The sound of near chaos

Free improvisation showcases artistic creativity, is studied more and is getting a foothold on the stage

Reproduction of the musical score by Cornelius Cardew In the musical score for the play Treatise, Cornelius Cardew made a few general suggestions for the musicians to generate their own interpretationReproduction of the musical score by Cornelius Cardew

Anyone on a university campus today might have been in the audience of a unique production, one not usually experienced in the traditional theaters of Brazilian cities. It is called free improvisation, a type of experimental music that hit the scene about 50 years ago in the United States and Europe and which has been studied and played by Brazilian groups. A recent indication of interest in this area was the November 2016 publication of a book called Música errante – O jogo da improvisação livre [Music that wanders – the game of free improvisation] (Editora Perspectiva, 2016), which provides an overview of 25 years of research conducted by Rogério Costa, saxophone player and professor in the Department of Music at the University of São Paulo School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP).

Supported by the cutting-edge conceptual theories of musicians and musical theorists like John Cage (1912-1992) in the United States, Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) and Derek Bailey (1930-2005) in England, free improvisation derives from what is known today as idiomatic improvisation – a musical production strategy that gives the musician some creative freedom, emphasizes harmony and melody and builds on styles that are already defined, like jazz and choro – but follows even fewer rules.

Free improvisation challenges the conventional separation between the creator and performer of a musical composition and leaves behind the pre-established scripts and classical rules related to composition and performance like melody and harmony. It also challenges the hierarchy, since any musician in a group can start it off, and it allows for a flexible interpretation of time because the musical composition itself can last as long as the performers decide. Finally, it explores the properties of sound rather than focusing on musical notes with the intensity and duration normally prescribed.

Patrícia Santos/Folhapress A multi-instrumentalist, Hermeto Pascoal is one of free improvisation’s proponents in BrazilPatrícia Santos/Folhapress

“Rehearsals are an exercise in collective creativity, with each musician finding his own space while at the same time seeking to achieve balance with the other musicians,” says Costa. When his USP students ask what to play, his answer is simple: anything. And who starts it off? Another simple answer: “Whoever is ready to begin,” he suggests. “The idea is to create a coherent flow of sound and to seek new answers. Free improvisation is the antidote to repetition.” This strategy, however, results in compositions that are performed only one time, as other musicians cannot recreate them since they emerge and expire at the moment they are performed.

Sax, violin and computer
Costa runs the Orquestra Errante [The Wandering Orchestra], consisting of 13 students, which gave six performances in 2016, including two at the São Paulo Cultural Center. His previous group, Akronon, favored electronic music. Sílvio Ferraz, his former doctoral advisor who also teaches at ECA-USP, piloted an approach using a computer that ran a program called Pure Data. The program captured the sounds from the saxophone or flute played by Costa and the violin played by Edson Ezequiel, another member of the group, and played them back immediately in electronic form while the musicians continued to play.

To demonstrate the potential of computer use in free improvisation, Costa performed a duet with himself in his own home studio near USP. He began by playing the saxophone and a few seconds later started  pumping the pedals connected to a computer running Pure Data and an acoustic device that incorporated special effects and then reproduced excerpts of what he was playing. It sounds like an orchestra, but there is only one musician performing.

Bogaerts, Rob/Anefo  John Cage (1912-1992): innovating musicianBogaerts, Rob/Anefo 

In his book, Costa weaves together his research on this method of creating music: “Free improvisation is possible only in a context that transcends the idiomatic, systematized, controlled, predictable, static, identified and hierarchical frameworks,” he wrote. Sílvio Ferraz commented in the preface: “The mood of free improvisation can be captured in the phrase ‘it’s like life itself,’ in which bodies of sound intersect on equal footing. No one is a ‘backup musician’ or a lead singer – no one is indispensable and everyone is indispensable.” Ferraz believes there is room for opposing ideas; that “someone who stops playing” is as significant as “someone who plays without stopping.”

A good example of a unique work that derives from free improvisation was the performance of Treatise, a three-hour play presented by music professor Manuel Falleiros and his students to an audience of about 150 in a concert hall at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) on the evening of June 9, 2016. The work’s author, Cardew, made general suggestions on the 193-page musical score rather than the customary precise instructions for performing the piece, so that the musicians felt comfortable coming up with their own interpretations.

“We practiced only the possible interaction between the musicians because the outcome of free improvisation is unpredictable, like in a game. The music is created in real time as a result of moment-to-moment decisions,” says Falleiros, supervisor of the Free School of Music at Unicamp. Since he knows that it is not always simple to bypass the rules and delve into this near chaos, he gives his students several exercises to do: “In one of the exercises, I say to them, ‘Let’s play something like fire.’ Some of them musically explore the idea of heat; others explore the crackle of wood. They create some really beautiful music.”

Freedom in learning guitar  
Under Costa’s direction, guitarist André Campos Machado completed his doctorate at USP in 2014 on the use of this strategy in teaching guitar and other string instruments played by strumming. A professor at the Federal University of Uberlândia (UFU) in the state of Minas Gerais, he intends to bring his free improvisation frameworks to the marketplace in 2017 – developed during his doctoral work and published by UFU – for use with students at the state conservatories of music in the Minas Gerais cities of Ituiutaba, Araguari, Uberaba and Uberlândia.

“Free improvisation is an excellent pedagogical tool for beginners at any musical instrument, but it needs to be disseminated further,” says Machado. This approach might lighten the burden of musicians in training. “I began to study guitar when I was 7, and I had to follow the classical methods of learning: how to hold the instrument, play the notes and then the solfeggio, and no one ever said I could be creative and make my own music,” Costa recalls.
Free improvisation, although more frequently performed in places open to experimental music, has already gained some representatives well known to the public at large. Percussionist Naná Vasconcelos from Pernambuco (1944-2016) and performers of multiple instruments like Hermeto Pascoal from Alagoas, Egberto Gismonti from Rio de Janeiro, Sivuca from Bahia (1930-2006) and Paulo Moura from São Paulo (1932-2010) have exercised and continue to exercise complete freedom in their performances, even though they are identified with certain musical styles. The shows that run far afield from traditional notions of music leave the public at once pleased and uncomfortable. Little by little, however, they are finding broader audiences in cities like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte.

This way of producing experimental music is still developing, and it continues to define itself. At a music conference held in 2013 in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte, Falleiros of Unicamp proposed the term hyperimprovisation. “If we call it only free improvisation, students associate it with the protest music of the 1970s and try to recreate that,” he argues. “But this perspective is the opposite of free improvisation, which offers a way to escape the rules, fads and stagnation of set musical styles.” He believes that anyone engaging in free improvisation must find the courage to risk creating new creative frameworks without giving in to the fear of losing the way.

Musical Improvisation and its connections (nº 2011/07678-7); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Rogério Luiz Moraes Costa (ECA-USP); Investment R$23,587.12.

COSTA, R. L. M. Música errante: O jogo da improvisação livre. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2016, 280 p.