1. Introduction

I have always had an interest in creating music alone. Writing notes on paper, imagining music, writing down my ideas, refining them and have them materialize later on by others. At the same time, I´ve also found great pleasure in improvising on double bass, making music in a group, interacting with the input of the others, and contributing to spontaneous music making.

Playing professionally in many different styles of music for the past 20 years, almost all have involved some kind of improvisation and predetermined composition. I have also composed music for my own groups, for chamber ensembles, jazz ensembles, film and contemporary dance.

Even though I feel most comfortable while improvising, these two different ways of creating music are equally important to me, yet I have somehow, most of the time, kept the activities of notating compositions and free improvisation separate in my mind. When I, a few times, have tried to combine the two in my own projects, I have never been quite satisfied with the results. It has always felt like my two ways of making music have not melded into a unified expression, but rather obstructed each other in the process.

My main motivation for embarking on this project, was to try to find a common ground for these two sides of my musical personality, and possibly reconcile them: The pre-planning, more intellectual, slow moving and solitary composer side, and my other, more intuitive, social side as an improviser. I was curious if my music making could feel more like one whole approach, my methods of composition and improvisation more unified. To be able to achieve this, I felt like I needed to start from scratch, so to speak, by introducing elements into my music that felt new to me. I wanted to break up my established ways of composing and mix or replace them with new ones, and also allow myself to change in the process.

I have aimed to construct a new method of making music for myself, blending and balancing the two dimensions of predetermined, written material and free improvisation. My music oscillates along an axis or continuum between the predetermined and the improvised, and my process deals to a large degree with finding the point where my compositional ideas blend well with my own and the other musicians’ improvisation. The goal has been to find a space where the composed music feels successful to me, while the improvisers (including myself) feel comfortable enough to be able to contribute in a meaningful way.

During my fellowship period, I have started a large ensemble, The Per Zanussi Ensemble, which normally consists of eleven musicians from a pool of about twenty. This ensemble is dedicated to exploring the field between improvisation and predetermined composition, and I’ve been lucky enough to have some of the best improvisers in Scandinavia join me in this endeavour.

The two practices of improvisation and composing predetermined material are in a constant state of dialogue within myself, tacitly influencing my web of artistic practice. This dialogue is brought to the surface and into the real world through my work with the musicians of the ensemble. My role as the leader of the ensemble, and composer in dialogue with the improvisers, lets me explore, in a more concrete way, my own struggles with uniting the two sides of my practice.

Through working with the ensemble I have taken the first steps towards developing a flexible, personal method and vocabulary for composing with improvisers, which can hopefully be of use to others as well.

Using this ”toolbox”, and through collaboration with the other musicians, I have attempted to encourage the development of a musical ”culture” or identity within the ensemble. Instead of composing finished works for the ensemble, the ensemble has, in my mind, become a changing organism with its own particular practices, utilizing a specific collection of approaches and materials.

Research Questions

I have focused on exploring areas of the continuum between composition and improvisation, through artistic research, hopefully illuminating this ”in-between” field of music and my processes and methods for creating within it.

My main question throughout the period has been the following:

-How can composition help us improvise in a large improvising ensemble, and how can working with free improvisation help me compose?

This question has been interrogated through practice, meaning playing and composing, and is related to several other questions, such as:

-How can the improvising musicians relate to my predetermined material in a way that feels comfortable and meaningful for both me and them?

-How do my methods for composition and notation develop through interaction with free improvisers?

-How can I find a balance between my compositional voice and identity, and the musical identities of the improvisers?

-How do I use inspiration from other musics and ideas in my work with free improvisers?

In this text I will try to give some tentative answers to these and other questions that have appeared during my fellowship.

Artistic Research

This research is not of a traditional academic nature, and not only looking at the process and results from the outside: My own experience, both as a composer and as an improviser interacting with the other musicians, has been a focal point of the research: In stead of research on art, I have aimed to do research through art, closer to the art I have produced, in a more subjective way.

The complex web of influences, experiences, tacit and explicit knowledge behind an artistic practice, has been described by Kathleen Coessens in her article ”The Web of Artistic Practice”. (Coessens, 2014) Coessens describes a ”zone of exploration” within an artist, which consists of five tacit dimensions that, when blended and developed, result in an artistic practice:

-Embodied Artistic Knowledge

This dimension deals with ”combining different skills, perceptual capacities, and sensorimotor coordination”:

•Embodied know-how, meaning acquired skills and other attitudes and skills absorbed from society and environment.

•Interaction with the tools and materials, for example my instrument and the tools I use to compose.

