Musical scores are information devices that allow a composer to lay down certain parameters of a performance. In practice, scores define what is considered context-independent by the composer or by a certain cultural tradition. No score will thus ever totally determine all aspects of a musical performance: some elements of music making will always be contingent - and thus improvised. In fact, there is no clear line between improvised and composed music – hence my term for score-based music with elements of improvisation: comprovisation. I use this term for all music that draws not only on the contingent moment of performance but also on context-independent rule systems or scores.

In my recent comprovisation scores for larger ensembles (Inside a Native Land [Berlin 2005], Vineland Stelae [Los Angeles 2007], Racines Ephémères [Vienna 2008], Transience [Nürnberg2009/Malmö 2011], and jaali [Stuttgart 2011]) I have explored the combination of improvised, comprovised, and composed elements of a work not only in structural segmentation but also in layerings of sub-ensembles and in what I call "encapsulated traditions".


This last term designates newly invented (i.e. composed) coherent rule-systems for improvisation that, like a tradition, function as generators for stylistically consistent improvisations. Musicians must first learn these encapsulated traditions (as they would learn any improvisation language such as, say, Be-Bop) before approaching the score itself. 

Layering these encapsulated traditions affords composers and performers alike levels of meta-control of musical material that are open to analysis and rehearsal critique while leaving considerable freedom to the individual musician. …

I   Improvisation and Score

Just as no marriage can be reduced to the enactment of a written contract, no music is ever completely fixed - and there is no such thing as free improvisation much in the same way as there is no such thing as entirely free love. Music, especially improvised music, is a quintessentially polythetic art i.e. it cannot be understood in any convenient, conceptual overview – it must be performed one event, one moment at the time. 

Thus, even the most fixed acousmatic tape music has depended for its spread on the vagaries of funding, performance space, technology development - and the contingent elements of each single, unique performance. This is why the "diffuseur sonore" has slowly gained acceptance as a special type of musical performer - and pedagogical programs to teach, think and critically examine sound diffusion are currently coming into being.

At the other extreme, it is not by chance that the ideology of free improvisation appears at the same historical moment as does the ideology of free love. But, while the latter was soon deconstructed as a naïve and often oppressive strategy in the gender wars, the incantations promoting a truly free music unfettered by rules and regulations, celebrating the incommensurable beauty of the present moment, still haunt the program brochures and the apologetic texts of its proponents. 

But every working musician knows that the technique of music making is inscribed into the musician's body through the ceaseless iterations of daily practice and performance, that a musician's body is the sum and phenotext of the musician's musical trajectory. In much the same way, the aesthetical affiliations we form both as musicians and as thinking and feeling human beings are the components and the genotext of all our improvisations.

"all'improviso", the description of a music as unforeseen thus in reality only masks the curious fact that the extensive framework of physical constraints and aesthetic decisions, cultural expectations and social rules of interaction that has brought this music into existence has become invisible, imprevisible. When we improvise, we do not make music that is free of rules and regulations – when we improvise we make music according to rules and regulations imperceptible to ourselves: rules we have learnt  - and forgotten…or do not want to see… True improvisation, according to this premise, happens only at the margins, in a no man's land where conflicting rules and multilayered loyalties create an open space of indecision and contingency.

II   Notational Perspective

Every performance can be said to consist of two types of elements: those that stay more or less the same between different performances,  and those that are unique to the context of this particular performance.   

The first - let us call them “context-independent” or “repeatable” - are what people usually refer to when they speak of an “artistic work” or a “composition.” The second type of elements - called “contingent” here - also has a wide range of names, such as “chance procedure,” “playing it by ear,” “inspiration,” “arrangement,” “improvisation” or “interpretation” and many more. 

Notations and scores are among the most important conceptual devices used to distinguish between some of the contingent and context-independent elements of a performance.  For example, whereas eurological  art music traditions considered it important to notate pitches and their associated durations, Chinese (or sinological) art music  traditions considered pitches and their associated playing technique to be the ideal pair of notated parameters, leaving the aesthetic significance and practice of duration largely to oral transmission and to the individual musician’s “touch”- similar to the view that eurological art music took towards articulation until the mid-20th century. 

In addition, many traditions closely couple certain performance parameters to fixed combinations, thereby prompting the development of bi- or multivalent notational "objects" : in this view, each possible traditional western basic "note" consists of an unique and graphically unified combination of two differently graded series of symbols that taken together signify both pitch and duration of a musical event.

The choice of which parameters need to be compounded into an "object" is an aesthetic choice as much as it depends on the readability and memorizability of the chosen notational object. Each notational object enables certain aspects of music to be notated more easily while other aspects would be very difficult to notate adequately. 

