It is difficult exactly to localize the new music of our century. Too often, the experience of "now finally we are walking on new ground" has been formulated. And too often it has become apparent that in the best cases, this allegedly new ground was only differing slightly from the tradition. That which is new about the breaking through the boundaries of aesthetic views of the past which Schoenberg envisaged at the beginning of our century, Strawinsky's archaic rhythm of "Sacre", the structural and almost-serial constructions of Webern - the new things about this which appeared to be so fundamental and frightful, have become clearly harmless compared to later new phenomena, to noise, to anti-art, to music as non-music. If one, however, contemplates the fact that the degree of newness of historically different phenomena cannot be measured in a linear way from one standpoint, rather, one must take into account the multiplicity of the total collective state of mind when new phenomena appears, then one becomes sceptical against feelings one may have that the most recent phenomenon is also the newest of its kind. Despite of this being sceptic one would like to mention as one of the substantial new things in this century - well, one is puzzled, for how to name the music resulting from group improvisation? Improvised music? We had that before. It is no coincidence that the concepts for other new things of this century refer to the music in itself, but the one discussed here refers to the practise of music. For this music we have no striking or commonly known concepts, even "group improvisation" involves possibilities for misunderstandings, which is why we will first deal with some clarifications.
...how to name the music resulting from group improvisation? Improvised music? We had that before.
1) Viewed from the past, improvisation stands between composition and interpretation, because the interpreter is at the same time in a certain sense also a composer. This and the fact that no notes are played are the common characteristics for the sake of which several kinds of musical practise are named "improvisation" in spite of their differences. In traditional music improvisation is nothing else than a fast, in a sense a vista produced composition. It forms nowhere musical qualities which composed music does not also exhibit, and it is consequently judged by how close it comes to composition: the closer, the better.
This demonstrates how completely traditional understanding of music is coupled with the notation. In this understanding, improvisation is always seen as fundamentally inferior to composition, for even the master will not at the instrument ever equal that which can be done at the desk, taking much more time, provided that the goal is the same in both cases: a music which does not appear improvised at the places where it is improvised. It is necessary first to liberate oneself from this understanding in order to see the possibilities for making music based on other assumptions, music having a mental level which is not fundamentally inferior to composed music.
All European improvisation ensembles, regardless how they understand their goals, have one tendency in common: they are concerned with discovering and developing those territories which have been repressed by a thousand years of notation-dependent music.
The fact that such a music practise does not presuppose years of education to a virtuoso level brings up another current extra-musical viewpoint: The former extremely elitarian position of new music is reversed into an extremely common one; almost everyone can take part in music of the present day, even actively. More will be said about this. This is also the place to mention undertakings which among other goals pursue pedagogical ones. Players are to find ways to understand mew music, to become "free" through playing and to learn to listen to, to practise and explore new sounds and practises. Recently, Lilli Friedemann has published a booklet with a record which is also stimulating in this respect, its title is "Collective Improvisation as Means of Studying and Developing New Music" (Kollektivimprovisation als Studium und Gestaltung neuer Musik). All European improvisation ensembles, regardless how they understand their goals, have one tendency in common: they are concerned with discovering and developing those territories which have been repressed by a thousand years of notation-dependent music. More accurately speaking, not simply by notated music, but by music notated with five staves and the well-known rhythmic symbols which no doubt has produced marvellous results but which has with equal certainty prevented the development of different musics.
Compared to earlier we use a listening microscope, as it were...
Although today we cannot experience the atonality of Schoenberg as something fundamental new, he has, indeed, laid one of the foundations of this our current music practise. Not so much, however, with his atonality and not with dodecaphony either, but rather with his thoughts about timbral melody (German: Klangfarbenmelodie). Since then we have literally learned to listen in a new way. Compared to earlier we use a listening microscope, as it were, but we do not have to strain ourselves to do so, it is quite naturally so for us. When listening to tones from an instrument we listen much more into its tone substance, and even if we do not at once analyze the formant spectrum as such, we do take in more of its existence than earlier generations did. We notice and use processes of attack and decay as well as stationary elements of sounds, we work with their "mass" as Pierre Schaeffer calls it, and in this way we experience for instance the contrasts between light and dark not as something accidental, but as something substantial. Chromatic values are for us special cases within a continuum without breaks, the same thing is valid for precise rhythmic values as special cases within the time continuum. How little of this can be notated with traditional means! Our perception capabilities have in a fundamental way grown away from the old notation system. For some time already the composer has had to write the score more with graphics and words than with notes, and not few of them consist only of words. Naturally, the way group members understand each other when improvising is also primarily verbal, even if the use of symbols or drawing is not at all excluded. If a clear goal has been set up in some way or another for such an improvisation, then the continuous - verbal - discussion of what participants are doing functions as a compositional act. The process of finding, of formulating and changing the goals, of formulating evaluation criteria, the working out of such details is group composition.
...if some of that could be transferred to the common living together on our planet, we would take a step ahead...
