Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, L'hommage à Rosa Luxemburg, 1992 (détail) [ * ]

Transition infime IV, collective musical improvisation created by Wreck's Progress

Yves Charuest (synthesizers), Jean-Claude Patry (MIDI-guitar) and Michel Ratté [ # ] (prepared drums and direction)

The work was created on May 17th, 1996 at Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville. Recorded by le réseau FM de la SRC for the program « Le Navire Night ». Producer : Mario Gauthier; assistant: Louise Trépanier; sound engineers: Michel Larivière, Denis Leclerc.

The work is reproduced in its integrality on the compact disc that accompanies the n° 66 (Fall 1996) of the Musicworks journal, from which the text below is excerpted.

The Wreck's Progress idea involves using minimal transitions to create drifts (dérives). Explaining how this works will enable me to discuss formal processuality (in relation to the whole, and to the beginning and the end), contrast (particularly in changes of speed) and polyphony in our music.

Drifts and minimal transitions

First, what do I mean by drift? It is the name I give to the overall plasticity resulting from the dialectic of coherence and incoherence which gives form to improvised music. In free collective improvisation the whole is consensually and continuously woven, and not organised around a centre - be it the hierarchical centre of the materials (the principal theme, for example, or the series of the dodecaphonists) or the architectonic centre of the construction. In fact the whole, when it is the result of a sovereign process of improvisation, overcomes any notion of centre or axis. Improvised music drifts, and its drift is the form of the whole. As a drift, this whole does not have a clear direction: every moment of its coming into being is weighted by the sum of all the possibilities unaccomplished. Drifts are the product of an indifferentiation of concrete material which still depends at every moment on the differences - as for example, by minimal transitions.

A minimal transition is a small movement, an incremental change, whose detail tends to escape us, leaving only the suggestion of mobility; the movement itself is virtually imperceptible, a trace of energy. This tiny change melts away the

Music excerpt (5'50'')

Technical requirements


distinction between "antecedent" and "consequent", uniting them in an evanescent movement. The idea of the minimal transition comes from Adorno. According to him, Berg was the "master" of it. Adorno praised Bergian minimal transition as an effective way of producing a processual music able to dissolve itself, including the form traced by its contrasts, thereby respecting the illusion character of its concrete plasticity. Adorno tells us that Berg merges Wagner's continuous chromatic transitions - using the smallest possible intervals - with Schoenberg's motivic restraint so well that everything falls into a tight sequence of minimal transitions. "The equivalent of nothingness in musical material, the interval of the minor second goes beyond the note pure and simple but without distinguishing itself melodically from it and without becoming manipulable as an interval, and so always about vanish into shapelessness." (T.W. Adorno, Berg. Le maître de la transition infime, Gallimard, 1989, p.23, trans. Tim Hodgkinson). Adorno takes the minimal transition as a Bergian idiosyncracy that reveals an emphatic meaning (from a philosophical point of view) in the illusion character of music.

Here we are more concerned with the temporal/aesthetic meaning of the minimal transitions, and with how it might be possible, using minimal transitons, to create unforced transitions between fast movement and slow movement, and vice versa, in improvised music. But Adorno does, all the same, bring to our attention that this proceedure of Berg's enables him to present musical contrasts not as naked, as breaks in the continuity, but rather as if each moment were concretely dissolving its potentially contrastive character into the next. For Adorno, the affirmative quality, the "fictive dynamism" of the contrasts is also dissolved. It seems to me, however that the overall design of the contrasts in speed of movement, is still well delineated in Berg's music. This design doesn't seem able to avoid expressing the decisiveness of the composer's gesture. Something from which effective improvised music can perhaps free itself, without ceasing to be music that both develops and has varied modes of movement. Generally in music the transition from fast movement to slow movement, and vice versa, suffers from appearing the result of a decision of the composer. It's as if there were nothing in the music itself that could demand and accomplish by itself drastic changes of speed as a mean of development. In Wreck's Progress, one of the things we are trying to do is to exploit chance occurences that - without this burden of decisiveness - have contrasting types of movement, by setting up a process in which dynamic ruptures, initially random and involuntary, can be retrospectively justified. The contrasts in type of movement no longer give into expressionism, but are drawn into a kind of a posteriori "logic" of movement. In Wreck's Progress the music passes from one kind of movement to another via material that is random or taken as such, but very rapidly drawn into the developmental process. This is how minimal transition works in Wreck's Progress.

