Musical Composition And Structured Improvisation

Robert Crumb - Record Collector

Robert Crumb – Record Collector

Growing up as a guitarist, I learned a lot about music from records.  By the time I was twelve I learned how to slow down a record and pick out the guitar and bass parts.  I’d learn the chord progressions, riffs and solos from records and recordings.  Later on I collected  jazz records to hear the musical interaction and learn more songs.  My friends often did the same thing and recordings influenced how we performed.  However, learning from records and other musicians isn’t the only way I learned about music composition and improvisation.  The following essay is the first in a series under the “How and What I Learned” heading.  Originally written in early 2012, I tried to keep this essay as concise as possible.  Further reference on specific subjects may be found in the extensive “End Notes” which are used to more fully elucidate subjects.  Of my own work which is mentioned in this paper, many of the CD’s and some of the scores are available in the BLOG STORE.  A variety of supporting documents (SD) are mentioned in this essay and although they are not published here, they are available upon request.  Many composers and musicians are referenced in this essay.  If you are unfamiliar with someone, do yourself a favor and check them out.  There are so many fine musicians/composers out there.  I’m the type of musician who likes many forms of expression and so I am influenced by many sounds from many time periods.  For me, this is essential to be a creative 21st century composer and improvisor.


Musical Composition And Structured Improvisation – How and What I Learned


“Whenever music takes on the task of expression, it develops new technical means.”

~ H. H. Stuckenschmidt


This essay defines how and what I learned to develop a solid foundation in musical composition and structured improvisation and my incorporation of these techniques into recorded works. I have composed music and have been involved with structured improvisation on an almost daily basis since I was ten years old and especially since 1984 . The compositional and structured improvisational techniques that I learned formally and informally, in the past 35 years, is commensurate with first-rate college level scholarship as exemplified at Columbia University, Harvard University, Oberlin College and Berklee College of Music.

I learned about composition and structured improvisation in a variety of formal and informal ways including interaction with peers and more experienced musicians through ‘on the job training” at jam sessions, rehearsals and performances; individual training by private teachers; formal classroom work; and through personal studies of musical scores, recordings and books. Although the concepts involved with composition and improvisation are often interwoven, I will address them separately, discussing my background in composition first, followed by my work in structured improvisation. Additionally, how I learned orchestration as a component of composition is also covered here. My prior learning of composition and structured improvisation discussed in this essay is documented through supporting documents (SD) which are not included in this essay but will be supplied upon request. My discography, list of lectures and workshops, articles, interviews, and reviews may be found on my CV (SD_cv) and website.[i] Further substantiating evidence about my history with composition and structured improvisation exists in scores (SD) and articles and interviews (SD_2.1-2.13). Additionally, endnotes clarify and substantiate compositional approaches as well.

Although establishing technical virtuosity on the guitar and professional experience as a music performer have deepened my compositional knowledge, guitar and performance technique are covered in another essay. While I have a thorough understanding of traditional and non-traditional harmony, which have been useful in all stages of my compositional life, my focus in this essay is to document my development as a composer. How and what I learned about traditional theory and harmony is covered in another essay. Additionally, I learned about the development of western composition by studying the history of music, which I write about in other essays. Thus, this essay will not express how and what I learned about Gregorian chant, counterpoint, early polyphonic music, early homophonic music, Baroque improvisation using figured bass, opera, early music forms, rondo and sonata forms, development of orchestral music, and other fundamental aspects of composition.

Studying music with fine teachers helped me become a better composer and develop a personal approach to structured improvisation. In 1987 I began private composition studies with Dennis Sandole, teacher of many jazz musicians and composers including John Coltrane, James Moody and Pat Martino.

Dennis Sandole

Dennis Sandole

I studied composition with Sandole weekly for 13 years, spending 8-16 hours a day, seven days a week, on each lesson. Actually, my work methodology was to practice and compose for nine days and then take a day off.  Sandole’s method utilized a four-week cycle; he called them Letters A, B, C, and D.   While each week’s lesson had compositional and structured improvisational components, the fourth week, Letter D, was exclusively compositional as I incorporated the previous three weeks work into a new original composition.[ii] While studying with Sandole I composed over 200 musical works. Many were rehearsed and performed, and some were recorded. For example, in 1996, my composition Maria’s Grace, won a competition after it was submitted to Temple University’s jazz radio station WRTI (SD_4.marias_grace). Other compositions were included on subsequent CD’s. Furthermore, this period of intense study was the groundwork of many later compositions.

I also studied composition privately with composer George Rochberg, from whom I learned about balance of materials, clarity and opaqueness, timbre and texture.

George Rochberg

George Rochberg

Conversations with Rochberg inspired me to compose “Wildflowers” using concepts of classical serialism, a 12-tone matrix and a hint of neo-romanticism (SD_5.wf_score). The last page of the score includes the 12-tone matrix.  This was recorded on my second CD, MURAL, which features nine original compositions for guitar, acoustic bass and drums (SD_cv). As a way to develop new timbres I analyzed the individual and composite frequencies of several cymbals that the drummer, Ryan Sawyer, used and combined them with bass overtones and guitar chords in compositions for this CD. Specific concepts and structured improvisations are unique to each composition.[iii] This CD won a variety of awards (SD_cv). These compositions have been performed in concert.

Additionally, studies with Georghe Costinescu (1970 Julliard Ph.D.),[iv] and Paul Levy (1985 Julliard Ph.D.) [v] were important influences on my compositional development (SD_cv).  Furthermore, since 1991, I have learned about composition, orchestration and conducting techniques, at workshops and lectures, given by world-renowned composers Daniel Barenboim, Elliot Carter, Charles Wourinen, and Brian Ferneyhough (SD_cv).

The above private studies have been complimented with formal coursework in composition and structured improvisation. For instance, while at Musicians Institute (SD_7.MI_records), I learned about composition and structured improvisation at lectures and workshops given by prominent composers and musicians.[vi] Concurrently, at the suggestion of master guitarist Howard Roberts, I began to compose twelve tone rows.

