Perfect Sound Forever


Improv philosophers: Jose Ortega y Gasset, Maurizio Ferraris, Walter Burkert

The Components & Construction of Improvisational Music
by Daniel Barbiero
(February/March 2020)

In a lecture delivered in Madrid in 1940, the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset described life as a "permanent crossroads, a constant perplexity." In other words, a predicament or better yet, a dilemma, since "dilemma" implies the necessity of a choice having to be made. The human situation is just such a dilemma--a situation in which, as Ortega went on to note, we have to do something, have to choose among possibilities that only we can choose.

Ortega may just as well have been talking about free improvisation. The situation of a free improviser is just what he describes--always at a crossroads, always in an ongoing confrontation with the need to choose--only in microcosm. Free improvisation is not only its own kind of dilemma in which choices are always to be made here, now--it is a condensed symbol of human life which, like an improvisation, often seems to be a more or less extemporized response to one unexpected set of circumstances after another, a sequence of instant replies to whatever happens to be thrown our way. In a sense, free improvisation isn't just an image of life in microcosm, it is an image of life dramatized, radicalized and condensed: life put under pressure by our having been thrown into an artificial or ritualized situation in which time is compressed, and we must act now, immediately, on the basis of whatever the situation has to offer us.

But there's a deeper, constitutional sense in which improvisation crystallizes and symbolizes the human situation. Both share a fundamental structure that can properly be called existential--that is, both begin with a lack or need in response to which we are thrust out into a world in which we must act on the basis of the possibilities open to us. The freely improvised performance emblematizes this lack by starting literally with nothing: with a zero moment.

[The performance space is quiet, the lights lowered. Pick up the instrument, balance it against and with the body, finger it noiselessly: a moment of gathering in, a moment when the lack of any kind of written-out path makes itself sharply felt. The surrounding silence thickens and a subtle pressure builds: one can't stand up here forever; a choice will have to be made. ]

The Zero Moment & the Initial Choice

The first moment of a free improvisation is the zero moment--a moment defined by the non-being of the performance that is to take place. The zero moment is the moment of lacking, a suspended moment in which action is pure imminence. At this zero moment, the improviser is thrown into--chooses to be thrown into--a situation that demands action in order that he or she bring about a desired future state--a realized piece of music--that, not incidentally, isn't guaranteed to succeed. At its heart is a lack--the lack of the desired object. In this case the object lacking isn't a thing out there in the world ready to be obtained, but instead is an improvised piece of music that has no existence prior to its being played. Not only is the desired object lacking, but so too is any pre-existing structure, such as a score or other compositional framework, out of which the object can be made. The object is its own objective: not a thing per se, but a process of invention and creation the end result of which will be a finished performance. Which has yet to be created. This lack of a performance is the immediate motivation for the performance, something like an efficient cause that pushes one out from the stillness of the zero moment in order to commence the gestures, actions and realized choices that put the music in action.

Thus the lack that is the starting point of a free improvisation--its moment zero--is at the same time a call for action. In response, there is the initial choice, the first few notes or sounds crystallizing the moment in which the improviser chooses to throw him- or herself into the work of the improvisation.

[A simple beginning, a way of finding one's way in: a motif of two notes a tritone apart. A pause and a repeat. Another pause and another repeat followed by a transposition a major third higher, now louder, now softer, first with one note emphasized and then the other. A beginning that projects itself out into the receding silence and throws open a way for what will follow. ]

"To Get" and "To Make"

The initial choice of what to play, the leap into action from the zero moment, begins the improvisation. It also initiates a pattern of action that, far from being unique to improvisation, is paradigmatic of human action generally. That pattern is what anthropologist Walter Burkert has termed "to get." If the radical reality of free improvisation is embodied in the necessity of acting in order to bring into being something that didn't exist before, the radical reality of the human situation, analogously, is acting in order to obtain something that will make good a lack or meet a need. Thus Burkert's characterization of this pattern of action with the infinitive verb "to get."

