Projecting the Skeleton, Skin and Flesh of Time in Free Improvisation

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Projecting the Skeleton, Skin and Flesh of Time in Free Improvisation

By Daniel Brophy


In improvised music, the sounds that pass through time necessarily exist in the present. Improvised sounds cannot be archived in a score to be played back perfectly, even with a graphic score, there is an impossibility of exact repetition – each iteration, interpretation, and repetition involves new materials, processes and results. Because of this, the role of the listener becomes more complex than that of archived music. The listener’s end of the process is to sift through the mess and to discern patterns and sounds that they find interesting or familiar in order to customize their experience. The tool used to relate the incoming stimuli is causal relation of sounds and timbres, used by the listener to deconstruct the complexity of the work as it unfolds. In an improvised concert setting where the information never ceases to change, the listener actively looks for these relationships, and will even invent them where they do not yet exist.

In this paper, I will discuss the intersecting and relational values of historical, perceived and organizational time, and their use of repetition and excess through the investigation of improvisational practices.

The theoretical portion will be the combination of several papers used in conjunction to create a more comprehensive view. To discuss our perception of time, I will begin with some definitions from the famous treatise The Confessions of Saint Augustine in which he tackles past, present and projected time, and how they are intricately linked. In order to translate these definitions into musical terms and explain their special position in both the performer’s and listener’s perception, I will be looking The Skin, Flesh, and Skeleton of Time in spectralist composer Gerard Grisey’s essay Tempus Ex Machina. To give a more tangible context to these readings, I will further filter them through definitions found in saxophone and electronic improviser David Borgo’s Sync or Swarm:  Improvising music in a complex age. It is my hope that through the combination of these theories with personal anecdotes from my time as an improviser of experimental and noise music I can demonstrate the special place that time and repetition have in a temporal art form such as musical improvisation.

The excess of new information within the present moment in improvised music is already taxing on the listener, but when the ability to predict the future becomes almost impossible – due mostly to a lack of repetition and familiarity – it accelerates into incomprehensibility, changing the perception of time into something undesirable. Gerard Grisey, French Spectralist composer points out “…if the sound B is entirely predictable, time seems to move in a certain speed. By contrast, if the sound B is radically different, and virtually unpredictable, time unfolds at a different speed” (Grisey 258) In my experience, a lack of predictability happens both simultaneously and because of a lack of repetition. How then, is a listener expected to deal with this excess of information without tangible repetition? The listener in this case will begin to recognize repetitions of timbres, rhythms, and contours to fill the gap so to speak.

In both the listening and performance of an improvised work, both the audience’s and performer’s deconstructive listening process takes place in the recognition of repetition in the musical shapes and timbres of the ensuing sound. Due to the impossibility of an exact figural repetition in improvised music, causal relationships between the timbres, contours and rhythms become the replacement, the tool to guide the listener’s perception. In parallel to the listener, each performer also uses a limited arsenal of techniques, based on the limitation of their training, cultural experience, and the limitations of their instrument or apparatus. In this sense, the listener and the performer feed each other. It is through the listener’s recognition of limitations that they form causal relationships, which in turn informs their perception of memory, projected future and present moments constructed in time. To better understand the implications of past, present, and projected time, I will first turn to the famous treatise Time and Eternity from Saint Augustine.

Saint Augustine and the Confession of Time

            Saint Augustine, born 354, was a highly influential Priest and Catholic Doctor of the Church, whose philosophies helped to frame the concepts of just war and original sin.[1] In his essay Time and Eternity, the 6th book from his volume entitled “Confessions,” Augustine looks to explain the perception of time from both subjective and objective existence. First, he describes the perception of moving time through change and variation found in his natural surroundings:

“See, heaven and earth exist, they cry aloud that they are made, for they suffer change and variation. But in anything which is not made and yet is, there is nothing which previously was not present. To be what once was not the case is to be subject to change and variation.”

Through a realization of objects in nature necessarily having a beginning or birth, Augustine discovers the necessity of time. If objects are to have a past and present tense due to the apparent variation which must occur temporally, then the creation of things must also take place in a temporal space. Next, Augustine discovers that all things that are created, must exist in time, including those things that are invisible such as sound (the word of God):

“Therefore it is clear and evident that the utterance came through the movement of some created thing, serving your eternal will but itself temporal. And these your words, made for temporal succession, were reported by the external ear to the judicious mind whose internal ear is disposed to hear your eternal word.”

