Tactile Paths: on and through notation for improvisers

I am enrolled as PhD student at the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Leiden, Holland, where my advisers are

Academic adviser: Marcel Cobussen
Artistic adviser: Richard Barrett
Promotor: Frans de Ruiter

Below a description of my dissertation project.

Tactile Paths: on and through Notation for Improvisers

Tactile Paths is an artistic research project that aims to expand and articulate the feedback between notation and improvisation in contemporary music. The project will center on my own work as a composer-performer, as well as on music by diverse artists such as Barrett, Braxton, Cardew, Globokar, Goldstein, Hayward, Lockwood, Ostertag, Polwechsel, Smith, and Wolff. Interpretations and realizations of select pieces; comparative analysis of scores and recordings; and interviews with other composers and collaborating performers will show how notation is dynamically coupled to tactile experience, ensemble interaction, and the realtime contingencies of improvisation. This feedback between practice and theory will link and build on discourses in improvisation studies and situated cognition, culminating in a website and concert-lecture series relevant to artists and scholars alike.


Much of my current work as a composer and contrabassist is rooted in the mutual influence of notated and improvised music. I initially came to this interface as a way of bridging gaps between my parallel lives as a composer, interpreter, free improviser, organizer, and educator, but in recent years the fertile gray area between notation and improvisation has become a source of creative inspiration and discursive intrigue in its own right.
That gray area connects my work to a broad spectrum of contemporary music – from the jazz-influenced work of Braxton and Smith and verbally notated scores by Oliveros and Wolff, to Barrett’s radical juxtaposition of conventional notation and free improvisation and Cardew’s flagship graphic score Treatise. Despite its aesthetic and historical heterogeneity, our work raises a number of shared questions:

  • How do performers negotiate the formality and mediacy of notation, and the physical immediacy of highly individual sound worlds?
  • How do improvising ensembles use notation to focus and transform collective performance practices?
  • Where do the “out-of-time” structures encoded in notation and the “in-time” contingencies of improvisation overlap?

For us, notation is not merely a prescriptive or mnemonic document. Scores developed for, by, and with improvising musicians participate in a dynamic musical situation where specific players, instruments, groups, notation, and the moment of performance are mutually constitutive.

One can observe this in diverse examples: the representation and interrogation of Ferran Fages’ guitar technique in my piece Diferencias Familiares sobre las Cuerdas; the (de)construction of habitual group interaction in the ensemble Polwechsel’s diagrammatic scores; or the unpredictable layering of notated grooves and unmetered improvisation in Anthony Braxton’s “pulse tracks” from the early 1980s.

These scores are tactile. Materiality and sensation are embedded in the visual and verbal information of the score itself; in the highly physical sound worlds of performers; and in the metaphor of feeling one’s way forth in the world from moment to moment. They are paths whose creation and use are a parts of a single recursive process: notation maps paths which improvisers wander, and at the same time improvisers create paths figured by notation en route.


The project proposes to explore these tactile paths from a practitioner’s perspective, and to use this firsthand knowledge to develop a more general theory of notation for improvisers. Three overlapping modes of inquiry will be employed:

  • My own performances and realizations of works by Cardew, Goldstein, Hayward, Lockwood, Williams, and Wolff will provide essential insights into performers’ physical relationships to their instruments and collaborative processes throughout composition, rehearsal, and performance. Where possible they will be recorded in audio and video.
  • Comparative analyses of scores and recordings by Barrett, Braxton, Globokar, Ostertag, Polwechsel, Smith, Williams, and Wolff will complement the hands-on research. A focus on multiple recordings of single pieces will situate the visual and semantic content of notation within the often unpredictable realities of performance.
  • Interviews with living composers and their collaborating performers will supplement recordings and analyses. Personal correspondence with Barrett, Goldstein, Lockwood, Ostertag, and Polwechsel regarding specific pieces will help elucidate complex connections between instrumental experimentation, notational practice, and performance histories.

