The Improvisational Cycle

By Kalani • May 13th, 2011

Improvisation is at the core of what we call “the creative process.” Improvisation is a cyclic process that can be described and defined through any number of different “lenses” or perspectives. It doesn’t matter what the subject or media is, improvisation involves universal steps, such as experimentation, formalization, organization, diversification, etc.. The improviser is in a constant search for “what fits” with his/her personal sense of aesthetics or goal and is constantly aligning with and departing from various “structures” as he/she seemingly creates “something from nothing.” Of course everything has an origin, even “original ideas.”

The improvisation process can be seen as an open system, where structures are being influenced by impulses, intuition, and strategies. In this way, improvisation is related to both systems theory and complexity theories, which assert that the elements that make up a dynamic system also influence and change that system. An open system is one that is influenced by its environment and things that could 'enter' the system that were not previously considered. In the scope of music improvisation in groups, this could take the form of an additional player or the introduction of a new instrument sound.

A group of improvisors work together to create something of value. They influence each other and adapt to changes while asserting themselves through taking on various roles (leader, follower, partner, soloist, accompanist, etc.) at different times. They interact according to not only what is happening within the medium of the improvisation (e.g., music, dance, speaking) but also to what it happening interpersonally, and according to how each individual feels on an internal basis (intrapersonally). These are not static elements, but a collection of similar adaptive agents that are interacting, changing on an individual basis, and as a whole. This type of system has been described as a "Complex Adaptive System" or CAS.

Probably the most common term we have within the realm of instrumental music making to describe this type of system is a ‘drum circle.’ The drum circle or jam session is an improvised (dynamic) community (collective) jam session (complex) where participants (agents) work to create (adapt) music of community value. During the ‘drum circle process,’ players experiment with sounds, timbres, rhythms, dynamics, tones, tempo (all the available elements of music) as they assert themselves within different roles. As mentioned above, roles can include leader, follower, partner, soloist, supporter, accompanist, etc.. Roles determine, to a large degree, which ideas will carry more weight and therefore shape the outcome. As a developmental process, that might look something like this:

Participants experiment, finding sounds and their individual “voices.” This is often followed by entrainment where temporal and dynamic organization is manifested by means of establishing a group pulse and volume level. Soon a rhythmic feel, meter, style, and general “quality” develops and the music is formalized into something identifiable. This development continues as individuals continue to experiment within the structure that has been created, creating variations on the theme, pushing out the boundaries of their newly established ‘field of play’ and influencing each other as they do. Eventually, the cycle repeats as the need for new challenges results in an abandonment of the “old system” for something new. The experimentation process acts to both ‘break down’ the primary structure and to give rise to the next one.

Musically, this could be interpreted in the following way:

During the experimentation period, sounds are being produced on an individual level and the resulting sound is what some might call cacophony (noise). Entrainment results in unity and alignment. As roles begin to form and agreement deepens, the effects of harmony can be heard as different voices emerge in a chorus of instruments, rhythms, and dynamics. As roles are developed through formalization of the structure, variations on the theme are heard as departures from the norm. These departures, either as solos or new themes, eventually lead to extreme changes, which often throw the group back into cacophony as the cycle repeats. Taking into consideration the various roles, participants tend to adapt the following roles as the move through the cycle:

During the experimentation stage everyone is leading (because there is nothing to follow, except one’s internal impulse). Once a pulse or “ground” emerges, the individual leaders turn their attention towards following and unity is achieved. As co-followers, they begin to form interpersonal relationships and roles, becoming partners in the journey. Through variation and development, they take on the specialized roles of ground, soloist, accompanist, etc. Eventually, specialization (what could also be thought of as being co-soloists) leads back into the co-leading state, as individuals assert themselves in their search for a ‘new ground.’

Generally speaking, the improvisational process can be seen as flowing through these organizational stages:

In terms of the development of ideas and functionality as a whole, we might see the cycle through the lens of ‘finding one’s way.’ Similar in a way to the process of team-working that involves moving from brain storming; to choosing a goal; to following a path towards the goal; and reaching a goal. Our cycle might look like this:

Although there are surely more ‘lenses” through which one could view the improvisational process, we can learn a lot about the dynamics of adaptive systems, complexity theories, and why seemingly random and chaotic processes are fundamental to the development of new ideas and the creative process. Whether it’s happening in a drum circle, a therapeutic process, or a business meeting, the improvisation cycle is an example of a complex adaptive system. It's not only worth embracing as a tool, but also studying as a way to deepen our understanding of social interaction.

Improvisation is at the core of approaches to music education, such as Orff Schulwerk; community music making, such as Music for People; and improvisation-based approaches to music therapy, such as Creative Music Therapy (Nordhoff-Robins Music Therapy).

Thank you to Jim Oshinsky for editing assistance. (03-01-13)

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