Archives du mot-clé pedagogy of musical practices

Vlatko Kučan

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Improvisation and the ‘inner walls of Ego’

A short reminder on the dialectics of creativity,

freedom and the inner representations of power relations.

Vlatko Kučan



1. Introduction / Inner Walls
2. Improvisation / Three Modes
3. Improvisation / Improvisors Statements
4. In a nutshell – the Freudian concept of the unconscious
5.Observations from Improvisation classes
6. The inner walls
7. Epilogue / Loose Ends


 “From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only practical consequence, we have to create ourselves as a work of art.”

Michel Foucault

1. Introduction / Inner Walls

One could have the impression that we are finally living in great times for the art of improvisation – times where terms like creativity, mindfulness (emotional awareness) together with the postulate of individual self-expression are omnipresent not only in the field of the arts but even more in contexts of education, business and all walks of everyday life. Improvisation is no longer seen as a rather obscure artistic practice with an ambiguous and shady reputation but suddenly as a dazzling universal method of human creativity that at the same time creates ‘one of the most vital academic discourses of our time’ (Lewis 2016).

One may get the elated impression, that all one has to do now is to spread the new gospel and act accordingly and all will be good at the end – as the longstanding walls of narrowminded skepticism against Improvisation are finally crumbling into pieces by this long overdue shift of awareness.

And while I could not be happier about the increasing interest in Improvisation and the resulting developments – I am very skeptical in the regard that positive connotation and purely positivistic practice and reflection of the subject can work the charm of releasing everyone’s creative potentials.[1] Therefore and to avoid such rather naïve promises of salvation the discourse on Improvisation needs to be approached dialectically in order to gain some more plausible insights and arguments.

This appears all the more true as the practice of Improvisation itself necessarily seems to include and reveal certain obstacles and resistances which (for the sake of the given questions) can be viewed as inner representations of ‘walls’ – ergo of solid structures that have the function to separate, keep apart and hinder permeability. As the rather flashy title and sarcastic introduction imply I will try to carry this metaphor through my short argument and through the territories of Freudian terminology towards the realms of Critical Theory.


2. Improvisation / Three Modes

Let’s have a look at the most common setting in so called free music improvisation: a group of performers that is attempting to collectively create music without preceding agreements. There might or might not be an audience present. When we ask or interview improvising performers about their work and practice, the answers we get are mostly focused on the following aspects: a) intention, self-expression, subjective experience; b) the interaction in the group; c) the music itself; d) the reaction / feedback from the audience.

These topics of structural organization in the improvisors retrospective reflections might give us a good clue where to focus our attention, as the actual process of Improvisation itself can be looked at in these terms of:

  1. subjectivity, self-awareness, individual psychodynamics
  2. group-dynamics, interaction, communication
  3. production of material, language, idiom

And viewed from the subjective perspective of the performer we could say that in the moment of improvisation the improvisor needs to be able to establish and maintain these same three basic relationships or ‘connections’ that seem vital for the practice of Improvisation:

  1. the connection to her-/himself (this is the most complex one and it will be in the main focus of my argument)
  2. the connection to the other performers (and the audience if present – which might also be viewed as a separate connection)
  3. the connection to the music (or the musical material)

These three different viewing angles will hopefully also proof itself useful for the discussion of the argument at hand.


3. Improvisation / Improvisors Statements

Let’s take a short excursus and see how three of the most respected improvisors in (Jazz-) music describe their inner stance in regard to Improvisation.

a) Charlie Parker

You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail. (Parker)

b) Sonny Rollins

(…) When I am practicing at home I am practicing so that I can get in to my subconscious when I am performing for people. But in the process of improvising you’re always in your subconscious, you’re always going towards your subconscious. That is where you want to be at, that is the music you want to create, things that are deep inside of you, that is what you want to come out.
I start out playing things that I know, sort of to get the blood going. Those things can be described often as clichés, so you begin with the clichés so that you can get the process in motion. Once the process is in motion, then I am not thinking about anything, thinking is over. You can’t play and think, cannot do that. So the clichés are just when you get up and once you get it going, it’s over, then you’re playing. (…) Your subconscious, or whatever your pipeline is to the celestial music world. Then you’ll get out of the way, let that happen. (Rollins)

c) Keith Jarret

Music is not something you can use words to describe. Music is either in the air – and you find it, or it is in the air – and you don’t find it, but you just don’t try hard enough. You can be educated to play the piano, you can be educated about chords, you can be educated about scales, you can be educated about everything there is to do with music – and you are still zeroed – until you let go of what holds you back. And all of us could possibly not be held back. But most of us don’t let it happen. My job in my opinion is to let it out. But I don’t believe that there is any rules. There are no rules. (…) I did not realize that for a long time. (…) Education is one thing – I don’t believe there are masters, I believe there are students – some students work harder than others. In Jazz the narrative is – what carries the music forward – and the narrative is the players playing. (…) If you hear something and it changes you – it’s because what you heard was someone who became an innovator, and they became an innovator by hard work on themselves. Not so much work on the instrument. (…)(Jarret)

The key points of these statements are the following:

  1. The improviser needs to acquire both a high degree of practical skill on their instruments and a profound knowledge of the given idiom and artform.
  2. When involved in the creative process the improvisor needs to ‘give up’ all knowledge and control in order to be able to improvise.
  3. The music originates in the performers ‘subconscious’ and is to be found ‘in the air’.

