The Book Cooks
Excerpts from
Music of Possibility

Richard Barrett
(Vision Edition, Distributed by Composers Edition; OXON)


1.4.2 Seeded improvisation

The rest of this chapter is concerned with one particular idea I’ve been developing in the last twelve years or so, which I’ve termed “seeded improvisation,” a particular approach to combining precisely notated composition with free improvisation. I should stress here once again that the element of research here is not embodied in a more or less abstract project whose outputs are compositions demonstrating its methodologies and findings, but in the compositions themselves. I’m constantly looking for the most appropriate way to realise the structural/expressive (and structurally expressive) sound-forms I imagine, and, as the imaginative scope of these sound-forms has expanded, so necessarily has the range of methods I’ve evolved to realise them. “Imagining a sound-form” could include imagining a situation which facilitates unpredictability in a particular way, once more, not treating improvisation or notation in terms of distinct types of music, but as different strategies. Of course it’s true that there are possibilities open to a notational way of working which are very unlikely to happen in an improvisation, but the converse is also true. It’s sometimes said that free improvisation is prone to fall back on the habits of the participants, or, as Pierre Boulez put it in his conversations with Céléstin Deliège, “a collective psychological test which only shows up the most basic side of the individual.” It strikes me that notated music is just as prone to formulaic habituation, and indeed that Boulez’s own later work might serve as a prominent example of this. While the precise specification and synchronisation of sounds, and the generation of variously interconnected and/or self-similar structures, is clearly “idiomatic” to notated (or fixed-media) composition, improvisation makes possible sounds and structures impossible to imagine emanating from the imagination of a single individual, being the result of a “collective intelligence” which might coalesce into a complex unity, or explode chaotically into its constituent parts, or both, at any moment – in Marcel Cobussen’s words: “[t]o connote improvisation solely with fluidity and contingency implies rendering it in essentialist terms that work to elide the complexities and contradictions that comprise it.” Aside from the ease with which an improvisational approach can incorporate and integrate the unpredictability of unstable instrumental actions, any attempt to notate which would create a level of interpretation and challenge which would give the result a very different character, the collective nature of improvisation brings with it a diversity of apprehensions of and reactions to the unfolding of the music’s structure which bear the clear traces of distinct intelligences, however “harmonious” in an expanded sense their confluence might be. Such a polyphony of minds might conceivably be emulated by a single composer, but there seems to me little reason to attempt this when it can be so fluently enacted by an improvising group.

This idea of “seeded improvisation” first emerges in my work in transmission for electric guitar and live electronics, completed in 1999. The score of the fourth of its six sections (see Figure 1.4.1) consists of 36 precisely-notated fragments for electric guitar, with an extra line beneath the main stave indicating the movements of a pitch-shift pedal and a six-line tablature stave above it; the large numbers in diamond-shaped borders indicate switchings between different settings of a multi-effects unit. The fixed electronic material in this section consists of 36 pre-recorded soundfiles, whose durations are a permutation of the guitar fragments and which were created by processing guitar recordings based on the “raw” pitch-material from which the score is derived. These are to be played (or played back, respectively) in order, but separated by improvisatory passages which are completely unspecified. So the notated material forms an intermittent thread which is scattered through the music, influencing it certainly, giving it a particular kind of (in)coherence, but without needing any “instructions” as to how this influence happens, because that “how” is one of the things that interests me most about improvisation.


Figure 1.4.1 a page from transmission IV

These structural threads in fact free the performers from having to think in terms of overall structural context (although of course they are free to do this too) and encourages a concentration on the most immediate kind of spontaneity, giving rise to musical phenomena which are unlikely to come about as a result of either precise notation or free improvisation. The composer and improviser Anthony Davis writes in connection with his album Episteme:

I have turned more and more towards precise musical notation to insure that the improviser is consciously and physically tuned in to the overall structure of a piece. On first glance this approach would seem to inhibit the improviser. This is a valid criticism, but I believe this inhibition is now a real necessity when one perceives that ‘free’ or ‘open’ improvisation has become a cliché, a musical dead end.

