Agency in Rock and the Creative Performer: Where does the Music come from?

Agency in Rock and the Creative Performer: where does the music come from?

One way we might define improvisation is by measuring the degree to which the performer is creatively involved. [1] Bruno Nettl

OK, I don’t mind. I’ll play what ever you want me to play, or I won’t play at all if you don’t want me to play. [2] George Harrison

TACET [3] John Cage

Christopher Small details how the death of improvisation in Western Classical music effectively ended the creative agency of performers in that tradition. From the mid 19th Century onwards a strict division of labour meant that fixed material was increasingly dictated by composer to ‘passive’ performer by way of notation. Small contrasts this written ‘European model’ with aural ‘Afro – American’ traditions which prioritise the active, often collaborative, creative role of performer who remains free from the constraints of external composer and written text. [4] For Small improvisation is exemplar in relation to a musician’s agency; its presence predicated on a model whose structures are sufficiently flexible so as to allow musicians to have substantial control over their nature of the music they perform.

George Lewis also describes how the European Classical tradition had, by the 1950s, evolved so as to exclude not only improvisation but also any element of non – notated compositional practice. [5] According to leading theorist Carl Dahlhaus, notation was itself a defining characteristic of a composition: if it was written it had not been composed. [6] As Lewis argues, this precluded much non – European music and most Western Popular music, which, for Small, has its roots largely in the Afro – American approach to music making.

Lewis insists that late 20th Century ‘Classical’ composers such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen must have been influenced by Afro – American Jazz when they introduced a form of ‘Eurological improvisation’ that included elements of chance and unpredictability into their compositions. Although this challenged the fixity of the dominant compositional practice as espoused by Dahlhaus, the rules they introduced were written and controlled by composers external to the performer. Whereas Small hesitates to call them ‘improvisations’, both he and Lewis agree that these works remain European in that performers ‘remain instruments of his will…his name is on the score and although the desire to give freedom to the performer might be quite genuine, it seems that it cannot extend to the decisive step of acknowledging that the essence of music lies in performance not in composition, and of handing over responsibility to those who are actually performing.’ [7]

Where is Rock? Where am I?

Writers and musicians who share similar views of these contrasting traditions and who champion music that incorporates improvisation rarely discuss Rock: that strand of electric, collective, guitar based popular music that borrowed heavily from the Afro – American genres of Blues, Jazz and Gospel. [8] Whilst I accept Small’s general argument, as a musician and performer who’s background is in Rock and who sees improvisation as central to his practice, my recent experience as a mature student in Popular music education and of performing in ensembles has made me question how Rock locates itself within these traditions and to re – evaluate and reshape my creative practice accordingly.

Due to its essentially unwritten, aural nature and its championing of the performer as producer, Small positions Rock, together with much modern popular music, within the broad Afro – American tradition. Although largely positive about the extent of control that popular musicians seek to exert over their musical material, he expresses the ‘usual’ concern about the difficulties they face in negotiating the Music Industry with its profit motive and promotion of spectacle and celebrity – together and the artistic compromises this sometimes entails. [9]

As a composer and performer my initial concern is (inevitably?) the creative process. That is not to say that I am not mindful about audience and ‘marketing’ but these matters are, hopefully, not at the forefront of my mind at the point of performance. It is about this composition/ performance stage, which exists prior to the work’s dissemination that Small, in contrast to some Marxist and Conservative critics of ‘low culture’, remains optimistic about. But my own recent experience suggests self – imposed restrictions on musicians facilitated and encouraged by educational approaches and structures that, just like 20th Century Art Music, can effectively relegate the performer to passive re-creator of ‘text’ making the practice of improvisation, even creativity itself, difficult or impossible.

My ‘musical craft’ was to a large extent developed through ‘jamming’, collective improvising with like – minded teenage proto-musicians. The groups that I then became involved with usually ‘composed’ or developed their musical material through similar collaborative processes. Coming from this background, I was surprised when, returning to education as a mature student, I found that a majority of my Popular Music Foundation Degree cohort had little interest in creating music – either through composition or improvisation. And I recall the resistance, even shock, when I suggested we engage with these practices during an early rehearsal for a performance module.

This reflects a similar resistance to that observed by Small when confronting classical performers with the possibility of improvisation, musicians who ‘mostly have little idea of what improvisation is or what it entails, and do not show any desire to make a contribution to the substance of those music – objects which it is their life’s work to perform’. [10]

The accepted division of labour that these attitudes reflect is perhaps more logical in the context of how Western Art Music developed over the last two centuries but when applied to certain forms of Western popular music, where Musicians learn by listening rather than through notation and where artistic control is championed, more perplexing.[11] [12]

Rock and Performer as Composer.

