Compositional Triggers

Compositional Triggers:

Improvising Song Structure in Live Performance

Proceedings of Korean Electro-Acoustic Music Society’s 2015 Annual Conference (KEAMSAC2015) Seoul, Korea, 2-3 October 2015

Carroll, A. D. (2015) Compositional Triggers: Improvising song structure in live performance. Conference Address, KEAMS Korean Electro-Acoustic Music Society’s 2015 Annual Conference (KEAMSA) Seoul, Korea.

The predetermined structure for a music composition can limit free expression of that composition in a live environment where the set format is unable to be adapted easily to audience response and the performer’s artistic innovations. Discussion on improvisation is usually a dichotomy between rhythmic and melodic improvisation which excludes the opportunity to improvise the structure of the piece. This research investigates techniques for ensembles to be able to communicate sectional changes of a song structure effortlessly and spontaneously during performance. The project will engage a number of ensembles to demonstrate techniques for improvising their song structure as a group. The evidence of legitimate well devised techniques will be validated by the ability of the techniques to be performed easily. The results of the research project aim to demonstrate a variety of triggering techniques that work for different musical styles. The research discusses existing techniques and will be a resource for the structural improvisation of a song, described as compositional triggers.

Steve Lacy: “For me that’s where the music always has to be – on the edge – in between the known and the unknown and you have to keep pushing it towards the unknown otherwise it and you die” (Bailey 1993: 54).

The concept of changing the format of a song while performing the song is not new to professional musicians but the conversation about improvising format seems very limited. It is the purpose of this paper to add to the rhetoric on improvisation to include improvising song structure. Electronic music has been incorporating the concept of changing song structure in live performance for some time so it is relevant to explore processes to have human interaction to be free in regards to song structure while accompanying electronic music.

The Grateful Dead change their delivery of their songs every night and some of their audience return to see every show. There are definite advantages of being spontaneous and of varying the presentation of the repertoire.

The relationship between any music which is improvised and its audience is of a very special nature. Improvisation’s responsiveness to its environment puts the performance in a position to be directly influenced by the audience (Bailey 1993: 44).

Manny Abrahams a lecturer at JMC Academy stated that

we had an ensemble where we wanted the solos not to be boxed in, we wanted them to be free and extend their solos as long as they like. What we realized is that we needed some kind of a trigger that told us that they were nearing the end of a solo.  What we came up with was a two bar motif which triggered the change.  The objective was the freedom to extend—even to use that trigger to modulate to another key. You could use the same principle to do whatever you wish. I picked up on this when one of my lecturers was talking about a Billy Cobham (drummer) concert. Billy talked about playing with Chick Corea and how they came up with a way to transition without impeding the overall freedom.

There is another situation where the player would repeat a certain line it could be a rhythmic phase, then the player would pick up on it. It might not play the exact phase but would complement it. Then the band picks up on it and supporting and moving with that, it is a musical phenomenon. It’s exhilarating from a person listening who has an understanding of what it is they are all doing. It is just awesome; it is the pleasure, that’s the pleasure of the side of being a listener. This can only happen when the players are all listening, listening to the story because what creates a great solo is not just the soloist it is the people behind it. For the solo to be great they need to be in the spirit, they need to be in that moment” (Personal Communication, July 29, 2015).

In an interview with Sean Foran we discussed the long history of playing together which develops a shared musical understanding between the players,

a musical understanding of how someone plays—an unspoken communication and by visual cues (including giving someone ‘the eye’) a member in the band will know to go to the next section because of the way they are playing (personal communication, June 2, 2015).

Even Parkers stated that

things that are established as known between you probably form as useful a context for the evolution of something new as anything. But the inter-personal relationships should only form the basis for working, they shouldn’t actually define the music too clearly, which they very often do. In practice, the closest I would get to a laboratory situation is working with the people I know best. It can make a useful change to be dropped into a slightly shocking situation that you’ve never been in before. It can produce a different kind of response, a different kind of reaction. But the people I’ve played with longest actually offer me the freest situation to work in (Bailey 1993: 128).