My intention with “seeded improvisation” is certainly connected with Davis’s first sentence, but with the opposite aim, to disinhibit improvisation by creating a particular kind of structural/expressive context for it, a constellation of points which performers may or may not consciously take as points of departure and/or arrival, having “tuned in” by learning the often rather challenging notated material. And the reason for taking this approach is precisely that I don’t perceive free improvisation to be a musical dead end but indeed an inexhaustible source of musical renewal.

In passing I might mention that the “seeded improvisation” idea actually derives from the ways FURT has developed over a longer period of using pre-recorded material (often itself derived from improvisation) in performances, so it has its roots in my own improvisational practice, which (see section 1.3) is itself conditioned not only by the same aesthetic compulsions which underpin the rest of my work, but also by technological considerations. Beyond that, it was crucially influenced by the various combinations of “disciplined” and spontaneous actions to be found in Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning, which influence I’ve written about elsewhere:

In anyone’s life there are some experiences with such a deep impact that they continue to resonate for many years afterwards, and perhaps require those years of resonance in order finally to be assimilated and achieve expression. In connection with CONSTRUCTION, one such experience was of taking part in the first complete performance in 1984 of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning. This is a cycle of compositions, taking two evenings to perform in its entirety, for a large collective of improvising performers, based on texts from Confucius and written between 1969 and 1972 for the Scratch Orchestra, an experiment in collective musical creativity of which Cardew was a founder member and whose aesthetic identity was to a great extent defined by The Great Learning. This work consists of seven “paragraphs” corresponding to the division of the original text, and the longest of these is Paragraph 5, for which the score gives a duration of two hours. It consists of two halves, the first a kind of collage of various different kinds of events taking place simultaneously: songs, improvisations, sonic and structural suggestions, theatrical actions ... all of which have a clear and identifiable sense of purpose and discipline (the concept of discipline is central to the text of paragraph 5), even when several are happening at the same time. The second half of Paragraph 5 is a free improvisation by the same performers, who in our performance numbered 30 or 40, including many former Scratch Orchestra members. (Cardew himself was killed in a road accident in 1981.)

Something that stuck in my mind about this experience was the way that this improvisation, despite being in many different senses “anarchic,” was somehow informed and imbued with particular qualities by the actions which preceded it, and by their disciplined nature, without Cardew having had to say anything in the score about how the performers should approach it. Maybe this isn’t so very distantly removed from the relationship between head and solos in a jazz performance, but in the case of Paragraph 5 of The Great Learning this phenomenon is at the same time reduced to its essentials and expanded into a structural principle on a large scale.

Subsequently, when my own work began to focus increasingly on the many possible roles of spontaneous musical action within different kinds of precomposed framework, I constantly recalled this experience and the way it might create the conditions for the creation of something whose identity as a composition will have clarity without being defined in advance to the point of giving instructions to performers, instead providing the performers with a precisely imagined common point of departure and thereafter leaving them to use their imagination and sense of responsibility. This seemed to me, as it no doubt seemed to Cornelius Cardew, to be trying to say something about how a society in balance with itself might become self-organised, so that the idea had resonances far beyond addressing the relationship between improvisation and preparation in narrowly musical terms.

Transmission IV is also incorporated into the ensemble piece Ars magna lucis et umbrae, which forms part of the larger composition DARK MATTER. In that context the notated materials are played twice, the second time in reverse order and in a different ensemble context, which feature is intended both to illuminate the distinction between fixed and improvisatory material and to vary the influence one has on the other by the change in playing order.

The next composition in which the “seeded improvisation” idea occurred, this time becoming much more central, was Blattwerk for cello and electronics, written for Arne Deforce, another long-time collaborator, and completed in 2002. Here, a progressive transition from pre-composed towards spontaneous musical actions forms the principal structural process in the composition. Blattwerk consists of five sections, the first and last of which are brief and feature fixedmedia electronic sounds, without and with cello respectively. Between these framing events are three much longer sections.