In addition, while at S.U.N.Y. (where I graduated with a 4.0) I learned about composition and structured improvisation in many diverse cultures through my studies in anthropology, ethnomusicology and the history of 20th century performance. For example, I learned linguistic approaches of compositional analysis with respect to music of the Kpelle in Liberia, as ethnomusicologists found that the combinatorial possibilities of rhythms are part of a transformational generative grammar, a form of linguistic structuralism as historically researched by Noam Chomsky (Stone 2008: 63-80). Furthermore, for the final project in the course “Performance History: The 20th Century”, I composed and performed a piece for voice, live guitar and pre-recorded sounds using principles of the avant-garde and Musique concrete. The compositional techniques utilized in this piece are detailed in an essay (SD_8.FP_Essay). In my last semester at S.U.N.Y, I studied advanced composition with Professor Steven Mackey, head of composition at Princeton University. For this course I wrote a string quartet.

In addition to the formal and informal studies and practical experiences discussed above, I learned about composition and structured improvisation through performing with peers. For example, in 2000, as I was studying the music of György Ligeti, I began playing music with his son Lucas, a unique drummer, composer and performer. This interaction fostered my interest to better learn the cross rhythms, polyrhythms, and polytonalities found in György Ligeti’s Piano Etudes.[vii] Additionally, after I learned several of György Ligeti’s creative concepts from the Braunarts website I used them in compositions I recorded.[viii]

I have learned musical composition and structured improvisation from cultures around the world. Early on I began studying music from diverse global communities by listening to records, reading books, watching films and eventually meeting and performing with practitioners from those regions.[ix]

In addition to the above formal and informal studies, I have gained significant knowledge of composition and structured improvisation from published materials. Many important transcriptions and books explored theories of musical composition, structured improvisation, and cutting edge jazz concepts, which I used to compose new works. Through analysis of sheet music and musical transcriptions I learned the idiomatic languages and compositional techniques of blues, rock, and jazz. Beginning as a teenager, I transcribed and learned the recorded solos of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall, Eric Dolphy, Stan Getz, Paul Bley, Keith Jarrett, Michael Brecker, Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Johnny Smith, Joe Pass, George Benson, Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Bill Frisell and others. Using their ideas with other notes I liked better, I composed my own solos on the chord changes of jazz standards. Once I memorized these composed solos I found that these “compositions” could be flexible, and I would improvise with them. In essence, this was a form of structured improvisation. Additionally, as a way to observe Coltrane’s voice leading from a different perspective, I converted Coltrane’s horizontal melodies to vertically stacked chords.

John Coltrane

John Coltrane

I studied Free Jazz by Ekkehard Jost and other books to learn the compositional and structured improvisational approaches of jazz masters.[x]

Over the past three decades, I have learned from numerous texts covering composition and orchestration theories involved in both tonal and atonal music. These perspectives inform my approaches with structured improvisation as well. I learned about compositional form, techniques of expression, moods, ornamentation, and balancing melodic phrase lengths in the music of Chopin, Mozart, Bach and Beethoven by studying scores of these composers and the writings and performances of Arrau, Casals and others.[xi] Helmholtz’ work on consonance and cognitive perceptions of music in On the Sensations of Tone, helped me learn about the behavior of tones around a tonic. Additionally, Meyer’s Emotion and Meaning in Music explores relationships that may exist between music theory and Gestalt psychology, motivation, emotion, learning and information theory. With Edlund’s Modus Novus – Studies in Reading Atonal Melodies, I learned how combinations of intervals helped to break the bonds of the underpinnings of the traditional pre-20th century major/minor tonal system.

Using Slonimsky’s A Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns along withPersichetti’s Twentieth Century Harmony, I combined the materials to compose many etudes, preludes, string quartet sketches, woodwind quintet sketches, and long form compositions that I have recorded and performed.[xii] As I became fluent with various types of pitch material, I studied orchestration to learn more about orchestral color. I composed many pieces from the orchestration suggestions in Persichetti’s book. Furthermore, I learned about orchestration from studying scores and several books specifically dedicated to this subject.[xiii]

In addition to Slonimsky and Persichetti, I gained significant knowledge of twentieth century compositional techniques from studying the work of Arnold Schoenberg.

Arnold Schoenberg

Arnold Schoenberg

I learned about the varieties of musical form from Schoenberg’s Fundamentals of Musical Composition.[xiv] From Schoenberg’s Style and Idea, I learned what he thought was important to consider in new and older music regarding spiritual, emotional, stylistic and technical achievements.[xv] Additionally, other concepts of 20th Century composition were learned from references in the Harvard Dictionary of Music (1986: 320-321) and with Tovey’s The Forms of Music, where I learned about the use of suspensions, passing tones and alterations in the harmonic evolution of the opening of Wagner’s Prelude to Tristan und Isolde (1961:68).

From Stefan Kostka’s Materials and Techniques of Twentieth Century Music, I learned a multitude of compositional concepts including rules for atonality (1990:15), mixed interval chords (1990:66), polychords (1990:68, 110) and other subjects.[xvi] I used many of these concepts in original compositions that I have recorded. Additionally, I learned the distinguishing characteristics of Classical and Integral Serialism.[xvii] With Berry’s Structural Functions in Music, I learned about the illusion of a “spatial” field in music and how a listener perceives “motion” within the “space” field (1987: 8, 248-55), rates of change as “angles” of ascent or descent (1987: 9), and how Carter and Dallapiccola develop intensity and relaxation through textural progression and cadential devices (1987:205, 284).