Playing with familiar players is important and can be developed to accommodate an ensembles requirement but it rules out the possibility of functioning with new players. As stated earlier one motivation for this project is the ability for live musicians to adequately accompanying electronic backing and beats that have the flexibility of changing the song format live. If techniques can be developed that are solid when players first come together when they play live, they will be of use as a general musical tool that includes electronic instrumentation.

It is proposed that in order to perform ensemble music with flexibility and originality it is desirable to improvise the song format, sometimes described as song structure, with fluidity and spontaneity using defined triggers. Flexibility of this kind has been demonstrated effectively in electronic music but the process for including performing musicians requires effective alternative communication for successful collaboration.

The research explores the above topic and has tested techniques to enhance structural fluidity in a live performance context. These techniques enable sectional changes of a song by an ensemble to be performed spontaneously during live performance. Compositional song triggers both musical and non-musical have been utilised to indicate sectional change during performance. The actual triggers you use could vary dramatically but included in this study are the motif (including the percussion phase), lighting cues and positional cues.

Changing the structure of a composition is only one compositional variation that could be available using the trigger techniques and it is expected that the same devices for changing format can also be used for changing the key, tempo and time signature and other variables in a composition.

Literature Review

  1. Keith Sawyer denotes compositional triggers as signs. “In group creativity – synchronically mediated action – interaction between creating agents is immediate, durationally constrained to the moment of creation, and is mediated by linguistic or musical signs” (Sawyer 2003: 119). Sawyer in his book Group creativity: music, theater, collaboration discusses creativity and improvisation through the comparison of improvisational theatre and improvisation in jazz performance. Sawyer devised a theory derived from Csikszentmihalyi (2002) for improvisation in a group and it was expected that work in this area would be required but by utilising a central person to actuate synchronous spontaneity in groups the major impediments to group spontaneous action was circumnavigated.

It was found that music improvisation theory in literature usually addresses two areas—rhythmic improvisation and melodic improvisation and some examples include Berkowitz 2010, Santi 2000 and Dean 1989. A whole range of authors on improvisational music theory have been investigated and support this argument. Derek Bailey (1993) who is well respected for his book entitled Improvisation discusses group improvisation and I will quote from this text to support ideas and statements in this paper. As an example in referring to flamenco he stated that “although the harmony will not differ much from performance to performance, what will differ is the time spent with each chord. There is no set sequence length”.

Barkley in JamSpeak Musicians Signalling Method has developed a sign language for musicians to use while playing and the book discusses signs for sectional change during a song (2011). This represents a technique for spontaneously changing sections of a song in a group. The ability to be able to sign while engaged in the act of playing could have some limitations but text indicates the desire to want to achieve this end result. The book indicates the need for the application of compositional triggers in the live performance and the development of research in this area of activity. It also opens up the rhetoric in this area of activity.

Research Problem

The research problem is documenting the ability to spontaneously change song structure synchronously. Triggers will need to be easily utilised by different artistes in different genres of music.

The research question; How are compositional triggers employed by artistes in live performance?


Three ensembles have volunteered their services to demonstrate a number of composition triggers. My own three piece with Micky Scott on the drums and Adrian Mengede on Bass, The second ensemble consisted of Sean Foran on keyboard with Geoff Green on drums and James McEwan on bass. These players were all professional players and lecturers from JMC Academy Brisbane. The last participant is the QUT choir conducted by Andy Ward. The initial interviews were held with the two ensembles and choir leader to discuss how they improvise currently if at all and what trigger methods they would incorporate into their improvisation process.

The composition triggers that were chosen to demonstrate were;

  1. colour change
  2. positional cues
  3. the musical motif

The motif is a traditional compositional trigger but we were interested in the use of the motif demonstrated by each player within the ensemble.

The ensembles were asked to note how they worked and what problems and advantages were found during the process of improvisation. After the recorded demonstrations interviews were held to gather background information about the experience of application and execution of the compositional trigger.

The verification of the data was achieved by the success and the transferability of techniques to other ensembles. This being further enriched by interviewing performers independent to the study about the concept and the techniques used. Some additional information came from these other musicians.