Research in Improvisation Studies will critically focus diverse aspects of the work under study, such as the development of instrumental technique (Goldstein 1988, Sudnow 1978), dynamic performative environments (Borgo Forthcoming, Cobussen 2009), and particular composers’ notational approaches (Lock 2008, Cardew, 2006). These points will be further elaborated through models from the field of Situated Cognition, a current in cognitive science that “locat[es] cognitive activity in context, where context is not a fixed set of surrounding conditions but a wider dynamical process of which the cognition of an individual is only a part”:

  • Theories of Embodiment (Gallagher 2005, Lackoff and Johnson 1999) will focus how tactile aspects of notation figure and originate in the physicality of individual performance practices.
  • Distributed Cognition (Hutchins 1995) will illuminate how scores transcend the printed page and individual interpretation to crystallize and transform ensembles’ collective performance practices.
  • Situated Action (Suchman 2007) will offer insights into notational principles that guide performers’ navigation of unpredictable temporal structures.

Presentation and Documentation

Tactile Paths will culminate in a website and a concert-lecture series. The website will integrate and provide easy access to texts, scores, and audio and video recordings. Content will be organized into two families of modules that can be read in any order. Family A will explore concepts and methods that connect multiple artists:

  • Solos, Bodies, Instruments: Goldstein, Globokar, Lockwood
  • Distributed Notation and the Ensemble: Braxton, Ostertag, Polwechsel, Reidemeister Move
  • Whitewater Musicking: Situated Action in Barrett, Smith, Wolff

Family B will explore pieces and projects by individual artists in greater depth, focusing on my own realizations and performances:

  • Cardew: A Treatise Remix will use diverse recordings of Cardew’s seminal graphic score as source material for a studio realization of selected pages, feeding the composition’s rich performance history back through an original interpretation.
  • Goldstein: Sounding the Full Circle will interleave video recordings and analyses of this ongoing volume of compositions and texts by composer-violinist Malcolm Goldstein.
  • Reidemeister Move: Knotting Performance, Composition, and Research will explore how compositions by Williams and Hayward challenge and extend the unique performance practice of Reidemeister Move, a contrabass and microtonal tuba duo that expands the possibilities of just intonation for our instruments.

The website will be launched in conjunction with a series of three concert-lectures featuring works in Family B. Performances will be accompanied by discussion with collaborating artists. The series is imagined as an informal salon format where music and conversation are intertwined, such as in the Certain Sundays series that I have co-curated in Berlin since 2009.

Selected Bibliography

Scores (including catalogues and anthologies)

  • Barrett, Richard. Codex I-IX. Unpublished manuscripts, 2000-2009.
  • Beins, Burkhard. Adapt/ Oppose. Unpublished manuscript, 2008.
  • Braxton, Anthony. Composition Notes. Oakland: Synthesis Music, 1988.
  • Butcher, John. somethingtobesaid. Unpublished manuscript, 2008.
  • Cardew, Cornelius. Treatise. New York: C.F. Peters, 1970.
  • Dafeldecker, Werner. Field. Mirror. Unpublished manuscript, 2007.
  • Globokar, Vinko. Individuum-Collectivum Vol. 1-3. San Domenico di Fiesole/Firenze (Quaderni di BeQuadro), 1986.
  • Goldstein, Malcolm. Sounding the Full Circle. Sheffield: Goldstein/Frog Peak, 1988.
  • Hayward, Robin. Borromean Rings. Unpublished manuscript, 2011.
  • Lockwood, Annea. Jitterbug. Unpublished manuscript, 2007.
  • Oliveros, Pauline. Deep Listening Pieces. Kingston, NY: Deep Listening Publications, 1990.
  • Ostertag, Bob. Say No More. Unpublished manuscript, 1993.
  • Saunders, James and John Lely, eds. Perspectives on Verbal Notation. London: Continuum, 2012.
  • Smith, Ishmael Wadada Leo. Unity and Diversity. Unpublished manuscript, 2002.
  • Waterman, Alex, Debra Singer and Matthew Lyons. Between thought and sound: graphic notation in contemporary music. New York: The Kitchen, 2007.
  • Wolff, Christian. Prose Collection. London: Tetrad Press, 1973.
  • Zorn, John. Cobra. http://www.4-33.com/scores/cobra/cobra.html (accessed 18 March 2010).