Beginning and Ending

Too often we see the beginning and the ending as the unavoidable pivots of the whole. I'd like to show how the wealth of forms opened up by improvised music can give beginning and ending a new meaning. For Wreck's Progress, for example, all the material that is actually heard has to be made sense of. The process must either forget it or remember it in a productive way - for example through minimal transitions. It's part of the process of improvisation to overcome incoherences, either by giving them a retrospective meaning, or by making us concretely forget them. The motor of improvised form is the actual divergency of these incoherences. But in the continuous weaving of the music the ambiguities multiply as radically open formal possibilities, and the accumulating whole can no longer guess how the music will actually end. By freely giving itself up to the wealth of forms generated in a music freed from pre-determinations, improvised music has the ability to free itself also from the most fundamental pre-determination of all; the end. The end is often thought of as closing the music. But this is to affirm that it has the force to contain and sustain the whole. The end, to be recognised as such, has to have made itself already felt as the approach to the boundary of the whole. You always see an end coming. It announces itself early, pre-determined in the literal sense, lacking the force to be in itself an end. Whatever the case, in Wreck's Progress, the longer the music goes on, the more the problem of the end disappears, because the processuality of the music turns the awareness of the part against the awareness of the whole. Our music just stops. And what we go on calling the end is nothing more than one more minimal transition, for even a sudden end appears as a gradual disappearance. The sounds stop being heard, but the processual energy lasts for a moment in the vaccum; you even wonder if it couldn't have made something of it. Any nostalgia for the sounding whole that's now over is negated by the fact that the process not only denied, in its homogenous density, the completeness of the translation of the sound-material into experience, but also showed how effortlessly it could slip into nothingness. The wealth of forms of the improvising process does not have to give meaning to the fact that the music finishes, although it does have to give retrospective meaning to the arbitrariness of the start.


With Wreck's Progress I'm interested in the idea of opening polyphony out into something other than the simple coordination of simultaneous voices. I also want to avoid the kind of heterogenous polyphony of improvisers who continue to reproduce the concept of voice by identifying it through, and creating its unity in, the identity of the improviser whose voice it is. Here I want to spring the trap that polyphony has been in collective improvisation as practised up to now. So-called free collective improvisation, whether gestural or mechanical, has only rarely realised its own potential for renewing polyphony.

First, the way in which improvisers seize on random events only rarely makes use of the fragility induced by them. There is no lack of examples in the culture of free collective improvisation of instances where the "good" random occurences are systematically those that create the illusion of momentary unity in the polyphony. The players let themselves be impressed by "coincidences" which suggest their unanimity through some unison or other, whether a pause, a start, or an end.

Furthermore, improvised polyphony has often remained stuck at the level of hierarchical division between the functions of soloist and accompanist. This in turn depends on the hierarchical division of figure from ground. This is how the concept of musical voice is taken at face value by each improviser, with the liberty of each (standing in for the liberty of all) virtually killing off the potential for a flourishing improvised polyphony.

For Wreck's Progress, opening out polyphony means tackling everything - whether random or not - that happens during the music, and creating the polyphony as the critical outcome of the encounter of divergent motifs that are not fixed in terms of voice. This aspect of our music is accentuated by the textural interpenetration of the timbres used by the musicians in the totality of the polyphony. They break up the continuity of their gestures as instrumentalists, by using frequent changes of sounds in what they are playing. This is clear enough in the case of the synthetiser and MIDI-guitar, and I respond to this "chameleon function" of synthetiser technology by using a prepared drum kit playing textures created by contrasts of dynamic and movement. The dissolution of the voices is also enhanced by a fragmentation that is, here, no longer a simple stylistic effect, but grounded in the need for a maximum enrichment of the polyphony. In Wreck's Progress, the fragments immediately adopt an auto-critical attitude with respect to the possibility of their independance from the polyphonic totality. The apparent linearities are actually "precipitates" resulting from the multiplication of clashes between fragments. And their excessively linear appearance must itself undergo polyphonic mediation.

Excerpt from : Michel Ratté, « Réinterpréter l'improvisation musicale : l'improvisation comme forme », in Musicworks, n°66, Fall 1996. Translation by Tim Hodgkinson.
Other excerpts of Ratté's text were translated by Tim Hodgkinson and published in Resonance (vol. 6, n°1, 1997) under the title « Rereading Improvisation : Improvisation as Form ».

Top / Début
Table of Contents / Table des matières