Tuning in to the role of musical improvisation

19 July 2017

International conference draws together musicians, producers and academics to discuss creative practice

“True improvisation begins, when one forgets what one has learnt”. John Cage

An international array of professional musicians, producers and academics converged at the University of Central Lancashire recently to discuss the importance of improvisation in their creative practice.

The two-day event, appropriately located in Venue 53, the University’s live music and events location, saw the presentation of academic papers and panels discussions  in which professional musicians talked about the many factors which can help or hinder the creative improvisation process.

Among them were British musicians, Graham Massey, Ibrahim Aziz, Sarah Jane, Caro C and two foreign guests, Peter Rehberg from Austria and Henri Gonzalez from Hungary, representing such genres, as blues, jazz, rock, hip hop, noise, EDM and world music.

Commenting on the conference, Graham Massey, founder of seminal and internationally successful electronic group 808State and new UCLan Honorary Fellow, said: "I've always seen improvisation as an aural tradition, it’s not going to fit easily into a text book but it’s great to sit down and discuss it with other practitioners.  Most musicians I know don’t really talk in traditional notation.  They will have a unique slang that will help you reassess your musical habits and add to your emotional vocabulary."

Among the issues most hotly discussed was the place of improvisation in popular music. A number of guests admitted that the consumers of such music expect to hear what they know; hence the role of improvisation on stage is limited. If it happens, it usually takes place when there is no audience, among musicians themselves.

The position of improvising musicians playing in bands was compared with those who perform solo.  Although it was agreed that both types of musicians could improvise, its scope is larger in the former situation.

There was also a question of the relationship between music and genre and, in a wider sense, improvisation and learnt skills and knowledge, given that according to John Cage, true improvisation begins, when one forgets what one has learnt.

The guests listed two types of improvisation: one in which musicians improvise within the confines of a specific genre and one when artists overcome genre boundaries. Electronic musicians drew attention to two types of improvisation: one consisting of playing equipment within the confines of the studio and one involving interaction with other musicians during performance.

The internet was both praised and criticised as a tool of expanding the musician’s ability to improvise and as a place to find and multiply ready-made formulas.

Key organiser of the conference Ewa Mazierska, Professor of Film Studies within the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, said:  “Although participants listed many obstacles for improvisation, ranging from the limitations of equipment, through the hierarchical organisation of rock bands and the conservatism of the audience, the overall conclusion was that improvisation is a privileged way to create music.”

This conclusion was supported by a performance which took place on the first day of the conference where a number of UCLan’s academic staff such as Josh Horsley, Jon Aveyard, Dan Valentine and Les Gillon, highlighted their musical talent as improvisers.

UCLan’s Tony Rigg, co-organiser of the conference, is an accomplished music industry practitioner and musician who helped develop the University’s ground-breaking Master of Arts programme in Music Industry Management & Promotion.  Commenting on the true value of the conference he said: “Bringing together artists, producers and academics is so important in helping us to understand the ever-changing nature of the industry and of course inform future developments in our own music programmes here at the University.”

Pictured: The conference panel discussing improvisation in electronic and experimental music. L-R: Graham Massey, Caro C, Tom Lonsborough, Peter Rehberg, Dan Valentine and Tony Rigg

Graham Massey is one of the UK's most consistently creative artist/ producer/ composers.  His lineage of recordings dates back to the late seventies and Factory Records, tracing through the birth of Rave culture to the present day. Along with his seminal and internationally successful electronic group 808State, Massey’s remixing and production list is a “who’s who” of contemporary music over the past 30 years - with the likes of David Bowie, Quincy Jones, Bjork, Goldfrapp, SMD, Primal Scream, YMO and many others.

Caro C is a Manchester based producer, engineer and facilitator in sound and artist specialising in Experimental music, Avant-apres pop and electronic music.  Her work includes 2 critically acclaimed albums as Caro Snatch, performances across Europe, compositions for film and theatre, et al.  Caroline is also the driving force behind Delia Derbyshire Day.

Tom Lonsborough has been an Ableton Certified trainer since 2008. He specialises in custom setups for live performance using Live as a platform, and has recently completed a video series for Sonicstate on methodologies, preparation and execution of performance with Live. He is course writer and tutor for Manchester MIDI School and also producers, performs and ghost writes under aliases, 2 Billion Beats, Lynch, and Tom David to name but a few.

Peter Rehberg, also known as Pita, is a British-Austrian electronic musician, renowned for his cutting-edge productions, exploring the technological and aesthetic possibilities of electronic instruments. He works as a solo artist and collaborator with artists such as Christian Fennesz and Jim O’Rourke, He is also a head of an independent label Editions Mego (previously Mego). In 1999 Rehberg received Prix Ars Electronica Distinction Award for Digital Musics, alongside Christian Fennesz.

Dan Valentine is an electronic musician and producer whose work as part of Rainer Veil and as a solo artist has seen him release music through Manchester’s Modern Love imprint, performing at festivals, galleries and club spaces internationally. Alongside his collaborative work Dan designs and delivers residencies and events for electronic musicians, focussing on developing effective approaches to composition, collaboration and performance.

Tony Rigg; Creative Industries Consultant, music business owner, music producer, Course Leader MA Music industry management & promotion