Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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The Way of Steve Lacy: Finding Individuality through Musical Genealogy

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posted on 2023-03-14, 23:29 authored by Johnson, Lucien

This research project traces Lacy’s life in music, looking at his long period of apprenticeship, the brief but important period in which he focussed exclusively on free improvisation, and the subsequent years spent formulating and creating his own music. It uses both musical analysis of his improvisations and his compositions and commentary on the path he chose, in an attempt to define his place in 20th century music and the legacy he leaves us.  The second part of the project involves my own compositions, which investigate areas similar to those which Lacy explored in his lifetime. These include finding a relationship between composition and improvisation in which both methods are given equal value. Their respective qualities, such as the collective interplay found in improvisation or the structure that composition supplies, are being cultivated. The point of these works is not to investigate methods of composition or conduction in which improvisation or semi-improvisation can be integrated. In this music the improvisers have as few limitations as possible, so that they are free to improvise. The works merely look to find a balance where these two methods can co-exist. The pieces are mostly idiomatic although they use genre as a point of departure rather than a fixed entity. They attempt to transcend, or in some cases to subvert, the idiom to which they are referring. They have been written intuitively and developed and refined through live performance. The compositions for the ensemble, The Troubles, were developed over a year of weekly live performances and there was a degree of autonomy and democracy for all the performers. A score in this music is perhaps akin to many of the practices to be found in the creation of contemporary theatre, where a text can be treated, elaborated upon, toyed with, where there are moments where things have been devised by the ensemble, rather than viewed as a sacred object. It is possible to imagine that Lacy too worked in this manner with his regular group. In these pieces I have tried to heed Braque’s lessons, and to avoid mimicry, yet in this work I hope to capture something of the spirit of Steve Lacy.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Music

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


Psathas, John; Meehan, Norman