Post the mid 60s ‘British Invasion’ and the associated decline of Tin Pan Alley models whose composer/performer separation had mirrored those of the classical world, many Rock musicians, influenced by Jazz and blues, effectively rejected those divisions of labour that had prevented creativity in performance: the explosion of popular music artists writing their own material is testament to this. Influential pioneers such as Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa and Can could be seen as re – affirming Small’s ‘Afro – American’ focus on performance, process, collective composition and improvisation. In the work of these artists, and some of their contemporaries, can be witnessed a drive to not only contribute to but also to direct the ‘substance’ of their music: to re – claim an agency and reject a passivity that more ‘Eurocentric’ music models demanded.

During my Foundation Degree most of my fellow students self identified as practitioners of ‘Rock’ and many of their ‘heroes’, the artists who had inspired them, came from this early generation of Rock musician. What was striking was the relative lack of interest in these artists’ creative processes: instead students’ attention was usually focused on the replication of these works as accurately as possible – not via notation but through the isolated process of listening to recordings and watching You Tube tutorials. Rehearsals often degenerated into the group watching of ‘You Tube footage’ to clarify and ‘perfect’ parts and structures – a largely passive process that involved very little group interaction and, as an environment to develop one’s own practice, hopeless – unless, of course, you saw your future as merely to recreate other artists’ material. [13]

This experience caused some disillusionment and, as far as my own creative practice was concerned, led me to retreat further away from collective music making so as to avoid musicians and ensembles that accepted this model. I no longer wanted to be ‘told’ exactly what to play and didn’t want to just dictate musical parts to others either



HOW DID WE GET HERE? : Rock music and performer passivity.


  1. Tensions in the Rock Group reflect those in Rock’s DNA.


A self sufficient and self-contained unit encourages a sense of freedom from mediation, a feeling of autonomy. This ‘self – direction’ of the ideal rock band signifies an independence from external interference and control, and, therefore a greater authenticity. [14] 

As a music obsessed teenager, I broadly accepted one of Rock’s self-defining characteristics – one present from the moment the music emerged as a genre and set itself apart from ‘mere mass produced pop’: that the artists were in control; that they created and performed their music.

The centrality of the group to Rock’s identity meant that members often shared compositional credits but it would be a mistake to imagine that the typical ensemble was some democratic collective where members contributed equal musical material. More usual were (are) single or joint composers with other members taking on more passive roles – analogous perhaps to Classical performers but where the composer remains part of the collective and where musical is conveyed by way of word and ear as opposed to text. But this freedom from score at least allows for a flexibility that means ‘none – composing’ members can influence the nature of material as it develops: often through collective jamming at pre – recording stages, if not live. Further, less clearly defined roles mean that compositional input can be passed from group member to another.

The Beatles represented this kind of model – one that was quickly adopted by many groups in the mid 1960s. Their ‘White Album’, for example, illustrates how authorship and the extent of each member’s musical contribution shifted throughout the record.[15] [16] The contrasting styles also demonstrate just how eclectic Rock could be: drawing from Rock and Roll, Blues, Jazz, the Classical Avant Garde, American Popular Song and Music Hall. The later two influences are particularly evident on several of McCartney’s contributions: ‘Martha My Dear’, ‘Honey Pie’, and ‘Rocky Racoon’. Not only do these tracks display intentional stylistic references to the 1920s and 1930s, but also their harmonic and melodic forms could also be straight from Tin Pan Alley/ American Popular song and so highlight the European influence always present in Afro – American music. Small and Lewis both discuss the way that, at certain points in Afro – American music history, this European influence has been either emphasised ( for example, Swing prioritising popular song) or rejected (Bebop deconstructing popular song and prioritising improvisation and the role of creative performer).

Returning to George Harrison’s quote at the top of this post, although clearly fuelled by particular personal animosities, I can empathise with his frustration as a performer who is simply told what to do; this is, after all, not what we thought Rock music ‘was about’. And the extent to which micro – management of performance by band – leader (often the composer adopts this role) is not of course unique to the Beatles but highlights what Keightley might be getting at when he speaks of Rock musicians’ ‘illusion of control’.


  1. Tensions in Rock’s DNA part 2: Jazz and Education.

There’s no such thing as freedom without self – control, at least self – control or self – discipline. [17] Elvin Jones

Every time you play a solo you’re free to play what you want to play. That’s freedom right there. [18] Philly Joe Jones

Just like ‘traditional jazz’, the verse / chorus structures and harmonic and melodic content of Rock often displays strong elements of Western Art Music inherited via Tin Pan Alley and American Popular Song. These ‘fixed’ models could be seen to constrain both the writer who conforms to their harmonic rules and expectations, and the performer who is at the behest of the songwriter. Set beside the Afro – American influence of blues and Jazz traditions, evident in the Beatles but more prominent in contemporaries such as Jimi Hendrix, Cream and Led Zeppelin, there exists a tension between improvisation and song as fixed work.

