Inevitable Improvisations

[Ben Neill & LEMUR / The Stone, New York City, 2008 / Photo: Joy Garnett]

Over my years of experience as a composer and performer I have often felt that the discourse of digital/electronic art has been too strongly focused on technical issues. While digital music will always be at least somewhat defined by the parameters of the systems being utilized, my attention has been more geared toward the aesthetics of digital art and particularly the relationship of the aesthetics to technology. The feedback loop is a good metaphor for this relationship; as new technological possibilities emerge, artists are influenced by those developments, while at the same time new aesthetic ideas influence the creation of new technologies. The question for me has been what are the most important aesthetic tendencies to emerge out of the recent landscape of digital musics and media?

While early electronic music was informed by the aesthetics of the classical avant-garde, the invention of synthesizers by Moog and Buchla opened the door to the broader realms of jazz and popular music, which frequently utilized improvisation. Even Columbia-Princeton composers Otto Luening and Vladimir Ussachevsky relied on improvisation in their early works:

'Equipped with earphones and a flute, I began developing my first tape-recorder composition. Both of us were fluent improvisors and the medium fired our imaginations.'1

Luening describes their appearance on the NBC Today Show:

'I improvised some [flute] sequences for the tape recorder. Ussachevsky then and there put them through electronic transformations.'2

The improvisatory approach to electronic music was utilized by a broad spectrum of musicians from the jazz, (Joe Zawinul, Sun Ra, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock) rock (Keith Emerson, Pink Floyd, Pete Townsend, Soft Machine) and contemporary classical fields (Stockhausen, David Tudor, Musica Elettronica Viva, Sonic Arts Union). These artists all employed improvisation in their work with synthesizers and electronic processing.

[Ben Neill / mutantrumpet / photo: Eric Calvi]

In my formative years as a composer/performer I explored improvisation, but did not feel compelled to make it the central focus of my work. Since I had developed a high level of virtuosity as an instrumentalist, I felt that in improvisatory settings there was a tendency to fall back on familiar techniques rather than developing totally new approaches to performance, which was my goal in developing my hybrid acoustic-electronic instrument, the mutantrumpet. I was very attracted by the systematic musical structures of minimalist music, and I embraced a more conceptual attitude to composition, relying on various processes to take me away from playing what I wanted to play at any given moment. This was also due to my work with Petr Kotik’s S.E.M. Ensemble performing the music of John Cage, often with the composer’s supervision. With Cage’s music, it was all about not doing what you want to do, and following a predetermined directive that was specifically designed to take you away from your own desire-based choices about what to play at any given time.

Despite my propensity for notated pieces, improvisation did creep into my works from the very beginning. The reason for this is the subject of this paper. In my experience, improvisation is inherently the most compelling approach for performing live with interactive systems. The degree to which an artist improvises can vary widely, ranging from DJs whose improvisation consists of choosing which song to play next to interactive systems such as Wii controlled music that generate more random musical materials based on gestures. There are as many approaches to improvisation with electronic/digital media as there are artists employing it, and certainly predetermined composition can co-exist with music that is created on the fly.

Why does improvisation seem to make so much sense in this style of musical performance? Here are several reasons:

  1. Audience awareness: The improvisatory action has an intentionality that is often more readable by an audience than the interpretive act of performing a notated piece; the impulse of the performer is directly translated into the musical material and this can be made more perceptible through gestures. It becomes more theatrical or dramatic when it is spontaneous. Silence is also crucial in the improvisatory performance, it creates the articulation. The process of discovery in front of an audience is at the heart of the experience of interactive performance, and helps to break down the barrier between audience and performer.
  2. The nature of electronic performance: The processes of interactive performance require improvisation for full investigation and exploration. Only by playing with a new instrument can one truly find and explore its potential, not by executing prescribed material. Notation of interactive music is also problematic, limiting the possibilities that a performer might otherwise discover through spontaneous choices. Digital music systems have advanced to the point that responses can be highly complex, so improvisation with the machine creates a new form of narrative in which human and computer truly exist in a feedback loop, feeding off of each other in a one-to-one relationship.
  3. Freedom in music: With the advancement of new live performance software applications such as Ableton Live, Max MSP, and Supercollider, it is possible for a composer to create structures that are varied, enhanced and modified through improvisation. This approach seems to be the most evolved and contemporary way to create live electronic music, one that takes into consideration the musical developments of the last several decades. After a century of jazz and other improvised musics which have freed musicians from the tyranny of a conventionally notated score and rigid organizations such as orchestras with conductors, incorporating freedom into the live electronic medium seems to make total sense as a methodology. Perhaps because digital media has promoted freedom in so many other ways it is logical that an element of freedom would also be demanded in live performance.

Certainly others have expressed important ideas about improvisation in electronic music. The work of George Lewis in particular has been pioneering in this area, and I am grateful to him as well as to my collaborators David Behrman, Nicolas Collins, Eric Calvi, and David Rothenberg for helping to point me in this direction.