On Improvisation: KIVA
For four years I was a member of the research and performance ensemble KIVA, resident at the Center for Music Experiment at the University of California, San Diego. The members of Kiva, each with a strong grounding in traditional music, shared the feeling that the esthetic and formal bases of Western art-music, as productive as they had been historically, and though dear to us personally, were producing progressively diminishing artistic returns and were no longer adequate to our expressive needs. The central purpose of Kiva was the exploration of alternative esthetic, formal, and technical bases and to challenge the inevitability of what were understood as the arbitrary working assumptions of the past era.
More than anything else Kiva was committed to the notion of work-in-progress. Research objectives, technical means, performing responses, and cognitive accounts arose mutually in workshop, studio, and performance space without rational agenda or formalized plan. Yet the direction of this work-in-progress was clear throughout.
There have been many Kivas over the years, with varying members and taking evolving forms. The invariant part has been the presence of John Silber, trombonist (Kiva's founder and the originator of many of the ideas discussed in this article), and Jean-Charles Francois, percussionist. During my four years with the group, as flutist, there were also involved Hiah Park, dancer, and Isabel Tercero, vocalist.
The methodology of Kiva was to meet twice weekly for an extended rehearsal. As often as possible we brought to these rehearsals newly developed resources in the form of new or adapted instruments or pre-recorded source tapes. Each rehearsal was recorded as faithfully as possible and the recording heard immediately following the rehearsal each time. It was understood that there should be no discussion of plan or intent before each session, nor comment upon what had been done until the tape had been completely heard. Discussion before the fact was thought to restrict the range of exploration to the limits of our ideas rather than the limits of our ears. Premature discussion after the fact was thought to obscure the meaning of the results.
Subjectively our sense was that the musical processes of Kiva occurred too rapidly and too elaborately for clear account or objective perception. It generally seemed futile to attempt to explain Kiva. No phenomenon under rapid transformation can be adequately explained: theory must wait on practice. This is so by the nature of language and the nature of transforming phenomena. As the terms of any experience are translated into the terms of an explanation of that experience, distortion is inevitable. When a phenomenon is relatively static or simple in structure and when the language of its explanation is well developed and appropriate to the phenomenon, this distortion may seem trivial. Kiva was, however, a relatively unprecedented phenomenon, lacking a well-developed associated vocabulary and neither static nor simple in structure. Nevertheless the need for discourse about the work was inescapable and all the members of Kiva tried over the years, in their own way, to meet the challenge of such a description. This article, written at some distance from active membership, is my attempt, retrospectively, to meet this challenge.
We always resisted using the word "improvisation" in talking about Kiva. The usual notion of improvisation implies too much the pouring of largely prefigured variations into conventional formal moulds. "Improvisation" , in its common usage (such as in jazz and in various "ethnic" musics) was felt to differ significantly and fundamentally from what we were up to. Yet "composition", which the work of Kiva also resembled in some respects, was felt to misrepresent our work even more fundamentally. What's in a label? Perhaps not much. Yet a phenomenon is no more complete without one than a person. Addressing either without a name is a clumsy and inconvenient process. Hence we often resort, in this discussion, to "improvisation" for lack of a better name.
Finally, this article is not an authorized account. All of Kiva's members must speak from their own perspective and in their own language. Nor is this article offered as a document or my personal creative philosophy. My understanding is that Kiva had its own logic, and this logic, while arising as a result of the collective contributions of all its members, was an internal logic with a force of its own.
I. Introduction: Syntactical Models
The outstanding innovation of Western art-music of the common practice period may the exploitation of language forms and syntactical logic. Song form reflects the structure of language in a direct and obvious way. Such schemes as AABB, ABA, AABBA, etc., derive quite naturally from poetic forms and they are the fundamental prototypes of language derived musical form. Perhaps in all times and all places people have made music reflecting and supporting poetic forms. Accordingly, the existence of language-derived formal elements is not, in itself remarkable. What is remarkable is the development of elaborate and extended hierarchical structures on the basis of these forms, and more importantly, the weaving of syntactical logic into the very fabric of the music itself, irrespective of poetic associations. In musical terms common practice syntactical logic refers to organization features which resemble those of language forms, such as subject-predicate relationships and periodic phrase structure, as well as gestures such as declamatory, narrative and descriptive. Traces of all of these characteristics can be found in Western music long before 1600, but it is the great emphasis on them after 1600 which is so marked. This trend proved very successful, for language is rich in varied and subtle structure that can be imitated musically. This music of the common practice period reflects this syntactical modeling so universally and so successfully, and is so much characterized by it, that it may appear that no other organizational models are viable.1 Since this area has lent itself well to systematic study and has, accordingly, been well explored historically and musicologically, there is no need to review it here. Whether these claims are true or not is finally beyond proof. The important point is that this was the view of members of Kiva and the point of departure for its research and performance.
II. Working Constraints
II.1 Informational structuring vs. sound-as-itself
Sound can be a vehicle for information. Information is here defined as the coherent patterning of encoded sonic elements. (Note that information is not synonymous with meaning, for meaning need not depend on patterns of encoded elements). As one reads a printed text, for example, the precise details of the typeface are scarcely significant. If the typeface is eccentric we may be briefly aware of its formal details; shortly, however, our attention recedes from typeface to embedded information. All the dimensions of ink on paper are sortable into about ninety discrete classes. A given character can be assigned to one and only one class. Any variation in letter shape, as in a handwritten text, is insignificant, because regardless of formal variation a character can occupy only one class. The patterning of these discrete classes is capable of carrying information, and information (not the beauty of formal interest of the letter shapes) is the primary focus of the printed text.
