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Improvisation as a dialogical model in the creative thought process

February 1, 2013

Vår (2006)/sold) Acrylic on canvas, 80×80 cm (section)

Presentation at the IASK conference “Teaching and Learning” in Alveiro, Portugal, May 26, 2008

(Slightly revised January 2012)

Abstract — In the educational field, common didactic awareness is made to focus on the what, how and why of teaching and learning. In addition to the more pragmatic subject areas dealing with the acquisition and understanding of masses of knowledge, there are subjects in schools which are concerned with developing aesthetic awareness and reflective ability. However, as in the case in Norwegian public schools, there is a problem of defining and practising the mutual benefits that these two areas of didactic focus may enjoy. My claim is that the two perspectives within these areas interrelate and are essential in gaining insight into the intrinsic value of the process of understanding. To bridge the gap between thought and intuition, one must focus not only on the one and the other, but also on the interaction between the two; on the dynamic field of ‘inter-esse’ – “a being-in-between” . The thought processes involved in improvising art, whether it be music, painting, architecture, acting, or dancing, may be a significant model in understanding how the two areas of focus work together, creating the dynamic action – or will of interest  – that is an essential key in any venue of teaching and learning.

Index Terms —Cognitive vs intuitiv actions, the metaphore of Bakhtin’s carnival, creative awareness, the dynamism of reflection.


Improvisation is the essence of all art, where intuitive and spontaneous action gives the impulse, and imaginative and innovative thought shapes the form. Two levels of awareness working together in a dynamic interplay, driving the continuum of inventiveness through the drama of a composition. Conceptually, the constellation of committing extemporaneously to the moment on the one hand, and engaging in the strategy of development and form on the other, immediately appears contradictory.  Is it possible to sustain both simultaneously? To be, so to speak, in two places at the same time? And how does such awareness serve as a model for didactic deliberation?

1 The musician as improvisor

1.1 A conceptual conundrum

Let’s take a closer look at this conceptual conundrum and try to imagine the process of improvisation as it may evolve in the mind of the performer.  The improvisor finds himself ideally at the core of the contemporaneous action, submerged in a near liminal state, in close contact with his intuitive resources. You would think that a performer in this state of consciousness simply would fall to the ground, totally engrossed in inner dialogue, barely able to express anything comprehensible, not to mention mastering the art of communicating whatever is being produced.

1.2 “Disconnecting the brain”

In an interview, a well known saxophone improviser said that when he went on stage, he tried to disconnect his brain – to rid himself of any rational mode of thinking, so as to submit himself entirely to the subconscious impulses of his artistic intuition (Frode Gjerstad in, 5 Feb. 2003). Yet, his mind is by no means disconnected while performing. In fact, his head is racing with thoughts, remembering the sounds emerging from his instrument, and contriving to establish some sort of expectation of what may emerge the next second. He is perhaps thinking so hard about not thinking that he is thinking more than ever.

1.3 Committing to the moment vs strategic control

A music improviser plays on the spur of the moment, at the point of attention – the “NOW”. He relates more or less to the immediate past, in the field of retention, and to the immediate future, in the field of protection (also, incorrectly here, called portention). As experience grows in the art of improvising, his ability to retain in his mind what he has played increases, and the field of retention expands proportionally. At the same time, his ability to foresee, or prefigure, what he will play, increases, and the field of protention expands proportionally as well. So the improviser will find himself in a creative dilemma as the sequence of musical events unfold, unless he feels connected on equal terms with committing to the moment and the planning of the future, based on his memory of the past. If he finds himself more committed to the moment, his improvisation will most likely lack compositional substance, or structure. If more committed to the structural thinking, his improvisation will just as likely lack the substance of personal credibility and artistic integrity. In both cases, the improvisation will suffer loss of expressive intensity and intentionality.


At worst, the listener will come to a point where he asks himself, “where is he going with his playing?, what is he trying to convey?” At best, the listener will be captivated by other elements of the performance, like virtuosity and the elegant execution of gestures, more related to improvising as an art in itself, detached from any compositional criteria as such, which is OK, but not relevant to the issue at hand.

