of the performer was no longer scarce and limited to being in one place at one time, but instead, the document of their work could be everywhere, being played over and over again. The epistemology of music became a much longer form concept – rather than every single experience of music being about a distinct performance that was witnessed, experienced and remembered, the music could be a fixed entity and our relationship with it could change over time, the memory of the work and our understanding of its significance can factor in the expectation of future repeat experience, or our relationship with the recording can change with the environment within which we experienced it. Technology became a mediator of variance in our experience, replacing the role of the performer as mediator between composer and listener. Better hifi had an impact on our relationship with music, in a similar way to the role of the quality of a piano, or the acoustics of the room where we heard a piece performed. And just as instrument technology and the architecture of the likely venue for a piece would impact the compositional decisions of the composer, so the emerging and evolving aesthetic of recorded music was in response to the cultural norms around where and when people listened, and the rapidly improving quality of both the media (from wax cylinders to SACD) and the play back system.

But also, with this new relationship we forged with recordings came the expectation that the same music and experience could be had when seeing the person live. In the same way that a knowledge of the notated piece, or an accurate memory of a folk melody gave earlier work a sense of ‘right and wrong’ alongside ‘good and bad’, so recordings imposed on artists the wishes of an audience desiring a re-creation of the recorded experience. I’m guessing (needs research) that this was amplified over time as the quality of recordings got better (though as many people have documented – most recently David Byrne in his book How Music Works) the ability of audiences to kid themselves that early gramophone recordings played on shitty machines sounded like ‘the real thing’ was staggering…)

But improvisation was absolutely central to the early development of the recording industry, not least of all because it coincided with the development of jazz. As I’ve already noted, the transmission of Louis Armstrong’s ideas was pretty much inconceivable outside of the growth of recorded media. Acknowledged as one of the first to actually improvise entirely new melodies, rather than embellish the existing tune, Louis was and is a monumental figure in the history of jazz, and the availability of his recordings allowed others to learn from him without having to see him live…

But with recordings came a different way of perceiving a ‘hit’. The orchestral repertoire had hits – defined by both the popularity of a performance but also the ease with which the piece could be both remembered and recalled, or purchased and written down. The role of the economic context of the development of the music here can’t really be overstated – throughout the period of The Enlightenment the Story Of Ourselves became ever more complex, with structural tyrannies propped up by cultural tyrannies – the centuries old model of the church using art as a force for control and oppressive story-telling was easily co-opted into a narrative of cultural and intellectual superiority. And with the growth in the complexity and scale of written works we can see the squeezing out of improvisation from the Classical world – Mozart was, by contemporary accounts, a fabulous improvisor, and left room in his work for improvised/extemporised cadenzas. But by the time of Wagner and Mahler, improv had all but vanished. The reintroduction of improvisation into the European tradition had to wait til around 1950, by which point Jazz was half a century into its development, and black American music (from what Lewis calls the Afrological perspective) was developing a sophistication, a pedagogy and a relationship with the emerging technology and economies around music that left the experiments of those who saw themselves strictly within that European continuum with a quandary. Their previously unassailable position as the post-enlightenment arbiters of high culture was deeply threatened by a group of revolutionary black American improvisors, many of whom had taken their training in European art music and applied it to their unfolding development of jazz. But they also forged a far, far more significant relationship with the role of recordings in documenting and disseminating their work, perhaps because of their relationship to the Apartheid still at work in segregation era America – black musicians had to WORK, so their work was very much creative labour. Recordings had to be commercially viable, tours had to pay everyone’s wages, and their elevation to the role of stars and cultural icons was itself a deeply transgressive political move.

…I’ll stop there – I need to go and finish reading the George E Lewis article I referenced earlier: ‘Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives‘. Free free to join me and let me know what you think… I wasn’t really thinking of this as ending up as a political work, but of course, as soon as you start talking about improv, you get into a question of cultural appropriation, of cross cultural influence, and particularly in relation to audiences, a comparison with those cultures where improvisation forms to basis of MOST community music (a number of African cultures where improv is the basis of most ceremonial music, and often collaborative improv contributed to by the entire audience)… it’s going to take some proper digging for me to define the parameters of the broader cultural context within which my audience encounter my music, and what the outlying experiences are that draw people to it in ways that are a-typical.

fun times 🙂

4 Replies to “Thinking Out Loud – Improvisation, Complexity and Repeatability”

  1. Hello again!

    I’m loving reading these.

    “The two umbrella concepts were memory and notation.”

    Okay… but

    “Music was either heard, remembered and recalled or it was performed after transmission via notation.”

    Not quite, depending on how far back you go in Western music. Tonaries were written catalogues for memorizing chant, and there is enough evidence to suggest that notation aided the medieval “art of memory” (brief overview here:

    Even up to the 17th Century and with the primacy of notation as the method of transmitting music, the Notre Dame singers were expected to memorize songs. I wrote a bit about this here:

    1. Ahh, this is fab, Corey, thanks – that intersection of writing and memory has all kinds of lovely implications, especially notation’s origins as intentionally incomplete… It was always massively incomplete and I guess one of the worst conceits of the enlightenment was to assume that it could codify everything sufficiently, but creating a set of top down assumptions about acceptability for all those bits that weren’t capable of being notated. So the orchestra became a useful limiting factor that facilitated the illusion that notation was enough… Need to explore this more. The role of limiting factors and constraints on what audiences expect and experience is central to the PhD, so having these discussions is so so useful. 🙂

  2. Wow! All sounds cool and could be a break-through with the past (if that makes sense!)
    Which Uni are you studying at? They sound very progressive and I might drop them a line about my own modest stuff.
    Thanks. best and good luck, Dave.

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