Thoughts on Composition and Improvisation



Chris Dobrian


The words composition and improvisation are most commonly used to designate different, or even diametrically opposed, musical activities. As soon as one begins to compare the application of the two terms, however, it becomes clear that each term really refers to certain traits shared by activities, rather than to a specific activity. Once we recognize that the terms encompass groups of activities--ways of categorizing activities--it also becomes clear that the categories overlap: the two activities have similarities as well as differences.

I believe that the similarities and differences of these musical activities--these processes of making music--not only represent philosophical approaches and values, but characterize the resulting music. Therefore, it is interesting to examine some of the obvious and not-so-obvious differences and similarities between composition and improvisation.

1. Composition is written. Improvisation is not.

There are many reasons why one writes down a musical idea. Probably the earliest and most important reason for notating music is to transmit it elsewhere in time and space. Before the invention of sound recording the only way to recreate a musical experience in another time and place was to memorize it or to notate it, then to play it again imitating as nearly as possible the original experience. Undoubtedly music was repeated by memory well before notation was used, and human memory is probably a more thorough (though more volatile) "storage medium" for saving and recreating musical experience. When music is of a certain complexity or length, written notation shows some advantages over memorization because paper is a more stable storage medium than the brain. (Barring physical damage, paper does not suffer from memory loss.) Notation is not free from a potential loss of information, however, since memory must be translated onto paper and back into sound; notation is invariably an incomplete representation of sonic memory.

Thus, notation of music can be viewed in some cases as simply an aid to memory or a preferred storage medium for recreating music in another time and place. This begs the question, "Why recreate a musical experience?" As a starting point, it seems reasonable to accept that the simple desire to relive or reconvey a pleasurable experience (innocent of any egotistical intent) is a natural wish. Perhaps a more interesting question is, "What is actually being recreated--what aspects of the original experience are retained--when one plays from memory or notation?"

The simplest approach to this question is first to discuss what information is contained in most notated Western music. Pitches and rhythms are notated in the greatest detail, and are generally considered to be the primary bearers of musical information. Standard notation, however, generally ignores pitch inflections such as portamento and indicates modifications of tempo only in the most general of terms (rallentando, etc.). Musical parameters such as dynamics and timbre are notated even less specifically or not at all. So all subtleties of portamento, rubato, dynamics, and timbre--the elements considered most important to the "expressive" performance of music--are left unnotated, assumed known by any performer of the score through an acquaintance with the conventions of the musical society.

From this fact comes the idea that a score must be interpreted by the reader; the non-notated elements are provided according to societal conventions and the taste of the reader. It should be noted, though, that all aspects of music are provided in this way--according to societal conventions and the taste of the musician(s) involved--it's just that some aspects are notated in advance and others are not (they are either memorized or improvised in real time). So even in the performance of a composed, notated piece, many aspects of the musical performance are not notated and may not have been composed before the performance. The point is that "interpretation" is really improvisation or memorized composition or both. Insofar as a performer relies on memorized composition (i.e., prepared decisions, made during rehearsal) to supply non-notated aspects of the music, the act is the same as that of a notator: musical ideas are fixed in some storage medium for repetition at another time.

The notation in many of the works of composer Brian Ferneyhough, such as Cassandra's Dreamsong for solo flute, stems from the desire to notate himself those aspects which would otherwise be consciously or unconsciously decided upon and memorized--or improvised--by the performer. This increase in notation raises at least three immediate questions. Does the increase in notation free the performer by reducing the number of decisions to be made, or does it overburden the performer with responsibilities for conscious actions, some of which would otherwise be made unconsciously based on physical technique and societal conventions? Does this increase in notation represent a greater degree of composition of the music, or simply a greater precision of quantization in the notation? And, whatever the answer to the previous two questions, what is the motivation and impact of this increased notation?