2The painter and architect as improvisor

2.1  Chaos

Before I get to the core of this issue of improvisation as a model of compositional thought, let us look at a few more examples of the interplay between spontaneous intuition and strategic thinking, but in a different way. There are, of course,  numerous approaches to the making of a painting or an architectural drawing. Let’s look at a painter’s technique first, where the brush or palette knife spontaneously is led by intuitive action, as though by instinct. Shapes and colors are applied to the canvas with no conscious aim. The result may be a seemingly chaotic abstract texture.

2.2   Order

The painting has at this stage becomes the object of reflection and afterthought, maybe for weeks, letting the eyes roam freely throughout the entire picture from all angles and distance perspectives. At some point in time, certain masses of entities stand out which beg to be hightened. The thought process is then converted to painting again, but this time under the guidance of careful deliberation, where the shapes that have surfaced are defined and select tasty details are savoured.

2.3  Knut Rose

To further illustrate the last example, I would like to cite a passage from a book by Cecilie Malm Brundtland, presenting the well known Norwegian painter, Knut Rose (1936 – 2002):

”In the fall of 1969, Rose began painting his pictures with the canvas lying on the floor, instead of placing it on an easel. This opened up for new possibilities, both with regards to composition and manner of applying the paint. Rose could now paint from any direction, while not having to decide what should be top or bottom until the picture was nearly completed. In this way, it fascilitated his approach to working with the chaos texture he was seeking. Through various layers of light and dark colours, water and exposed areas, there emerged figures and shapes that he intuitively felt were familiar. These figurations became the basis for the organised painting that gradually developed. Rose has since then held on to this process of painting, which is related to the methods used by surrealists. While the surrealists used automatic writing in order to achieve contact with the subconscious, Rose used the painting process. Through this process of chance and intuition, Rose seeks to reach hidden human character traits. Only when a dialogue has been established between an inner and an outer world,  is there contact with one’s own self.”

2.4 Renzo Piano and Frank Gehry

For the opening of the new concert halls in Rome in April, 2003, Auditorium – Parco della Musica, a booklet was available presenting the architect, Renzo Piano. On the first pages there was transcribed a conversation the architect had had with, amongst others, the composer Luciano Berio. (He died only a month after the opening.) Based on Berios vivid imagery of music’s dynamic gestures and sonic characteristics, Piano made som quick sketches, one of which was used as a basis for the architectural design. The final sketch, depicted on the front cover of the booklet, looked like this:


© Renzo Piano

Needless to say, the finished concert halls (there are three, arranged around an amphi outdoor stage) are unmistakably born of the sketch. (See photos of Auditorium – Parco della Musica om Google Images)

Frank Gehry works in a similar way, although perhaps letting chance play a more decisive role. Here are his preliminary sketches for the Panama Puente de Via Museo


© Frank O. Gehry

No doubt in my mind that Gehry’s quickly drawn sketches, and subsequent building design, is a clear illustration of how spontaneity and deliberation can work together to create truly remarkable art. (Also worth an image Google…)

2.4  Time and space

All examples, the performing music improvisor, the architect, and the painter’s work process, illustrate a relationship between spontaneity and reflection in two distinctly different ways. The music improvisation is an example of spontaneous composition, where the intuitively generated flow of sound events are immediately structured in time and space. The impulsive actions of the painter and the architect are examples where intuitive expressions provide the abstract basis on which the concrete shaping of new material takes place through subsequentdeliberation.

3  The Dynamism of Improvisation

3.1Improvisation in our daily lives

In all we do, all we say, and all we think, we improvise, from the moment we wake up in the morning till we drift off to sleep at night, even continuing to improvise during the phases of dreaming. That is, we are continually in our lives confronted with having to choose between an array of alternative actions, be they physical, oral, or mental. And we do choose, most often by force of necessity, but we do make a choice, which in turn poses new alternatives and new demands for decisive action, and it happens so fast that we in most cases have no time to think. But when we do have time to apply deliberate thought, we can only steer our will in a general direction of intention, more or less precisely. Simply put, naturally, from a layman in the field of what I believe is called psychodynamic theories. I speak only from my experience as composer and improviser, as well as teaching composition.


