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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s