User:Eastwood/research writing/ThesisProposalFinal

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Project Proposal

I will develop a performance and installation practice that embraces the precarious, and fragile position of improvisation. My motivation is to question whether improvisation can allow greater human agency. To put stress on my ingrained jazz improvisational training, I build custom software instruments and perform with them. I see the building of these instruments as an extension of an improvisational method which acts as a form of resistance against both my inherent training, and have the possibility against wider systems of standardisation. For my final project I will perform a multi instrumental work that embraces the unstable nature of improvisation in software and in music. Additionally, I will expose the existence of free improvisation outside of the musical sphere. Open-source software development, and improvised music both share a strong relationship to collaboration and resistance to standard structures. I will examine this further by establishing a collective of fellow software improvising developers.

Improvisation interests me because of its immediacy, and its possibility for the unexpected. It is an act that we are not openly encouraged to explore, and the fields that perpetuate this practice are often closed and specific. In saying this however, daily events too are imbued with improvisational methods but are largely imposed upon by cultural, social, political and economic systems. We are not openly encouraged to engage in an improvisational practice, as it doesn't align with many ubiquitous systems within society, such as law or capitalism, nor many of our culturally informed modes of being.

The artist Mattin, proposes that the quality of fragility within the improvisational method, and suggests its essentially in an improvisational music making process [1]. To extend this idea, I believe that by integrating improvisation beyond its standard realms, it can allow anyone as an improviser to break a standard cycle. This is already evident in the open-source community through the self-regulated, collaborative effort of individuals. By embracing the fragility of improvisation and collaboration we can engage differently with systems in new and exciting ways, and resist the forces of standardisation and blind progress.

Music has a long history of improvisation, its roots likely formed by it[2]. Yet too, music has a long history of standardsiation. Much like language, tools were developed for its archival and dissemination in the two pronged intention of wider adoption, and control. Cyclically through history we can see the existences of an improvised mainstream in movements like the Baroque, Blues, and Jazz. Improvisation today, has since dwindled into a relatively fringe practice. We are not openly encouraged to perform outside of the frameworks provided to us through law, education, culture, and consumption. David Toop identifies how the word improvisation has since been relegated to a relatively dirty word, such as, a tactic of making do in unfavorable situations, or worse still, and an Improvised Explosive Device[3]. Improvisation allows us to take a system and play with it, affording us new angles into their functions, possibilities, and sometimes exposing their true nature. The improvised practice is no longer considered within the frameworks of our wider society, which is built upon the motivations of knowledge, progress, product, rules, roles and regulation. Improvisation, as it has in the past, can provide us new and interesting perspectives, as well as resistance against large and abstract systematic standardisation.

Not widely understood, the act of improvisation is different to random acts, although chance is graciously embraced, it reinforces the responsibility of the improvisor. When improvising, one is taking risks to explore possibilities fully accepting failure and the responsibilities of the consequences. Unlike a compositional method, perfection is not an option, nor is it an aspiration. The spontaneous exploration of a system, or network of systems, its deconstruction, augmentation or abstinence is at the core of improvisational motivation. It is the same intention of the software hacker. Examining a system, whether that be technical or contextual, the hacker opens up a system, tries to understand it then chooses to augment, destroy, completely re-interpret or abstain. With the reinforcement of a community of hackers and improvisors, these ideas build, errors are ironed out, all thanks to an inherent acceptance of failure and support.

This has spurred my initial experimentation into algorithmic software instruments and various software languages. My sketches have involved hacking MIDI controllers, playing with audio analysis, and deconstructing my traditional musical training. I will explore this world, and establish a group of fellow artists, musicians and interested people to experiment with improvisation focused software instruments. Not only will this assist in developing my personal practice and that of others, I hope to stimulate an active discussion around the agencies a wider adoption of improvisation can provide.


