Emotional Improvisation

In June 2014 I was invited to spend a week at the Institute for Aesthetics of Music at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts in Austria. My time revolved around various open-ended and explorative collaborations with Bennett Hogg, Deniz Peters, Gerriet Krishna Sharma, and Seppo Gruendler. It is intended that audio/visual documentation of these collaborations as well as the personal reflection below will feed into a research project titled ‘Emotional Improvisation: Arts Based Research into Interpersonal, Interactive, and Intermedial Musical Meaning Making’. The principle investigator is Deniz Peters and the Austrian Science Fund is providing financial support. 

Initial thoughts

Thinking about my practice as an improviser and in order to begin querying the role of emotion within it, ‘curiosity’ is the word that seems to most intuitively jump into my mind, perhaps because this is always at the forefront of what I ‘feel’ during an improvisation. However, various discussions during the week (and beyond) suggest that curiosity is not an emotion but a ‘state of mind’ or ‘cognitive process’; clearly I need to further explore what the word emotion might actually mean:

 Our emotions are composed of a subjective component (how we experience the emotion), a physiological component (how our bodies react to the emotion), and an expressive component (how we behave in response to the emotion).[[1]]

In 1972, psychologist Paul Eckman suggested that there are six basic emotions that are universal throughout human cultures: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness. In 1999, he expanded this list to include a number of other basic emotions including embarrassment, excitement, contempt, shame, pride, satisfaction, and amusement.[[2]]

There are a number of other theories and contemporary extensions, but it seems to be accepted that individual subjectivity is at the forefront of how we perceive, embody, and react to emotion. Before proceeding it is also worth noting some of the biological mechanics and background necessity for these basic emotions:

Emotions are very visceral and typically not cognitive in the sense that they arise in and are mediated by the limbic system, which is essentially the most primitive part of the brain and not very “smart”. …. emotions are biologically pre-programmed responses to phenomena such as hungry lions jumping out of forests and trying to eat us; we don’t need these emotions in the same way that we once did … in fact they often just get in the way.[[3]]

It seems to be generally understood that primitive emotions are closely tied to somatic actions/reactions or experiences that are otherwise felt in the body. However, if humans do not always use these basic emotions/instincts ‘in the same way that they once did’[[4]], how do we use them? Regardless of the character of music that is produced during an improvisational encounter, I obviously do not experience the emotion fear in the same way that I might experience it if I were to encounter a hungry lion in the wild; perhaps what I experience is empathy for the emotion, not the emotion itself. Whether empathy or emotion, this is definitely a form of associative behavior that is learned at an early age and the strength is subjective. So, if the process of improvised music making is dealing only with emotional empathy and not emotion per-se, then perhaps there is little experiential difference between emotional empathy and more cognitive/intellectual ‘feelings’ or ‘moods’, which might or might not be considered emotion.([5])

Thinking about the above notion of genuine versus empathetic emotion, as well as the overall context for improvised performance, I find that the presence of an audience can make a huge difference. Whilst I have never experienced a lion encounter, I do recall individual moments in concerts that I have performed which have come close to eliciting what I understand as a genuine experience of each of Eckman’s basic emotions. However, the same cannot be said of the recording or rehearsal process, which is often more open-ended and less restricted in terms of time (one can stop and start again/choose to explore a different trajectory; there is not the same focused ‘something must happen right not’ pressure). Of course, as a committed improviser I hope (and frequently do) encounter surprise and happiness in a variety of music making situations, but fear, disgust, anger, sadness—to what extent have I genuinely experienced these emotions as a direct result of a non-concert/event-based improvisational situation? With the exception of anger, an example of which is discussed later, I am really not sure that the others have fundamentally occurred. Taking the emotion ‘disgust’ as an example: during an improvisation I might think/feel something along the lines of ‘I really don’t like that’, ‘are you serious?’, ‘please stop’, ‘how can I make you change what they are doing?’, I may even groan and physically move in a pained manner. However, the strength of feeling experienced here is still significantly less than the strength of empathetic emotion that I feel at the mere thought of consuming a plate of dog feces i.e. the thought of consuming feces elicits a more palpable physical reaction.