While C. Parker’s choice of term ‘wailing’ can be read in its common meaning as a lamenting expression or in its slang meaning of ‘playing an instrument well’ – both interpretations include an affective expression of the subject. I am aware that some readers will be tempted to strongly reject this argument as it may seem to promote a ‘romantic’ – or to speak in Marxian terms: a ‘bourgeois’ – understanding and narrative of expression and the nature of art. I would ask those readers for a little patience since I hope that we can keep that most inevitable discussion in our attention as we proceed with the present argument. For the time being I would like to quote Herbert Marcuse on this matter:

“(…)even in bourgeois society, insistence on the truth and right of inwardness is not really a bourgeois value. With the affirmation of the inwardness of subjectivity, the individual steps out of the network of exchange relationships and exchange values, withdraws from the reality of bourgeois society, and enters another dimension of existence. Indeed, this escape from reality led to an experience which could (and did) become a powerful force in invalidating the actually prevailing bourgeois values, namely, by shifting the locus of the individual’s realization from the domain of the performance principle and the profit motive to that of the inner resources of the human being: passion, imagination, conscience. (Marcuse, location 84)

What can we learn about such an affective expression of the subject from Mr. Rollins? In his statement S. Rollins uses the term ‘subconscious’ as a central resource or concept of improvisation. In its popular meaning ‘subconscious’ describes everything that is not in the focal awareness of the subject. In social sciences the term is used for describing a motivation “without intention, awareness and conscious guidance.” (Stajkovic, p. 1172)

The last and perhaps most peculiar aspect found in the artists statements speaks about the necessity of the subject to ‘forget’ everything they have learned and practiced (C. Parker), ‘get out of the way’ and ‘let the music happen’ (S. Rollins) while hoping to ‘find the music in the air’ (K. Jarret). These phrases seem to imply that the music has some sort of de-subjectified nature or autonomy of its own.

We shall investigate if the consideration of the concept of the ‘unconscious’ as introduced by Sigmund Freud and developed within Psychoanalysis holds any insights for our attempt to understand Improvisation and if it throws some light on what seems to be a paradoxical dichotomy between subjective expression and an inherent objectivity in art.


4. In a nutshell – the Freudian concept of the unconscious

While this short article can by no means attempt to give a satisfying introduction to the Psychoanalytic discourse on the subject of the unconscious, I do hope that the employment of some basic and in the context of cultural theory not uncommon Freudian terms will become plausible and perhaps also useful in the present context. Readers familiar with the Freudian basics may skip the following (lengthy) quotes that serve mainly the function of a quick introduction to the matter.

The term ‘subconscious’ was introduced in 1900 by Sigmund Freud alongside the terms ‘pre-conscious’ and ‘conscious’ as an integral part in his first topographical concept of the human psyche.[2]

The Freudian unconscious is primarily – and indissolubly – a topographical and dynamic notion formed on the basis of the experience of treatment. This experience showed that the psyche cannot be reduced to the conscious domain and that certain ‘contents’ only become accessible to consciousness once resistances have been overcome; it revealed that mental life is ‘full of active yet unconscious ideas’ and that ‘symptoms proceed from such ideas’; and it led to the postulation of the existence of ‘separate psychical groups’, and more generally to the recognition of the unconscious as a particular ‘psychical locality’ that must be pictured not as a second consciousness but as a system with its own contents, mechanisms and – perhaps – a specific ‘energy’. (…) From 1920 onwards Freud worked out another conception of the personality – often given the concise title of ‘the second topography’. (…) In its schematic form, this second theory involves three ‘agencies’: the id, instinctual pole of the personality; the ego, which puts itself forward as representative of the whole person, and which, as such, is cathected by narcissistic libido; and the super-ego or agency of judgement and criticism, constituted by the internalisation of parental demands and prohibitions.  (Laplanche, Unconscious, location 14127)

While the ‘unconscious’ is by definition exactly what the name implies: not accessible by the conscious mind, it is also the home of the ‘primary process’ where

(…)psychical energy flows freely, passing unhindered, by means of the mechanisms of condensation and displacement, from one idea to another and tending to completely recathect the ideas attached to those satisfying experiences which are at the root of unconscious wishes (primitive hallucination). (Ibid., location 10155)

The ‘pre-conscious’ on the other hand is an intermediate realm between the ‘unconscious’ and the ‘conscious’:

From the metapsychological point of view, the preconscious system is governed by the secondary process. It is separated from the unconscious system by the censorship, which does not permit unconscious contents and processes to pass into the preconscious without their undergoing transformations. In the context of the second topography the term ‘preconscious’ is used above all adjectivally, to describe what escapes immediate consciousness without being unconscious in the strict sense of the word. As far as systems are concerned, the term qualifies contents and processes associated, mainly, with the ego—but also, to some extent, with the super-ego. (…) In the case of the secondary process, the energy is bound at first and then it flows in a controlled manner: ideas are cathected in a more stable fashion while satisfaction is postponed, so allowing for mental experiments which test out the various possible paths leading to satisfaction. The opposition between the primary process and the secondary process corresponds to that between the pleasure principle and the reality principle. (Ibid., Preconscious, Location 9744)

To return to the matter of Improvisation and our quoted master improvisors: if we try to put our psychoanalytic terms into work, we can attempt to substitute Mr. Rollins’ term ‘sub-conscious’ with the concept of the Freudian ‘pre-conscious’. It is interesting to note, that in another place,

Freud describes the preconscious system as ‘conscious knowledge’ (bewusste Kenntnis). The choice of terms here is significant in that it stresses distinctiveness from the unconscious: ‘knowledge’ implies a certain cognisance regarding the subject and his personal world, while ‘conscious’ points up the fact that the contents and processes in question, though non-conscious, are attached to the conscious from a topographical point of view (Ibid., Location 9785)

This description resonates well with the idea of the ‘forgotten knowledge’ postulated by our quoted sources.

