Composing with (Improvising) People: A Paramanifesto
Christopher A. Williams
“Composing with (Improvising) People: A Paramanifesto.” In Wien Modern 35 Festivalkatalog. Essays., 2:159–64. Vienna: Wien Modern, Verein für neue Musik. 2022.
Do you compose (music) with (improvising) people? Do you improvise with composers? Do you wonder what is at stake in collaborations between composers and (improvising) people? Do you find these questions preposterous? And/or reprehensibly irrelevant to the existential threats facing (human) life as we know it? If so, I offer you this text. Not a real manifesto with answers for everybody everywhere, but a few proposals on their way to a few injunctions, all born of personal experience and reflection. A paramanifesto.
… a bit about me.
I am a trained composer, contrabassist, and artistic researcher.1 Since puberty, my main interest has been contemporary musics: those yet to come. The plural is important. Like many musicians today, I approach sonic-performative experimentation ecumenically. I see few tools, methods, or musical cultures as given, at least from a practical standpoint.2
For the last fifteen years, the bulk of my composing has involved improvising musicians. Through-composed chamber music, radio art, work with dancers, and various one-off experiments continue to ebb and flow, and may at some point take over my life again. But statistically I have gravitated toward people and methods that populate the field we might call “experimental improvised music” (henceforth EIM).3
I can offer three idealistic explanations for my attraction to EIM.4 One is social: most EIM communities that I have known are grassroots. They favor direct and rhizomatic exchange among artists. Hierarchy and prejudice abound here, of course, as anywhere. However, such vices seem to me rather modest when compared to those of the academic, cultural, and/or commercial power centers from which EIM scenes enjoy some degree of independence. This condition contributes to environments in which junior and senior members, regulars and interlopers, autodidacts and the hypereducated, and (aesthetically) diverse practitioners can collaborate and learn from each other in unexpected ways.
Another explanation is more explicitly musical. As both a composer and a contrabassist, I am fascinated by materials. Particularly with the materiality of sound and sound production. Complex textures, the physical sensations of tuning, and assemblages of instruments and technology that foreground tactility are all up my alley. These interests are widespread, if diversely manifested, throughout EIM. Often, they are inseparable from the idiosyncratic tools and techniques of particular composer-performers, constituting an important part of a musician’s “voice” or “sound”. Engaging with materials here as a composer means engaging with whole practices and whole people. Potential for discovering new material together in collaborative work is high.
A third explanation is ideological. It concerns the notion of the musical Work, with which many corners of the contemporary music world remain uncritically obsessed.5 Simplistically put, attitudes in EIM toward musical products tend not to take their importance and ontology for granted. Many other things count at least as much, such as communities and materials (as mentioned above), long-term practices, and events. That is not to say that the Work concept by any other name does not count in EIM. Of course it does — and, I would argue, far more than many EIM artists may be aware of. However, it is not the tail that wags the dog.
(Musical) Improvisation and Ethics
The connections between these three aspects of EIM shape a four-year interdisciplinary research project, “(Musical) Improvisation and Ethics”, that currently fills my artistic and scholarly life. Here, anthropologist Caroline Gatt, philosopher Joshua Bergamin, and I have begun investigating the improvised aspects of ethical6 phenomena which we consider fundamental to much human and other-than-human activity. Examples of such phenomena include habituation, value-formation, listening, and senses of self and community. Our notion of ethics goes beyond right/wrong morality to encompass how “the good life” in the broadest sense emerges and changes through many different kinds of practice.
The heart of our research is a series of seven musical case studies. In these ten-day-long (Musical) Ethics Labs, we work hands-on with three largish ensembles, individually and in combinations with each other: the klingt collective (Vienna, featured at Wien Modern in 2022 and 2023), Splitter Orchester (Berlin), and the Trondheim Jazz Orchestra (Norway). My primary job is, in a week-long workshop, to bring out ethical phenomena already embedded in the musicians’ own practices. Discoveries in turn shape the musical material, provoke multilateral conversation, and make the phenomena clearer for documentation and analysis. We present the work process at the end of each Lab in two collectively programmed concerts and public talks.
Naturally, the Labs are not only a research forum, but also an artistic experiment: a search for ways to compose with large7 improvising ensembles that retain the richness, mobility, mutuality, and sense of possibility I find in more intimate collaborations. I respond to a number of challenges inherent to the format. The hardest and commonest one anchors most of the others: the larger an ensemble is, the more obstacles there are for players to listen and maintain their own voices within the group. This often limits agility and attention to detail, at worst leading to generic forms of relation and expression that fail to do justice to the creativity of individual members.
To improve the situation, musicians sometimes employ scores in the form of notation, verbal concepts, audiovisual media, and/or choreographic conducting practices. Ideally, such scores offload collective compositional work in ways that refresh players’ focus on their materials and each other. However, they can also dull players’ sensibilities and/or reduce them to their lowest common denominator in the service of a single personality or Work. The diversity of musical cultures that a large ensemble often encompasses further complicates the matter; there is rarely consensus concerning the use and usefulness of scores of any kind.
