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Collection > Volume 28 Numéro 1 (2018) > English Supplements >

Thoughts on Sandeep Bhagwati’s Comprovisation
Concepts and Practices

Jin-Ah Kim

Note: Ce document est une exclusivité web, disponible uniquement sur ce site.

“Comprovisation” is a term created by combining “composition” and “improvisation” used by Sandeep Bhagwati since 2004 on various occasions and for which he has also presented a basic theoretical concept in several of his writings. 1 The term “composition” is derived from the Latin word componere and means “to put together”, the term “improvisation” goes back to Latin’s improvisus, by which is meant “the unforeseeable” or “that which is unforeseen”. 2 The roots of their meaning serve in understanding improvisation and composition less as contrasting terms and more as complementary or augmenting to each other. And yet, both terms are historically and aesthetically changing categories that are constantly being re-negotiated. Without going into the historical and aesthetic dimension, it remains to be pointed out that “composition” and “improvisation” are often currently conceived of as antonyms to each other. Accordingly, by the word composition one means something that is completely planned in advance, in the sense of a fixed text, in which certain parameters are specified with notation by the author, whom we call the “composer”, in the form of a score. By contrast, one associates with improvisation notions such as spontaneity and contingency of performance, by which the parameters are not fixed but left open until the moment of realization. To this effect, then, intrinsic to composition is structuredness, seclusion and controllability, while for improvisation openness, singularity and coincidence are deemed essential. Thus, when composed music is taken on stage the most important moments of the performance are already determined, whereas in improvisation the performance process is spontaneous and free.

The dichotomous typology of composition and improvisation goes back to the general linking of the term “composition” with the potent term “the work” (of art) as a conclusive whole, as it emerged with the aesthetic of autonomous thought in (Western) Europe around 1800, in which “improvisation” is understood as the opposite thereof, that is, playing that is limited to the present moment. Here the societal construction of supposedly uniformly-viewed “Europe” and “Non-Europe” has also played a role since the 19th century. Within this view the composition, as prepared by its creator, is definitive of European/Western art music, while improvisation, understood as a process and technique of performing, is indicative of “non-European” music.

Such a perspective — in which the dichotomous juxtaposition of composition and improvisation is central, and proves itself to be a “social construction of reality”, as termed by the sociologists Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann 3 — is the context in which Sandeep Bhagwati ponders over the revaluation and the specific potential of the terms composition and improvisation. For him every performance consists of two types of elements: that which remains more or less constant between different performances and that which is unique and is realized only in the context of a certain performance. The elements of the first type are not dependent on context, or are repeatable, and is that which is meant? when one speaks of an “artistic work” or a “composition”. The second type consists of elements which are contingent upon something else, it refers to a broad spectrum of names such as “chance procedure”, “playing it by ear”, “inspiration”, “arrangement”, “improvisation” or “interpretation”, and many others. 4 The point of departure for Bhagwati’s concept of “comprovisation” is the observation that, though musical notation are “informative devices” “that allow a composer to lay down certain parameters of a performance”, musical notation defines only so much as “is considered context-independent by the composer or by a certain cultural tradition.” 5 In European history, however, one developed the pretension that the notation and score fixes the details of a piece as exactly as possible. One can see this as linear, progressive development. Bhagwati’s skepticism comes in here, in that he believes that the notation cannot claim to have completely captured and fixed everything that occurs in a performance. This observation is linked with another, that a certain kind of notational bias makes it easier for certain elements of a performance to become context-independent, “while the attempt to notate other elements will always occasion complicated contortions in writing and/or in reading, and thus will result in seeming alien, or complex, or forbidding, and this far beyond their actual performability.” 6This “notational bias” puts the creator “in any tradition” in the situation of having “not to use elements/parameters that are difficult to notate for them, and may increase their willingness to consider such elements/parameters as contingent.” 7 Thus, it applies to every musical performance that some elements of music-making will be contingent and therefore improvised. Most musical productions are, however, situated on a continuum between these two hypothetical poles 8 between which a strict line cannot be drawn. The boundary between composition and improvisation blurs in the processual nature of performance. Thus the two terms must be considered as “merely hypothetical figures of speech that were useful once upon a time in ‘the West’”. 9 Nevertheless, they have come to reduce and obscure the reality of music-making by suggesting essentially that dualistic or even antagonistic entities exist.