This leaves us with the still unanswered question of the artist that ‘steps out of the way’ and ‘lets things happen’. It is obvious that these phrases describe what we would call a dynamic situation or process. The subject needs to give up control, get out of the way, let go – it needs to not to try to hinder or resist the other force at play – the music. But what is the force of music and where does it come from? And what is the resistance?

Perhaps here Mr. Jarret’s indication about the ‘hard work on themselves’ (rather than the instruments) gives us a valuable hint.


5. Observations from Improvisation classes

Let us leave the intriguing but also potentially slippery terrain of theory behind for a moment and once again look at the practice of Improvisation – or to be more specific: to the particular stage of learning how to improvise.[3]

One of the fields of my pedagogical practice is teaching so called Free Improvisation to Jazz students. At this point the term ‘free’ indicates nothing more than Improvisation ‘freed from’ predefined formal, tonal or other structural or musical parameters. While mostly being well trained and experienced in Jazz Improvisation most of these students have no or very little experience with such an open setting. Starting from a situation of ‘supposed nothingness’ makes it very clear for everyone that all that follows is a creation by the group and its individuals.

Despite the initial high hopes for exciting new creations the very first group improvisations that a new ensemble creates are mostly very uniform and monochromatic. Not to say that affective excitement is not present – but it does not show itself in the music in a way one would perhaps expect.

Here the repeated and accompanying conversations, analysis of material, reflections and the sharing of individual perceptions and experiences gradually reveal a clearer picture of the underlaying and immanent obstacles. These obstacles are responsible for turning what appears to be an opportunity for free creation and expression into something that feels and sounds quite the opposite.

These obstructions can be organized around the previously mentioned three groups:

  1. subjectivity, self-awareness, individual psycho-dynamics
  2. group-dynamics, interaction, communication
  3. production of material, language, idiom

Over time the individuals need to acquire a knowledge of material and the skills of its production. They need to undergo a group process, that will hopefully result in the constitution of a protected and friendly enough space for their interaction. If Mr. Jarret is right by pointing out: ‘there are no rules’ in the sense that there are no predefined rules – then the rules need to be developed and negotiated by the individuals in the collective. As there is no doubt that improvisation is always also a social practice the improvising group becomes a ‘micro society’ – with all the consequences that this implies.

And last-but-not-least each individual will have to undergo a process of self-experience and self-reflection through the practice of Improvisation. The sources and necessities for this are manifold: the experience of social interaction and the mirroring by the group members[4], the encounter with the self-produced material, the experience of the improvisational actions, the affective sensations etc.

While this in many ways can also be seen as a developmental process (even in a therapeutic sense) – there is a very important distinction between pure self-experience and the artistic production. The latter is the result of a process at the end of which an “aesthetic form” is created. Marcuse defines this as such:

We can tentatively define “aesthetic form” as the result of the transformation of a given content (actual or historical, personal or social fact) into a self-contained whole: a poem, play, novel, etc. The work is thus “taken out” of the constant process of reality and assumes a significance and truth of its own. The aesthetic transformation is achieved through a reshaping of language, perception, and understanding so that they reveal the essence of reality in its appearance: the repressed potentialities of man and nature. (Marcuse, Chapter I, Location 113)

The ‘aesthetic form’ or symbolic productions of art are being formulated in a determined cultural and historic context and tension field that is being represented by what we can call a given ‘state of the art’.

In this process of artistic creation, the subjective expression of the artist is not the sole end in itself but rather a necessary condition. Despite the fact that subjective expression is never just purely subjective – as it always carries its social and cultural inscriptions and determinations – it needs to undergo a transformation towards the given prerequisites of an ‘aesthetic form’ and the standards of the ‘state of the art’.[5] Viewed from a subjective perspective of the performer it is exactly in that sense that the subject has to ‘get out of the way’ (S. Rollins) in order to allow another kind of ‘pipeline’ of communication.

And thus by ‘working on him/herself’ (K. Jarret) towards the ‘state of the art’ the improviser transforms and transcends his or her subjectivity – and more ever it seems that the ‘royal road’ to objectivity leads through subjectivity – which further manifests our peculiar paradox.


6. The inner walls

But what about the promised walls? We have had a peek at the Freudian structural model of the psyche which gave us a clue for a different reading and interpretation of our master improvisers statements. We defined three realms or vital ‘connections’ that need to be established, developed and maintained by the improvisor. And we had a very brief look at the immanent obstacles that seem to show in the process of developing improvisational practice. We also made the bold claim that subjective ‘truth’ is not a dead-end-street but rather a necessary gateway towards a more universal narrative.

That points towards the last piece of this short argument: the notion of inner representations of power relations. This subject appears disguised as another ‘dusty old hat’ that seems to have been misplaced for a long time. To pick up the polemic tone of my introduction: as we seem to be living in a time of bold  – and often bald ideas, let’s try it on![6]

Whether we look through the perspectives of Marxist or Freudian theory or the subsequent developments of Critical Theory by the protagonists of the Frankfurt School – there seems to be very little doubt about the notion, that social reality, family structures and their power relations are inscribed and represented in the subjects and their individual psychological and physical structured second nature. These inscriptions constitute the ‘inner representations of power’ – and thus our metaphoric ‘walls’ that are built from both conscious and unconscious materials.

