Synergy and Surrealestate:

The Orderly Disorder of Free Improvisation


David Borgo


Pacific Review of Ethnomusicology vol. 10 (2002)


This kind of thing happens in improvisation.  Two things running concurrently in haphazard fashion suddenly synchronize autonomously and sling you forcibly into a new phase.

            – Cornelius Cardew (1971:xvii)


            Buckminster Fuller describes synergy as the behavior of whole systems unpredicted by the behavior of their parts taken separately.  Adopting this general orientation, the theoretical physicist Hermann Haken (1987) has introduced the concept of synergetics to name a new unifying trend in science.1   The basic goal of synergetics is to explore the general ideas, laws, and principles of self-organization across various fields of human knowledge, from the natural sciences to the humanities.  The world as we know it has seemingly come into being and developed through an endless chain of self-organizing processes, from the formation of galaxies and stars to the development of biological and social structures.  A synergetic style of thinking and inquiry is beginning to infuse ever wider fields of human knowledge. 

            Synergy is a common goal and a cherished activity of musical improvisers as well.  The dynamic and synergetic qualities of improvisation, however, have proven slippery for many in the music academy.2  In the present work I will compare certain aspects of the modeling approaches to the natural world currently of interest in synergetics and chaos research to the process of performance, listening, and reflexive interpretation explored in musical free improvisation.3   My presentation is informed by my experience participating in regular free improvisation sessions with the Los Angeles-based group Surrealestate since late 1995 and includes an analysis of the synergetic qualities of an extended group improvisation (also heard on the accompanying compact disc).




            Surrealestate formed at UCLA in late 1995 as a number of interested musicians coalesced to form a varied, flexible, yet cohesive group.  We maintain an egalitarian organization, although saxophonist Robert Reigle has often emerged as the principal organizer, coordinator, motivator, and defacto leader of our playing sessions and performances.  The personnel and the musical direction of the group have changed considerably over the years.  Several players, including myself, came to the group from primarily jazz backgrounds, while others have experiences with western classical music and composition, American popular musics, and various nonwestern musics (particularly Hindustani, Latin American, East Asian, and Balkan musics).  

            These diverse backgrounds have proven to be both an asset and a liability for the group.  The group’s eclectic nature has made for some very interesting combinations of players, instruments, styles, and techniques, but each individual has had to confront the option of maintaining, abandoning, or reconciling his or her tradition and experience while participating in this collective and spontaneous form of music making.4

            The group adopted the name Surrealestate after a concert we gave at the Armand Hammer Museum in Los Angeles on October 19, 1996, titled “Surrealism in Music.”  The concert was presented in connection with an exhibit of Rene Magritte’s surrealistic paintings.  That concert, our first real gig, brought together in nascent form many of the musical strands that have continued to be explored by the group to this day.  During the course of the hour-long performance, Surrealestate performed compositions by members of the group involving standard, graphical, and conceptual designs;  improvised along with a New York City poet (Steven Koenig) via a long-distance telephone connection; interacted with a recording of an improvised version of a composed work (Robert Reigle’s “The Marriage of Heaven and Earth” with a segue into the fifth movement of “Pfhat” by Giacinto Scelsi); and freely improvised as a large ensemble, ten musicians strong, actually surrounding the audience in physical space.  During the entire performance, a recording of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” was playing at a barely audible level in the background.

            Since that time, Surrealestate has given several other notable concerts at UCLA including an interpretation of Ornette Coleman’s seminal 1960 Free Jazz recording, a soliloquy to Charles Ives entitled “ImprovIves,” and a live interaction with painters called “Spontaneous Combustion of Music and Art.”  Regardless of an upcoming performance, the group meets regularly on a weekly basis for playing sessions or, less frequently, to listen as a group to previously recorded performances or to commercially available recordings of improvised and composed music. 

            Surrealestate’s playing sessions normally last for two to three hours with a 20 to 30 minute break at the midpoint.  Stylistically, a typical session may involve extended periods of Eastern-sounding drones and modality, African-derived rhythmic intensity, jazz-inspired harmonic exploration, or the more abstract textural and expressive approaches often associated with the European avant-garde.  Within a single piece, Surrealestate may move freely between moments of extreme quietude and introspection to periods of unbridled exploration and near reckless abandon.          

            The first piece of a session is usually entirely freely improvised.  This allows the musicians to enter the spirit of the performance without any imposed compositional schemes or conceptual handicaps.  Often the only instruction, either overt or implied, is to listen first to the silence before beginning to play.  After the free improvisation, the group might look over a sketch brought in by a member or establish a group conceptual design on the spot by soliciting individual suggestions.  With a group whose participating members can occasionally range in the double digits, we have found that these schemes help us to maintain a direction and a coherence to our sessions and performances.  Many of our most cherished musical moments, however, have been group free improvisations without a preestablished framework.  Since this type of performance may best illuminate the spontaneous and synergetic qualities of the ensemble and the music, I have selected for analysis an extended improvisation featuring nine members of Surrealestate that was recorded for and released on the group’s commercially-available CD.5  

            My analysis highlights ensemble transitions and the emergent musical form of the performance – qualities that are often valued (yet often difficult to achieve) in a successful large ensemble improvised performance – and borrows the terminology set forth by Tom Nunn, a San Francisco-based improviser and scholar, in his 1998 book Wisdom of the Impulse.  Despite the seeming openness of free improvisation to all sounds and musical practices, Nunn identifies several stylistic elements as typical of the practice (57): 


(1) the use of any tonal system and a free mix of tonal systems (modal, diatonic, chromatic, pantonal, atonal)