The second is fully notated without electronics (and may also be played as an independent piece entitled folio). The third introduces improvisatory “gaps” into the notation which nevertheless are precise (and sometimes very brief) in terms of duration, and a semiautonomous live electronic part which samples, fragments, filters, reverberates and spatially diffuses the cello sounds. The indications in the score below the cello part show the positions and movements of a set of MIDI faders which have global control over the soundtextures. The fourth then adds an improvisatory part for electronics, alternating between fixed episodes together with the cello and gaps of increasing duration, the last being three minutes long, while the autonomous sample/playback system becomes increasingly sparse and fragmented as it gradually replaces with silence what it had previously recorded from the cello.

The aim of this process was that the music should gradually and audibly develop its own consciousness, so to speak, should gradually “discover itself,” beginning in each performance from the same point of departure and evolving each time into a different musical entity, through the aforementioned stages of divergence. This is not so much a question of listeners being able (or unable) to distinguish between what is being improvised and what is not, but of being able to hear a process of musical evolution taking place on the level of the sound-forms themselves. Generally, I feel that if as a listener I am concentrating on how (I think) the music I am hearing has been composed, there is something lacking in the way the music is communicating itself. (Obviously there are exceptions to this, but I would certainly see it as central to the way I think about my own work.)

The indication I use in the score for free improvisation is the mathematical symbol for infinity (∞). I hope thereby to emphasise that nothing is excluded in principle from possible inclusion. (As the score of island from CONSTRUCTION states in relation to its improvised parts: “[n]o musical material should be ruled out a priori on the grounds of taste or consistency.” At the same time, what happens in the gaps needs to be some kind of response to the question asked by the notated materials which come before and after it, and by the sounding materials taking place simultaneously, which may themselves be improvised or not. Returning to CONSTRUCTION, this time to its final section ON whose score consists only of some (optional) verbal suggestions:

The responsibility for deciding on the appropriateness of any contribution lies completely with the individual players, though it might be considered important to be constantly aware of whether and to what extent one’s contribution can be affected by others (potentially or actually), and whether and to what extent one’s contribution can affect others, particularly in the context of a contribution with a tendency to dominate, or on the other hand one with a tendency to disappear into an undifferentiated background. Each contribution is an act of “orchestration” as much as anything else.

Students of Cardew’s work will recognise that this is partially a paraphrase of suggestions made in his essay “Scratch Music”: “If the [dynamic] level is so low as to merge with the environment, the interaction with the other musicians is reduced. If it is so high as to dominate the environment then it has moved out of the sphere where it can be influenced by interaction from the other players.” CONSTRUCTION itself could be described as the most extensive application to date of “seeded improvisation”, since it consists of 100 minutes of more or less precisely-notated music followed by 20 minutes of improvisation.

Blattwerk was followed in 2007 by adrift for piano and electronics, written for Sarah Nicolls and based on the piano piece lost which had been written for Ian Pace three years earlier, developing the “seeded improvisation” idea further: this time, the gaps are no longer written into the score but may be inserted spontaneously and independently by either performer at any point, respectively by departing from the notated score for the piano (which is identical to the original solo piece) or by pausing playback of a fixed-media part which itself is based on a reordered and processed recording of the piano part. While lost is around 9 minutes long in performance, adrift is about twice as long since the improvised interpolations are intended to amount, in each part, to approximately an equal duration to that of the notated material. The piano piece already consists of a labyrinth of interpolations opening out of a simple basic textural form, so that the expanded version of it as adrift represents a “logical” extrapolation of its inherent character. That is to say, continuing the composition process into the timescale of performance forms an extension of the structural and expressive identity of the piece rather than a negation of it.

