Improvisation, Group Process and Interpersonal Communication
Bob Gluck, January 2014, Draft 1
Public and private, musical improvisation as an interplay of information
Music making is by its nature paradoxically intimate and public. While there are some who play primarily alone and only for themselves, the musician is a person who believes that there is something to convey through the generation and shaping of sound. A communicative element within music implies a listener. The presence of an audience renders music making–the translation of inchoate feelings and sensations into sounds–a public act, hence the paradox. When sounds are transmitted and then sensed by the listener, one’s hope is that the result will influence that person’s thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations. Might further information generated within that listener return to the player and influence that musician’s next move, creating a feedback loop? Some musicians view themselves as solely internally focussed while playing, but it is hard for me to believe that this is ever completely so. In my own experience as player and listener, the act of creation and response to incoming (or returning) information creates a complex feedback loop in which the ears of listeners are part of an open system.
Through the process of musical improvisation, the player generates and tests something akin to a hypothesis, as if engaged in a kind of experimental method. One instantaneously develops an idea, projects it outward and the tests it by observing the response–in oneself, in listeners, in one’s musical partners–as well as from the resonant qualities of a physical space, The analogy of music making as formulating a hypothesis is complicated by the reality that improvisation takes place as the clock ticks and feedback instantaneously accrued.
Metaphors to interpret our experiences as player or listener
We interpret our experience of the world by crafting metaphors. The contention of two philosophers who have thought about this question, Lakoff and Johnson, is that we perceive our relationship to our surroundings by translating what we know from our bodily experience. One example is the tactile experience of exerting pressure–for instance while opening a heavy door. What we feel is the physical weight of an object, which we perceive as resistance. We translate this perception into how we understand and articulate non-physical experiences. For example, when we express an idea; anticipating acknowledgement, instead we face disagreement. We use the term “resistance” to interpret this experience. When the response is more actively disapproving we speak of “push back.” If an idea is of particular importance, we call it “weighty” or it lacks rigor, we may call it “light.” These are translations of a somatic experience into a mental process through the use of metaphor. [Lakoff and Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, 1980/2003]
When playing with a favorite drummer, I have had the experience of feeling pushed forward, as if nudged from behind. Maybe he is slightly ahead of the beat, or at least of where I am at the moment. Or maybe he accents the second beat, creating a similar sensation of accelerated motion. In response, I might land more heavily on the next downbeat, or play smaller subdivisions of the beat (faster notes), creating the perception of increased speed. In this circumstance, the drummer leads and I follow, yet almost instantaneously I fall into a pattern in synch with him, if not moving slightly ahead. What forms is a feedback loop in which each of us is listening closely to the other, exerting pressure, meeting it with equal weight, maybe releasing it, all with anticipation of what might happen next. We each perceive our interrelationship “as if” we are physically connected. This is due to the familiarity of somatic experience and its availability as a metaphor to conceptualize our experiences of interconnection while moving as time passes.
Listening: intentionality and focus, how to notice the inner chatter, restraint
Is not easy to listen and play at the same time. Musicians are taught to focus on a small set of performance details when playing. High on the list is the accurate execution of pitch, degree of loudness, and how long a note is held. When playing on a slightly higher level of musicality, attention is paid to articulation: does a note begin instantaneously or gradually; does it cease slowly tapered, abruptly cease, or something in between?
In an ensemble setting, close attention is at very least paid to whether notes that are to be played simultaneously are in synch. Moving to a higher level of musicality, attention is paid to synchronizing nuance of attack, how notes played together swell in volume; the goal is often to simulate the sound of one instrument. Each musician adjusts what and how s/he plays to compensate for perceived differences that interfere with synchronicity.
Listening on this level is an appropriately admired skill, one that few musicians attain. But in an improvised setting, this form of listening achieves useful, yet limited goals. The musical value may not be the construction of a single unified sound, but rather a juxtaposition of a collection of very different musical personalities, exemplified by the sounds they project. And sound itself, a quality beyond the note/volume/duration concept, may be a privileged musical value. Within this expanded conception, listening takes on a broader definition. Matching or contrasting pitches may be replaced or supplemented by matching timbral attributes. The response to a warm, rich sound might be an equally resonant sound, or by something consciously different in quality. Listening through the lens of a broadened definition of musical attributes demands an ear that is highly attuned simultaneously on multiple levels.
There are positive reasons for a more conventional, narrower approach to listening. Certainly it is more familiar to (at least western) musicians, and by screening out other information, it is possible to most accurately attend to pitch, volume, and duration. It is also very difficult to retain focus on a complex of musical issues in the face of many potential external distractions.
Keeping the focus narrow is also a shortcut to screening out the internal distraction of our busy minds. Yet much is lost by doing so; first, the information one fails to hear, and more important, the deeper skill at making peace with our inner lives. Mastering that most is the only real key to learning how to broaden our attention to our sonic environment.