It was the groundbreaking achievement of Freud as a true “initiator of discursive practice”(Foucault, 1969 ) to formulate a theory that described the individual development of the subject in relationship to the given socio-cultural conditions. As Freud’s successors Alfred Lorenzer and Jaques Lacan – to name just the two most important German and French Psychoanalyst theoreticians – have further developed Freuds theory to a level of complexity that is beyond the scope of this text, I will therefore stick to the simplifying metaphor of the ‘inner walls’. In their effect on the subject these ‘walls’ not only in various ways narrow down the field of creative action (Spielraum), they also form the obstacles and structures of resistance for conscious emancipatory developments and ‘attacks’ from unconscious primary drives of the pleasure principle alike.

Artistic production where it succeeds realizes these obstacles – it transforms and transcends them into ‘aesthetic form’. Or as Herbert Marcuse puts it:

Art reflects this dynamic in its insistence on its own truth, which has its ground in social reality and is yet its “other.” Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience, a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle. Subjects and objects encounter the appearance of that autonomy which is denied them in their society. The encounter with the truth of art happens in the estranging language and images which make perceptible, visible, and audible that which is no longer, or not yet, perceived, said, and heard in everyday life. (Marcuse, Conclusion, Location 688)

That is exactly the observation we have made in the process of pursuing artistic Improvisation: a long and sometimes painful – but also joyful and increasingly rewarding way towards a notion of freedom. A way through territories made of rules and prohibitions where the exploring subject / the improvisor is guided by well-behaved or opportunistic decisions, inappropriate or wild actions, silly or dangerous maneuvers, shy inactions, halfhearted decisions, brave escapades – you name it. Herbert Marcuse:

The autonomy of art reflects the unfreedom of individuals in the unfree society. If people were free, then art would be the form and expression of their freedom. Art remains marked by unfreedom; in contradicting it, art achieves its autonomy. The nomos which art obeys is not that of the established reality principle but of its negation. But mere negation would be abstract, the “bad” utopia. The utopia in great art is never the simple negation of the reality principle but its transcending preservation (Aufhebung) in which past and present cast their shadow on fulfillment. The authentic utopia is grounded in recollection. (Ibid., 702)

The obvious postulate to the improvisor to ‘detect’ these ‘walls’ and to take up the ‘fight’ seems to be a quite simple and profane appeal. But every attempt to ‘cross these borders’ and to ‘face the other side’ – every first step towards autonomy – is accompanied with Angst. Being able to recognize, accept and overcome (and eventually understand) these anxieties and fears is a necessary step. The journey is a long one – it usually takes a lifetime. At least one does not have to fight a lonely and desperate Don Quixotian fight since Improvisation is a social practice: the caring and sharing collective is so much stronger and wiser than the individual.[7]

And then there is the music…


7. Epilogue / Loose Ends

I am aware of the fact that the present text leaves some intriguing theoretical questions open. In particular it would be very rewarding to gain a better understanding of the creative process of musical group Improvisation in the context of more recent psychoanalytic concepts of object relations. While there has been a growing number of publications in recent years, these works mostly look at the creative process in visual arts or writing. The practice of musical Improvisation with its strong social implications and peculiar material is in many ways different from let’s say the production of a painting.

An important discussion would also be around the question, in what way the concept of embodiment as described by D. Sudnow in The ways of the hand relates to the narrative of this text.[8] I believe that Sudnow’s concept – while it clearly does not take affective, psychodynamic or social aspects into explicit account – does not contradict the notion of the ‘subconscious’. In order to define this relationship, one would have to discuss ‘embodiment’ in psychoanalytic terms – which is beyond the scope of the text at hand and therefore has to be postponed.

Another topic would be the question of relevance of the chosen quotes – as all are by Jazz musicians and therefore may imply and refer only to a specific improvisational practice. While I believe that my argument is not compromised by my choice of warrantors – there is certainly more to be found behind it, that I can only address very briefly at this point. It is my strong belief that the significance of the African-American artform called Jazz for twentieth century music is still widely underrated and misunderstood. In his article Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives’,  George Lewis points out the very different historical and socio-cultural backgrounds of Jazz music (and its subsequent developments) and the Western or ‘pan-Europen’ art music tradition and discusses the resulting difficulties and resistances in a mediation at eye level. Lewis uncovers both – the Euro-centric blindness and the constitution of “Jazz as Epistomological Other” (Lewis 2002, p. 227) – as racialized power relations. Obviously I could not agree more.[9]

Another more general topic would be the question of relevance of the chosen theoretical references –  in particular that of Psychoanalysis itself, as some may argue that the present argument is overhauled and antiquated since the discourse on Marxism and Psychoanalysis was elevated to the ‘next level’ by the works of Deleuze and Guattari (1972, 1980) – just to name the most prominent contributors. While I would certainly agree to the latter, I still see the validity of my argument for two reasons: i) unlike Deleuze and Guattari I am obviously not ready to get rid of Psychoanalysis altogether; ii) my argument was derived from the musicians quotes that referenced some popular notions of Psychoanalytic theory.

Last but not least: the present text was not intended as a contribution to a strictly academic discourse but rather as a statement within a heterogeneous community outside of specialized academic or expert circles. It addresses my perception of a growing positivistic and uncritical notion of the creative process that in the long run can only result in a depreciation and trivialization of the artistic work.


1. In the worst case it could create a reproduction of the ‘Yoga phenomenon’ – where the extensive practice of Yoga by millions of westerners does not always seem to promote spirituality and awareness but rather nurture narcissistic needs and deficiencies.

2. There is another concept of the ‘subconscious’ that I prefer to avoid for this discussion: the so called ‘collective unconscious’ by C.G. Jung. While it seems to resonate well with music by its notion of sedimented reservoires of archaic cultural experiences and symbols it also holds many problematic aspects and is not necessary at all for the present argument.