If a notation, for example, signifies both a temporal location within a rhythm cycle and where/how a certain finger strikes to produce a certain sound (as is the case in North Indian tabla bol-notation ) this specific association of parameters opens up many interesting options for higher-order phrasing and parsing (e.g. a swift heurism to determine which rhythm/sound combinations are physically possible at which speed), but also excludes the efficient and self-evident notation of other options ("free" or unmetered rhythms, or playing the tabla with drumsticks etc.) – and thus serves to limit or even prohibit their aesthetic use within the given tradition. This bias has aptly been termed the "perspective of a notation" (Gottschewski 2005).

III   Composition – Comprovisation – Improvisation

No score will thus ever totally determine all aspects of a musical performance: Music inventors and composers must adhere to or establish notational conventions that enable them to control certain parametes of music making - but, in this process, the very perspective of notation that they adopt in order to control has side effects: it creates a free space, a musical realm beyond their control. Some elements of music making will always be contingent - and thus improvised. But the opposite is also true - in creating music on the spur of a moment improvisers are also establishing all kinds of momentary scores - and the word "score" here explicitly includes all kinds of rule systems, embodied reflexes and inner representations that prompt a performers to play the next note…

In fact, there is no clear line between improvised and composed music – hence my preference for another term: comprovisation.

The terms "Improvisation" and "Composition" can be useful as mental constructs but they can confuse and cloud the realities of music making mainly because they suggest that they are somehow dualistic, even antagonistic entities – where in reality they constitute points along a continuum, a yin/yang of musical creation. Using the term "comprovisation" can make us aware of the contingent nature of this continuum: the fact that the term is so blatantly mongrel immediately leads to the question: how much and what is composed and how much and what is improvised in a given performance. And this uncertainty may prompt us to listen – and look – more analytically to the individual moment of performance.

IV   Comprovisation Architextures

Comprovisation scores abound in Jazz and in New Music since the 1940s. Three main dramaturgical-architectonical-textural (fused as: "architexture") models appear to overwhelmingly dominate traditional - and large territories of contemporary - comprovisational practice: 

1.) dramaturgically "linear" variations on a stable melodic-harmonic formula or on a rhythmic cycle – all dramaturgical developments are either of a transient nature, to be resolved in regulary recurring cadential moments - or they are placed within a "non-surprising" framework, e.g. a strict monotonic accelerando structure, as in the case of North Indian art music.

2.) "free" forms of organic growth and/or decay: isolated beginnings, slow congealing into coherence, exponential growth of density ending in a "tout-son" situation where individual contributions dissolve in the overall sound. As musicians cannot hear each other, they drop out: texture and density lighten again. At this point the others resume - and a surge to next peak follows - etc.

3.) ritualized improvisations with composed section markers, or compositions with embedded improvisations – in both certain blocks of time are set aside for improvisation [whether with an elaborated groove or drone as in Jazz and many modal improvisations, or without such a listener's lifeline, as in Lutoslawski scores]. Such cadenza-like "absences" of the composer are like a carnival of inverted roles between composer and performers. 

Boulez and Stockhausen, in their piano pieces, introduced another model of comprovisation with blocks: structural shuffles creating an improvised order of pre-composed sequences and no improvisation on the note-to-note level. John Cage, Earle Brown and others represent another extreme: in their scores based primarily on visual stimuli everything, including the precise instructions and the composer's documented insistence on playing only what was visible, seem to serve mainly as a social and aesthetical excuse for improvisation, an invitation for well-trained score readers to stray from the written path.

To me all these approaches were unsatisfying. Having had an emotionally close relationship to Indian art music, where comprovisation is an elaborate and multi-layered dance of composed sequences, rule-based modal improvisation and cyclic rhythmic improvisation, I started to look for ways to let large ensembles improvise together and yet retain some kind of structural composition, the kind of complex and richly polyphonic dramaturgy we have become used to in linearly notated scores.

V   Exegetic and Relational Polyphony

In "Amadeus" (the film), Peter Shaffer lets Mozart say: "In a play, if more than one person speaks at the same time, it's just noise.  No one can understand a word.  But with music, with music you can have twenty individuals all talking at once, and it's not noise - it's a perfect harmony. Isn't that marvelous?" A praise of polyphony in a movie! But Mozart, except for some of his last works, is not considered to be a particularly polyphonic composer. What exactly is he talking about ?

There are two basic types of polyphony – one concerned with the unfolding of and reflections on a central idea kernel: this type could be called exegetical polyphony. It can be found in bicinia, canons, ricercars, cantus firmus and chorale variations, fugues etc. In all these forms, new musical realities are unfolded from or reflected in one source rather than composited from different sources.

The other type of polyphony is about creating mutually illuminating relations between previously unrelated ideas. This is a much rarer type of polyphony – it can be heard primarily in isorhythmic motets, in double and triple fugues, in some developmental sections of classical sonatas etc. One could call it relational polyphony. 

Interestingly, whenever Mozart used polyphony, he tended to use it in this relational mode: in the last movement of his last symphony four different themes jostle each other and through their constantly changing relation to each other create a kind of structural harmony that is very different from that provided by exegesis.