In the parallel case of a free improvisation, in which a musical work or performance is brought into being seemingly out of nothing, we could substitute the infinitive "to make" for Burkert's "to get." Such a substitution represents a transposition rather than a negation or refusal, since the underlying pattern doesn't change. In both cases, something lacking or desired is procured through our action. In a sense, "to make" is just a variation on "to get" or, if we take "to get" as the more encompassing or general term, "to make" is a particular case of "to get." But there is this difference: when the action is "to make," the object to be obtained or "gotten" isn't something that exists prior to our obtaining it but rather has to be made by us in order for it to be gotten: the getting, in other words, is in the making. As is true of the free improvisation.

[The opening tritones are elaborated with the addition of semi-tones that hint at functioning as leading tones in an as-yet undefined key. A basic structure is already forming, a framework within which this emergent performance can be imagined and realized. ]

The Real-Time Open Work

The initial choice is a start but doesn't imply a rigid track that must be followed. The first notes may represent the first steps along a path--a path that doesn't exist except for the steps along it--but it's a path filled with forks, any offshoot of which can be taken. A choice made here is a commitment but it isn't a perpetual commitment; another choice can always be made that will change the course of action. In improvisation as in life, there are no--or at least very few--irreversible choices. Instead, each moment within the evolving performance is a critical moment. The course of the improvisation may be diverted by the improviser's choice to do something else--to break the improvisation out of its current form and to move it on to a different track. Nothing is given beforehand since, unlike a work fixed as a detailed score prior to its being performed, the improvisation is something that has not yet come into being until it is actually played. It is instead a dynamic construction--the arrangement and rearrangement--of formal and expressive elements as they arise, coalesce, endure, dissolve in time, and offer themselves up to the improviser as material for further development. In effect, it is an open work, composed in real time.

(To call a free improvisation a "work" admittedly is a controversial move. Many improvisers reject the category of "work" to describe what they create. But if one of the crucial criteria for determining what is and what isn't a work is unity--of form, material, atmosphere, and so forth--then it can be argued that a successful free improvisation will have that kind of unity, and will count as work. An argument for another day, though.)

As it develops, the improvisation takes the form of a unity synthesizing the individual moves and gestures that constitute it. It is a unity that develops and discloses itself in relation to the formal and expressive elements unfolding in real time. This last observation--that the synthetic unity of the free improvisation is at least partly a function of what has already been played--hints at the formative and integrative role the improvisation itself plays in creating a unified work out of the multiple constituent moves and ongoing choices that it comprises. In effect, the improvisation is its own field of possibilities.

[The quasi-leading tones that evolved out of the initial structure themselves evolve into elements within a more complex structure. There's no longer the hint--always implied but never made explicit--of a keynote or tonal center, but instead the sequence of notes expands to encompass a pantonality in which any kind of tonal hierarchy, no matter how weakened or fleeting, dissolves. ]

Possibility & Availability

Although it starts from a zero moment in which everything is lacking, free improvisation, like human projects more generally, isn't something that takes place in a vacuum. It may generate constituent forms and in the end create a complete work where none existed before--where one was lacking--but as with any human action in general, it does so on the basis of the possibilities available within the situation.

Not everything available within the situation is possible though. As the critic Kirk Vandenoe has observed in the context of the visual arts, an artist may have a set of available forms, materials, subjects and so forth to draw on, but these available forms only become possibilities when they are seen to have a bearing on the project at hand.

Availability is not possibility per se but only the potential for possibility--the possibility of possibility. What is available is possible for me only given certain preconditions, including my recognizing the available as something I can use, and my having the capacity--technical, imaginative, temperamental--to use it effectively. There is also a question of meaning; what is available is possible to the extent that it is meaningful in relation to what it is I am trying to bring about. The recognition of possibility within the available just is the recognition of the actual utility and meaningfulness of the available given the goal and the course of the project, and the capacities one can bring to it.