Kiva turned away from informational structure to sound itself. A musical orientation emphasizing " sound as itself" over informational content may seem absurd to some. The dominance of the informational model has been so absolute as to make it seem somehow inherent to the nature of music. Yet the members of Kiva had come, in the course of their development as musicians, to believe that this dominance was essentially arbitrary, a historical peculiarity (however much we were products of that peculiarity).
Kiva sought to explore sound structure which would not be significantly informational, in which the primary interest would be in the beauty and interest of sound itself. What is distinctive about this orientation was not the attempt to suppress sound structure, for such arises spontaneously and inescapably. Rather, sound structure was intended not to be informationally loaded, but abstract, non-figurative, and, to some extent, incidental to performance rather than the principle objective of it.2 The intention was to detach every musical parameter from its role as carrier of class information. Pitch, timbre, rhythm, dynamic inflection, shaping forces and articulation would become not dimensions of the music but the music itself. Every parameter would be freely variable without reference to any external systems of constructive premise, such as scales or harmonic language. Harmony would no longer be functional.
The members of Kiva recognized the depth of their learned responses as performers and the great inertia of a tradition which it sought to resist. As a hedge against this conditioning, negative constraints were established as a kind of contingent working method. The three most important such constraints were: "no notation" , "no pulse , and no repetition" . Each constraint was felt to tend to suppress the informational/syntactic dimension in favor of sound as itself. While these constraints will be discussed individually, in practice they operated interdependently.
11.2 "No notation"
To be notatable, musical elements must be reducible to categories. If pitch is to be notated, it must be reducible to a set of discrete classes (from which the greatest part of the available range of variation is excluded). Whether the set 5, 7, 12, 33; 45,3 or whatever, the process of making pitch-class notatable is to simplify and limit. If time is to be notated, classes must be created out of the complexity of possible variation. A composer specifies "clarinet" and reference is made to a conventional instrument played in a more or less conventional way. If rhythm is to be (precisely) notated, the infinite variety of rhythmic proportions must be limited to discrete parts or multiples of a reference pulse. The exclusion of notation allows the dissolution of boundaries between the traditional classes of pitch, timbre, and rhythm.
When notation is excluded the range of possible rhythmic configuration is greater and pitch can be freely varied by infinite degrees rather than restricted to discrete steps along a continuum. Musical traditions which do not employ precise notation (which are the vast majority) generally demonstrate greater subtlety and complexity in whatever musical dimensions are most interesting to its practitioners. Rhythmic complexity in Javanese music, inflection in Japanese music, and pitch in East Indian music, for example, are each more richly varied that the same dimensions of Western art-music, which has generally sacrificed richness of micro-variation in potential for hierarchical structure.
Another consequence of " no notation" is the recording of performance response. Without notation, there is less tendency for an abstract model to govern the performer's improvisational response to an unfolding musical texture. Therefore response may be more direct. Notation introduces an additional step in the process of realizing a sound. So strong are the habits of playing notated music that improvisation for those trained as
reading musicians" may tend to become the multi-stepped procedure of real-time composition followed by execution. It was felt that this tendency needed to be resisted not only by the rejection of notation but by the conscious suppression of operating principles related to it, such as pre-conception and the tendency toward the known, the precise, and the practised.
11.3 " No pulse"
Pulse time was found to promote the spontaneous creation of informational classes. If a metal gong was struck once, the various physical attributes of the sound (harmonic, timbral, noise, attack-decay, etc.) might draw the listener's attention. The moment the sound of the struck gong was integrated into a measured flow it tended to lose its purely sonic meaning and assume a marking role. If the gong was struck three times in equal-timed succession, there emerged the informational category of " three" , which generated a level of significance apart from the sound. This was analogous to the formation of a musical " word" . Words signal information, information drew attention away from physical-acoustic attributes toward higher level code.
The suppression of pulse resulted in the detachment of one sound from another. Isolated from an inexorable flow of measured time, sound assumed a greater independence and perceptual self sufficiency. Just as pitch, in the absence of scales, could be varied infinitely (over an available range), rhythm, in the absence of pulse and discrete proportion could be varied infinitely with greater variety and complexity. In an improvisational context, pulsed time would have had its own requirements, in our view, imposing an inertia of forward motion and inhibiting subtle interactive relationships.
11.4 "No repetition"
In music as in language, repetition is the way informational units are established. Repeating a tone, rhythm, gesture, texture, or relationship begins the process of building it into a symbol. If one is confronted with an unintelligible set of data, the first step in deciphering must be to look for repetition of characters. If repeated characters cannot be found, deciphering is impossible. Beyond identifying classes is identifying relationships. Again, the process of identifying meaningful relationships of characters is to look for repeated patterns or characters. This approach works in deciphering texts because, in any informational system, repetition is the principal indicator of class meaning.
Inversely, to disallow repetition tends to suppress the rise of information in the first place. Of course this is not an absolute matter. Information always arises in any human endeavor. What was distinct about Kiva's orientation was the de-emphasis, not exclusion, of information. As information seeking as we were, as humans, in general, and as Westerners in particular, it required conscious effort to suppress the tendency to create information. The avoidance of repetition was a formal device which inhibited, in the performer, the habit of generating information and in the audience, the habit of listening for it.
Of course the constraint of "no repetition" imposed an extreme demand upon the breadth of sonic resources and the variety of playing techniques. If sound resources were too limited, the continuous flux of sound would have quickly exhausted all available material and every performance would have tended toward a similar review of these closed resources. The response of Kiva to this challenge was to build an open-ended ecology of materials and techniques in which the range of available resources and the exploitation of each acoustic principle was extended as widely as possible Of course, no matter how vast in extent the sound resources, repetition inevitably occurred. Nevertheless, the idea of non-repetition acted to discipline the too-easy closure of materials and technique.