As a way of approaching these questions, let's return to the matter raised at the beginning of this section: the reasons why one writes down musical ideas. Still accepting, for the moment, that the main reason for notating music is to repeat a musical experience at a later time, are there reasons for wanting to repeat a musical experience other than the simple desire to relive or reconvey a pleasurable event? Presumably music conveys more than just pleasure; one may wish to disseminate a musical idea to more people than were present at the idea's first realization. When a person undertakes to disseminate a musical idea, it is presumably with the conviction that the idea will be (or at least may be) intellectually beneficial to those who receive it. In this sense, both composers and improvisers are alike in their conviction that the ideas they are presenting are new (or productively redundant) to those who receive them. (I think there can be little debate of this. If a musical experience does not serve some beneficial function, it should not be presented at all!)

Both composers and improvisers thus evidence a certain amount of egotism by their conviction that the experience they are producing is pleasurable and/or intellectually stimulating to others. A major difference between the two, however, is that an improviser is experiencing the music for the first time along with the audience, while a composer (or a memorizer) makes a conscious decision to repeat an experience. An improviser believes in her/his ability to produce a good musical experience spontaneously; a composer has had time to consider the experience retrospectively and decide on its value. Thus, a composer says, in effect, this musical notation contains at least one idea that I, after careful consideration, believe will benefit others and therefore deserves to be disseminated and repeated.

Of course, human beings do not act only for the benefit of others. A person may present an idea to others to exert influence, to assert superiority or dominance, or to exercise power. There is no reason to believe that composers or improvisers are somehow immune from these types of action, or that musical ideas cannot contain such messages. For example, a composer or an improviser may clearly convey to the audience, "I don't care what you think of what I'm saying" (thus showing contempt and disregard), or "What I'm saying is too complex for you to understand" (thus asserting cultural and intellectual superiority), or even "I know that what I'm saying is inane, but I have the ability to force you to listen, and it gratifies me to do so" (thus exercising power, conceivably even to the point of sadism).

Similarly, the score can convey such messages from composer to performer, embedded in the musical ideas or even in the notation itself. A score contains many messages to the performers concerning the composer's regard for the performers, the composer's desire to accommodate, the composer's desire to dictate, the composer's inclination to entrust the performer with powers of decision-making, what ideas the composer considers most important, etc. It is interesting to question how this dynamic affects the audience's experience. What composer-performer relationship is ideal for creating a good musical experience? Does it vary depending on the musical ideas being conveyed? Does only the composer have a right to convey ideas? What happens when composer's and performer's ideas conflict?

Surely a performer who is detached from or even contemptuous of the musical material or its progenitor will give a less effective rendering of the music than a performer who believes passionately in the ideas being presented. A player does not only mechanically reproduce that which is notated, but also adds her/his own ideas (either preconceived or improvised). A good performance is thus a fortunate combination and fusion of the composer's ideas and the player's. Guitarist Pepe Romero discussed the importance of this fusion in a recent conversation.

As a player, when you take a piece of music you have to feel and become in tune with that composer, with his mind and with his soul, and unite it to your own mind, to your own soul, to your own heart. Then you can recreate the music so it has a freshness, and it sounds when the player plays it like he is composing it also....Together [the composer and the player] make one and they merge together; you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends. I know that when I play, and the music is really flowing, I cannot tell the difference between the composer and myself.

Of course any music performance (like any presentation of ideas, such as a speech) depends largely on the personal persuasiveness and the charisma of the performer. The performer must convince the audience that she/he believes in that music, has made it personal. In the case of a musician who is presenting someone else's ideas (a player of composed music, as opposed to an improviser), the player's task takes on similarities to that of an actor.

It is one thing to use your own words and thoughts, and quite another to adopt those of someone else, which are permanently fixed, cast as it were in bronze, in strong clear shapes. They are unalterable. At first they have to be reborn, made into something vitally necessary, your own, easy, desired--words you would not change, drawn from your own self. (1)

Stanislavski outlines the process a performer might use to achieve this goal.