And from this Augustine comes to a conclusion on the necessary relationship between historical, present, and projected time:

“But no time is wholly present. It will see that all past time is driven backwards by the future, and all future time is the consequent of the past, and all past and future are created and set on their course by that which is always present.”

From this treatise, then, I have created some labels that we may use throughout the paper:

  • Historical Time – Historical time cannot exist in isolation, it exists in the context of the present moment to be called upon in the form of archived images. To clarify this point, Augustine uses the example of recounting a memory to another person:  “When a true narrative of the past is related, the memory produces not the actual events, which have passed away but words conceived from images of them.”[2]
  • Present Time – “If we can think of some bit of time that cannot be divided into even the smallest instantaneous moments, that alone is what we call the ‘present.’”[3]  From this, we may assume that the present time is fleeting and is in motion at all times, process and product being one and the same.
  • Projected Time – In a similar manner to historical time, projected time also cannot take place without the existence of the present or the past:  “So future events do not yet exist; and if they have no being, they cannot be seen at all. But they can be predicted from present events which are already present and can be seen.”[4]

We can surmise from Saint Augustine’s definitions that both time past and projected time exist only within the realm of the present, creating a causal effect where the existence of one depends upon the others. We are always perceiving time within the present, yet within this present moment we have memories of the past because it is the result of the past. But within our present also lies the projection of the future, affecting the decisions we are currently making. How we view our future influences the saliency of specific memories, which in turn affects our present moment. The next stage of investigation then, belongs to the angle or positioning of the preceptor of temporal realities for which I will look to Gerard Grisey’s article Tempus Ex Machina:  A Composer’s reflections of musical time.

Grisey’s Skeleton, Flesh and Skin of Time

In his article Tempus Ex Machina:  A Composer’s reflections of musical time, Gérard Grisey outlines three different forms of temporal sound perception to clarify the role each of us play in the production and creation of music, and the way in which these intersect:  The Skeleton of Time[5] – the way in which sounds are organized by the improviser/composer in time; The Flesh of Time[6] – how time is perceived at the moment of its audible existence and; The Skin of Time[7] – how the listener perceives and translates these sounds in historical, present, and projected time. Each of these definitions can be fed back into the three perceptions of time outlined by Augustine to create the link between sound and time. But first, a clarification on Grisey’s terms.

In Tempus Ex Machina, Grisey explains the Skeleton of Time as “the temporal divisions that the composer uses to organize sound”. Within this Skeleton, there are three manners in which we may identify rhythm: a) in relation to pulse or meter; b) as duration, in which there is no relationship to pulse, and each duration is “perceived quantitatively by its relationship to preceding and successive durations.”[8]  and; c) “…an oscillating rhythm in which the meter itself would fluctuate constantly.”[9] Each of these frameworks has their advantages and disadvantages, but for the purpose of experimental improvisation – which has no definitive tempo or rhythmic structure – duration, the quantification of the present moment, is the most relevant tool for our analysis.

In live improvised music, both the flesh and the skin of time happen simultaneously for the audience and the performers. The Skin of Time is the act of birthing a duration, or actual sonification of a duration, and allowing it to change through time. This of course may only be perpetrated by the performer, but is greatly affected by the reactions in the audience.

The Flesh of Time is the physical-acoustic realization of the Skeleton or, “where sounds, like living cells, will come to inhabit and envelop the temporal skeleton with their density and complexity.”[10]

Both the Flesh and Skin must take place within a temporal framework, as they have states where they did not yet exist, a state of variation, and the ability to engender a prediction of the next event.