The constraint of non-repetition also altered the nature of the rehearsal-performance process. The concept of rehearsal is inherently tied to repetition. Yet, for Kiva, to repeat material from performance to performance or from rehearsal to performance was felt to create a situation of reference and allusion opening the way back to information. Therefore, to rehearse was to prepare today for the performance tomorrow by practicing what would not be performed. Of course this was a logical absurdity; it reflected the need for a revision of the rehearsal-performance concept. Rehearsal, within the constraint of non-repetition became the exploration of new territory and a constant re-structuring or performing instincts.
To some this discussion may seem peculiar. What has been excluded might seem to be the very aspects which are most interesting and most valued by the listener. It might seem that what results in the absence of these features is somehow not natural or 'human'. But what is said to be natural is usually simply familiar and what is said to be 'human' customary. The negation of various traditional musical aspects acted to retard this inertia, as an operational strategy rather than a binding theory. Standing as it did in essential opposition to the great inertia of this tradition. Kiva can be more readily discussed in terms of its negation of this tradition than it can in terms of its own constructive principles. The point of departure is clear; the direction toward which these negations precipitated Kiva is less so.
III. Concepts III.1 "Good tone"
In the context of Kiva "good tone" took on a very specialized • meaning. Conventionally, " good tone" has been that which best sustains the requirements of an informational necessity, being decisive and unambiguous in pitch, homogeneous from pitch to pitch and register to register, predominantly of highly ordered (harmonic) frequency components, lacking in enharmonic and noise components, well delineated (by consensus) in timbral identity, and possessed of a vibrato with smoothly and narrowly varying impulses. For Kiva, these characteristics were considered inappropriate; informational integrity served no useful purpose and the sound possibilities excluded by sound so conceived were felt to be precisely those most interesting and fruitful of exploration.
Lacking an informational function, tone did not need to be bound to any characteristic operating consistently over the course of performance. Pitch assumed a " local shaping force" rather than a global structural significance. This shaping force was felt to be subverted if pitch or timbral identities were established over time. Vibrato could vary constantly in rate of impulse and width of variation in pitch and intensity, with the extent of these variations greatly enlarged. Timbre could be varied freely and over a wide range and there was no need to respect the timbral identity of each genre of instrument. There was no " proper" sound for each instrument; on the contrary, the imitation of one instrumental genre by another was considered particularly interesting. The rubbing of amplified metal might mimic the flute or the sound of a six foot flute might mimic the trombone. The concept of noise components, which usually refers to disordered sound attributes which disrupt pitch identity, was no longer valid; sound which was not highly ordered timbrally and harmonically was considered valid and useful.
Each attribute of sound could support localized shaping forces independently. Since lack of ambiguity in any dimensions was not a virtue, a sound could be made more complex by enharmonic and non-ordered components to the point that pitch discreteness broke down. Pitch, where it was clearly discernible, did not need to be decisively of one class. With no need for pitch, timbre, or vibrato to sustain class identities, these attributes could be constantly modulated. For example, a sound split apart into multiple partials with contradictory pitch-class implications was not regarded as an error (which is the way it would conventionally be regarded) but a useful element in a rich palette of sonic resources.
Good tone is traditionally defined as possessing continuity and consistency, each sound among an inventory of allowed sounds related to other sounds by systematic similarities; for Kiva, good tone was redefined as possessing discontinuity and inconsistency, with each sound among an inventory of possible sounds related to other sounds by systematic (or unsystematic) dissimilarities.
111.2 Pitch referents
Some kind of pitch reference was believed to be necessary. The total abandonment of pitch reference was felt to work against the establishment of coherence. While the functional pitch system of twelve tones was rejected from the beginning, the need for some kind of tuning structure continued to be evident. A single pitch referent would lead to tonality and, in the absence of scalar and rhythmic information, tend toward monotony. The need for variety and articulation had to be answered by more than one pitch referent. However, in view of the constraint not to re-introduce functional harmony, the selection of additional pitches had to be circumspect.
It was decided that only in the case of a second pitch referent a diminished fifth away from the first would there be little tendency for the establishment of an implicit tonal function. This is so because the intervallic symmetry between two pitch regions a diminished fifth apart does not well support one region as hierarchically superior to the other. Neither region tends to be a lower state or tension than the other. Tonal forces are persistent, especially to performers and listeners steeped in the tradition of functional harmony; even the tritone polarity can be made to support functional tonality. But the establishment of a second pitch regions a diminished fifth apart from the first provided a means of articulation and variety which did not lead automatically to a tonally functional tension. It was felt that further pitch regions could not be added without implications of functional harmony re-emerging.
The specific pitches, chosen arbitrarily were C and F#. They were in no sense a drone and neither region was a dominant. The reference to these pitch regions in performance was unconstrained and not a conscious process. The role of these referents was primarily to guide the construction and selection of material resources, particularly in the use of specialized filtering loudspeakers and the construction or adaptation of instruments. By biasing of the material resources in the direction of these pitch referent, a kind of coherence occurred automatically.
111.3 Simultaneity and independence
Subject to the non-informational constraint, every appropriate sound, whether produced by the instruments or in the form of source tapes (which will be discussed more fully later), was admissible in the musical texture at any time simultaneously with any other. To some extent the sense of a sound fitting into a texture derives from the extent of its support of the informational structure of that texture. Since there was no informational structure to be disturbed or disrupted, or which required support, the sense of a sound fitting or not tended to disappear. Precise control of the overall sound stream was not intended or desired. Elements of the sound stream were freely layered with a result that the overall effect could not be predicted. This exceeding of control and predictability was considered useful.
Kiva supposed that the sound stream of each member was independent of that of the other members. Each member pursued a self-determined course, with active reflection and imitations of the sound stream of other members being consciously avoided. There was a general agreement that playing " together" was to be avoided, since it tended to lead back over familiar territory of remembered effect. To achieve interesting ensemble effects was not difficult; if the members would support the creation of a particular effect, such as short sounds, sustained intervals, intermittence, or stylized gestures, striking effects could easily be achieved. There seemed to be, however, something trivial about effects too deliberately achieved. The more important aspects of complexity and richness tended to collapse under this co-operation and the results tended to be one-dimensional. The principle of independence required that each member hold firmly to an individual course.
