This is a subject that has been close to my heart and central to my artistic practice for a long time. It is with great pleasure that I now decide to take time and reflect on what constitutes, in my experience, important aspects of the art of spontaneous creation.
Of course, many great thinkers and artists, musicians have written at length on the subject, and in no way do I intend to make a critique of previously published material. This piece of text is merely intended to represent my own personal experience. I shall endeavour to present facts and ideas as simply as possible, or rather, to avoid any contention since it is not my intention to spark a debate nor oppose existing opinions. This is more about sharing my personal research and experience in the hope that what I postulate here will resonate in the reader and invite constructive exchanges.
Many musical traditions have improvisation at the core of their practice. Often, improvisation appears within the frameworks of long standing traditions, sets of rules and theory. Once again, I have no intention to repeat what others will have said in a better way elsewhere.
However, I would like to begin by surveying a few facts about certain approaches to improvisation.
First of all, I would like to present the idea that nothing is completely independent. Against the contemporary fad in pursuit of the ‘new’, nothing is purely novel, nothing is unique.
I would like to refer to the scientific understanding of the law of causality. Also important, is the law of conservation of energy.
Some may recognise the fact that I often refer to the terminology of Buddhist teachings, and I will draw parallels here with science in saying that nothing is ever created anew, nothing disappears, but everything transforms. This implies that every action, every event, every phenomena is the result of previous experiences; every effect has a cause and often it is difficult to separate cause from effect. We are all interconnected. This highlights the central point in the Buddhist mind that everything and everyone is inter-dependent. This law of causality is known as dependent arising.
To further the parallel with the Heart Sutra – a central teaching on the nature of emptiness – I will add the following points:
Nothing is completely independent in that all things arise from a cause, that is why it is said that things are empty, that is empty of themselves, as there lacks an ultimate blueprint that dictates what it is or is not. Things are empty of real existence because they are such only as the result of multiple causes and not by ultimate design.
Secondly, I will say that empathy is absolutely essential in the practice of improvisation and this goes much further and deeper that the absolutely essential listening skill required in the practice of musical improvisation. Compassion is the utmost state for a true Buddhist practitioner, just as the empathy of ‘deep listening’ should inform all musical communication.
Now, how do the law of causality and the practice of compassion relate to improvisation?
As stated above, everything is interdependent. Similarly, the practice of music within certain traditions and styles, or approaches, are dependent on many factors. Some will say that one factor or another is more important, but I will insist here that all factors are important. It is just that certain traditions focus on a particular cause more than another.
So what are the factors that inform musical practice? Evidently, different traditions will favour one or another. But I will briefly mention a few.
It is most obvious that the history of a given genre is very important in the teaching of that particular practice. Each musical current has a history specific to its genre. And it is of course important to understand the past in order to make sense of present practices and conceive of future developments.
There is no need for me to attempt to write about the history of musical genres, as others will have done this much better elsewhere. However, the following are some of the traditions that feature improvisation in their practice.
In the western tradition, it is mostly jazz that springs to mind when talking about improvisation. However, eastern European music also uses it. When talking about jazz, one has to take into account the importance of African music, which also has aspects of improvisation. In the classical cannon, Indian music, ragas have a strong connection to improvisation within strict frameworks.
Others will argue that, more than history, theory is most important – and that without a strong theoretical background, one would not be able to improvise within a given style.
Another factor that comes into play is the practice of a given technique. But if one was to look further into each of the above topics, they will find that they are indeed deeply connected, in that certain techniques arise from the history of a culture and so on.
This is very far from being an exhaustive list and I will focus now on the practice of free improvisation, and I will argue that in this instance, all of the above are particularly important – but not exclusively.
Free improvisation, by definition, should be free of any imposed style, formulaic technique or annexed to any time, culture, tradition or history.
In order to be entirely free, improvisation per se should operate outside of rhythmical or harmonic constraints associated with stylistic approaches. However, it is important to note that in reality, free improvisation is in fact given to take specific forms and follow certain trends or schools of thought.
Personally, I believe that a certain degree of knowledge of ALL traditions and an understanding of techniques specific to many genres should be ascertained in order to be a rounded improviser in the modern world of cross-cultural exchanges.
But let us stay away from opinions and look at facts about the practice of free improvisation in the western tradition.