The research has utilised grounded theory to produce theory in relation to composition trigger techniques. The defining aspects of grounded theory were originally devised by Glaser and Strauss and are cited directly from Constructing Grounded Theory by Kathy Charmaz {2006}:

  • Simultaneous involvement in data collection and analysis.
  • Constructing analytic and categories from data, not from preconceived logically deduced hypotheses.
  • Using the constant comparative method, which involves making comparisons during each stage of the analysis.
  • Advancing theory development during each step of data collection and analysis
  • Memo-writing to elaborate categories, specify their properties, define relationships between categories, and identify gaps.
  • Sampling aimed toward theory construction, not population representiveness.
  • Conducting the literature review after developing an independent analysis.

First Ensemble

The first ensemble was my own and most of our repertoire is formatted though some songs have guitar motifs as composition cues into sectional changes. As a band we tried using a variety of composition cues for section changes that we hadn’t utilised before. We found that the two bar drum fill was extremely easy to follow and worked seamlessly. The bass and guitar motif worked but less dramatically and required more attention paid to the change which appeared to be less obvious. This trigger was usually effective but we were used to the trigger being a part of the composition and not composed just before demonstration. The positional cue of the bass player moving from his position into a predetermined new position I found effective—Micky on drums felt that he expected the players to move around fairly freely and the trigger wasn’t perused because of this reason.

I did feel a sense of exhilaration of not knowing when I was returning back from the bridge while waiting for the bass player’s trigger. Having written the song I sometimes feel it a chore to go through the song again to perfect an aspect while practicing. It was interesting in finding the process reinventing itself making the process constantly stimulating.

Not all our songs require composition cues to help the delivery of the content. It was a relief to come back to a song that had a set format and we only needed to draw the triggers out in certain songs. These songs tend to be the longer ones that keep on a constant theme.

We used the light as a composition cue to change the key of these songs and it worked very well. The light gets the attention of the players and different colours could indicate different changes. We enlisted a lamp as the trigger and I had made a foot switch for my pedal board so that I could trigger it as I would a guitar effect. We used the trigger two bars before the key change was to occur and it worked easily for all members. It also was useful on finishing a composition when the players were waiting for a cue to finish.

Second Ensemble

The purpose of the second ensemble was to try the composition triggers on a band of professional members. I used the same triggers as the first except the position cue was for the keyboardist to raise his left hand. Sean Foran used his positional cue of raising his left hand to change section and at first made an intentional effort not to look at the players. We realised that using eye contact to establish participation was part of the process because a positional cue isn’t effective if players have not seen it. On the first pass through I noticed that the slap style bass playing happened very infrequently and had very distinctive sound so I suggested this as a possible cue which worked very well to change to another section of the composition.

Geoff Green played a one bar drum fill and at first it was not successful and highlighted that fact that rehearsing the cues makes it a lot easier for the players to easily pick them up. The light was used to transpose the piece up a tone and this worked effortlessly. I did suggest placing the cues outside the obvious to make the composition more interesting and unpredictable. This topic was explored in my previous work (Carroll 2012, 2013) where a number of rock compositions were beat-mixed together creating a continuous soundscape. The need for breakdowns then arose to break the continuum and opening up the compositions structure created a sense unpredictability and excitement. Sean suggested bringing in sections after odd bars lengths of six bars rather than four.

Sean also pointed out that if it is a collective ensemble cues are better driven by a various players otherwise it is one person telling everybody what to do. Sean noted that “as with all cues a lot of them are visual and rely on the players to be looking”. Geoff commented that “the soloist is usually so much into it that when they lookup you know that they are about to come out of the solo into the next section”.

Sean stated that it comes down to personality and some people are more laid back and like taking direction. James added that it would be genre dependent; in rock or blues you would expect a signal at the end of the form “so it would be genre dependent, depending on style”. Geoff stated that when he plays with people all the time he just knows when they are changing. We agreed that this comes from length of time together and the musical phases they use (S. Foran, G. Green and J. McEwan, personal communication, August 13, 2015).

At the end we talked about each member of the band being able to orchestrate the composition and bring their cue in at a time that they decided rather than consecutively. Sean mentioned the work of John Zorn and French guitarist Marc Ducret and this opened a discussion which leads into the next section of the project.