These considerations led Bhagwati to coin a new word for score-based music with elements of improvisation, namely, to the term “comprovisation”. So “blatantly mongrel” 10 this word is, it is meant to clarify the systematic coexistence between the areas of composition and improvisation, between parameters both context-dependent and context-independent. “Comprovisation” stands for all music that draws not only on the contingent moment of performance but also on a context-independent system of rules or scores. According to Bhagwati the term should be taken to include the manifold creative practices operating in contemporary “secondary orality”, in the sense of media sociologist Walther Ong, 11 and to attempt to approach the issue in an inclusive manner in regard to both oral, improvisatory traditions and traditions of written composition. “Comprovisation” could be defined as “musical creation that is predicated on an aesthetically relevant interlocking of context-independent and contingent performance elements.” 12 It can be understood as an “inclusive description of a field of musical creative activity.” 13


Following Bhagwati’s argumentation one discovers that his position toward “composition” and “improvisation” defies their conventional meaning in “the West” in that he situates music-making on a “continuum” between the two poles. 14 According to Bhagwati the difference is but a matter of gradation toward which pole a particular music tends to go, a point of view taken by other musicologists as well. Similarly to Bhagwati a number of researchers have established a conjunction between composition and improvisation. Already in 1974 Bruno Nettl showed the two to be poles of one continuum. 15 He considers them as stemming from the same type of knowledge and as essentially the same as they both rely on musical structures and models. 16 To Nettl improvisation is spontaneous composition. It is also Carl Dahlhaus’s understanding that the terms composition and improvisation, “strictly taken, are not at all isolated, mutually exclusive domains” but are rather “a scale of possibilities.” 17 There are countless points of overlap and transitional forms. The extremes, absolute composition and absolute improvisation, prove themselves as illusive. Such approaches continued to be taken in the decades that followed, especially within a Performance Studies framework. Nicholas Cook also remarks that the customary understanding of a performance as the reproduction of an already existing score is problematic, as “every note in the score is subject to the contextual negotiation of intonation, precise dynamic value, articulation, timbral quality, and so forth.” 18 As fundamental for the creation of music Cook also mentions the two supposedly contradicting areas of composition and improvisation. 19 Likewise, in performance research it is emphasized that “any improvisation... goes back to compositions”, here in the words of Ronald Kurt. 20

The parallelism between Bhagwati’s position and other musicologists’ is an indication that now within the sphere of music research as well the performative turn has arrived, which has been observed since the 1960’s and extensively in the last decades in interdisciplinary research. The point of departure for this development was the skepticism of the idea that human experience is conveyed by language, and thus, that culture is primarily construed through language and its inherent logic. Within this understanding symbols and meaning are put forth as one and the same due to their inherent logic of that which is represented. In this context, then, culture and therefore music are considered as one structured system of symbols that is consistent within itself, indeed, as a text. By contrast, the performative turn places the sensually perceived processuality occurring in the here and now in the foreground. Emphasized is the situativity and the singularity of each respective process of human action. With this notion the groundwork was laid for seeing the inherent logic of any social and cultural process as being established by the situativity and singularity of the event, for which the bodily and the material form a significant basis. Improvisation is not considered an exception but rather a norm for any human action, for cultural and musical creation, and for life altogether.

It goes without saying that the performative turn contributed to the dissemination of a new understanding of improvisation, in which the act of improvisation is not executed ad hoc, without premise, but rather requires the foreseen. That is, “the freedom of improvisation” is at once connected with “a complex framework of rules in order to bring forth the effect of spontaneity”. 21 If everything were free and without prerequisite the term improvisation would be useless; one would not be able to experience or recognize an improvisation as such. The abstract term, improvisation, is not only discussed within this context but also in its applicability to music of so-called non-European cultural regions. The issue here is not only that African, Arabic or Asian cultural areas do not have an equivalent word in their terminological reserves, but also the problem of which type of term of improvisation one should use to do justice to the musical phenomena to be subsumed in these cultural areas—precisely in regard to places and times—to someone for whom the “unforeseen” is a foreign conception and thereby also the idea of discovery of the original. If improvisation is to be spoken of at all, in many cases it does not have to do with a formulated, musical or artistic concept whose goal is the creation of the new, but rather, in reference to Peter Niklas Wilson, with an evolving approach to sound, to the instrument, to music-making or, quite simply, to life itself. 22

In taking these particularities into account Bhagwati’s word “comprovisation” is to be viewed critically. As much as it stems from criticism of the conventional understanding of the two concepts “composition” and “improvisation” and their dichotomous juxtaposition, it is on the other hand clear that the coinage of this term does not go beyond European thinking. It is a combination of two words that have evolved in a European context. The transmittance of them to another culture requires critical discussion. Even if one must acknowledge that currently, through globalization and mediatization, a great many things are under the influence of the European/Western system, certain aspects of interference and incompatibility of different musics and cultures ought not to be thereby overlooked.