The right, you might say classic, course of creativeness operates from the text to the mind; from the mind to the proposed circumstances: from the proposed circumstances to the subtext; from the subtext to the feeling (emotions); from emotions to the objective desire (will) and from the desire to action.... (2)

From the point of view of the performer as interpreter of a text, it becomes clear how the dynamic between the composer and the player affects the success with which the music is performed. Composed music which the performer understands and finds sympathetic is more easily adopted as one's own; music that is abstruse or alien requires greater "acting" skill of the performer. Similarly, notation which is excessively complex or inflexible, or shows insufficient regard for the ideas the performer will contribute, may alienate the performer from a successful adoption of the music.

The practice of performing music that was composed by someone else, or acting with text written by someone else, seems very different from the practice of improvising with one's own musical ideas (or even playing one's own composed or memorized music). There are musicians who play only other people's music, and there are actors who have no desire to write or to direct others. They feel, due to a lack of self-confidence, a conviction that they are not themselves "creative", or whatever reason, that they require a given text in order to perform. The distinction is often made between creative artists and interpretive artists, as though these represented completely different personality types.

I believe, however, that this distinction is more one of degree and focus than of exclusive categories. As I've already pointed out, a player of notated music composes or improvises all aspects of the music not explicated by the notation. The extent of the player's contribution is determined only by the completeness of the notation and the player's own conscientious attention to unwritten detail. Conversely, almost all composers and improvisers utilize given texts to some extent: prior musical models, clichés, quotes (conscious or unconscious, obvious or disguised), systems, theories, structures, sonic memories, etc. Although all composers, improvisers, and interpreters work differently, the three categories are in this respect (creative versus interpretive) less sharply defined than is commonly assumed.

It has been one trend, in the last fifty years of composed music, to notate more and more aspects of the music in greater and greater detail. An opposeing trend has been to notate in less detail, writing out structures for improvisation, guided improvisation, mobile forms, suggestive graphisms, or some combination of these. In both trends, the composer is considered free to specify as much or as little as desired, in effect determining how little or how much will be left up to the performer. In most cases, however, the player is not considered to have the same freedom of determination, especially in the traditionally strictly notated areas of pitch and rhythm. The reason for this difference is simply the societal view that the composer is the one with something to say--the creator--and the player is merely the vessel--the interpreter. If one disregards that distinction, however, as being archaic or at the least overblown, then there is no reason why a performer should not be free to dictate musical aspects traditionally relegated exclusively to the composer.

It has long been acknowledged that many "great" players play a lot of "wrong" notes. Clearly pitch and rhythm are not the only bearers of musical expression or ideas. A player often may give an admirable performance while disregarding much of the notation--still conveying some if not all of the essential musical ideas of the composer, or conveying a full musical experience. Not only that, but once the sanctity of the notation is demystified or demythologized--once the performer's ideas are given as much respect as those of the composer, in all aspects of the music--then the performer may be free to improvise upon or recompose notated music to any desired extent, the better to personalize the message being conveyed. Changing assumptions of who is the creator, who "owns" ideas, and whose ideas must be expressed can be a very fruitful method of producing new musical experience.

There is yet another significant reason, more political than musical, why one might commit music to paper. A musical score is a lasting document of creative accomplishment. Even after the musical experience itself has passed--perhaps never to occur again--the paper is written proof that a musical experience, considered important by someone (even if only the composer), took place. This proof of a past occurence, and the potential ability to recreate it in some way, even after the composer's death, is essential to many composers. It is essential if the composer desires recognition or some form of imposed immortality. This is another way in which a score is an implement of (and a testament to) an individual's egotism.