Choir of Lights

Zorn has written pieces that enable the performer to set the direction.

A piece like Archery, which was done in ’79, is a long list of a hundred and thirty-odd combinations for a twelve-piece group. Where [he] really started eliminating the time line, eliminating the idea that the composer has to create in an arc, was in a piece like Cobra where the sequence of events can be ordered at any time by anyone. There, [he] just created relationships, abstract concepts on the piece, if they want to do something like playing solo or play duo, or have the whole band play, they can actualise that (Bailey 1993: 76).

To help demonstrate the potential of the concept of compositional triggers it was discussed with Andy Ward that a piece would be composed for the QUT choir to allow compositional changes on individual voice parts within the choir. The coloured lights would indicate the changes for each section (tenor, soprano, alto and bass) within the choir to accomplish the creation of the piece live (personal Communication, June 17, 2015).

The Choir of Lights is an extension of the composition trigger concept where lights would determine what vocal one bar phrase the choir would sing and when it would sing them. Using a DMX controller it was possible to program certain combinations of changes that would direct the choir and the composition’s direction. The composition written by Andy Ward originally had four parts each with sixteen one bar phases creating fort-eight different combinations. This was narrowed down to six one bar lines to better demonstrates the concept in a reasonable time frame. Each of the six parts consisted of two one bar phrases in 3/4 time, two phases in 4/4 time and two phrases in 5/4 time to create a diverse compositional texture. This composition was then prepared and videotaped to be presented at the Korean Electro-Acoustic Music Society’s 2015 Annual Conference (KEAMSAC2015). With the addition of MIDI to DMX conversion two bar cues could be given for live musicians playing with electronic accompaniment to enable the flexibility of compositional triggers.


It was manifest early on in the investigation that the problem of moving a number of members in a group spontaneously was quickly overcome by utilising an appointed leader. This could be anybody in the ensemble and the leader could change during a piece of music. This worked well for the use of the motif where each player could use their own motifs to add a variety of change to the composition.

The project demonstrated that individual players can follow compositional cues to change the sections of the compositions and the ensemble spontaneously. Each method was direct and easy to use and was common practice for some professional players. It was found that musicians that were not used to this mode of operation could work comfortably in the medium if it was communicated to them beforehand. This point is reinforced by Bailey

I also get the impression that it rarely presents much difficulty for a non-improvising musician, working with improvisers, to sort out the various musical signposts, the indications of intent that are common sensory practice (1993: 136).

It was shown that new players can use compositional triggers in live performance. The project documented the implementation of three triggers:

  1. colour change
  2. positional cues
  3. the musical motif

Through witnessing the triggering process in the live performance environment and reporting the results other ensembles can use these examples as a reference to improvising pre-existing material. Even though improvising song format is not a new concept it is hoped that this study has opened up the dialogue to allow further discussion and development in this area of musical practice.

Frank Perry, the percussionist: ‘For me, improvisation has meant the freeing of form that it may more readily accommodate my imagination’ (Bailey 1993: 112).



Bailey, D. 1993. Improvisation: its nature and practice in music. New York: Da Capo Press.

Berkowitz, A. 2010. The improvising mind: cognition and creativity in the musical moment. New York: Oxford University Press.

Carroll, Adrian D. 2012. Beat-mixing Rock music: Rock and electronic dance music merge to create the Manarays. Masters by Research by Creative Works, Queensland University of Technology.

Carroll, Adrian. 2013 Beat-mixing rock music. eJournalist, 13(1), pp. 102-115.

Charmaz, K. 2006. Constructing grounded theory. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage Publications

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2002. Flow: the classic work on how to achieve happiness. Rev. ed. London: Rider.

Dean, R. T. and A. C. Brown. 1989. Creative improvisation: jazz, contemporary music, and beyond: how to develop techniques of improvisation for any musical context. Milton Keynes England: Open University Press.

Santi, M. 2010. Improvisation: between technique and spontaneity. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Sawyer, R. K. 2003. Group creativity: music, theater, collaboration. Mahwah, N.J.: L. Erlbaum Associates.


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