Time limitations are another significant challenge. Large experimental improvising ensembles rarely have sustainable funding; members may be freelancers with other projects or students who come and go. Getting many of them together for any length of time is tricky. Groups tend to come together occasionally for single sessions, and/or to prepare concerts with tight, goal-oriented rehearsal. Opportunities for deep, open-ended experimentation and explicit long-term development are scarce.
Finally, there is the problem of conceptual categories. As in much EIM, conventional divisions of labor tied to the roles of the composer, the performer, the artistic director, the manager, the technician, etc. often don’t match reality on the ground. In truth, everyone contributes something different, and almost everyone contributes on multiple levels. Both internal communication and public discourse around the music suffer for lack of better terminology.
Below are some proposals for dealing with these considerable challenges. I hope they shed light not only on the large ensemble format in EIM, but also on the dynamics of smaller collaborations and a number of hot topics in contemporary musics otherwise.
“Compose” is a fraught word. Despite its etymological innocence — “put together” — it too often carries the odor of its recent historical object: the Work. When expectations about the regulatory power of the Work in a given project are unclear and/or in conflict among collaborators, they can negatively affect the compositional process. As hinted above, there are other aspects and outcomes of composing that we may wish to foreground. To do so, we must more generously reflect the environments in which composition with (improvising) people takes place. Two concepts may help: resources and interventions.
Resources are anything with which we make music, the stuff with which we compose. They can be complex, like a technique or software; or simple, like a tune fragment or a piece of paper. They can be material, like an instrument or a room; or immaterial, like a movement or a mental image. They can belong to individuals or groups; they can have an outsized or incidental influence on the creative process. Everybody has resources, and they should be treated with respect and transparency. That means valuing what is always already there in a musical environment8 when beginning a new project. It also means avoiding extractive logics by which we presume to have unfettered access to everybody’s resources all the time.
Interventions are a fugitive yet essential type of compositional output. Since (improvising) ensembles simultaneously inhabit and produce dynamic musical environments, composers who work with them do not “create” in a strict sense. Instead, they intervene in ongoing processes. This contingent work should be taken seriously. An intervention can take the form of a score, an exercise, a sound played, a conversation, a wink, or myriad other things. The intention to change something distinguishes interventions from resources or other types of action; what counts is what kind of impact an intervention has on which processes, not its magnitude or finality.
Resources and interventions are co-productive, both in the short term and the long term. They have the potential to generate each other in perpetuity.
We must emphasize the with in composing; this means two things. The first sense of the preposition refers to the matter of composition. Conventionally, composers’ materials might include things, such as samples, rhythmic cycles, or pencils. But compositional materials in EIM also include (improvising) people. There are similarities and differences between human and other-than-human materials. On the one hand, all of them have an active role in the creative process. Composers must listen to them carefully and heed their unique affordances. On the other hand, people also have their own materials and resources, as well as changing relations to other people, including composers, so they are particularly complex. Mastering human materials is not a fruitful approach; following them is.
This points to the second meaning of “with”: composing together with (improvising) people. To be sure, composing is always a distributed task. Even the most solitary act of composition takes place within a meshwork of tools, people, places, and histories. But whereas the solitary Composer and His meshwork may not care that this is so, (improvising) people do. Explicitly acknowledging the agency of those with whom we compose is both fair and productive. It frees us from myths about composition that may distract us despite their limited relevance.
Who exactly are these (improvising) people? And who should be reading this text, anyway? Let us begin with the parentheses. They yield two possible titles for this paramanifesto: “Composing with improvising people” and “Composing with people”. The former suggests that there are people who improvise and people who do not, or alternatively that all people are sometimes improvising and sometimes not. The latter suggests that my proposals are directed at anyone involved with composition of any kind, since composing always involves people. Neither is precisely the case, but the tension between these two readings is useful.
In the “(Musical) Improvisation and Ethics” project, we characterize improvisation as a combination of habitual actions and the spontaneous refinement of those very actions, all driven by a sensitivity to social and environmental context. Therefore, we believe that all people engage in improvisation all the time, or, more precisely, that everything people do has some improvisatory qualities. “Everything” includes practices from cooking to sports to pandemic management, and of course the whole spectrum of music-making. The first version of the title is thus nonsensical, for there are no non-improvising people and no completely non-improvised practices.
Critics might find our broad characterization of improvisation itself nonsensical. “If everything is X, X is meaningless,” goes the old song. However, recognizing X can make a difference. Imagine someone holds beliefs about improvisation that contradict our own: for instance, that action is an execution of mental or cultural programs, or that environments exist to serve their human inhabitants. The values, skills, and social relations this person develops in the course of cooking, playing sports, or managing a pandemic will reflect these beliefs and shape their practice accordingly. When another practitioner views the same practice as improvisatory — contingent, collective, and ecological — it and they become something else entirely. Dinner will taste different, they will react differently to a pick-and-roll, and they may declare very different services indispensable during a viral outbreak.
