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by Charles C. Ford
This article was first printed in British Journal of Music Education 1995, 12, p. 103-112.


Free improvisation has two sources in the avant garde jazz, and experimental classical practices of the 1960s. Sessions at Thames Valley University are managed by the students, and involve intense debate concerning how best to maximise collective musical freedom. Performances are triggered by individually prepared plans, which take the form of intervallic and rhythmic cells, registrally distinct roles, formal markers, dynamic processes, and even evocative poetics. Free collective improvisation in the classroom rewards sensitivity and sustained, intense concentration with a confrontational and convivial, ethical and musical, experience.

Free improvisation has twin sources in the free jazz of the early 1960s (Albert Ayler, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane et. al.), and in the experimental stream of avant garde classical music that is best dated from 1953, the year of John Cage's iconoclastic silent piece 4'33". But whilst all these names are US-American, free improvisation has been far more prevalent in Europe (Dean 1992: xviiif). Both streams, jazz and classical, developed in reaction against increasingly formulaic approaches to new music, be they the intricate 'standard' chord sequences of bebop, or the mathematics of integral serialism. Furthermore, the scores of the latter camp became so densely determined as to prohibit accurate realisation, which inevitably triggered loose, if not actually improvisatory, performance practices. (Dean 1992: 4f; Richards 1992: 57). Stockhausen recognised this irony, and under the influence of the renegade Cage, began to loosen up his scores, allowing players to choose the ordering of discrete events. Indeed his collection of verses, Aus dem Sieben Tagen of 1968, was one of the first unconventionally notated stimuli for free improvisation.

The most well-known free collective improvisation group in this country, and then only amongst a very small coterie of the avant garde, was AMM. The group grew out of the Mike Westbrook jazz band in 1965, and was then joined by the classical composer, Cornelius Cardew, who was to become Professor of Composition at the Royal Academy of Music, shortly after. Lou Gare, the sax player, recalls how the 'classical' strand in the group's style-history came to drown out the jazz side.

After Cornelius joined it became AMM music. Before that it was quite jazzy, Coleman, Ayler stuff, although the rhythm wouldn't be. (cited in Richards 1992: 63)

Whilst AMM managed to drive the jazz out of their playing partly by way of a battery of electronic gadgetry, others found it less easy. Sam Richards recalls conflicts between classical and black US-American influences.

The problem when the white disciples of Coleman and Coltrane entered the European improvisation nexus was that idioms clashed horribly, rendering both powerless in the face of each other. The blues apparently had nothing to do with the European experience. So what happened in the midst of the post-serialist plinks and plonks was that fragments of another experience flashed across the texture, usually louder than everything else, making the experience unsatisfactory musically. (Richards 1992: 61f)

The fact that these musicians were remaining obedient to the styles with which they were familiar must surely suggest that what Richards remembers was not really free improvisation at all, for free improvisation, in theory at least, knows no style.

If free improvisation follows no rule or principle, it would seem to promise no pedagogic function, since it can offer no criteria for assessment. Yet, free, or at least, partially free, improvisation has been practiced in schools since the York Project of 1973-78, in the guise of 'creative music' (see Paynter 1982: 98-103; Dennis 1975; Schafer 1967; Self 1967). 'Creative music' demonstrated to the planners of benchmarks in the National Curriculum for music, that children could compose without either conventional notation or advanced instrumental skills. But whilst I was able to pursue such things as an undergraduate music student at Sussex University in the anarcho-hippy twilight of the mid-seventies, such practices now seem altogether too dreamy for the hard-headed, management-directed teaching practices of higher education today, with their assessment criteria, aims and objectives. I have, however, taught two courses called 'Free Improvisation' to undergraduates at Thames Valley University in recent years. Both were very successful according to the students, who produced assessed work to the highest standards. Moreover, they managed to invigorate a musical culture amongst Humanities students taking music modules. I want to argue that such practices are of great value, not only for the sake of students' musical education, but also for their general ethical development, and, via the fashionable notion of 'transferable skills', for their vocationally relevant outcomes. In order to clarify what I mean by 'free collective improvisation', I want first to consider the nature of both 'free music' and freedom per se.