The network between the flesh and skin are of course causal, as the perception of one explains and introduces another’s existence. For Grisey “It is no longer the single sound whose density will embody time, but rather the difference or lack of difference between one sound and its neighbor.”[11] From this, one may conceive of comparing and contrasting the sounds immediately as they come forth for the purpose of predicting what will come next, through the memory of what has already transpired, and enabling a prediction of the next event which in turn creates less complexity and confusion for the listener. Or as Grisey states:  “the transition from the known to the unknown and the amount of information that each sound event introduces.”[12]

The Performer in Time

What may be discerned from the previous discussion is that a sound may only exist in relation to other sounds that either preceded or followed. With this in mind, it is the repetition of sounds, timbres, rhythms, etc. throughout the total duration of a work that gives it cohesion, whether purposeful or not. The performer uses this information to create structure within the overall duration. While the listener uses reflexivity to create a cohesive experience for themselves, performers use it as a kind of guidance system. In David Borgo’s Sync or Swarm:  Improvising in a complex age, there are two types of reflexivity used in live improvisation:  a) reflexivity towards the sounds being emitted from the others performers in the ensemble and b) reflexivity with the instrument or apparatus being used by the performer where “the individual parts that generate the system – the performer and his apparatus, are intrinsically part of the system being generated.”[13]

Each member of the group reacts to stimuli in a particular manner, dependent upon prior musical, cultural, and social experiences that shape the improviser’s identity. With all of this individuality, “attractors”[14] are set in place through the process of feedback.”[15] These “attractors” are defined by Borgo as “a region of phase space that seems to ‘pull’ the behavior of a system toward it, as if magnetically.”[16] The attractors are maintained through negative and positive feedback that informs both the creation and limitation of sound. This reflexivity creates a closed feedback circuit (positive and negative), whereby the temporal organization is based on influence rather than by strict organization on behalf of the composer.

Each choice made by a performer will also affect the action of the others, causing a chain reaction. The ensemble becomes a network of reflexive actions, each reacting to both the sounds emitted by the other performers in the ensemble, and to the sound last emitted by their instruments. This chain of reactions creates an unpredictable outcome and an original and unrepeatable experience. The process and product of sound are not only explicitly linked, but they morph together into a causal network of feedback and attractors that Grisey sees as “infinitely mobile and fluctuating;…tend[ing] toward a continual transformation of their own energy.”[17]

The Listener in Time

The act of listening is not a passive state, but in fact an active process in which we perceive sounds, store them as useful information, relate them back to past experiences that have been gathered and stored in a similar way, and allow this relation to become our experience of the current and projection of future sounds. As David Borgo notes, “[T]he sound is not complete until the sound enters the consciousness of those that hear…it asks the listener to continue the creative process of interaction.”[18] In the paper Ex Machina, Grisey puts forward an important question relating to causal perception that will help us to carve-out a definition: “How does the listener organize and structure the complexity of sound?”[19]  A term that needs a little more attention before moving on is ‘complexity’. In David Borgo’s Sync or Swarm Robert Axelrod and Michael Cohen put forward a definition of complexity that may shed some light: “a system is complex when there are strong interactions among its elements, so that current events heavily influence the possibility of many kinds of later events.”[20] From this, we may determine that experiences are causal, creating a network of relatability, where the system “operates without imposed centralized control” or is “self-organizing.”[21]

This causal or relational experience is what makes the listening experience original and specific to the listener. It is through causality that, “cognition as the ‘bringing forth’ of a world and a conception of self that is inseparable from an organism’s biology and its history of interactions and lived experience.”[22] Causal perceptions therefore combine historical, present and projected time into a single space of relational and comparative experiences.

Each iteration of a recognizable sound creates memory in the listener and performer (who, in the act of improvisation, is also a listener). The first time a sound is enacted it becomes an object. The following sound that transpires is thought of in relation to the first sound. The quality of the following sound, whether a repetition or a contrasting idea, is founded upon the principles of the memory of the first sound, creating future projection. When a listener is given a framework, where the first sound and the final sound have audible comparative natures, the listener and performer form their own causal relations or “reflexivity.” While the listener uses reflexivity to create a cohesive experience for themselves, performers use it as a kind of guidance system.

Recording in Time

A large problem exists for the world of improvised music:  is there any validity to a recording of a spontaneous live improvised event?  In my research, I have found that most spectators and performers of this music seem to think that no, recordings have no place in the world of improvisation. Cornelius Cardew, famous British improviser and artist has this to say: “Improvisation is in the present, its effects may live on in the souls of the participants, both active and passive (ie audience), but in the concrete form it is gone forever from the moment it occurs, nor did it have any previous existence before the moment that it occurred…” (Cardew 3).