In the relatively narrow context of a solo improvisation, much of what is available is self-generated and is closely bound up with, if not coextensive to, the improviser's capacity. Opening out from the zero moment, what is available to the solo improviser are the musical materials and background he or she brings to the improvisation--the various things he or she knows how to do, the technical resources and melodic and harmonic knowledge and judgments, musical temperament and patterns of response. As the solo improvisation unfolds, though, the sounds and structures it generates also become available--as material to develop, repeat, transform, deviate from, and even break out of altogether. In improvisations involving more than just a solo improviser, the available includes what fellow improvisers are doing. Each improviser plays something that other improvisers can pick up and expand on, ignore, play over or otherwise musically contradict, complement, or respond to in any of a number of other ways that improvisers can respond--or not respond--to each other.

[The phrases become longer and their articulation smoother as more and more notes are absorbed and slurred into a serpentine, legato line. The slurring becomes more prominent and takes on a life of its own beyond the individual pitches it ties together. Then: a glissando downward to an open string, and a rest. And all of it accompanied by the unarticulated sense of "this belongs here, this feels right."]

Improvisation Is Interpretation

The unfolding improvisation is likely to appear to the skilled improviser as an immediate presence, unthought and uncontrived--the natural outcome of a process that seems to set itself in motion and maintain itself. To think about what happens next would be to invite a type of paralysis--to stop the flow of sound. To stop the flow of choices. But despite its largely intuitive direction, free improvisation isn't a musical madness without method. Far from being blind leaps into a void, the individual gestures making up an improvisation are informed: they reflect a set of judgments on the part of the improviser (judgment is simply the other side of choice).

As is so often the case, a parallel from the visual arts provides an illuminating analogy. In a 1979 conversation with students at the University of Connecticut, painter Robert Motherwell described an insight he had into the process of painting a canvas:

And suddenly I realized that each brush stroke is a decision and it's a decision not only aesthetically:--will this look more beautiful?--it's a decision that has to do with one's gut: it's getting too heavy, or too light. It has to do with one's sense of sensuality: the surface is getting too coarse, or not fine enough. It has to do with one's sense of life: is it airy enough or is it leaden? It has to do with one's own inner sense of weights [of whether or not the texture's weight feels like one's sense of one's own weight].
As with painting so with improvising music: each gesture, each phrase, is the product of a decision from the gut--an intuiting of the situation, without need for having to stop to think about it. The intuitive judgment that drives my improvisation isn't a separate, reflective moment but instead is expressed in and inseparable from the act of playing itself. As I play, I make formal and expressive judgments that shape the overall performance in ways that embody my way of grasping it, of understanding it as containing a certain meaning or emotional import for me, and of responding accordingly. Without my having to reflect on them, these choices embody my intuition about the unfolding improvisation and my place within it.

If free improvisation turns on the performer's intuitive judgments of where he or she stands in relation to the ongoing performance, the upshot is this: to improvise is by definition to interpret. Consider the free improvisation as an ongoing hermeneutic, an interpretation of the performance as a composition in progress as it unfolds. Here, interpretation takes the concrete form of the real-time invention of lines and sounds as solicited by the improviser's grasp of the surrounding musical situation. The hermeneutic or interpretive dimension of the performance, in other words, is expressed in the formal decisions that play themselves out through the performer's musical vocabulary as filtered through his or her attunement to the performance as it develops, to the environment in which the performance takes place, and to him- or herself as an involved participant immersed in the performance.

Much, if not all of this ongoing musical hermeneutic takes place without reflection or other explicit conscious control. Until, that is, something jarringly unexpected happens.

[A pivot off the open string that ascends into a whole tone sequence--patterns of thirds and tritones with care not to deviate. And then--a lapse of attention? An old, reflexive fingering pattern reasserting itself?--the next note is a semi-tone down. But that wasn't where this was supposed to be going...]

