Devices and Strategies for Structured Improvisation
-- article by Larry Ochs for book on composition called Arcana being produced
by Hips Road (Zorn)
Since my first encounters in the late sixties/early seventies with the musics of
Anthony Braxton and The Art Ensemble of Chicago - - and subsequent encounters with
Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman and other so -called " new music" composers -- all
my composed music has been concerned with the integration of composition and improvisation
using non-traditional forms and/or alternative devices, inventing or reforming structures
and systems that combine specific expectations (goals) with intuitive processes.
These composer - performers’ musics made it clear to me that fresh ( if not
wholly "original") forms - or structural devices - would work in compositions including
improvisation. Steve Lacy’s 70’s forms, Braxton’s, Leo Smith’s,
Cecil Taylor’s and Roscoe Mitchell’s structural devices all pointed
many of us in a particular direction. And their musics suggested that one could
create improvisations employing instrumental language developed thru the history
of jazz in combination with instrumental language developed by western musicians
for so-called "new music;" all this to be employed in hybrid music forms not normally
associated with traditional jazz.
The choice of a particular system or set of structures for a piece should be determined
by three things: the goal of the composition, the particular kind of interaction
the composer is looking for in any portion of the composition, and the contour of
the composition. Of course, modifications to one system or another would be dependent
upon the makeup of the group one is composing for.
Since 1977, I have been composing music for Rova, the saxophone quartet. There are
only so many ways to divide up a quartet; the most obvious example is to have one
player solo over a repeated rhythmic or melodic line, usually called a "vamp.".
Although all the composer - performers in Rova have employed that device at one
time or another, we chosen to develop fresh devices and strategies in order to stay
interested; by avoiding the obvious, we stimulate our creativity and challenge ourselves
to go further. On the other hand, it’s important to remember while reading
further in this article about devices I have employed that, in all cases, these
formal devices/structures are employed to "get at" the musical requirements of a
given piece, not as a means to "look hip" or be avant-garde. It is always the primary
goal of any piece to be musically coherent; to tell a story and/or to create
a mood, feeling, environment. The devices used in any piece are employed with the
sole intent of realizing the intentions of that composition. And the choice to use
(structured) improvisation in the realization of these intentions is made in order
to create the possibility of realizing more than the composer imagined possible
when composing the piece (or section of the piece). Or, at the very least, to allow
for the possibility of different - or fresh - realizations of that intention with
One particular setup that I have employed in pieces (for Rova and other groups)
is the "simultaneous solo" usually for a maximum of 3 players. The initial concept
is simple: each player uses written material from the piece to start with and then
expands on this material in soloistic fashion finding ways to make his solo fit
with the other players’ simultaneous solo statements. The best early example
of this was the trio in Paint Another Take of the Shootpop (1981). In "torque"
(1988) and other pieces composed after it, I added the following rule for each of
three players during these "triple solos": start from an initial written motif called
idea A; improvise on idea A until it sets up against the other players’ idea
A. Then Phase in an idea B, which can be any musical motif that fits the mood of
the overall group area currently in existence. Phase out the original idea A. Play
idea B alone with variation until it is clearly set up against the other players’
music. That is: play idea B until the relationship between your idea B and the group
music can be heard by the other players (and the listening audience). Phase in Idea
C; phase out idea B Etcetera. The pace of the phasing is completely up to the individual
player and virtually independendent of the other 2 players involved. But the choice
of new material must be influenced by what the player hears happenning in the group-music.
Conceptually simple, but a successful realization is most likely to be made by experienced
Another obvious divison of a quartet is into 2 pairs. The Double Duo has been used
in many different compositions of mine (and others’) in Rova and elsewhere.
In New Sheets (1978) the written introduction sets up 2 duos: one of higher
range instruments and one of lower range instruments. The low duo (Baritone, tenor
saxes) plays simpler, slower lines, initially with silences between phrases. The
higher duo (soprano, sopranino) is given a written line that is rhythmically insistent.
They play on the phrase, alternate parts of the phrase, and improvise around it
building constantly. The low pair builds and relaxes tension throughout, acting
like the lead singer of a ballad. Eventually the two pairs link up for the final
moments of the piece.
In one section of Escape from Zero Village (1980) an alto sax duo plays
slurred lines in an off-kilter tandem with the idea of slowly moving up the range
of the instrument while creating serious tension by glissing up and down in a small
range of pitches that changes incrementally (getting higher) over the total time
of the section. Meanwhile, tenor and soprano play soloistically over, around, and
under the alto duo. Both tenor and soprano use staccato, declarative lines, with
tenor playing as a sub-soloist to soprano. Which is to say that the tenor, while
remaining independent from soprano pays a little more attention to soprano comments
than if he was a co-soloist. Both tenor and soprano make declarative statements
that punctuate the continuous push-pull of alto duo.
