Observations on Free Improvisation

  The Harvard Dictionary of Music defines musical improvisation as “the art of performing music as an immediate reproduction of simultaneous mental processes, that is, without the aid of manuscript or memory…a phenomenon the evanescent nature of which defies documentation and detailed description.” As this definition suggests, musical improvisation is the direct translation of mental activity into sound, bypassing the intermediate step of notation.
Musical improvisation has always existed wherever the notation of music has been unknown or undesirable.  Certainly improvised music pre-dates any other music – man’s first musical expressions could not have been otherwise. Even today, cultures in which musical notation is unknown rely upon improvisation as a primary means of musical expression.  Albert Einstein looked upon improvisation as an intellectual necessity whereby he could “ease himself of the tone experiences that had mounted up in him, giving them utterance in improvisation” 1.  Even composers like Bach,  Mozart, and Beethoven,  who were adept at rendering their musical ideas in notated form, utilized improvisation as an outlet for their creative genius.
Most musical improvisation takes place within an established idiom. A jazz improvisation, for instance, would be expected to employ characteristic rhythms, scales, and tone colors that distinguish jazz from other kinds of music. For this reason the musical improvisations of Louis Armstrong, Ravi Shankar, and J.S. Bach would certainly sound very different from one another because of the defining boundaries of their particular musical idioms. In the 20th century a new kind of musical improvisation appeared: so-called “free”, or non-idiomatic improvisation.  As a musical activity, it cannot be placed easily into a particular style-category.  It is “free” in the sense that it does not conform to any of the idiomatic or stylistic elements that define other categories of music.  In his book on musical improvisation, Derek Bailey struggles with a precise description of free improvisation: “It has no stylistic or idiomatic commitment. It has no prescribed idiomatic sound. The characteristics of free improvisation are established only by the sonic-musical identity of the person or persons playing it…the skill and intellect required is whatever is available. It can be an activity of enormous complexity and sophistication or the simplest and most direct action…” 2
Even though “free improvisation” is difficult to specifically define, certain generalizations can be made. Historically speaking, it is a musical practice firmly rooted in the aesthetic tradition of early 20th century modernism.  At the beginning of the 20th century many composers and musicians, as well as artists and writers, adopted a self-consciously modernist point of view characterized by skepticism, confrontation, and a withdrawal from the consensus language of previous generations.3  In their rejection of artistic norms and assumptions, modernists relied instead upon subjective intuition for inspiration and guidance.4  At the same time pioneers in the field of psychology brought a new awareness of the unconscious mind as a potential source of creativity.  Carl Jung suggested that all of us stood between two worlds: the world of external perception and the world of the unconscious.5 Some artists found the internal world of the unconscious to be the very source and ultimate goal of art itself. The painter Paul Klee said, “It is the artist’s mission to penetrate as far as may be toward that secret ground where primal law feeds growth.” For Klee, accessing the unconscious mind as a source of creativity also meant evading the direction of the conscious, rational mind, “My hand is entirely the instrument of a more distant sphere. Nor is it my head that functions in my work; it is something else.”6   
Musical improvisation as a direct translation of mental activity into sound can theoretically be directed and controlled either by the conscious, rational mind or by the unconscious, irrational mind, or more precisely, by a combination of the two.  During sleep, when the conscious mind in inactive, the irrational, unconscious mind has complete freedom of expression, as revealed by dreams.  Analysis of dreams reveals that they are not random, meaningless combinations of unrelated, recycled memories. They are, in fact, highly creative productions of the unconscious mind, answering to a seemingly alien and irrational hidden logic of their own.  However, since musical performance is impossible during sleep, the unconscious mind can never completely dictate musical decisions. The most that can be achieved is a temporary and deliberate abdication of the conscious mind in favor of the unconscious mind, whose contents are ordinarily submerged during waking life.