I learned the compositional techniques of twelve-tone/dodecaphonic music of the Second Viennese School as spearheaded by Schoenberg and his first composition pupils Alban Berg and Anton Webern. The concepts I learned from Kostka’s book were stated earlier as are the characteristics of Classical and Integral Serialism. Additionally, from Stuckenschmidt’s Twentieth Century Music, I learned about Schoenberg, Webern and Berg’s use of specific twelve-tone series and their manipulations in key works (1973:93-96). I learned other concepts by these composers, which I used in my own compositions.[xviii]

In addition to learning the composition and orchestration techniques of specific composers including Stravinsky, Bartók, Messiaen, Carter, Xenakis and Cage through analyzed passages and techniques in previously cited books, other sources also proved to be invaluable in that endeavor. For example, Pasler’s Confronting Stravinsky – Man, Musician, and Modernist, features essays by musicologists Richard Taruskin, Allen Forte, Milton Babbitt and others. From this book I learned many concepts used by Stravinsky including the use of two minor tetrachords pitched a tritone apart (1986:34), harmonic syntax and voice leading in his early works (1986:95-129), “all-interval” tetrachords (1986:126) and other subjects. This book, and others detailing Stravinsky’s work, influenced my compositional approaches.[xix] I implemented many of the above concepts in my compositions and structured improvisations. From Béla Bartók’s book Mikrokosmos, I learned folk songs of odd bar lengths, types of motion, modes, uncommon key signatures, odd meters, and compositions with changing meters. In addition, with Lendvai’s Béla Bartók – An Analysis of his Music, I learned about Bartok’s “Axis System” relationship to the tonic, subdominant and dominant (Lendvai 1979:3), and proportions developed using the golden mean and Fibonacci series. With Hill’s, The Messiaen Companion, I learned Messiaen’s “color modes” (Hill 1994: 207-09) and composed music on several of those scales and gave a concert featuring them in a discussion about synesthesia (SD_9.article_synes).[xx] I learned about Elliott Carters compositional concepts from David Schiff’s The Music of Elliott Carter.

Elliott Carter

Elliott Carter

I learned what music influenced Carter.[xxi] Most importantly though, I learned many of Carter’s compositional techniques which I used in my compositions and structured improvisations in my own way.[xxii] From Xenakis’ book Formalized Music – Thoughts and Mathematics in Music, I learned about his personal style of composition, stochastic music. His use of calculus as a way to develop rates of change and the “angles” of ascent and descent influenced my composition for strings. From John Cage, I listened to his music, read his book Silence, learned about aleatory music, indeterminacy, use of the I Ching, the prepared piano, and creation of new timbres.[xxiii]

All of the studies above have informed and inspired my compositions and structured improvisations, many of which are demonstrated on CD’s, as discussed below (SD_cv). Furthermore, as a way to develop new timbres, I analyzed the multiphonics of brass and woodwind players I worked with who incorporated multiphonics and then I composed specific passages for those sounds. I studied the special effects and extended techniques of strings players as a way to incorporate them on the guitar and into my own compositions.[xxiv] My first CD, NINE WINGS (1997) features nine original compositions for guitar, alto sax and drums and won a variety of awards (SD_cv).  Each composition features specific concepts and structured improvisations.[xxv] I have performed these compositions dozens of times in concerts around the world. My second CD, MURAL, which features nine original compositions for guitar, acoustic bass and drums is discussed above. Throughout my third CD, OPIUM, my compositions actively project the idea of multiplicity by incorporating competing, occasionally contradictory, layers of material.  The instrumentation, which includes guitar, bass trombone, baritone sax and drums (to my knowledge an unprecedented instrumental grouping), explores the most extreme low registers. My fourth CD, ASHES (2001, unreleased) features 23 compositions for 13 musicians. Though each composition is relatively brief in jazz terms, each composition has distinct qualities.[xxvi]

I spent two years composing and orchestrating Inner Constellation vol 1 [IC] for violin, alto sax, trumpet, guitar, bass and drums; to my knowledge an unprecedented instrumental grouping (SD_IC_mp3). The score is rigorous and detailed. My book, The Musical Atlas of Inner Constellation (2014), details the variety of compositional aspects in this work.[xxvii] IC won a variety of awards (SD_cv). Many of these compositions have been performed all over the world. IC was informed by my studies of Carter, Ligeti, Xenakis, Bartok, Ellington, Coltrane and books mentioned earlier such as by Berry, Kostka and Persichetti.

Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington

Since 1997 I have been using the Finale music notation program, which has significantly helped me develop more concise engraving skills, strengthen composition and orchestration skills and learn about ossia passages (Read 1979: 31), cross staff notation, stemming without noteheads for Sprechstimme effect (72), and stemming altered unisons (73). Furthermore, since 2001, I have used digital recording and mixing as a form of composition.[xxviii]

In addition to the formal composition techniques discussed above, I have been learning and performing structured improvisational techniques since early in my career.[xxix] All musical collaborations, performances and tours since 1997 are listed on my website year-by-year.[xxx] The drive to compose and improvise is a means to explore new and uncommon sounds and methods that incorporate spontaneity with others through a collective ‘engendered feeling’.[xxxi]

I learned about composition and structured improvisation directly from master musicians in performance and workshop situations. I have cultivated musical relationships with key paramount representatives, or their close associates, who launched the “free jazz” movement of the 1960’s, including Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, Dennis Sandole (teacher of John Coltrane, mentioned earlier), and Milford Graves (drummer for Albert Ayler) who will be mentioned further later.

Milford Graves

Milford Graves

From 2000-2001, over ten months, through one-on-one and group sessions with pianist, composer Cecil Taylor, I learned his system of notation and many compositional and structured improvisational perspectives.[xxxii] A cover story in the June 2001 issue of Jazziz magazine documented the event.[xxxiii] Additionally, since 2000 I have learned directly from saxophonist, composer Ornette Coleman.[xxxiv]

Ornette Coleman

Ornette Coleman

Furthermore, in 2001, I participated in structured improvisations with drummer Milford Graves, both at his studio and in concert at the 2001 Vision Festival. Writer Marc Jacobsen for New York magazine covered our work ethic and musical perspectives in an article.[xxxv]   Later that year, I also worked in Berlin with saxophonist Evan Parker, a primary first-generation representative of the European “free improvisation” movement.[xxxvi] Lastly, since 1983, I have learned about structured improvisation at workshops and lectures given by George Lewis, Roscoe Mitchell, Butch Morris, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny and Lee Ritenour (SD_cv).

