manuscript of a book copyright Tom Nunn all rights reserved n. cal. excerpts by jim horton 3306w

Wisdom of Impulse: On the Nature of Musical Free Improvisation

by Tom Nunn

Third Draft August, 1995


Free improvisation is musical improvisation which has no notation, precomposed structure or plan; improvisers rely upon experience and musical instincts to spontaneously create music in real time based on sound itself and, in group improvisation, a dynamic interaction among players.


Free improvisers are important to the society in bringing to light some fundamental values and ideas, for example: how to get along; how to be flexible; how to be creative; how to be supportive; how to be angry; how to make do. So there is a social and political "content" in their music that seems appropriate today.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, currently one of the "centers" of free improvisation in the U.S., a series of venues featuring improvisation lasting from a few months to a couple of years has created a healthy interest in this music. For several years in succession, the Bay Area Improv Fest, consisting of four or five performance evenings, was held in Oakland featuring improvisers from other countries and other parts of the U.S., as well as the Bay Area.

One Bay Area improviser, Marc Weinstein, co-owns and operates Amoeba Music in Berkeley, California. Amoeba is well known for its distribution of improvised music CDs. Most improv CDs produced in the Bay Area are carried by Amoeba, as well as extensive selections in jazz and world music. Weinstein relates how Amoeba got started and his purpose in taking on such an enterprise:

Amoeba Music was started in 1990 as a partnership between many veterans in the retail music business who each have their own take on what an inspired environment in which to find and learn about new music should be. The current owners include Dave Prinz, Mike Boyder and myself. We started off just jamming on what inspired us the most about record stores. And from those discussions, we designed a seed from which Amoeba was born. Four years later, the store is patronized by thousands of avid music appreciators everyday. Almost 50 employees are dedicated to getting independent music to the people, despite obvious structures in place in our society to keep people from even knowing that many different kinds of music exist. As a cultural resource to the community, the store has become much more than anyone involved in its early evolution ever imagined it could. The very name, "Amoeba," seems to have taken on more meaning than we were aware of at first. We have become a literal manifestation of an amoeba whose life involves constant incorporation and adjustment. Somehow an amoeba 'understands' the nature of change and therefore represents a perfect metaphor for the constant evolution of life. This model inspired a very dynamic approach, as opposed to a dogmatic approach, to designing the business.

The store itself is managed improvisationally, without a typical managerial hierarchy; rather, everything finds its own level naturally, and a system is born that is unique and able to adjust itself to the demands of change. In this sense, Amoeba Music could be considered a successful business application model of improvisational principles at work. And there are undoubtedly many other examples. * * *

Some improvisers host radio shows that provide a great service to both listener and the improvisation community. Often these programs will include interviews and live performances as well as recordings. A good example is Ben Lindgren's "Mob Ecstasy." This once-a-month program on KPFA in Berkeley featured improvised music performed live on the air in the KPFA studio. Lindgren also often incorporated brief interviews with the musicians. "Mob Ecstasy" presented 47 different groups in their first 48 programs over a four-year period. Russ Jennings' "Morning Concert," also on KPFA in Berkeley, is another example. Jennings has presented more extensive interviews of various musicians (not all improvisers) and plays tapes and/or CDs of the guest artist's work. This gives the listening audience a chance to learn something about the music featured and about the guest musician or group.

Some improvisers will spend a great deal of attention on "warming up," not just technically, but mentally as well. For example, improviser Doug Carroll will sometimes practice Tai Chi just before a performance, preparing both body (becoming relaxed yet physically aware) and mind (becoming focused on the moment).

