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Free steering in coded chaos

by Santeri Kaipiainen

Libero Mureddu, who is completing a doctorate at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki, creates sonic frameworks that blend algorithmic unexpectancies with collective improvisation. His work is at once art and research, as it focuses on observing the intuitive actions of improvising musicians. What is required for these intuitive actions to blossom in a performance, and how can technology and human musicianship communicate with each other?

“I’m looking for musical situations that twist the performer’s expectations and place the players on the limit of what they know,” says composer, pianist and music technologist Libero Mureddu.  

“The sound produced by a player is not only the result of a rational thinking but includes the performing body and different types of tacit, implicit knowledge,” he explains. He stresses that everything about our bodies – size, strength, even state of alertness – has an impact on what the outcome sounds like. “Sometimes the body seems to know what it wants to do before one can think about it.” 

Mureddu’s artistically oriented doctorate at the Sibelius Academy of the University of the Arts Helsinki is about improvisation and the embodied knowledge involved in it.  

“I am trying to understand what actually happens when we improvise. When I started my research, I was more into a cognitive, music theory influenced approach, analysing intervals, rhythms and so on. I realised soon that this said very little about why I played this and not that, and even less about how I played it.”  

To this end, Mureddu creates constrained performance frameworks with the help of various electronic setups that sometimes act as a virtual player or conductor or simply dictate the parameters of the framework. In his words, these performance frameworks are “akin to a laboratory”. The human players may not perform exactly as they would wish in a natural environment, but the setting allows Mureddu to observe their reactions and to gather data. This results in the players’ engagement with free improvisation. 

In this context, ‘free improvisation’ means music where none of the pitches, rhythms or harmonies are predetermined. The genre also includes what we might call semi-structured works, where something like a text or a graphic score serves as the foundation for the mood, texture or form of an improvised piece.  

“A lot of free improvisers are also composers. In fact, both my doctoral recitals can be seen as compositions, as they consist of a composed framework, a set of rules. Also, these days more and more composers are interested in the work of improvisers,” says Mureddu. He is not comfortable with a black-and-white distinction between composition and improvisation. 

“I like to think that there is a continuum between composing and improvising, even performing. In free improvisation, you cannot really predict or control the future, while in traditional composing you can always rewind, erase and rewrite, the project deadline being often the temporal end to the process. To quote Steve Lacy, improvisation is a process where the performed piece and the time for its composition are of equal length.”


Intersections of technology and human-based improvisation 

Mureddu is working on his doctorate in the Department of Music Technology at the Sibelius Academy. He is well familiar with the school, as he came here to study back in 2003. He had previously studied classical piano and composition at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory in Milan and taken private lessons in jazz. 

The Sibelius Academy does not offer improvisation as a main subject, but music technology is a good fit for Mureddu’s study, as it combines technology and improvisation. The earliest of his concert-studies was Joy Against the Machine at the Musica nova Helsinki festival in 2021, where the performers were given random performance instructions on their tablets. 

“Programming software is a very rational activity, but the results can easily become unpredictable. At some point, the process actually resembles the way we humans make decisions!” 

In Sonic Avatars in autumn 2023, four musicians (drummer Cristiano Calcagnile, bass player Antonio Borghini, sax player Harri Sjöström and DJ Vincent von Slippenbach) were recorded on audio and video while performing, and each of their parts was edited into a ‘scrapbook’ of 20 to 40 musical or visual gestures controlled by Livia SchweizerVille Herrala, Teemu Mustonen and Mureddu himself. In the live performance, the musicians performed with their virtual doppelgagers, but with an added element of randomness. 

“Around the end of the concert, some videoclips were generated algorithmically by mixing the gestures of a player with the sounds of another. The audio onsets of a player control the sonic output and the image of another avatar, for example the avatar drummer beating the snare suddenly triggers the sound and the image of the double bass player.”  

What makes all this uncontrollably random is that the operators of live electronics are not in control when those glitchy moments are triggered: “At some point, performing Sonic Avatars became increasingly confusing even for me – I wasn’t completely sure about whom I was actually controlling, the real player, the avatar, or myself!”


Improvisation is multi-cultural 

Improvisation can be found in numerous musical cultures around the world. Famous examples include African-American musical styles and the traditions of India and the Middle East, but also flamenco, Baroque music and the European organist school. Indeed, the European tradition of free improvisation can be analysed as a blend of the avant-garde of 1960s art music and free jazz. However, as Mureddu notes, despite this distinguished pedigree improvisation is not always appreciated in the context of Western art music. 

“Many regard improvisation as less important than performing composed music or composing it, something not as serious as someone working on a written composition for a long time. This carries baggage possibly from colonial times, when Europeans wanted to picture non-notated or differently transmitted non-European music as primitive. The old trope of a rational and logical score written by some ‘genius’ still haunts us.” 

For Mureddu himself, the impetus towards improvisation came from outside the core of European art music. He became familiar with the practice of sampling and scratching in the early 1990s, as he was involved in one of the earliest major hip-hop groups in Italy. According to him, it would be unfair to not recognise the influence of artists from the African diaspora on free improvisation.  

“Many Black artists have reinvented and reimagined many of the Western instruments, musical tools, compositional thinking, and this process extends way further than the contribution of free jazz pioneers such as Ornette Coleman.”


Musical collaboration and communication

All of Mureddu’s projects are collaborative. The artistic personality of each performer has a significant bearing on the end result. This leads to a profoundly human, philosophical dimension of improvisation. 

“While improvising with other people, we learn to negotiate and tame our wishes and expectations, as the other players might fulfil them, or they might play something completely different. Experienced improvisers are always listening to each other, but might choose not to follow and participate on the same layer but rather create a parallel surface,” says Mureddu.  

He notes that he likes it when multiple stories are being told at the same time and yet the totality makes complete sense. “In conversations, and sadly in our daily lives, it seems we cannot really achieve that.” 

The communal nature of free improvisation is also important because of the marginal nature of this pursuit and the consequently meagre resources available. Mureddu says that every improviser carries responsibility for everyone else and for the community as a whole, and that it is also the job of the community to support individuals. “In this sense, I see it almost as an anarcho-utopian society. We also strive to be inclusive and constructive, even when we don’t match with certain players, and thus quite naturally we favour certain collaborations.” 

When discussing improvisation, Mureddu fondly recalls the free improvisation scene in Berlin, particularly the Klub Demboh collective, where he witnessed some of the wildest improvisatory performances of his life. 

“Their music was all the time on the edge of falling off a cliff. How is it possible to hear such crazy things, yet everything worked out so smoothly? That was the mystery I wanted to uncover with my first doctoral recital. In such situations, the beauty of free improvisation can be seen – a chaotic and complex reality in which a way out can be always found and in which sometimes magical moments happen.” 

Mureddu has spent a lot of time thinking about those moments. In the end, improvisation is all about choosing the path never taken. 

“I like letting go of control, at least to some extent. My hypothesis is that a good and experienced improviser is going to find solutions, no matter what. I have been playing the piano for 42 years, and my fingers know the pathways of classical and jazz. It takes a conscious effort to choose to stay out of those paths when it is needed.

Featured photo: Wilma Hurskainen
Translation: Jaakko Mäntyjärvi