George Lewis

George Lewis

Structured improvisation has been utilized on each of my CD’s, in live performances and lecture/workshops (SD_cv). A few of the collaborations are noteworthy. The first, Particle Data Group, is a guitar, vibes and trombone trio (to my knowledge an unprecedented instrumental grouping) I developed after learning about Pierre Boulez’s work with vibes.[xxxvii] This trio performed in NYC and recorded a critically acclaimed CD (SD_14.PDG_reviews). In addition, after drummer Stephen Flinn and I learned and worked with Cecil Taylor (as noted earlier), we invested six months developing a personal vocabulary of structured improvisational gestures, exercises and activities, which we documented on a critically acclaimed CD, KEEP THE METER RUNNING. Subsequent tours fostered personal conceptual breakthroughs in composition and structured improvisation.[xxxviii] CARNIVAL SKIN is a co-led quintet that I assembled and produced. Each member contributes compositions with structured improvisational perspectives.[xxxix] In addition, TOTEM> is a co-led improvisational trio that I organized and have recorded and performed with for several years (SD_15.mp3_totem).[xl] Structured improvisations emphasizing new timbres are developed from our collective extended techniques. Our first critically acclaimed CD was released on the legendary ESP label.[xli] Furthermore, while developing compositions through structured improvisations with analog-synth pioneer Tom Hamilton I learned the use of oscillators, filters, ring modulators, envelope generators, sine wave, sawtooth wave, square wave and white noise coupled with the program Ableton Live (Kostka 1990: 262-63).[xlii] Our critically acclaimed CD, SHADOW MACHINE, (excerpts here:, SD_cv), enabled us to perform at Festivals and NYC venues. Additionally, I have performed structured improvisations in electro-acoustic concerts with SKFL, Charles Cohen, Octopus of Dalek, Dai Soma, Orin Buck and Edmund Mooney.

Finally, I have developed dozens of structured improvisations in cross-cultural collaborations during tours through Japan (2003, 2004, 2006); Germany (2006); Sweden and Denmark (2007); France and Switzerland (2008); and the United States (1998, 1999, 2004, 2005, 2008).[xliii]

New technical means have been implemented with each new step in my evolution as a composer and improvisor. In a personal way, the amalgamation of divergent conceptions of tonal formations is integral to my compositional and structured improvisational language, which combines tonality, atonality, modalism, and serialism. My natural inclination to be involved with cross-cultural, multi-ethnic exchanges is fostered by my newly developed academic interests in ethnomusicology. The study of musical scores through rigorous biographical and musicological research, transcription, and listening to live performances and recordings continues to be a source of compositional inspiration to this day. My scores employ a variety of notational methods: descriptive (Western staff notation) and prescriptive including graphic, tablature, textual. Structured improvisations have included the above notational methods as well as gestural, visual and verbal means. The line between composition and improvisation does not have to be rigid. Compositions may be flexible and improvisations may be structured. The combination of these principles and those stated in this essay enables my work ethic to be in the moment, structurally rigorous, and fresh.



[i] Discography:, Interviews and Reviews:; Performance Listings (1980-2011):

[ii] Letter A included three musical examples: A1 was typically an etude 14-19 beats in length, incorporating any number of beat subdivisions, intervals, accents, imbedded phrase lengths, and chromatic mechanisms. I typically took A1’s material and transposed it to all keys, wrote out and learned the retrograde, inversion, and inversion in retrograde. I also extracted horizontal phrases and turned them vertical into “chords”. A2 was an arpeggio to the 13th. I also converted the tertian 13th arpeggio and to a quartal arpeggio. A3 was a harmonization of A1 and consisted of a four bar phrase made of quarter and eighth notes that were the characteristic intervals from A1, inverted. My assignment was to harmonize the melody of A3, keeping the melody on guitar string 1 while harmonizing the melody with strings 1235. This process was repeated with string grouping 2345, 3456, 1234, 2345, 2346 with A3 melody on string’s 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 respectively. The suggested chord progressions were highly chromatic and the melodies were extensions and alterations such as degrees #5, b5, #9, b9, #11, 13, thus eliciting bi-tonal natures. I prepared A1, A2, and A3 in one week and performed the work for Sandole. His “response” was B1; a complicated compositional device/harmonic etude emphasizing substituted extensions with double and triple stops. B2 was ear training exercises that were to be sung three ways:  using “movable Do”, using “fixed Do”, and using “a single syllable”.   B2 scales included chromatic, whole tone, diminished, arabian, prometheus neapolitan and others.  I was required to sing intervallic sequences of each scale such as 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc through 10th’s.  B3 was a specific four measure rhythm study that I used to compose a melody and chord theme by combining 8-12 consecutive notes from previous A1, B1 and C1 lessons. I prepared B1, B2, and B3 in one week and performed the work for Sandole. His “response” was C1; a complicated compositional device/harmonic etude emphasizing alterations of the previous B1. C2 was sight singing for which I used a couple of books.  I began with tonal material from the books Sight Singing Manual by McHose and Tibbs and also used A New Approach To Sightsinging by Berkowitz/Fontrier/Kraft.  After about a year in those books I focused on Modus Novus by Lars Edlund.  C3 was transcription from a record. I prepared C1, C2, and C3 in one week and performed the work for Sandole. His response was D1; the harmonization of one or more 5-12 note scales, which I used to compose with. Additionally, I had to compose three other works: an original 8 bar melody with chords using material from the previous three lessons combined with the chord progression of a standard, a separate but related accompaniment, and a separate but related single note “improvisation”. I repeated this 4-week cycle for 13 years. Subjects included intervallic studies on major, minor, symmetrical, exotic and synthetic scales, added note scales and chords, accents for uncommon phrase lengths and structures, harmonization of bitonal scales, harmonization of polytonal scales, doubly chromatic chords and multi-octave scales and modes. Each week’s material was quite challenging. For the first six months of study I needed to spend 8 hours a day just to be sufficiently prepared. Even once my understanding matured it was necessary to spend at least 4 hours a day in order to be prepared. After five years with Sandole he told me I was his most advanced pupil. Unique voice-leading concepts created an enriched vertical and horizontal harmonic awareness. The material Sandole presented continually developed my concept level and helped me to become a strong composer and improviser.

