6. Combined aesthetics: challenges in modern and genre-crossing improvisation


“What I also like about jazz is that can be influenced by other music than just pure “tribal music”. – A very relevant issue is the difficult “mediation” between the interval-based and the sound-based music. They are virtually being mediated and tested against each other, and I think that’s exciting, because, as a composer, I have decided to neither give up the interval, nor throw overboard my experiences with sound experimentation during the last 50 to 60 years.”

(Norwegian composer Lasse Thoresen, interview in ‟Jazznytt” 02 2011, my translation)


The use of live electronics has opened my options for musical interaction and for various roles and has also stimulated and developed my interest in sound as musical material. It seems obvious that musical roles are often the results of the music’s character and premises. My research project has made me more aware of some challenges connected to my field of practice: genre-crossing music with improvisation as an important part of the musical expression.  Norwegian contemporary composer Lasse Thoresen describes a kind of mediation in jazz, between different paradigms for musical performance and experience. I see this both as mediation between the paradigms of sound-based and interval-based music, as he does, and as mediation between what George E. Lewis describes as being Afrological and Eurological paradigms in improvised music. (Lewis 2009). In this section I will look at some of the challenges and strategies involved in this mediation. These writings must be seen as being non-academic in the sense that they are just briefly informed by the academic theoretical discourses on improvisation and on the different aesthetics of genres. I have not studied Thoresen or Lewis, nor Cage or Nyman who I will be referring to in this section, to such a degree that I can fully comprehend their theories. Still, in order to articulate some of the musical challenges that I experience, I have chosen to use selected parts of their writings with quotations that I feel pinpoint some of the differences between these musical paradigms.

Telling a story or not


            “Perhaps the most trenchant conception of what improvisation can be is to be found in this testament by Charlie Parker: “Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn”. The clear implication is that what you do live, does come out of your horn. […]

“Another important and very different model of “improvised music” is practiced among the European “free” improvisers. […]  The term was adopted, I believe, not to distinguish it from jazz in the sense of critique, but to better reflect the European improvisers’ sense of having created a native model of improvisation, however influenced by Afrological forms. […] One important aspect of the Afrological improvisation is the notion of importance of personal narrative, of  “telling your own story”. […] Eurological improvisers have tended to look askance at the admission of personal narrative into improvisative activity. I believe that, for post-war Eurological improvisers, the ideas of Cage have, again, had the greatest impact in this regard: “What I would like to find is an improvisation that is not descriptive of the performer, but is descriptive of what happens, and which is characterised by an absence of intention (my underlining).Lewis in Cox &Warner, 2009, pp. 282-283


The Afrological paradigm of personal storytelling in music is – for the most part – embedded in my singer and speaker roles (cf. the discussions of various roles in Chapter 4). Here it is very often experienced as “telling a story”, although not necessarily my own story. Furthermore, I can also often recognise similar storytelling when I am taking on a more instrumental approach as a soundsinger. Still, through the use of electronics, I am playing with how personal the expression is.  The play with zones (Section 3.2.3), with meaning/no meaning and naturalness/unnaturalness, can be experienced as a play with personal/not personal, or perhaps story/no story.

The sounds’ naturalness is not the only aspect defining “personality”. Maja Ratkje has sometimes criticised what she experience as being “too much fervour” for her taste, in my singing. To balance “the emotional” aspects of my expression is an experienced challenge. To create your own sound, to have a personal expression and “tell your own stories” have very often been – and still are – goals for musical development in the jazz field that I relate to. To sing (or play) “your heart out” has been a more or less an outspoken ideal in parts of the tradition. And as far as I can see, this approach is more encouraged than it is questioned, especially among singers. Sidsel Endresen is one of the performers who reflects critically on this, both in her musical approach and with words:


“I feel that all this focus on “liberation” and “discovery of your own expression”, and the search for what is “personal” and “unique”, etc. is a trap. I think you can get lost here and forget the fact that the moment you open your mouth and make a sound, it’s already highly personal and definitely bears your signature. So perhaps you may not need to work so hard to “create you own expression”? Especially when working with extended vocal techniques, that are often very expressive, you are constantly in danger of becoming too private.”

(Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen, interview in Ballade no, 27.08.2009, my translation.)



It is interesting to think about the relationship between (what could be regarded as) a “private” expression in modern European jazz, and the notion of “real world” (see Section 3.2.2) in sound -based music. For example: I can experience Maja Ratkje’s screaming in her “noise-collages” as a part of the “real world”, being authentic sound rather than private, vocal uttering. To hear myself “scream” as a part of a performance within the aesthetics of rock music, is experienced as balancing on a thin line between following an intuitive musical impulse and energy, and becoming too private and emotional, and in the latter case overdoing it. For both Maja and myself the motivation for screaming lies in the musical expression, and it has to connect to the music in a musically meaningful way in order to work. One of the strategies used for adjusting the emotional “overload” has been conveyed to me by Sidsel Endresen and Elin Rosseland, who both say: “Focus on the sound, not the emotional expression”. Sidsel also pointed out to me how words and lyrics could be worked with as sound rather than meaning by really going into the sound of the phonetics in the language instead of focusing on the meaning of the words. I think of this adjustment and orientation towards sound as being a strategy, a way to mediate between the paradigms of the Afrological and the Eurological approach.


Being in a state of or making statements


“I would assume that relations would exist between sounds as they do between people, and that these relationships are more complex than any I would be able to prescribe. So by simply dropping that responsibility of making relationships I don’t loose the relationship. I keep the situation in what you might call a natural complexity that can be observed one way or the other. ”  (Cage, as cited in Nyman, 2009, p. 219)


“My past experience was not to “meddle” with the material, but use my concentration as a guide to what might transpire. I mentioned this to Stockhausen once when he asked me what my secret was. “I don’t push the sounds around.” Stockhausen mulled this over, and asked: “Not even a little bit?”  (Morton Feldman[1])


“ Sometimes I say: I want to find the music, not to compose it”   (Tom Johnson in Cox &Warner, 2009, p. 286)



I sometimes experience improvising in my different constellations as being in a state – a flow – observing how the sound changes almost “by itself”. We are not “dropping the responsibility of making relationships”, as suggested by Cage, but it is experienced as a type of listening, an observing approach that can seem like a more “active way of listening and passive way of playing”, often focused on relatively small changes and nuances. As a counterpart, we go into improvisations and musical passages that are more “statement”-oriented, definitely “pushing the sounds around”.  This can also involve more conventional musical parameters such as rhythm, melodies and harmonies, and of course compositions. Very often, the intervallic elements, as Thoresen calls them, take form more as defined statements than sounds. These two approaches are radically different, and there is a risk that one approach could create premises and expectations (both for the musicians involved and for the audience) that “undermine” each other. A melody, or rhythm, will in most cases take an immediate focus. If the implementation of these elements is not meant to be a shift – where the sound-based activities are turned into a “background”– the relationship between the musical “state” and the statement must be experienced and played out. One of the strategies in the improvised mediation between conventional musical elements and sound-based music is therefore the development of an intuitive awareness for such situations. This awareness should help you recognise the strength in the conventional musical elements and to develop a sense of how to play with them. Working with this should involve exploring how musical statements can be introduced and formed to connect with sound-based “states”. In my experience the link can often be created through a timbral connection, as well as by the sensitive use of volume and manipulation of what is “distant” and “near”. There can also be a possible link through the “degree of conventionality or reconcilability” in the elements introduced. A melody can be suggested rather than played out, and a rhythm can be developed from impulses to metrical patterns. The most critical turn, I think, is often the transformation from conventional musical elements into sound-based sequences. I have noted both in my own performances and those of others that this often happens the other way around: a sequence starts by “being in a state” and it ends with “statements”.


