The improvising process - in the gap between strategy and spontaneity. Article in Jazznytt, nr. 241-winter 2016

What happens when an improvising band shapes musical forms in real time? Njål Ølnes uses aural sonology analysis in his investigations.

Text by Njål Ølnes

In my PhD dissertation at NMH (The Norwegian Academy of Music), I have studied how musical form emerges in an improvisational interaction, such as how the musicians communicate through the music and the listening. I have attempted to investigate these complex issues from several angles. First and foremost, by playing improvised music together with the BMX quartet, which I then investigatively evaluate using aural sonology analysis (a method developed over the course of 30 years by Lasse Thoresen et al. at NMH), through conversations with the musicians who created these musical forms, as well as examination of other approaches from research literature and other literature.

My research resulted in a dissertation that, due to its theme, was submitted as an interactive PDF and as an e-book. This was to ensure that all the music would be included in all analyses and discussions: if I claim that there is a break in the music, readers must be able to hear and judge for themselves whether this is correct. The dissertation, “From Small Symbols to Large Forms - Analyses of improvised interaction using aural sonology”, can be downloaded free of charge from (search for Ølnes). I contend that this study has a universal value. It could provide better insight into an improvisation practice, which in many ways is wordless, albeit not soundless.

The following is based on dissertation’s final chapter, dealing with the process of improvising freely together, the relationship between the spontaneous and the planned, and the close relationship between listening and creating.

Aural sonology: Listening as an analytical method

Aural sonology analysis can be understood as a listening score; how the “music moves through time” can be depicted in the analyses - using a timeline to visualise how the music takes form, changes form, and concludes form. The music used in the analyses is recorded music. The material content will thus remain the same, but one will find that the music changes according to which listening intention one has, that is, by how one listens.

Aural sonology is a form of concentrated listening to specific aspects of the music, where one is tasked with describing the sound characters, the form formation, the dynamics of the music, etc. In a way, this is reminiscent of how musicians traditionally learned to play jazz, by carefully listening to recordings on records: through repetitive listening and continual substantiation of what is heard, listeners will increasingly grasp the nuances of the piece, and when they then practice with the instrument, their ear will have constructed the map or the "inner voice" that guides them in the playing. This is a practical, listening effort, and by imitating what is heard on the record, the listener indirectly gains a sense of the forms which are included in the music.

Aural sonology requires more conscious listening for larger form segments and form transformations. This specific listening for form and time segments is somewhat new to traditional imitation in jazz. Furthermore, it can be an important contribution to the improvising musician; being aware of form structure and larger musical segments, being able to listen with a larger time horizon. Especially when the improvised music has abandoned the traditional forms and throws itself into sound improvisations, such an ability to observe larger form elements may be useful in the musical navigation.

It is natural for free improvisations to have short listening time horizons; the more musical events happening around you, the more automated the playing becomes. Free improvisation is impulse-driven, spontaneous and intuitive. But as Daniel Kahneman (Thinking, fast and slow, 2011) has argued, we cannot trust that intuition always makes the right choices - just the easiest choices. We like things we have done before and that we know works, and if we wish to act against this, we must actively teach ourselves how to act differently. This is a known paradox within free improvisation: that the apparent freedom becomes an illusion when actions and behaviour are exceedingly automated.

Here, aural sonology analysis can be of use by substantiating and indicating what is in fact occurring in the interaction; which processes and sound characters one usually employs, which positions each player assume in the interaction, and the form creations and form transformations that the band develop together. As such, the analysis is liberating with respect to the improvisation. An analysis can provide ideas and input to change behaviour, it can point out deficiencies, or constraints in sound use and interaction positions. And this information can be taken into the rehearsals, both on the instrument and in the interaction.

Process I: Between strategy and spontaneity

Unlike visual forms, which we can see and process instantly, the musical form emerges over time. Musical form is thus more closely related to the stone sculptor's craft, as he slowly chisels a form from a large granite or marble block. But what will the form represent - the image the sculptor had in mind when he began, or perhaps something has emerged that not even the sculptor knew of beforehand?