'Freedom' in our modern world is generally conceived in terms of the individual's freedom to act, to compete, and to choose, which are realised economically in the freedom of the manufacturer to produce without constraint, and the freedom of the consumer to select from a range of equivalent commodities. Such prescriptions are not of much help when considering the freedom of other people, or one's own freedom in relation to the freedom of others. They depend on the assumptions that we are all capable of sustaining and enjoying this sort of unrestrained freedom, and that it will not violate the freedom of others. Whilst the latter assumption is little more than wishful thinking, the former only holds in a purely personal sense. Indeed, the search for unfettered freedom for the individual will lead to unhappiness if it blocks the reciprocal relationships with other people through which we come to know ourselves. Even abstract rules, or limits, are amongst the principal sources of human happiness. Whilst this is especially obvious with young children at play, the same principle underpins humanity's love of the arts and sciences, as well as sports and games. This, I think, is the reason why, when we thematise freedom as the main end of our social systems, we seem quite spontenously to generate a plethora of rules by which to lend that feedom form. Lady Thatcher's crypto-anarchist denial of the responsibilities of the state in the light of the non-existence of society (sic) has resulted in the most intensely ideological centralisation of social policy outside wartime that twentieth-century Britain has ever known.

The notion of a 'free music' that acknowledges no style or limit has been popular amongst teenage pop musicians since the commercial consolidation of the group that writes (most of) its own material with the Beatles in 1963. Since that time rock has spurned any suggestion of a separate songwriter in an 'authentic' assertion of artistic independence. Now you cannot be a pukka rock musician if you perform, or 'cover' other peoples' music. But such determined individualism often actively inhibits the development of young creative musicians who profess to 'do their own thing' and 'let it all hang out'. Ask most 16-year old rock musicians, excited by playing with their first group, who they are like, and they will probably vehemently deny any possibility of such an invidious comparison; their group will be unlike anyone else - completely original and free. But these teenage rock stars manqué, who are hell-bent on denying the style-base of their music, are liable to stagnate once they have exhausted the potential of the few chords that fell under their fingers so simply that they could just as easily forget that they had once learnt them.

The individualism of rock culture blessed itself with the epithet 'progressive' in the mid-seventies, only to be rejected as pompous and conceited by its wayward child, punk rock, soon after. Now that rock's cherished individual freedom had been embraced by an increasingly centralised, and therefore, non-street-credible, leisure industry, nihilism remained the only way to keep youth culture's flag of Oedipal rejection flying. Johnny Rotten went down in the annals of pop mythology when he said of his group, The Sex Pistols, 'We're into chaos, not music', but punk rock's attempt to play directly without rules resulted not in the extreme difficulty of 'chaos' but in the naive reproduction of the elementary sub-rules of pop music dating back to fifties' rock'n'roll - primary chords and bass lines, basic backbeats, and retrogressive, 'unproduced' pop group textures, all overlaid by the continuous 'buzz-saw' grinding noise of heavily distorted small amplifiers. Once again, the search for unfettered musical freedom lead to the repetition of that which the artist has not noticed they have learnt. Whilst the Sex Pistols will appear as a mere nihilist blip in future accounts of twentieth-century music history, the musical revolutionaries of our age have always relished the freedom that is grounded in rules. Webern wrote, with reference to the composition of his second cantata, op.31,

Everything has become stricter, and for just that reason still freer too. That is to say: I move with complete freedom on the basis of an endless canon by inversion. (Webern to Willi Reich, in Moldenhauer 1978: 50)

Stravinsky intended much the same when he wrote,

Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the chains that shackle the spirit. (Stravinsky 1956: 65)