Audiences varied in their willingness and ability to adjust their attitude to this situation, sometimes reacting with alarm at their inability to make "sense" or judge what resulted. Kiva made use of a variety of inducements to an appropriate listening attitude. The use of visual and theatrical aspects, such as slides and film, and the sculptural aspect of the instruments were felt to help audiences to adopt the attitude of openness and a minimum of preconceptions and expectations.
Extremes of richness and variety of timbre, density, and loudness were considered a constructive virtue. When the sheer magnitude and extent of the acoustical sound resources exceeds the scope and purpose of a compositional syntax, the informational purpose is subverted. The essence of the classical style, for instance, is the discrete balancing of resources to a specific structural purpose. Kiva, however, had no discretely specifiable purpose at any particular moment, no unified meaning to sustain, and no need for clarity of line and layer. Listener understanding was not dependent on clarity of .detail in a texture, therefore there was no compulsion to limit extremes of texture.
Moreover, with no informational structure to carry audience interest, the sheer palpable richness of sound had to sustain interest. Therefore it was necessary to exploit the greatest possible range of purely material resources. Also, since repetition was prohibited in principle, a means of musical prolongation had to be developed. Since the sound stream had to be continually in flux, constantly changing, it was necessary that the range of sound and textural variations be very great to avoid repetition.
At one point the need for such an extent of resources led members to begin to cross instrumental borders. For example, flutist began to use percussion instruments and trombonist began to use flute-like instruments. Judgment of this trend was ultimately negative. It was felt that the concept of independence required that each member maintain a generic separateness, the resort of flutist to percussion, etc., tended to erase the distinctiveness of the sounds of each member. Perhaps more importantly, the maintenance of boundaries of instrumental type acted to force members to extend the possibilities within their own specialized instrumental genre rather than duplicate each other's efforts.
111.5 Resident properties
Traditional European-derived music is built of abstract relationships of the seven or twelve tone system. Each musician strives to internalize this conceptual pitch model and to realize and reflect it in performance. This internalization is "playing in tune" In contrast, the building blocks of a performance for Kiva were the resident acoustic properties of the sound itself. Every sound is comprised of multiple pitch constituents which stand in diverse relationships to each other, depending on the physical acoustic nature of the instrument producing them. The attitude taken by Kiva was that these attributes were the very material of each performance, in a sense the template or score providing inspiration to performers and coherence to the sound result. External or abstract orderings of pitch or other dimensions were considered inappropriate.
In seeking to develop alternate means of organizing sound, the most important models were the breath and voice. These were felt to be a kind of universally resident set of acoustic and gestural properties, transcending the particularities of esthetic stance and operational bias. The use of the voice was always " legal" and appropriate for all members. The features of the vocal tract (such as the relationship of voice box to tubular resonating cavity to the reinforcing functions of palate, lips, and tongue) became a suggestive basis for designing instruments, developing performing techniques, and organizing sound in performance. An example of this modeling was the relationship of the mouth as complex shaping filter to the sound generating voice box. The extreme richness and variety of the voice derives from the overlaying of resonant interactions between vocal-cords, voice-box, trachea, the mouth, and the sinuses. All aspects are interdependent yet separately variable and capable of exerting considerable influence on the sound result. This kind of analysis sought to make traditionally unified attributes independently accessible as sound resources and operating principles.
The development of new instruments and other material resources was central to Kiva. Each performer maintained a larger collection of instruments used in performance and rehearsal. The collections were in constant flux; new instruments were constantly added, older instruments were often modified and instruments no longer considered interesting or useful, retired. The lack of syntactical structure to sustain permitted loose connections between these collections. One could pick up an instrument, play it, and put it down for another, with considerable freedom. While each performer generally sought to maintain a generic identity (flutes for flutist, percussion for percussionist,) instruments within each member's collection might vary quite widely: the understanding of 'flute' for example, might be pushed to great extremes.
While a detailed description of the instrument's use in Kiva might be interesting and useful, such a description is beyond the scope of this article. Moreover, the physical nature of the instruments was considered secondary to their function and to the principles which guided their development.
Perhaps the central principal of the instrumentation (and, in a sense, of the tuning structure) was enharmonicity. In spite of Pythagoras, the pitch content of acoustically generated sound (as opposed to electronically synthesized sound) never precisely reflects the ideas harmonic series specified by theory (whole number multiples of a fundamental frequency.) In theory, for example, the 2nd and 4th partials of a plucked string or a blown pipe are the the same pitch class as the fundamental of the string or pipe. In practice this is never precisely true. The fundamental pitch of a resonant body never precisely recurs in its overtone series. The overtone structures of various resonant bodies depart from the ideal series of whole number multiples in different ways, depending on their acoustic configuration: for vibrating columns of air the ideal is approached only as their length increases in proportion to their mass. The ideal, theoretical series is achieved only with infinitely long strings or air columns of no mass or diameter. In other words, acoustically generated sound is inherently enharmonic.
The instruments of the modern orchestra have evolved so that this inherent enharmonicity is de-emphasized as much as possible. Traditional instrument design has developed configurations which approximate the ideal, harmonic order and, particularly, suppress the high partials which do not relate well to the seven or twelve tone pitch-class system: the taper of the Boehm flute head joint, the pattern of scraping of the inside of the sound box of the violin, and the particular curve and prominence of the bell of brass instruments have this function. In this way traditional instruments are specialized to favor a clear, unambiguous pitch and a sound weak or lacking in harmonic partials above the 8th. These qualities, while indispensable for traditional, informationally based music, were found to be undersirable in the context of Kiva, which required, generally, the opposite sound qualities: great harmonic complexity, pitch ambiguity, a maximum number of accessible and perceptible partials, and an incisive quality capable of retaining its identity and independence in an extremely dense texture.
