At the end of Brian Massumi’s foreword to his translation of Mille Plateaux one can read: ‘The question is not: is it true? But: does it work? What new thoughts does it make possible to think?’ Perhaps these sentences could be regarded as the point of departure for Marcel Cobussen’s research on musical improvisation which started in 2008. His research does not aim to (re)define improvisation; rather, its initial questions are ‘How does improvisation work?,’ ‘which agents are “at work” during an improvisation?,’ and ‘how do these agents relate to each other?’

Generally, most publications and presentations on improvisation can be divided into two categories. On the one hand, the emphasis is on music-theoretical analyses of certain formalistic characteristics of solos. On the other hand, the musical and social interaction among musicians is studied. Cobussen’s research is meant add something new to the already existing corpus of studies and should result in a more integral theory about musical improvisation. Basic idea is that, besides musicians, many more agents play a part in improvisation: instruments, audience, technicians, musical background, space, acoustics, technology, etc. Furthermore, a more detailed specification of the interactions is needed – terms like listening, freedom, play, resistance, creativity, fear, courage, power, corporeality, and reflection-in-action should be brought into play. Therefore Cobussen proposes to consider the Field of Musical Improvisation (FMI) as a complex, nonlinear dynamic system. (These kinds of systems are described in neuroscience (Varela), social science (Bateson, DeLanda), philosophy (Deleuze), biology (Wheeler, Kelly, Von Uexküll), and chaos theories (Mandelbrot), to mention just a few.)

According to David Borgo the complexity that informs, and can be generated by, an individual improviser is immense. Mind and body, moment and place, emotion and intellect, preparation, experience, and spontaneity all collide, collude, and (in the best of moments) cooperate to create a compelling performance. It is obvious that, when combined with and amplified in a group setting, the sheer volume and variety of interactions, influences, intentions, and potential (mis)interpretations that come into play is extremely increased (Borgo, 2005, 62). This observation compels us to engage with complexities of collective dynamics in specific musical settings to arrive at a more extensive theory concerning improvisation.

The aim of the present research is to regard the FMI as a complex system in order to gain insight into the relationship between the actual improvisation (aesthetic choices, technical abilities, formalistic features, intermusical knowledge), environment (technology, acoustics) and the social (artistic, ethical) behavior of the musicians mutually as well as of performers and listeners. Examining improvisation as a nonlinear dynamic system shifts the focus from an overriding concern with isolated agents to changing relationships between these agents. This might imply the musicians’ interaction with their muse (Misko Suvakovic calls this intermusicality), their audience (Bruno Nettl), their instrument (Aden Evens), the performance space (Brandon LaBelle), and technology (Henrik Frisk). Improvisation happens between people, instruments, histories, ideas, technologies, etc. It happens in an encounter between an internal world and the external world. Taking into account all the levels of musical, social, historical, acoustical, and technological engagement gives a more complete picture of the practice of improvisation.

Not all of the agents mentioned above determine every improvisation to the same extent; in certain situations (periods, styles, cultures as well as more singular circumstances), some are more prominent and active than others. Therefore, the FMI theory will not be a theory dealing with improvisation “in general”. The FMI emphasizes singularity: each improvisation will yield a different network of agents and interactions, a different configuration and a different assembly. One of the specific challenges of this research is to find out if there is a considerable difference between the interactions and the presence of certain agents in various musics in which improvisation plays a significant role.

So far, Cobussen’s research on improvisation has resulted in the following publications:

Cobussen participated in two interdisciplinary research projects on improvisation, one launched by the Orgelpark in Amsterdam (the Netherlands), the other by the Malmö Academy of Music (Sweden).

See also a public presentation by Cobussen on 5 November 2010 during a one-day seminar on improvisation at the Sonic Art Research Center in Belfast (Northern Ireland)