Sunday 15 September 2013


I am experimenting with new ways of improvising at the moment. What I am interested in is if there are ways of communicating musically through improvisation whose expressive power can compare with the depth of a Beethoven piano sonata (say). What is in the Beethoven that makes it great? Is it the sheer astonishment that all that complexity could, through some extraordinary labour, be notated? Or is there something else... something that the Beethoven says through his notated medium that, in improvising, we find it harder to say.

What there is in Beethoven is the revealing of a mind whose knowledge of the human condition is vast, and who understands how sound can express that knowledge. It is the combination of the analytical and the expressive, the spontaneous with the calculated, the formal with the flourish, which all give an indication of what's going on. Some sort of analytical communication about the music which gives the listener a sense of what is being explored, how it is being explored, what the structure is, and so on. The structure of the music is not something imposed by abstract creative processes; it is revealed through biological processes.

The necessity of notation for this element of calculation is something I've wrestled with for a long time. Notation is something whose necessity has changed over historical periods. This applies, I think, to most artefacts of creative expression. In the early days of notation there were practical problems of human coordination whereby any kind of performance could be possible: scores had to be big, often with different parts at top, bottom, left and right of the page. Notation also allowed greater sophistication of structure and compositional intention. This became part of the musical metaphysics - the score was a treatise as well as a coordinating device for performance. Medieval treatises (rather like 20th century serialism) could sometimes be rather dull and scholastic. Beethoven's treatises, on the other hand, were always completely riveting. Which leaves the puzzle that every student composer sets upon: how can something so visceral be so calculated? To what extent is the notation necessary as a device of calculation? Is it necessary as a device for visceral experience?

The answer to the latter question may at one level be 'no': we know of enough great visceral music in the 20th century which isn't notated conventionally (most notably Jazz, pop, etc, but also music from parts of the world untainted by the Western tradition). Study of the improvisation techniques and styles of India, China or Japan  (to name three) can reward with something other than simply a visceral experience: there, in those techniques, we see some contact with the 'calculated' heart of those musics. So, with study, the 'classical' music of India provides the same contact between calculation and experience that the Beethoven provides. Except that they don't use notation. Instead, what amount to heuristics for performance are used.

So my quest for improvisation which is deeply rewarding in a classical way may be a quest for new kinds of heuristics of performance which reveal deeper truths about musical experience. It is in exploring this space that the reframed 'necessity' for notation might emerge.

Technology is important in this quest. In terms of managing and realising heuristics, we have new means of coordination at our disposal. But we need technology that is capable both of coordinating events, and in applying rules to events that have already occurred. The 'subject' of music continually shifts in the light of events (or in the 'trace' of events). Bodies change and reorient themselves to a continually unfolding reality.

The difficulty is of course in the analytical part. This kind of music is a music that is continually "about" music. It is meta-music. The closest thing I can think of is something like Hans Keller's 'functional analysis' which was an attempt to make analytical statements about music through  music. But that's what I want to do, yet it would be a continually unfolding functional analysis about an improvisation (which is itself about itself!)

Why is this important to me? There's a simple answer to this, which is my "meta-meta-music": it's about information! It's about how we live through a world of fleeting appearances, are continually changed by them, are confused and then manipulated by them. If we are to be free, then we must understand what is happening.

As computer interfaces become more subtle, perhaps more like music, there are both opportunities and threats. My recent comments on Virtual Reality reflect my own excitement at seeing something really powerful. But perhaps I overplay it's benefits; we should fear the dystopias that will surely emerge unless we get to grips with how we are constrained by appearances, and then fight those who would constrain us.

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