The collective memory


  • An examination of methods for developing the improvised interaction in bands that work together over time

In my doctoral dissertation, From small signs to large forms: Analyses of the improvised interaction using aural sonology, I made a descriptive representation of the improvised interaction of the jazz quartet BMX, of which I am myself the fourth player. In other words, I tried to recall what happened using aural sonology analyses of the recorded improvised music. In this research project I want to go one step further by taking the analyses into practice, the improvised interaction of the musicians:

In what way will an intentional effort with form, structure, interaction and sound in an ensemble context affect the intuitive improvisation process?

Whereas my PhD dissertation specifically dealt with the free-improvised interaction, in my post-doctoral project I will use a broader concept of improvisation. It will still address music that has improvisation as a working method, but I wish to define improvisation as Even Ruud does here:

Improvisation means process oriented activities where the relation between two or more persons is regulated through a common configuration and exploration of musical elements. Music will here consist of the common musical work that happens in the process. (Ruud 2010:75f).

This definition of improvisation favours both so-called idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation. It emphasizes the shared exploration of musical material that occurs between two or more players. It also emphasizes the shared configuration, compilation of musical elements; the shared creative activity.

It is precisely this tension between the given, planned structures and the spontaneous configuration of musical structures that my project aims to explore.

The connections between strategy and spontaneity, between the calculative and the intuitive, contain issues that are eternal to improvisational art:

  • Is it possible to practice being spontaneous and intuitive?
  • Can making musicians aware of their own position in the interaction, their own use of sounds (sound characters[1]) and possible form-building processes in the band, be a barrier to creative and spontaneous music? Or is it on the contrary a prerequisite?
  • Is free improvisation, with its short listening horizon, a completely different process than more formatted improvisation, with a longer listening horizon?

Using improvisation as a working method in a band can be demanding. These are interaction processes that one would like to be spontaneous and organic. It is easy to end up in one of two ditches: Either the written, musical material is so complex that one never goes beyond learning songs and different agreed sections, and never has time to work with the improvisational process itself. Or that one has so little material and such loose notes that working with improvisation in the rehearsal room feels wrong; it's better to save the energy for the concert!

Improvisations are found in the tension between a short-term listening here-and-now, and a more long-term and planned listening. Agreed ideas, forms and places one wishes to visit will challenge the listening that happens in the current now. An attempt to force specific or complicated forms can quickly result in one being unaware of the cues and the musical ideas that the co-players introduce in the moment.

At the same time, a listening horizon that is too short can make the interaction automated; that we go to the places we know and have been to before without being aware of it.


I would like to make specific the more general questions I asked above, into a formulation with more practical research questions; the questions I will seek to answer through this research project:

  • Can becoming aware of roles and behaviour in the interaction, the use of sound characters and form-building elements, change the spontaneous choices one takes in subsequent improvisations?
  1. How can an ensemble intentionally train with different form-building processes, such that "the whole scale, from simple forms to complex forms" can be seen as a natural and spontaneous part of improvisation?
  2. Will such a conscious exercise with form elements affect communication in an improvisational band with regards to common references, “indicators" and cues?
  3. If the sound character is related to which roles one takes in the interaction, will an exploration and development of new sound characters be able to create more variation in role-taking and role distribution in the ensemble?
  4. Will changes in role-taking and role distribution further lead to changes to the aesthetic choices the ensemble undertakes?


[1] The term sound-character only refers to a class of timbral qualities, including the energetic profile of a sound-object (Thoresen, 2015, s.71)