Disruption & Self-Consciousness

Improvisations are often full of unexpected events. We may surprise ourselves with something we've done, or be surprised by something a fellow improviser comes up with. The unexpected is to be expected. Often, it is welcome--a way of keeping the improvisation dynamic, fresh and challenging. At times though, the unexpected event is such that it disrupts the improvisation. When this happens, self-awareness erupts into the improviser's field of attention, breaking the flow of play the way an obtruding rock breaks a current of water.

When such a break in the flow of ideas and inventions intrudes itself, the improviser's interpretive stance toward the performance and toward him- or herself as an engaged participant changes from unselfconscious involvement to reflective self-awareness. He or she stands back from self and action to deliberate or reevaluate or otherwise redirect and recover from the obstacle that this radically unexpected and likely unwanted turn of events represents. It's just something that happens--sometimes infrequently, sometimes not at all, sometimes often enough, sometimes not often enough, and sometimes too often. Much depends on the performer's level of engagement with the situation; competence vis-ŕ-vis the technical, expressive and other challenges the improvisation may pose; attitude of cooperation, competition or outright conflict with other performers; and so on.

A disruption in the flow of the performance, seen from one angle, represents a failure of sorts: a situation in which things break down and possibility itself seems to be foreclosed. Seen from another angle, though, it holds out the possibility of…other possibilities.

[This sudden change in pitch relationships negates the whole tone structure that was emerging from play, but opens up the parallel possibility of a change in articulation and even a transition to something beyond pitch. The way is now open to an adventurous exploration of sounds--of multiphonics, harmonics, and extended techniques working a transition from pitched to unpitched sounds. A few minutes later, these first tentative steps evolve into more radical sound-making gestures involving the ordinarily unplayed parts of the instrument.]

Failure is the Ground of Possibility

Possibility is such that its fundamental element--the ground that makes it possible as a possibility--is the possibility of failure. For something to be possible it must be possible that it not be. An outcome that is necessary or predetermined may represent a guaranteed success but, because it cannot be, could not be, otherwise, at the same time it closes down possibility. It is precisely the prospect of failure that separates possibility from necessity and that keeps the future open to further possibility.

In a free improvisation, the missed note, the unintended phrase, the slip of the finger--all of these failures are the negative signs that the intended but unplayed note, phrase or gesture were all possibilities. Ironically, in their failure they open up other, initially unthought of possibilities, as the improviser works to recover from his or her failure and thereby transform it from the dead end of failure into a gambit--a figure or gesture inviting a response of acceptance (not a withdrawal, as simple failure would), and consequently, a playing out of the possibilities implicit in the gambit. In this way, failure opens up possibilities that may not have arisen otherwise--and which of course may themselves end in failure, and thus open up other possibilities. Failure and possibility are thus conjoined as a kind of Mobius strip whose single surface only appears to consist of two opposite sides.

Failure, and the possibilities it subsequently makes possible, is a case of the resistance of the real being a positive force--an provocation to choose again and to find a positive path over or through a negative obstacle. The negation that failure brings with it forces a new possibility that for its part negates that initial negation and erupts into a positivity (for those who find it useful to think of it this way, the new possibility that negates the negation of failure moves the improvisation forward in a classically dialectical motion). Failure in this sense is a negative positivity.

But the improviser's recovery from failure and consequent pursuit of new possibilities is also a symbol, again in especially condensed form, of a critical facet of human existence in general. In giving rise to new possibilities, failure reveals capacities that we may not know we have. It represents, to borrow an idea from philosopher Maurizio Ferraris, an invitation. This is the invitation the resistance of the real--its often frustrating habit of colliding with and diverting our plans and projects--offers us: the opportunity to go beyond what we perceive to be the limits, whether self-imposed or externally pressured, and more often than not unthinkingly accepted, that presume to define us in relation to the situations in which we find ourselves. In life as in an improvisation, failure is a jolt--a revelation in the most fundamental sense of the word--that forces us out of our immersion in the flow of action, presents us with a problem, and invites us to resolve it in a novel way that may ultimately prove to be a creative breakthrough. If the boundaries of possibility are, in the end, elastic, it may be because failure pushes us up against them and forces them to give way.

