[ref.:EXPMUZ-9200 - 1983]

Improvisation and Jan Broeckx's theses on reason, emotion and music.

A paper presented at the colloquium "Reason, music and emotion",

Ghent State University, R.U.G.

13-15 december 1983.


Godfried-Willem RAES

Musicmaker , musicologist and philosopher.

Concert organiser for the Brussels Philharmonic society.

Director of the International Logos Foundation.

Professor at the Royal Conservatory, Ghent.

First of all, I have to stress the fact that I basically agree with many if not most ideas underlying Broeckx's approach, where he tries to look for a balance between reason and emotion in production and reception of music. I'm also convinced, and I think this is more than merely a result of the fact of having had the privilege to be Broeckx's student during the time of my studies in musicology at the Ghent State University, that both reason and emotion, are essential to a meaningfull "understanding" of music, and so, to the possibility of taking part in a music culture.

But now, in my career sofar I have been exclusively involved in the most modernistic forms of musical activity, and precisely in this field, the relations between reason, emotion and music, seem to be -according to Broeckx- so much more problematic.

As this is not the place to have an exhaustive discussion on very recent music history, I will ask you to take my points of view on recent music evolution as a reference, regardless how little many if not most of you may agree (1).

Western music history, in the too narrow sense of the history of musical artefacts as taken as an object of study in traditional musicology and music- philosophy, came to an end, because the object of its prime concern became less and less a substantial part of new contemporary music creation. Composition of music as an individual human activity based on syntactical thinking in a pseudo-argumentative manner, nowadays can only be found in post-serialism, all kinds of neo-styles, jazz- music and in a whole diversity of popular musics. 'Serious' music composition became more and more academic, irrelevant to music history, because hardly any of its resulting products can be seen as a part of an avant-garde (2).

Composition became deprived from its original function : providing the music-making institutions, players and orchestras, with new music, as the institutions do no longer need new music. Without artificial protection, we can assume that new composed music of the so called serious kind, would only continue to exist on music-paper, unless of course the composer charges himself of the performance.

In creative music-life there is a profound alienation between music practice and composition. Composition is no longer a starting point of a new music-life and it occupies a very modest place in avant-garde music culture these days. Nevertheless the words composer and composition are even in avant-garde still greatly in use. But, they got to mean very different things, and maybe the only meaning the meaningfull share could be the reference to an involvement in linear musical thinking. Linear thinking is at the base of our western music-culture , and it is most of what Broeckx's book is about.

Now, music as linear thought idealises composition as a cult of the pure Idea. By composition, the intrinsically processual character of any musical actualisation becomes reduced to that of a product, a product-in-time, an artefact. This product-character, so proper to goods belonging to the historic Capital of western music culture, of course only exists on a purely conceptual level, since, as said, any actualisation of the pure idea will be a linear process and cannot become anything else than merely such a linear process. Now, the abstract idea born in the brain of an individual mind, and projected as a process on a linear time scale (predictable, reversable, repeatable and accidental), as a nucleus of music-culture, seems to me rather plato nic and music as "syntactical thinking in a pseudo- argumentative manner" may reflect a linear image of the world : a world in progressive evolution, regardless human action, and conducted by a super-human power. Therefore, and because I feel opposed to dualistic ideologies, I think compositon in this particular but general sense has no future.

Within the last 20 years, some completely new forms of music production came into existence, a music production lacking for a great deal linearity in the above sense. Let me call this phenomenon, or at least a very substantial part of it, avant-garde improvisation and let's look at the consequences it has as an antipode of linear thinking in music.Improvisation as a term of course, got to mean a whole variety of things, and so I will first have to define the concept more clearly.

Avant-garde improvisation as a form of music creation in real-time is a new phenomenon: it is not merely a continuation of some aspect of the musical past. The freedom of realisation suggested by the distance between music notations - the signs - and the realisation has nothing to do with improvisation as mend here, as this distance is to be filled up in an ideomatic way. A serialistic realisation of a cadenza in a classical concerto will not be accepted.

I will call this, extemporisation and apply this term to jazz-solo's, basso- continuo, cadenza's, etc..., because the ex-tempore is strongly a part of a well defined musical-ideomatic and stylistic context : the in- tempore. If a realisation of an ex-tempore goes too far beyond the rules of the style, it does not change the style, but the result will be nothing but a bad extemporisation. If we could call this extemporisation highly ideomatic, at the other end we do not believe non- ideomatic improvisation could lead to the creation of values in music. The practice of artistic avant-garde improvisation allows us clearly to assign some kind of style to different musicians and groups. Because of this recognisability we have to asssume something as ideomatic properties in improvisation.

