Thinking out loud – Improvisation

So, as many of you know, I’ve started a PhD. I’m looking at Improvisation, specifically the audience experience of improvisation. And it’s ‘practice based’, so the real focus is the audience experience of my improvised music.

“Why not just look at improvised music, at playing it?” Good question, imaginary Internet questioner. I think the main motivations are that

  • this seems to be a massively under-explored area, and
  • I kind of know what I’m doing with improv – I could write it up and record a load of music, but I needed some other focus to help me dig deeper into it. Thinking more inwardly about what I do and why didn’t feel like a journey I needed to go on right now – at least, not any more than it’s already one that I’m on every waking hour of my life anyway…

So the audience experience, as it relates to my music, feels like a rich and worthwhile area of exploration for a number of reasons. Firstly, I get to interrogate the degree to which improvisation – which is utterly central to my identity, purpose, direction, practice and output as an ‘artist’ – is even a factor for my audience. I get to think about and explore what it means to record so much of my improvised work and make it available, and how a familiarity with that affects the experience of the audience, with how they ‘measure’ their experience when none of the ‘songs’ are ones they know – given that (given? time to research and prove this 😉 ) most people’s experience of going to see music live is going to hear music they already know, with slight variations, what draws people to go and see someone who doesn’t (or rarely) plays songs [aside: I’ve been through long periods in my music life when I did play songs – when the pieces that were improvised on record were then learned to be re-played. I have a set of those that I know. They are, for the most part, less interesting when played back than they were when they were first conceived – FWIW, Behind Every Word is the only album I’ve ever done where a significant number of the tracks were ‘worked on’, where there were multiple takes of any one composition, rather than a number of spontaneous improvisations around a theme that resulted in one piece that made it to the album… Another experience parallel to that – when Theo Travis and I recorded ‘For The Love Of Open Spaces’, we recorded two versions of every idea. The album is exclusively made up of the original versions. None of those were ideas that were discussed or planned, just improvised and recorded, then we’d ‘try that one again’. Every time, the improvisation was better than its interpretation] .

And connected to that audience connection with what’s being played and its connection to the recorded output, I’ll be able to look at what ‘the work’ is. We live in a world that claims to attach recognition most readily to songs – to melodies, hooks and words – a recognition tyrannically enshrined in copyright law, but we also have an entire heirarchy of ‘recognisability’ of sound. It’s often seen as a badge of honour for a musician to be recognisable from just a few notes. Indeed, that’s often regarded as one of the highest compliments payable to a musician. So in that context, what is ‘the work’? Is the development of a sound, and by extension of a vocabulary (sonic, rhythmic, melodic, harmonic, idiomatic…) actually the task at hand, and any recording or performance is just (hopefully very enjoyable) evidence of that process. The history of recorded media age has tended towards the veneration of artifact – records, and the occult processes required to make them, have been venerated above all other processes. With a few notable exceptions (the jam band scene in the US being one) large scale concert audiences have been preceded by large record sales and TV/Radio exposure. the recording was the thing, bolstered by ‘live reputation’. Where does this leave us with regards to improvising musicians? Perhaps I’ll be able to dig into the careers of a handful of musicians who have relied heavily on improv – The Grateful Dead, perhaps? Keith Jarrett?

One of the other things that really fascinates me is the way that improvisation becomes a vector of transgression – if someone imagines that the things I’m playing are written, what role does the emergent knowledge that they are improvised play in their experience, their memory and also their critique of the gig – is the ephemerality of the experience a source of frustration? Is it seen as ‘brave’ (I’m told it is) or foolhardy… is there a pull towards hearing music that conjures a preordained emotion (in the way that going to see a band whose album you’ve been listening to for a year would) that draws audiences to prefer artists to ‘learn’ improvisations in the way I used to… what’s the context for overcoming that? I’m reminded of a conversation with a student of mine who came to a gig of mine, and told me that he and his partner had a conversation on the way home after the gig, that partly centred around a discussion of whether it ‘worked’ live… An intriguing notion within the context of entirely improvised works. The recordings to which the gig experience was being compared were also one take improvised ‘live’ works. So a number of factors can be seen to be part of the framing of that experience –