These two comments accord with a wide variety of philosophical traditions. Lao Tzu's founding text of Taoism, sometimes known as the Tao te ching, does not address the issue of freedom directly, but many aphorisms like 'The heavy is the root of the light' (Lao Tzu XXVI, 59), and 'Let your wheels move only along old tracks.' (Lao Tzu IV, 12; LVI, 129) represent similar denials of the efficacy of absolute freedom within the context of a philosophy that is more concerned with peace. The Bible also rarely adresses freedom per se, but the second collect for morning prayer contains a similar notion: 'Oh God, the author of peace and lover of concord, to know you is eternal life, to serve you is perfect freedom' (Alternative Service Book 1980: 59). Karl Marx's early critiques of Hegel rest on the idea that true freedom is grounded in the recognition of necessity (Marx 1843, 1844).

It might now seem from what I have been saying that, by promoting free improvisation, I am advocating an unreal, or even amoral, musical practice for higher education. On the contrary, and this is the significance of the word 'collective' in my title, I am proposing a practice that foregrounds an interactionist ethics. Before I begin this rather difficult transition from a negative to a positive evaluation of 'free music', listen once again to Lou Gare of AMM:

I suppose you're free by being totally committed to something. It's that kind of freedom. It's not the freedom to do anything you like. It's the freedom to do what the music likes. And what the music likes happens to be what you like as well. That way you're totally free. (Q. in Richards 1992: 64f)

It is this notion of 'what the music likes' that answers all my reservations discussed above. Sam Richards, with assistance from two other members of AMM, gives similar accounts of a music happening as if beyond each individual player's will. He is describing how the AMM

... went for a kind of anarchism in which the individual was free to play whatever he was driven to knowing that the others were doing likewise. The permission given to each other to do this is what, paradoxically, produces a 'group mind'. This, at times, seems to function autonomously. Thus the space becomes safe despite its ability to sound abrasive or even violent. Prévost and Rowe have written in a sleeve note:

The players could share a timeless immersion in a world of sound, while simultaneously being free to pursue their individual paths. It was not uncommon for the musician to wonder who or what was producing a particular sound, stop playing, and discover that it was he himself who had been responsible. (Richards 1992: 64)

The idea of a collective musical object directing the players must surely seem strange, mystical even, to those who have not known it. How, after all, can more-or-less coherent musical patterns emerge from chance collisions of individual free wills? This emergent collective music, however, is not a chaos of individual wills, but a product of concentrated listening. The refusal to follow styles in the search for maximum collective freedom does not rule out communication. Pitch, interval, duration and timing (if not rhythm in the customary sense), dynamic and mode of attack, along with texture and structure are still viable paradigms for spontaneous musical dialogue. Each player listens and contributes to the formation of a collective sound, which is in a constant state of becoming music, and this sound-becoming-music, in turn, shows the way for each player to proceed. Like the manner in which cats' eyes constantly reveal themselves in a car's headlights, this is a provisional style, a way that knows no being, but only becoming. The movement from individual to collective and back to individual music is not really cyclic or processual, but I know no other way to express it. At its most successful this virtual movement is not known as movement at all, for it does not unfold in time. When collective freedom finds its voice in musical improvisation, the relationship between individual and collective becomes a static, though modulating unity. Individual freedom may well be lost, but what is promised is the most extraordinary union of minds in music, a union that dissolves and assumes ethics, pleasure and aesthetic experience into itself.

Are these 'more-or-less coherent patterns' worthy of the name 'music'? Perhaps the term 'musical dialogue' is more accurate. Herbie Hancock suggested this analogy during an interview concerning his work with Miles Davis in the late sixties.