Secondary Literature

  • Bailey, Derek. Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 1992.
  • Barrett, Richard. “Blattwerk: composition/ improvisation/ collaboration.” http://furtlogic.com/blattwerk.html (accessed 13 March 2010), 2002.
  • Beins, Burkhard, Christian Kesten, Gisela Nauck, and Andrea Neumann, ed. Echtzeitmusik Berlin: Selbstbestimmung einer Szene/ Self-defining a Scene. Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2011.
  • Benson, Bruce Ellis. The Improvisation of Musical Dialogue: a phenomenology of music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Borgo, David. “The Ghost in the Music: Improvisers, Technology, and the Extended Mind.” Forthcoming.
  • Braxton, Anthony. Tri-Axium Writings. Oakland: Synthesis Music, 1985.
  • Cardew, Cornelius. Cornelius Cardew: A Reader. Ed. Edwin Prévost, introduction by Michael Parsons. Harlow, Essex: Copula, 2006.
  • Cobussen, Marcel, Henrik Frisk, and Bart Weijland. “The Field of Musical Improvisation.” Konturen, Vol. 2 (2009). http://musicalimprovisation.free.fr/index.php (accessed 10 March 2013).
  • Collins, Nicolas, ed. “Beyond Notation: Communicating Music.” Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 21 (2011).
  • Feisst, Sabine. “Losing Control: Indeterminacy and Improvisation in Music Since 1950.” New Music Box American Music Center Web Magazine, 3/11 (2002). http://newmusicbox.org/page.nmbx?id=35tp00 (accessed 20 March 2010).
  • Ferand, Ernst. Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Western Music, Historical Anthology of Music, Vol. 12, (Willi Apel, Ed.). Cologne: A. Volk Verlag, 1961.
  • Gallagher, Shaun. How the Body Shapes the Mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Globokar, Vinko. Laboratorium. Texte zur Musik 1967-1997. Saarbrücken: Pfau 1998.
  • Hutchins, Edwin. Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995.
  • Iyer, Vijay. “Navigation through Form: Composing for improvisors.” Program notes for Improvise!, a festival organized by American Composers Orchestra http://www.americancomposers.org/improvise/iyer_essay.htm (accessed 10 May 2011), 2004.
  • Karkoschka, Erhard. Das Schriftbild der neuen Musik. Celle: Hermann Moeck. Verlag, 1966.
  • Lakoff, George and Mark Johnson. Philosophy in the Flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought. New York: Basic Books, 1999.
  • Lock, Graham. “What I Call a Sound: Anthony Braxton’s Synaesthetic Ideal and Notations for Improvisers.” Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation 4, (2008). http://journal.lib.uoguelph.ca/index.php/csieci/article/view/462.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Routledge Classics, 2005.
  • Monson, Ingrid. “Hearing, Seeing, and Perceptual Agency.” Critical Inquiry 34, suppl. (Winter 2008): s36-s58.
  • Nettl, Bruno. “Thoughts on Improvisation: A Comparative Approach.” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Jan., 1974): 1-19.
  • Nyman, Michael. Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond (Music in the Twentieth Century).Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • Oliveros, Pauline. Software for People: Collected Writings 1963-80. Baltimore: Printed Editions, 1984.
  • Oteri, Frank J. “Wadada Leo Smith: Decoding Ankhrasmation.” New Music Box American Music Center Web Magazine, 1 May (2012) http://www.newmusicbox.org/articles/wadada-leo-smith-decoding-ankhrasmation/ (accessed 1 February 2013).
  • Rebelo, Pedro. “Notating the Unpredictable.” Contemporary Music Review Vol. 29, No. 1, (February 2010): 17–27.
  • Smith, Leo. Notes (8 pieces); source – a new world music: creative music. Connecticut: Self-published, 1973.
  • Suchman, Lucy. Human–Machine Reconfigurations: Plans and Situated Actions, 2nd Edition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.
  • Sudnow, David. Ways of the Hand: The Organization of Improvised Conduct. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978.
  • Wolff, Christian. Cues: Writings & Conversations. Köln: MusikTexte, 1998.
  • Zorn, John, ed. Arcana: Musicians on Music. New York: Granary Books/Hips Road, 2000.