It is also unclear for the most part how improvisation stands to be interpreted in the concept of “comprovisation”. Even when taking criticism of the conventionally-used term into consideration 23 it would be sensible to categorically differentiate the act of improvisation from the act of interpretation. Indeed, in improvisation aspects of interpretation are present through the rehearsing and understanding of musical material before a performance — and with that the exclusion of something unforeseen — and facets of improvisation are present in interpretation, even if it must be conceded that this unforeseen, according to the sociologist Hans Joas, is “within the mode of possible actions in regard to social response patterns.” 24 The question furthermore to be examined is how improvisation in the concept of “comprovisation” holds up in the routines of practice. A repetitive action should be differentiated from a self-assured and self-reflective act, which can be a momentary component of improvisation.


More important in my opinion than the above reflections on terminological theory for understanding Bhagwati’s concept of “comprovisation” are, however, his practical references. The question is begged to what extent it is possible to realize this concept, which puts the composed together with the improvised, in actual artistic practice? Where are the moments of composition, where of improvisation? How do the two relate to one another? The following statements appeal to such questions. They are based in large part on observations of several rehearsals and performances of Ensemble Extrakte and of Ensemble Sound of Montréal 25 between 2014 and 2015, ensembles, which, in fact, Sandeep Bhagwati co-founded and leads. 26

It may sound paradoxical at first that in Bhagwati’s concept of “comprovisation” significant weight is put on rehearsal. Indeed, improvisation presents a particular problem for the act of rehearsing as in the latter a situation is created in which something (structure, technique, timing, intonation, articulation) is practiced, elaborated upon, established, and thereby, prepared. This contradicts the principle of improvisation, whose particular quality is predicated on spontaneity and surprise in moments of (potential) unforeseeableness. Bhagwati’s concept of “comprovisation” circumvents this issue in that the act of rehearsing does not limit itself to the preparation for the staged performance. Rather the work of rehearsal should function as a phase of creative exploration, investigation and discovery, which results in a piece to be later performed. The entire process from the first rehearsal to performance follows less the principle of goal-oriented repetition or reproduction of an existing work and more the principle of poiesis, whose goal is the emergence of a piece to be presented before an audience.

Crucial to the material of rehearsal is the collaboration of those who participate in the performance. Though in many cases there is a written or illustrated score the information conveyed is quite limited. 27 This sparsely marked score functions merely as a handful of initial ideas (length of piece, outline of sections, basic rhythmic and metrical patterns etc.) for the coordination of the participants. The rehearsal is also the place where the collaborative work on the piece essentially takes place. It is where things are tested out, experimented with, discarded or pursued further. In the process things are observed, discussed, taken out or put back in. The rehearsal serves as the place of practice, examination or even of securing the embodied knowledge and experience the participants have at their disposal. Therefore the rehearsal is a collective creative process in which interaction is determined by all of the performers, that is to say, among the members of the ensemble, between musicians and composers as well as between musicians and their instruments. Essential to these interactions, as the sociologist Erving Goffmann emphasizes, is the “reciprocal perception of embodied co-presence (Face-to-Face Situation) ”, 28 but also — especially in a musical context — the auditory perception of the sound produced by the combination of one’s own playing with fellow musicians’. Equally important is the verbal communication, as well as body movements, eye contact and gestures. During the interaction social and psychological components are joined with musical ones, as it does not just depend on musical play but also on multiple, situation-based interhuman relationships (empathy, sympathy, intuition etc.).

This interaction occurs under the condition that each player can influence the rehearsal process. The relationships between the participants could be described as “democratic” in so far that each has a right and a certain weight in the total process. Theoretically, each player can bring his or her own ideas to the rehearsal, can take a leading or a subordinate role. This order in Bhagwati’s concept of “comprovisation” is not only for the participating persons but also for the particular musics and cultures involved. The members of Ensemble Extrakte and Ensemble Sound of Montréal stem from different cultural areas. Recourse to each musician’s own musical and cultural knowledge and experience is a constructive part of the interactive music-making. At the same time the creative potential of the musicians involved is challenged in that they not only represent their own holding of knowledge and experience but must also be prepared for the meeting of different musical traditions (“encapsulated traditions”) 29 which come up against one another and are interwoven with each other so that something new may come about. This, then, could be called intercultural or transcultural music-making.