... the kind of experimenting that we were doing in music, not full experimentation, but we used to call it 'controlled freedom', just like conversation - same thing. I mean how many times have you talked to somebody and you got ready to make a point, and it kinda went off onto another direction, but maybe you wound up never making that point but the conversation went somewhere else and it was fine. There's nothing wrong with it; maybe you liked where you went. Well, this was the way we were dealing with music. (Arena 1976)

The Miles Davis band at this time were working within certain modal and rhythmic limits, and in accordance with fairly clearly defined roles: audiences stood some chance. But the free collective improvisation that I have in mind knows no such pre-established ground rules, for it is guided only by the way that constantly emerges, generating and regenerating an ephemeral syntax from and for the moment. Whilst this is certainly a musical activity it does not accord with our conception of art as an object intended, at least in part, for another. In this sense, free collective improvisation is unsuitable for audiences, who will find themselves unable to 'tune in' to sounds that only become music through participation. Audiences are likely to feel like eavesdroppers on a conversation in a unknown language. Collective free improvisation sessions are more like rituals than performances. This becomes clearer in certain religious contexts like the guided, free collective improvisation of Gaelic psalm singing on the Hebridean islands. This 'shadowing' of a leading voice is not designed to be listened to as music, so much as to be expressed as a collective act of faith (Bailey 1992). Similarly, the New York improvisation coordinator John Zorn, has talked about his exercise for free collective improvisation - 'Cobra' - in terms of its cathartic function for the players, for whom this almost unendurably chaotic racket is, quite clearly, a source of enormous pleasure. Their circular arrangement maximises eye-contact and effectively excludes an audience (Bailey 1992).


Teaching free collective improvisation at Thames Valley University has, similarly, reminded me more of my experience of drama therapy than of any musical rehearsal or performance. I reduce my role from teacher to coordinator, since the management of improvisations is given over to individual students. The only thing I teach, in the customary sense of the word, is respect for music for its own sake, linking this respect to the paramount importance of listening 'as if your life depends on it'. The more I repeat this phrase, time after time, week after week, the better the results; some things can only be learnt this way.

At the beginning of each session I organise warming-up exercises, three of which I have found particularly useful. Tuning is probably the best way to open up the sensitivity of the group to its own sound - to listen to itself. We have held onto sung and played single notes for over five minutes, listening to the beats that result from slight mis-tunings gradually slow down as the whole group enters absolute unison. I have used Stockhausen's Stimmung to show students how to extend tuning beyond its customary sense, by applying it to the unification of vocal timbre. 'Tuning' can also be understood temporally, as the sharing of a single pulse. Establishing a fast clapped pulse is easy, but slow it up to less than one per second, and the exercise becomes fascinatingly difficult. The third exercise I use is like a musical Chinese whispers game in which students pass a melodic cell around the group, each trying to reproduce the last version precisely. These cells can, of course, be lengthened and complicated as the standard of the group improves.

The groups I coordinate do not perform absolutely free collective improvisations since all performances are triggered by plans prepared by individual students. These are limited to what can be displayed on an overhead projector, which is to say, not more than about two-thirds of a page. Many have suggested one or more germinal cells, comprising various combinations of pitches, intervals, durations and rhythms for collective development: see Appendix 1, Example 1. Some encourage varied textures, underpinned perhaps by registral distinctions: Example 2. Some suggest structures in terms of timed sections, or with prearranged physical or musical gestures to signal change: Example 3. Others prompt processes involving, typically, broad arches of dynamic intensity Examples 4 and 5. Example 5 is also typical of the use of extra-musical imagery to invoke a particular sort of mind-set, as does the title of Example 2. But when concrete images and narrative are the directions, as in Example 5, the result is often less collective music, than the combined noise of sound-effects from a crowd of individuals' off-stage daydreams.

One student begins the improvisation session proper by showing their plan, choosing participants if the whole group is not required, and answering any questions that might arise. When the performance is over, which rarely lasts more than ten minutes, I chair a discussion with the whole group. I always try to give opportunities for the leader to consider to what extent the realisation of their plan accorded with their expectations, and for participants to reflect on their role with the assistance of those who were listening. I return to these discusssions at the end of this essay.

Plans are often insufficient, in the sense that they do not adequately explain their terms, since the planner fails to write all that they had in mind: an object lesson in communication skills! We have had many discussions concerning the propriety of departures from plans, which sometimes can be criticised as breaches of contract, but at other times signify an intense concentration on the condition of the music at that time, rather than on the recollected plan, which by now has served its purpose. This often occurs with over-complicated plans, once again demonstrating the ironies of freedom and necessity. Similarly, cues for change, whilst on the one hand encouraging concentrated listening, can themselves be distracting when they become all that the player is listening for, effectively treading water until they hear or see the sign.