  1. Mattin Free Software Series Neural, 2010, 38, 22-25
  3. Toop, D., Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom: Before 1970 Bloomsbury Publishing USA, 2016


  • CAGE, John & FELDMAN, Morton, (1966 - 1967), John Cage and Morton Feldman In Conversation 4 of 5.
  • DEMOS, TJ., (2016), Decolonizing nature: contemporary art and the politics of ecology, Sternberg Press.
  • ILES, Anthony & MATTIN, (2009), Noise & Capitalism, Gipuzkaoko Foru Aldundia - Arteleku.
  • MANSOUX, Aymeric & DE VALK, Marloes, (2008), Floss+ art, Openmute.
  • MATTIN, 2010, "Free Software Series", Neural, vol 38, 22-25.
  • RAYMOND, Eric, (2001), The Cathedral and the Bazaar, O'Reilly Media, Inc, USA.
  • RUSHTON, Steve, The Roland Kirk Question, Unpublished Notes, Unkown Date
  • STENGERS, Isabelle, (2015), In catastrophic times: Resisting the coming barbarism. Open Humanities Press and meson press.
  • TOOP, David, (2016), Into the Maelstrom: Music, Improvisation and the Dream of Freedom: Before 1970, Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
  • DE VALK, Marloes. 2009, "Tools to fight boredom: FLOSS and GNU/Linux for artists working in the field of generative music and software art", Contemporary Music review, vol 28, no. 1.

Current Progress

Here are examples of experimentations and inspirations for my research and the development of my practice. I have attributed captions to each to explain their context within my final project proposal.

My work with software, and improvised music performance was instigated by our Special Issue 2 project with De Player. Here I developed a pure-data patch that allowed improvisation using euclidean patterns interfaced by touch sensitive pads. The challenges was creating an interface that allows for musical interaction, but in the end it became more of a conflict that had to be navigated with the software. This in itself is a form of enforced improvising that inspired me to examine the relationship between an improvisor and a machine.

This is a collection of initial experiments with software and improvisation. My training on the saxophone is immediately stressed as I feel in immediate competition, or inferiority against the machine. This triggered different approaches to the software in both its creation, and playing with it. My first conflict was - should I alter the software to allow for my personal musical intention, or should I alter my playing. In the following examples you can hear my early attempts at both.

This is a recording of my first attempt at playing along with the same software I wrote for the Special Issue 2. I modified it to work with a small modular synthesiser and a MIDI foot controller. I go in completely unrehearsed (and quite unpracticed after not playing properly for over a year) and try and play along. Here you can really hear both my technical inability, and my ingrained jazz training. It is through this initial experiment that I start to reflect on my position between music, training, software, musician and programmer.

This second example is a mash of one single pattern, and my independent practice to try and learn that pattern. They were done independently from each other, and later mixed. Being out of the moment of having to keep up with the instrument, I was free to take my time, and play with the melody a little. Likewise, as I was not playing my saxophone, while the pattern was playing, I was altering the parameters on the synthesiser to find different tonal qualities.

Listening back to this exersise there is something nice about the irregularity of my tempo and the minimalism of the melody. The timbre of the instruments outside of the programmatic melody generation give it a uneasiness of irregularity that allow for 'acceptable mistakes'.

Working with these same tools, I tried to apply it to a more conventional context. Here I am playing with the algorithmic generator into my modular synthesiser, a performance sampler and my friend Ryan who is on analogue Synthesisers (drum and keyboard). It is in this situation that I am most excited to reflect on the possibilities of the software instruments and interfaces that I am experimenting with. In this instance, I am solely playing with a fellow musician and irrespective we are able to improvise a piece of coherent music.

This experiment for my personal practice is the most interesting, as it starts to allow for the music making away from the development of software. It is a small proof of concept that the instrument that I created gives me musical agency in a different way to what I am normally used to. Still too, I am interfacing with traditional instruments, music and musician, which is another thing to contemplate in the development of this approach.

While playing with my algorithmic instrument, I was finding it difficult to interact with the parameters while playing my saxophone. I employed a midi foot pedal, but wanted another option for extra accessibility to the software. I was frustrated that a proprietary controller that I owned was just sitting in the corner of my room relatively uselessly. So I embarked upon a mission to try and get it to work with my experimentations. Here are some videos of outcomes.

The code for this work can be found here :