For flutes and trombones it was discovered that the shape of the resonant cavity producing these desired qualities was typically cylindrical. The speculation was that cylindrical air columns are inherently less stable than other configurations, tending toward sound which more readily splits apart into multiple and high partials. The bass trombone played with the trigger in operation and the "F" tuning slide removed produced a sound quality which was more appropriate in the above respects than the instrument played out of the bell in the normal manner. Experimental flutes were found to produce the desired qualities when the bore was simply cylindrical (rather than tapered, as the Boehm flute,4 with round embouchure holes (rather than the oblong embouchure holes currently popular in orchestral flutes).
IV.2 The need for new resources
The instruments and other technical resources of a music determine and shape it equally with compositional and structural models. Conventional instruments have evolved and developed to manifest a very specific set of purposes, their use and intended users governing their design. This specificity accounts for the generally.. unsatisfactory results when various conventional instruments were tried in Kiva.
In a practical sense there was very little that could be done with conventional instruments which did not immediately violate the working constraints. While the trombone, due to its slide, could avoid establishing pitch classes, woodwind instrument were quite limited in this respect. Producing a sound quality on either trombone or woodwinds which did not allude to the established literatures was quite difficult. Moreover, all instruments have their own associated repertory of sound gestures: the peculiar set of technical features of any instrument tend to invite some gestures and suppress others. The invited gestures of a conventional instrument tended to be those already well-associated with the instrument's literature; the suppressed, those most interesting from the standpoint of Kiva. Homogeneity and timbral specialization (the lack of very high and enharmonic partials and noise components) of both trombone and woodwinds made their sound seem simply uninteresting when sustained out of context of traditional syntactical organization.
The use of conventional percussion instrument was found to be somewhat less problematical. The timbral richness of all percussion instrument is inherently great due to the very nature of their sound generation. The diversity of sound qualities available through a sizeable collection of percussion instruments is enormously greater than for trombone or woodwinds. (It might be observed that the development of percussion instruments is extremely diverse; instruments have entered the common repertory from a wide variety sources, including, significantly, non-Western traditions.) Therefore, resourcefulness and a revised technique did allow the use of conventional percussion instruments to some extent. Nonetheless the need was also felt for developing unique percussion instruments.
IV.4 Open-ended characteristics
There was a paradox reflected in this instrument-making preoccupation because its primary objectives were the maintenance of open-ended characteristics. In the usual sense, instrument making, in the process of optimizing a specific set of functions, inevitably limits an instrument for other uses. Kiva sought to avoid this limiting. Generally, the more refined and highly developed an instrument, the more exclusive its most appropriate application and the more closed its set of sound resources. As an example, the modern Boehm flute has been optimized for homogeneity of timbre, evenness of scale, and stability of its sound under variations of air-pressure: with respect to these characteristics it far surpasses other flute designs and is pre-eminently suitable to the orchestra. But what makes the Boehm flute so suitable for the orchestra made it equally unsuitable to the context of Kiva, for these characteristics were the opposite of what was required.
Inevitably as instrument making and instrument using evolved together, design succeeding design, musical objectives became more defined and the process tended to lead back toward the closure of characteristics. It was a conscious intention to retard this evolutionary process, to seek to maintain open-ended characteristics against closure upon an evolving set of purposes.
IV.5 Instruments as notation
Two advantages of notation which were not felt to be exclusive to its typical informational application are the projection of sound and structural ideas from studio into performance and the recording aspect of preserving otherwise ephemeral insights. To develop a sound idea and to reflect that idea in a material object which expresses it shares some of these characteristics. As with notation, ideas could be tried and re-tried in the quiet and unhurried reflection of studio. As ideas took shape, corresponding instruments reflecting the ideas could take shape as well. Successful ideas and their instrumental manifestations became part of the repertory of instruments used in performance. The building of each member's collection was, on a deeper level, the building of a repertory of sound ideas. Ideas were " inscribed" in acrylic, brass, wood, steel, and other materials, as the evolving manifestation and record of the group's work and intentions.
The making of new instruments was not an occasional concern. The members of Kiva did not seek to equip themselves, once and for all. The designing and building process was more than a pragmatic response to the inadequacy of conventional instruments: rather, a process inherent to the nature of the group's artistic commitment.
IV.6 Sculptural aspects
Kiva sought the interaction of visual and auditory dimensions. This led to the use of photography, set design, films, surrealistic theatricals, and, especially, the concern for creating, in the instruments, a vivid sculptural aspect. The sculptural aspect was felt to usefully disrupt listener expectations as well as invite a more appropriate attitude. In contrast, the visual aspect of conventional instruments seemed to invoke established habits of listening, as well as the associated informational and syntactical expectations.
IV.7 Simple constructive principles
An aspect of instrument making has traditionally been craftsmanship. The esthetic and philosophical position underlying the design and development of material resources for Kiva required that they be unique to their own situation. The notion that the instruments might be useful to others in unknown musical contexts was considered inappropriate. The craft of " instrument" building was felt to be a potentially distracting concern from the creative process at hand. Harry Partch in Genesis of a Music comments that he was a composer "seduced into the career of instrument maker and carpenter". This seduction was not merely poetic. Partch was well aware of handicap imposed upon the development of his ideas by the demands of craftsmanship. In a sense, the instruments of Partch are the most significant aspect of his work, so his choice may have been appropriate. Kiva, however felt its commitment to lie more with improvisation as a process than with the creation of material residue. The example of Partch was taken to heart, with the resolution that material resources be as simple and elemental as possible, that the materials used be readily available, neither scarce nor costly, that the construction technique be straightforward, and that the "instruments" themselves be neither precious nor irreplaceable.