The effort of chiselling out either a sculpture or a musical form is a process. Music is largely about being immersed in the music’s progression of time. Summarising what takes place in the process itself is beyond our abilities; looking back, there are simply too many nuances and dimensions. But even if we can never completely reduce this process to an understanding in our rational minds, we can reduce musical forms to musical gestalts that we can “grasp” using aural sonology. To speak of musical form, we must be able to compare different musical objects and consider them in context. Thus, we can use aural sonology analysis to substantiate and support speculative theories and metaphors that will give us insight into the improvised interaction process.

Because this process, and the interaction that takes place in it, is so difficult to control, many have likened it to chaos and chaos theory. Others have pointed out that free improvisation can appear to have self-generating characteristics; that the energy arising between musicians can be so great that the process “starts on fire" and must burn out before one gains control again.  It seems that the degree of complexity in the music depends on the density of gestures and musical events. Once this degree exceeds a certain point, a threshold, the interaction becomes more collective and the energy more self-generating. Such a stage in the music is distinguished by a shorter time horizon and is thus more characterised by direct stimulus-response relationships. In other words, a more automated style with the musicians.

Where the written, noted, music can set up different plays with these complicated forms - where the musicians or ensemble steer in and out of complexity - it seems that the improvised interaction both takes more time to achieve complexity and is to a greater extent captured by this complexity. This can again be explained by the fact that “the roles" are not conscious or given; accumulating sufficient energy to reach such a threshold takes a long time to build up in an improvised interaction. It is difficult for the organic interaction to hit a singular, sudden point with very high energy without this being agreed in advance or rehearsed.

It is logical to suppose that, over time, improvising bands will find a mutual distribution of roles. It is likely that internal, common references result in the musicians needing fewer and less pronounced gestures to understand their intentions of form. The degree of break, balance, short or long form segments will depend on intentions, preferences and style references. The degree of spontaneity or strategy will follow the same aesthetic preferences.

Spontaneity can be experienced through frequent breaks and shifts in the music, or through a more meticulous examination of the timbre: What does this timbre in particular offer the interaction here-and-now? This attention to either the timbre here-and-now, or on sharp and rapid shifts, will likely be found in aesthetic choices that can be seen as a conscious strategy. One can assert with great likelihood that the listening during the interaction process is actively co-creating the musical result. The sound surroundings within which one is immersed determine which musical choices one will make. These choices are made without first bringing them through a rationally thinking mind, but are instead made based on the auditory navigation (listening), the musical experiences and motor dispositions one has.

What one directs their attention towards will also determine what is heard; if a break or a sudden shift is not expected from the other musicians, it is likely that one will not clearly understand hints or gestures in this direction. Focus on the sound elements will similarly make each musician more aware of small shifts in the timbre’s nuances.

Process II: "Psychoanalysis" of the music

One might assume that music is such a multifactorial phenomenon that it can never be reduced to a clear conceptualization: Music is not a thing!  But even with such an assumption, one can still reflect on that which cannot be reduced; the process, the progression of time, the presence in sound and in time that only sees a short horizon ahead. Indeed, that which happens in the instant is not free from the experiences and thoughts that are conceived outside of this instant. Layer upon layer of learning lies beneath and guides us in the process.

An ability to expand listening intervenes as a creative force in the process, because we have taught ourselves to listen for something we have not heard before. The protention, that is, a sense of what is to come, contains a creative element; we actively and creatively listen forwards in time and anticipate what is to come. Listening to something that will happen sounds like an impossible paradox, but that is in fact what we do in the improvised interaction. This is where phenomenology can be of assistance: a musical here-and-now always exists in conjunction with an echo of that which was and an expectation of what will come. The music is a progression in time, an emergent phenomenon that is on its way towards its future. This never stops; therefore, the idea that the improvisation is contemporary art is misleading: the music is always on its way. Free improvisation can thus be likened to not blocking the near future, to accepting that the unknown that comes will be something other than that which we had first imagined.

What determines if the expectation of what will come results in possibilities or in blockages is obviously related to motor and cognitive skills; what possibilities you have with the instrument and how easily you can express what you want to express. And that which you want to express is again dependent on your ability to listen. The listening is like a map of possibilities, and the listening is part of the creative process. If the map is small and mono-dimensional, or large and multi-dimensional, depends on your listening skills.