However, even narratives that champion Afro – American music are careful not to simply equate improvisation with freedom from restriction. Paul Berliner’s rigorous study of the creative processes of Jazz musicians working in the Bop and post Bop traditions reveals that careful study, technical knowledge and preparation are as important as any notion of ‘freedom’ or ‘spontaneous creation’. Indeed he argues that improvisation is only possible through extreme discipline. [19] To this end, early stages of study almost always entail building up a musical vocabulary through the copying of other musicians – either through personal contact or through listening to recordings.

Through the above process, an ultimate aim for a Jazz musician is to find his or her own ‘personal’ voice or sound; something individual and unique. Discourses surrounding Rock musicians reflect a similar desire but many modern teaching techniques seem to to stop at this ‘early learning stage’ – forgetting perhaps that emulation is seen in Jazz as a first step and that if it becomes an end in itself then all that musicians learn is how to reproduce others artists’ material.

Contained within Performance Modules in Popular Music Foundation Degrees, You Tube Guitar Tuition videos and Magazines aimed at Rock Guitarists, is this emphasis on reproducing musical material as precisely as possible – with little thought to the fact that the material the student is learning was once (thankfully) improvised or composed by the original artist. And whilst lip service is given to the importance of developing one’s individual sound and voice, (see countless articles in Guitarist and Guitar Techniques Magazines) these pedagogies display the logic of Western Classical music where the divisions of artistic labour are entrenched. By effectively importing them there is a real danger of missing the creative possibilities of what is unique about popular forms such as Rock. From a creative point of view, these restricted teaching methods can be a dead end and even from the perspective of the popular music industry it makes little economic sense to focus mainly on the reproduction of past works: the industry relies on the constant production of the new.


  1. Recording: Fixed Artwork or Creative Process?


Rock is a tradition of popular music whose creation and dissemination centres on recording technology. [20]

Nothing is more dead than yesterday’s improvisation…at least one feature of an improvisation is absent in its recording: that it is its transience. A recorded improvisation is forever fixed, its routes to be learnt and remembered. This is exactly not the case with the playing and listening situation at the moment an improvisation begins. [21]


Both Small and Lewis consider that one defining characteristic of Western Art music is the prioritisation the fixed ‘Artwork’: the composer’s score that needs to be accurately re – produced by the performer. By way of contrast, performers in Afro – American traditions are more concerned with the process of music making itself: particularly when improvisation is an integral part.

Rock, unlike Western Classical music and Jazz, emerged after the widespread use commercial recording. Its close ties to commercial technological development has meant that the innovative use of modern recording techniques has frequently played a crucial role in constructing, even composing, music: recording has not just been seen as a means of capturing a performance.

Perhaps facilitating against such notions of innovation is the fact that recorded performance is even more fixed than a score –  no longer even subject to slight variation by performer. So, if the attention of an aspiring musician or educator is trained on the ‘product’, the recorded artefact, if that is where the essence of the music is considered to lie, it is reduced to a text to be studied and reproduced – constraining performers who will then be expected to re – produce them.

Because of this potential for ‘fixing’, many improvisers such as Provost are suspicious about the value of recorded improvisation. In this light Rock, focused as it seems to be on ‘end product’ of album, might be seen as particularly antithetical to improvisational practice. But this would be to ignore the work of artists who have successfully incorporated ‘spontaneous’ creative processes into studio recording. Whilst Jimi Hendrix sometimes recorded collective improvisation, Can spent their early career capturing, then heavily editing, extended ‘jams’ to produce complete album track. [22] [23] Frank Zappa developed an experimental technique he named ‘xenochrony’ by which separately recorded performances could be combined to produce new works – usually by taking live, improvised, guitar solos then combining them with previously composed material. [24] Such techniques demonstrate not only that that recording can be a creative process but also that there are no necessary strict divisions separating improvisational ‘process’ and fixed recorded ‘product’. Sometimes, because they are less concerned with purity of tradition and method, it is in the work of Rock musicians (contrast with Free Improvisation, Jazz and Western Art Music) where this is most clearly demonstrated.


Rock music’s hybridity meant that it inherited an eclectic mixture of ‘Afro – American’ and ‘Eurological’ approaches to music making. These broad traditions already contained both ‘fixed’ aspects of music making (with their strict divisions of labour) and more flexible performer orientated models that allowed for creativity through performance including real time music making.