In this century, sound recordings serve a similar purpose of "immortalizing", or at least documenting, a musical experience. Still, the recording does not document the preparation for the experience--the work that went into producing the finished product. This is one reason why improvised music is attributed less importance in a society absorbed by work, accomplishment, and assertion of ego. A recording of an improvised music session is proof only of a brief period of creative accomplishment; the preparation for the recording is still undocumented. A recording of a composed work, however, is viewed as the culmination or realization of the true, extended creative process which took place (presumably for at least several weeks) beforehand and is thoroughly documented by the written score. Some composers, not content with that documentation of their labors, derive further recognition by presenting lectures in which they describe their precompositional planning, display working sketches, etc. The preparation takes on a sense of accomplishment all of its own (the labor pains get as much attention and admiration as the baby), all thoroughly documented on paper (and perhaps even redocumented in a film or video tape). This can also provide the composer with recognition for her/his generative ideas, even if the ideas were not successfully realized or exemplified in the music itself.

This documentation of preparatory work, as opposed to the documentation of the music itself, does not contribute to the composer's quest for immortality, but it is very powerful as proof of serious intent, conscientious labor, membership in the club of serious musicians (i.e., the tradition of European classical music), and status of Beethovenian heroic lone creator. These proofs help further one's standing in whatever positions society at large provides for such people (professor, composer-in-residence, competition jurist, itinerant composer, conductor, film composer, arts administrator, etc.). Documentation of the work, every bit as much as the music itself, helps get prizes, grants, pay raises, tenure, commissions to produce more scores, even, in the case of one composer, a role in a commercial endorsement for a whiskey with a "rugged individualist" public relations image.

It is also important to note that, although a musical score is the preferred documentation of compositional work, it is no longer the only storage medium for composed music. A great deal of music has been composed exclusively for sound recording and exists only in that format. More recently, composed pieces may be stored on computer floppy disk, in the form of MIDI data or other computer files, for resynthesis of the music by computer. A written score for such a work may never exist because the sound recording or floppy disk is a superior storage medium. Alternatively, the score may exist as a composer's aid in producing the sound recording, but serves no purpose for recreating the musical experience. The score used in the production of Karlheinz Stockhausen's Studie II for magnetic tape was published by Universal Edition in 1956, even though no performance of the work would ever be realized by live players. This is an example of a score which exists only as an additional document of the composer's work, and serves no purpose of recreating the musical experience.

2. Improvisation takes place in real time. Composition does not.

A listener who does not know whether a piece of music is composed or spontaneously improvised will initially use the same (conscious or unconscious) standards of reception: What is the melodic and harmonic content of the music? How consistent is it? How does the rhythmic placement of notes or musical gestures delineate meter? How do events form recognizable groups or sections? Do the sections last the right amount of time? How do I like the organization and the expression of the music? ...or any of a number of other criteria by which one might evaluate a musical experience.

When the listener is aware that the music is either improvised or composed (either by being told of the fact, or by surmising based on initial impressions of the music), the criteria of evaluation may differ somewhat: Has the material been carefully elaborated or extemporaneously proposed? Is the performer struggling to do something difficult? Why is it difficult? Are the performers playing interactively or just simultaneously? The listener's concerns may shift more to the interaction between the players in improvised music, or more to the organization of the musical material in composed music.

How do the processes of composition and improvisation differ, and how are those differences heard? One of the most impressive differences is that improvised music is made up at precisely the same moment that it is being performed. The opportunity to make changes retrospectively--out of real time--does not exist in improvisation (or any type of live performance). Of course, an improviser can make musical reference to an earlier point in time, but that reference cannot erase the earlier point in time, it can only modify its meaning by referring to it at a later time. That new reference must also be part of the improvised piece. On the other hand, the very fact that improvised music is, by definition, made up on the spot means that it can be continually monitored and adapted to the circumstances of the moment. Composed music has, by definition, previously fixed elements which cannot possibly respond to unforeseen conditions of a later time. The real time nature of improvisation gives it strengths and weaknesses which are different from--at times even the exact opposite of--those of composition.

A discussion of these differences must be preceded by a couple of obvious disclaimers. Many improvisers are also composers, and vice versa, and their methods in one activity may strongly influence their approach to the other activity. Also, there are at least as many ways of composing and improvising as there are composers and improvisers, and any comparison of the two activities can really only deal in generalities to which many exceptions can easily be found. With these caveats in mind, it is nevertheless interesting to consider some common effects of realtime versus non-realtime creation of music.

