Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Towards New Forms of Pianistic Improvisation Across Musical Boundaries

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posted on 2021-12-07, 13:16 authored by Mark Donlon

This thesis is practice-based. The main element in which the research outcomes are manifested is the portfolio of creative work. There are three CD albums of original music: Southern Shift, Between Moons, and Tales from the Diaspora. There are also three video recordings including a performance of my piece Saraband (for piano trio), along with my performance of two classical piano pieces by Rachmaninoff: Elegie op 3 no. 1 and Etudetableau op. 33 no. 5. There is a written exegesis which serves to inform the reader how the creative work may be understood or apprehended, as well as placing it in relevant context The creative work centres on contemporary piano improvisation and how diverse musical strands can be drawn together in a coherent improvised musical idiom. Models for contemporary improvised music, that constitute key external sources for my musical practice, include the work of pianists Keith Jarrett, Cecil Taylor, Matt Bourne, John Taylor, Misha Mengelberg, Gabriela Montero and Gwilym Simcock. How these pianists’ work relates to my music will be discussed in the exegetical text.  Several approaches and techniques, to free improvisation and jazz, will be explored through the creative practice and discussed in the exegesis. The ideas of scholars Nicholas Cook and Ed Sarath play a significant part in the concepts behind the music in this portfolio and in my thinking about improvisation in a wider sense. Cook suggests that improvisation represents a wider and more nuanced set of musical functionalities than is commonly understood by the one term ‘improvisation’. This is a key factor in this research.  Extemporaneous Composition is the most salient concept at work in the creative work. The aim is to explore how an improvisation can have elements of a controlled and structured musical argument, as a composed piece would. This connects to the issue of how improvisation and composition are closely linked as creative processes. The issue of how improvisation and the interpretive performance of composed music are linked will be an important topic, as will the relationship between aurality and textuality in creative musicianship. The two research questions are:   • When diverse and divergent aspects of musical practice, from traditions such as Western classical music, jazz and other African-based music are integrated into an improvised musical practice to give voice to a personal, creative musical identity, what can the nature of that music be? What perspectives will emerge about how creative performers operate?   • Textuality and aurality function differently in these musical traditions. Can improvisation, in its wider sense, be re-evaluated to account for the employment of these through a more complex and nuanced set of creative functionalities than is typically understood by the single term improvisation?


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970119 Expanding Knowledge through Studies of the Creative Arts and Writing

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

New Zealand School of Music


McKinnon, Dugal; Whyton, Tony