Drummer/percussionist Gino Robair has a number of practice strategies. One is to explore the potential of electronics in a way he would not in performance; that is, he experiments in order to discover. Some of these discoveries then carry over into his performance. When he practices drums, he practices technique. Robair also plays a Theremin, which happens to have a quasi-random element (possibly a flaw) that he practices utilizing -- how to create a phrase or musical shape when the machine is always changing unpredictably. When working with musical ideas, however, Robair is cautious not to explore them too deeply in a practice session. The idea is to know of their existence but save the real exploration for live performance. And here is a person who can drop a cymbal on the floor and express a musical phrase with it! With such musicians, there is never a lack of ideas or ability to express them. Like many improvisers, Gino Robair invites the unknown -- even concocts it -- and uses it to create a response-to-the-moment excitement about his improvisation. * * *

Without a doubt, different groups, just as different individuals, have their own strategies for practicing free improvisation. The Splatter Trio -- Gino Robair (drums/ percussion), Myles Boisen (electric guitar/bass) and Dave Barrett (saxophones) -- has gone through some changes in its approach since its beginnings in the late 80's, according to Robair. Originally, the group focused mostly on jazz and wrote pieces which they would rehearse. Robair described three goals he had for the group when it started: the "Grateful Dead technique" of using tunes as springboards for improvisation; Anthony Braxton's idea of different pieces that overlap in some way; and what was described as the "gamalan idea" of last-second cues to determine which of a number of possible directions the music will take. In the latter case, cues might be visual, as hand signs, but are typically sonic, using a rhythmic or melodic motive or "theme" to signal the change.

Over a period of time, the group gradually shifted its focus more toward free improvisation, sometimes completely free and other times using elements of their composed pieces; and the use of electronics. According to Robair, the three each wanted to go in different directions, so a common ground was found that incorporated everyone's interest. The three directions they are taking now in their recordings are: free improvisation; edited improvisations; and composed pieces. The editing of prerecorded improvisations, itself, is a collaborative improvisation, one that takes place in the studio. At the time of this writing, Splatter Trio planned to release a 3-CD album, each volume of which focuses on one of these three directions.

In their weekly rehearsals, pieces are played straight through. But these "pieces" are apparently now less strict and consist of known elements (phrases, riffs, tunes, etc.) that are freely allowed to appear and be assimilated into the improvisation, often serving as change cues. When they utilize electronics, their aim is to cross boundaries; for example, Barrett's sax may be processed by Robair or Boisen. The instrumental sounds are thus able to be further integrated in this way, and new kinds of interactions are brought out. According to Robair, a typical practice session for Splatter is to improvise an hour; then rehearse a couple pieces; then improvise another hour. If one thing stands out about this group, it is their ability to mix and match known elements within the free improvisation process without losing focus or direction. They are each superb improvisers/instrumentalists and as a group, their tight rapport is always evident.

Beyond digital processors, there are samplers, which can be triggered in real time by any instrument to produce the sound of another instrument or any prerecorded sound. Libraries of samples can be purchased; but in a more creative vein, an improviser can prerecord his/her own selection of sounds. For example, Doug Carroll has collected over 150 disks of samples of the author's [Tom Nunn] original instruments, providing a unique private library of resource sounds. Such possibilities bring back the "musique concrete" strategies of the early days of electronic and tape music. Within these samplers, as within synthesizers, sequences can be programmed (even during performance) to provide another "voice" with which to interact.

The computer is the most sophisticated piece of technology employed by musicians. The computer can be used to "compose" music, of course. And it is very effective for editing recordings. But its value as a real time device has, for the most part, been overlooked. Some free improvisers have ventured into this ultra logical domain, however, and have found very effective ways to use the computer for improvisation.

Tim Perkis, an improviser who uses primarily computer, has invented a device called the Hub, which provides an interface for a number of computers to interact. He also founded a group called The Hub, mentioned above, with John Bischoff, Chris Brown, Scott Gresham-Lancaster, Phil Stone, and Mark Trayle. Quoting notes from their recent CD, "Wrecking Ball," Perkis describes the process:

Six individual composer/performers connect separate computer-controlled music synthesizers into a network. Individual composers design pieces for the network, in most cases just specifying the nature of the data which is to be exchanged between players in the piece, but leaving implementation details to the individual players, and leaving the actual sequence of music to the emergent behavior of the network. Each player writes a computer program which makes musical decisions in keeping with the character of the piece, in response to messages from the other computers in the network and control actions of the player himself. (Perkis, 1994)

The vocalist/ instrumentalist may even combine vocal and instrumental sounds, singing and playing at the same time; this is particularly interesting in wind instruments, where it is possible to create chords by humming and blowing simultaneously. Trombonist/ vocalist Ron Heglin combines voice and instrument, uttering a fictitious language through the trombone while mixing it with various trombone sounds. In this way, he can, at times, create the impression of two or more "voices."