(2) irregular rhythmic character and irregular phrase lengths that are oriented to physical gesture

(3) compound “voice” texture, or multiple independent “voices”

(4) multiple stylistic influences of different traditions

(5) catalytic and cadential formal processes that function as cues

(6) sectional nature, with each section defining a certain musical character or mood, and connected to the subsequent section via transition

(7) responsive and quickly changing interaction among “voices” to create various shifting role relationships in real time 


            The individual musician works to establish, maintain, cadence, and begin anew musical “identities.”  Identities include traditional notions of melodic and rhythmic motives, but more often involve gestural identities of shape, articulation, timbre, or a combination of these and other elements.  Each improviser then aims for what Nunn calls “gestural continuity / integrity” by linking together successive identity gestures according to the ongoing implications of the moment (53).6       In the course of performance, the individual improviser must work to relate individual identities to the group, establishing what Nunn refers to as “relational functions.”  Nunn describes seven primary relational functions (48-50):


(1) solo – a single or dominant voice

(2) support – the active underlayment to support other higher profile voices

(3) ground – the static underlayment to support other higher profile voices

(4) dialog – immediate interaction between/among players

(5) catalyst – an action to stimulate change in the musical character

(6) sound mass – a collective complex sound made up of a number of voices that are roughly equal in contribution

(7) interpolation – the insertion or overlaying of utterly foreign material upon existing material wherein two (or more) independent musical characters coexist without affecting one another


            Ensemble free improvisation is inherently segmental in form, involving sections usually articulating a particular musical character or a certain level of gestural continuity or integrity.  Transitions between sections in a segmental form represent collective decision-making and are important formal aspects of free improvisation.  Small-scale transitions continuously occur between linear functions and relational functions, but larger-scale transitions occur only when the ensemble flow comes to a complete and obvious consensus and may happen only a few times within a performance (or not at all in shorter performances).  Nunn enumerates seven types of transitions (51-53):

(1) sudden/unexpected segue – an unprepared, immediate change with unexpected continuation

(2) pseudo-cadential segue – an implied cadence with sudden and unexpected continuation

(3) climactic segue – a peak moment that stimulates unexpected change and continuation

(4) feature overlap – one feature of the antecedent section is sustained and becomes part of the consequent section

(5) feature change – a gradual change of one feature that redirects the flow (usually subtly)

(6) fragmentation – a gradual breaking up, or fragmenting, of the general texture and/or rhythm

(7) internal cadence – a prepared cadence followed by a short silence then continuation with new material.  (In addition to presenting a moment of resolution, an internal cadence can signal a moment of extreme unpredictability in the performance since there is always the possibility that it will become the final cadence of the improvisation.)


            These relational functions and ensemble transitions provide a manageable outline of the process and interaction inherent in free improvisation, but they rarely occur individually in actual performances.  As Nunn explains, “multiple processes typically occur at the same time, appear in hybrid combinations, change in some way, often quickly, and can be highly unpredictable how they occur and what relationship they have upon one another” (73). 

            While this enormous complexity may be viewed as productive – continually presenting fresh options and possibilities to the improvisers and novel experiences for the audience – the challenge in performance is often to avoid either simple cat-and-mouse type interactions or a state of unintentional group dissociation.  In practice, once interesting identities and relational functions have been established (often a daunting task in itself), they are maintained for considerable stretches of time to avoid the potentially crippling state of oversaturation and indecision.  Of course within the dynamic of group interaction, the option of not playing (best conceived of in terms of active or engaged silence) is always available to any player at any time.

            Free improvisation certainly requires focused listening, quick reflexes, and extreme sensitivity to the group flow, but it equally demands individual fortitude and tenacity not to be overwhelmed by the speed of interaction and the availability of musical options.  Preunderstandings and a history of experiences with this practice necessarily and continually inform the production and reception of this music.  The inevitable uncertainty of the practice, however, is welcomed and even revered by its practitioners and fans.  Free improvisers intend for unintended things to happen.  These exciting and unpredictable moments are integrated into the fabric of the music and the experience of listening and participating.  In performance, free improvisers aim to reach a critical state of self-organization – not through individual or collective effort but through collective experience – that allows for unpredictable yet dynamically ordered and understandable occurrences.  


“Contrafactum in the Spirit of Surrealestate”

Gustavo Aguilar – congas, percussion; David Borgo – tenor saxophone; Roman Cho – lap-top steel guitar; Andy Connell – soprano saxophone; Jonathon Grasse – electric guitar; Kaye Lubach – tabla; David Martinelli – drum set; Brana Mijatovic – drum set; Robert Reigle – tenor saxophone.

recorded December 17, 1998 in Popper Theater, Schoenberg Hall, UCLA


            This ensemble free improvisation was performed last in a series of improvised “contrafactum” – improvisations done in the style of, and immediately after hearing, selected brief musical recordings.  After emulating sound sources as diverse as John Sheppard, Cecil Taylor, and Giacinto Scelsi, as well as Weddell seals, Korean shamans, and New Guinean flutes, Robert Reigle instructed the group to begin with a complete minute of silence and then improvise “in the style of Surrealestate.”

            The resulting thirteen-plus minutes of improvisation by a nine person ensemble includes far too many details and subtle interactions to describe in full.  Therefore, I will focus attention on the overall segmental form that emerges from the improvisation process and a few specific transitional moments within the ensemble.  The following chart provides a temporal reduction of important structural moments and pronounced examples of ensemble transition.  