A teamwork of this kind means unfolding rather than reducing the individual. Submission under a conductor is not possible for the simple reason that the playing of the individual cannot be controlled. These important differences to traditional music-making, these fundamentally different human relations within such an ensemble are not the least important characteristics which give group improvisation the timbre of that which is really new (if some of that could be transferred to the common living together on our planet, we would take a step ahead). Do graphic and verbal ways of writing down the music mean a regression compared to traditional notation? This question was already answered: the old notational techniques cannot any longer cope with the differentiation of our hearing capabilities. So in this respect one can speak of no regression. Further answers will be implied in the following text.
Any change in musical thinking will at its beginning let that appear in the foreground which is lost, because the new things cannot at first be perceived in their totality as something whole in their own right, rather they will erroneously be put into the old context. Any change of style features in certain aspects regressions which, however, are abolished by the subsequent development and appear integrated into the general characteristics of the epoch. Grown-up people can to a higher or lesser degree deal with abstractions and, by concentration, reduce things to their essence. The child has not yet learned that and yields a more modest performance. But in its spontaneous and elementary way of experiencing there are also many things which are superior to the grown-up. For instance, the child sees colours and other details on an advertising figure in a display window which is no longer noticed by the grown-up. If now the grown-up learns from the child and re-acquires its way of experiencing, then this does not automatically mean a regression. The grown-up person is not bound to lose his or her capabilities when considering the child's way of experiencing, on the contrary, he or she learns to use them in a more differentiated way.
...the old notational techniques cannot any longer cope with the differentiation of our hearing capabilities.
Transferred to our topic: measured by the way tones can function in time as traditional notation has made it possible, the concentration on timbral aspects in contemporary music and improvisation practises represent a more primitive level of music thinking. This primitivity may in any case be only the result of a certain perspective, and moreover it seems to me that in group improvisation - and not only there - there are possibilities to compose musical time in an especially intensive way. It goes without saying that the constructive dealing with this component will only be satisfying when a different standard of time activity is reached compared to tradition, when one sets foot on a different level of time composition: time as an immediate agent having a musical effect. Perception of time is usually restricted to the rhythmic dimension, that is, to the "now" of the music passing by. Classic periodics penetrates into the next, larger dimension where dance music - which has, however, to remain simple - has its home, as ever. But while everything which relates to the vertical dimension - the sounding "now", often also seen as the real "content" of the music, appears in a demanding way in classical music, perceivable time structures
...attempts at describing what time in music could be hardly exist...
remain restricted to a limited number of models. The reason why there is no standard rhythmic morphology in music as a counterpart to morphology of form, is not, as is often maintained, that rhythmic phenomena cannot be grasped rationally, but rather, that with the statements of elementary music theory on rhythms and metrics everything that could be said had been said already. And while rhythms and metre at least occupies a short chapter in music theory, what can be said about the dimension of periodics is done in a few sentences. The strongest effects here originate from disturbances of symmetry, and that is - still comparing with the effects of the sounding "now" of any particular moment - not very much. "Elementary theory of form" seemingly contradicts this (probably it is possible to integrate rhythm, metre and periodics into the old theory of form; from the point of view dealt with here, however, the point is about special dimensions which are perceived in another way than the ones of "form"). But in the dimension of form, the musician of past centuries counts only on a quite vague experience of time. This is proven by statements like: the form of a work is understood and perceived in retrospect, after listening. Or: one can imagine the concentrated form of a work in one moment. In this way, attempts at describing what time in music could be hardly exist, neither do attempts at describing to what extent it can be an immediate musical expression and how we perceive divisions and correspondences of time under given circumstances.
Expectation makes time more concrete than the difference between proportions of duration just in itself would be able to.
Now, my own work which often occupies itself with these questions has found many interesting answers by improvising. "Ad hoc" was my name for an improvisation in which the musicians among many other things also had the task of gradually coming together, first on one tone, then on one rhythm, on a cluster and a major triad. The coming together on one rhythm is usually the one to succeed in an especially multi-layered way. First, everyone plays a rhythmic figure consisting of tones, noises or actions in his or her own tempo. When the process of searching for a common rhythm begins on a given sign, players must first isolate theirselves. At this point it is important that the figures were not determined in advance but are really formed in a spontaneous way, that is, gradually and irregularly. This task, to shut oneself away from fellow players, form a harsh contrast to other improvising which to a higher degree than other musical practise force players to an intensive observation of fellow players. And one really sees how players lock themselves out, they lean slightly forward and look at a point on the floor... Once having found their own figure, in a conscious and secured way, they take the more interest in what the others play. Usually the player will at this point adjust the figure in order to have enough contrast to the others. At the beginning of the process of coming together, the chaos coagulates rather fast into some groups which each play their own figure together, but the group members are certainly not necessarily sitting next to each other. The lesser the number of remaining groups, the longer it will take for such a group to dissolve. Musically, this last phase is especially meaningful, because when a player "deserts" his group for another, the changes of timbral character and weight of figures are easy to observe. Sometimes more players will give up their figure in the same moment and others will take them over immediately. Here the conductor can have a stimulating function, encouraging a group simply by giving it his attention, he or she can discreetly influence the tempo to become slightly slower or faster or compensate for brass players being too loud. And then, finally, one single figure triumphs... Of course, in this moment the total process is included, as one has the opportunity to experience; but unfortunately experience shows again and again that hardly anyone today are capable of perceiving a middle long process in an adequate way. The ability, to take that which has happened along and hold it up against the "now" which is the only concrete reality must be practised with special emphasis if it is to be part of the process. In case it has been developed, then the simpler the concluding rhythm is, the bigger the curve of tension in the process described will be. This is why I have always striven to let that rhythm come out as the "winner" which is as simple as possible, and this has sometimes lead to criticism against me saying that it was too simple. One will understand how I view such criticism.
