Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950

Besides indeterminacy, aleatory, and open form, in the fifties, the concept of experimental music came into focus. Yet, “experiment” and “experimental” were used much earlier as negative descriptions for new compositions that did not correspond to conventional ideals. The word “experiment” indeed connotes risk, trial, unexpected and preliminary outcomes, failure, success, skepticism, and pragmatism. It also refers to scientific research and proof. Since about 1950 experimental music has served as a general term for electro-acoustic music emphasizing the relationship of musical composition and scientific research. The musical experiment can refer to pre-composition, composition, performance, and the act of listening. Improvisations and musical experiments, however, not only share common connotations, but they are often and in various ways related to one another (if, for instance, their outcome is unpredictable).

For composers like Cornelius Cardew, Frederic Rzewski, Alvin Curran, and Richard Teitelbaum, improvisation and experimentation became the main focus in the late fifties and sixties. All of them were involved in improvisation groups such as AMM, Scratch Orchestra, and Musica Elettronica Viva (MEV). The latter ensemble, founded in 1966 in Rome, set out to explore possibilities of improvisation and live-electronics. Similar to the British ensembles AMM and Scratch Orchestra, MEV experimented with “free improvisation, street music, theater, collaborations with untrained musicians, and audience participation.” It used individual compositions, indeterminate scores, verbal instructions, sketches, tapes, and produced sounds with conventional and electronic instruments, household devices, everyday objects, and sounds through intermodulation and biofeedback. Incorporating these ingredients into an ongoing sound flow lasting several hours, the group’s goal was to bring about unpredictable musical situations and make discoveries. Teitelbaum, a founding member of MEV and involved in experimentation and improvisation until today, was particularly interested in biofeedback sounds, which he derived from brainwaves, heartbeat, and breathing, as well as muscle movements which he manipulated with his Moog synthesizer. In 1967, he composed In Tune for brainwaves, heartbeat, breathing, and synthesizer, which is based on numerous experiments involving the physical and psychological effects of playing through electronic instruments and circuitry.

Experiments and improvisation as spontaneous reactions to the sounds, “doubles” coming out of the speakers, are part of the performance. Teitelbaum described the realizations of In Tune as follows: “We experimented increasingly with more conscious means of feedback control… we also expanded the piece to allow group performances by as many as six or eight performers, all simultaneously interconnected. Often these were structured in pairs—a married couple feeding back alpha to each other, another playing a heartbeat duet, etc. Gradually influenced by the aesthetic bent of the group at the time, which was very much towards expressive improvisation, these realizations of In Tune became highly ‘performed,’ expressionistic even aggressive. Such ‘bio-musical’ improvisations often contained vocal and instrumental sounds extraneous to the biological ones, as well as intentional muscle movements by the performers, producing artifacts in the circuit.”(12)

Experienced in jazz improvisation and non-western musical practice (shakuhachi, West-African percussion, Javanese gamelan), Teitelbaum nowadays prefers the concept of “real-time composition” in particular with respect to his more recent pieces based on interactive computer improvisation. Such real-time compositions require pre-compositional preparations as providing sets of instructions, presets, patches, and even the design of the software. During a performance the computer transforms Teitelbaum’s improvisations, for instance, through “long-term delays, multiple processes that extend a line or a note, or can store a phrase or an entire section when played to be brought back later in the piece.” His improvisations, which Teitelbaum considers reflections of the subconscious (similar to automatic writing) are not identical with real-time composition: “People talk about improvisation as real-time composition. But if you can control, in a single gesture, something that’s going to happen ten seconds or ten minutes later, you start to be able to control the broader structural levels, and it really does become much more like composition.”(13)

From Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950
By Sabine Feisst
© 2002 NewMusicBox

You might also enjoy…