My PhD thesis, Improvisation as a catalyst for collaborative musical thinking and composition (2006), is an account of an individual’s creative journey as a musician in the early 21st century – a journey of challenge and discovery using non-idiomatic improvisation. It consists of:

  1. 8 CDs of improvised and collaborative material recorded over a 5-year period, 2000-5
  2. An accompanying thesis explaining the creative process involved in the collaborative improvisations presented on the CDs
  3. A folio of scores and recordings of fully notated works relevant to the collaborative project

You can download the written section of my thesis HERE.

Please get in touch if you are interested in more information. The complete thesis is held at the University of Newcastle Library, NSW, Australia.

Improvisation as a catalyst for collaborative musical thinking and composition

As a performer and teacher, I have always worked on building awareness of what one is doing through active listening. Feedback/feedforward is a process of listening (feedback) to one’s work, deciding what needs to be changed, then implementing a new strategy (feedforward) to achieve that goal.  We may call this a ‘process loop’. This essay is a very big ‘process loop’, a reflection of the way that I have always worked as a professional musician.

In the thesis, I have taken my feedback/feedforward method of working into the area of improvisation. My ‘process loop’ is an account of my interaction with the interface of experiential and conceptual learning through improvisation: this is the subject of the thesis.

This account emphasises the process that I undertook in this journey of discovery. I am proud of the product of my process. However, the most important part for me has been understanding and following my process. Understanding my process enables me to apply my research to my teaching, performing and composing. On reflection, this work has developed in an organic way through a dialogue between myself, and other researchers/artists whose insights I have integrated into my practice.

Key Learnings / Important Insights / Summary

My key learnings from completing my thesis Improvisation as a catalyst for collaborative musical thinking and composition (2006)

My thesis was a big collaborative project with a diverse group of musicians. I challenged myself taking on the role of artistic leadership in many ways…here are some of the insights I achieved. However, there is always more to know. That’s what I love about music 🙂

Understanding my process

When I commence study of a new work on clarinet or saxophone there are definite stages to the learning process (e.g. note crunching, is one of the first stages in this process). Very soon I am considering the question “What is the composer’s intention?” Developing the way that I think about and understand how music works has been one of the great benefits of this work. With my composer’s hat on, I have an insight into understanding the process that a composer has used. Thinking of that idea of a musical argument helps to give me a macro view of what the piece is about – a focal point that gives a constant sense of purpose to my practice as a performer.

I learnt the value of ‘letting go’ in a creative process, allowing the work to speak on its own terms. My role is to listen to what I have done (or the group) and take the next step from there – whether I am composing or playing.

Approaches to leadership

Collaborative work has had the role of re-defining my work as a musician. The task now is to find new challenges within my professional context that can refresh my work; collaborative work is one way to achieve this. My goal is to create situations where there are ‘virtuous circles’, in which all parties benefit from the collaborative process – creative directing with respect. Working with other minds pushes me in directions that I would not have expected and anecdotal evidence suggests that all participants in a project can share this experience.

A musical argument

In my compositional studies with Richard Vella, we always returned to the idea of defining a central argument to a musical work. A good example of a simple argument would be a piece that moves from high to low register. As I struggle to find a language to describe my music, I am realising that this research work is helping me to develop a deeper understanding of the psychology of how music works, and enable me to articulate my own intuitive processes as a musician in a way that is useful for me. Defining a musical argument for a work is about finding a concept to improvise or compose to, and then keeping that concept in mind as you work. It is easy to lose direction when improvising or composing, and the idea of a musical argument keeps the focus of the work as a reference point for the piece.

I have also had the experience of the creative process where I begin with one musical argument, and then the piece turns out to be about something else. My observation here is that a musical work can exist on different levels each with its own individual journey. 

Exploring sound and space with music technology

Throughout history, the role of technology has been to extend our perceptions. Acoustic recording provided us with a radical shift in aural perception; music could now be stored and reproduced exactly at any desired time and place. The implications of this were that the traditional form and values of Western art music such as repetition and recapitulation, question and answer, characteristics that were there for the convenience of human recall pre- recording technology, were now not so vital, there were new possibilities in musical form. Pianist, composer and writer Robin Maconie suggests that:

Recording sowed the idea of a renewed intimacy and subtlety of expression. Repeated hearings of a recording implied a concentration of utterance which no longer needed repeats at crucial intervals, or to unfold in a logical way at the pace of the slowest member of the audience…’sound pictures’ combining music and naturalistic sound effects, inspired now artistic freedoms to imitate the atonal melodic cadence of natural speech, and to combine music and noise as equal elements in a new form of aural art.

In recent times, the growing accessibility of new technologies have further extended our perceptions in the form of cross art form collaborations, and public participation using portable technology such as the mobile phone.

Engaging with this project resulted in my exploration of different approaches to music production and reproduction; my musical perceptions were certainly extended in my project. Each of my collaborations used a different aspect of recording and music technology as a starting point, and this has been one of the benefits of my research that I did not predict.