There are myriad flavors to these internal distractions, from thinking about “what do I want musically in this moment” to “why isn’t the saxophonist not headed in my direction” to “what’s for dinner after the show.” A personal favorite is evaluating my own performance and trying to assess the audience response or that of my fellow players. Musicians all have these thoughts, but each of these are distractions, obstacles to listening. They interfere with our ability to hear what is actually happening musically in the moment.
Ultimately, while performing implies presenting one’s musical ideas, there is a mental and emotional “zone” (as some musicians speak of it) in which creativity flows less censored by self-conscious activity. Some speak of this as “getting out of one’s own way.” An intricate balance must be found between the conscious and unconscious, listening and playing. There are things that can only notice when paying very close attention. At times the closest listening requires not playing at all. One can choose silence as a performance strategy or as a means of taking in more information to inform the next stage in playing.
Self-definition & distinctiveness: shaping one’s own sound, projecting that sound, “what is ‘my’ distinct way or doing x, y, or z”
The question “who am I at this moment of improvised performance” may seem like a cross between psycho- and philosophical babble. In actuality we each have musical personalities that define how we sound and how we project our inner selves sonically to others. It is through our distinct “sound” that we distinguish ourselves musically, assert ourselves in a musical environment, and offer something distinct for improvisational partners to engage.
On a basic level, one’s “sound” can literally mean timbre. The great jazz saxophonists are said to have their distinct sounds. John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins produced different kinds of timbres from their tenor saxophones. is the sound full bodied, is it nasal, does is it coarse or smooth in grain? Is there timbral consistency across registers or are there varied timbres in different pitch ranges?
Pianists play an instrument with limited timbral control or variety. One’s sound can be a function of the density of notes (for instance, what kind of mix between thick chords and sparse individual notes)? Are lines played in parallel with both hands? How active is left hand chordal playing? Other elements are shared with musicians playing other instruments. Does the player focus within a particular register (for instance, the center of the keyboard, or high and/or low extremes). Does s/he tend towards playing many or few notes: how “busy” is the playing? How symmetrical are lines and/or phrases? Are there ornamental flourishes like grace notes, portamento “slides’, oscillating octaves (think Oscar Peterson and Herbie Hancock)? How much variety is found in articulation (staccato to legato, use of accents), degree of rhythmic vitality and variety… A musician’s sound is a composite of a range or cluster of musical features.
What to listen for: distinct attributes, small detail large structures, repeated patterns, variations, references, unanticipated meaning
You’ve strengthen your listening skills and grown in your ability to broaden your musical and other sensory awareness while playing. What then are you listening for while playing with (an)other musician(s)? We’ve spoken about the attributes of someone’s sound, which when discovered help acquaint you with your partners’ musical sound and personalities. The ability to attend within the moment to change and even subtle shifts in what may seem static becomes an important skill. But beyond qualities of “sound” and more conventional concepts of note/volume/duration, what else is there to listen for?
Patterns are one thing: beyond the concrete patterns of notes is the more abstract concept of gestural shape. Is the movement from one sound to the next stepwise or a leap? Upward or downward? Is there a contour you could draw on paper? Similarly, aside from a steady pulse, what other rhythmic attributes can you sense? Are there repeated patterns? Smaller subsets of those patterns or variations within those larger rhythmic structures? When do you sense changing energy levels, propulsion, stasis, a “cooling” down, sudden changes, constant variation?
Beyond literal rhythmic patterns (important to attend to!) can you detect more abstract patterns of shorter and longer durations? (akin to the concept of a melodic gestural contour)?
How does repetition affect the perception of time flow? Do rhythmic patterns lock in a pulse? Do they slow down the perception of motion when juxtaposed with other musical events? Free ir bound flow? Is the metric pulse changing? If so, has that changed more than the literal speed of playing, but other perceptual or emotional qualities in the music?
Do you detect references, musical or extra-musical, intentional or unintentional, that provide clues regarding the meaning of what is being played? Are there musical quotations or hints at specific music or historical/stylistic trends? Might it be useful to draw upon these in some way, or notice them, untouched? If you wish to respond, is it to join in or in some way to counter and play against the grain?
Do you detect larger structures forming? Hint: did you discern the conclusion of a segment during which an idea developed and then concluded (which could be provisionally considered an element in an emergent structure–recognizing of course that an open improvisation may simply move from section to section, or unfold organically without any discernible sen of structure). Do you recall previous structures, small or large that are being referenced? If so, are you interested in contributing this to retrospective episode–or not?
Showing others that you are listening
An important skill to exhibit when playing collectively is empathy. Having enhanced one’s skills as a listener, how does one show others that you are listening? Some very obvious possibilities quickly emerge: one can join others by playing in unison, or in a variation I’ll term “quasi-unison” meaning following the melodic contour to approximate unison. One can exhibit pitch matching–meeting another playing by joining on specific notes. The same concept of empathetically joining another can be achieved by imitating non-pitched or melodic attributes such as sound qualities and timbre.
