An experiment in compositional affectivity

By Steve Tromans

For the first Deep Thought article of the new year, I’ve decided to offer the transcript of a talk I gave earlier this month at Birmingham University. The event was the Royal Musical Association’s research conference, and the subject of my presentation was the composition/improvisation project I was part of in February 2013: the Birmingham-Chicago Improvisers’ Ensemble. The ensemble featured on BBC Radio Three’s Jazz on 3 programme in the summer of last year. The transcript has been adapted for this blog, and is illustrated with certain of the music scores mentioned, plus audio excerpts from the performances in Chicago.

The Birmingham-Chicago Improvisers’ Ensemble:
An Experiment in Compositional Affectivity

In February last year, I was privileged to be part of a project that brought together, for the first time as an ensemble, four improvisers from my home city of Birmingham (UK), and four from Chicago. The project was made possible through financial support from Birmingham City Council’s Sister Cities fund, the Arts Council England’s Artist International Development Fund, and Birmingham Town Hall/Symphony Hall Jazzlines. Over the course of a week, the ensemble performed three concerts at different venues on the avant-garde music scene in Chicago: the Hideout Club, Elastic Arts, and the Hungry Brain. The first two concerts were deliberately arranged for the members of the group to get to know one another’s ways of making music, and were freely improvised. The third and final concert, however, was organised to premiere specially-commissioned compositions, written by myself for the eight musicians concerned. The process of composing the parts for these pieces, the uses made of them by the ensemble, and the implications of these for music research into creative practice in performance, is the subject of this article.

Since the late-1990s, I have worked with the drummer, Miles Levin, and the bassist, Chris Mapp. Both musicians are equally comfortable operating in the fields of jazz and free improvisation, and are active on the music scene in Birmingham in various different bands, including my current piano trio. Alongside Mapp, Levin, and myself, to complete the quartet of Birmingham players in the new ensemble for Chicago, was the drummer, Mark Sanders, who is well known on the improv scene at an international level. From Chicago, I asked the saxophonists, Ken Vandermark and Dave Rempis, the clarinettist, James Falzone, and the cornet player, Josh Berman. These four are exemplary of the musicianship of the avant-garde in Chicago at this time, and each is a band leader in his own right, with a strong presence both in their home town, and further afield.

The Birmingham-Chicago Improvisers’ Ensemble in action at The Hungry Brain, Chicago, on 10 February 2013 (Photo: Dave Zuchowski)

The Birmingham-Chicago Improvisers’ Ensemble in action at The Hungry Brain, Chicago, on 10 February 2013 (Photo: Dave Zuchowski)

In approaching the task of composing new music for the ensemble, I was confronted by the problem of how to incorporate notated parts into the creative processes of improvising musicians, without running the risk of producing negative affect. By this I mean that, since all the musicians involved in the project are expert in their ability to make music without recourse to notated materials – i.e., the ex nihilo signature practice of those skilled in free improvisation – as a composer, I was faced with the unedifying prospect of being somewhat surplus to music-making requirements – and, potentially, a hindrance. However, it was my experience as a performer of improvised music that gave me the solution I was working towards; one that comes from adopting an alternative view on the use and function of notated materials in music made in performance. Instead of considering my job as a composer to be that of one who puts together scores for a group of musicians to realise in performance, I decided to put together something visually interesting on the page that would encourage the engagement of player and notated part rather than require it.

This approach is, quite plainly, a relative of the concept of the graphic score which first appeared in Western Art Music around the mid-20th century, in the output of composers such as John Cage, Earle Brown, Cornelius Cardew, and, in the field of jazz and improvising music, Anthony Braxton. Works such as Brown’s December 1952, Cage’s Fontana Mix from 1958, Cardew’s Treatise of 1964-7, and Braxton’s Composition No. 76 of 1977, are examples of printed scores that offer the performer something more than the conventional staves-plus-notes-plus-directions to decode into musical sounds as accurately as possible.

For instance, the score of Brown’s December 1952, for one or more instruments, consists of a single page displaying 31 horizontal and vertical rectangles of various lengths and thicknesses. The process of translating these marks-on-a-page into music is left at the discretion of the person or persons charged with the performance; the composer has done his work in producing the score, and the performer is invited to interpret the graphic dimensions of that score according to his or her own criteria of music-making.

December 1952 by Earle Brown

December 1952 by Earle Brown

Similarly, Braxton’s Composition No. 76 invites a creative involvement in the making of its music through the musical interpretation of a series of cards, which can be arranged any order, and present performers with what the composer describes as ‘modules’, to be played from any point, and moving in any direction – even “backwards if necessary” (Lock 1988: 331).

Extract from Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 76, as illustrated in Lock (1988: 331)

Extract from Anthony Braxton’s Composition No. 76, as illustrated in Lock (1988: 331)

Graphic scores such as those by Brown and Braxton (and many others besides) offer performers the chance to play a compositional role; having a creative input that is of far more consequence to the nature of being of the piece in question than simply the way it is performed ‘on the night’. Inviting performers to help complete the work of composition is certainly of appeal to anyone struggling with the problem of writing for expert improvising musicians. However, for my own purposes, in the Birmingham-Chicago project, I felt that such methods of score-production still left something lacking with regard to providing the kind of affective engagement with on-stage improvisation I was seeking to encourage through my notated materials.