Time    Prominent Ensemble Features and Transitional Moments


0:00     coloristic percussion, guitar drone, and saxophone polymodal lines

1:40     texture thickens and intensifies

3:00     climatic segue (with continuation and intensification)

3:50     psuedo-cadential segue

4:00     strong internal cadence (with gradual decay)

4:40     conga and tabla dialog

5:30     various percussion sounds

6:00     high-register guitar figure joins

6:30     strong internal cadence (with high-register saxophone feature overlap)

7:00     texture thickens and drone reinstated

8:00     intensification

8:30     fragmentation transition begins                                         

9:00     intentional interpolation and sound mass

10:00   intensity begins to subside

10:40   feature change - return to prominent drone and relaxed modality

11:20   dissonance and loudness gradually increase

12:00   ascending passage begins

12:30   loudness stabilizes

12:50   tremolo effect

13:20   final cadence (with gradual decay)


            The improvisation begins with a few splashes on the cymbals, some percussive figures on the congas and tablas, and brief melodic motives on the soprano.  Jonathon enters with an electric guitar drone on the note concert E, which ends up becoming a musical “attractor” that frames both overtly and subtly the entire 13 minute performance.  Andy skillfully adopts this note as his pedal point establishing a solo with ground relational function (following Nunn’s taxonomy) and proceeds to play some “Eastern-sounding” lines (with strong allegiances to the polymodal style of jazz playing associated with John Coltrane) emphasizing the chromatic half-steps circling the drone pitch.  After a short development, the two tenor sax players enter – David establishing a dialog with similar modally-inflected lines, and Robert providing support emphasizing the drone pitch – and the ensemble energy level increases slightly.  Brana briefly taps out a pulse on her “ride” cymbal making the jazz connections even more apparent.  By this time the guitar drone has taken on the characteristics of an Indian tamboura, articulating an arpeggio of tonic and dominant notes.

            The “multiple stylistic influences” become more apparent as David briefly takes the melodic reigns from Andy, emphasizing some yodel-type effects and pitch bends.  Kaye’s rapid and undulating tabla figures expand the “compound voice texture” and provide a dramatic frame for this exploration.  Just as David is bending a pitch gradually upwards from the seventh scale degree to reach the tonic drone, Andy enters a half-step above the tonic and bends the pitch downwards on a collision trajectory.  This strong cadential feeling appears poised to conclude with a peaceful resolution, but instead it changes character as the dissonance is extended beyond normal expectations and the intensity and dynamic level of the group as a whole intensifies. 

            A clear and collectively felt ensemble transition has taken place.  Following Nunn’s taxonomy, this transition is best described as a climactic segue involving a peak moment that stimulates unexpected change and continuation.  The shift in mood and texture is not drastic, but is clearly a marked transition in the development of the ensemble improvisation.

            The overall intensity continues to build and David careens upwards with some heavily vocalized phrases implying strong tonal associations. Roman emulates his glissando effects on the slide guitar.  At the peak of his phrase, David reaches the flattened sixth scale degree and seems poised to resolve downwards to the dominant.  However, Roman counters with a forceful phrase involving the notes F and Eb, denying the more obvious resolution in the “home key” of E.  This acts as a deceptive resolution for the ensemble or what Nunn would classify as a pseudo-cadential segue; an implied cadence with a sudden and unexpected continuation. 

            Although Roman could have chosen to continue in distantly related tonal regions, instead he deftly resolves to the E tonic before it has disappeared from the listener’s short term tonal memory.  This final resolution becomes a clear internal cadence followed by new material.

            The strong cadence is subtly buttressed by Kaye’s rapid tabla strokes, which serve as a feature overlap.  The dramatic texture change inspires Gustavo to enter on congas, which leads to an involved duo between himself and Kaye.  The constant tabla figurations seem to provide a ground for the more pronounced conga articulations.  The two drummers gradually ritard their rhythms together until an implied cadence or pseudo-cadential transition is felt.

            At this point, rather than reaching into his nearby box of small percussion for new sonic materials, Gustavo impulsively decides to rattle the entire box.  During the rumbling of various shakers, bells, and idiophones (even a music stand situated nearby), Jonathon executes a melodic figure in the extreme high register of the guitar with rapid picking techniques.  This leads to another strong internal cadence followed by both a feature overlap and new material.

            Robert enters in the extreme upper register of the tenor, clearly referencing Jonathon’s earlier expressive device.  Roman reenters in the mid-range of the slide guitar, providing a decisive interpolation.  The other saxophonists eventually enter and join Robert in his stratospheric explorations.  However, David soon decides to switch gears and produce a subdued drone pitch, in a sense taking over the role provided earlier by Jonathon’s guitar.  Several dramatic chokes on the high-hat cymbal and powerful tom-tom rolls also catch the listener’s attention.   

            After a reasonable amount of time in this new textural area, Andy begins a strong fragmentation by playing dramatic and punctuated phrases on his alto.  Robert maintains his piercing long tone for a time, which provides a feature overlap into the next section.  This fragmentation transition, following Nunn’s outline, is equally decisive even though it involves considerable overlap in place of clear resolution or strong cadence.  The increased wind dynamic provokes a torrent of loud percussion responses and provocations.  Andy’s playing becomes increasingly vocal and appears to lead the ensemble further into dense, sound mass textures.  Jonathon subtly switches the drone emphasis to B, or the dominant of E, further increasing the sense of musical tension.

            Slowly, a relaxation of density and intensity is collectively felt.  A few more subtle textures are able to emerge out of this denouement, including some elaborate guitar slides and a few saxophone multiphonics and pitch slurs.  The drone pitch seems to reemerge (or did it ever leave us?) as the wind players begin exploring sustained sounds together.  The guitarists provide more musical activity, albeit at soft dynamic levels, underneath the sustained winds. 

