Music in Disorder: Counterplay, Complexity and Collective Improvisation — an artistic research project established at Royal College of Music in Stockholm (funded by The Swedish Research Council and Stockholm University of the Arts).
The project has involved a series of research labs, artistic productions, concerts, public presentations and seminars during 2016-2018. On this website we present the project’s chronological process since the start.
To get an overview of the project, we recommend reading this page, proceeding with the page “Results”, and then selecting some of the activities in the portfolio where you can read, watch and listen to what we’ve been working on. You can also go on to read the pages about why we consider this project to be artistic research (“On Artistic Research”), and about the members of the research team (“Research Team”).
The main focus of the project has been to explore collective improvisation in music, thereby contributing to a deeper understanding of collective creativity. How we approach improvisation often says a lot about the way we consider relationships between things like creativity, control and individuality. Additionally, collective improvisation raises interesting questions: When is a creative process truly collective, beyond the sum of individual contributions? How can we create circumstances that are beneficial to collective creativity? And what is the social or political importance of collective creativity? The results of this project indicate that it is possible to design specifically abstract methods that, somewhat paradoxically, serve as “collective reference points” (Attractors), yet simultaneously enhance the potential for heterogeneity and divergent creativity. Due to their abstract nature, these methods could also become useful in other fields where collective creativity is emphasized. Finally, the project also sheds light on experimental art as a playful way of engaging in transformative practice, with a relevance, perhaps underestimated, for modern society.
We have been particularly interested in when and how improvisation becomes markedly collective, not simply in the sense of “improvising together” but more specifically when something happens in a way that goes beyond the individual’s ability to fully predict or grasp the influence of his or her contributions in relation to the whole, as well as how other’s contributions affect an individual’s own playing. This has necessitated an inquiry into the relationships between power and domination: How can we powerfully affect each other without dominating? And what methods, materials or circumstances enhance the mutual reinforcement of power in collective improvisation? We have thus departed from views that take it for granted that creativity depends on “uninfluenced” individual choice, as well as from approaches that emphasize a common denominator as being fundamental to collective creativity. Our research problematizes such pre-conceptions, although collective improvisation does seem to require a shared responsibility to acknowledge occurrences of dominance. In this way, differences can act productively against each other, rather than being seen as obstacles to co-creation.
As is illustrated in the portfolio of activities, the project’s methods have changed over time. Yet the above questions have been maintained throughout as a quasi-systematic focus. We have designed and conducted musical experiments; discussed what happened in order to find new ways forward; developed concepts and methods, often with the help of inspirational resources; and invited musicians and researchers to give further input to the project. These procedures have been repeated many times over, ultimately resulting in the concepts and methods that form the three inter-connected assemblages called Motivators, Modulators and the Diagram (see “Results”).
The musical experiments have been designed in relation to the concept of productive disorder, consistently challenging us to explore various forms of complexity that can enhance collective creativity. From a musician’s point of view, “disordering” is a useful term for how we experience what we’re often doing in collective improvisation: playfully tweaking, shifting, displacing, clashing, inserting, making irregular or asymmetric, and so on. These actions can transform the orderliness of the musical materials at hand so that something happens where we have less control, which in turn yields more possibilities for collective creativity. In thematizing these actions we have been exploring explicit strategies for counterplay — playing “against” or “beside” each other — that embody a resistance to adjust to the musical environment. Such strategies have been rewarding to the extent that they engaged distributed forms of listening and responding. Counterplay will typically establish a differential configuration of amplitude, speed/rhythm, sound color, intonation or tonality that may increase the indeterminacy of interaction between musicians. Thus, improvisation becomes more collectively co-created. Counterplay can also be reinforced by the use of electronics that introduce unpredictable algorithms or randomizations.
Productive disorder is not equated with a complete lack of control, although it has been a useful concept for seeking out musical events in which non-control has an important qualitative effect on the improvisation as a whole. Nor is it simply the destruction of all order, but rather involves some degree of heterogeneity, in the form of complex layers and combinations of musical events. When non-coordinated lines are working in productive tension with each other — creating both resonances and interferences between them — this may be rewarding due to the interpretational depth that emerges; musicians and listeners must be active in responding to how things can relate to each other in different ways. Thus, productive disorder may obstruct our conventional interpretative strategies and enact a performative resistance to apparatuses of capture that depend on the alleged unity of subjectivity, as well as to the identification of an improvisation’s “essence”. This emphasizes the rupturing potential of art, its power to break our habitual and reactive ways of being and acting in the world, and instead prioritize a non-unitary and porous conception of subjectivity that can connect more intimately and directly with the world. Disorder is also important for the purpose of counteracting the idea of a pre-conceived order, or set of laws, that music has to adhere to in order to “make sense”. Thus comes the allowance for creative mal-adaptation, productive disobedience and subversive transformation.
In our experience, the disordering processes of collective improvisation often go unacknowledged by listeners, which means, in turn, that collective improvisation is believed to be more intentionally controlled than it actually is. In contrast, for participating musicians, collective improvisation requires intense listening to the differences that pass between them, without fully grasping or controlling what’s going on, yet continuously being able to respond to opportunities for simultaneous divergence and convergence. One of the goals of our project has been to reveal and clarify these aspects, hopefully inspiring other ventures to experiment with collective creativity.