It’s said that language creates reality, that the way we talk about a phenomenon - such as “refugees" - creates our perception of what this phenomenon is. I contend that listening similarly creates our musical reality, that the way we listen determines how we perceive the music and the sounds that surround us. Given that the listening is included in the timbre production and that the process of free improvisation is a process with self-generating features, two possible challenges are created: That the expectation of certain, preferred forms can inhibit and block the interaction because one listens too far ahead and is therefore not present in the current sound. Or that only listening to the here-and-now qualities of the music will cut off the possibilities for creating longer forms, while one is cast back and forth in uncontrolled stimulus-response movements.

My research can be described as a "musical psychoanalysis”, where I am searching for the underlying motives and mechanisms to why we act as we do in a particular phase of interaction: whether a certain action fulfilled a certain purpose, whether one has had an unconscious or "pre-conscious" motif with the playing. In the process itself, in the improvising here-and-now-moment, we make impulsive choices. We respond and relate to the surrounding sound that we are a part of. Here, it’s not possible to ask, “why did you do what you just did?”. We are in a stream of events in a flowing time, we are ourselves in flow, and make all choices spontaneously and intuitively.

Rats, labyrinths and mental maps

May-Britt and Edvard Moser’s breakthrough in brain research received much attention when they identified the so-called "grid cells" in rats; an internal GPS system that could explain a rat’s sense of location. Simply put, these cells are activated as the rat moves out into new areas. The cells activate and form certain patterns, routes ("grids"), which then act as a mental map of the area being explored. The brain is thus plastic, forever changing and self-organizing. With this as a metaphor we can imagine that, through listening, we create mental maps of the musical places we explore, both individually and collectively.

Improvising musicians who expand their hearing through training and experience, will later be able to utilise the newly acquired discoveries (new tone choices, previously unknown tonal and rhythmic nuances, etc.) in their improvisations. A band that has improvised freely together for a long time, can be said to have both a collective consciousness and a collective “subconsciousness". When they come upon previously unknown musical paths together, they will establish a collective memory of the musical places they have been. This can be seen as a constant expansion of musical territory; to continually experience new combinations of form elements and new compositions of timbre objects. And the collective memories from the "exploratory journey" are a part of the referential material used in further interactions.

Is it possible to recall these journeys, through the improvised interaction or through analysis? Yes, aural sonology analysis offers a concrete account of the collective journey, based on the recording. Not with all its nuances of space, smell and feel here-and-now, but as sound frames: the frozen forms, sound characters, layers, dynamic and sentence-creating forms, as well as form transformations. There is a training of sense of form and a conscious study of timbre usage in the analysis process. It is also possible to give oneself assignments based on what is found in the analysis. But the distinction that jazz musicians have always experienced between transcribing soloes and rehearsing their own improvisations, similarly applies for the sonology. The analysis cannot turn you into a better player, but the analysis can guide you on the path to practicing listening skills.

Like the rats in the labyrinth, we must also seek to expand our mental maps through the interaction. As with rats, our brain is plastic and forever changing; we create contacts between synapses that have not been activated before, we enter unknown spaces. But unlike rats, we also must consider the choices we make, see how we position ourselves, where we most often prefer to go, and study the habits that control our choices but which we are not conscious of.

Then we must address the question: Can one practice free improvisation? Is this not a contradiction in terms? Given that the spontaneous and unconscious choices in improvisation are based on previous layers of learning, and that automated responses will release known motor reflexes, players must practice the ability to change their musical behaviour. And this practice must occur on both the individual level and in the context of the band. Alone, the player can research instruments and sound usage, together the player can practice with form building and sound structure.

Will the improvised interaction then lose its magic, its deeper mystery, with all of these analyses, through this mapping of all aspects of the musicianship? To me, it emerges as even more mysterious, even more beautiful. The fact that we, as musical individuals, are able to communicate in so many layers and that there is no boundary to how far we can travel together in this universe known as improvised music, is in truth magical.