[iii] On MURAL, “Caesar” is a 16-minute composition that uses a GSS that is polymodal and polytonal through the use of three different modes on three different tonal centers: E major ionian, Gm dorian and Bbm phyrgian:



“Woman With a Handful of Rain” uses a bitonal scale and multiple time signatures such as 11/8, 13/8, 4/4, 3/4, 7/4, that are often combined and performed simultaneously. “Crucifixion” refers to Gregorian chant with an ametric modal guitar theme, while the bass utilizes detuned strings and changing compound meters with the drums. “Blue Poles” was inspired by a Jackson Pollock painting whose layering sequence I followed: black, white, aluminum, orange, yellow, black and blue.   I developed themes and chords from my own color scales or used Oliver Messiaen’s when possible.

[iv] Costinescu studies included modal composition, analysis of historically important graphic scores using Das Schriftbild der Neuen Musik , linguistic approaches and Stockhausen subjects including moment form and the use of overtones in the vocal sextet Stimmung.

[v] Levy studies included form in Bartok’s 5th quartet, melodic augmentation and diminution.

[vi] Musicians Institute structured improvisation lectures and workshops I learned from were given by prominent musicians including Al Dimeola, Allan Holdsworth, Billy Sheehan, Bunny Brunel, Eric Johnson, Hal Galper, Howard Roberts, John Scofield, Larry Carlton, Larry Coryell, Ray Gomez, Robben Ford, Ron Eschete, Scott Henderson, Steve Morse, Steve Vai, and Tal Farlow.

[vii] Ligeti – In Etude #1 each hand uses a different key signature and alternating polyrhythms (Griffiths 1997:117-119). In Etude #7 each hand plays different whole tone scales simultaneously (Griffiths 1997:123). I learned how György Ligeti attained a unique intonation in orchestral string writing by having one violin and one viola tune to harmonics on the double bass (Griffiths 1997:128).

[viii] The Braunarts website defines several of Ligeti’s creative concepts. Subjects I learned and composed with include rhythmic clockwork mechanisms, phonetics from emotions, cluster sound mass, African rhythms with added quavers, and crystallization.

[ix] Individual unstructured ethnomusicological studies date back to at least my teen studies of Bela Bartok’s use of folk music. Besides being a composer he was a trained ethnomusicologist. I studied traditional music from Native Americans, Northern India, Southern India, Japan, Bali, Cambodia, Vietnam, Morocco, Egypt, West Africa, Guinea, Ghana, East Africa, Arabian cultures, the Babenzele Pygmies, Romania, Bulgaria, and contemporary flamenco composition.

[x] Free Jazz Books – From Jost’s Free Jazz I learned Coltrane’s themes, modes, and rhythmic patterns in “Ascension” (1994: 84-104), Archie Shepp’s “soundblocks” (collections of 15-30 pitches played very fast and sounding like a smear) as a source of expression (1994: 118), pitch, intensity, themes, formal details and structural differentiation in Cecil Taylor’s Unit Structures (1994: 70, 78-83) and form, freedom of expression, and themes in the music of Ornette Coleman (1994: 48-65) and modes used in Miles Davis’ Flamenco Sketches (1994: 22). These studies informed my own composition and improvisational abilities which were most important when I performed with Taylor and Coleman. Yuseff Lateef’s Repository of Scales and Melodic Patterns, presents material that is often referenced by 1960’s era free-jazz avant garde improvising musicians. Learning this “traditional material” of specific patterns and scales unique to African American composers helped me later improvise with Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Milford Graves and many others. Other books I learned from that helped me compose avant garde compositions and better understand contemporary improvisation include Forces in Motion – The Music and Thoughts of Anthony Braxton, Thinking in Jazz- The Infinite Art of Improvisation, and Miles Davis – “Miles Smiles”, and the Invention of Post Bop.

[xi] I learned Chopin’s preludes, ballades, and nocturnes by studying scores, listening to recordings of those works by Claudio Arrau and by learning about Arrau’s impressions, interpretations, and techniques of expression from Conversations with Arrau (Horowitz 1984: 158-62, 255). Similarly, with Casals and the Art of Interpretation I learned about the expression of dynamics in Mozart’s 40th Symphony (Blum 1980: 39), expressive intonation and harmonic considerations in Bach’s cello suites (1980: 107-09) and many expressive considerations for the orchestra in Beethoven’s 6th Symphony (1980: 164-207).

[xii] Compositional techniques I learned from Persichetti include the use of characteristic notes in modal scales to illuminate the “sound” of the mode; synthetic scales and their mirrors; multi-octave scales that do not repeat at the octave; polychords; compound and mirror harmony; rhythmic devices including polyrhythm, polymeter, isorhythm, isomelos, ostinato; percussive use of harmony and intervallic expansion and contraction to extend harmony. With Slonimsky’s book I learned how to divide the octave into several equal parts. This led to learning how to divide two or more octaves into several equal parts so that each part could have it’s own tonality. I assigned orchestral instruments whose natural range corresponded with specific parts. This helped me learn about stratified orchestral textures. I also learned palindromes and palindromic canons.

[xiii] With regard to orchestration, from Korsakov’s Principles of Orchestration I learned about the characteristics of instruments in their various ranges (11,16-17, 25, 31), the combinations of tone qualities, and instrument substitutions for color variation. I used Piston’s Orchestration, as a reference to understand passages in key works by Debussy and Holst. Part 2 of the book, “Analysis of Orchestration”, where seven types of textures are analyzed through understanding the component elements that are employed such as orchestral unison, melody and accompaniment, secondary melody, part writing, chords and others. Additionally, from Kennan and Grantham’s The Technique of Orchestration I learned more contemporary techniques and new notational approaches. Additionally, I learned a lot about orchestration from attending concerts, participating in big bands and stage bands and studying jazz arranging books including Changes over Time, Jazz Arranging and Composing, and Encyclopedia of Arranging. These texts detailed historical analysis of the developments of jazz arranging, musical psychology, psychological associations and strong melodic lines in all voices. These works were used as reference material for group structured improvisations.

