How improvisors co-ordinate their playing of consecutive sections in open compositions. 2008


When improvisors are to play pre-defined or agreed-upon elements together, there is a special process going on. In traditionally notated music with a metrum, co-ordination takes place automatically, once a tempo is firmly established. When there is a conductor, players need only to react to a sign.

Such means may be effective, but music is not just a matter of being effective. Transitions which are managed by the musicians theirselves may be more organic and interesting to listen to when they succeed well, and more satisfying for the musicians.

I have named a basic form of this the "picnic principle". Let's imagine a group walking along in outdoor surroundings. The group may stay more or less close together or spread out. As long as participants keep an eye on each other to make sure that no one is lost, they are at liberty to go a bit slower or faster as is interesting – or comfortable - to them.

Some compositions may be complex and polyphonic, without being dividable into sections, but in a number of cases I have worked with music which did have different sections, in which there was to be a perceptible change.

Basically, as in the example to follow, there is a principle of heterophony. This means that players are playing the same part with some individual differences. It is known in ethnic music from playing a melody together and providing individual, different embellishments. Here, difference is not just produced through strictly vertical variance, but also horizontally: the mixing of two different kinds of material contributes to the complexity of this kind of heterophony, and the duration of the period in which such mixing occurs may also have an influence on what is perceived. So, improvisors performing a cross-fading is the working of the picnic principle, and it can be viewed as horizontal heterophony, in addition to the well-known vertical heterophony.


Consider the following composition of mine, "A Carpet is Created" (1997). There are 4 kinds of little figures. The overall graphic picture may suggest that maybe many instruments are playing similar figures at one time. Further, reading along a time axis, that there is a cross-fading process in the overall sound occurring between what could be called "sections", each of which contains renditions of one of the four figures in pure cultivation.

The instruction text reads as follows in its entirety:

Interpret the symbols in music as little figures.

Take care that each kind of figure goes together with the others in a sound pattern (it can be a good idea to practise each for itself).

By a common process, go through the different sound-patterns with gradual shifts.

Let us take a closer look at the sequence of events. To begin with, everyone plays variants of the first figure. I presuppose that they agree reasonably much as to how to do that, so that the figures are clearly different from each other. The recommendation in the instructions to practise each figure for itself is an attempt to secure that this is the case. Now, at some point someone starts to play the next figure. Sooner or later, more musicians follow, and at some later point everyone are now playing figure number 2.

We may scrutinize the transition further:

(1)…………………(2)-------------(3)-----------(4)------------(5)……………… (etc.)

(1) = everybody playing figure 1
(2) = first player starts playing figure 2
(3) = more players join
(4) = most players now playing figure 2
(5) = everybody playing figure 2.

Between (2) and (5) we have the transition. The division proposed here between "one", "more" and "most" players is not the only one possible, but it surely makes a big difference in players' perception of the situation. When we have arrived at (4), there is a maximum chance that everybody is aware of the shift happening and also prepared to actually move on to the next section. In (1), the player starting is at first a minority. The others might not yet be perfectly prepared to shift to a new figure. There is even the danger that the first playing of the new figure is not perceived clearly and is being overheard by the others. It is also thinkable that the statement was inconspicuous and tentative, so that it would not be heard easily. Being the first, or one of the first ones to introduce the new figure, requires more initiative than joining later. At the later stage, it takes an independent attitude not to join immediately but continuing a little with the old figure. So the situation in which the individual player introduces his version of the new figure varies greatly. There is further a risk involved here – in some cases a clear result is not arrived at, and at the end of the piece players disagree as to how long into the piece they came. This is, of course, an indication that they must practise once again and/or pay better attention.

For additional examples of pieces you may study the students' compositions here (please scroll down and choose pdf of HTML version) and Juan Maria Solare's "De lo subjetivo como forma de expresi๓n / On subjectivity as an expression form / Vom Subjektiven als Ausdrucksform" here. One could make lists of benefits and shortcomings of this procedure, compared to, say, simple conduction of the transition:


- there is no interruption of the improvised process, no "OK, starting over again".
- the decisions leading to the beginning of the transition and to their completion are collective ones.
- the musical flow and development may proceed freely through all the sections and accumulate.
- musical concentration is maintained throughout the piece for players.
- players are encouraged to take responsibility for the piece in its entirety.
- the transition may assume many different characters and shapes, according to both artistic needs and players' needs.
- the transition may be shorter or longer.
- the transition is not a trivial phenomenon in itself for players and not for listeners either – it is unforeseen and truly part of the music.
- the transition may be experienced as an extension or consequence of the section played.
- the transition will be new each time the piece is played.


- fast transitions are difficult to make, sudden shifts even more.
- the process may turn out unsuccessfully, with some players getting lost.
- there is a certain maximum of number of sections. In my experience, 3 to 5 as a rule of thumb in cases like the example stated.


The "shortcomings" above point to the existence of limitations of the picnic principle. They can also be said to suggest ways of working to extend the possibilities and push the limits outwards.

One way to do this is, obviously, to practise both the piece in question and other pieces making similar demands. A group of people who know each other will develop more and more sensitivity for this process. Reducing the risk of the first initiative being overheard is possible through agreeing beforehand that it should be reasonably clear, a bit marked and not "stealing" or "clandestine".

What has been described above is a free situation with no special instructions of how to make the transition. Compositional manipulations, however, must be possible to a high degree. They could consist in simply stating "fast" or "slow" at different ones. Keeping in mind the substantial changes of the "psychological climate" from start to end of the transition as we reviewed them above on a time axis, it becomes apparent how players are sensible to the context and how this could have a clear impact. Many more rules are possible, both such ones which basically retain the free situation, ond ones which impose more formalizing rules. Please take a moment to imagine some possibilities yourself…

Thinking further, one can imagine compositional alternatives to the picnic principle, especially if sudden shifts are required. Please see my article "Sharpening the Process. On musical composition - interaction, communication, methods" (2003), which provides more examples and further perspective.

Carl Bergstrøm-Nielsen

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