3. Which is not to imply that a fixed pedagogy or foreseeable timeframe do exist for this undertaking.

4. I use the term ‘mirroring’ in reference to H.D. Winnicot’s (Playing and Reality) concept of the same name and D.Stern’s (The Interpersonal World of the Infant) further extension of it, the concept of ‘attunement’. Both concepts describe the importance of the reaction of the mother to the infant child, that are vital for the self-experience (and therefore the development) of the child. I believe that a similar kind and quality of interaction takes place within improvising groups. Furthermore the musical material (or the music itself) can be seen as such a ‘mirror’. This latter aspect would necessarily demand a more complex theoretical discussion of musical material, symbolization and cathexis.

5. I am deliberately avoiding the Freudian term and concept of ‘sublimation’, as it is a very vague territory that does not promise rapid – if any progress for this argument.

6. While resisting the temptation to revisit the vibrant and mostly uncompromising debates of the 1960s and ‘70s that fought out Marxism against Psychoanalysis in a romantic manner, where this philosophical discourse – alongside other unforgettable fights of the time like the one between Muhamad Ali and George Forman – seemed appropriately signified by the metaphor of competing opponents (and their passionate followers), that was soon to become rendered irrelevant by the new and intricate ‘game’ of post-structuralist philosophy.

7. I cannot point out strongly enough my believe, that (despite all necessary focus on aspects of individual psychology) improvisation remains by nature a social practice and that the ‘inner walls of ego’ constitute themselves alongside the relationship between the creative subject and society by means of social interaction.

8. Many thanks to Jean-Charles François for pointing this out to me.

9.My earlier association with the iconic boxing match between Ali and Forman (see note 6) became clear to me in retrospect in this context. The association itself and its potential interpretative content seemed at the same time to both hint towards and obstruct the aspect of the underlying narratives of racial power relations and projective identification – both vital aspects in understanding the perception of Jazz by white Europeans.


Deleuze, Gilles & Felix Guattari 1972: Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 1. L’Anti-Œdipe. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.

————————————————- 1980: Capitalisme et Schizophrénie 2. Mille Plateaux. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.

Foucault, Michel 1961-1983: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, 2nd edn, University of Chicago Press.

——————————- 1969: « What is an Author? », Twentieth-Century Literary Theory. Ed. Vassilis Lambropoulos and David Neal Miller. Albany: State University Press of New York.

Jarret, Keith 2014: Transcript from video NEA Jazz masters.

Lacan, Jacques 2002: Ecrits. New York: W.W.Norton&Company.

Laplanche, Jean & J.-B. Pontalis 1988: The Language of Psychoanalysis (Maresfield Library). Kindle E-book. Taylor and Francis.

Lewis, George E. 2002. « Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives ». Black Music Research Journal/ Center for Black Music Research. Columbia College Chicago.  

Lewis, George E., and Benjamin Piekut 2016: The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies Vol. 1-2. Oxford University Press.

Lorenzer, Alfred 1995: Sprachzerstörung und Rekonstruktion. Seiten: Suhrkamp.

Marcuse, Herbert 1978: The Aesthetic Dimension. Kindle E-book. Beacon Press.

Parker, Charles: Origin of quote unclear – numerous citations can be found on internet, such as:

Rollins, Sonny 2014: Transcript from video Moving towards the subconscious.

Stern, Daniel 1985: The Interpersonal World of the Infant: A View from Psychoanalysis and Development.. Basic Books

Sudnow, David 2011: The ways of the hand. Cambridge, Mas.: MIT Press

Winnicot, Donald 1971: Playing and Reality. London: Tavistock.

Michel Lebreton – English

Return to the French original text :



Walls and Edges Crossing
the Time and Space of the Conservatory

Michel Lebreton


1. Closed spaces… still time / Open spaces… time of possibilities
2. Suspended Spoken Words, Retrieved Spoken Words
3. Edges, Fringes, Margins
4. You Just Have to Cross the Bridge
6. A Speaking Human Being, a Social Human Being
7. A House of Music(s)
8. One Step Sideways

1. Closed spaces… still time / Open spaces… time of possibilities

The Wall. It imposes itself by its mass, its capacity to delimit a border. It induces a permanence in space, a fixity, an impression of timelessness that contributes to make us oblivious to its presence. We practice, we think in the shadow of walls. But if we always go through the same plans, the same volumes, they soon appear to us, in an illusory evidence, adorned with timelessness. They compel us to pronounce aphorisms such as: “We’ve always done it this way!”, “From time immemorial…”, “It’s obvious that…”, which are all expressions that cement them even more. And discourage debate, since… that’s the way it’s always been done.

The walls along the US-Mexican border are trying to lock Mexicans in their country. In a parallel movement, they lock the Americans in an enclave that some wish to be protective. There is a desire for walls that goes hand in hand with a fear of otherness that is unfortunately linked to a need for security.

A wall is made to defend. It means that an attack is feared. Hadrian’s wall stands against the threat of barbarian invasion. But as time goes by, it is neglected, soldiers abandoning their posts to settle as peasants in the surrounding area. It became a reservoir providing stones to build houses, churches… The wall here becomes the material for other practices. These open up new spaces.

How to open spaces and temporalities, which practices to develop that allow to perceive the wall and to dare to come out of its shadow, to leave this illusory security, to put fears in suspension? And to bring to light the evidences asserted by the powers that be?