From the onset, and very early in my relationship with the practice of free improvisation, I was aware that there were very recognisable styles of playing and schools of thoughts which are associated with locality and points in time. So how can it be that improvisation should take on predictable forms? Can it still claim to be experimental, avantgarde and improvised? How could jazz cats claim that they improvise if they play the same bunch of notes in a different order? Or play with the same idiosyncratic style but a bit slower or faster, a bit more this or a bit more that, is it still improvisation?
Well, it is obvious that there are different degrees to what is referred to as improvisation. It is evident that jazz improvisation (the spontaneous performance of solos within specific and strict sets of rules) is not the same as the said free improvisation that has no pre-established rail to direct its narrative.
It is important to understand at this point that throughout history, the notion of excellence, a commodified value that validates one’s musicianship and ability to perform has been strongly associated with one’s ability to develop a personal style. There is enormous pressure in developing one’s sound. Of course, this has to be seen within a culture that is obsessed with individualism and ‘personality’. The dark side of this coin is the creation of proxy in one’s dependency on attitude (mistaken for personality) and egotism (mistaken for personal worth). Of course, this fact goes against the Buddhist ideal of selflessness just as well as the communal act of creation, based on communication, central to free form playing.
Copycats who obsessively try to emulate the sound of such and such celebrity to the extent of using the same amplifier, guitar strings, type of reed and so on… do not generally feel at ease with the act of improvising.
Sadly, most music schools, jazz in particular, put extreme importance on reproducing and mimicking the playing of known practitioners while at the same time advocating personal development – in theory. In practice, many players find it difficult to dissociate with this mimicking trend when there is much pressure in playing standards in the commercial scene. And one has to earn a living indeed. Well, this is another topic altogether.
Ironically, we will notice here that all the famous jazz players became famous for their individual styles and due to their own original creations, not their re-enactment acts of classics.
But it is important to take into account that no-one is born an improviser and we all come from certain traditions and started playing specific styles before having the required experience and technique to improvise.
I know that some (self-taught) will argue against this. And I know that non-musicians sometimes assume that “any child could play this”. Well, perhaps.
It is a fact that children are more open-minded and enthusiastic and are therefore better equipped to let go, and improvise. However, like any other art form, to be proficient at improvising, one has to develop enough confidence in their skill – which requires, as presented above, much practice and research etc.
Of course, it is possible to become reasonably good at playing an instrument without exposure to a specific education. But I will argue that, in order to be really proficient and have enough vocabulary for varied and true improvisation, not limited to a certain range of playing techniques, it is very important to practice in the traditional way as well.
And I am presenting this argument in the genuine belief that I am not biased towards the subject of education:
I will say at this point that I am entirely self-taught, in that I have had not one single lesson in my entire life in the practice of my instrument (apart from the absolute minimum introduction to the recorder, badly taught in French schools). So I have developed my own practice routines (both on guitar then saxophone and shakuhachi), my own exercises and (very slowly) progressed on my own path, with my own sound.
And still, I am adamant that in order to perform even experimental sounds or approaches such as known ‘extended techniques’ for example, one has to practice traditionally, that is scales etc. across the whole range, in order to develop the necessary skills and control. I do not particularly spend time practicing such techniques on the saxophone, but I know that in order to master ‘multiphonics’ on the saxophone, it is essential to develop an adequate embouchure and so on – and that is through the practice of scales and long tones across the range of the instrument, and more scales, and more scales and….
To finish on the topic of stylistic approaches, I will say that there are many styles of improvisers and we all have a certain background. Looking at the rich scene that has thrived in the city of Sheffield, in the north of England, I could see that musicians I played and performed with had retained a flavour (rather than a defined style) in their improvisations that were reminiscent of their musical culture.
And improvisers come from all sorts of contexts: free jazz may be the most obvious, but also modern classical, folk, country and western even, noise, rock or electronic. And as a matter of fact, like any other music genre, improv is merging with other avenues such as new music, contemporary classical, experimental electronics, field recordings, noise art. You name it.
But in the end, it is up to the individual musician to balance fairly their musical education and taste, the idiosyncratic sound they have developed (based on other players or not) and finally, what they feel is improvising within certain constraints or completely freely.