The tensions and contradictions within Rock’s DNA became further complicated by narratives of authenticity which, whilst often championing the agency and control of the artist, have often served to obscure the extent to which musicians are sometimes at the behest of, not only ‘external’ music industry and commercial forces, but also the performers’ own complicity in accepting passive roles. This is sometimes re – enforced by Popular Music education which, by creating syllabuses that canonise Rock and identifying recorded product as being the only focus of study, ignore the process of performance and potential of popular music which includes the possibility of a more democratic control over musical material – exemplified in the practice of improvisation.

The creative possibilities of the ‘Rock model’ are more than evident in the compositional and improvisational practice of many artists over the last 6 decades. I see my own practice as trying to realise a similar potential and possibility through the re – integrating the practice of performance and composition through improvisation and also collaborative, studio based processes that build on the eclectic ‘traditions’ of Rock music.



[1] Bruno Nettl, Thoughts on Improvisation: A Comparative Approach (London: Oxford University Press, 1974).

[2] George Harrison to Paul McCartney. Let it Be, dir. Michael Lindsay – Hogg, Apple Films, 1970.

[3] Performance direction. John Cage, 4’33”, First Tacet Edition, (Peters: 1953 year).

[4] Christopher Small, Music of the Common Tongue: Survival and Celebration in African American Music, (London: Wesleyan University Press, 1987).

[5] George Lewis, Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives, Black Music Research Journal, Volume 16, number 1, 1996.

[6] Carl Dahlhause, Was heist Improvisation?, Improvisation in New Music, edited by Reinhold Brinkmann, (Mainz: 1979), 9 – 23.

[7] Small, Music of the Common Tongue, 284.

[8] It is interesting to note that Derek Bailey’s does devote a chapter to Rock in his book Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Moorland: Incus Records, 1980). This was written at a time when Rock, prior to Hip Hop’s ascendency, was a more dominant force in popular music. Little has been written about Rock Improvisation since, whilst authors such as David Toop, Paul Berliner and Ingrid Monson have written in depth studies of improvisation in Free Improvisation and Jazz.

[9] From Adorno to Debord, these arguments are well rehearsed. Small is particularly dismissive of the former’s absolutist view that worthwhile cannot be produced within the constrictions of the ‘Culture Industry’.

[10] Small, Music of the Common Tongue, 283.

[11] For the most part, the students that I encountered were competent musicians but had little interest in either composing their own music or improvising material in real time – they were much more concerned with memorising existing song structures and honing technical ability. The height of attainment for them, and lecturers, was the perfect rendition of technically challenging solos by popular or jazz/rock artists.

[12] Despite the large amount of ‘popular’ sheet music available, my own experience of learning and working in groups confirms that music is almost always communicated aurally as opposed to via staff notation: it chimes with the findings of Lucy Green. How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education, (London: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2002).

[13] The centrality of listening in popular music contains potential for performers to interact and create and, as such, listening should not be seen as a merely passive act. Ingrid Monson introduces the concept of ‘Perceptual Agency’, which involves the intentional focusing on musical parts as a precursor to the collective generation of music. Ingrid Monson, ‘Hearing Seeing and Perceptual Agency’, Critical Enquiry, Issue 34, Winter 2008, 536558.

[14] Keir Keightley, Reconsidering Rock, The Cambridge Companion to Pop, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 135.

[15] The Beatles, The Beatles (Apple, 1968).

[16] Although Lennon and McCartney dominate the credits, each member of the group composed. The primary song – writer usually presented ‘demos’, effectively dictating the structure and outlines of the other musical parts to the group who became the writer/ singer’s ‘backing band’. Other songs, such as ‘Yer Blues’, ‘Revolution’ and ‘Helter Skelter’ displayed more Afro – American/ blues language and were fittingly, perhaps, composed or developed through ‘group jams’ with presumably greater collective contribution. And, as the ‘mistakes’ and false starts reveal, some of this material was generated in real time.

[17] Elvin Jones quoted in Arthur Taylor, Notes and Tones: Musician to musician interviews (Leige: De Capo Press, 1993).

[18] Philly Joe Jones, Ibid, 27.

[19] Paul Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).

[20] Theodore Gracyk, Rhythm and Noise: An Aesthetic of Rock (London: Duke University Press, 1993),1.

[21] Eddie Provost, quoted in Gary Peters, The Philosophy of Improvisation (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 36.

[22] The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland (Track, 1968).

[23] Can, Tago Mago (United Artists, 1971).

[24] Frank Zappa, Sheik Yerbouti (Zappa Records, 1979).


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