In Kiva the instruments were only prototypes, contingent expressions of the moment. Each rehearsal and performance modified our understanding of our intentions and of the instruments which expressed them. The working collection of each performer were constantly changing and considered expendable. If the entire array of instruments were to have fallen off a truck in transit to a performance it would have been an enormous nuisance (from a practical point of view) but no tragedy. The instruments could generally have been replaced with some dispatch. What is more likely (rather than replace the lost collections), a new collection would have been created.
IV.8 The microphone
The microphone so significantly extended the availability of the most subtle and complex sound dimensions that it was considered as part of the instrumentation. The application of the microphone did not simply make the soft louder, but the otherwise inaudible, audible. The microphone obviated the need for inherent power and projection. The softest territory of sound is among the richest. For the flute, this is perhaps obvious. Among the collection of flutes used was a six foot pipe whose lower partials were inaudible without the microphone. With the microphone these sounds became not only useful but powerful, able to balance the inherently more powerful sounds of percussion and trombone. For percussion, the decay of rubbed or gently struck metal could be prolonged almost indefinitely. This led to the development of a whole new territory of techniques not usually associated with percussion. For the trombone, a microphone placed inside the bell made useful a whole range of soft growls and voice overlays. For the flute, an ambitious project in instrument design was encouraged,5 in which the use of air sounds, articulatory effects of mouth and tongue, and whistle sounds were emphasized.
Less obvious amplitude increase is the microphone's great impact upon the apparent complexity of the sound. Use of the microphone altered the nature of listener perspective. The apparent sound of an instrument varies considerably with the location of the ear in relation to its generation. The constituents of a sound perhaps most distinctive to it are the internal transients and noise components. These sound aspects are also those most filtered out by passage through air, most masked by ambient noise, and therefore most modified by listener perspective. Placement of the microphone close to or on the point of sound generation (flute embouchure hole, trombone mouthpiece, percussion surface) had the effect of bringing the ear of every audience member 'inside' the sound, where the sound is most vivid and most detailed.
V. Performing Aspects
A body of methods and approaches to performing evolved over the years of work with Kiva. These methods and approaches, a few of which will be discussed in this chapter, represent a summation of some of the ideas found to be useful. The relatively brief discussion attending each performing aspect may raise more questions than it answers. Since the larger subject of these discussion is, perhaps, the nature of musical experience, a certain inconclusiveness is inevitable.
It was felt to be useful to regard silence as a positive sound resource rather than the absence of sound. In watercolor painting the white of the paper is not simply the blank space upon which the painting is overlaid, but a distinct color, which, whether standing alone or showing through overlaid pigment, is ever-present. The skillful watercolorist is careful not to totally obscure this whitness of the paper. Silence can be regarded, in an analogous way, as the ever-present " white" sound, blending here, showing through there. If a soft sound is decreased in amplitude, at some point it may be said to pass into silence. But what determines this point of transition? At what distance and within how noisy an ambience? These questions reveal the arbitrariness of the notion of silence. In performance one may play about this threshold, so that the border between sound and silence widens and enriches the interest of both. A conventional view of silence, reflecting an informational bias, tends to regard it as the articulating force applied to sound, that which defines the borders of the "note" In Kiva it was more helpful to regard sound as the articulating force applied to silence. Such an attitude tended to leave the ears of performer and listener fresher and the available sonic resources less exhausted.
Regarding silence as substantive and musically self-sufficient assisted the most difficult transition of performance, the beginning. Traditional performance tends to begin with the first sound, or "note" , the silence before but a brief theatrical pause. But if the beginning was thought to be silence, patiently sustained for some time, a much better basis for the improvisational unfolding was first to be established.
Traditionally, it has been both a performing and a compositional concern to invest the beginning with a great importance and discreteness. Performers have been taught to take great care that the first note be decisive, firm and clear. The composer has tended to load the beginning with the greatest informational significance. The " theme" , the "subject" , the melodic material, are generally exposed at once. To miss the exposition is to render less comprehensible the whole of a composition. These traditional attitudes reflect the informational basis of the music in which they evolved and proved unsuitable in an improvisational and non-informational context. The weight of importance assigned to the beginning by such attitudes is great, and exerts the pressure of expectation and habit from many directions. The audience will expect the beginning to be eventful, focusing its attention keenly upon the performers as they take the stage. The performers are expected to begin straightaway, and the audience will immediately break off its diversion of talking and looking about to focus eyes and ears upon the stage and performer. This attention is formidable and imposes an exaggerated significance upon every gesture in anticipation of the first sound, seeking to ascribe to it a meaning reflective of the entire course of what is to follow.
Trained in the theatrical manner of self presentation, musicians will tend to feel the pressure of their developed responses to focus special attention upon the beginning. The performer has been trained to understand that the critical impact of the beginning is great, a false note at the beginning outweighing many in the middle. The convention of the concert hall, with its actual or implied proscenium, reflects an inevitable allusion to the theater, sharing with the theater many aspects, such as exact repetition in rehearsal, script (score), and narrative or syntactical structural roots. The process of recording and the universal distribution of highly edited productions of music has reinforced the expectation of precision and repeatability.
The traditional attitudes toward the beginning and the theatrical convention discussed above seemed destructive to the free elaboration of an improvised music. It was found to be important that the performer seek to establish a less eventful attitude toward the beginning to regard an improvisation as the revelation of a continuing process rather than the presentation of a musical object. It was found to be useful to allow the sense of expectation to extinguish itself, as the performer projected a patient reserve, testing the musical water one toe at a time before leaping in. It was felt that the best beginnings possessed a kind of ambiguity, the audience and performer becoming aware at some point that the 'music' has begun, without a sharp border between music and not-music ever having been drawn. Such a beginning tended to allow musical relationships to unfold gradually, in an unforced manner.
