International Society for Improvised Music
Reclaiming the core of musical creativity

Philosophical perspective

by Ed Sarath, ISIM founder,
Professor of Music, The University of Michigan

Reflecting the multiethnic mix of contemporary society, the merging of genres in today’s musical world has produced

“There is a music which must be composed; there is another which can only be improvised”.
Steve Lacy

a steadily growing body of work that transcends conventional categories.  In recent decades, the phrase “improvised music”, which refers to the core creative process that underlies much of this work, has emerged as a kind of an informal, overarching label. Initially used to describe jazz and its offshoots, the phrase now encompasses a broad stylistic spectrum – from computer music and multi-media collaborations to string quartets, bebop quintets and multiethnic fusion.  Historically an important aspect of much of the world’s music, improvisation assumes an unprecedented degree of prominence in today’s musical world.

In spite of this prominence, an awareness of the nature and expressive power of the improvisation process continues to elude listeners, critics, promoters, scholars – and perhaps even improvising musicians themselves. In Derek Bailey’s words, “improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being the most widely practiced of musical activities, and the least acknowledged and understood.”

This point is underscored by fundamental questions about improvisation that have continued to elude musical artists and thinkers, some examples of which include:

What exactly is improvisation? Is it really, as it is often defined, an accelerated form

“...performers, audience, instruments, the room, the night outside, space become one being, pulsing”
Stephen Nachmanovitch

of composition, where the improviser in a single creative episode pursues the strategies carried out be the composer over time? Or might improvisation be rooted in fundamentally different cognitive and expressive principles, and require it to be defined not as a subspecies of composition but on its own terms? What are the defining aspects of improvisation that might be common to the vast array of improvised musics that exist – from completely open or free improvisation to formats such as found in jazz or North Indian or Arabic musics that involve previously established pitch-rhythmic constraints? 

These questions point to the need for an aesthetics of improvised music, an articulation of the underlying principles in which improvisation is based. On one level , this aesthetic model would illuminate the expressive richness inherent in the extemporaneous and interactive aspects of improvised performance, which might be best understood in contrast to those of composition. Composers have the capacity to reflect and edit as they fashion a work over time, whereas improvisers create in a single performance.  Composers usually create alone, whereas improvisers can either create unaccompanied, or as is common, in ensemble situations.  There are unique expressive aspects in each format, and an understanding of improvisation would encompass those qualities that can only be achieved in improvised performance. As Steve Lacy states, “there is a music which must be composed; there is another which can only be improvised”.

This is not to suggest that improvised music is devoid of structural richness, either in the form of preordained pitch-rhythmic formats (e.g. jazz, or Hindustani music), or in the resultant material.  However, these are very different notions of structure than those that are associated with composed music, and may be rooted in very different theoretical, cognitive, and cultural principles. An understanding of improvised structure is important not only to improvised music, but to an understanding of the contemporary musical world. Jeff Pressing’s concept of “Black Atlantic Rhythm”, for example, shows the vast the extent to which rhythmic practices of the African diaspora have permeated a wide array of musical practices, improvised and non-improvised, across the globe.  An aesthetics of improvised music is needed to account for the unique principles that are driving the resurgence of improvisation in the broader musical landscape

An improvised music aesthetics would also shed light on the unifying and transformational aspects of improvisation, how through spontaneous invention and interaction “performers, audience, instruments, the room, the night outside, space”, to use Stephen Nachmanovitch’s words,   “become one being, pulsing”.  Improvised performance uniquely reflects “the quality of energy that is very personal and particular to those people, that room, and that moment”.

“The mission of the artist is to penetrate to that sacred ground where primal law fuels growth”
Paul Klee

In peak performances, improvisers invoke heightened states of consciousness akin to the “ecstatic states of the Sufis,” or experiences associated with yogic or other spiritual disciplines. This points to what philosopher Ken Wilber, echoing artists and thinkers throughout the age, cites as the highest purpose of art: “to remind us of our own higher possibilities, our own deepest nature, our own most profound ground.” In Paul Klee’s words, “the mission of the artist is to penetrate to that sacred ground where primal law fuels growth”. An aesthetics of improvised music would be rooted in the pathway the improviser takes to this sacred ground.

Two main obstacles might be cited that have limited the cultivation of this kind of improvisation-based aesthetic awareness.  

One is the commercial orientation of the music industry, which has placed a much greater premium on catering to the listener’s comfort zone than supporting the exploratory, eclectic and sometimes risky creative excursions, let alone transcendent qualities, that are intrinsic to improvised music. As a result, improvising musicians find limited outlets for performances, CD sales and airplay, and society thus has limited exposure to important creative expressions of our times.

Moreover, the predisposition toward composed music in the academic musical world has relegated improvisation to the remote fringes of musical practice and investigation. The problem here is not composed music per se, the richness and importance of which in the musical world few would deny, but the extent of its predominance in academic musical culture, as a result of which improvisation is excluded from serious study.  Outside of jazz, most music majors have little or no contact with improvisation.  Even with appeals from the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM), and Music Educators National Conference (MENC) for improvisation to play a more central role in overall musical training, progress has been limited. If anything, improvisation tends to be offered as an elective, or as a single-semester requirement in music teacher training programs. This reflects a view of improvisation as, at best, an embellishment to conventional musicianship, and at worst, an unnecessary and expendable part of musical training. And while jazz programs generally offer substantive training in improvisation, it is usually confined to mainstream jazz approaches and neglects important aspects of the jazz lineage, in addition to  more varied approaches of the musical world.

A broad improvisatory spectrum that integrates mainstream jazz with more open approaches cultivates a musical awareness that is both more receptive to the treasures of the past, as well as new developments.   Moreover, the integrative and creative features of improvisation – its capacity to unite a wide array of musical skills, aptitudes and stylistic influences –

“Improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being the most widely practiced of musical activities, and the least acknowledged and understood.”
Derek Bailey

points to its rightful place as a core aspect of musical understanding for all music students.  Improvisational skills and awareness, when developed through systematic and rigorous study, can enhance all facets of musicianship, can be a source of deep fulfillment and meaning, and can connect musicians – and by extension, listeners – with both the innermost regions of their musical awareness, and the pulse of the musical world around them.  While there is a rightful concern, in both jazz and conventional music learning circles, for the preservation of tradition, it is important to realize that tradition is ultimately fathomed most deeply and comprehensively through the lens of the present. In this regard, improvisation – which is the most profound means for engagement in the musical present – is the key to both the appreciation of the treasures of the past, and the celebration of the ongoing developments of one’s time and place.

The purpose of ISIM is to cultivate the awareness of this core creative process, and its integrative and transformational functions, in the musical world and society at large.