Case- observation

The challenges discussed here became very clear to me when working with the project “Undercover” as part of this research. The idea of this project was that I wanted to use tunes from popular music as a starting point for a more open improvisation, together with two brilliant improvisators: Per Oddvar Johansen, drums and electronics, and Krister Jonsson, guitar and electronics. What I found was that these strong melodies, and also the conventions, implemented in the styles of the artists that had made them (Peter Gabriel, Bob Marley, Bob Dylan etc.) were difficult to transform into a more open setting. When entering the melodic material, these strong conventions were hard to escape, and we ended up arranging more than improvising, to find a successful way to work with this material. I also ended up more in the traditional singer-role than I wanted. I therefore decided not to go further with this project as part of my research, but get back to it later on. 


Time and development

Sequences of improvisation, especially the ones that are more “in a state” than “conveying statements” can often include an element of repetition, and can also be experienced as somewhat similar to minimalistic music. Another concept of time and development seems to be present in this “minimalistic improvisation”, compared to other types of improvisation.



“In European culture, repetition must be seen to be not just circulation and flow but accommodation and growth. In black culture, the thing (the ritual, the dance, the beat) is “there for you to pick up when you come back to it”. […] Moreover, the greater insistence on the pure beauty of repetition, the greater the awareness must also be that repetition takes place not on a level of musical development or progression, but on the purest tonal and timbral level. […]

“In contrast to China, the region of India and Southeast Asia was absorbed in another concept of the world, another measure of time, not as linear, cause-and effect entity of logic and matter, but a metaphysical world with a profound respect for nature and the divine, for whom temples, stone monuments, and stupas were constructed, a life replete with rituals and ceremonies, in constant communication with spirits and deities with whom man corresponded to maintain an equilibrium with nature.” José Maceda[2]



Other cultures’ experience of time could be seen as being reflected in both Western minimalistic music and in some of the improvisation in my genre. One of the things that can differ in our playing, in our conversations and judgements about music (our own or others), is our experience of the need for development in the improvisation. When this need sometimes becomes urgent, in a negative way, it is often experienced and described as “becoming impatient”. This impatience could make you bring in new musical material to make the music “develop further”. Doing this could sometimes be a beneficial manoeuvre; sometimes it could interrupt or break up what was experienced (by others) as a well-functioning part of the music. Operating with different concepts and experiences of time is a challenge that could be seen as another field for mediation (using Thoresen’s words). In improvised music the conception of time is also affected by the performance’s processual character. There is a difference between having the impression of going somewhere familiar and somewhere unknown or unpredictable, both from a musician’s and an audience’s point of view. A strategy for this “playing with concepts of time”, involves first and foremost rehearsing together and playing concerts, combined with the evaluation and reflection that usually follow these activities. Sometimes ‘trust’ is a word used to describe the need to focus on what is at play, instead of focusing on the need for something new to happen. And sometimes initiative and development are the right choices. You will never know for sure, and in a performance you will eventually have to rely on your intuition.


There are many challenges in modern and genre-crossing improvisation that have not been touched upon here – and this is a vast area to explore. These challenges and the different ways of experiencing music are both exiting and enriching. For me, mediation is an area for rehearsal and the development of intuition and skills as a musician. With this backdrop, there are some keywords I would like to highlight in relation to my work as an improvising musician:

–       Awareness and balance of sound-focus and emotional impulses.

–      The ability to operate with, and convey, different concepts of time in improvised music.

–      Awareness regarding the mix of conventional musical parameters and the aesthetics of sound-based music – awareness of sound-relations and melodic, rhythmic and harmonic relations, connections and transformations, foreground and background.


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[1] As cited in Cox, Christopher and Warner, Daniel (ed.): Audio Culture-Readings in Modern Music, Continuum, New York/London 2009, 205.

[2] As cited in Zorne (ed.): Arcana II, musicians on music: Maceda, Joseph (ed. Chris Brown)“A concept of time”, 150-159, Hips Road, New York 2007, p. 150.

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