Experienced musicians in these groups have often found more difficulty integrating themselves, since they had internalised habits of performance that proved difficult to shed. If one person is so used to playing in a key, or on a blues scale, that they spontaneously do so without thinking, then they will have to repress their experience in the name of integration with those who cannot or do not wish to play in that way. Free collective improvisation sanctions styles, not because of their rigidity, but because of their exclusivity - the fact that they inevitably alienate: 'Leave your past outside the door; listen as if your life depended on it'. One student with considerable experience of playing in pop groups described adapting to free improvisation as being 'like learning to ride a bike having just had the stabilizers removed'.

Experienced musicians might, furthermore, find their skills rejected along with their style-knowledge. One group engaged in a prolonged discussion over several weeks concerning whether to harness pre-existent musical skills (we listed them in the first session), or to actively ignore them in the interests of originality and spontaneity. They were excited by the results of a plan which asked four players, who had no experience with the guitar, to stop the strings, pluck and strum them, turn a volume control, and manipulate a distortion unit respectively. One particularly enthusiastic student wrote, 'Communication is the most important thing, even if it is at the expense of technique.' But people can enjoy musical freedom at a variety of levels. Although I was considerably more musically skilled than the rest, I took great pleasure in keeping a pulse, since I could at once contribute shifting accents to the musical whole: Example 6. To maximise the group's collective musical freedom is to make full use of its technical resources, and it does not matter if those resources are mixed in quality. However good or bad an improviser is, their contribution comes not so much from being in control of their instrument, as from their determination to make, with maximum precision, the sound that the music requires at any one time, and the more skilled they are, the more precise that contribution will be. The piece for four unskilled guitarists was precisely that; if they had been skilled they could have dealt with, and perhaps would have required, more instructions, less freedom. Skilled musicianship is a great asset for free collective improvisation, but excellent pieces can be played without it, and with no less benefit to the players.

Free improvisation, especially with mixed ability groups, poses a problem for assessment, since it is virtually impossible to establish criteria for performances. Furthermore, any sense of competition within the group will ruin the integrity of the music, especially when the assessor is participating. My solution to these problems iss to keep assessment well away from the practice of improvisation. I ask students to produce three performances. After each, the participants and the rest enter into, often heated debate about the music and the politics of its production. I then give them time to take notes. I tape-record all performances, and keep them in the university library alongside copies of the plans they are based on. These records, together with individual students' own notes on class debates, constitute the study materials for the course. I assess students on the basis of three short essays, each concerning one of their own, and one of another's plans and their realisations. At the end of the course they also write a longer, general essay about the nature of free improvisation and their general experience of their particular group. So I assess not improvisations, but thoughts about improvisations, be they philosophical, political, moral or aesthetic. Despite (or, dare I say, because of) the lack of any customary scholarly work, I have never witnessed anything to compare with the thoughtfulness and sensitivity of these essays.

Free collective improvisation at Thames Valley University has attracted the rebellious (typically anarchists of one sort or the other) and the religious, because both understood the course as an extraordinary alternative to the rest of their studies, since it promised a unique forum for interpersonal confrontation and ethical debate. In this context it has been interesting to see a Christian argue against the use of Christian words in the name of collective freedom, and then to see the whole group respond by deciding (without stooping to vote) to veto the use of any words apart from musical directions. I was also delighted to see two women make the men aware of the dominant sexual role that they were taking up (and one confessed to me that he had never believed in sexual politics before), by always somehow finding the electric instruments in their hands. Would it be chivalry, political correctness, positive discrimination - levelling the field - to offer it to a woman? How might such considerations balance with the desirability of utilising the best resources: 'But I can't help it if girls don't play electric guitars'.