In The Shopper (1986), the main improvisational section begins (following
first series of written heads that include 4 very short solos over vamp lines) with
the soprano soloing over trio’s 4-bar-vamp. After baritone joins soprano for
simultaneous solos over 6 more bars of this vamp, the alto and tenor, who have been
playing the vamp, drop the vamp and hit a brief sound event called a pivot cue.*
At the sound of each pivot cue, the bari and soprano change simultaneously to a
new, improvised pitch/sound pattern, and make the new patterns work together. After
4 to 8 of these in rapid succession, the tenor - who signals all pivot cues - starts
a new (improvised) cue that is actually a repeated rhythmic pattern; the alto joins
the riff repeating it exactly in terms of the rhythm, but pitch selection is open
to the altoist. This riff will sound very different from the composed pivot cues,
and thus this riff cues the baritone to join the soprano in whatever he is doing;
thus the baritone and soprano become a duo.
After the two duos set up against each other, any of the 4 players can, at any time:
(1) visually signal partner to cut off current repeating figure, and then start
a new repetitive figure that partner must join in on. ( Not every riff need be repeated
with literal rhythmic accuracy by the cued partner. The player following lead of
cuer can choose to imitate the leader’s repetitive riff slightly irregularly
or slightly out of time, but the relationship thus set should repeat for the length
of the pattern’s life.) (2) cue one of the players in the other pair
to join him as a new pair with a new riff. When this occurs, the 2 players remaining
from the original pairings may continue existing riffs until one or the other of
them signals to the other to join him in a new repeating riff. At that point we
again have a double duo, but now in new combination. (3) cue the other 3 players
that he will take a solo over the existing repeating patterns. In this case, his
partner must hold the pattern until soloist ends solo (and usually then cues in
a new riff). The other pairing should - more often than not - also freeze on existing
riff/sounds until soloette is over, but this other pair can change if it makes sense
musicially. However, this change is a difficult one to make and tends in our experience
to subvert the solo in an uninteresting way. These solos are brief.
All repetitive riffs do not have to be about exact rhythm. Some will be sound blocks
and /or repeat for a specific duration with microtonal pitch changes; others could
be intervallistic declarations. Anything is possible so long as it hooks up musically
with what the other pair is playing at the time of changing.
Both Planetary (1995) and torque (1988) contain introductory sections
where one duo plays a repeating vamp while the other duo plays a duet (initiated
by written material) over (louder than) the vamp line. This is, at its most basic,
a simple variation on that idea of solo over vamp mentioned early in this article.
In torque, however, the duet consists of two simultaneous solos (a la Dixieland
music). torque has baritone and tenor repeating a "typical" bouncy, rhythmic
unison-line over which the simultaneous solos play traditionally. In Planetary,
I change up on this cliche a bit by having the tenor and a soprano play a dreamy
high line in unison while the duet pairing of baritone and alto trade declarative
riffs (thinking rap) briefly, then gradually begin to overlap and play simultaneously
around, over and under the vamp-line.
In the first structured improvisation inWhen the Nation Was Sound (1993),
a 25-minute piece with many sections and subsections, a more traditional form is
also employed. (At least it can be considered traditional to European-based "new
music" of the 20th century.) Following a brief, introductory theme, all 4 players
improvise using notated lines only. Two duos - duo 1: two altos; duo 2: two tenors
- are instructed to play these notated lines as written, but not necessarily in
unison. (In fact only the alto’s first notated line is definitely played in
unison, and that only briefly. However, many of the lines are played by the pair
at the same time, but out of phase.) Some of these 10 notated lines are in both
duos’ parts. All lines but one are highly energized and played rubato, with
feeling. There is one melancholy melodic motif that , by the time of the recording,
was being played only by the altos. The tenors have a rolling rhythmic figure that
they constantly refer back to while moving consecutively through the other lines,
in their own time. Several of these lines reappear in variation throughout the piece.