•A ”Multi-sensory interaction of different perceptual modalities”.

-Personal Knowledge

”Personal expertise, previous experiences, education, embeddedness in a culture and a community of artists, and his or her cultural stock, as well as the influence of the artist’s own character and temperament”.

-Ecological Environment-Cues

For example physical conditions in concert, in rehearsal, within the institution.

-Cultural-Semiotic Codes

”Choice, articulation, and arrangement of semiotic meanings and symbolic codes in the artistic space.”

In my case for example working with scores, recordings, the aesthetics and tacit codes of free improvisation and composition.


My interaction with the improvisers in the ensemble, the audience, other research fellows and supervisors, other artists and critics.

We can see a ”web of artistic practice” emerging, through idiosyncratic development, interconnections and blending of these dimensions. This web results in the artistic work and practice, and is often hidden from the listener experiencing the art from the outside. Revealing and reflecting on this web of artistic practice is an important part of what I think about as artistic research.

In this text I will try to illuminate how my own web has developed throughout the project, not necessarily referencing Coessen’s categories, but touching upon them along the way. It is not intended as an academic thesis, but rather as a companion text to the music I create with my ensemble, illustrating some of the underlying ideas, influences, processes and methods at work in my artistic practice.

I will sometimes seem to speak for the whole ensemble, but I’m not sure all the musicians will agree with my assessments. I want to stress that this investigation is mainly into my experiences with working with the ensemble, and my process and choices.

I will try to describe how I have both subconsciously and consciously developed my own web, in an attempt to find some tentative answers to my questions. The point for me in doing this research, as a musician, not a scholar, is to try to share the knowledge about my art which is only possible for me to reveal through practice, creating music, and going through the creative process myself.


The aim of this research has been to develop a ”toolbox” of musical material and methods, which can help me compose music and to establish a musical ”culture” in a large ensemble relatively quickly. To investigate the web of my own artistic practice, and build my toolbox, I have used a cyclical method, which consists of preparation, execution and reflection:


It starts with creation of predetermined structures and material. In this part of the cycle, I study scores and techniques that may be interesting to use, and I create new material, either in the form of etudes or other smaller ideas, or more developed forms (in later cycles). I also plan how to approach working with this material in the ensemble. In the first cycles I also study the musicians, their personalities, musical voices, skills and attitudes. I do this by listening to them in recordings or in concert, and by talking to them informally.


The next part of the cycle goes on to working with the musicians, improvising together and trying out new material. I test my musical ideas, as well as trying out ways of improvising together, ways of organizing and leading the group etc. In the beginning of the project I worked in smaller formats, starting with duos (to get to know the musicians in an intimate format), and gradually increased the number of musicians over the first year, until the large ensemble was assembled in early 2014. I also work on the material myself, practicing and playing solo concerts.


The cycle ends with reflecting on and refining my working methods and research questions, informed by the previous point of the cycle, before it starts over. Here I listen to recordings and video and reflect on how to approach the preparation in the next cycle, assessing whether I have found any answers to my questions and which new questions have come up.

These cycles have been of varying length, depending on how much time I felt I needed to prepare, where the project was moving, availability of musicians and economy. After the first year, several cycles started going in parallel, with different groups of musicians from the pool in addition to the 10-11 piece ensemble. There are currently about 20 musicians involved in various groups within the project.

This is an overarching method for the work, and a more detailed description of my methods will be appear throughout later chapters.


The text consists of 8 sections and an appendix:

1. This introduction, where I have written about my motives for undertaking the research, research aims, my views on artistic research and my overarching method.

2. Free improvisation, where i explain why I choose to work within this field, discuss some questions regarding free improvisation and how it functions, and how we improvise in the Per Zanussi Ensemble.

3. Composition and improvisation, where I look at some aspects of integrating composition and improvisation, and how this relates to a large ensemble like the PZE.

4. Gugak, where I look at my inspiration from Korean traditional music.

5. Natural Patterns, where I explain more about how I have used inspiration from natural patterns to build the toolbox, and zoom further in on my methods for working in the ensemble.

6. Ensemble work, where I look at some of the other sides of being a band leader, working with the ensemble and my different roles.

7. Artistic results. Here I reflect on recording improvisation, and running a festival. I also present the artistic results of the fellowship: The CD ”Evolving Patterns” and a recording of the final artistic presentation at Earwaves 17.

8. Epilogue

The first two chapters have no musical examples, but if the reader needs some accompaniment, It is possible to go to this page and listen to some of the music of the PZE while reading.

A pdf version of the text with examples is available here

Go to chapter 2: Free Improvisation