            While a final cadence at this point seems immanent, the group chooses to extend and build upon these cadential moments rather than letting the resolution come prematurely.  A few subtle appearances of flattened sixth and major and minor thirds in the winds and strings help to keep the closing moments from sounding too static.  Gradually the ensemble dynamic increases and David begins an upwards gesture as Robert takes over the drone in the bottom register of his tenor.  Andy provides a tremolo effect on the second and third scale degrees and the final group resolution on the open fifth with the delicate tinkling of bells offers a satisfying end to a synergetically powerful performance.  Although this may not have been our most successful group improvisation to date, most of Surrealestate’s members felt it was quite representative of the expressive range of the ensemble.

            I asked Robert Reigle to describe his perceptions of both the individual and group improvising process.  He expressed that “when I realize what I’ve started, more thoughts start to happen and I have to decide, O.K., in what direction am I going to take this?  Am I going to think about it or am I going to try not to think about it anymore?  But usually what happens then is I focus on whatever else is happening . . .  and I try to make that my total focus and let my own playing be automatic . . .  When the music is really happening, I as a player try not to think about it and let the music lead.  Other times thoughts creep in.  In an ideal situation the music would always take over.”7   

            Robert describes a general situation in which the first few seconds of an improvisation may be littered with a constant parade of thoughts formed in words, but soon concerted listening, the immediate response mechanisms of the intelligent body, and the feeling of the moment take over.  He begins thinking in music rather than thinking conceptually.  During the final moments of an improvisation Robert admitted that often thoughts in words creep back into his psyche: “There is definitely a continual parade of thoughts in my mind [but] I always trust the intuitive more than I trust the intellectual.”  Robert expressed that it is easier to use intellectual reflection and analysis to a more meaningful advantage after the fact.  He believes that a successful performance should balance the predictable with the unpredictable, should have a give and take between leadership roles within the ensemble, and often a rapid pace of new musical ideas and events. 

            Although personal tastes can vary considerably, the primary criteria I have found that many free improvisers use to evaluate a performance are:  (1) was there a felt sense of unity to the performance? Not did everyone take the same journey, but did everyone have a sense of journeying together; (2) were there moments of musical synergy or pronounced moments of ensemble togetherness and transition; and finally, (3) was a broad, interesting, or novel musical palette arrived at and explored.  All three of these qualities do not have to be present for a performance to be judged successful.  If a sense of journeying together is profoundly felt, a performance without strong transitions or even more than a single musical idea may be considered effective.  Equally, at times, a novel or exciting musical palette may be interesting enough on its own to make an improvisation enjoyable, even if pronounced transitions or lengthy stretches of felt unity were absent.  While spontaneity is certainly savored in performances of musical free improvisation, it is the spontaneous appearance of surprising musical order or synergetic performance behavior that seems to delight most practitioners. 


Orderly Disorder in Free Improvisation


            All chaotic systems share certain dynamical traits.  They are nonlinear in their organization and rely on a nonequilibrium state to maintain their chaotic behavior.  In other words, they are open to continual disturbances and energy influxes from outside the system.  Chaotic systems also demonstrate extreme sensitivity to initial conditions and are dependent on the arrow of time described in classical thermodynamics.

            A musical free improvisation ensemble may also be described as an “open system” that takes in energy gradually from the enculturation, education, training, and experience of its members, and more immediately in the form of influences from the physical and psychological context of the performance; i.e., the acoustic space, the potential sonic materials, and the audience reaction and possible participation.  A state of “nonequilibrium” is reached through the expectation by all present that music will be made and the specific mandate of free improvisation to deconstruct or recontextualize known or familiar musical properties.

            Since free improvisation, at least in its idealized form, involves no preconceptions as to what may follow the initial performance gesture, the system naturally displays an extreme sensitivity to its initial state.  Even a small change in the first performance gesture – a shift in dynamic level, attack, or articulation, etc. – can lead to a sudden divergence from the evolution of a system started with nearly identical initial conditions.8   In more poetic language, the slightest musical disturbance (the metaphorical flapping of a butterfly’s wings) by any individual at any time may lead to completely unexpected performance outcomes.  Unavoidable discrepancies or “noise” also creep into the communicative channels as a given performer’s intended performance action is (mis)interpreted by others in the group.  Intentional dissociation or unpredictable sonic outcomes also introduce randomness into the system. 

            The irreversible “arrow of time” of nonequilibrium thermodynamics is valid as well for free improvisation.  Improvisers must continually operate in the moment.  They may contextualize a gesture by themselves or others after the fact, but the real-time nature of the creative act does not allow for revision.  Yet free improvisers must be continually aware that they are improvising both content and form.  The most effective free improvisation performances involve decisive musical idea spaces and marked transitions that take place at moments of group consensus with an awareness of what has occurred and a conception of what may follow.

            Thermodynamics researcher Ilya Prigogine, co-author of Order Out of Chaos (1984), has demonstrated how, in the energy- and entropy-rich environment of chaotic systems, dissipative structures may “self-organize” and propel a system into higher levels of complexity and order.  Without violating the second law of thermodynamics, these systems operating far from equilibrium can experience a local entropy decrease.  In musical free improvisation, individual musical identities are playfully explored and combined to form “relational functions” between the various voices in the ensemble.  While the overall musical “entropy” of the system may continually increase, dissipative experiences of localized ordering can occur as relational functions are established, transformed, and abandoned by the ensemble when a collective consensus is perceived by the various participants.   