I suspect that I am focusing too much on the question of whether or not an improviser genuinely experiences Eckman’s basic emotions as a direct result of improvisational activity. My tentative and personal answer to this question is: sometimes, but not that frequently.  However, this question is not necessarily what this project is about: the stated aims include to ‘identify and instantiate emotional expression in improvisatory performance’ and to differentiate expressive acts as to ‘the level of collectivity, structural prearrangement, spontaneity, intermediality, and interaction with digital media therein’. The following extracts from a conference paper by Deniz Peters are helpful in focusing my thinking:

We do not always hear emotion in music. But when we do, and when our listening is closely attending to the music, the emotions we experience can either feel like they are actually ours, or they can oddly stand in front of us or surround us, differing from our own, current emotional state, and appearing to be the music’s.

…music is not a sentient being, yet it confronts us with sadness, desolation, euphoria, aggression, and other emotions, moods, attitudes, desires, and further psychological and somatic phenomena – phenomena which we may either observe as being the musics’ or taken on as ours.[[6]]

The idea that emotions ‘stand oddly’ around us makes sense to me, especially in highlighting a perception of something other beyond the individual agencies of the musicians in the room. The idea that music ‘confronts’ one also resonates with me, as during an improvisation I perceive music as something that emerges collectively from a situation rather than something that is authored by individual participants i.e. there is surprise regarding what does emerge. I guess both my perception of something other and the feeling that music can confront us must be informed by emotion, or at least by the same part of the reptilian brain that deals with emotion. However, this discussion increasingly feels like a massive can of worms, and (frankly) I’m not sure that conscious awareness of my own emotions while engaged in improvisational activity is even possible, because for me improvisation is all about flow:

Csíkszentmihályi defines flow as ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one… Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost’.[[7]]

Can I can consciously identify the emotions of myself or others whilst involved in the flow of improvisational activity? Not reliably, I don’t think; perhaps though it is this intangibility that is so interesting and this idea would also seem to support the need to reflect on recorded documents of improvisational practice, not just the memories of participation. Thinking about the included documents of improvisation I guess some useful questions might be:

  • What emotion can one identify in the recordings?
  • Does the above correspond with how it felt while doing it?
  • How does emotion appear to affect the improvisational practice?

Having tried to familiarize myself with an (admittedly limited) understanding of what emotion might actually be, and although I still remain somewhat confused by the subject, my aim in the following section is to address the above questions using whatever language I find most appropriate and without worrying about watertight definitions.

Thoughts on the audio recordings

After three minutes of rather tentative introduction, which sounded interestingly spacious, but like nobody wanted to commit to any sort of coherent trajectory, the piano arrives at a short-lived pulse. I have chosen to begin my personal edit of the material at this point because the previous section was too empty of activity to stand up to repeated listening (as a recording) and also because this seems to be the beginning of a theme that is returned to repeatedly. I now characterize the piano playing during this section as sulkily agitated, but it definitely provides a seemingly tentative but structurally convincing basis for violin and guitar embellishments. If I were to try and further describe what is going on in the recording I would suggest that Deniz seems aware that decisive action needs to be taken in terms of structure and form, and he is willing to take a lead in this but is perhaps not that happy about it. On the one hand I remember feeling a little resistant to this rhythmical trajectory, and did not want to conform to it, at least at first. On the other the piano remains open and sensitive i.e. Deniz appears to respond to and allow a variety of gestural attempts to fracture the pulse, but he also returns frequently to what I perceive as a consciously chosen sound world. At times the music is quite slow to progress and rather disjointed (a little boring to listen, frankly), at other times there is a definite undercurrent of energy, which is created by a mixture of sustained guitar notes and feedback from Bennett’s electronic system. Although I hear some effort and concentrated listening in this recording there is not much apparent excitement or confidence, which I definitely expected to hear. The third quarter is particularly meandering; thinking in terms of empathy and the character of the music rather than memory of the experience, I hear a lot of frustration in this section of the recording. My memory of this is that although there was some struggle, and a number of ‘dead-ends’ were negotiated, I thought there was rather more finesse in terms of the overall collective direction. Possibly in response to the frustration of the third quarter, the final quarter of this improvisation seems darker and more violent than anything that occurred previously. This seems to emerge almost as an autonomous work, for me the aggression is partly carried by the sound of bit-reduction being applied to the guitar via a pressure sensitive foot pedal. This can be a little unintuitive in terms of gestural control because the way I have it configured the loudest output requires the most gentle pressure, whereas full body weight on the pedal bypasses the processing. This seems like a useful tension, especially because Bennett and Deniz suddenly sound much more ominous, which leads to a certain overall momentum and collective cohesion. The ending is rather artificial, in the sense that someone knocked on the door and interrupted the improvisation. Perhaps external intervention was a fitting response to the emotional character of the music, it certainly sounds appropriate to me.