I agree here with Cardew in that its effects, or the memory of the emotions and thoughts processed during the performance have the ability to live on in the participants. Of course, being memories, they become biased over time depending on the user’s needs. The audience’s and performer’s perception of future performances will be greatly coloured by these memories. The effects of time in motion are fairly obvious when it comes to live situations, but what happens when we try to capture this fleeting moment in a recording?

This temporariness becomes a problem for many performers when it comes to recordings, Cardew himself completely dismissing their value:  “documents such as tape recordings of improvisation are essentially empty as they preserve chiefly the form that something took and gave at best an indistinct hint as to the feeling and cannot convey any sense of the time and place.” (Cardew 4). This creates a problem for the artist trying to disseminate their music and widen their berth of listeners.

This attitude, in my opinion, is due mostly to the limitations of technology that were available at the time. In the present moment, there is simple to use, relatively cheap equipment that can take fairly accurate high quality recordings.

A field recording of a live performance is a bad example of conveying time and place due to the energies and connections that were present during the performance, which are not conveyable through a recording.

Studio recordings on the other hand, with the correct preparation and mind-set can convey different meanings of temporality. The mind-space of the performers, in this case, must be of recording a fleeting moment that will not fade in memory once the piece is finished, creating the need for performers to develop new cues, codes and dynamics tailored for the unfading moment. From the audience’s perception, they now have the ability to form a whole new set of personal causal experiences, as the ability to memorize will colour the listening experience. With a complex style of music such as free improvisation, this memorization is of course relative, meaning that exact pitches, and/or rhythms are impossible to remember. What the recording allows the listener to accomplish though, is to memorize colours, timbres, contours, and emotional reactions that can be collected, organized, filtered, and expelled for later use. With a repeated listening of the same material, allowing them to focus on new sounds of the recoding everytime, with the information of previously memorized materials in the background to create a more informed listening experience.

In other words, recording an improvisation makes it no less valid, but it does require a different and specific mind-set for both the performer and listener in order to gain all possible revenue from the experience.


In both the listening and performance of an improvised work, the deconstructive listening process takes place in the recognition of repetition in the musical shapes and timbres of each player. Instead of searching for exact figural repetition, causal relationships between the timbres are perceived.

The temporal state of the sounds are perceived as a singular moment, stretching from one end of the spectrum of consciousness to the other, infinite within the existence of itself. In a successful improvised performance setting, the organization of time is handled in a specific manner that takes the perspective of both the audience and performers into special consideration, allowing it, in the same manner that the past and future affect the present, to affect the compositional process of organizing sound in time.



          Augustine, Saint Aurelius. The Confessions of Saint Augustine. Translated by F.J. Sheed, edited with notes by Michael P. Foley. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.,       c2006.

Borgo, David. Sync or Swarm:  Improvising music in a complex age. New York:  The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2005.

Cardew, Cornelius. “Towards an Ethic of Improvisationin Treatise Handbook.   London:  Edition Peters, 1971.

Grisey, Gérard. “Tempus ex Machina: A composer’s reflections on musical time.” Contemporary Music Review 2, no. 1 (1987):  239-275

[1] TeSelle, Eugene (1970). Augustine the Theologian. London. pp. 347–349. ISBN 0-223-97728-4. March 2002 edition: ISBN 1-57910-918-7.

[2] Saint Aurelius Augustine, The Confessions of Saint Augustine, translated by F.J. Sheed; edited with notes by Michael P. Foley, (Indianapolis : Hackett Pub. Co., c2006), 234.

[3] Ibid,, 233.

[4] Ibid., 234.

[5] Gérard Grisey, “Tempus ex Machina: A composer’s reflections on musical time” Contemporary Music Review 2, no. 1 (1987): 239.

[6] Ibid, 239.

[7] Ibid, 269.

[8] Ibid., 240.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 257.

[11] Grisey, Ex Machine, 258.

[12] Ibid.

[13] David Borgo, Sync or Swarm:  Improvising music in a complex age, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2005, 56.

[14] Ibid., 72

[15] Ibid., 72.

[16] Ibid., 72.

[17] Grisey, Ex Machine, 268.

[18] Borgo, Sync or Swarm, 26.

[19] Grisey, Ex Machine, 272.

[20] Borgo, Sync or Swarm, 126.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 41.

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