Free Improvisation in Music Groups

There’s almost no research on group musical improvisation, and I’ve wondered about that for years. I’m a jazz pianist, and I’m fascinated by how different people can come together, and collectively create something that no one could have thought of alone.

So I’m excited to see a new study, of group free improvisation in music trios.* Two of my most respected British colleagues co-authored the study: Graeme Wilson and Raymond MacDonald.

They brought together 3 trios of improvising musicians, from Scotland and the North of England. The musicians were from a range of backgrounds, including voice and electronics. And just for extra measure, they also studied 2 more trios of visual artists who work with sound performance. The trios improvised in a studio for about five minutes. Then, the researchers interviewed each performer separately, replaying the tape of their improvisation, and asking them to explain “what they understood to be communicated by their own and other improvisers’ contributions” (p. 1032).

The main finding was that the musicians spent a lot of time thinking about whether to “maintain” what they were playing, or to “change” to something different. If they decided to change, either it was an initiation on their part, or a response to someone else’s contribution.  This is an “active and iterative” process.

If a change was a response, it was either an adoption (doing something really similar to the other musician’s initiation), an augmentation (adopting one element of the partner, but modifying another element), or a contrast (play something really different, but that’s complementary). Here’s the bottom line:

The representation is of an open-ended iterative cycle where all choices lead to a subsequent reconsideration, with each trio member constantly “scanning” the emergent sound of the piece and actions of their collaborators. The improvisation was sometimes characterized by interviewees as an external entity or process, within which events arose independently of those creating it. (p. 1035)

That’s exactly my own experience with group improvisation, and in my own research, every musician that I interviewed spoke in very similar terms, about iteration, interaction, and the emergence of something greater than the individual musicians.

* Wilson, Graeme B., Macdonald, Raymond A. R. (2016). Musical choices during group free improvisation: A qualitative psychological investigation. Psychology of Music, 44(5), 1029-1043.

Improvisational Performance

My keynote talk today closed out the Performance Studies Network International Conference. My title, “Creativity in Performance,” emphasized my own research on creativity, and my talk explored the parallels between verbal performance and music performance. (I’ve done studies on both: including Chicago improvised theater and small group jazz.)

It’s been a highly stimulating conference and I enjoyed all of the talks I attended. Most of them focused on musical performance in the European classical tradition, and that tradition is very much based in written musical scores. I took a different approach in my keynote talk: I argued that written notation is a very recent development in human history, but musical and verbal performance goes back thousands of years. Most performance genres around the world are not “composed” by a “composer” and they are not written down; they come down through oral tradition.

I encouraged the assembled researchers to consider these non-European genres, and to be careful not to be biased by their own emphasis on composed, scored traditions. Yes, I agree that we should be studying all performance, including European performance from a composed score. But I worry that if the notation becomes the focus, then we might lose what makes performance so special:

It is contingent and unpredictable from moment to moment;

It emerges from the successive actions of the performers;

It is collective and socially distributed–what I have called “distributed creativity” in a 2009 publication.

Kudos to conference organizer Professor John Rink, and to the conference administrator David Mawson. The conference was brilliantly conceived and perfectly executed! I hope this conference helps to correct a weakness in musicology: an almost total neglect of performance, in favor of a focus on composition, theory, and history.

The Creativity of Musical Performance

I’m now at the University of Cambridge, on the third stop of my conference tour around the world. I’m here to deliver a lecture at the first annual conference of the Performance Studies Network, funded by a large grant from the UK government.

For decades, music scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the composer and on written compositions. There has been a complete neglect of performance. This is due to several cultural beliefs that we tend to hold in Europe and America:

* Creativity emerges from a genius, solitary individual (in this case, the composer).

* Creativity resides in visible products (in this case, composed scores)

* Performers are not creative because they are simply executors of the composition–essentially just talented craftsmen.

This has largely been the case in the Western classical music tradition. But if you expand your perspective a bit, to all of the world’s musical traditions, you find that almost none of them are like this. Most musical traditions do not have “composers” who create; rather, they perform pieces that are handed down from previous generations. And in most musical traditions, there is substantial performance variation (what Western scholars would call “improvisation”). Finally, in most musical traditions, performance is a collective act, done by an ensemble, and interaction among the performers is at the core of performance.

In the West, the performance genre most like this is small group jazz: my own topic of study. So I’m delighted to see that this conference, bringing together a very new community of performance researchers, is successful. There are over 100 scholars from around the world, and only half of the submitted papers were accepted.

I’ll report more on the final day, Sunday, after my keynote talk.