The dualism of intuitive action and cognitive awareness constitutes an inspirational creative energy, or dialectic interaction, sparking further action through the development of a composition. The seemingly simultaneous presence of two levels of consciousness in music improvisation represents a dynamic dialogic situation, whereas in the example of the painting process, the dialogue is set in a wider time frame: first the spontaneous and intuitive action,then a consequent action based on afterthought and deliberation.  In both cases, the merger results in a dynamism of  constructive creative action, which, if so intended, is composing.


3.3The dialogue of composing and improvising

In 2006 I had the privilege of writing the liner notes on jazz saxophone player Frøy Aagre’s CD, “Countryside”. Here is an excerpt from that text, where I attempt to describe the relationship between her composing and improvising.

“[…]  the material quality of Frøy Aagre’s music, as compositions of lines and shapes, strikes me as being transparent textures of carefully woven threads of sound – a polyphonic interplay of such poetic integrity and artistic conviction that the expressive intentionality of the music is never questioned. While listening, I found myself often nodding with a smile at the many unexpected, yet nature-like organic turns in the flow of musical events. Frøy Aagre speaks to the listener in a very personal language, and her line of thoughts, and rhetorical eloquence, is felt to be able to go anywhere on any level at any time. Like the contour of the horizon in the countryside. Her sensibility to stylistic references seems wide open, not committing herself to the aesthetical preferences of any given style, but all the while creating a convincing and total expression which is all her own. Would I call it jazz? Possibly – but it’s Frøy Aagre’s jazz.

Out of the carefully controlled structures of the composed music, there emerges improvised sections that seem equally clear-minded, yet unmistakably intuitive and artistically credible. The transition between these two creative mindsets – the one composing “out of time” and the other performing “in time” –  is sublime and sophisticated, almost undetectable at times. This, to me, is a clear indication of a very mature composer, in her ableness to convert her improvised intuitive musical ideas into structured dots and lines notated in her scores. Yet this is no mere stream of conciousness, but rather a well structured architectural design of intergrated musical gestures, forming unified compositions rather than a continuum of spontaneous inventions.”

Frøy Aagre’s attentiveness to her intuitive impulses, in combination with her openness to stylistic references, creates an interactive dynamism in her musical poesy which is uniquely personal. Should the opposite have been the case, she would have relied upon her skills as an instrumentalist to construct the “transparent textures of carefully woven threads of sound”, making a similar sounding music, but one lacking the personal expressive substance that a dialogue with her inner voice would have given. It is surprisingly easy to detect the difference.

The acknowledgment of the creative potency of dialogue is wise, whether a dialogue with other people or with your own self, mind and soul, if you will.

3.4 Morton Feldman’s approach to learning

Composer Morton Feldman is known for his relentless persuit of dialogue. Not only with other composers (of whom he had little regard, save a few select) but with all artists – painters and authors alike. He professed that what he had learned from all these other artists has nothing to do with their works as such, or how they created them, but rather their attitude and approach to their work.

4The collectivity of improvisation

4.1. Improvising together

There are other aspects, certainly among numerous others, belonging to the topic of improvisation as a model of creative thinking that need briefly to be commented. One is the situation, in music improvisation, where two or more musicians improvise together, engaging in spontaneous communication as a group. The other aspect is considering the complex dimension of individual and mutual contextual references that are in play while improvising.

4.2Collective improvisation in music

There are many terms used for the various practices of improvising in a group, be it “jazz improvisation”, “aleatoric improvisation”, “free collective improvisation”, or any other genre.  In this context I refer, as mentioned, to more than one musician engaging in simultaneous free improvisation, closer to spontaneous composing than improvising over a melody or a progression of chords.

