Improvising Freely: The ABCs of an Experience

The following text is excerpted from Lê Quan Ninh’s book, Improvising Freely: The ABCs of an Experience, translated from the French by Karen Houle with assistance from Pegleess Barrios & Melissa Chong Ah Yan. The book is available for purchase from PS Guelph (

Abécédaire (An ABC)

This book is an attempt to describe my own experience as an improviser and the many consequences of that. It doesn’t deal with the history of free improvisation or any of the passionate artists who kept it alive or still keep it alive. This ABC is entirely subjective. It brings together excerpts, interviews and correspondences to which I’ve added something of my own.

After being asked many times to do this, I agreed, deciding to treat it as an opportunity to dig deeper into the nature of what I do instead of settling for clichés and passing off easy-thoughts (even though I think we prefer them by default). But how do you even begin to explain free improvisation? Truly, any attempt at it feels like it misses the real point. It’s an experience. It is a living moment that both the improviser and the audience are living together. Any approach other than the experience itself is condemned to fall short. The hardest part of this for me, then, was trying to find the right words, the ones that best describe that lived, transient sensory experience. I’m no writer. I am a musician. I am an improviser.

Please forgive the informality and repetitive style but it is a way of writing that comes closest to my work & experience. I also wanted to avoid just playing with concepts—not that I’ve mastered concepts anyway—or turning these pages into a literary creation.

I decided to present this as an ABC because it would’ve been impossible for me to write something linear and coherent that illustrated the fragmented nature of my process and this art form. The experience of improvising can lead to one living in permanent oscillation between opposites, and coherence only shows itself in the space between the performance and its reception. An ABC is a ready-made, an already-there object in the world that has the capacity to reveal reality and worldliness. Anyone who organizes their books or CDs alphabetically knows the simple joy of discovering that two completely different items placed side by side can suddenly reveal a connection, a relatedness that is expressed by virtue of their haphazard proximity. In a similar spirit, it is hoped that each one of these alphabetized reflections of mine are not confined to the small space of their letter or title. My hope is that they overflow beyond those artificial borders, contaminate each other, touch. Just like the covers of two books on a shelf side-by-side make their words and ideas touch; there is an intimacy to the world that is able to happens merely by being placed in close association. And perhaps those insights—written at different times—that seem contradictory are able to be reunited in this ABC form across a time and distance that once separated them and can express new resonances within the same phenomenon. Moreover, since an ABC can continue to evolve and will forever be a work-in-progress despite every attempt to complete it, it is a textual form most true to the experience of improvisation itself.


Today’s musical trends tend to distance the body from the instrument. And wherever art involves a refusal to engage the body (except as a support structure for the brain) it becomes very difficult to value the body as a vehicle of oscillation between captivation and emission of vibration. The body in all its profound organicity. Perhaps the current trends are merely an extension of long-standing premise that has been present since music was conceived. Can we even imagine the degree to which traditional musical pedagogy ignores the body? It does so to the point of creating so many kinds of physical trauma among musicians. It’s unfathomable how much we limit the possibilities of listening, not only with the ear, but with the whole body, having filtered out by an extreme specialization of the ear the capacity to retain only culturally acceptable sounds. And music itself, is it not taught as an abstraction made of intervals, pitches, staggered dynamics, etc.? Of course, this allows a certain efficiency of musical development and interpretation of a certain repertoire, but is completely inadequate to capture and understand sound as a whole. This distance maintained between the instrument and the body, with its underlying ideology of a rudimentary struggle between the two—sometimes to the point of considering the musical instrument an instrument of torture— was probably one of the basic premises that lead us to see instruments as self-sufficient and leave the human player in the position of mere operator. Will art eventually become completely virtual? I’m curious as to what will happen when we’ll no longer need any organs to grasp reality, when artificial intelligence can generate music and when it will be perceived directly by the relevant areas of the brain, directly wired to machines… In the meantime, artists who avoid the body as a medium seem rather unadventurous to me, since they neither seem to want to abandon all the prerogatives of bodily presence nor engage them. But who would embrace physical absence and anonymity in an artistic world that never rewards ghosts?

For centuries, the West has turned away from percussion instruments, considering them evil because of their ability to speak directly to the body, and its overflowing excesses in dance. Does this anxiety not translate into the absence of vibratory instruments and idiophones at nightclubs or “raves” nowadays where dance is an outlet supported only by machines or digital reproductions of sound?