2.Suspended Spoken Words, Retrieved Spoken Words

I had the opportunity to take charge of a writing workshop for ESMD (Ecole Supérieure Musique et Danse Hauts de France) students with the aim of helping them write their master’s dissertations. The very first session revealed dismay among some of these students, all adults with teaching positions and experience. Their first reactions were: “I have nothing to report”, “I am just teaching”, “Nothing extraordinary is happening in my courses”… They provided closed answers that cut short any prospect of questioning. What’s more, they were saying in an underlying way that there was nothing to observe, thus trivializing their teaching practices, practices whose many areas of interest we were to discover later on.

In order to overcome this state of affairs, I have called upon experiments taking place outside the framework of conservatories. Some experiences putting into play their capacities to accompany, help, educate but in a context where they are not evaluated through the prism of music.

For one student, it was a series of replacements in a hospital environment that led her to practice teamwork, listening to patients, conflict resolution… approaches that she was later able to translate into her teaching practice. For another one it was to help her sister who had difficulties with a baccalaureate exam. This sister was in demand and it went smoothly. The brother had the same difficulties but was reluctant to do school work, especially under the supervision of his older sister! The student did not find any operational situations but later realized, when her brother successfully reoriented himself in a different branch which he liked, that motivation cannot be taught but (I quote an extract from her dissertation) “that the role of a teacher is to develop situations open to the pleasure of learning (manipulating, exploring, building…) so that motivation can happen, can increase”. Finally, for a third student, it was an experience as a school life assistant for autistic children with the aim of integrating them into the standard school curriculum. She indicates in one of her writings: “This one year experience is certainly the most memorable and one of the most beautiful in my life, I understood the importance of being accepted without expecting anything in return, I have a different vision of this illness and above all I was able to acquire a certain number of skills…” (She then mentions competences such as patience, curiosity, ability to adapt, listening to others…).

These stories that they put down on paper and that they exchanged and discussed, played the role of the photographic developer. They saw themselves in situations of accompanying the learners, sometimes of teaching them. Speaking became easier, the desire to listen became more assertive. And with them, the conviction that “something was happening”. And that it deserves to be told, observed and analyzed. This ethnographic perspective has taken over their professional sphere. It became the source of other narratives, which were also exchanged, discussed and analyzed. Each of them had begun to circumvent the wall of foregone conclusions in order to begin to assemble the stones of the possible. And to reappropriate the time and space of their experiences by evoking the human deep layers and movements. On what grounds do we then commit ourselves to make these illuminations happen?


3. Edges, Fringes, Margins

The edge is a band, a list, a margin (not a list) between two milieus of a different nature, which participates in both without being confused with them. The edge has its own life, its autonomy, its specificity, its fauna, its flora, etc. The edge of a forest, the fringe between sea and land (estrant), a hedge, etc. While the border and boundary are fences, the edge separates and unites at the same time. A strait is an exemplary figure of an edge: the Strait of Gibraltar separates two continents (Africa and Europe) at the same time as it connects two seas (the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean).
Emmanuel Hocquard, Le cours de PISE, POL, Paris 2018, page 61.

The edges are the places of the possible. Their boundaries are only defined by the environments bordering them. They are shifting, subject to erosion and sedimentation: there is nothing obvious about them. Teachers and learners, both of whom inhabited by musical experiences nourished by their respective backgrounds, find themselves in the first place evolving in the soft soils of the edges. They don’t know each other but they gather around an object “music” that should be written in the “singular – plural”: the Music – my musics / the musics  – my Music. Over time, the teacher has built up a landscape where social and therefore musical representations have been constructed and edified more or less solidly, more or less consciously (for example, “what constitutes ‘music’”, “what does it mean to be a ‘musician’”, “what is ‘teaching’”, “what is the student’s place in this process?”…). The learners also come with a variety of social and musical representations.  But when they enter this place called “Conservatory” for the first time, the first term remind them that they are entering “a high place of expertise” and the second one reminds them that the music taught there is predominantly “great music”. The learners are available, motivated and on the reserve, possibly impressed. They are in the edges, unknown but attractive territories in order to concretize their own desires (at least we hope so). In this case, most often, the practice of an instrument. The question then is: will the teacher join the student in these moving edges, the only ground available capable of bringing them together during this initial moment? And will the teacher try to clear a common space and time for providing mutual learning? Or will she/he take the learners to the shadow of their wall to run a predefined and solidly built program? Will he/she leave the barriers open to vagrancy and tinkering[1], even encouraging them? Or will she/he confine all practices to the enclosure he/she has built over time?

The only real journey, the only bath of Jouvence, would not be to go to new landscapes, but to have other views, to see the universe with the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is.
(Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière, page 762)

In a very reductive rewording on my part (sorry to the Marcels), at the very least update “sous les pavés, la plage!”[2] For what’s the point of being in the presence of other soundscapes if we bend them endlessly to our habitus? Instead, let us create situations open to our imaginations, edges conducive to passing strange objects in the midst of improbable exchanges. Let’s leave a part of improvisation in the “making of music”, and also the “collectively building sound scaffolding”, as well as the “keeping open workshop”. Open the other eyes that are in us and all this through the power of confrontation and exchange with the other.


4. You Just Have to Cross the Bridge

The meeting of musicians around open practices (e.g. “in the group, everyone will speak in reaction to what they perceive of other propositions: as a complement – to go towards – or in opposition – to move away –”) and little known or unknown objects (e.g. “let’s accumulate layers of sound texture through increasingly granular timbres”) brings into play relations to objects and subjects that differ from those developed in a training that is still often centered on the interpretation of aesthetically identified repertoires. The usual behaviors and skills are no longer sufficient to participate in the sound narratives that one is called upon to construct, alone or in a group. There are then two possible ways: jump into the departing train without knowing the itinerary and make a new narrative come along or let the train pass (some may even be tempted to dynamite it!).