The difference between our extemporisation and avant-garde improvisation is based in the fact that improvisation does not start from any a priori encoded or traditionally fixed style that could be defined in terms of properties of sound-material,but that improvisation rather is based on an interactional and processual approach of musical praxis wherein continuously style-elements are created in function of time and context (3).

Style, idiom and syntax are no longer constants, even not within a single piece, but became parameters of the music themselves. This is why I have been calling this type of improvisation creative music making, although this term also refers to a whole lot of non- artistic musical activities. Creative for me, having to do with conflict, or problemsolving, action and negation (4).

If composition has always been an attempt to escape from the momentary, from the empirical, by shaping time linearly in a visual and graphic form, improvisation reveals the most musical of music: empirical spaceless time. Improvisation as such is ideologically a de-materialisation of music: no cultural goods are created in any preservable way. This is also why it escapes from traditional musicology and so, by the way, why musicology has to broaden its scope if it wants to be a general science of music.

Improvisation is music as a process of pragmatic interaction wherein creative behavior is rendered possible and perceivable. Composition as linear music, in the best case, may be a result of a creative act, but never will it be a reproduction of the creative act. The audience is deprived from the actual invention, and this invention is banned to the realm of dark and irrational forces. This is mystification on which the privileges of artists are too often justified.

Artistic dynamic interactive improvisation reveals through its processual course, tensions similarities and conflicts ( formal, syntactic or expressive) brought into the game by the players and on which creative acts can be performed as a result of which the idiom may change. The properties of the interactions and not so much the properties of the acoustical material (- although this needs enough differenciation in order to reveal the interactions -) are fundamental to an under standing of improvisional musics.

Style-systems here are rather informal and they do hardly apply to the musical totality as a whole, but generally most to one line, voice, or to what one player does within the polyphonic context. Due to these informal-system- trends, the individuality of particular voices gets some degree of pertinence.

System in improvisation is to be looked for, in the form of the permanent presence, absence and negation of structures based on transformations of properties (not neccessarily structures) of individual voices in their mutual interactions.

Improvisation has no general underlying formal system in any traditional sense. No sound material is a priori selected, structured in any kind of general fundamental structures, such as tonalities or series... in this sense improvisation is fundamentally empirical. Here Broeckx is right when he states that much of 2Oth Century music is rather empirical than rational, but particularly in improvisation, empirical experience gets through the improvisational process very often a rational structure-trend, as this process is just a game with and on imaginable syntaxes. I even noticed that formalised thinking generally increases as the time, in terms of years, players spend on the game, extends.

 A sound-figure of whatsever acoustic composition first thought empirically, may very well play a rule as an abstract musical idea in an improvisation; depending on what happens to it during the course of the improvisational polylogue. But of course, and here I fully agree with Broeckx, it will be purely immanent to that particular improvisational event.

In his discussion on sound-figures, Broeckx tends to claim a cultural universality of tone-systems. This is based on a rather western-historical view on musical ideas as discrete 2-dimensional events, in pitch and time. It leads him to reject thinking in intensity, gliding pitches, noises as forms of formalised thinking. This thinking instead would go back on some more primitive, empiric image-thinking. Now, I have some doubts not only with regard to the claimed universality of tone-systems, but more so with regard to the thesis that formalised thinking neccessitates a tone-system.

Why could formal relations between musical-figures not be the objects of formalised thinking ?? Of course, improvisational music most often does not make use of any kind of tone-system and it even rather avoids it, but it may tend to formalise relational thinking. Now I do not assume improvisation can really claim to be as such a clear example of Broeckx's formalised or conceptual thinking, but I think the distinction between formalised and image thinking becomes pretty vague and ambigeous in a context where the change of system is more important than its maintenance and reinforcement.

 If a formal system, a music-theoretical system, is the condition for formalised and syntactical thinking in music, then this seems to me putting knowledge before its object. Epistemologically it seems evident that a formal system is an abstraction derived from music practice , and historically it has been a gradual process of analyses and prescription of rules in music creation. If at a certain point in western music the formal system appears as a priori, this reveals nothing else than the gradual standstill of that part of music culture.

