Free improvisation and Situationism

The wellspring of all culture, or at least all great culture, is the instinct for play  (Huizinga, 1938)

(Inspirational playback music for the reading : John Stevens’ – Bass Is (1975)

Some months ago my personal interest toward musical improvisation led me to Barcelona’s free improvisation scene, brought alive on a weekly basis in places such as Soda Acústic or Sala Fènix . These seemingly free-of-structure, often long sessions have made me thought of the role of spontaneity and play in collective creativity and conviviality.

At first look, free improvisation has no rules-no musical sheets are used, there isn’t a determined style and there doesn’t tend to be a leading musician-it is free of these limitations. However, there is a key element that should be followed by all participants-more than exhibiting individual virtuosity, the essence relies in the listening. All musicians evidently must have good musical hearing, nevertheless, in free group improvisation the listening must go beyond detecting semitones, chords and harmonies. In order to create a collective piece n situ, a free improviser’s listening must resemble to a sensing of what other musicians are performing, as well as of what they are not doing. (Here we could enter in detail on the importance of silence, yet that would most probably lead me to Eastern philosophy so I’ll better leave it for some other day).

The collective character of free improvisation was especially highlighted by John Stevens, originally a jazz drummer who became one of the main figures in the development of free jazz and free group improvisation in Britain. Apart from his active participation in the the free scene, Stevens spent a good time teaching and giving workshops to musicians and non-musicians after he’d become somewhat dissapointed by the professionals’ apathy towards his “collective” values. To him, playing freely together as a group, collectively, was one of the closest examples that human beings can get to nature, in the sense of the demands made by the situation that you’re in (Ref.1). I believe Stevens interprets nature as the unknown, as the opposite of antropomorphic environments; thus free group improvisation gains the significance of unpredictable situations where, in order to survive and proceed, man must know how to contemplate and respect its environment-fellow musicians. In his philosophy, listening to the interaction was the most essential thing musicians could give over to other people (Ref.2).

Another interesting part of fee improvisation is its seemingly strucureless character. As there are no musical scores to follow, one would expect the pieces to lack form. Yet this is another misconception. In free group improvisation form emerges from common desire and collective interaction as there are no predetermined structures, only a collective will of creating a musical situation. “Music is the art of the present and in no music is that more radically the case than in this form of improvisation,”(Ref.3) says Richard Scott in an article on Stevens’ contribution to the establishing of molecular improvisation (a term suggested by Scott).

Taking into account that free improvisation also emerged in the post-World War II context when musicians started seeking for a contrast to the language that had been dominating their field thus far, it is not that surprising that it shares some of its principles with other avant-garde movements. Collective creativity through improvisation and on the spot actions  were also salient amongst the Situationists who proposed implementing play and improvisation in the everyday in order to save man from complete automation. Their main concern already back in the late 50s and 60s was the reducing effect that the introduction of technology into people’s everydy life would have on their independence and creativity. Suggesting a distancing from the evermore mechanized quotidianity, the Situationists advocated for less work and more play, more creativity and less production.

One of their principle avant-gardist suggestions was the dérive-an urban drift through various ambiances, creating situations in the moment as ordinary, linear perception of time was to be forgotten. Wandering around the city without destination, neither going to work nor properly consuming, was a statement against the society and its temporal economy where “time is money”. As Sadler puts it (ref.4), the drift  was to alert people to their imprisonment by routine; but it was also a getaway from the realm of the automated everyday. The emphasis that Situationists put on the moment as a “chunk of time” distanced from its linear counting, is interesting for understanding creativity and improvisation. I would here extend Scott’s notion of improvised music being the art of the present by defining improvisation as the art born out of the beauty of the unpredictability of the moment as the ucontrolled chunk of time.


Huizinga, J. (1938) Homo Ludens. A Study of the Play-Element in Culture

  1. Extracted from Richard Scott’s interview with John Stevens in 1987.
  2. Íbid. 
  3. Scott, R. (2011) “Imaginary Birds: John Stevens and Molecular Improvisation”
  4. Sadler, S. (1999) The Situationist City. London: The MIT Press. P. 94.

That rhythmanalysis thing

Henri Lefebvre’s last book, Éléments de rhythmanalyse, was published posthumously in 1992. It was only in the 1980s that Lefebvre explicitly dealt with the notion of rhythm – first in the third volume of Critique of Everyday Life, published in 1981, and then in two co-written shorter pieces which preceded the book on rhythmanalysis. However, he does mention the necessity of “completing the exposition of the production of space” already back in 1974, at the end of his most famous work, The Production of Space. There he suggests that an analysis of rhythms would contribute to the constructive critique of the production of space.

Lefebvre phrased the aim of the book as “taking the concept of rhythm and turning it into a science, a new field of knowledge with practical consequences” (Lefebvre 2004:VIII). In his vision, it was to be an interdisciplinary science that would simultaneously work with time and space, to get us think of both differently. 

