On the topic of space and improvisation

Free Improvisation: Researching the Acoustic Space by Theodor Parker

Free Improvisation: Researching the Acoustic Space is a very relevant contribution to artistic research on the topic of space and improvisation, two subjects that obviously interest me greatly. As an improviser collaboration in performance is part of ones everyday practice. To improvise with other musicians is collaboratively to take responsibility for the performance. The responsibilities can shift and one musician can move forward and take the lead and then let someone else assume the lead. This can be described as a self-organizing process, one which is guided by experience, the nature of which is not discussed enough in my opinion. Some of the contributions to this discussion are referenced in your thesis “Free Improvisation: Researching the Acoustic Space” such as David Borgo’s book Sync or Swarm Borgo, 2005.

Very often, in music specifically and in artistic practice in general, we talk about feeling, in this context somewhat similar, but not identical, to intuition. Self-organization in improvisation may be said to work through the agency of feeling. When I play, it is my feeling that guides me through the structures of the real-time musical collaboration as it is unfolding. The feeling however is also negotiated between the participants in performance in a feedback process. We-self organize based on feeling-as-intuition in order to reach feeling-as-property which influences feeling-as-intuition, etc. This notion of feeling may seem to be in stark contrast to research (which it is not as we know from other disciplines) but is in fact a central aspect of artistic research and to any investigation that takes the human experience seriously. The question of whether or not one is able to explore feeling in performance is a question of methodology.

In this work the main co-creator is not a musician but rather a space, and I believe that some of the issues you experienced during this process is related to the relationship between the you, as a feeling and ethical human being, on one hand, and the hall as a thing on the other. To think of the space in which one performs as a co-player, or even an instrument in its own right, gives this line of thought a new dimension. In essence, the feedback model described (in Figure 1 & 16 on p. 9 & 42) in the thesis is a schematic way to show the process of a highly complex system that is played out between a musician and their environment. This reasoning borders on embodied cognition, linguistics and psychology and the author makes a delimitation for the study to include only the conscious decisions made in performance. I will return to this with a question.

To approach this study of the musician’s interactions with the space in which you are playing, Le Quanh Ninh’s concept of the Acoustic Context is used which is defined as:

The Acoustic Context is the sonic situation, as well as the properties influencing its experience, of a given site at a specific time. This can include a room’s acoustic properties or any intentional/ non-intentional sounds that occur in the space. (p. 11)

To define the properties of the Acoustic Contexts acoustic measurements are made of the halls analyzing their reverberant properties as well as other aspects. This part of the thesis is methodologically strict and documented in Chapter 3. The Room Transfer Function of the two spaces is radically different which is interesting in and of itself; a possibility for showing the different attitudes with which the two halls are addressed. By employing the Kolb Experiential Learning Model as the method, the findings of the experiments of playing in two spaces is presented in Chapter 4. Going through the various phases of the model allows for extracting relevant information that is backed up by the sound examples.

The first idea I pursued regarded how I related to the space. I decided to attempt thinking of the space as if it were an instrument, or an extension of my instrument. (p. 38)

The room as a signal processing unit. To play in a room transforms the sound of ones instrument in a way that is significant to the perception of the sound. Improvising in the Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design (EDM) introduced a stage of signal processing that was out of reach, it is a property of the space. There are important observations on the nature of improvisation and of artistic research in this section (4.1.1), such as the difficulty of engaging in creative activities and analyzing data at the same time (p. 37) leading to a very interesting conclusion that could have bearing also in human-human interactions:

Without a specified relationship between myself and the space, it seemed impossible to take advantage of any of the ways the hall interacted with my sound. (p. 38)

This leads to the conclusion that the space is something objectively different from oneself:

I was simply using the room’s acoustics as a way of exploring my instrument in that particular context (p. 43)

This transformation between the space as a co-player to something that may contribute to ones exploration of the confines of improvisation would be an interesting area for further study. I think such an exploration may reveal aspects of musical relationships in improvisation other than those between musician and space.

In Chapter 5 the following remark is made:

I quickly noticed that the audience was very noisy. Many audience members talked during the first minute, and the shuffling of their feet through the space created additional noise (track 41). This outcome was unanticipated and occurred because of allowing the audience to move freely throughout the space. To my ears, this was a bit shocking, as I had prepared myself to only listen to my own instrument, and not any background sounds emanating from the space (p. 51).

This observation asks questions that point back to the method of analyzing the acoustics of the space. It shows that last minute adjustments made in the moments preceding the performance can have a sustainable and robust impact on the artistic output. In this situation the subtleties of the acoustic analyses of the halls you made are moved to the background. This, of course, is not to say that they are irrelevant, but here the interesting question concerning the relationship between these different strata of knowledge in the context of performance could be explored.

This could perhaps be described as a kind of Hegelian dialectic, slightly skewed and influenced by Slavoj Zizeck:

  1. Thesis: Improvising in a space with a particular set of properties, you present yourself, your musical language.
  2. Antithesis: You engage in an interplay with the room as an instrument and you turn your improvising into something new, different and engage in a feedback process.
  3. Synthesis, or the prestige: the room has become guitar and the guitar has become room.

It could be a useful model but unfortunately it suffers from some of the same issues that I have already commented on, and a multimodal approach where a number of different aspects may be present at the same time is probably necessary. This is what I was referring to above, considering the different strata of knowledge that are continuously present in improvisation is necessary in order to understand what is going on. While one may assert that a given sound has a given set of properties, and that these may be categorized according to Schaeffer’s taxonomy that you make use of (or some other system), there is another layer of sonic properties that are immensely important for our perception. These were stripped off by Schaeffer through the notion of l’écoute reduite. But in the case of an instrumental sound, the ecological properties of this instrument, the fact that it is, say, an electric guitar that makes the sound, sometimes masks other sonic properties: the ‘guitarness’ of the guitar, its cultural and social significance comes to the fore. This is discussed briefly on p. 37:

This meant that I had to make a kind of separation in my perception between the hall and my instrument. […] During real time, it certainly felt as if the space somehow responds to me, or was an influential partner. But the information I perceived during this exchange seemed unmanageable. I simply had no way of reacting to the hall. (p. 37)

But the same thinking may also be applied to the space as instrument. A reverberant hall is indicative of social and political structures that go beyond the physical properties of the sound. As a result these properties may take over and the interplay between improviser and Acoustic Context may suffer. The ‘hallness’ of the space is a too strong a unit for it to blend with the ‘guitarness’ of the guitar.

The thesis was defended on June 15, 2019 at the Estonian Academy of Music, and I was the opponent.

Click the tag/category for related posts