Such a situation was revealed during a project with a string ensemble (eight violinists and three cellists). Initially, the aim was to create a repertoire of traditional dance music from Berry and also to compose in that style. These repertoires, unknown to the musicians, were approached through singing and dancing, followed by oral transposition on instruments and in small groups. The musicians were invited to search collectively for this transposition, then to confront their findings in a large group. Improvisation games on the fifth structure and the bourdons of certain melodies completed this workshop. It should be noted that the technical skills required for the interpretation were acquired by all the participants.

One of the musicians, aged 16, was on the reserve, both on dancing and on improvising on the proposed rules (she had already practiced improvisation on harmonic grids but in another setting). She had come to enroll in a string ensemble class and expected to work on the « classical » repertoire, although information had been provided defining the particular project of this workshop. But where she had expected, despite the presentation of the project, to work in an ensemble on written works with the aim of interpreting them collectively under the direction of the string teacher, she found herself in a workshop situation in which everyone was called upon to tinker. Add to this the apparent lack of “prestige” of the proposed materials: the apparent simplicity of the melodies, improvisation on five notes, accompaniments based on rhythmic bourdons, popular dance with repetitive steps at first impression… as well as the proposed working methods: collective work and research, confrontations and debates on the findings, search for a final collective construction… which she was put off by. These were all elements that displace the more usual issues such as confronting difficult and prestigious repertoires and blending in with orchestral playing and sound, with many professional recordings as references. I did not succeed in helping her to question this state of affairs, she was unwilling to exchange with me.


5. Co-construction

At stake here is the very status of the musician learner/teacher.

Are these learning musicians able to put on different skins (performer, improviser, orchestrator…), different scenarios (orchestra, chamber music, contemporary music group, soloist…) and different aesthetics as they would freely rummage through their trunk of old clothes in their grandparents’ attic to play at being someone else?

Is this teaching musician willing and able to accompany these learners so that these hats become one, flexible and adaptable to the choices and necessities of the moment; so that these scenarios are as many varied human and musical relationships; so that these aesthetics are opportunities to breathe in cultural diversity?

Are these learners able to accept that a course identified as a string ensemble is the place for these different pathways?

Is this teacher able to create the conditions for this to happen?

Here it is important to take into account several aspects that shape the tradition of conservatories. They will enable us to better define the building and its architecture at a time when it is trying to redeploy itself in relation to the evolution of French society. The few remarks below are to be taken into account for those who want to cross the walls.

These walls…

… are partly within the institution which more or less partitions different territories into “courses”, “orchestra”, “chamber music”, “collective practices” … and allows / prevents, more or less, teachers and learners to advance, depending on the projects, by porosity between the different categories of the occidental musical world.

They are also to some degree present in the segmentation of the teaching that takes place from the junior high school onwards, and which refers to a conception of education constructed as a succession of fields of knowledge that the pupil goes through from hour to hour: a gigantic open-space strewn with half-high dividers that isolate while allowing an institutional hubbub to filter through that barely makes sense.

They are present in the dominant conception of conservatory teaching, which focuses the learning process on the instrument and its teacher and conceives collective group practices as an implementation of what is learned in the instrumental course. Some sort of supplement.

They are also included in the division of labor that has developed since the nineteenth century and the hyper-specialization that followed to the present day: to each person his or her place and task.

They are finally present in the teacher-learner relationship which is impregnated by this way of structuring society.

Partitioning, segmenting, dividing… the organization and practices in places of education, including conservatories, are still permeated by these more or less closed constructions. The creation of departments[3], to take one example, has only shifted this reality into a slightly larger circle, but between partners of the same family, they are structured on the same foundations. Many departmental meetings are moreover focused on the choice of repertoires to be played in the coming year and these choices are not the consequence of a more global project centered on learning musicians, territories to be explored and filled with music.


6. A Speaking Human Being, a Social Human Being

Walls delimit a territory and allow for its development in a protective setting. They also contain rules that govern individual and collective life on this territory. The edges are these gaps in the wasteland, these moors open to experiments not provided for by the regulations of walled games. They can be confusing, but they can also become rich grounds for various collectively cultivated plantations. And this is one of the keys to reconsidering the aims and organization of teaching: the spoken word, expressed and shared collectively, placed at the service of experimentation and the realization of individual and group projects. A spoken word that accepts to deliver to the eyes of others what makes sense in the practices for each person. A spoken word that is welcomed with respect for each person’s convictions and with a aim of building an institution that is neither the addition of personal projects nor the piling up of departmental projects. A spoken word that suggests that the teacher does not know everything and that cooperation is necessary in order to build something.

Florence Aubenas, journalist, collected often inaudible words. Here is an extract of an article from the newspaper Le Monde dated 12. 15. 2018 under the title “Gilets jaunes : la révolte des ronds-points” [Yellow Jackets: The Revolt of the Roundsabout]

For months, her husband had been telling Coralie, “Get out of the house, go see friends, go shopping.” It was the “gilets jaunes” at the Satar roundabout, in the smallest of the three shacks around Marmande, planted between a piece of countryside, a motorway off-ramp and a large loading platform where trucks take shifts day and night…

…The activity of the “gilets” here consists in setting up filtering checkpoints. Here come the others, here they are, Christelle, who has children of the same age as Coralie’s, Laurent, a blacksmith, André, a retired man attired like a prince, 300 shirts and three Mercedes, Sylvie, the chicken breeder. And everything comes back at once, the warmth of the hut, the company of the humans, the “Bonjour” slamming loudly. Will the “gilets jaunes” succeed in changing life? A nurse pensively wonders: “In any case, they changed my life.”