Then music or dance—disconnected from vibrating bodies—forces a choice between the mind and the body. But to turn away from one pole or from the other is to evacuate the rich vibratory territory between the two. To remove the body instrument from this partnership is to annul the vast array of possibilities that are multiplied between the three. The temptation to work with one of these poles exclusively exacerbates the assumption that mind and body are distinct and stand in opposition, as if what we have is merely an instrumental relation between the musician and her drum or his trombone. If we accept this default assumption we miss out completely on a new vision of existence. We might as well unleash the possibilities of travelling across the spectrum between the so-called antagonisms; we might as well be relentless in intensifying the oscillations such that extremes would become obsolete. This triumph is not a triumph of the human will: it’s the song of life that nourishes us, a song made from the infinite sum of those possible oscillations. [2002 – 2010 revision]

But we don’t have to chase this theoretical question of mind and body endlessly. I know from experience that a successful improvisation isn’t about crossing things off a mental list, but placing yourself right into the extraordinary energy of the moment (as if every single moment was a rocket launch) where you can live fully right within a double negation: neither strictly body nor mind. My life is a life of, and for, improvisation. I live in the experience of improvisation when I am able to summon those rare moments, where, in the presence of all that I perceive, I sense a balance, a stability between my body hard at work and my mind totally awake: and I cannot tell where one ends and the other begins. In these moments I can actually see the brilliance of that energy in motion, that perfect rest: it plays itself. Though exhaustion is sure to follow, as if it’s exhausting to even live, you feel completely alive in that depletion. [2010]

Lê Quan Ninh. Photo by Peter Gannushkin (
Lê Quan Ninh. Photo by Peter Gannushkin (


Can improvisation be taught? How else but by being in the presence of an improviser improvising, watching a live lesson in emoting? What more is there to teach other than that everyone must discover their own ways and needs? I fear that any attempt to develop a teaching method would only lead to bland generalization. If there must be an education, may it be self-taught, and may it teach a preference for solitude. We might be numerous as apprentices but we’re always alone when we are unlearning. A strange pedagogy that leads to its own forgetting…. [2002 – revised 2011]

I don’t make music against others but in addition to others, sometimes partnering with them, sometimes away from them, sometimes very far away from them. What I mean is that there’s always the possibility of a side-by-side, or an estrangement, a distancing, and that we might as well get as excited about the differences as much as the similarities, even though, at the end of the day, stripped of their flashy consumerist trappings, those differences are not so different from each other. Society is an abstract entity that ceases to exist the minute we are dealing with individuals who share a focus, who make time for this giving of attention, whatever their particular histories or ideas. Allowing these moments, finding ways to enable them, drawing out the conditions of their possibility, this is already a lot of work, inseparable from the fact of art itself. It’s as simple as being present, at all costs. Putting in the effort, getting your hands dirty, burning the midnight oil, all this in order to find yourself bewitched. [2009]

The foundation of an education in free improvisation, if such a thing were even possible, could be summed up in one basic principle: give or encourage the taste for autonomy. Autonomy of listening, autonomy of instruments, organizational autonomy, relational autonomy, etc. But we’re already almost there, almost touching the surface of the practice, already feeling its consequences. More profoundly, it’s about listening actively and cultivating the state of mind where playing feels like an extension of listening. The lessons would then be to provide practical routes through which to prepare oneself for this feeling, this very mobile and shifting sensation, the sensation of acuity and vitality. We can try to provide avenues which allow one to be more conscious of the need to listen, all the while knowing that this effort references the fundamental demands of a discipline that can only be learned very slowly, extremely slowly. If I were to teach this, I’d show that I myself am in this process, that I have nothing to hide from them, and neither do they—that it’s not my knowledge but my experience that grants me the elements of an autonomy. That which may pass through the filter of a singular, unique experience is still constantly nourished by a collective exchange. I understand that I probably couldn’t really teach that, and that my operating principles concern only me and that there’s probably nothing universal about it. [2010]

Could I settle then for a generic education, a method with certain exercises to perform, intended to enlighten particular aspects of the practice of improvisation? Could I accept that teaching necessarily remains at the level of activity even though it breaks up practice, draws out clichés one after another? Will this bundle of clichés restore the movement they managed to encircle and immobilize? I doubt it. Every exercise, no matter how well designed, is a composition, and each composition takes us further and further from improvisation. Educational institutions reassure themselves by clinging to a certain idea of efficiency, replicability of results, the possibility of a metric of assessment. Methods that are normally applied to the formation of a musical repertoire are wrongly applied to improvisation. It’s included as part of the curriculum to justify the salary of a teacher, which is undoubtedly socially valid, but artistically worthless. A good teacher of improvisation would expose the uselessness of a teacher from the very get-go. A good teacher would declare that his or her ultimate goal was to allow students to become self-taught and that he knew nothing other than to share with them the chaos of an art from which each individual’s own discipline might emerge. She might point out the fundamental requirements of a practice from which might emerge a collaboration able to collectively self-manage the flux of the moment. [2010]

[wp_biographia user=”Karen Houle” type=”excerpt”]

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


As a classical trained percussionist, Lê Quan Ninh worked with contemporary music ensembles and was a founder member of Quatuor Hêlios (1986-2012), a percussion quartet that performed and recorded, among others, John Cage's percussion works.


Karen Houle hails from Northern Ontario but calls Guelph home. Her twin girls, Kuusta Laird Barry and Cézanne Houle, are a quarter century old and live in Guelph too, with their kids. Houle’s undergraduate degree is in Biology and Chemistry.

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