So consequently, recognisable movements develop that seem to ‘stick’ to a particular approach or personal style. And improvisation then negotiates its freedom within such frameworks – where sound has replaced musical genre. For example there was a strong attraction in London for abstract minimalism so much so that anyone playing a ‘note’ would be looked down upon. I feel that this is where style becomes a limitation, and is counter-productive. However, this is down to the behaviour of individual players and is not a feature of improv per se. Fortunately, such fashions or schools come and go. Styles do not define improvisation because it is not a style, but rather, for me it is an approach to creating music, regardless of the style chosen, if any.
To quote a master in a totally different discipline:
« At best, styles are merely parts dissected from the unitary whole. All styles require adjustment, partiality, denials, condemnation and a lot of self-justification. The solutions they purport to provide are the very cause of the problem, because they limit and interfere with our natural growth and obstruct the way to genuine understanding. Divisive by nature, styles keep men apart from each other rather than unite them.»
So once again, I feel the need to draw parallels with the early references I made. We have seen the importance of history, theory and technique. And we have seen that the creative act of improvising is dependent on all or some of these factors. However, some people do improvise without exposure to theory. Others deny technique and do their own ‘thing’, thanks to the liberating punk attitude of the late 70’s.
Styles change, merge and pass away.
So if we look into detail and examine with a microscope, what is improvising? Is it defined by history alone? No. Is it just theory? No. Technique? No.
Music, and improvising are not just theory. Theory is a framework. Music is not just notes on a score. It is not a formula. So what is it then and where can it be found?
It is striking how similar this line of questioning deliberately follows the Buddhist analysis of what is self. Self is not the mind, it is not the senses, it is not just our emotions, etc…
And through the close study of the very deep, detailed, and complex text that is the heart sutra, one has to come to the conclusion that the self (and by the same token, that improvisation) does not exist.
The self is therefore said to be empty of itself, and can only be understood to be the observable result of complex streams of causes and effects.
So improvisation does not ultimately exist. It is the product of a unruly history of practices and traditions that logically lead to the present state of affairs. Right.
But where did music come from? What was the first improvisation? Did the caveman sing or played his bone flute spontaneously? Did (s)he spontaneously think I’ll make a flute out of your bones? What was his framework? Did (s)he go to jazz school? Did the bison say “that’s not proper chord changes that”?
We have to look further. Is the self inscribed in our very cells? DNA? Does music predate man? And we can go on ad lib, and we will not find the answer, because there is no beginning and there is no end, and nothing was ever created nor disappear, and everything is interdependent, as nothing has independent arising, and so was the big bang the first chord or harmony? Well, no because the big bang (and wait for this cos this is going to piss you all off) was not the beginning, and it, itself, the big bang, has no independent arising, and it can only be the effect of an existing cause. That is the law of physics and Buddhists did not have to scalpel the hell out of the atom to understand this 3000 years ago. There I said it. We are all improvising.
In order to find true improvisation, we have to look further.
And just like the self has to be found and observed outside of thought, outside of concepts, outside of the framework-limitation that is our oh-so-superior cognitive, linguistic skills…
So Improvisation has to take root outside of theoretical, conceptual frameworks.
Listening out for known chord progression, listening loosely to ego driven discourses is not enough. The ‘oh yeah I am listening’, ‘I can hear what you are doing’ and it’s the perfect background to my great solo – is not going to cut it.
By this time, 98% of the audience/readers have just walked away in anger. But if you are still there, I would like to share with you my personal experience of improvisation. One that I would argue is free from theory and tradition. One that is free to dare play notes when others think improv should only be abstract sound. One that has to be loosely, from a distance, supported by skills developed from traditional practice but… but… one improvisation that has to completely let go of such frameworks, that has to let go of all expectations and peer pressures, that has let go of a need to please. Only then can you be completely free.
Improvisation, in this, is like meditation. And through improvisation, I have, personally and undoubtedly experienced moments of deep spirituality, both alone or shared with other skilled musicians.
There are references to this is various contexts, although the subject is very rarely talked about. In jazz, some cats talk about ‘the zone’ or ‘when the music is good’ and those moments are regarded as special. Steve Coleman, of all the jazz cats I know, seem to incorporate ‘the zone’ into his creative process and there are a few references to this in interviews on his Mbase site. But his music is so complex, and other players may not be able to get to the same mind state, so that improvisation ‘in the zone’ is only used to generate material Steve then integrates into compositions.