[xiv] With this book I learned how to build phrases and motives, periods and sentences by developing the idea of antecedent/consequent (Schoenberg 1967: 25-31), a variety of period phrases (Kostka 2009:164-170) and asymmetrical periods (Schoenberg 1967: 137). Musical concepts that contribute to character and mood (Schoenberg 1967: 93-95), melodic contour (Schoenberg 1967: 113-115), melody v.s theme, conjunct motion, focal points (Schoenberg 1967: 113-115, Kostka 2009:73) and musical forms such as small ternary (3-part song) form, minuet, scherzo, theme and variations, rondo, sonata, and coda. I also learned from Schoenberg’s Style and Idea, Pillin’s Some Aspects of Counterpoint in Selected Works of Arnold Schoenberg, and Boretz’s Perspectives on Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

[xv] Specifically, the essay Brahms The Progressive (398-441) particularly inspired my desire to compose to the most progressive contemporary listeners. Subjects I learned about included lack of obvious repetition and irregular phrase lengths.

[xvi] Subjects I learned and composed with include melodies with extreme ranges (1990:83), pitch class cell motives (86), more expression marks, notation of Hauptstimme (primary voice) and Nebenstimme (secondary voice) (87), disjunct voice leading (88), harmonic parallelism (also known as planing) (90), complex meters and fractional time signatures (125), ametric music, added value and nonretrogradable rhythms (134), tempo modulation (135), form analysis of major works (144-155), arch form(152), the use of the “golden mean” and the Fibonacci sequence (158), characteristics of non serial atonality (184), determining normal order of pitch sets (187), inversional equivalence and best normal order (190), set types, prime forms, interval vectors, interval classes, aggregates.

[xvii] Classical Serialism – with it’s regularly recycling of a specific twelve tone row, the use of the prime tone row (original set), retrograde, inversion, and retrograde inversions, how to develop a twelve tone matrix, and concepts of invariance, invariant subsets, permutations of the row, and combinatoriality (Kostka 1990:206-223). As I studied Integral Serialism, I learned that certain aspects are controlled pre-compositionally. Serialization may be applied to rhythm, dynamics, register, articulation, timbre, and row form. Integral Serialism – I studied Babbitt’s Three Compositions for Piano (1948) and learned that this is considered the first integral serial composition. Babbit serialized the dynamics and rhythm (Kostka 1990: 275-277). I studied Boulez’ Structures Ia (1952), a work for two pianos where Boulez serialized row choice, dynamics, rhythm, durations and articulations (Kostka 1990: 277-281) (Clendinning 2011:797) (Berry 1987: 96). I studied Luigi Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso (1956) where Nono serialized pitch classes, rhythm, and the duration set is a palindrome based on Fibinocci series (Kostka 1990: 281-284). With Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music, I learned the criteria for determining prime form, pitch class sets, integer notation, process of segmentation, and complementation where any pitch set is presented in conjunction with it’s complementary set as a way to form a unique 12-note aggregate. Also helpful was Rahn’s Basic Atonal Theory, Pearl’s Serial Composition and Atonality, Wittlich’s Aspects of 20th Century Music and articles such as Babbitt’s “On Relata I ” and Winham’s “Composition with Arrays”.

[xviii] I learned compositional aspects of Webern’s work including isorhythmic principles in Piano Variations Op.27 (Berry 1987: 312, Kostka 1990:134). From Symphony Op.21, I learned the tone row (Brindle 1986:126-28), form (11), palindrome (131), and double canon by inversion (136-138). From Variations for Piano, I learned the matrix, combinatorial row pairs, row linkage, and his philosophy (Clendinning 2011: 776-79). I learned the compositional concepts utilized in Six Bagatelles by analyzing the tone rows and performing the parts (Berry1987: 176-177, Kostka 1990:197-99). These works were used as reference material with group structured improvisations. Since I was a teen I listened to Kraft conducting Webern’s complete works. At a workshop with conductor Daniel Barenboim, I had a personal conversation with him about the performance evolution of Webern’s work attributable to seminal recordings by Kraft and especially Boulez. Additionally, I learned Berg’s Lyric Suite and his use of an all-interval row, independent sets (Perle 1991: 72-74), and polytonal harmonic textures (89-90, 102) which influenced my composition Inner Constellation, written about later in this essay.

[xix] Stravinsky – Other subjects I learned and composed from include octatonic pitch structures (1986:130-155), balance and 3:2 proportional relationships (1986:174), late style canon’s where the only constant is a pitch set (1986:221), 12×12 set arrays used in Movements for Piano and Orchestra, Requium Canticles (1986:252, 258). Additional Stravinsky studies included reading several books by Robert Kraft, the DVD Crossing Borders, and using four-hand piano-reduced scores, I studied The Rite of Spring. After hearing The Symphony of Psalms, I learned about Neoclassicism (Grout 1980:714, Randel 1986:535, Van Den Toorn 1983: 252-270). I studied his other neoclassical works by listening to CD’s, studying scores, going to concerts and reading theories (Van Den Toorn 1983: 252-270). With Van Den Toorn’s The Music of Igor Stravinsky, I learned the use of the octatonic scale in much of Stravinsky’s music from The Firebird until he died, the use of Russian folksongs, juxtaposition and superimposition, development of new timbres by unique combinations of instruments, metric irregularity (1983: 218-224), emphasis with minor-major third interplay using (0 1 3 4) and (0 3 4/3 4 7/3 6 7) (1983: 272), and serial techniques (381-455). I learned about Stravinsky’s use of five note sets for In Memoriam Dylan Thomas, and his technique of set rotation in Abraham and Issac (Kostka 1990: 287). From Straus’ Stravinsky’s Late Music, I learned about the influences of predecessors (Schoenberg and Webern) and contemporaries (Krenck, Boulez, and Babbitt), the influence of his early music on his atonal composition, compositional process, the combination of disparate ideas to create forms, intervals as basis for motivic development (Straus 2001: 82) and linking of six-note arrays (133). I learned about vertical harmonies developed using 12 tone polyphonic independent lines as associative harmony (Van Den Toorn 1983: 143), and expression and meaning in his diatonic and chromatic music. Additionally, I learned about Stravinsky’s use of the “ladder of thirds” in The Firebird. This ladder is a scale of dyads with alternating major and minor thirds (Taruskin 2010, 4:154).