  • The delivery (download/streaming vs being sat in the room watching it unfold – what degree the visual aspect plays, how body language contextualises surprises in the work, how the influence of other people’s visible reactions (positive or negative) affect one’s assessment of the work and experience of it),
  • Proximity (with recordings, having the ability to experience it without any consideration for the emotional state of the person making the music, or any sense that you may need to respond to them personally after the gig)
  • Repeatability (it was commented on a number of times in relation to my last two albums that they took two or three listens to ‘get’. Does the heightened listening experience of a concert narrow that gap? Has anyone already researched this? time to find out.)
  • Perception of Authorial intent (this one fascinates me greatly – things that are on a record, one can readily assume are wholly intentional, even things that are at first alien. A lot of my work relies on a measure of ‘serendipitous rhythmic complexity’ – the deliberate use of non-metric and indistinct rhythm and meter in successive layers, such that the looped parts can’t be ‘learned’ immediately, and an unfolding dialogue takes place between the live playing and ‘recently live’ looped material. That degree of complexity, in a repeatable context, becomes knowable, elements of it emerge as ‘the composition’. In a live setting, there’s less affordance for that to happen. One of the projects I’m most looking forward to this year is a duo with Poppy Porter – an amazing artist (painter and jewellery maker) which involves me improvising, her painting what she hears, and then (at the moment) the plan is that we would play back each piece as Poppy continues to paint, and possibly explain a little about how synaesthesia works – Poppy is synaesthesic, so she ‘sees’ sound, and thus interprets what she sees and paints it. Having those visual clues will mess with a lot of the assumptions around an improvised work – both as concrete reminders of ephemeral sound elements that may or may not still be present in the sonic landscape, but also as a broadened notion of authorial intent, and the origination of the work – at what point does it cease to be a music performance, and does the music become ‘food for the landscape’? How much of what I’m doing, consciously or by audience assumption is primary and how much is about its impact on the visual work? How are the two integrated in the minds of the audience, do they legitimise or obfuscate one another? Does it stop being a gig and become some kind of inaccessible ‘art project’ at the point when we have a live painter on stage? How does what we say before, during and after the gig (do we call it a gig?) change it?

So what else? One of the reasons that many, perhaps most, improvisors give for loving improv is that they are able to react more readily to the context – the people, the room… I’m interested in coming up with some way of documenting the audience’s awareness of that. I’m not sure it’d be possible to set up consistent research conditions to do any kind of comparative study, but given a set group of people whose regular experience of live music is songs, It’ll be interesting if there’s any emerging sense that the music is FOR them, or feels more FOR them than a rehearsed set being performed might.

Which leads us onto the last bit, for now – if the observation is true, that improvisors ARE responding to the room and the audience, to what degree are the audience (and even the architect??) co-creators of the work, and how does acknowledging that possibility change our collective understanding of the artist/audience relationship, as well as the audience’s willingness/desire to do things that to a more or less conspicuous degree influence what’s going on. We have a set of agreed-on feedback mechanisms – in a jazz context, applauding the end of a solo is seen as appropriate (v. different in a classical context – as Robert Levin explores in the Derek Bailey documentary on Improvisation) and eye contact with the audience can add a layer of intimacy and connection to a performance that can be both beneficial and revealing for artist and audience. But what if we scored audience responses? What if they were tooled with a set of responses that allowed them to communicate more readily with the artists, who could then choose to respond or disregard those responses? What role would they play? Would it feel like a gamified gig, or an enhanced concert experience? Would it make more sense to people who are used to curating their own soundtrack to any length of time from fragments of sound online? Would that score become ‘the work’ in the way that John Zorn’s Cobra is ‘the work’ rather than the sounds that are made? Who owns it? The devisor or is it collectively the work of the audience who compiled those specific responses? Or does the person making the sound still own it, given that how they respond to those stimuli is still what’s heard. As ‘music’, that’s where it happens, right? maybe not…

So that’s what I’m thinking at the moment – I needed to get something down in writing, and out there… and this may form the basis of me attaching some proper research method to it (digging through the last 1400 words and sourcing/referencing all those ideas that I’m assuming are out there 😉 )

For now, here’s the four research questions I put in my initial proposal:

  • What is the expectation of the audience in an improvised music context, and what are the elements that shape that expectation?
  • How does the process of influencing expectation and mapping it to experience (though confirmation or surprise) allow us to expand the notion of ‘the work’ to include the cultural, relational, technological and physical/temporal context for the performance?
  • What are the modifiers at work on both sides (audience and musicians) that influence the perception of success within the work?
  • What is the role of attention within the transaction – as something to be ‘won’ or earned or a gift to be given – and how is conspicuous attention-giving transacted?