Analogies found in the visual arts are helpful. The abstract expressionist painter,  Jackson Pollock, described his method of painting:

“When I am in my painting I am not aware of what I am doing. It is only after a sort of ‘get acquainted’ period that I see what I have been about. I have no fears about making changes, destroying the image, etc., because the painting has a life of its own.  I try to let it come through. It is only when I lose contact with the painting that the result is a mess. Otherwise there is pure harmony, an easy give and take, and the painting comes out well.”7

This quotation by Jackson Pollock is especially revealing.  First, he states that when he is painting he is “not aware of what [he is] doing”.  In other words, he has temporarily and deliberately abdicated the decision making process, or to say it another way, he has forced the conscious mind to assume a secondary position in relation to the unconscious mind.  He says, “…because the painting has a life of its own…”.  Of course, this is not literally true.  What is true, however, is that his unconscious mind “has a life of its own” and is directing the painting process. Pollock describes the ideal balance between the forced subservience of the conscious mind in relation to the newly elevated position of the unconscious mind as “an easy give and take” in which the conscious mind and the unconscious mind “collaborate” in the creative process.  When he loses the balance of conscious to unconscious, he describes the result as “a mess”.  In other words, when his conscious mind asserts too much control and forces the unconscious mind to retreat, he perceives that he has “[lost] contact with the painting”.

By relinquishing the decision-making function of the conscious mind, Pollock introduced an element of chance into his art.  Pollock did not touch the canvas directly. Instead he applied the paint to the canvas by flinging it through the air, thereby introducing a procedure in which it was not possible to directly or completely control the outcome.  The strategy of introducing chance into the production of art is a powerful means of denying control to the conscious mind. However, the conscious mind is rational and, by nature, it analyzes, categorizes, and organizes.  By introducing chance into a work of art or music, the conscious mind is forced into a secondary position and it can only exert its influence “after the fact”.
In musical improvisation chance can be achieved in a variety of ways, but most simply by playing without thinking.  This, of course, is easier said than done. However, it is possible to play a musical instrument while refusing to make musical decisions. When the conscious mind is no longer making decisions, actions are, by necessity, directed by another part of the mind. In other words, when the conscious mind is deliberately suppressed, the unconscious mind is consequently elevated.   The further and more successfully this strategy is pursued, the more abstract is the result, and ironically, the more “universal” and psychically resonant.  Carl Jung has observed that, “the deeper layers of the psyche lose their individual uniqueness as they retreat farther and farther into darkness. Lower down, that is to say, as they approach the autonomic functional systems, they become increasingly collective until they are universalized and extinguished in the body’s materiality.”8


1 Alexander Moszkowski, Conversations with Einstein, 1921

2 Derek Bailey, Improvisation: It’s Nature and Practice in Music, 1980

3 Christopher Butler, Early Modernism: Literature, Music, and Painting in Europe 1900-1916, 1994.  On page two Butler helpfully quotes Matthew Arnold, who wrote in 1860: “Modern man finds himself with an immense system of institutions, established facts, accredited dogmas, customs, and rules which have come down to him from times not modern.  Though his life must move forward, he has a sense that this system is not of his own creation, and that it by no means corresponds exactly to the wants of his actual life. Life has become customary, not rational. The awakening of this sense is the awakening of the modern spirit”

4 Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. M.T.H. Sadler.  Kandinsky wrote: “When religion, science and morality are shaken, the two last by the strong hand of Nietzsche, and when the outer supports threaten to fall, man turns his gaze from externals in on to himself.”

5 Sonu Shamdasani, Liber Novus: The Red Book of C.G. Jung.  Shamdasani quotes a 1918 paper by Jung, “On the Unconscious”

6 Aniela Jaffe, Symbolism in the Visual Arts, from Man and His Symbols, edited by Carl Jung.  Jaffe is quoting from Uber die modern Kunst, Lecture, 1924, Dokumente, p. 84

7 My Painting, Possibilites, quoted by Herbert Read, New York, 1947

8 Carl Jung, Collected Works, vol. IX, pg. 173.  Unlike Freud who saw the unconscious as a sort of receptacle for repressed desires, Jung viewed the unconscious as a vast storehouse of potential wisdom. In a 1916 lecture on “the structure of the unconscious” he suggested two layers of the unconscious: The first, the personal unconscious [consists of] elements acquired during one’s lifetime, together with elements that could equally well be conscious.  The second was the impersonal unconscious or collective psyche. While consciousness and the personal unconscious were developed and acquired in the course of one’s lifetime, the collective psyche was inherited.” In Jung’s view, this deeper layer of the unconscious, the collective psyche, contained “all the treasures of mythological thinking and feeling…” (Sonu Shamdasani, Liber Novus: The Red Book of C.G. Jung, pg. 208).