Much more confident and together from the outset than the previous improvisation, I hear a violence in this that is led by Bennett’s gestural violin technique and timbre, though the electronically modified and fractured-sounding electric guitar also contributes. Rhythmical anticipation and use of extreme dynamics is convincing to my way of thinking, I also hear a high level of spontaneity and a strong momentum that might be perceived as lacking in the previous recording. I remember feeling satisfied with this improvisation and the thought ‘this is what I came here to do’ ran through my mind. There appears to be a lot more trust between the performers and a willingness to leave space and take risks in terms of individual technique and creative experimentation (thinking here about Bennett’s bold introduction and later ‘air-swipes’ with the bow, and I was also trying to simultaneously perform the guitar and an electronic circuit). In short, I hear a lot of spontaneity and interaction in this work, and the transition from fairly analogue/electronic/mechanical technologies to more digital forms of processing is convincing, at least to my ear. There are some fairly strong theatrical elements: air swipes; throwing of shoe and resultant loud ‘crack’; the struggle of simultaneously performing guitar with broken string, effects pedals, laptop processing with Wii Remotes etc. Overall I remember feeling genuinely surprised by the direction and overall cohesiveness of the sound world and structural form of this piece, especially considering the independence of each individuals activities.

Here’s a rough transcript of the discussion that immediately followed the improvisation:

  • DP: Becoming much more state like, the music acquired a character (attitude etc)
  • BH: there seemed to be a consistency within the variety
  • JF: haven’t played together for years
  • DP: the other, or the ‘it’ is present in terms of identity…
  • BH: did we agree that was the end…?
  • JF/DP: no
  • JF: I broke a guitar string, so was looking for ‘a way out’
  • BH: I felt that was structurally a really suitable end, based on what the material had been doing, it wasn’t the sort of material that was going to reach a sort of apotheosis and blow itself out, or resolve. It was a question of there was a drop of energy that feels conclusive, rather than we let go of it…
  • JF/DP: [noises of vague agreement]
  • BH : I felt like I could feel myself playing the ending, whereas you (DP) seemed to want to play more…

This developed into a discussion regarding the typical form of many improvisations and the problem of improvisations that never really seem to end. However, listening back to this discussion it is interesting to note that all three of us immediately wanted to talk about rather different things. In fact, although it is not quite at the level of ‘light bulbs’ and ‘fish’, this conversation is fairly surreal-sounding and non-sequential. Although I hear a coherence in the recorded music and I feel that this does have emotional underpinnings, I sense that we were actually in very different mental places, not just in terms of the ending, but in terms of what we were expressing and perceiving in each other (though I struggle for ways to evidence this and am trying to avoid a stream of meaningless adjectives).

The following duo featuring Bennett and myself on a variety of electronics was fuelled by what, for me, was the strongest emotional undercurrent of the project. Although it’s simplifying matters somewhat, in the run up to this recording it’s fair to say that had felt a significant amount of anger towards the sounds that Bennett was making, to explain this a little:  Bennett was using a feedback setup with loudspeakers placed on one side of the room and microphones/a variety of other equipment on the other; the physical distance between speaker(s) and microphone(s) meant that a relatively large sound pressure level was needed before audible feedback could be coaxed from the system. The room we were working in had a very high ceiling and was full of hard surfaces with almost no material that would absorb sound; it was also edged by large curves where the walls join the ceiling. Because of the sonic liveliness and the fact that perceived sound pressure was often dependent upon one’s location in the room (due to the curves acting like massive parabolic reflectors), I found this to be hugely problematic sonic environment. The use of feedback, in this space, especially competing with a Bösendorfer grand piano, I found unpleasant; the feedback often felt simultaneously as if it was a massive piece of physical architecture and like it was right inside my head. Although perhaps not that intense in terms of peak decibel levels, perceived loudness is a complicated beast and I would be interested to see a RMS level reading. Thankfully, without the piano to set a base volume level, in this duo we were able to negotiate relatively quiet and minimal sonic territory. However, the piece, at least from perspective, was steered by anger and suspicion.