The concept of the graphic score, despite its sharing of the creative process with performers, still remained, from my perspective writing for the ensemble, too-firmly entrenched in a hierarchical model of composer-score-performer inherited from the 1800s, and problematic in terms of its usefulness to the performance practices of expert free improvisers. For this reason, I am proposing an alternative to what I am calling the ‘performance of’ concept; one that I would argue is more reflective of the actual experience of music-making in expert improvised practice: the ‘performance with…’ a set of notated parts.

Performances of, performances with

In the ‘performance of’ concept, a performance is given of a named work – for instance, Earle Brown’s December 1952, as discussed above. Even though the musical content of a work such as Brown’s is left up to the creativity of the performers concerned, the performance as given is unproblematically considered to be of the work in question – i.e., a pianist giving a recital of Brown’s December 1952. However, from my own experience of live performance, there are a number of different elements that contribute to the making of music in such situations, beyond the simple translation of a score into musical sounds. For instance, alongside the notated parts of a piece (if used), there are:

  • the instruments utilised to make the music, each with their own unique sounding characteristics;
  • a venue for the performance, with its own acoustical properties; an audience in attendance, composed of various persons, each with his or her own musical sensibilities;
  • the historical body of disciplinary practices of the music being made (e.g., improvisation, pianism), brought to bear on the acts and experiences of the performance; and
  • the expert signature practices of the musicians in question.

Each of these elements is involved, to greater or lesser degrees, in the creative process of music-making in performance, and it is misleadingly reductive, and inadequate in research terms, to attend only to the act of realising a composer’s notated scores in constructing our models of creative process in such events.

In light of this over-simplification in music-research circles, my alternative qualifier ‘performance with…’ is intended to be a more adequate indication of what is actually going on in expert improvised performance. The benefit of this alternative, I feel, is that it gives an immediate sense of the constitutional inter-relation of all the elements (human and non-human) that contribute to such events of music-making. In addition, a ‘performance with…’ does not necessarily require adherence to a written score, to be realised on the night, and, ultimately considered the original work of a given composer. So, in terms of providing a solution to the problem of how to compose for the Birmingham-Chicago ensemble, the ‘performance with…’ model of music-making allowed me to consider notated parts as just another element in a complex inter-relational whole. The parts I produced were designed to appeal to the creative practices of the members of the ensemble – appeal, but not dictate. The way in which I related with the notations was different to the way each of the others in the octet did, which, in turn, of course, was different to how any other musicians would potentially relate with the parts. In this manner, the project explored the research question of how we model creative process in improvised performance – and explored it through the medium of music-making.

Detail from Midnight, Starlight (Tromans 2013)

Detail from Midnight, Starlight (Tromans 2013)

Audio excerpt 1: Midnight, Starlight is here

Detail from I You We (Tromans 2013)

Detail from I You We (Tromans 2013)

Audio excerpt 2: I You We is here

Affect and the improviser

To conclude, by way of linking the ‘performance with…’ notion to conceptual understanding in more general terms, I am going to consider the usefulness of the philosophical concept of affect, in modelling the inter-relational process of creative practice in performance. Affect is, by definition, an uncoded emotive state prior to human analytical perception and judgment. Felicity J. Colman (from Manchester Metropolitan University) has recently described affect in terms of its being “that indescribable moment before the registration of the audible, visual, and tactile transformations produced in response to a certain situation, event, or thing” (2010: 11).

At the start of this new century, the philosopher, Brian Massumi, wrote of the Affective that it is primary to the various emotive effects it is, indirectly, responsible for encouraging in human beings – human beings such as, in the case of my focus of interest here, improvising musicians in events of performance with notated parts. So, on Colman’s and Massumi’s definitions, Affect is fundamental – primarily fundamental – to our emotive responses to its intervention in our lives, or in our experiences of an event of music-making – in other words, they are grounded in it. There is another level below the conscious, and that is where the Affective operates, in all fields of experience, including the experience of music-making – from all perspectives, performer and listener alike. Affective primacy, wrote Massumi, “is marked by a gap between content and effect” (2002: 24). On account of this content/effect gap, Massumi argued, “the strength or duration of an image’s effect is not logically connected to the content in any straightforward way” (24).

In other words, how a particular person relates to a particular image is not determinable in straightforward image-to-effect linear terms; a far more complex relationship is being enacted in response to sensorial stimuli. And, regarding the concerns of this article, the same is true in the case of improvising musicians relating to notated parts in the course of making music in a live performance: no direct notation-to-musical articulation relationship can be claimed, as I hope is brought more sharply into focus through the composing, and utilisation, of a series of affectively-charged notated parts designed not to be engaged with in a conventional manner.

Finally, I would speculate that our understanding of the way performers relate with the traditional notations of Western Art Music can benefit by consideration of affectivity, and the dominant hierarchy of composer-score-performer replaced by a model more complexly inter-related and affectively-charged, as befitting the actual experience of music-making in live performance.


Colman, Felicity J. “Affect”, in: Parr, Adrian (Ed.), The Deleuze Dictionary, Revised Edition. Edinburgh University Press. 2010: 11-13.

Lock, Graham. Forces in Motion. London: Quartet Books. 1988.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham: Duke University Press. 2002.

Categories: Deep thought

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