People’s experience and interpretation of the zone varies immensely. There is a tradition, very close to my heart, that takes this much deeper. In traditional shakuhachi playing, Buddhist monks used the bamboo flute as a tool for meditation, more so than for making music. There is a wonderful article about this by master Kiku Day (see biblio).
And I can say that over the years, after meeting, playing, and discussing with many musicians and improvisers, the western understanding of the zone or even meditation is nowhere near as sophisticated as it is in Asian countries that have practiced the technique with scientific rigour, for thousands of years.
There are also writings that coined the term ‘flow’ by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi that may be of interest in relation to creativity. But I am not convinced that this business like approach matches what meditation really is, strictly speaking.
So it seems that musical traditions and improvising on the one hand, and spiritual practices (that involve a scientific approach to meditation) on the other are always separate whereas I feel that both coexist in reality on a level very few people can conceive of. And it seems to me that it is essential we explore and study further the creative potential of meditative states, or mindful playing in the performance of music. It is an essential factor (even if the practitioner is unaware of what is really happening in the process of improvising) that needs practice, just as much as technique does.
Here, I can only narrate personal experiences on the subject. In a very personal, solo project called ‘sounding out’, I have been, over the years, recording improvisations in a number of outdoor sites. The principle that was to improvise with natural acoustics, and interact with the environment, developed into something much more – that is very hard to describe with words. Just like meditation cannot be defined or taught, it can only be hinted at with guidelines so the practitioner finds their own path. This is purely because meditation is a state that resides entirely outside the realm of intellectual analysis, outside language, outside the Imaginary or the Symbolic. It is pure experience of the Real.
This can only be achieved when a number of circumstances converge so that no distraction, emotional context, external pressures etc. take away the necessary complete focus. Gradually, the mind clears just like sediments settle and murky water becomes translucent. This takes time and discipline, just like the practice of music.
There have been very special places, with outstanding acoustics, but mostly with a certain quality of energy, that take me there, and suddenly, one is suspended in the elevated feeling of fluffy nothingness. All is sound, all is vibrations. All is empty. Emptiness is form, form is emptiness. And the only reality feels like compassion because compassion is the very structure of pure life and creativity.
The space expresses itself and vibrates the soul. Music plays. I was not there. It was not me. There is no style in improvisation because form is empty.
Sounding out is not improvisation on acoustics or birdsong. It is letting the rock and the walls of sacred sites flow through my instrument. It is the music of that place, at that moment. It is meditation on the now. It is being the now, being the place. It is telling its story, not mine.
To truly improvise, in the purist sense, one has to be a skilled musician (see beginning of this text) but also has to be an experienced meditator.
You have to let go.
You have to let the music flow.
You have to let the instrument play itself.
You have to let go of ego, and accept to merely channel the music of the moment and of the place.
All the theory and the practice that we are so attached to are, in the end, just there in the hope that you are good enough a musician to be able to keep up with what’s going on. And you have no control over it other than to try and not bum-note it. All those years of practice are summed up right there. It is the only preparation, the only net not to fall flat on your face and try to keep up with the flow.
Control, security, certainty, performing excellency and predictability are all illusions that form the ground for commercial, commodified entertainment. It is not life, it is not music and it is certainly not improvisation.
Ride the wave my friends, be the cool surfer balancing on the flow of life. Enjoy the view cos there is no good, no bad, theory, expectation, style or anything to burden your mind with.
Only a peaceful clear mind can be completely and truly creative.
Improvisation, like compassion, is life.
Be happy my friends. Meditate. Ride the wave.
28 august 2015
Csíkszentmihályi, Mihály. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990
Coleman, Steve. http://members.m-base.net/
Day, Kiku. Mindful playing, mindful practice: The shakuhachi as a modern meditation tool. 2014
Hancock, Herbie. Harvard lecture series
Heart Sutra. Traditional Buddhist scriptures. Many publications and comments also avail. online from reliable Buddhist sites such as
See the 3-days lectures by HH the Dalai Lama
Chandrakirti. Introduction to the Middle Way. Boston and London: Shambala publications, 2004.
Lacan, Jacques. The Real, the Imaginary and the Symbolic.
The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book I: Freud’s Papers on Technique (ed. J-A Miller), N.Y.: Norton, 1988
Lee, Bruce. The Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Ohara Publications, 1975
Oliveiros, Pauline. Deep listening institute workshops.