The device of written lines - played when the musician chooses but without the addition
of freely chosen material - is perhaps the most common form of structured improvisation
employed by "contemporary classical" composers. It is also a potentially deadly
boring device because (1) musicians have a real problem making the material sound
spontaneous and (2) the lines themselves are the problem: overworked, too complicated,
The device works in Sound.for a couple of reasons. But the most important
one is that the 3 other players in Rova are improvising artists. They know how to
breathe life into the lines and make them their own. And they understand what it
means to hear the other players’ music and to blend their own contribution
in with that music. The orchestral sound is the paramount goal. The art of the improviser
seems like a lesser discipline to some, but that notion is constantly disproven
by classically trained musicians who - when given this chore - end up obstructing
realization of the group music and the composer’s ideas.
The device also works in Sound because all the lines "relate" or "fit over"
the first lines given to each duo to begin the improvisation. Then , the free-jazz
feel of the section allows the players the freedom to flow organically from line
to line, and the overall flow of the group-sound permits sudden changes in material
by any one player from disturbing the overall flow of the section. It’s like
well-kneaded bread: composed of independent materials, it all melds together into
one coherent unit while still allowing for an unusual inclusion to "make sense"
within the context of the whole.
In Triceratops (1993), written for the saxophone octet called Figure
8 (Rova plus Tim Berne, Glenn Spearman, Dave Barrett and Vinny Golia), I
had 8 players to work with instead of the usual 4. The group performed in a semi-circle:
In one 5 to 8 minute section, towards the end of this 25 minute piece, notated motifs
set up a structured improvisation consisting of 3 simultaneous duos. The duos take
place at positions 2,5 and 8 with the three pairings being players 1-2, 4-5, and
7-8. In other words, player 1 will move towards position 2, player 4 to position
5, etc. The players at position 2,5 and 8 are the "leaders" of the duo. It is up
to their respective partners to make sure that they are playing in a complementary
and similar style to the "leader". The three pairings are each given musical
materials that contrast with what has been given to the other pairings. Thus at
the outset of this structured improvisation one hears a trio of duets.
Players 3 and 6 are not involved in the three duos. The other players work in duo
with the given thematic materials until player 3 or 6 walks over to any of the three
"positions," signals out one of the two members of the pairing, and begins playing
new (improvised) material. At that point player 3 or 6 would be the new "leader"
of the duo, so it is incumbent upon the other player to mutate what he has been
doing to work with the new leader’s music. The new "leader’s" job when
entering is to introduce improvised musical material that relates to the overall
orchestral sound being created by the trio of duets at the time of his entry. He
can choose from any of five musical areas suggested by the composer or go for something
he hears the music demanding.
In other words, while players 1-2, 4-5, and 7-8 have been playing, players 3 and
6 have been listening to the overall group-music. When player 3 or 6 hears something
- when he hears an interesting way to influence the existing group-music, he chooses
one of the duos whose sound he wants to alter, walks to the duo position, and interjects
his new musical idea into the group-music as described above.
The player he replaces then becomes one of the 2 listeners to the group-music. And
he continues as a listener until he is inspired to rejoin the group-music with a
new musical idea. (The 2 listeners can also do a limited anount of conducting; they
can indicate to an existing duo to raise or lower their dynamic level, for example.)
In the recorded version, the general thrust of this structured improvisation is
high energy and generally dense, but any musical outcome is possible here. And there
is no requirement as the section unfolds that all three duos must always be in contrast
to each other. It is possible that the group-music would progressively thin out
and quiet down, for example. The leaders of the duos have the option of leading
their duos into territory that complements or is similar to one of the other pre-existing
In The Secret Magritte (1993), a piece written for an extended ensemble
of Rova plus 2 pianists, 2 bassists, and percussionist, there is a double duo of
sorts at the beginning of Section 4. A drone (eventually elaborated on) is kept
up by the two pianists. Over (under and around) the drone a bass-sopranino pairing
and a bass-soprano pairing take turns relating a ‘fierce story’. The
Secret Magritteis a 50 minute work that slowly moves through a landscape
of varying terrain. In this double duo, the only direction given the double duo
is to make up a ‘fierce story’ over the dynamically loud piano drone.
The process for realizing this ‘story’ is as follows: Duo 1 or 2 is
always cued in by the saxophonist in the pairing. If the saxophonist points to the
bassist, then the bassist knows that on the next cue by the saxophonist, the bassist
will continue the story by himself (solo). If the saxophonist points to himself,
then the saxophonist solos on the next cue. If no finger-pointing occurs before
the cue (- which is most often the case-) then the duo members enter virtually simultaneously
with saxophonist as "the leader" and bassist as "the accompanist". In a split second,
the bassist must come up with music that continues the story and works with what
the saxophonist is introducing. (In reality, both players will have to adjust to
each others’ starting points.) A pair continues to play until the other pair
cues itself in, at which point the first pair must stop immediately.