4.3 Like a conversation

I like the analogy pictured in a verbal dialogue, where impulses are given, received and shared in a mutual interest of investigating a topic at hand. The topic, as it were, in musical improvisation, would be to explore the artistic potential of whatever ideas that emerge, be they issues of purely sound textures, melodic figurations, states of emotions or within preconceived concepts on any level. As with the verbal dialogue, it is subject to actions of any intent by the participants, from sabotage to constructive development. The difference is that while a verbal dialogue may lead to aggressive argumentation and personal conflict, musical improvisation may under the same conditions result in a never-to-be-forgotten artistic experience!

4.4Mikhael Bakhtin’s carnival

This seems like an opportune moment to cite Mikhail Bakhtin, in particular his concept of collectivity he calls carnival. The participants in a carnival, he explains, experience an awareness of total unity and community, having left their various individual social membership ranks and entered into a unique realm of freedom in time and space where “they cease to be themselves”. Yet, at the same time, they feel the uniqueness of their own individual carnevalesque identity, sensually and bodily. According to Bakhtin, carnival is the concept in which distinct individual voices are heard, flourish, and interact together. To me, this dualistic experience of collective oneness on the one hand, and individual uniqueness on the other, is what also characterises collective musical improvisation in particular, but also to a large extent all collective music making, whether it be in a string quartet or the symphony orchestra. That is the prerogative of being a musician: to engage your individual uniqueness in dialogue with another individuals’ uniqueness in a collective effort to create “a third” uniqueness, that of the entire group.  This constitutes the dynamism of playing music together. Or, to put it in more general terms, pertaining to the overall topic of this chapter: the energy created at the mergence point of two opposing forces.

4.5Contextual dimensions

Aesthetical preferences and personal references naturally take part in the ongoing decisionmaking of creative thinking, both on the subliminal and conscious level, while improvising, alone or in communication with others. This constitutes an inner diological situation which is important to be aware of for the composer, if not also for the active performer.  Much of the individual councelling I undertake with composition students deals with bringing this awareness into light. So far in this chapter I have focused on the dialectic dynamism that ideally is in play in the tension field between intuitive and cognitive impulses. But there is an added dimension which presents itself in improvisation undertaken “out of time”, as opposed to “in time”, when confronted with the task of composing a musical score. This requires aesthetic reflection, related to the example of the painter and the architect, deliberating further action with a material that has emerged through spontaneous impulse.


Professional competence and insight into improvisation within a given medium or expression are natural prerequisites for the performing artist, and an awareness of the thought processes involved is equally important, if not decisive in pursueing artistic integrity and credibility. The intention underlying this paper is to illustrate that every person, artist or not, is continually improvising and has therefore the potential available to develop this capacity for what it is worth, to enhance the teaching and learning of any given subject – even to deepen the awareness of living itself.

This paper deals precisely with the issue of poesy (from Greek poesis ”composition, poetry”, from poein ”to make or compose”), both in doing and experiencing, in the sense of inventing models of understanding; concepts – which in turn entails cultivating ones own mode of thinking – from which, in the case of the artist, a concrete representation is created in the form of a work of art. Teaching music composition – or any other art expression or subject – is not primarily about what to do, but how to think in doing. This constitutes, in my opinion, an intrinsic value within the process of understanding anything.


The author wishes to thank the countless students and colleagues who for over thirty years have inspired my thinking.


Kjetil Steinsholt and Henning Sommero (ed.), Improvisasjon, N.W. DAMM & SØNN AS 2006

Karette Stensæth, PhD, “Musical Answerability” Doctoral thesis, NMH-publications 2008

Bjørn Kruse, “Den Tenkende Kunstner” Universitetsforlaget 1995

Martin Buber, “Jeg og Du,” 1923 Transl. By Hedvig Wergeland, J.W. CAPPELENS FORLAG AS 1996

Eric F. Clarke, “Ways of Listening” Oxford University Press

Erik Christensen, “The Musical Timespace” Alborg University Press 1996

From → English texts

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