I think it is wrong to see the formal system as an a priori system and also that the system-changing processes caused by stylistical uses of such formal systems reveal more human universality than the tautological application of whatever formal system. Herewith, according to thesis 3.8 in the summary, Broeckx tends to agree to some extend (5).

In this context dodecaphony and the later serialism should be considered as a posteriori formalisations of tendencies in stylistic systems. The application of the derived formal system led only and can only lead to academism and is fundamentally conservative and boring, just as much as solved cross-word puzzles.

Because of this, I believe that in avant-garde music, the improvisational tendencies are the most innovative and interesting, at least they offer the most dynamic phenomenon in music in the last years. Improvisation in this context, can be considered to be about syntax, style and idiom and insofar one could consider it as meta-musical.

To conclude, I would like to make some further remarks and distinctions with regard to the 'confusing' topic of improvisation. Improvisation is not just another genre, in the way a concerto is another genre than a Beattle- song .This is because its name does not describe how it will sound, what il may be evocative for, but only how it will be made and,... how it is to be perceived.

And here I have to mention another point of disagreement with Broeckx's points of view with regard to the rule of reason in production and perception of abstract music. In composed music, the sounding totality is preconceived, for analyses and understanding of development and interaction of sound-figures, it does not really matter which player as a person produces a particular element of the sounding totality. Herefrom I can more or less understand Broeckx's idea about the equivalency of access to music via recordings versus live-produced music in concert situations. But, it is absolutely nonsensical to hold this same attitude towards improvisational music, as the player at the origin of a particular sound-figure is an essential cue to the meaning of an improvisation. It becomes an element of syntactical thinking, as it makes a whole difference, wether player P1 plays S or wether it's P2 that plays S, S being identical. Now this can only visually be perceived, without it having anything to do with contextual elements, or with theatre. A sound-figure S can have a whole different meaning, in the congeneric sense, depending on which player actualises S. Therefore musicology will never grasp even a little bit of the proper meaning of these musics as long as it does not leave its seminars. This, by the way, is not only essential to improvised music, it also applies to a lot of ethnic music and cannot be reduced to something extra-musical . It is really essential to abstract music and reveals that music is a cultural phenomenon appealing to man in all his senses. The reduction of music to a sake of aural perception is therefore a paradigm to be rejected.

Still, we have to distinguish between some different functions musical improvisation can fullfill.

 1. Artistic avant-garde improvisation, or interactional improvisation, is the praxis of music made by a small anarchic group of competent players in a non-decissive game with sounds and the formal and/or expressive relations between a limited collection of sounds and sound-combinations, that are shaped into evocative musical figures. The game, and so the music, sounds as a polyphonic polylogue of players looking for a syntax.

 From the listeners point of view, mental participation is essential. Just like when you watch chess, you can only be interested in the game of you have at all moments playing alternatives in mind yourself.

The improvisational process has to be interesting in such a way that the audience is neither continuously reinforced in its anticipations, neither that its anticipations are rejected all the time. In the first case the improvisation will appear as trivial and very boring, in the latter case it will appear as structure-less, completely non-systematic and by chance in which case the audience will give up participating and loose interest. It may be important here to notice that the best condition for a audience is to be improvisors of a more or less similar competence themselves.

Basically the rules of players and listeners are thought to be interchangeable. Ideally the audience has to see the event and be physically present, for the reason I explained before, and also because otherwise they do not have a full understanding on every moment of the field of external possibilities to select from, in a given situation. It is important to not see only the interaction, the who does what, but also the instrumentation, the what actualises who out of a set of given choice possibilities. Speaking in Broeckx's terms, improvisation reveals generative thinking (image-, conceptual and interpretative thinking) besides actualising thinking, analogic thinking and a very specific kind of syntactic thinking.

Generative thinking goes inherently very fast in improvisation, whereas actualising thinking is direct, as opposed to indirect actualising thinking in musical composition.

As to analogic thinking, there are no specific properties of this mental activity in improvisation as opposed in other kinds of musical activity. Of course, due to the very specific non-linear way improvisation deals with time, neither analogic thinking nor interpretational thinking can be globalising, but are analytical and processual. Of course there are differences due to the fact that the game is played and performed by more than one single mind! But the greatest distinction is to be encountered in the character of syntactic thinking in improvisation, as here syntax is not a given a priori, but treated itself as a parameter on a meta-level. So I disagree with all those who would denye syntactic thinking in improvisation, on the very ad hoc ground that it would be 'aleatoric'. Improvisation is definitly not aleatoric, not by chance, and the pragmatic generates in a dialectic way a syntax, an idiom, eventually a style.