The improvisation begins with me performing electronics through a miniature loudspeaker, the overall sound world is situated around  rather than above the ambient noise level of the room (one can hear cars passing and other people moving around the building). BH manipulates feedback via tabletop violin. Overall the first half of this slow/brooding music does sound threatening to me, especially the feedback manipulations. However, there is more momentum in the second half and an air of confidence to the overall proceedings that I find surprising considering the dominant emotions that I was experiencing at the time. In this recording I hear the playing as sensitive and responsive, lacking the loathing that I might have expected to perceive; I actually the timbre of the feedback too. The overall character seems interested and engaged but it is also a music that I suspect might quickly exhaust any perceiver who chooses to actively listen (this assumption is tinged by my experience of making it).

Having achieved something with the previous improvisation that I found artistically worthwhile, I felt more relaxed and able to explore a full-range setup with electric guitar, laptop, and electronics. Listening to the recording this improvisation starts with me performing very loud guitar and rather hostile electronics, this transforms into a much quieter pulse, after which Bennett negotiates feedback-based electronics and the work goes in a different, but still antagonistic direction (sounds like it’s fueled be restrained anger). I am surprised to perceive this anger in the recording, as what I remember about my emotional state at the time of performance is that the anger which I had previously felt had now evaporated and a contentedness had emerged. It is also interesting to note that the occasional pulse caused by my digital live sampling of the guitar lends an almost military march type feel to the music; this is something that I did not perceive as a problem at the time, but I find rather distasteful now.  Overall, this recorded improvisation sounds episodic and fast-paced in its changeability, more so than I remember feeling at the time. However, there is some consistency in mood, character, and timbre, which is compatible with my memory of the performance.

The extended guitar, an emotional decision?

The electric guitar is an instrument through which a variety of traditions may be projected, whilst the tonal harmony most commonly associated with much Western art music is completely compatible, vernacular forms of harmony are more commonplace: pentatonic scales, power chords (root and fifth), modal progressions etc. As a musician whose background is firmly routed in popular/vernacular musics (broadly defined), these are the traditions with which I have a historical and emotional relationship and they are something I can fall back on more or less unconsciously i.e. the relevant fret-board patterns (chord and scale shapes) are ingrained in my fingers to a certain degree, and this can be difficult to get way from. However, when I became obsessed with the studio recording and production process (around fifteen years ago), this was the beginning of a love for electronic music and associated ways of working with sound. The electric guitar for me was always more than a mechanism through which to project notes i.e. my emotional expression was more strongly tied to rhythm/groove and the timbre manipulation and feedback possibilities offered by effects pedals and overdriven amplifiers. This might be considered as a shift away from what Andrew Hugill in his book ‘The Digital Musician’ considers a form of musicianship built around ‘pitch’ to one that focuses on or ‘rhythm’ or  ‘timbre’. However, I guess a more fundamental reference is probably Derek Bailey’s discussion of ‘idiomatic’ and ‘non-idiomatic’ improvisation.

Idiomatic improvisation, much the most widely used, is mainly concerned with the expression of an idiom – such as jazz, flamenco or baroque – and takes its identity and motivation from that idiom. Non-idiomatic improvisation has other concerns and is most usually found in so called ‘free’ improvisation and, whilst it can be highly stylized, is not usually tied to representing an idiomatic identity.[[8]]

Thinking about the emotional expression of many traditional electric guitar players, it is clear that their aim is often to to express the fundamentals of an idiom, but in a personal manner; the faces[[9]] that are pulled whilst many guitarists are soloing may offer some limited evidence for this. In terms of performative expression these faces are very different to the typically more subdued and limited visual expressiveness of many non-idiomatic performances, and I am also thinking here of the digitally/electronically ‘extended’ side of my practice (influenced by live electronic and electroacoustic practices). Obviously there are exceptions (Michel Waisvisz, Atau Tanaka for example), and I realize that my argument is blunt and reductive, but I do not want to get sidetracked from what I am trying to say, which is: I find collective improvisation interesting when vernacular (or other idiomatic) practices are present. Rather like a turntablist improvising freely with a record, I enjoy hearing chunks of idiomatic material and the challenge of re-contextualizing otherwise codified gestures and cultural references is appealing to me.