Experimental/Original Instruments in Free Improvisation

Perhaps more than anything else, sound itself is the starting point for free improvisation. It is a starting point for both an improvisation and an initial interest in the practice of improvisation. Moreover, sound itself becomes more interesting -- enticing -- as one practices and/or listens to free improvisation. The particular acoustic properties of a sound give guidance to the musical impulse, directing the flow in a way that makes creative use of those properties. Improvisers who play traditional instruments will often utilize special playing techniques and various attachments to extend the sonic possibilities of the instrument. Making one's own instruments is but taking this idea a step further, albeit a fairly big step! It takes courage, time and money, and a willingness to fail without (too much) regret, to take on the challenge of designing and building original instruments. And once an instrument has been invented, there remains the task of learning to play it well.

Experimental or original instruments provide immediate advantages for free improvisation: listener expectations are all but nullified because the instruments are unfamiliar; technique is usually somewhat unique to the instrument, though techniques can be borrowed from the playing of traditional instruments; the sounds of these instruments are usually attractive in their own right and thus help to sustain listener attention; how these instruments interact orchestrationally with other, traditional instruments expands the possibilities of both kinds of instruments; and the making of experimental/original instruments provides the maker an intimate understanding of how his/her instruments work. But more to the point, these instruments provide relatively unexplored fields of play. New playing techniques can be discovered over a period of years while old techniques are polished, thus retaining a certain "freshness" about the playing experience. Furthermore, if and when an improviser gets tired of playing a particular instrument, another one can be designed and built to either improve some things or provide an entirely new "voice" to his/her whole instrumentation.

The making of experimental/original instruments is, itself, a kind of improvisation, of course; a creative response to materials. Sometimes traditional instrument making techniques are used or adapted in the construction of original instruments, themselves possibly an offshoot or modification of a traditional instrument. But often new problems have to be solved. The two main challenges to creating a new instrument are to articulate interesting sounds and to make the instrument accessible to playing techniques; that is, the particular device that makes the sound must be playable (i.e., room for hands and what they hold and how they move, or accommodation to embouchure in the case of wind instruments.. Thus, playing technique has to be taken into account when designing an ergonomic arrangement of sound devices. Beyond this, there may be a concern with visual aesthetics and craftsmanship.

The most inexpensive of materials can be used to create a fascinating and varied "orchestra" for improvisation. Styrofoam packaging inserts, for example, provide efficient sound radiators or mounting systems for metal tubes or rods. A simple balloon, placed in a small cardboard paint bucket, provides the most resonant mounting system to support metal objects, such as long aluminum or steel rods, or metal plates. The elasticity of the balloon allows the object to vibrate freely; the result is an extremely resonant sound with a great timbral/pitch range effected through selective dampening of the object. Another useful rubber product is rubber bands, particularly very large ones. Daryl DeVore has made extraordinary use of Styrofoam, rubber bands, wooden dowels and metal objects to assemble a fine-sounding percussion console and assortment of hand-held instruments. DeVore, who has spent a lot of time working with children through the Petaluma school district, also makes extensive use of bamboo to create a number of very different instruments -- mallet instruments, shakers, wind instruments, bullroarer-type instruments, stamping tubes, etc.2

2 It is interesting to note the fact that Devore lives and works in the same small Northern California town as did Harry Partch. Partch also lived and worked in Sausalito and San Diego, California, both in the midst of larger area communities where experimental instrument-making now flourishes. Partch's influence remains a vital one. The reader is referred to his magnificent book, Genesis of a Music (1974) (see bibliography).