Improvisation in an artistic sense means the artistic interaction with the world of sound, realised in a game of creative generation and actualisation of new sound-figures and relations between sound-figures organised within a pragmatic-syntactic context, a process. If one wants, as I do, it can be considered also as an attempt of a dynamic interactional system, to create a meaningfull musical world.


2. But, besides the artistic context on which I have been focussing here exclusively, improvisation can be a part of, or a factor in other very distinct contexts, such as workshop situations

 And even in the therapeutical situations, where, probably by mistake, as preciselly the kind of interactional improvisation I have in mind, may be very destabilising for not mentally very stable personalities ,as I could experience in practice when asked to lead some sessions - musical improvisation got some popularity, it may serve as a tool for different kinds of non-verbal interaction and expression in function of goals set by the specific kind of therapy.


If I make these distinctions here, than this is because Broeckx tends to mix them all into one and the same bag, together with aleatoric and chance- oriented approaches in avant-garde music and which have really nothing to do with improvisation as I wanted to treat here.

 I hope that the fact of not having said anything with regard to other very relevant and revealing aspects of contemporary music, such as meta- music, multi-media, alternative approaches of composition, chance music, conceptual music, does not lead you to think that I'm rejecting them. Each of these realms would bring with them specific problems with regard to some of Broeckx's theses to be discussed and solved. I choose improvisation, not only because I consider it to be the most positive, constructive and renewing aspect of newest musics, but also because it seemed to me the most troublesome to understand within the context of Broeckx's book. Nevertheless, I think that the mainframe of Broeckx's work is apt to be generalised fruitfully to the full extend of music.

Godfried-Willem RAES.


(1) A series of short articles have been published by the Brussels Philharmonic Society, in their journal "Bulletin", as an accompaniment to an exhaustive series of concerts devoted to the newest musics which I organised at the Brussels Palais des Beaux Arts. Most of these were also translated into french, the original being dutch.

For those reading dutch, I would suggest the following :

RAES, Godfried-Willem : "De dood van de Avant-garde" in "RESTANT",XI(1983), p.229-235.

RAES, Godfried-Willem: "Omtrent repetitieve muziek" in : "het geval van de minimale/repetitieve muziek . Gust DE MEYER, red.

ed. : Centrum voor communicatiewetenschappen- K.U.L, 1983.

 (2) : Avant-garde the way I use the term, is not to be understood as a set of properties, a sort of style if you wish, typical for a set of artistic artefacts. It is rather to be understood as a name for a process of progressive changes in fundamental values of a culture, within some sub- systems of that culture. These last sub-systems, carriers of a relevant set of conflicting values, I would refer to as the avant-garde on a particular moment in history.

 (3) : An interesting discussion of these topics can be found in Derek Bailey's book "Improvisation, its nature and practice in music", (ed. Moorland Publishing Co.ltd., Ashbourne, 198O). The author, a prominent first-generation english improviser himself talks about improvisation in ancient, baroque and folk music as well as about the new english improvising scene. Bailey's book is not a musicological nor an analytical approach, but rather written in the style most writings on jazz take profit off. This lack of analyses, besides many historical mistakes, leads him to call avant- garde improvisation, non-ideomatic, in contrast to what we have been calling extemporisation. Nevertheless the book is sofar I know the only publication in bookform covering the early history of avant-garde and no-jazz improvisation since about 1965-68.

(4) : cfr. RAES, Godfried-Willem : "Kreatief musiceren in een anti-kreatieve maatschappij.", in "Volksopvoeding", 1976, Nr 5/6, P. 289-347.

(5) : As the summary of basic thesisses presented in Broeckx's book may not be reprinted in this publication, I let it follow : "3.8. : intentional deviations from music-theoretical rules may increase the informational substance of the style system, whereby the artistic value of the musical argumentation may be heightened."

A recent (1998) article on Godfried-Willem Raes' teaching methodology in improvisation was written by Carl Bergstroem-Nielsen and can be found on this website.

Published on the Web 3th august 1997.

Last update: 2002-10-28