A composer has the leisure to manipulate musical materials in a manner involving any desired level of complexity, even taking days to calculate relationships of pitch and rhythm, both on a microscopic and macroscopic level. How does this enable the composer to make music that an improviser cannot? A composer, by virtue of this leisurely pace and the ability to notate (reliably store) ideas, can develop structures in any or all parameters which would be of an intricacy, complexity, or scope too great for an improviser to generate spontaneously. A couple of trivial examples might be, say, a precisely recurring 645-element series or a polyrhythm of 13 against 17 against 23 against 29. Without debating the necessity or desirability of such levels of intricacy, it can certainly be agreed that these are composable but not improvisable because composition does not occur in real time. A composer can also combine generative processes in a way that defies linear time progression by, for example, composing a developmental passage (perhaps similarly to the way an improviser might elaborate a theme) then reorganizing that development into sections which are no longer in their original order. In short, the fact that a composer is not restricted to working in real time enables the generation and elaboration of music by any means that takes a greater length of time than the duration of the music itself. Composer Roger Reynolds has said that a composer practically has a responsibility to take advantage of this ability, since it is one of the main differences between improvisation and composition.

Most all composers use this non-realtime advantage in more traditional ways, refining their spontaneous decisions with more considered revisions. Although there are certainly composers who have needed less revision of their original "inspirations" than others (Mozart and Schubert are obvious examples), and composers who seem to be most comfortable writing down their own instrumental improvisations (Chopin, for example), the majority of composers perform considerable revision of their original ideas before considering a piece finished. These revisions may be in the form of numerous sketches, as with Beethoven, or geometrical formal structuring, as with Reynolds, or simply extensive mental reworking, as with Shostakovich, who claimed to write his music down once only, in ink.

A recent trend in composition is the use of extra-musical processes for generating musical material--that is to say, the use of some system for deriving sounds by criteria other than the sound itself. An example of this is a mathematical model or algorithm which correlates musical events to logical or mathematical processes. Again, I don't wish to debate the merits of such a technique, but it is clear that such a technique is also a strictly non-realtime method. Even if an improviser used such a system, the system itself would necessarily have been composed prior to the improvisation.

So it is clear that the non-realtime nature of composition does provide possibilities which are simply not available to the improviser. On the other hand, the realtime nature of improvisation has its own unique advantages. Perhaps the most important advantage, and at the very heart of improvisation, is the ability to adapt the music continually to various conditions at the moment of performance. Musical material can be chosen or changed depending on the acoustics of the performance space, the improviser's perceptions of the audience's response to the music, moods and physical capabilities of the moment, etc. In short, all the extemporaneous discourse and instantaneous decisionmaking that occurs in everyday social interactions can become a part of the creation of the music and part of the audience's perception of the performance. The improviser's adeptness at evaluating the present moment and acting in perfect accordance with it, or in perfect discord with it, leading it to a new desirable present, becomes central to the aesthetic appreciation of the performance.

The aesthetic power of a sense of spontaneity is important to most performance. In a performance of composed music or of a written play, the audience suspends, at least to some degree, its knowledge that the performance has been largely predetermined and rehearsed at great length. If the performer does a successful job of "acting"--of discovering the subtext implied by the text and convincing the audience that all actions are entirely motivated by that subtext--the audience is helped to forget that the performance is the result of laborious preparation. In improvised music the sense of spontaneity is mostly genuine and often quite evidently so. An audience can determine, by musical and visual cues, certain interactions between players or certain musical phenomena which could not possibly have been planned or foreseen. The appreciation of the spontaneity is therefore not forced and becomes central to the performance.