Non-idiomatic improvisers have apparently other interests than idioms and are not bound to any idiomatic identity. By definition, they do not have, do not need, and do not want any idiomatic identity. They are interested in improvisation in itself, in real-time interaction between freely improvising musicians. Idiomatic elements do appear in free improvisations, not as main elements, however, but rather on a subordinate level, as by-products.[[10]]

Perhaps I do not relate to the idea of non-idiomatic as strongly as I thought I did; yes, I am interested in improvisation and real time interaction, but I am starting to wonder if non-idiomatic is a conscious/rational decision, or something more emotional. When using recognizable vernacular elements during an improvisation I sometimes feel very suddenly as if I have just overstepped an aesthetic boundary and the consequences could be dire. What  mean by this is that there seems to be a personal threshold of acceptability that is on one hand is seductive i.e. I want to get as close to this threshold as possible, but on the other can feel dangerous, as if the trappings of an idiom might suddenly take over and destroy the perceived authenticity of an improvised encounter. Perhaps I still want to be that face-gurning guitarist with a plethora of rock and roll references to draw from and channel through my body, but the aesthetic and ideological workings of that idiom no longer mean anything to me, so I do not actually think that true; so how and why should I want to reference and draw from these vernacular idioms? Beyond the statement ‘I find collective improvisation interesting when vernacular (or other idiomatic) practices are present’, I do not have any answers to these questions, but I think they are important questions for me to personally develop. I also hope that this discussion might be food for thought and help shed some light on the following trio improvisations which feature Seppo Gruendler and myself on extended guitar/electronics, along with Bennett Hogg on violin/electronics/piano. There are also some moments of traditional guitar playing in the recordings with Gerriet Krishna Sharma, which I find especially relevant to this discussion.


There is no conclusion and this is not intended as scholarly or academic writing, just an opportunity to reflect upon some experiences and ideas that inform the continual development of my practice. I think it is clear that the expression or communication of any one specific emotion is not my aim, nor do I aim to change the emotion of a perceiver, or channel the aesthetics of an idiom through my body. However, all three of these ‘non-aims’ clearly have a place in my work on occasions, and perhaps emotion has a stronger bearing than I might previously have realized.

Thanks to Gerriet Krishna Sharma and Seppo Gruendler for collaborating and to Bennett Hogg and Deniz Peters for involving me in this project, it was fun to play!


[1]Kendra Cherry ‘The Purpose of Emotions’ [available here: http://psychology.about.com/od/emotion/tp/purpose-of-emotions.htm]

[2]Kendra Cherry ‘What are Emotions?’ [available here: http://psychology.about.com/od/emotion/f/what-are-emotions.htm]

[3] Taline Andonian (2014) ‘personal communication’ [Taline is a clinical psychologist and electronic musician]. For more discussion around this subject see: http://www.empowermentweekly.com/2010/03/emotions-and-our-reptilian-brain-part-1.html

[4] Ibid


[6]Peters, Deniz (2014) ‘Hearing Emotion in Music: Empathy? Contagion? Subjective Response?’ [available here: https://www.academia.edu/7763910/Hearing_Emotion_in_Music_Empathy_Contagion_Subjective_Response]

[7] John Geirland, ‘Go With The Flow Geirland’, Wired magazine (September 1996) http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.09/czik_pr.html (accessed September 2009).

[8] Bailey, D. (1992) Improvisation – Its Nature and Practice in Music, Da Capo

Press, Inc., p. xi


[10] Stenström, H.  (2009) ‘Free Ensemble Improvisation’, p. 318. Available here: https://gupea.ub.gu.se/bitstream/2077/20293/8/gupea_2077_20293_8.pdf

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