When Coralie comes home at night, it’s all she wants to talk about. Her husband thinks she loves him less. He told her that. One evening, they invited the faithful of the roundabout to dinner. They’d never had anyone in the house before, except the family of course. “You’ve got it, your new beginning. You’re strong,” the husband slipped in. Coralie handed out leaflets to the drivers. “You won’t get anything, miss, you’d better go home,” suggested a man in a sedan. “I’m not expecting anything special. Here, we do things for ourselves: I’ve already won.”


7. A House of Music(s)

“We do things…” This is a prosaic, complex but promising starting situation: a group of musicians (learners and teachers) who act (come together for elaborating a common project). A terrain of expression (roundabout or conservatory). The starting of the project through a co-construction process that redraws the pathways. A situation fraught with pitfalls but nevertheless stimulating.

Sensoricity, interpretation, variability and improvisation invite to create a teaching by workshops supported by variable-geometry teaching groups. They can rely on vocal and corporal expression through collective rules insisting on shared intention in sound production. The learning of the written code can be integrated into the sequence “imitation, impregnation, transfer, invention” as a complementary tool opening up, in particular, to composition. That of the instrument is traversed by one-to-one and group work…

8. One Step Sideways

This is the second year (2018 and 2019) that I offer a two and a half day workshop to CEPI [Cycle d’Enseignement Professionnel Initial][4] students from the Hauts de France. This year, eight musicians came together, some of whom had already been present the previous year. Coming from practices of amplified popular music, classical music and jazz, they listened to collections of traditional songs from Berry and Limousin recorded between the 1960s and 80s. Simple monodies sung in a kitchen, at home by local people, farmers. No harmonies or accompaniments. Only voices sculpting in their own way melodies with temperaments and inflections unknown to these young musicians.

Between the ear picking up, the singing by imitation, the transfer to the instrument and the rules of improvisations suggested by me, a constant energy was deployed. The most beautiful example in my eyes is the intensity with which they invested themselves in the realization of “living bourdons”. From notes held mechanically on the 1st and 5th degrees, they have gradually evolved into an ecosystem welcoming variations in timbre, the passage from continuous to iterative, entries and exits by variations in intensity… and all this in a wonderful collective listening. These bourdons carry the improvisations and one would be tempted to take them for a negligible quantity. This was not the case, an emerging collective consciousness having offered them a territory to inhabit. They all came out of it with the feeling of having lived an individual experience thanks to the grace of the group and a collective experience thanks to the active presence of each one of them.

I will leave you with a few excerpts from their improvisations: it was obviously not a question of training in the interpretation of the traditional music of Berry or Limousin, but rather of grasping the characteristics of these and other music in order to explore other improvisational voices.

A soundscape, inserted in a longer tale, ends the video. It is brought into play by the musicians of a string ensemble led by a classical violin teacher, Florence Nivalle. In addition to other parts of the tale, we proposed to look at the musicality of a forest:

    • Listening to a recording in the forest and exchanging impressions.
    • Directed listening. Locate if there is:
        – a permanent pattern in the landscape;
        – repeated events with varying degrees of spacing;

        – significant events, in rupture.

    • Assimilate these elements through vocal imitation. Define sound characteristics .
    • Transpose this to your instrument by retaining only the envelopes and textures of the sound and leaving out the imitation.

    The weft (grasshoppers) is played/sung tutti. Repeated events (mosquitoes and animal noises in the thickets) are handled by several duets (one mosquito and one thicket). A few birds appear, solitary. Displacement approaches are invented by each duet to induce the sound production. The two productions are either tiled, juxtaposed or with interspersed respiration.

    It should be noted that a violinist, Clémence Clipet, being both in classical and traditional music violin training, was solicited by Florence and myself to transmit the final bourrée with the bowing indications. At the moment of this first restitution, we had completed 13 sessions. And the first assessment was very positive: all the participants had the feeling of building a vehicle for a journey to be invented.

    Finally, an ensemble of bagpipes from cycle 1 (2 to 4 years of practice, it depends) proposed an improvisation game based on a relay between the first two incises of a bourrée: G a b C and D e F [SOL la si DO and RE mi FA]. The passing is done in tiling by overlapping successive entries. A simple game, but one that mobilized in everyone an energy and concentration sometimes unsuspected. An “engaging” discovery for most of them.

    Michel Lebreton, March 2019

    Return to the French text


    1. “The tinkerer is the one who uses diverted, oblique means, as opposed to the man of art, to the specialist. The work of the tinkerer, unlike that of the engineer, unfolds in a closed universe, even if it is diversified. The rule is to work with the means at hand. The result is contingent, there is no precise project, but ideas-force: it can always be useful, it can work ». The elements used do not have a fixed, let alone predetermined, function: they are what they are, at that moment, as they are perceived, desired, in relation to other elements that are the operator of a particular operation. For the tinkerer, a wooden cube can be a wedge, a support, a base, a closure, a corner to be driven in, etc. It can be a simple material or an instrument, its usefulness depends on an ensemble. The appropriateness of a tinkering can evoke the objective randomness of the surrealists.” (Ruse et bricolage, Liliane Fendler-Bussi)

    2. Note of the translator. This is a well-known political slogan from the May 1968 Paris demonstrations, literally “under the pavement, the beach!”.

    3. Note of the translator. In France, since about the late 1980s, departments have been created in conservatories, most of the time along the following groupings: strings, woodwinds, brass, keyboards and percussion, basic musicianship, jazz, traditional music, etc.

    4. Note of the translator. The CEPI or in English the “ Initial Cycle of Professional Teaching” is offered in Regional Conservatories as preparation to enter musical higher education institutions.