Such an approach presents a challenge to the performing musician. While the tasks and rolls of musicians in the context of a performance of a fixed and written down musical work are mainly determined, those of the musicians (including DJs) in the realization of comprovisation must be found by themselves. They bring forth conceptual ideas themselves and have impact on the resulting musical structure. Musicians are not only “performers” or “interpreters”, on the contrary, they are themselves shapers of the musical event. And the composer is not someone who puts together and codifies and gives detailed playing instructions, but, in fact, someone who continually comments on and therefore helps to steer the process of music-making. He or she is rather the producer, arranger and coordinator of the musical event and less the “composer” in the traditional sense of the word.

As for what happens in the concert, it is a continuation with what was worked out and established in the rehearsal, which is now the basis of the performance. And yet, in rehearsal the musicians cannot have planned everything in detail and must therefore also play with a sense of uncertainty and openness during a performance. Thus, what was prepared in rehearsal does not determine entirely what and how a concert, in fact, occurs. The performance functions as a moment of crossing over the boundaries of given possibilities by re-arranging, varying, deferring and re-interpreting that which was practiced.

As a result of the constructive collaboration, it happens that the whole procedure from the first rehearsal to the performance constitutes an extremely dynamic complex in the course of which something is constantly being stated, modified, transformed and changed. Musical action is not something determined but rather dynamized, occuring under conditions in which the music is constantly being improvised, interpreted and composed. The compositional lies in the coupling of repetitive actions and the interaction of those who take part in the performance. And the improvisational presents itself not as a technique of spontaneous discovery, but rather as a finding anew of the already known, which is prompted by the present situation in a given place. Improvisation becomes composition. Or conversely: composition and improvisation move in this way in and out of each other.

Here the question could be asked, where does the unforeseen occur in a performance? By way of the basic nature of performativity, that every performance has an unforeseen potential and is therefore unrepeatable, 30 the improvisable in Bhagwati’s notion of “comprovisation” comes about in the concert situativity, prompted by circumstances of space and time as well as the presence of listeners. The minimally fixed and determined form of the “work” to be performed means that performativity, situativity and singularity shape the event moreso than with an already-composed score. In this way the “unexpected” is combined with the expected in the moment of performance. The musicians are constantly in a dynamic field of tension: they feel on one hand free because of the unfixedness, and on the other bound to the process of having rehearsed. Exactly this connection, externally perceived as paradoxical, between freedom and fixedness, between openness and boundaries, between discovery and repetition is a constituent part of the complex relationship, within which the concept of “comprovisation” is realized in practice.


However, the practical execution of such ideas is bound to a number of difficulties. The concept of “comprovisation” as a collaborative way of working and as a method of transcultural music-making requires the active participation of professional musicians, who are interested in this inter- or transcultural collaboration and who are eager to experiment musically. Putting musicians like this together in an ensemble is only possible in an urban environment. However, even here it is not simple to find musicians who are suited for the implementation of Bhagwati’s conception as it requires that the musicians are in constant interactive negotiation with each other; they must offer their own ideas and develop their creativity together with the other players. This is particularly challenging for those who do not personally tend toward taking the initiative, or for those whose cultural experiences are more removed from this sort of activity. The previously mentioned basic idea, namely, of enabling collective music-making in a democratic way, is easily distorted in that hierarchies form among the participants and only a minority of musicians actually have influence. This is an indication that not only the cultural and social coding but also the particular development of the acting agents plays a role in the practical realization of comprovisation and are deciding factors for the success or lack of success of the concept.

The interactive communication proves itself to be particularly difficult where each player can influence the other and where musical decisions must be made on the spot, face-to-face. Here social communication issues prevail while musical interactions, from which comprovisation takes its departure, are secondary. These obstacles are generally known in intercultural music production, but apply especially to the comprovising musician precisely because it is constituted by interactive collaboration.

One further general problem in the concept of “comprovisation” lies therein that the improvisable is planned on in the beginning. The design, to bring about improvisation by the efforts of the participating musicians, results in inhibitions; any one musician may feel obligated to improvise. Improvisation as a desired and planned act is somewhat counter to the main qualities of improvisation, of acting spontaneously and free — even as one couples this with the familiar.