[xx] From Messiaen I also learned his motivic rhythmic patterns, nonretrogradable rhythms, palindromes, modes of limited transposition, his use of birdsongs (1994: 228, 249-65, 409) and polytonal broken chords (1994: 344, 368).

[xxi] Carter’s influences include Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Debussy’s Jeux, (Schiff 1998: 39), Berg’s Lulu and Lyric Suite, Ives’ Concord Sonata, Three Places in New England (Bernard 1997: 222). I studied those scores and recordings and attended concerts of this music.

[xxii] From Schiff’s book, I learned and used, in my own personal way, many concepts relating to pitch organization, expressions, textural development and rhythm. I learned concepts such as the all-interval hexachord (0, 1, 2, 4, 7, 8) which contains all twelve three note chords (1998:34), all-interval tetrachords (0,1,4,6) and (0,1,3,7) each contain all six interval classes (1998:34), Link chords which are all interval twelve tone chords that contain adjacent statements of the all-triad hexachord (1998:41). Metric modulation, also known as tempo modulation, is where a change from one tempo to another is made converting the rhythmic value of the first to be made equivalent to the value of the second (1998:41). Character patterns – a combination of intervals, metronomic speed, polyrhythms, and rhythmic characters that define the expressive character of a specific instrument or instrumental group. Stratification is the division of musical texture into separate layers of contrasting harmonies, tone colors, rhythms and expressive characters to all coincide with clarity in musical space as a way to allow for the democracy of voices (1998:46). Mosaic texture is one or two short ideas, Carter’s formal plans, harmonic schemes and sketches of chords and polyrhythms of entire works, helped me learn to “outline” a large scale composition (1998:80, 74, 118, 294 ) (1997:278). I learned about establishment of musical conflict amongst ensemble members (1998:82). Additionally, Carter’s Harmony Book is a catalog and cross reference of combinatorial relationships of prime form “set classes”, although Carter prefers to call them chords (Hopkins 2002:7). It is essentially a massive encyclopedia devoted to exploring harmonic relationships as ways to modulate. The Harmony Book offers a new perspective on musical set theory. Learning the harmonic analysis of the coda of Carter’s Changes for solo guitar helped me understand the harmonic motion and other possible combinations of chords and subsets Carter could have chosen (Hopkins 2002:10-14). I learned about the musical relationships that underlie Carter’s harmonic language. I use this book as a compositional tool.

[xxiii] Additionally, I listened to and learned from the graphic notations of Morton Feldman’s work. The Kronos quartet’s recording of George Crumb’s Black Angels made a strong impression on me and I studied Crumb’s scores and learned about his personal notation and extended techniques.

[xxiv] Extended techniques used in structured improvisations were initially referenced from Kennen and Grantham’s The Technique of Orchestration (1990:52-74). Additionally, as I studied poetry and learned the elements of late 20th century techniques, I began to employ postmodern musical concepts including juxtaposition, quotation, allusion, and parody (Clendinning 2011: 826).

[xxv] NINE WINGS – In “Oak Tree” one finds alternating meters, quartile 13th arpeggios in Cm Dorian, and multiphonics.  “King of Comedy” employs a bitonal device contrasted with a nine-note scale, performed in the style of Ornette Coleman. “Rising Lake” utilizes a canon with a 6/8, 13 bar theme, developed from a 12 tone scale. “Hermitage of Xzheng Xzhu” is the first time I used a Grand Spatial Set (GSS) (SD_16_hermitage_score). The GSS is a compositions over arching pitch collection from which all of the compositions devices are generated. This concept might be unprecedented. This composition’s GSS is polymodal and polytonal through the use of three different modes on three different tonal centers: E major lydian, G major mixolydian and Bbm aeolian:



“In Retrospect” is 32 bar composition in C minor that utilizes harmonic materials related to Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight”. The improvisational language is aligned with traditional jazz. “Mercury” is related to Coltrane’s late period. This composition has themes developed from quartal harmonies related to three mutually exclusive diminished scales. One finds chord solos planing a specific sonority (1990:9) with the interval classes (1990:195) specific to that chord. In “Confessions”, resonant chord clusters, odd-time signatures and the combination of isorhythm and isomelos are found (SD_16_conf_score).  “Soundscape #2” is a group improvisation. Through months of rehearsals, improvisations developed from procedures that were crystallized into one or several accepted methods of unwritten but culturally important music.

[xxvi] ASHES – each composition features a unique instrumentation and three themes interlocking the compositions to form a circle such that the last theme of track 1 is the same as the first theme of track 2, the last theme of track 2 is the first theme of track 3, etc until the last theme of track 23 is the first theme of track 1. Each track emphasizes a specific trichord. Ethnographic studies of traditional Cuban folkloric music and West African rhythms are employed (Hartigan 1995). More than two dozen themes are expressed and most are not repeated. A variety of odd and compound time signatures are used. Some structured improvisations limit four different intervals/instrument. On track 1, two drummers simultaneously perform a 23 beat theme that incorporates 12 different dynamic markings (SD_ashes_1). Track 6’s graph paper notation was influenced by Morton Feldman’s work (SD__ashes_6). Track 17 uses dramaturgical devices (SD__ashes_17).

[xxvii] INNER CONSTELLATION vol. 1 – This long form continuous 60 minute composition developed from a seven octave GSS:



Imbedded within the GSS are a variety of 5-12 note scales and spatial sets, harmonic mechanisms, musical palindromes, all-interval hexachords, and all-interval tetrachords. The composition incorporates polyrhythms, many instances of tempo modulation, stratified textures, several passages of Klangfarbenmelodie (Kostka 1990: 246) , pointillism and sound mass varieties (249).

[xxviii] This has evolved through “on the job” training, working closely with producers and sound engineers during the production of my own recorded work.   Some compositional aspects include developing new arrangements through cutting and pasting, using pitch charts to enhance specific frequencies, mixing, and sound sampling.

[xxix] I learned the idiomatic improvisation languages of blues, rock and jazz from listening to records, personal transcriptions, performing, teachers and published sheet music. As a professional musician, I have used structured improvisation in collaboration with singers, dancers, film, multimedia, electroacoustic ensembles, traditional jazz, free jazz and non-idiomatic avant-garde improvisation (SD_cv). Structured improvisations are culturally important because each ensemble uses sounds and procedures, specific to them, that have been crystallized, from public and private performances, into one or several methods of unwritten expressions of modernity. Structured improvisations have been part of my performances since the early 1990’s.