In either type of music, composed or improvised, a dialectic is formed between that which is apparently predetermined and that which is apparently spontaneous. Although improvised music usually does not employ a fixed text as such, there is usually a predetermined structure of some sort within which the improvisation takes place. In most jazz, or blues, or flamenco, for example, there is a predetermined harmonic and metric framework within which the actual improvisation takes place. The function of all predetermined elements, whether strictly notated or simply tacitly acknowledged, is essentially the same: the fixed text provides a stability against which spontaneous (or seemingly spontaneous) actions create an interplay. It is this very tension between text and performer which is an object of appreciation for the audience.

Stanislavski discusses how the performer endeavors to create a sense of true motivation, thus an illusion of spontaneity, but we still don't know to what degree an audience appreciates the illusion and to what degree the audience appreciates the skill with which the illusion is created. In improvised music or theatre the spontaneity is not so illusory (the fixed text is less detailed), and the appreciation is of the performer's skill in extemporaneous action.

A composer can attempt to compose the tension between text and performer, but spontaneity, by definition, cannot be precomposed. A text that encourages an illusion of spontaneity, or creates an environment for true spontaneity, can be composed, but it is only the performer's realtime skills which actually make the experience for the audience.

Finally, it should be noted that spontaneity need not necessarily be a desirable end in itself. There are situations, in music as in everyday life, when one may try to convey the impression that one's ideas and actions are not spontaneous but have in fact been carefully considered. The perception that something has been carefully considered often tends (rightly or wrongly) to give it greater intellectual validity and respect. In such a case, the aesthetic appreciation shifts away from spontaneity and toward a) the skill of non-realtime intellectual activity, and b) the skill of realtime execution of predetermined actions.

The performance duo [THE] (Edwin Harkins and Philip Larson) plays very successfully and cleverly with an audience's conceptions and misconceptions about what is spontaneous and what is not. Their performances include composed mistakes (simulated unintentional spontaneity), pretense that actual mistakes were in fact composed and intentional, unison activities that appear coincidental but were in fact accomplished by secret cues to each other, improvisations which--because of their intuitive understanding of each other--seem precomposed, etc. The aesthetic experience for the audience is one of appreciating being fooled, or appreciating seeing through pretense, sharing "inside" jokes, or simply being uncertain as to whether the performers are sincere or mocking. Furthermore, the aesthetic experience for each audience member may be vastly different, depending on that person's prior experiences and knowledge--depending on whether one "gets" the point, or gets the hidden (possibly conflicting) subtext, or both. Elements such as those discussed in this section--spontaneity, difficulty, predetermination, intention--which are implicit in more traditional performances, are explicity the subject of a [THE] performance.

3. Improvisation is often a group activity. Composition is rarely a group activity.

Both improvisation and composition are processes of discovery. A solo improviser discovers the music at the same time as the audience, but only the improviser determines its course. A group of improvisers determines the progress of the music by committee, although not necessarily with equal power for all members. Composers traditionally work alone, and as noted earlier, are generally accorded the most power in determining as much or as little as they desire of the eventual performance of the music. In most all the traditional arts of Western culture, in fact, creation by committee is relatively rare. A modern exception is feature filmmaking, which generally requires so many areas of expertise that it is nearly impossible for a single person to perform all the required tasks.

These different approaches apparently have socio-political origins and repercussions which are interesting to examine. Methods of artistic production can be loosely paralleled to methods of government, since both are predominantly decisionmaking activities. Although nobody knows exactly why composition has almost always been a solo pursuit, one likely explanation is that decisionmaking is done most expeditiously by an individual; a dictator can make decisions more quickly and with greater ease than can a committee. Anyone can become a composer, as anyone can become a political dictator, simply by making decisions and convincing others to abide by those decisions. This is not to imply that only egomaniacs become composers or solo artists of any kind. One may become a chief decisionmaker by default, by democratic election, or any of a number of ways. The point is simply that decisions are made most quickly by a decisive individual.