In 2008 I attended an extensive exhibition of the paintings of Francis Bacon at the Tate Britain museum. In retrospect this seems to have been a “refocusing” event, giving me a new, or at least renewed, insight into what I’m doing and what it “means.” Creative musicians (and not only these of course) should probably always be open to such events. The resonance of this one is still much more complex than can be summed up in a few words, or perhaps in any words, my words anyway, but something my thoughts have kept returning to in the intervening few years is the way that exquisitely nuanced, sometimes even photorealistic areas on the one hand, and seemingly randomly thrown splashes of paint on the other, not only coexist but are somehow perceptually interchangeable. It’s not always clear at a first or even second glance whether some element of a painting is the result of painstaking and precise brushwork on the one hand, or a rapid and seemingly spontaneous swipe with a sponge on the other. The significance of this to me goes far beyond (while not losing sight of) questions of “technique.” I realised that I’ve been looking for a very similar kind of perceptual interchangeability between preplanned and spontaneous actions in music. This is not a question of making notated compositions which “sound improvised” and/or improvisations which “sound composed.” I don’t think methods of composition have, or need to have, such a simplistic relationship to what is heard. It does seem to me, though, that the way one (as a seasoned listener) experiences complexity in music might be related to one’s perception of whether the music does or does not arise from engagement with a notated score. There seems to be a perceptible distinction between, say, Irvine Arditti playing a highly intricate solo violin piece and a violin improvisation by Malcolm Goldstein or Mary Oliver, even though the results might not be so very dissimilar in terms of overall sound. To put this another way, given that there are kinds of musical structure which are more amenable to creation through notation – exact or complexly varied recurrence, to give an obvious example – and others more amenable to improvisation – for example a performer in “dialogue” with timbral instabilities in their instrument – one might listen for different structural aspects depending on knowledge or suspicion of the creative strategies in use. One way of describing the motivation behind my explorations of “seeded improvisation” might be to ask what kind of listening is invoked when it is unclear which of the two “complexities” is in operation, perhaps because they are taking place in rapid alternation, or simultaneously in different voices, analogously to the intimate proximity of “notational” precision and “improvisational” smearing in Bacon’s work, the perceptual ambiguity as to which has been applied to the other. In music this ambiguity is more of a temporal phenomenon, as some sound event or other (seemingly) reveals itself as the trace of notational reflection or of spontaneous reaction, a revelation which is always provisional and subject to change according to what happens next or simultaneously.

I hear much of Anthony Braxton’s “Ghost Trance Music” (GTM) as coming close to this kind of conception (and also to George E Lewis’s “multidominance” concept as discussed in section 1.4). GTM is a musical strategy which Braxton developed between 1995 and 2006, culminating in the nine CDs of 9 Compositions (Iridium) 2006, performed over four consecutive nights with a group of thirteen instrumentalists (including Braxton himself) who were all deeply versed in his music and had participated to a significant degree in its evolution up to that point. It consists of a number of more or less distinct layers, one or more of which will be operative at any point in a performance, their entries and exits cued by different members of the ensemble. The composition itself comprises a “primary melody” constituting the backbone of the composition which generally begins as a unison at its beginning, and “secondary material” which may be inserted at specific points in the performance. To these may be added “tertiary material” drawn from any of Braxton’s other notated compositions (thus including other GTM pieces) and improvisations based on Braxton’s concept of “language music” (see section 1.2.5). The most engaging moments for me in this music are when several layers (there can be more than four in fact, since more than one instance of a given type of material might be active at the same time) are constantly changing in mutual perspective, coming in and out of focus, merging and diverging.

The discussion of seeded improvisation and its development through my work continues with the compositions discussed in part 2, and in particular tendril and šuma from close-up (sections 2.2.1 and 2.2.6 respectively). It also includes cell (2011), a trio for alto saxophone, accordion and contrabass written for the Norwegian group POING.

Although I have nowhere else come across a comparable approach to combining notation and improvisation, I wouldn’t claim that this approach in itself is something new and unprecedented. Perhaps what’s more important to say is that what I am doing is attempting to utilise a wider spectrum of possibilities for imagining and creating situations within which a new music might take place. As time goes on it becomes clearer to me that my development as a musician is not linear but concentric. As with the ideas about notation and improvisation I’ve been discussing, I am interested in finding ways to bring into being a point of focus, a centre of gravity, which renders unnecessary any restrictions on what might happen. Composers often speak of restrictions as being a necessary prerequisite for creativity, which I think is an idea that needs to be questioned when possibly the most important contribution we have to make in the world is to express the possibility of freeing the imagination.

© 2019 Richard Barrett

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