One of the more well known original instruments is the Waterphone, used in a good number of movie sound tracks since its invention by Richard Waters (another Bay Area instrument maker) in 1966. This is a truly unique instrument. Two stainless steel bowls (kitchenware) are brazed together to form a resonator; a tube is brazed to an opening in the top of the resonator to form a "neck" by which the instrument is held. Various lengths of bare bronze brazing rods are then welded along the circumference perpendicular to the neck. A small amount of water is added to the stainless steel resonator. The rods are bowed with a bass bow, and as the instrument is moved and bowed, the sloshing water inside modulates the pitch and timbre of the vibrating rods by dampening portions of inside bottom and sides of the resonator. The sound is breathtaking.

Sometimes one experimental/original instrument will suggest another. A case in point is the Crustacean, an instrument designed by the author, which utilizes the idea of bowed rods from the Waterphone, adapting it to a round stainless steel plate supported by inflated balloons in small buckets, as described above. Another example is the author's electroacoustic percussion board, the T-Rodimba (plywood sheet with bent threaded steel 1/4" rods, nails, strings, springs, etc.). This instrument was redesigned by David Barnes (Bastard Finders - Got One!) to create a unique acoustic version of the same basic idea.

The saga of experimental instrument making since 1985 has been well documented in Experimental Musical Instruments magazine, edited by Bart Hopkin (Nicasio, CA). Bart himself has created several original instruments, such as the Bentwood Chalameaux (a kind of "slide" clarinet).3 This fine publication has provided a forum for instrument makers to share their ideas and experiences. Topics range from the philosophical to the technical. Various charts and tables (e.g., organological charts, frequency tables) are presented occasionally which can become valuable references for other builders.

Photographs, graphics and elegant stipple drawings enhance explanations and are immediately enticing to the reader. And a broad range of writing styles is allowed, given most accounts are written by the instrument makers themselves; yet through superb editing, information is always presented clearly and understandably, and most often quite entertainingly. In addition to articles, there are letters, advertisements and reviews that perpetuate a dialogue among instrument makers. Experimental Musical Instruments is to the instrument inventor what The Improviser is to the free improviser -- a vitally important resource for exchange of information within an "underground" community; again, an expression of networking. Again, such instruments provide a fertile field for the free improviser and create a very "fresh" and personal music.

3 Bart Hopkin has also written a recently published book entitled Making Simple Musical Instruments, which is beautifully illustrated with numerous color photographs and clearly drawn assembly graphics. The text is succinct and the instructions are clear and precise. This book comes highly recommended for those actively interested in making their own instruments. Other books can be found, as well, that provide creative ideas that generally do not cost much in materials.

* * *

Free Improvisation and the Evolution of Music

The evolution of music reflects the evolution of human consciousness. Music reveals wonders of nature -- the nature of the universe (ratios and acoustics) and the nature of humanity (intellect, intuition, and emotion). As a real time expression, it can transform the state of mind of audience as well as performer. At the same time, it reflects the culture in a broad way and, directly or indirectly, economic, social and political circumstances within the society.

If the practice of free improvisation continues and grows, control over music will tend to decentralize toward a communal expression and experience -- not the work of a single composer, not at the direction of any controlling individual or style, not an expression of one ego, and not the separations between player and instrument, musicians and audience, amateur and professional, art and life.

How free improvisation will impact the evolution of music is yet to be seen, but there are signs: a multiplicity of styles, a decentralization of style, an immediate accessibility to anyone, a generalized rapport among players unfamiliar with one another, global networks for trading of recordings and tour assistance, etc. The nature of free improvisation itself is thus astonishingly similar to the nature of global society today; it might even be considered indicative of a direction art-making has taken at this stage of human history -- a response to the larger moment.

Perhaps the most significant contribution to the evolution of music free improvisation can make, however, from a sociological point of view, is its decentralization of power. Power hierarchies are utterly destroyed by a musical practice that welcomes the unpredictable, delights in the balance between control and non-control, is not economically or stylistically tied to trends, and requires neither leaders nor middle men. The music of free improvisation is uncomplicated by issues of "whose in charge?" or "what's the plan?" The music, itself, is in charge and that's the plan!