Once an individual is recognized as a decisionmaker, speaker, or artist, others who wish to listen to, follow, respect, or even revere that person elevate that person to a status of authority. As music came to be considered a vehicle for individual expression, more than a craft or a calling, the creative artist's very personality became more authoritative than that of others who choose not to make art. This 19th century mystique, of a Beethoven or a Van Gogh viewed as a tortured but special soul receiving and conveying inspirations which are inconceivable to most people, is still very powerfully in effect today. The implication of this mystique is that music cannot be created by committee, because only a select few have the had the power bestowed upon them. To return to political metaphors, this smacks of the doctrine of divine right, a doctrine which is in disrepute in America and many other countries, but which still exists in many circles.

Views differ on the good or evil of this reverence of the composer's personality. The simple fact is that any artist who presents her/his work is demanding respect for her/his work, ideas, personality and beliefs. Once this respect is accorded by others, the artist then has a responsibility not to abuse that respect.

A group of improvisers deals with the personality of the individual differently. Although a group may have a leader, or may temporarily highlight an individual's performance, everyone in the group is contributing to the decisionmaking and creative process. Other dynamics are required for such a group to function effectively: compromise, consensus, subtle influence, respect, openness, or perhaps even deliberate obstinance, calculated assertiveness, a whole range of new socio-political interactions. In general, oligarchy and democracy are slower and messier means of government, but power and freedom are more evenly distributed.

Still, improvisation and composition are not only for the gratification of the artists. The objective is to communicate musical experience and ideas to an audience. A vital characteristic of successful communication is clarity. The word "clarity" should not be confused with "simplicity"; rather, clarity implies freedom from distortion and extraneous noise (in the mathematical sense). Indeed, a message that is complex and ambiguous has all the more need to be expressed with clarity. Clarity is usually more easily achieved by one voice than by a group of voices.

If a musical message of melodic or harmonic consistency is desired, for example, it is easier for one person to achieve compositionally than for a group to achieve improvisationally. Similarly, musical phenomena such as unison events are much more easily achieved by a prior unilateral decision than by a spontaneous group consensus. On the other hand, messages of diversity and multiplicity (polyrhythmic or polychronic activity, for example) or simultaneous virtuosity may be better (or at least more efficiently) achieved by group contribution.

The point is that the method of creation clearly influences the boundaries of musical possibilities for communication. Clarity of communication in group improvisations may be aided by fluctuations or even outright abdications of power and control between group members (either by consensus or by unilateral decision, either spontaneously or by prior composition). Conversely, an interesting way of expanding composed music may be to distribute power more evenly. Given that effective debate and consensus can easily take place in a non-realtime composition environment, it seems that group composition is an insufficiently developed method of making musical decisions, and could be a fruitful path.


It is impossible to discuss composition and improvisation as if they were two unique and clearly delineated activities. Each term encompasses many variations of activities, and some of those variations belong to both categories. The followowing paragraph summarizes some of the questions raised by a comparison of these activities.

What aspects of sound are the primary bearers of musical information? What aspects of a musical experience deserve to be stored and recreated, and why? What are the extra-musical reasons why one puts music on paper? Is the interpretation of composed material as creative an activity as composition? As improvisation? How does the explicit and implicit relationship between composer and interpreter affect the audience's experience? What does a composer convey? What does an improviser convey? How is an audience's experience affected by the method of generating the music? What is the importance of spontaneity in the performance of composed and improvised music? How does the experience of spontaneity vary? In what ways are difficulty and virtuosity aesthetic values? Can an improviser employ non-realtime techniques? Can a composer influence realtime decisions? What are the socio-political implications of solo musicmaking and group musicmaking?

It is clear that the differences between the two processes limit and characterize the resulting music. Adoption of techniques or strengths from the other discipline may broaden the realm of each type of music in useful ways. In these pages I have pointed to interesting similarities and differences which might serve as points of orientation or provocation for future debate and exploration by composers and improvisers.


  1. Stanislavski, Constantin. Creating a Role. Elizabeth Reynolds Hapgood, translator. New York: Routledge, 1961. p. 262.

  2. Ibid., p. 270.

Christopher Dobrian