For me, the important difference between these two approaches to polyphony lies in the way they conceive of their elements: in exegetic polyphony all elements of the musical texture are derivative, drifting apart in a kind of evolution. Metaphorically, they depict the story of the ego encountering the world. In relational polyphony, the elements of the music are independent entities converging in a kind of aesthetical consilience. Their metaphorical narrative is that of many individuals linking together towards a greater whole.

For this to happen, each layer forming a polyphony must not only have a different trajectory, they must also have different origins – they must enter the moment of music making not as an embryonic blastomere (a.k.a as "theme"), but as fully formed organism. These fully formed musical organisms, then, communicate with each other to create a relational polyphony of musical polylogues.

VI   Encapsulated Traditions

The idea of relational polyphony is at the heart of my recent approach to comprovisation - how could one imagine a music for 5 – 40 or more improvising musicians that satisifies the refined taste for dramaturgical and textural differentia¬tion most western art music listeners have acquired by listening to written music? 

In my view, every improvisation style is essentially traditional in nature, as it de¬pends on the oral and enacted transmission and conventionality of complex knowledge structures: Each improvisation style creates a rich cloud of determinants and constraints that must be enacted by many different creators.  An improvisation tradition thus is an organism, in itself consisting of many suborganisms - down to essential rhythmic, gestural, and textural cells.

And all these elements of a style, wherever their place within the hierarchy of a style, are complete musical entities in themselves – not themes that require evolution to become music, but entities that through simple linkages - sequence, dialogue, juxtaposition and superposition – can generate a convincing performance of an improvisational style. I call these entities encapsulated traditions. 

Encapsulated traditions are musical entities that can create a musical stream within the architecture of a relational polyphony. I call them "encapsulated" because they are largely independent from each other.

VII   Comprovisation Scores for Large Ensembles

Since 1996, I have conceived a number of comprovisation scores for larger ensem¬bles, and since ca. 2003 they are based on encapsulated traditions: The musicians are not given explicit music, but rather blueprints on how to improvise within a cer¬tain framework. Performers are given precise constraints and instruction, which they need to learn by heart and embody. These instructions can be very detailed, and are often illustrated by a notated example of this invented tradition. Rehearsing  such a score is different from learning a written score, but also from learning how to improvise a new song in one's own style: this approach is almost like learning a North Indian raag. 

The next phase then is to create a polyphonic score that would allow to superimpose these different encapsulated traditions within a convincing architexture. Each of my works adopts a different strategy for this step. Two examples:

In RACINES ÉPHÉMÈRES (2008) for 8 wandering musicians, obbligato conductor and live-electronics, the architexture leans heavily on the principle of the variation: In each of the 64 variations on a theme by Claude Vivier, a different selection from the 9 encapsulated traditions present in this work is superimposed in a unique way. Each variation includes precise instructions on how musicians interact with other musicians as they change places and are re-configured throughout the piece.

The score for NEXUS (2010) for five moving musicians and wireless network asks that each musician and each mode access different parts of a single melodic line and its retrograde inversions.  There are 5 different modes: each mode "reads" the pitch sequences in a very different way. The architexture in NEXUS is relatively complex: the musicians are dispersed in an urban/architectonical environment far from each other. They carry small loudspeakers connected to the wireless network. A central server dynamically connects the musicians to each other in different combinations so that each musician at any time hears exactly one other musician  - they are not linked to each other in a two-way communication, but rather in a one-way chain – no dialogues, only loops. Each encapsulated tradition "belongs" to one instrument: when musicians hear this instrument on the loudspeaker, they switch the way they improvise on the melody. At a central location is it possible to hear the entire tex¬ture of the work – but then what about the excitement of walking through the city with the musician ?


There is no music without some kind of score - not necessarily written out, but as a mental architexture necessarily present in the context of music creation and mak¬ing: scores, as Lawrence Halprin understood them, "orchestrate design, participa¬tion, events and activities that visibly delineate, generate, and sustain a project": this definition makes no marked distinction between the sonic and the meta-sonic as¬pects of music making. If hardly any written and performed score or acousmatic soundfile functions purely on a sonic level, improvisations definitely cannot be un¬derstood without the context that shapes music making – what Christopher Small has called "musicking".

Traditions, contrary to their reputation in new and improv music circles, are not old and unoriginal ways of making music, they are an innate (but mostly unacknowl¬edged) part of every score: without a tradition, scores become unreadable objects.

In embedding the concept of a music-making tradition within a score, by encapsu¬lating aspects of tradition and re-combining them, encapsulated traditions offer a rich potential for the analysis of processes in music-creation: they become tools to understand how both in improvised and composed music, traditions of music-mak¬ing inform and generate sonic material according to contextual rules and how this generated material relates to the context of listening. In doing so, they demonstrate that the concepts of composition and improvisation are extreme poles of music making, and that all music-making is in fact a comprovisation: a music with a score - and with a context.

 Vancouver, January 2012