            Ensemble transitions may be analogous to the bifurcations exhibited in chaotic systems.  The appearance of collectively perceived transitions, however, is never entirely predictable due to the extremely varied interactions and influences endemic to the practice.  The exact behavior of the ensemble at moments of transition appears to be both locally unstable and in intriguing ways globally comprehensible.  Just as in Prigogine’s theory as the instability of the system paradoxically provides a source of order emerging from chaos at moments of bifurcation, at transitional moments in free improvisation, both the musical direction of the improvisation up to that point and the ensemble’s collective experiences with improvisation strongly influence which musical path is pursued by the group after the “bifurcation.” 

            By modeling the dynamics of chaotic systems using computer algorithms, scientists have already discovered several types of “strange attractors” that, while inherently unpredictable and infinitely complex on the micro-level, display an ordered, self-similar design that is both surprising and aesthetically pleasing.  As we have seen, the uncertainty of free improvisation appears tempered by common attractor types defined by relational functions and transitions. Free improvisers tend to favor “strange” musical attractors to those that rely on periodic cycles or predictable interactions.  For example, if too many references to traditional musical idioms creep into a performance, many free improvisers will immediately begin to search for more uncharted and uncertain musical terrain.

            The performance described above has several pronounced moments of climax, cadence, transition, and continuation (most notably from the tutti beginning, climaxing and transitioning to the percussion interlude, and returning to the tutti ending).  While the performance moves through several structural changes and transitional moments, the modality implied by the drone pitch and the coherent and concerted development of the ensemble leave the listener with the impression of slowly uncovering a single musical idea.  In conversation, Robert told me he often enjoys exploring musical ideas over lengthy stretches of time.  He expressed, “I don’t necessarily think that every piece has to have more than one idea . . . If it is a rich sound then you can find all sorts of things in it.  It gives your mind the freedom to build its own structures out of that.”  

            Self-similarity, a mainstay of fractals and the phase portraits that describe chaotic systems, may be observed within the practice of collective improvisation as similar processes operating on different scales (e.g., dialog, fragmentation, catalysts, or feature changes can operate on many levels) and structural similarities between individual identities and larger relational functions or sectional forms.  Scale-dependent listening in free improvisation, by both participants and audience, involves switching attention between these various levels of interaction; from the dramatic figure or gesture to the composite field.  Robert’s comment above that a rich sound allows the mind to build its own structures clearly speaks to this attentive and directed listening.  This music does not lack meaning (as its critics sometimes argue), but its meaning must be actively engaged and reengaged.  In a musical setting where multiple ideas, textures, and layers of interaction are commonplace, listeners and participants must actively stitch together a composite, synergetic meaning rather than expect a preconceived structure to be presented to them. 

            Robert admits that “it is harder to sustain a musical idea over a long period of time with a[n] [improvising] group.”  He believes the fact that Surrealestate meets only once a week and for a relatively short time provides an impetus to favor tutti sections so everyone has a chance to play.  He concedes that “it might not be satisfying to play for only ten minutes” during an entire session.   With Surrealestate, Robert believes “we have a deep trust for each other . . .  I never feel like the whole band is just noodling because they want to fill up the space.”  There may be less interesting moments or times when the ensemble seems to be, in his words, “just floating along,” but Robert envisions these as preparatory periods of “working through something to get to a better place.”  For him, “the final intention is to have good music!” 

            While virtuosity of technique, density and intensity of sound, and speed and clarity of performer interactions are often important aspects of musical free improvisation, they are certainly not the only aesthetic ideals of engaged performers and listeners.  In chosing to play together with no preconceived material or only the barest of organizational designs, Surrealestate performs not only improvised music in the formalist sense, but dynamic social relationships as well.  


The Life(time) of a Free Improvisation Ensemble


The evolution of a complex dynamical system is not ruled by a Platonic king, constructed by a Cartesian architect, or forecast by a LaPlacean spirit, but grows much like a living organism.

            – Klaus Mainzer (1994:271)


            Is it possible to envision a free improvising ensemble as an aesthetic community that develops in a similar fashion to a living organism?  Prigogine’s theory of dissipative structures demonstrates how complex biochemical systems, operating far from equilibrium, can evolve “order out of chaos” at critical points of instability as energy continually flows through them.  Chilean biologists and neuroscientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1988, 1980) devised the theory of autopoiesis to expand this orientation into the realm of life.  The same kinds of catalytic loops that Prigogine describes are central to the metabolism of a cell, the simplest known living system.  Maturana and Varela devised their theory by modeling the self-bounded, self-generating, and self-perpetuating behavior of a living cell.  Using computer techniques called cellular automata, they demonstrated that significance and complexity can arise in any system that is autonomous (having operational closure) and structurally coupled.

            Structural coupling is Maturana and Varela’s term for the history of interactions leading to the coordination and coevolution of autopoietic systems within a consensual domain.  The range of interactions a living system can have with its environment defines its cognitive domain.  From an autopoietic perspective, intelligence is manifest in the richness and flexibility of an organism’s structural coupling.  Maturana and Varela have also broadly reenvisioned communication, not as a transmission of information, but as a coordination of behavior that is determined not by any specific or external meaning but by the dynamics of structural coupling. 