So a continuous story - or series of statements - is made by the 2 pairs. With each
pair-change, the forward motion of the music can be slowed or sped up, made more
or less staccato or legato, loud or soft, spare or intense, etc. etc. But again
(as with all these devices), the main concern is that the group-music happen.
This is not about a competition between the two duos; this is about realizing a
section of a composition using a method for that realization that optimizes the
skills of the improvising artists and inspires them to play the music in ways not
even imagined by the composer.
Comparing the last few sentences of explication for Triceratops with the
last few sentences above leads to the final part of this article. All the discussion
above is about the formal structures within which the improvisation takes place.
Just like chord changes in traditional jazz, these formal structures can be used
for any group and with any composition. Some adaptation to the kind of instruments
employed will have to be made, and some changes in the rules could need to be made
if (for example) (1) the number of players involved were different or (2) certain
players were not mobile due to the instrument they play. But these formal questions
aside, it’s important to recognize that the musical or thematic material that
sets up the structured improvisation is the key to how the group-music will sound
in most cases. In other words, what the player is given as starting material and
what the player is given as finishing material and the limits of expression put
on the improvisation by the composer: these three factors differentiate one piece
from another, not the formal structure of the improvisation itself. Thus, the structures,
just like chord changes in jazz and blues or modes and rhythms in Indian music,
or the sonata form in traditional European music are neutral; they themselves do
not dictate the musical outcome of a given composition.
For example: the double duo set up in The Shopper is a derivative of a
double duo form created by Jon Raskin for his piece, The Pond, composed
one year earlier. In The Pond the individual player could choose pure sound
or melody or rhythm or a combination of these and other musical parameters when
initiating an event. In The Shopper, the written material prior to the
improvisational section sets up an aggressive, forward-moving improvisation, and
my verbal instructions limit the variables that each player can choose from to make
repeated riffs; all the limits made in order to sustain the mood of the piece.
torque and Planetary also show how compositional material affect
an improvisation. I wrote Planetary in 1995 with the sole purpose of creating
a new context for the structured improvisation created originally for torque.
Rova enjoyed playing torque for many years because the structured improvisation
that makes up most of the piece remained wide open to possibility. After a long
while though, we did start spinning our wheels, repeating ourselves in the macro
(group-sound) if not necessarily in the micro (individual solo phasing-process).
It wasn’t the structure for the improvisation that became stale but rather
the written music. So in Planetary, the written music sets up a different
mood out of which to improvise; slight alterations to some of the rules of the improvisation
also freshen up the process and inspire us to play new areas.
Another example of how composer intent rather than structure determines musical
outcome: both my piece The Shopper and Steve Adams’ The Farallons
(1995) are primarily a double-duo structured-improvisation. But where in
The Shopper the duos are aggressive, forward-moving, and focused on rhythmic
repeating-riffs, the double duos in The Farallons consist of held-pitches;
2-pitch chords set one against another, with duos changing on signals from either
partner in any order at any time. Thus The Farallons has a dreamy quality
throughout; the solos over the held pitches are slow or plaintive - what the composer
wants here - rather than the high-energy solos blasted out in The Shopper.
So it is then that the composer working in structured improvisations that are not
formulaic must balance his/her desire for control with his/her desire to provide
a vehicle for the players. If the closed system that is a composition is so loose
that anything that happens is admissable, then one might as well jettison the writing
and play freely. On the other hand, a piece can be judged to be successful by the
degree to which the composition acts as a springboard for musical invention by the
players, directing their energy and creativity to realize the composers intent while
still leaving room for the individual player to expand on the original concept and
make a creative statement.
*Discography of pieces cited in article:
Paint Another Take of the Shootpop on Saxophone DiplomacyCD (
Hat Hut, 1992); originally on As Was (Metalangauage, 1981)
torque on This Time We Are Both (New Albion, 1991) and on Long
on Logic(Sound Aspects, 1990)
New Sheets on Cinema Rovate (Metalanguage,1978)
Escape from Zero Village on Saxophone Diplomacy (Hat Hut CD 1992;
The Shopper on The Aggregate (Sound Aspects, 1988) and Long
on Logic (Sound Aspects, 1990)
When the Nation Was Sound on The Works, Vol. 1 ( Black Saint,
Triceratops on Figure 8: Pipe Dreams (Black Saint, 1994)
The Secret Magritte (Black Saint, 1996)
The Farallons on Ptow!! (Victo, 1996)
The Pond and Planetary not documented as of this writing