Dedication, claim to be a leader, lack of contact can be read out of the sounds, looks and actions.
Probably, the attraction of this improvisation comes among other things from the fact that one always knows the actual place of oneself within the process, however, without being able to draw conclusions as to details of one's further sequence of events (here, differences to the classical period become clear - during the progression of which one is also informed of one's actual place). One expects that the actual number of figures being played will further diminish, and precisely this expectation molds the time curve step by step, it makes time come into existence in terms of ways in which the expectation is fulfilled: early or late, surprisingly or ordinarily, in this way of another - as immediate musical qualities. Expectation makes time more concrete than the difference between proportions of duration just in itself would be able to. This process is articulated in a different way depending on whether one aims at a common sound or a common rhythm. If it is a common sound, then the time sequence will almost entirely be made up of the sequence just described. If it is a rhythm, then workings of time arise on a broader basis. The various tempi are not at all easy to perceive together, the rhythms make different kinds of clashes all the time, dense passages and holes arise, from various directions come waves that cross each other, that break, swing up, push each other away. And especially fascinating is the simultaneousness of metric restriction - by repeating the single rhythm - and random openness - in the clashes of rhythms. And one more thing fascinates every time. One is not just musically oriented, also the human situation for every player comes in a singular way clearly to the foreground. In order to isolate himself or herself, one player must wait for the right moment, then hesitatingly feel his or her way forward. Another player begins immediately and as loud as possible, before being reached by the others. And during the phase where players must come to agreement, literally battles are fought. One player is striving, by means of looking invitingly at as many players as possible, to set his or her rhythm through; over there, another one is attempting the same thing with loudness and movements or with widely opened eyes in a suggestive way; still others prefer to join that rhythm which is already most clearly dominating. Dedication, claim to be a leader, lack of contact can be read out of the sounds, looks and actions.
...composed improvisation leads into directions that are very different from those connected to the old concept of composition.
The possibility which is always latent and moreover will happen from time to time that thin, less good sounding passages arise - often perceived as a decisive deficiency compared to the notated work of art - serves important functions. First, the sequence of sounds is loosened, made more transparent, the ability to hear remains fresh. Second, from such moments players gain impulses which push things into new directions. Of course, all of this cannot be notated, and I used to think that notation was here excluded to a more decisive degree than ever. This is exactly why I have attempted literally to compose such processes, without putting limits to that which specifically cannot be composed. Once - in my composition "From three for six" - an improvisation came into being in which musicians deal with three figures which are to be as contrasting as possible; first softly, then louder, then competing to become the dominating one; in the end they withdraw gradually and improvisingly into one common tone, however, still playing the figures with their various articulations and dynamics and in their own tempo. In the last phase, a unified sequence and a unified tempo, gradually proceeding towards unison, is reached. Just like composition some time ago became permeated with improvisatory elements, it has now become possible to produce composed improvisation. But this does not signify any approaching between these two concepts, composed improvisation leads into directions that are very different from those connected to the old concept of composition. Probably, we are here looking at a change of meaning of the concepts, of the kind which is going on all the time, although in most cases without being noticed. The paradox only arises through the old meanings of the concepts. Due to such an ensemble's high degree of ability to react, a spontaneous combination with other art forms is an obvious possibility. I have tried to realize various improvisations with young dancers. Here, parallel or contradicting processes were improvised simultaneously in sound and space. With the Czech graphic artist Milan Grygar I have discussed various actions, for instance graphic scores simultaneously being painted and played - this idea comes from Grygar, hopefully we can realize it soon - and according to certain points of view, we are to agree on relationships between the improvisations of the painter and those of the musician, varying from relatively free ones to very precisely structured ones. All these tasks just need some fantasy to be carried out. The central problem is more difficult: to lead players and listeners out of their narrow conception of sound - as turned into quantums of chromatic steps in instrumental tones - and of time - as turned into quantums of binary rhythms. This feels easy for all those coming from jazz, many educated, half- and quarter-educated musicians will not detach themselves from their contempt for other sounds. Here we still have a long way to go. However, in any case, the first steps have been taken, now is the time to find the possibilities lying in group improvisation and put them to use.