            The theory of autopoiesis evolved from a general dissatisfaction among its creators with definitions of living systems which provided nothing more than a listing of features and functional attributes.  This dissatisfaction mirrors in many ways my own discontent with formalist studies of individual improvisers and their musical syntax – descriptions of the product rather than the process of improvisation.  Maturana and Varela’s important move towards understanding communication not as information commerce but as a coordination of behavior within a consensual domain supports my concern with the collective behavior of an improvising ensemble and offers the possibility of envisioning that ensemble and its resultant music as a self-producing and self-regulating system.9  

            Fritjof Capra (1996:211-213), who frequently references Maturana and Varela’s work, uses the model of a family system to illustrate this approach.  A human family can be described both as a biological system defined by blood relationships and as a conceptual system defined by roles and relationships that depend on social, cultural, and historical conventions.  A social autopoietic description would define this conceptual system as a network of conversations exhibiting inherent circularities that create self-amplifying feedback loops.  In Capra’s words, “The closure of the network results in a shared system of beliefs, explanations, and values – a context of meaning – that is continually sustained by further conversations” (212-213).  Since this network of familial “conversations” takes place in the symbolic social domain, the boundary of the autopoietic system is not a physical one, but one of expectations, confidentiality, and loyalty. 

            While free improvisation is in one sense liberated from many idiomatic constrictions, social hierarchies, and externally-imposed constraints that may be located in other musics, for the practice to be meaningful and for something to emerge out of the union of musicians and musical/cultural backgrounds, an autopoietic boundary must develop – not a physical boundary, but one of trust, conviviality, expectations, and loyalty.  This boundary remains dynamic and is continually maintained and renegotiated by the autopoietic network of musical and social interactions.

            A specific example from the collective experiences of Surrealestate may help to demonstrate this point.  During the Summer of 1998, a new musician was invited by two different members of Surrealestate to attend a playing session and “sit in” with the group; I will refer to this new musician as Paul.  Paul is a musician with considerable background and experience in the modern jazz traditions.  While drawn stylistically to a few of the more adventurous exponents of the jazz tradition, Paul has not listened to much free improvisation.  After his first experience with Surrealestate he was excited to have found a group of talented musicians and exploratory improvisers and he continued to attend our weekly sessions.  No discussion was ever taken up by Paul or any of the long-standing members of Surrealestate regarding joining the group on a full time basis.

            Despite Paul’s considerable facility on his instruments and well-developed musical “ears,” certain conflicts in terms of social and musical personalities seemed to arise within the group.  After several months of playing sessions with Paul in attendance, Surrealestate met for a listening session that Paul could not attend due to schedule conflicts and an unplanned discussion turned to problems associated with Paul’s membership in the group.  Robert referred to this entire affair as “the most difficult and challenging episode in terms of interpersonal relationships” that the group has endured.

            While it is difficult to present in any objective terms the issues that were discussed, I will attempt to list a few actions and attitudes that were felt by various members to be detrimental to the group’s musical approach and even its very existence.  In general, Paul’s personality was felt to be too forceful or self-centered and this was at times reflected in his playing.  For example, Paul would at times strongly express dissatisfaction with certain conceptual or composition schemes adopted by the group.  During preparation for Surrealestate’s tribute to Charles Ives, “ImprovIves,” Paul did not understand many of our designs and accordingly did not get into the spirit of the music or the performance.  Several members commented that the only times the Ives repertoire was successful were occasions when Paul could not attend a playing session or if he sat out entirely on a performance.  Others commented that Paul’s forceful personality was reflected in his penchant for taking extended “solos” that drew too much attention to himself rather than the collective processes of the group.  Other members sensed a competitive edge to his playing when he would often take up the same idea that was just developed and try to “out do” what had occurred rather than offering new insights or a fresh perspective on the music.  Robert acutely summarized:  “his participation was so different from everybody else’s, but in a way that took away from the other people.”

            While in one sense free improvisation is extremely open to sound exploration of all types, Paul began bringing instruments to our session over which he had extremely limited control and a few members felt this to be disrespectful to the musical goals of the ensemble.  At one session he also made derogatory remarks towards a female in the group and intentional belching noises during an improvisation, which everyone agreed after the fact were entirely inappropriate.

            Several other Surrealestate members mentioned additional breaches of expectations and trust that seemed to upset the egalitarian social organization of the group.  For example, Paul organized a performance for the group at a Los Angeles space but, without consent of the group, he advertised the performance under his own name rather than the group’s collective identity.  This was seen as an impertinent move on the part of a musician who had only been playing with the ensemble for a short time.

            During our discussion at the listening session about Paul’s musical playing and social behavior, several individuals were understandably reluctant to express accusations and blame in a musical and cultural setting that is inherently flexible and welcoming.  But perhaps the final factor in collectively deciding to ask Paul to cease from attending playing sessions with Surrealestate was that his continued attendance seemed to be prompting other members of longer standing not to attend.  In the final analysis, Paul’s addition to the group was viewed as a potentially crippling and destructive force to its conviviality and longevity.  Robert explained that “he wasn’t able to participate in such a way that people felt the group could continue as it had.” 

            Paul was disheartened by this news and he individually contacted each musician by phone to gain a more accurate picture of the perceived problems with his participation.  While this may have been genuinely motivated by a desire on his part to learn from his past behavior and receive musical and social feedback from the group’s members, even this technique was perceived by many as a means of undermining the group’s identity in a roundabout fashion. 

            Clearly the composition and well-being of a free improvising ensemble is not dictated solely by musical factors.  With other musical practices that are organized more or less in a hierarchical manner, say traditional concert music, personality differences can often be managed in deference to the group leader, the authority of the musical score, or the professionalism of “getting the job done.”  Free improvisation ensembles functioning as an autopoietic social system appear particularly susceptible to the full spectrum of so-called musical and extramusical influences on performance.

            This example provides one illustration of how a free improvisation ensemble may be viewed as an autopoietic social organization that establishes dynamic codes of acceptable behavior and conduct through a network of conversations exhibiting inherent circularities and through continued structural coupling and self-amplifying feedback.  Another emerging theory in evolutionary biology, symbiogenesis, may shed additional light on this orientation.