The precedents of rhythmanalysis are Gaston Bachelard and Lucio Alberto Pinheiro dos Santos who had who first coined the term. It was Bachelard’s work that Lefebvre was well familiar with, especially the Dialectic of Duration (1981) provided him with ideas on rhythms in relation to time. There Bachelard suggests that the notion of duration is never as unitary and cohesive as it tends to be suggested, but rather fragmentary and made up of disparate and fragmentary elements. Lefebvre shared this critique of the supposed continuity of duration and follows the same line of thought throughout his book on rhythmanalysis, drawing attention on the domination of linear time counting over cyclical, natural temporalities.

Lefebvre dialectically divides time into linear and cyclical, the first one originating with social practices of human behavior (work and school hours, transportation timetables etc.); the latter having a cosmic origin (phases of the moon and the sun, the nature). Cosmic temporality has historically had a strong influence on human activities especially in agricultural societies where harvesting is in complete correlation with the phases of the moon. However, temporalities provided by the nature have progressively lost their importance owing to the increasing domination of linear time over cyclic time, established at its maximum efficiency during the industrialization.  As Lewis Mumford insisted, it’s the clock, not the steam-engine that we ought to consider as the key machine of the industrial age. (Ref.) The clock not only measures the time spent on work but it also counts our moments of leisure, turning the qualitative aspects of our social life into something quantitative. Indeed, as Lefebvre points out, leisure activities are also produced despite being proclaimed free time. Isn’t this freedom yet another capitalized product?

Going back to the main points of Lefebvre’s theory, it is important to keep in mind the essential role of repetition in the constitution of rhythms. If it weren’t for repetitive actions (such as waking up, going to work, having lunch at 2PM) the everyday would not have this feeling of day-to-day, that is to say, a sense of familiarity provided by an established succession of events. Repetition is also central in music where melody, harmony and rhythm are in correlation to time. However, the perception of each of these elements is facilitated by contrast. Therefore the question of rhythm raises issues of change and repetition, identity and difference, contrast and continuity. There is always something new and unforeseen that introduces itself into the repetitive: difference. Not only does repetition not exclude differences, it also gives birth to them; it produces them” (Lefebvre 2004:6). It is the fête, the out-of-the-ordinary that makes the everyday repetition more noticeable. It is the return from Sunday to Monday that makes us appreciate the off time of the weekend. Rhythmanalysis is thus a study of parallel rhythms and ruptures. Lefebvre actually defines the everyday as ‘polyrhytmia’, which in musical language stands for the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms, that are not readily perceived as deriving from one another, or as simple manifestations of the same meter (listen to a simple aural example here here). Relying more on this musical vocabulary, Lefebvre follows on to describe the conviviality of different rhythms as eurhytmia, while a discomfort caused by the discordance of rhythms takes the definition of arrhytmia.

Now the question is how do we apply this charming line of thought in actual everyday life? Apart from his essay “Seen from the Window” where Lefebvre conducts a minuscular observation of the rhythms of rue Rambaud, his home street in Paris, he leaves no methodological legacy for future rhythmanalysts to follow. For that reason a fairly wide variety of approximations can be found in the academic literature. For me, perhaps the most interesting and exhaustive rhythmanalytical work has been carried out by Fillippa Wunderlich that conducted a year-long study of London’s Fitzroy Square. Among other methods, she converted recordings of the ambiance into sound spectrum diagrams and juxtaposed them with place-rhythm diagrams, turning them into this sexy image you can see below. Is it useful for anything? No idea, but it sure is damn appealing and worth more exploring…


One of the many diagrams F.Wunderlich uses in her study of Fitzroy Square.


Goonerwadena, G., Kipfer,S, Milgrom, R., Schmid, C. (Eds.) (2008) Space, Difference, Everyday Life. Reading Henri Lefebvre. London and New York: Routledge.

Lefebvre, H. (2004) Rhythmanalysis. Space, Time and Everyday Life. London: Continuum.

Mumford, L. (1934) Technics and Civilization. New York: Harcourt.

Action from within

After a three-day intensive course with Alejandro Tomás Rodriguez (from Grotowski workcenter) I am left with the semi-philosophical question of what is action? 

In Latin, actio stands for “a putting in motion; a performing, doing”, however, this etimological origin does not explain the communicative content of the noun that has a strongly motion-related significance. We are to ask “putting what in action?performing what? doing what?” Perhaps we ought to look into what is the singularity of the action, what is it that awards a doing with a significance?

I believe an action is constituted by the need of communicating something, whether an emotion, a knowledge, a doubt… It is the process of putting in motion an impulse that is born from within, it is the activation of an inner drive by providing it with a meaning that may be expressed verbally and non-verbally.

Yet I suspect that an action may as well be a non-action insofar as not doing can also be motivated by a decision of not expressing an inner impulse. Even though a non-action may be less expressive than its anthithesis, it may embody the desire of non-communication, in other words- executing an action only within oneself. As a way of illustration:

The clamor of silence

The sublimity of a void

The comfort of loneliness

The fulfilling sensation of nothingness

The discomfort of not feeling

The omnipresence of numbness

The existence of existentialism