Failure as a negative positivity is an opening to freedom: a freedom based on the liberatory discovery of new, or immanent yet dormant, possibilities. If freedom is rooted in the possibility of things being other than they are, then failure raises this possibility in radical form, almost as a necessity: in order to convert failure into something other than failure, things must be other than what they are. Which is, for the moment, a failure. We often talk of improvisation as consisting in a realm of freedom--freedom from preexisting structures, freedom to play what we will, freedom to express without limit. But perhaps we should ascribe a different kind of freedom to improvisation: the freedom to fail, and thus the freedom to recognize possibilities we may not have thought--may not have had to think--possible before.

[After an extended exploration of pure sound, often at very low volumes, pitch makes a gradual reappearance in the form of a series of tritones. We have come full circle, arriving back at the point we started from. And thus a feeling of closure, that this is what completion sounds like. One final recapitulation of the tritone motif that opened the improvisation, and it's over.]

And Yet It Must End

More has been written about the choice that initiates a free improvisation than about the choice that closes it, possibly because the former, representing a leap into the void, carries so much more dramatic weight. The pressure of having to make a choice, in the form of the palpable nothingness that is the anticipatory silence hanging over the pre-performance situation, is something an audience can feel almost as intensely as can the performer. The choice of a beginning is made clear immediately: first there is nothing, and then there is sound. The initial sound stands out against the background of silence almost as a violation of some secret protocol defining the status quo ante.

Not so much with the ending. In fact, choosing an ending is a much murkier proposition. In theory at least, a free improvisation can go on for any length of time, its closure only being a matter of the terminal choice or choices made by the improvisers--that is, the real-time agreement that it's over (the durations of some free improvisations are determined beforehand; whether or not that compromises their status as free improvisations per se is something that can be debated).

Coming to that final choice is a complex matter. If a free improvisation is undetermined from the start by any preexisting score or structure, it nevertheless builds up a substantive presence or accumulates a kind of character as it unfolds; if the beginning represents the response to a situation of lack in which something must be made, the ending is a response to just what it is that has been made and is still in the process of being made. Thus the decision to end is made under pressure--the cumulative pressure of the performance, of the situation as both formed by and forming the actions that compose it. Once again, we see a guiding hermeneutic at work as the players interpret the situation and make a choice informed by that interpretation. That choice may be the outcome of a formal judgment: a phrase may seem final, for example, or the improvisation may have traced a dynamic arc that seems to bring it to a natural close. Or it may end by a kind of default brought on by exhaustion--by physical exhaustion, or an exhaustion of ideas and the feeling that the performance is headed for a cul-de-sac of needless repetition or some other kind of stagnation where possibility no longer seems possible.

A solo improviser has nothing but his or her own sense of what constitutes an appropriate ending to work from and can act accordingly. In the hypothetical solo improvisation described above, the improviser has a cyclical sense of structure: the end is in the beginning as the beginning is in the end, the recapitulation of the opening motif bringing the performance full circle and thus to a satisfying conclusion. By contrast, in a collective improvisation, the different players' inevitably diverse senses of where to find the ending somehow must reach some sort of agreement. It doesn't always happen neatly--it isn't unusual for some players to feel the improvisation has come to an end and that they're finished, while others have a different sense altogether and continue to play (this is a reminder that as with all human projects the improvisation may end successfully, disappointingly, or simply be abandoned).

And yet for committed improvisers any ending is temporary--a pause rather than a conclusion--and soon enough, we will find ourselves once again at that permanent crossroads represented by the zero moment, confronting a silence in the face of which we have to do something, have to choose among possibilities that only we can choose, have to bring into being something that hasn't existed before: have once again to enact in sound the basic pattern expressed with the infinitive "to make."

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