Feel free to join in – suggestions for books/articles/papers/people to talk to are most welcome. Discussion of possible research frameworks and parallel studies also v. welcome. First person accounts of your own experience of improv gigs, and my gigs in particular, obviously, are hugely welcome. You may end up quoted (after the requisite permissions forms are filled in 😉 )

Anyway, hope that was interesting…

8 Replies to “Thinking out loud – Improvisation”

  1. What an interesting read, and when I started it I thought it would be just your usual good stuff without any obvious connection to me and what I do. I’m not a musician after all. But as I read it I couldn’t help making connections to something I’ve been doing of late. I hope this ends up making sense…

    Over the last few years I have started doing some conference speaking – talking about how I use specific software products to do stuff, but that’s not relevant. What is relevant, at least a little here, is that the sessions I give are so much better when they are interactive.

    For example, over the last month or so I have given a talk with the same title three times at three different conferences. The first one was very much rehearsed, but as I got to know how the audience reacted to my content I changed it on the fly, so that by the third version the prepared powerpoint deck was left largely gathering dust while I “improvised” around what the audience wanted through their asking of questions as I went. That final talk was very much a product of the audience as much as me – I produced the content but at their direction. It wasn’t my talk, it was “ours”. And I think (hope) we all enjoyed it much more as a result. I certainly did.

    This is much easier to do with smaller audiences than larger ones, simply because getting feedback is easier. I’m not sure how much immediate feedback you can get as a musician during a performance. You certainly can’t have the audience shouting out direction, I guess. I must be more subtle than that.

    Anyway, this is what popped into my head as I was reading. That doesn’t happen too often to me so I thought I’d just throw it out there while I was still thinking about it. Hope you can make something of it:-)

    1. aha! That’s great, and definitely mirrors my own experience – I basically NEVER prepare talks. When I do, I have to mess with the constraints to make them meaningful at all (see my Pecha Kucha talk from Glasgow for evidence of just how terrible I am at prepared talks 😉 )

      But yes, that sense of shared ownership is such a key component. Useful stuff!

      1. During my journey from office to home, when lots of ideas run through my head, I realised that there’s a word I should have used to describe those talks that work best – conversation. I’m not talking to a room full of people, I’m having a conversation with them. I don’t know if that translates to improv in quite the same way, but maybe?

  2. Music is the language, the process of delivery is an individuals choice – what works best for them….and in what context BUT overall I agree it’s a conversation, a conveying of ideas that happen to be based in mathematical progressions and the myriad ways of combining elements – in an improvisational setting being able to ‘say’ what you want to say in the way that you want to say it is the first step towards satisfaction, if other musicians can relate to that and respond it’s magical AND if an audience can connect then that is wonderful. It’s like Jazz – why do some like it and others hate it (depends how you define jazz I guess) BUT when I was growing up I know that my mum used to argue with my dad as listened to Coltrane on the edge exploring “where is the tune? have they finished tuning up yet? etc…. The lowest common denominator is 4 on the floor and a simple repeatable tune; ok in the right setting and nothing wrong with that BUT many can’t, or won’t go beyond that position – clearly it’s subjective …..a living example – my wife just popped her head around the door and asked me to turn that ‘noise’ off – it’s you Steve Diversion! I asked what the problem was and she said that the 1sy part was, to her ear semi-musical but after 8-10 mins she was getting angry! Me – I love it. where it goes and what it’s saying. Go figure!

  3. Intriguing. Are you familiar with Robert Fripp and his frippertronic/soundscape work? There might be some commonality with that and what you are exploring.

    1. v. much so – Fripp’s work is v. interesting (could add him, and KC, to the list with Jarrett/The Dead – may see if I can get a chat with him about it 🙂 )

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