One approach taken to negotiating this transition between music and not-music was inventory. Having patiently allowed the beginning silence to sustain itself and expectation to diminish, the performer could begin to take inventory of available sounds. In an unhurried manner various sounds could be tried, with no particular thought to interconnection and shaping forces. A certain casualness of attitude seemed to induce a more relaxed and open-eared atmosphere. This process is somewhat analogous to the prolonged preparatory process in East-Indian music, during which instruments and ears are tuned and the basic melodic material is simply exposed. Listener and performer could "get the sound into the ears" and allow an appropriate mode of attention to evolve.. As inventory was taken, at some point the shaping forces of the sounds thus exposed would begin to cohere into imprecisely bounded groupings. Lacking, by intent, a preconceived structural notion, form and shape could emerge spontaneously.
As the process of inventory gave way to this emerging coherence, it was found to be important not to willfully precipitate that coherence or to assume a conscious control of it. This emerging coherence was found to be a fragile ecology of poised, global attention and the acoustic character of the material resources.
Now, it must not be thought that these remarks constitute a kind of performance agenda. It is not to be supposed that inventory and the emergence of coherence are intentional " phases" through which each performance was required to pass. The process of performance is of such complexity and subtlety, and so much a matter of experience that it can only be known through work directly with sound. Yet these ideas are a kind of reflective evocation of some of the identified feeling which developed in working with Kiva. So also do the remarks that follow fail at being a sufficient description of the organizing forces discovered and developed in performance. They, too, should be understood as an evocation of work-in-progress.
V.4 Conservation of resources
As musical coherence developed and shaping forces began to assert themselves it was found to be important to conserve sound resources. The too quick change of instrument or of playing configuration and the too quick breaking off of some explored sonic territory tended to result in tired ears and an exhausted repertory of sound. The exploration of some effect, harmonic interconnection, or resonant peculiarity was observed to pass through layers of productivity and interest. Sound aspects not immediately interesting or promising might, with patience, develop into aspects of great value. As the process of an exploration would seem to begin bringing diminishing returns, patience and a holding of attention within a limited area might lead to unsuspected layers beneath these diminishing returns. When a particular sonic territory seemed exhausted, it was found to be useful to change the context of source-tape or to adopt a shifted attitude toward the territory by, perhaps, suddenly opposing rather than emphasizing natural acoustic tendencies. (The idea of source-tape and such shifted attitudes will be addressed shortly.)
V.5 Beginning constraints
Since the process of improvisation was so much a matter of response, some points of departure were helpful. The process of inventory also functioned in this way. Another approach was both useful and hazardous: the setting out of an arbitrary beginning constraint. One could determine, for example, to play only short sounds, or play only upon this or that instrument. Once a beginning had been made, there was a reference of sound and texture to which the performer could respond. The risk in this approach was that the plan or intention could prevail over subsequent response, and the performer continue to play from an internal "score" , the impact of which taking precedence over response to sound-in-progress and to inhibit the more subtle aspects of hearing. The performer using this approach had to take care that the commitment to a pre-ordained starting plan be loose and contingent.
While individual beginning constraints, discretely managed, were useful, collective beginning constraints were more problematical. The synergy between three or four musicians playing together is very complex. Even if each musician believed that a plan were understood in common by all members, the actual working out of the plan inevitably varied significantly from musician to musician. One member's version of " short sounds" might vary so much from another's that the total result would be quite unanticipated. It was found that any conflict between intention and result should be quickly resolved by the abandonment of the intention. Generally, such collective intentions were found not be useful for these reasons.
V.6 Global attention
Insofar as the performer would be. consciously ordering sound with a focused attention, the action of the performer would seem to lag a moment behind the sound itself, so that the moment might be lost. A sense of this elusiveness can be gained by trying to see the dust floating on the surface of the eye. When one tries to look directly at the dust, it slips away, evading attention. But, if one suspends movement of the eye and applies a sort of diffuse, global attention, one can follow the course of a piece of dust as it floats across the surface of the eye. The course of sound unfolding during an improvisation is analogous to the motion of the dust across the surface of the eye. If one looked directly at the sound, as it were, with the intention of ordering it with a focused attention, it was felt to slip away out of control. The focused ordering attention was felt to be too much a sequential process operating at a deliberate speed to be a viable organizing force. The organization of sound was as much a spatial and sculptural process as it was sequential, requiring more dimensionality than was possible with a focused, linear awareness. If the focused attention were balanced or replaced with a global attention, the performer was found to be able to shape and organize sound apace with its unfolding.
Related to this is the impracticality of a pre-ordained plan. In a musical context of complex and expansive resources, an actual sound result is unpredictable. When the performer would set a certain structuring course in advance or performance, the plan sometimes worked for a while. But the impreciseness of such a complex context of resources often resulted in an execution at least subtly different from the intended or expected. The success of an improvisation depended on the ability of the performers to quickly adapt to these extra-intentional results. If the performer continued to play as intention dictated, failure to respond appropriately to the actual sound result often occurred. With an attitude of poise and balance, occurrences of the unexpected could be exploited as opportunities rather than stand out as "mistakes" .
V.7 Instrumental naturalism
It seemed useful to have an awareness of what attributes were unique to an instrument or group of instruments and either extended and elaborated them or opposed them. As an example, the flute is not rich in sharply distinct articulatory power while that is percussion's greatest strength.6 Great skill at neither playing nor building and designing flutes can alter this acoustic reality. Such an awareness could become a point of departure.