            Rather than conceiving of evolution solely in terms of random mutations and competitive natural selection as Darwin proposed, several contemporary biologists are focusing on the cooperative and creative aspects of life that lead to the ever-increasing diversity and complexity inherent in all living systems.  Capra (1996:227-28) explains:


The driving force of evolution, according to the emerging new theory, is to be found not in the chance events of random mutation, but in life’s inherent tendency to create novelty, in the spontaneous emergence of increasing complexity and order . . . Our focus is shifting from evolution to coevolution – an ongoing dance that proceeds through a subtle interplay of competition and cooperation, creation and mutual adaptation. 


            Symbiogenesis, a theory barely 30 years old, looks beyond the divergence of species studied in conventional evolutionary theory to the formation of new composite entities through the symbiosis of formerly independent organisms.  Symbiosis, the tendency of different organisms to live in close association with one another and often inside of one another, is a well-known phenomenon.10  In the words of Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (1986:15), “life did not take over the globe by combat, but by networking.”  Social Darwinism, an understandably maligned nineteenth-century intellectual stance, saw only competition in nature.  With this new outlook on the continual cooperation and codependence of all living things, metaphorical forays from biology into the social sphere may be welcomed instead of feared. 

            Improvisation in jazz music has in the past often been construed in highly competitive terms.  “Cutting sessions,” familiar in swing and bebop circles, describe the practice of pitting soloist against soloist (often on like instruments) to determine a winner by swaying both the audience and the fellow musicians in attendance.  For example, the lineage of trumpet and piano “kings” from the first decades of jazz history is well known. 

            With free improvisation, harmonic intricacy, uniform rhythmic speed, and cyclical chorus structures are abandoned, making the idea of a “cutting session” obsolete.  As soloist and accompanist roles become increasingly blurred, cooperation necessarily replaces competition as the primary performance objective.11  With free improvisation, it may be useful to view the evolution of the individual musician and the collective ensemble in symbiogenetic terms.  A single player exists within the larger entity, taking in resources and energy and offering in return additional grist for the improvisational mill, all in a delicate balancing act of attempting to collectively create a performance gestalt which transcends the input of its isolated parts.  Free improvising ensembles, if they chose to stay together, tend to coevolve in terms of shared dynamics and aesthetics.




            The “freedom” inherent in musical free improvisation is not an “anything goes” type of anarchy, but involves collective discovery in a communal environment and a mode of personal liberation made possible through cooperation and mutual respect.  On a musical level, this freedom may involve disrupting traditional expectations of musical form and sound.  On a social level, the egalitarian organization of ensemble free improvisation questions the traditional roles performed by composers, conductors, musicians, and even audiences.  On an economic and political level, musical free improvisation challenges the dominant modes of production and consumption proffered in a mass market society.  And on a individual, cultural, and spiritual level, free improvisation is an expressive form that dramatizes the individual’s struggle for identity and acceptance and broadens the spiritual efficacy of art in general. 

            While I firmly believe that in-depth social, political, and cultural analysis are beneficial to the study of improvisation, the diverse and dispersed aspects of the contemporary free improvisation community challenge any localized and monolithic cultural investigations.  As a move in this direction, I have looked to the contemporary paradigm shifts in the natural and social sciences and the current cultural and historical moment that have allowed for new visions of order and disorder to emerge across many academic disciplines and artistic pursuits. 

            Contemporary scientists working in a broad array of fields are increasingly interested in complex dynamical systems poised at the edge of chaos.  These diverse systems appear best able to function adaptively since their network dynamics allow for both enduring patterns of organization and spontaneous responses to unexpected occurrences.  Contemporary scientific research demonstrates that infinitely unique and locally erratic behavior can have a stable and robust global pattern.  In free improvisation, the open and unpredictable micro details of performance can combine to create a robust collective statement and a pronounced ensemble identity.  Like many complex dynamical systems in the natural world, musical free improvisation involves a continual tension between stabilization through communication and instability through fluctuations.  Human societies appear to illustrate the idea that the more complex a system, the more robust it may become but also the more numerous the fluctuations that can threaten its stability.

            The new sciences of synergetics and chaos and the practice of musical free improvisation are recent trends that remain limited and marginalized.  They both exist, however, within a contemporary culture that is beginning to question many tacitly assumed notions of coherence and conditions for knowing.  I believe that both pursuits point towards the possibility of a renewed relationship of humanity with nature – one that avoids issues of imposed power and hierarchical control in favor of a dynamic sense of interconnectedness and a strong emphasis on the synergetic processes that appear to define all complex systems – poised delicately between order and chaos, between stasis and extinction.






1.     See also Bushev (1994).


2.     As a result of a preference for static, structural investigations, most music scholarship has reflected a bias for individual and isolated composers, notated or notatable music forms, and complex linear and hierarchical musical designs.  In his important book on the subject, Derek Bailey (1992:ix) writes: “improvisation enjoys the curious distinction of being the most widely practiced of all musical activities and the least acknowledged and understood.”  See Ferrand (1961) for work on improvisation in the European classical traditon, Berliner (1994) and Gray (1991) for an overview of work on the subject in jazz, and Nettl (1998) for a survey of ethnomusicological work.  See also Small (1998) for a cogent critique of traditional academic approaches to the study of music performance.


3.     Free improvisation is an umbrella term that describes the work of an eclectic group of artists with diverse backgrounds in avant-garde jazz, avant-garde classical, electronic, popular, and world music traditions that share an interest in exploring improvisation unencumbered by overt idiomatic constraints.  An excellent web resource for an introduction to this music is the European Free Improvisation Page (  Bradlyn (1988-89) and Pignon (1998) are the only work I have found that specifically deals with the relationship between chaos theory and musical free improvisation.  The relationship between contemporary science and literature has received more attention (see Hayles 1990).