One further aspect is the question of the listeners’ ability to experience comprovisation. In what way does the experience of this differentiate from that of a performance with a fixed score? To what extent can the listener be animated by what she or he just now heard or sensed and improvise along with the experience? I am not aware of any answers to this from the perspective of the listener and their experiences of the practice of Bhagwati’s “comprovisation”, which would be relevant in so far as the perspective of the listener or viewer is constitutive to the improvisation.

The factors mentioned above mark the predicament of Bhagwati’s theory. The conception of “comprovisation”, even as it orients itself against conventional European/Western thought, is basically bound to its pattern of thought, in particular in regard to the possibilities of New Music. Consequently, it bumps into problems of conveying itself, in particular with those who are not accustomed to this way of thinking. And yet, the concept “comprovisation” could still be developed not only as artistic practice but additionally as a learning- and training model for musicians. One could practice and appropriate the ability to comprovise.

In spite of the obvious problems I see in Bhagwati’s concept of “comprovisation” the advantage that, albeit not “globally”, it is realizable in many places, not only in European but in Asian, African and American cultural areas etc., that is, in places where European notation and scores are part of musical practice and where simultaneously new forms of music-making are sought after. Comprovisation in this context opens innovative possibilities of artistic action and of collective music-making.


Taken altogether the utility of the term “comprovisation” as coined by Sandeep Bhagwati remains undoubtedly as an artistic concept, a form of playing music collectively, a way of working and as a training model. Hence, I summarize a plea for this concept in two points.

First of all, comprovisation shows itself to be a complex weaving together of improvisation, interpretation and composition. It stands for “in-between practices” and, with that, opens a spectrum of possibilities which offers countless transitions and intermediate forms of music-making. Comprovisation is, from the European/Western point of view, in no way a marginal shift in the interest of improvisation, as improvisation otherwise tends to be considered incidental and not as a solid part of compositional practice. Many improvisational practices are able to be combined with equally numerous practices of composition. This spurs hope for the enrichment of possible forms of music-making for the international music scene.

Second of all, Bhagwati’s concept of “comprovisation” brings a new formulation of tasks and location of rolls of the participants to the idea of collaborative work that is consistent in the process of rehearsal to staged performance. With this one comes close to the realization of the basic idea of “making music together”, as advanced by the sociologist Alfred Schütz 31 and the music anthropologist Christopher Small. 32 What is above all new here is the transcultural or intercultural orientation. Though difficulties always arise in communication across cultures, the concept reveals a prospect for overcoming them.

Both of these points make clear the claims Bhagwati’s term satisfies. It is not only meant to offer a new compositional or artistic concept to already existing ones, but much more a new form of collaborative, transcultural music-making. Comprovisation invites the testing of and experimentation with the boundaries of available musics and cultures, their materiality, sociability, performativity and their creative potential.


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Bhagwati, Sandeep (2013a), “Comprovisation — Concepts and Techniques”, in Henrik Frisk and Stefan Östersjö (dir.), (Re) Thinking Improvisation: Artistic explorations and conceptual writing, Doctoral Studies and Research in Fine and Performing Arts Malmö Academy of Music, Lund University, 2013.

Bhagwati, Sandeep (2013b), “Notational Perspective and Comprovisation”, in Paulo de Assis (dir.), Sound & Score. Essays on Sound, Score and Notation, William Brooks et Kathleen Coessens, Louvain, Presses universitaires de Louvain, p. 165-177, https://concordia.academia.edu/s… (consulted Octobre 3, 2017).

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Kurt, Ronald (2008), “Komposition und Improvisation als Grundbegriffe einer allgemeinen Handlungstheorie”, in Ronald Kurt and Klaus Näumann (dir.), Menschliches Handeln als Improvisation. Sozial- und musikwissenschaftliche Perspektiven, Bielefeld, transcript, p. 17—46.

Nettl, Bruno (1974), “Thoughts on Improvisation: A Comparative Approach”, The Musical Quartely, vol. 40, n° 1, p. 1—19.

Ong, Walter J. (1982), Orality and Literacy, London/New York, Routledge.

Schütz, Alfred (1951), “Making Music Together”, Social Research, vol. 18, n° 1, 67—97.

Small, Christopher (1998), Musicking — The Meaning of Performing and Listening, Middletown, Wesleyan University Press.

Wilson, Peter Niklas (1999), Hear and Now: Gedanken zur improvisierten Musik, Hofheim, Wolke.

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Conception et mise à jour: DIM.