SIMON H. FELL  Report On The Composition Of Improvised Music No. 1

First published in Rubberneck 15 (November 1993)

In many respects, freedom is a frightening proposition. Social and political history has shown us many times that although the urge towards freedom is very powerful, its realisation brings with it numerous, often considerable, difficulties requiring great responsibilities, restraints and collective consideration which many long-oppressed peoples can find daunting or even overwhelming. Improvising musicians will probably be fully aware of the parallels with their artform; this piece deals with a project aiming to liberate classically trained musicians from the dogmatism of the western concert score, and during the early stages of my work in this field I encountered many (musical) examples of prejudice, arrogance, selfishness and panic before achieving some kind of collective responsibility for the music's realisation.

First, the background. Throughout my career, I have been (sporadically) searching for a music which can combine the rhythmic drive and buoyancy of jazz articulations with the strenuous intellectual discipline of contemporary composition in the most modern idiom, and still leave room for the flexibility, spontaneity and joyful serendipity of improvised music. When faced with larger forces, composers and arrangers largely continue to follow the path of primarily reflecting either the western 'concert' composition idiom, or the (albeit sometimes slightly 'outside') jazz-derived big-band tradition, or the large-scale group improvising approach with purely block structural cues as a suggested map. Even those composers who have attempted to combine these idioms have regularly fallen into the trap of a first-one-now-the-other style of juxtaposition which, while superficially interesting, often does not bring the benefits of any of the purer versions of the forms, without synthesising anything genuinely new.

There are, of course, those who would assert that improvised music contains the potential to achieve anything whatsoever within its context, and therefore intrinsically could be this 'ultimate' music. Whilst I have a deep love of improvised music, with the best will in the world there are some things which it is very difficult for it to achieve. These are aspects of performance which doubtless many would feel are not only undesirable, but the very factors they sought to avoid through an involvement in improvised music. I respect that; I have no desire to proscribe, or in any way deny the marvellousness of completely 'free' improvisation, but let us also have a music which fuses some of the most creative features of improvisation with an ability to make reference to harmonic, rhythmic and melodic contours of unlimited breadth, and immediate textural and dynamic variations which would defy the abilities of even some of our most seemingly-telepathic improvisors.

I am currently working on a series of three compositions that will hopefully point to new ways in which improvisation, jazz and composition might be combined. This has been made possible by a series of commissions all concerning the integration of improvisation into various performance traditions. This has given me a unique opportunity to explore forms of notation and communication within differing musical contexts, and with players of widely differing musical languages. Simultaneously I've also had the opportunity to explore the barriers which prevent musicians from improvising effectively, and to try and devise ways of overcoming these. 

The first piece in this series was written at the beginning of 1993 and examined improvisation within the framework of classical performance. The piece took the form of a Concertino for improvising double bassist and an octet of flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, alto saxophone, french horn, violin and viola, and was premiered in July 1993. The solo part was completely improvised and the main challenge lay in generating performance instructions which could stimulate the other musicians (none of them experienced improvisers) to create a flexible, slightly unpredictable yet architectured performance. I have found in previous experience that many specialist 'classical' musicians react very badly to a situation requiring 'free improvisation'; when requested to improvise ad lib they often feel incapable of contributing anything. Sometimes a performer will resort to a quotation from a favourite composition, or with some encouragement may produce a rather stilted series of self-consciously atonal pitches with perfect conventional articulation. Of course, these performers have the technique to produce some remarkable sounds, and it is not physiological limitations which hamper them; the fear of freedom (and thus the fear of failure) often has this paralysing effect. 

In order to overcome these problems I decided to offer the musicians much more specific freedoms with other parameters cued very crudely by various means. It was found that notation representing a 'loud, rapid, ascending passage' could be interpreted with a considerable degree of flexibility, but enabled the musicians to shed their fear of freedom since they still felt the protection of a shared architectural shell. Great use was made of symbols representing 'the highest (or lowest) possible note on the instrument', although it had to be repeatedly stressed that this did not have to be a specific 'conventional' pitch, and that it should be the highest sound possible at that particular time. The inevitable effort and discomfort involved in reaching the (particularly) high notes then seemed to liberate the instrumentalists so that the instruction to repeat this note ad lib produced some very committed improvising. Another method of stimulating activity was to write rhythmically specified passages for ensemble, but without giving any indication of the tempo required; the musicians would then realise the rhythmic notation at differing speeds, producing passages of great rhythmic complexity. This could also be combined with ad lib or approximate pitches to produce an effect resembling improvising counterpoint within the field of conventional tone production. The non-specific pitch indication was also used with a specific rhythmic notation to achieve rhythmic unisons within 'improvised' tonalities and harmonies.

The next step was to encourage the performers to break out of the comparatively limited world of classical tone production on their respective instruments, and explore the extended sound production techniques often employed as a matter of course by their improvising counterparts. Research enabled me to compile a selection of playing methods for each instrument which, although non-standard, were all fairly common within the contemporary literature. These included flutter tonguing, sul ponticello, slap tonguing, etc., with the addition of a few techniques more familiar from the jazz/improvised methodology. It was found that when performers were asked to rapidly alternate between different non-standard playing methods, they became (in classical terms) increasingly cavalier in their approach to the exact nature of the tone being produced. Although the players may not have realised it at the time, this 'cavalier' approach actually began to result in a much more creative attitude to tone production, with musicians trying out their own particular variations on the principal ideas in a way that approached the spontaneity of improvisation.  

One of the results of this aspect of the work was the development of what amounted to a tone row of instrumental techniques; a pool of methods of playing which could be permutated to form different 'melodic' contours, 'harmony' and counterpoint, all formed from sound texture rather than pitch. Indeed, it is the breaking of this stranglehold that pitch seems to exert on western concert performers that I feel is the most significant first step in this work; some two-thirds of the Concertino, for example, has no specified pitches whatsoever, being built up from structures based on rhythms, textures and dynamics. I feel there is considerable case to be made for re-evaluating the dominant emphasis placed on pitch in western musics; whilst one obviously has to respect tradition in music of a historical character, pitch often has too pronounced an importance in creating new musics. By exploring texture, rhythm and melodic contour rather than precise pitch relationships, many of the musicians developed a much more spontaneous and liberated approach to performance.

As a result of the above I was able to structure one movement of the Concertino around duo and trio improvisations involving myself and certain musicians who had responded most effectively to the liberating process. Their short improvisations had the conviction of those of musicians with many years specialisation in the field; this is what I would consider to be the true achievement of this work, as some of these players had begun to affect a true synthesis within a classical concert performance. Other works in this series involve a piece (for the Termite Festival 1993) based on developing specific and often complex structures for use within the tradition of free improvisation, and a concerto grosso for classical pianist, improvising trio, rock guitarist and expanded jazz big band for 1994. Both of these works will present similar problems to the Concertino, but approached from within different traditions; hopefully reports will be available in due course!

By diffusing the fear and mistrust of freedom prevalent among many idiomatic musicians (and the similar suspicion with which many improvisors view anything notated) perhaps amazing things could happen. Yesterday, Rabin and Arafat publicly shook hands; tomorrow a concerto for Derek Bailey with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra? Well, alright, I admit some things are just too far-fetched...


SIMON H. FELL November 1993

This is the first in a series of essays exploring the implications of attempting to 'organise' improvisation; interested parties will find subsequent instalments in Rubberneck issues 17, 24 & 28.

Reprinted courtesy of Rubberneck

back to Bruce's Fingers texts index

back to main Bruce's Fingers index page