[xxx] Listing of Live concerts:  LIVE

[xxxi] Charles Keil’s term (1966: 338-39).

[xxxii] Taylor’s perspectives on composition and structured improvisation include multi-dimensional use of space, balance of composed and improvised materials, accents, tempo, intonation, historical references, types of improvisation, and contrasting densities. Many of these techniques are explained in Jost’s book mentioned earlier.

[xxxiii] (Panken 2001: 38-45).

[xxxiv] I have participated in dozens of sessions with Coleman at his studio, attended recording sessions with him, and observed how he rehearses ensembles. These sessions often lasted several hours. Coleman has shared with me his finely notated scores and taught me many concepts about “Harmolodics” in a one-on-one, oral and aural tradition. I learned his compositions and ideas about structured improvisations using ‘Harmolodic’ theories, sense of balance, tempo, and intonation.

[xxxv] (Jacobson 2001: 32-36).

[xxxvi] A group of eight developed structured improvisations 4-6 hours a day for a week.

[xxxvii] Studying Orientations – Collected Writings of Pierre Boulez, helped me learn about the techniques of the vibraphone and the way that Boulez used it in his work Improvisations sur Mallarme (Nattiez 1986: 155-176). Additionally, I learned several serial rhythmical transformation techniques, such as simple transformation (augmentation by a dot), expressed rhythm (superimposing rhythms equal to the note plus dot value), hollowed rhythm (substituting a rest for part of the new rhythm), and others (132).

[xxxviii] Subsequent tours through 18 cities in Japan and 15 in the United States provided artistic breakthroughs in composition and structured improvisations. I learned how to more intensely interact with the audience and the environments.

[xxxix] CARNIVAL SKIN – We performed at many venues in NYC and the Montreal Jazz Festival. The CD won several awards (SD_cv) and received airplay on hundreds of radio stations around the world.

[xl] TOTEM>: We developed a unique cohesion through weekly sessions for six months before we performed in public. Each member of TOTEM> is free to bring musical material or concepts for themselves, although no one imposes on another as they let each other respond musically to what is expressed. The trio functions as a ‘hermeneutic circle’ and after each session we have conversations about the areas that the sounds created by the unit moved through as related to each musician, as well as how each musician is related to the whole unit. I compose new music for each concert while incorporating previous themes, densities and expressions. We have performed at many concerts and festivals nationally and internationally.

[xli] ESP website <>, accessed December 29, 2011.

[xlii] As the Hamilton/Eisenbeil CD, SHADOW MACHINE,  was recorded over several sessions, I learned about the Musique concrete movement of the 1950’s as developed by Pierre Schaeffer, Edgard Varese and Stockhausen. Their techniques included change of tape speed, change of tape direction, tape loops, cutting and splicing and tape delay (Kostka 1990: 260-61). I was familiar with these techniques through the music of the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd and others. Since the 1970’s I have composed much music with these techniques.

[xliii] In every city of each tour, I participated in structured improvisations with key regional figures of the free jazz and improvised music communities. I composed new music, poetry and text daily for each concert.



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About admin

Bruce Eisenbeil is a composer, improviser, and guitar instrumentalist who has dedicated his life to the advancement of modern guitar techniques through the growth and evolution of modern composition and improvised music. He has twelve CD’s released on a variety of labels including: ESP, New Atlantis, Pogus, Nemu, Konnex, Cadence, C.I.M.P and Nine Winds. Eisenbeil has performed and recorded with some of the best musicians throughout the USA, Canada, Japan, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Brasil, and at many festivals. Eisenbeil has been living in New York City since 1995. In addition to his musical developments, Eisenbeil is trained in advanced mathematics, physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics, organic chemistry, computer languages, electrical engineering, acoustics, art history, philosophy and psychology. He has worked as an electrical technician, mechanical draftsman, auto mechanic and in construction. Although Eisenbeil was born in Chicago, he grew up in Plainfield, NJ which is where he began playing the guitar when he was 4 years old. He has been performing professionally since he was 15. Mostly self-taught, he studied with a few great teachers including Joe Pass, Howard Roberts, Joe Diorio, and Dennis Sandole – teacher of John Coltrane and Pat Martino. Despite the fact that Eisenbeil is singular artist with his own personal sound, those critics who write comparatively associate him not only with guitarists such as Wes Montgomery, Django Reinhardt, Grant Green, Billy Bauer, Derek Bailey, Sarnie Garrett, Sonny Sharrock, Curtis Mayfield, John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck but also with saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman and pianists McCoy Tyner and Cecil Taylor. Eisenbeil’s ensemble writing has garnered a lot of attention for his unique counterpoint, textures, and sound masses. Because his work is tough to describe, critics have associated Eisenbeil’s writing with that of Miles Davis, Don Cherry, Brian Ferneyhough, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the Revolutionary Ensemble. Eisenbeil has performed and/or recorded with some of the best musicians in the world including: Cecil Taylor, Katsuyuki Itakura, David Fox, David Murray, Evan Parker, Rob Brown, Ellery Eskelin, Aaron Ali Shaikh, Jimmy Stewert, Biggi Vinkeloe, Steve Swell, David Taylor, Karl Berger, Perry Robinson, Michael Manring, Alex Blake, William Parker, Kent Carter, Lisle Ellis, Wilbo Wright, Hill Greene, Tom Abbs, Peter Evans, Nate Wooley, Tom Hamilton, Charles Cohen, SKFL, Milford Graves, Badal Roy, Andrew Cyrille, Edgar Bateman, Nasheet Waits, Jay Rosen, William Hooker, Lou Grassi, Ian Ash, Lukas Ligeti, Shiro Onuma, Michael Lopez, and many others. In the 1980’s he worked with Jeff Buckley, Paul Gilbert and in R&B bands. His trio, TOTEM>, includes Tom Blancarte and Andrew Drury.