One might follow the path of least resistance, concentrating on the gestures which come easily: for the flute, breath-determined "phrases" of medium duration, smooth, highly blending sound quality, precision in pitch, gradual onsets, freely and elastically modulated vibrato; for percussion: short sounds, abrupt, noisy and explosive attacks, assymetrical phrase lengths, strained, exaggerated, and extreme articulatory effects. The ease of production and natural flow of events along such a path is a useful approach to exploration. Or, following the path of greatest resistance, one might choose to push an instrument to (or beyond) its natural limits, investigating what results as acoustic boundaries are exceeded, flutist pursuing effects more natural to percussion and percussionist pursuing effects more natural to flute. In this case, the extension of 'unnatural' qualities can reveal unexpected richness.
V.8 The source tape
Significant use was made of pre-recorded cassette tape recordings as a means of increasing the resources available in performance and providing points of departure. Such recordings, in the form of a standard audio cassette, could be mixed into the performance sound system. Considered useful for such purposes was sound in more or less continuous streams. Left running and brought up or down in volume at will an accompaniment of approximately known but precisely unpredictable qualities would be made available. The ability to produce such an accompaniment' prior to a performance provided a useful creative opportunity. As performing with Kiva was extensively response to other sounds. the source tapes provided a controllable and flexible basis for this response.
It was considered important that allusion or reference to external contexts be avoided. A source tape made from the ringing of a telephone bell in coded intervals of six seconds would not have been appropriate since the sound is not likely to be heard as detached from its informational function. The same sound, recorded and edited so that the coding was disrupted, with perhaps the pitch changed or the timbre distorted, might be useful. A wide variety of environmental sounds, recorded and edited appropriately, were potentially useful. Computer generated sounds were particularly suitable in that they were inherently free of reference to external reality.
This use of source tapes provided an important means of developing new material. In a way similar to that of the instruments, source tapes functioned analogously to notation in other contexts by permitting the integration into performance of ideas, intentions, and discoveries of the studio. With only three (sometimes four) performers, the source tapes provided a means of greatly increasing the repertory of available sounds and the range of potential density and complexity of texture. Less obvious, but important at times, the tapes sometimes provided a welcome respite when improvisatory inspiration and conviction would temporarily lag. A specialized aspect of this use of source tapes was reflected in the use of " aural icon."
V.9 " Aural icon"
If the photograph is an iconic recording of light, the "aurograph" is an iconic recording of sound. This concept was appropriate to some uses of the source tapes, such as the in-field "taking" of ambient and environmental sounds. Certain ambient sounds of the city, country, and studio, were taken out of context, stripped of conventional meaning by editing and other simple manipulation (that is, "de-sign-ated" ), and framed by the context of a live performance. Such recorded sounds become analogous to the process of similarity extracting ambient light patterns of environment, city, country, and studio, framing these extracted recordings and presenting them in the gallery. The currently available field cassette recorders of professional quality are now sufficiently light and portable, simple and convenient of operation, and accurate in transcription as to be mechanically analogous to the camera. Such recorders were sufficiently accurate that recorded flute sound, as an example, could be easily mistaken for live sound when played back in the less-thanideal performance space.
Examples of such "aurographic" icons used in performance were the complex machine rattle of a worn air compressor, the thunderous explosions of dry leaves smashing under foot, cacophony of an approaching, braking train, and the chaotic roar of 30 sixth-graders banging "ad libitum" on pans and pots. More " manufactured" types of icons used were the sound of a tea kettle on the brink of boiling, the whine of a worn-out clock radio motor, and the chatter of a pressure cooker valve. In each case, it was important to isolate the portion of these sounds which was approximately continuous so that the tape could be started or stopped freely, with at least a partly predictable result. In all such applications of source tapes, whether the sound image was manufactured or " found" , the tape functioned as the material " trace" of work in studio and rehearsal, transmitted into the performance.
1 Many of the most interesting of 20th century composers have sought to employ alternate organizational models. Messiaen's use of bird song, Cage's of the imperfections in hand-made paper, Stockhausen's of astrological charts, and Globokar's of a rationalized inventory of playing gestures, are examples of the attempt to develop new syntactical formal models.
2 The virtuoso performance, in which the particular composition performed is secondary to the tonal, technical, and expressive aspects of the performance has something in common with this attitude. The difference is that in the historical context of the common practice period the virtuosos attitude tends to be destructive to the musical objectives of the works which are its vehicle. Nevertheless, the impulse to enjoy sound for its own sake is not a trivial one.
3 The last number alludes to the work of Harry Partch. While his importance is indisputable, there is a certain irony in his escalation of notatable pitch classes. His objective was to enrich the palette available to the composer, yet the result may not be what he intended. For instruments such as those Partch constructed to manifest his pitch system (steel strings on spruce boxes in so many cases) the technical problems of managing 45 discrete pitch-classes per octave are almost insurmountable. It takes a great leap of faith to imagine that such labile instruments can hold a tuning precisely enough (for more than a few minutes) to resolve this extraordinary number of discrete classes. With great respect to Partch's accomplishment, one could not help but notice, in observing a pre-performance tuning of his instruments, that by the time the last of many hundred strings were tuned, the first had long since departed from their original placement by a margin greater than the distance between such closely spaced classes.
4 The body of the Boehm flute
is actually cylindrical, but the headjoint, which is
to a greater degree responsible
project became finally the acrylic flute array, a 66 element set of flute-like
instruments which varied i
incorporating, among other design principles, the use of chance operations.
6 This is due to the inherently weak acoustic coupling for flute, between breath and the resonating air cavity and
the inherently strong coupling, for percussion between mallet, and metal, skin, or wood.
7 The example tape contains sixteen excerpts ranging in duration from fifteen seconds to one minute and forty
three seconds, are not recorded in direct succession and lack silences between excerpts. Since it was not possible to include a complete Kiva improvisation the tape is intended to illustrate the nature of the sonic materials involved and some of the organizational effects which arose over shorter spans of the music. ed.