The individual within a group
The role of an individual within a collective can mean very different things depending upon the rules of engagement. In a conventional formation in which soloist/accompanist, foreground/background binaries rule, the role of an individual toggles between these possibilities. An accompanist in turn becomes a soloist, subsequently returning to the previous role.
In a configuration like those holding sway in the big band era, role playing is more rigid. Players spend most of their time in the accompanist role, emerging less frequently to play a brief solo. In a bebop or post-bop ensemble the interplay between fellow accompanists may suggest greater flexibility between what constitutes soloist and accompanist. Drummers such as Max Roach behind Charlie Parker or Elvin Jones behind John Coltrane show distinctly soloistic tendencies while backing a solo. The interplay between Tony Williams, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, or Jack DeJohnette, Chick Corea and Dave Holland within the two final Miles Davis Quintets was highly collectivist, presenting malleable group formations behind soloists, functionally alternating between collaborative group solos, dynamically changing accompany, and juxtaposition, an alternate reality from that of the soloist.
The role of a soloist, even a momentary soloist within a collectivist structure is complex. Unlike the soloist in a setting where roles are fixed, the soloist within an open improvisational setting must exhibit flexibility. Like all other members, one must be willing and able to adjust to gradual or sudden changes in the group, and open to change direction. One must ask oneself, how does the sound and input of other members impact or influence one’s own musical attitude and direction. The trajectory of a solo may have its own developing internal logic, yet if one is to be fully open to one’s surroundings, it must be possible for new possibilities to emerge in response to the environment surrounding one’s solo. This may be in response to actual changes in what others are playing or simply because the attentive soloist notices something previously undetected around her/him.
The place of an accompanist in any kind of musical setting is to affirm, make space for, frame, and otherwise support the soloist. The manner by which this is achieved can vary greatly, depending upon the rules. In bebop settings, this means predictably maintaining a steady pulse and cyclical chord changes. In a more open setting it requires unusually close listening to determine what it means to affirm another’s individual voice. As discussed earlier, an accompanist can alter the context within which the soloist operates, changing perceptions of time, mood, and trajectory. In some cases, accompanists collectively reconfigure in response to their perceptions of the soloists direction. In others, the goal is stasis against which the soloist can seek contrast, juxtaposition or, alternately, a timeless quality.
Belonging as a nuanced attribute
What it means to “belong” within an ensemble can range across a spectrum: one can seek to merge into a group sound, maintain one’s identity in the group, flexibly shifting between maintaining and giving away one’s individuality. An alternate perspective is to affirm the individualistic side of the spectrum by aiming to stand out, or take on a contrary, conflicting “me and them” perspective. Individuals in a collective improvisational setting, lacking a soloist/accompanist binary can at times each assume this posture. another available role is to operate in isolation, as if separate from the group, not contrary, but simply on an independent plane. The irony here is the for the listener, there can be a fine line between separate and contrary.
Operating in an open improvisational setting requires the ability to maintain multiple perspectives, or at least the ability to shift between vantage points. The roles of individuals and subgroups within the ensemble may suddenly and subtly change and one needs to be alert to the shifting winds. It is equally important to be open to varying interpretations that different individuals may take towards the same musical material. What appears to be gaining strength and intensity to you may be a sudden but intermittent event to another. Finally, and maybe most important, each ensemble member must be able and willing to sacrifice one’s individual ideas, however, creative, to the needs and direction of the group as a whole.
Modes of engagement
The dynamics of listening and response are many and discussed in detail throughout the literature of jazz and improvisation. Already mentioned are various constellations of role playing: solo and accompaniment, collective improvisation, individual within the collective, and others. A conversational mode is a historical attribute throughout music of–and influenced by–the African diaspora dialog. Chief among these is call and response. But equally important is commentary, including forms of variation, contrast, engaging in an interplay of consonance and dissonance (harmonic, timbral, and other), and juxtaposition. Modes of building upon another’s musical gesture include additive and subtractive techniques (repeating, extending, compressing a line). The active listener will attentively track these unfolding changes, using the results to extend her/his palate of musical materials during the improvisation. When playing with others a constant, crucial question should be “how do I inform the musical dialog rather than impose myself upon it,” unless one’s specific goal at that moment is to assert oneself in this manner.
Concentration and abandon
This discussion has so far addressed what it means to focus and attend closely to what one hears around and within oneself while playing music. Left off is a musical value no less significant. The term “play” is an interesting choice of a word for musical performance. Usually, this implies a deeply serious activity. Yet without what we call the “childlike” qualities of play, much is lost in the potential joys and rewards of making music. Is it not possible to play with focus and intensity in a way that is simultaneously playful? Can we be serious with abandon?