More pragmatically, free collective improvisation can accord with new educational directives from primary schools to universities. It can be used for mixed-ability groups, and requires no library resources, though some minimal percussion is helpful. Furthermore, the outcomes of such a course can be expressed in vocational terms, such as:

1) group management and collective decision-making;

2) sensitivity and imagination;

3) sustained concentration;

4) communication skills and innovative forms of


5) ability to deal with constant change.

All these outcomes, like the transferable skills of music studies 12:12 22-09-2002generally, answer to the expressed educational requirements of the Confederation of British Industry and the Chamber of Commerce (Paynter 1982: 239f).



BAILEY, D. On the Edge: Improvisation in Music, first of four programmes

for Channel 4, February 1992

Alternative Service Book, Hodder and Staughton, 1980

ARENA Channel 4 TV programme on Miles Davis 1986

DEAN, R.T., New Structures in Jazz and Improvised Music since 1960; Open

University Press, 1992

DENNIS, B., Experimental Music in Schools; Oxford University Press, 1975

LAO TZU, Tao Te Ching, tr. D. C. Lau, Penguin Classics, 1963

MARX, K. 'Critique of Hegel's Doctrine of the State' (1843), 'A Contribution

to Hegel's Philosophy of Right. Introduction' (1843-4), collected in Marx Early Writings, tr. R. Livingstone, G. Benton; Penguin, 1975

MOLDENHAUER, H., Anton von Webern: a Chronicle of his Life and Work;

Gollancz 1978

NYMAN, M., Experimental music: Cage and beyond; Studio Vista, 1974

PAYNTER, J. Music in the Secondary School; Cambridge University Press, 1982

RICHARDS, S., Sonic Harvest: towards musical democracy; Amber Lane Press,


SCHAFER, M., Ear Cleaning: Notes for a Experimental Music; Associated Music

Publishers Inc., 1967

SELF, G., New Sounds in Class; Universal Edition, 1967

STRAVINSKY, I., 'On Composition' in Poetics of Music in the form of Six

Lessons, trans. A. Knodel, I. Dahl; Vintage 1956, Harvard 1970


The following six plans for improvisations were written by members of free improvisation groups at Thames Valley University. I have selected representative examples of various approaches.


No specific instruments, although preferably an even number to each part.

No emphasis upon time or speed.

Play as the way you feel.



Someone plays a simple, strongly shaped gesture.

The group develops this gesture, aiming more for identity than difference.

The development becomes gradually polarized between high, fast notes and slow, low ones, each player choosing one or other direction.

The piece ends when the last low note has sounded.


TIME IN SECONDS 10 10 30 20 40 20 10 15

PIANO 1 8 9 17 1 13 2 4 11

PIANO 2 1 3 13 1 6 9 12 2

MARIMBA 6 5 20 2 4 10 3 7

GUITAR 2 7 11 1 12 10 9 3

BASS 4 3 1 2 10 7 6 8

Numbers against instruments refer to how many notes should be played in that duration


Begin playing all together loud and at random, but remember your first gesture.

Move gradually towards quiet identity, and get quieter.

When you are unable to hear your partners, reverse direction until you reach your first gesture: repeat it.

When everyone is repeating their first gesture move gradually into a collective oscillation between two notes (keep it loud): stop.


Imagine that you are caught in a storm during the night, and try and express some of the sounds, i.e. trees crashing, cars screeching, lightning, thunder, the wind, sirens in the distance, the pounding of heartbeats, children crying, background music, cans rolling ...

As the storm dies down things slowly come back to normal.



Three players take the roles of closed hi-hat, bass and snare drums, following dots, vertical lines and #s respectively.

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36

| . . . # . . . | . | . . . # . . .

Now you have a basic rhythm, play around with it, jam with it, improvise with it, but stick to the pulse and don't get lost!

Other percussion instruments may join in the 'rhythm jam', but only after the rhythm becomes lost or the structure will fail.

True, the pulse bass-drum and snamre drum are working within very rigid confines, but that doesn't mean they don't have room for improvisation.