The parentheses thus embody my appeal to an improvisatory mindset, while supporting the idea that improvisation is a universal birthright. In other words, I am speaking to any fellow artist who finds these ideas relevant, not just those who locate themselves in EIM.
Let us continue with “people”, perhaps an odd substitute for “musicians” in this context. Why the distinction? Musicians, as a category, busy themselves with music; aesthetic commitments come first. People busy themselves with life; ethical commitments come first. But most musicians are people, so aesthetic and ethical commitments would seem to be entangled. As I have already suggested, musician-people make aesthetic decisions based on ethical values: with whom to play and when, how to engage with technology, how close to get to “the composer”, and so on. In practice, if less in theory, aesthetics and ethics are hard to parse — especially in EIM, where the bandwidth of choice is wide and foundational.
Composing with people thus means accenting music’s ethical aspects, the invisible big picture. It is to shine a light on questions that are always there, driving the music: Who do we want to be? How do we want to live (together)? What do humans and their music matter to a planet in crisis? It is also to conceive of musical practice as a direct way to work through these questions. And now is as good a time as any to approach complex questions from odd angles.
Unlike real manifestos, this paramanifesto does not seek to reduce the world to a central set of problems, nor to convert readers to my own methods and community in order to solve them. If human life is to go on, and there is to be room for everyone within it, we have no choice but to cope with many kinds of problems and to consider many kinds of solutions. The same is true in our microsociety of contemporary musics.
Nevertheless, for the benefit of those, like me, who believe that the business of this microsociety is still somehow existentially relevant, I hereby summarize the above proposals in the form of five injunctions:
The musical Work needs a vacation. Let us composers focus on performers, materials, (long-term) practices, (contingent) events, resources, interventions. Let us learn from and foster communities where these are already the priority.
Composing always takes place in a dynamic musical environment. When we interact with any environment, we change it. Treat resources with care, and intervene with intention.
When composing with people, listen and follow them — but not (always) as they expect. (Always) give them credit.
All musician-people improvise, even if they don’t know it. Take advantage of this, and in the process show them the benefits of knowing.
(Improvising) music-making is an ethical forum. Compose it as such.
Abiding by these five statements is no guarantee of anything. But it may help us keep going. Technical notes coming soon.
Authors of manifestos stand erect on the summit the world; they do not cite. This paramanifesto author moves through the world; he shall acknowledge.
Many of the ideas put forth have been developed in collaboration with “(Musical) Improvisation and Ethics” team members Joshua Bergamin and Caroline Gatt, who provided feedback on this text. Richard Barrett also offered generous comments and criticism.
A number of writers have influenced the language and concepts that appear here. I have chosen for rhetorical reasons not to cite them one by one in an academic fashion, but I do wish to credit them and provide suggestions for further reading. The most prominent of these are: Kwame Anthony Appiah, Richard Barrett, Claire Bishop, Georgina Born, Marcel Cobussen, Lydia Goehr, Lawrence and Anna Halprin, Tim Ingold, George E. Lewis, Alisdair MacIntyre, Erin Manning, Gary Peters, Benjamin Piekut, and Saskia Sassen.
- For more information on recent projects and publications, see http://www.christopherisnow.com/. ↩
- My training and milieu are always there, of course. However, I consider them generative, rather than deterministic. ↩
- “Experimental” and “improvisation” are slippery words indeed. I admit that my elision of these two terms may complicate the matter. Hopefully the network of practices and communities to which I refer will become clearer throughout this text. ↩
- Please consider the following with skepticism, as you would any artist’s explanation of why they do what they do. We are a protean bunch, almost as likely as politicians to make up stories that suit our purposes. Sometimes these stories can be valuable, and even true, but there are always factors in play that we are less willing and able to identify than we ought to be: opportunity, caprice, and historical happenstance, for instance. ↩
- This, despite at least 30 years of musicological arguments against the privileged position of the Work concept, and other art forms having gotten over it decades ago. ↩
- Throughout this text, “ethical” should be interpreted as “relating to the domain of ethics”, rather than “morally right” or “virtuous”. ↩
- “Large” in this context is numerically relative; what matters is the nature of the interpersonal dynamic. A group of many musicians can theoretically function as a small ensemble, whereas a group of few — even five, in some cases — can function as a large one. That is, large and small here are merely poles on a context-dependent scale, like heavy and light. ↩
- By “musical environment” I mean the meshwork of all individuals, groups, tools, spaces, technologies, concepts, histories, memories, expectations, and their mutual influence — known or otherwise — in which musical practice is situated. By “ecological”, used later in this text, I refer to ways of thinking and acting that prioritize the model of the environment. ↩