4.     Following is a list of artists and musicians that participated in free improvisation sessions at UCLA from 1995-2000: Gustavo Aguilar - congas, percussion; Christian Amigo - electric guitar; David Borgo - tenor and soprano saxes, various flutes; Roman Cho - percussion, lap-top steel guitar; Park Je Chun - percussion; Andy Connell - alto and soprano saxes, clarinet; Tonya Culley - dramatic reading; Phil Curtis - electric guitar; Dave DiMatteo - acoustic and electric bass; Joe DiStefano - alto sax; Loren Ettinger - electric guitar, vocals; Alan Ferber - trombone; Mark Ferber - drum set; Dan Froot - soprano sax; Jonathon Grasse - electric guitar; Steven Koenig - poetry reading; Kaye Lubach - tabla; David Martinelli - drum set; Brian McFadin - saxophones, clarinets, trumpet; Andrew McLean - tabla; Brana Mijatovic - drum set, percussion, piano, vocals; Christian Molstrom - electric guitar; Robert Reigle - tenor saxophone; Todd Sickafoose - acoustic bass.


5.     Surrealestate: Contrafactum (Acoustic Levatation AL 1004, 2000).  2625 East 13th Street, 2K, Brooklyn, NY 11235-4422,


6.     Unfortunately, Nunn provides little sense of how one is to judge the continuity or integrity of successive gestures in this style of playing other than to mention that this type of continuity is primarily psychological rather than expressly structural in nature.  These questions of musical meaning and performance evaluation in musical free improvisation remain some of the most difficult with which to grapple.


7.     This and all subsequent quotations by Robert Reigle stem from an interview with the author on April 27th, 1999.


8.     In a non-improvising musical situation, for example a classical chamber ensemble, small performance changes are tempered by the musical score and by the rehearsed interpretive decisions of the ensemble.


9.     The German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1995) has proposed that an autopoietic social system can be defined if the description of human social systems remains entirely within the social domain.  Luhmann’s central point is to identify the social processes of the autopoietic network as conceptual ones involving language and communication.


10.   The most striking evidence for Symbiogenesis is the mitochondria, the “powerhouses” inside of all animal and plant cells.  These vital parts of cellular respiration contain their own genetic material and reproduce independently of other parts of the cell. It is believed that mitochondria were originally free-floating bacteria that invaded other microorganisms and remained within them, cooperating and evolving together.


11.  David Ake (1998) has framed this move in jazz in terms of gender as well.  He perceives a shift from masculine to feminine traits as jazz musicians in the late 1950s began liberating the ensemble from a shared, uniform pulse and liberating improvisation from the demands of chord changes and tonality.  His discussion of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman” foregrounds these and other issues.




Ake, David. 1998. “Re-Masculating Jazz:   Ornette Coleman. “Lonely Woman,” and the New York Jazz Scene in the Late 1950s.” American Music 16(1):25-44.


Bailey, Derek. 1992(1980). Improvisation, its Nature and Practice in Music. London:  The British Library National Sound Archive.


Berliner, Paul. 1994. Thinking in Jazz:  The Infinite Art of Improvisation. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.


Bradlyn, Mark. 1988-89. “Chaos Theory and Group Improvisation.” The Improvisor 8:15-18.


Bushev, Michael. 1994. Synergetics:  Chaos, Order, Self-Organization. Singapore:  World Scientific Publishing.


Capra, Fritjof. 1996. The Web of Life:  A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems. New York:  Anchor Books.


Cardew, Cornelius. 1971. “Towards an Ethic of Improvisation.” In Treatise Handbook. London:  Peters.


Ferand, Ernest T. 1961. Improvisation in Nine Centuries of Music. Cologne:  A. Volk Verlag.


Gray, John. 1991. Fire music:  A Bibliography of the New Jazz, 1959-1990. New York:  Greenwood Press.


Haken, Hermann. 1987. “Synergetics:  An Approach to Self-Organization.” In Self Organizing Systems. edited by F. Eugene Yates. New York:  Plenum.


Hayles, N. Katherine. 1990. Chaos Bound:  Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science. Ithaca:  Cornell Univ. Press.


Luhmann, Niklas. 1995. Social Systems. Stanford:  Stanford University Press.


Mainzer, Klaus. 1994. Thinking in Complexity:  The Complex Dynamics of Matter, Mind, and Mankind. Berlin:  Springer-Verlag.


Margulis, Lynn, and Dorion Sagan. 1986. Microcosmos. New York:  Summit.


Maturana, Humberto, and Francisco Varela. 1988. The Tree of Knowledge:  The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. Boston:  Shambhala/New Science Press.


_____. 1980. Autopoiesis and Cognition:  The Realization of the Living, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science. Cohen, Robert S., and Marx W. Wartofsky, eds. Vol. 42. Dordecht:  D. Reidel Publishing Co.


Nettl, Bruno, ed. 1998. In the Course of Performance:  Studies in the World of Musical Improvisation. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.


Nunn, Tom. 1998. Wisdom of the Impulse:  On the Nature of Musical Free Improvisation. Self Published. (Tom Nunn may be contacted at 3016 25th Street, San Francisco, CA, or


Pignon, Paul. 1998. “Far From Equilibrium.” Unfiled:  Music Under New Technology (n.p.).


Prigogine, Ilya, and Isabelle Stengers. 1984. Order Out of Chaos:  Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. New York:  Bantam.


Small, Christopher. 1998. Musiking:  The Meanings of Performance and Listening. Hanover, Wesleyan University Press.