AMN Reviews: Mirio Cosottini – Metodologie dell’improvvisazione musicale [Edizioni ETS: 2017]

Music is a temporal art. It takes place in time and as it does it seems to reveal something essential about time. One way time is revealed to us through music is by way of a spatial metaphor. We perceive a sequence of sounds unfolding in time as moving through an imaginary space. Our hearing music as movement in turn is bound up with our hearing it as changing or staying constant—musical change seems to embody movement, while musical constancy or stasis seems to stand still. In Metodologie dell’improvvisazione musicale, Italian composer, improviser and music theoretician Mirio Cosottini formulates a methodology of improvisation that takes change and constancy as its basic categories.

Cosottini’s methodology casts improvisation in terms of a dialectic of linearity and nonlinearity. These latter two concepts, which trace back to Jonathan Kramer’s book, The Time of Music, provide the foundation not only for Cosottini’s methodology, but for the set of exercises he presents as a means for improvisers to expand their horizons of musical possibility.

Briefly, linearity is the quality of development and change over time; nonlinearity is the quality of invariance over time. Linear music is music that appears to move from one point towards another, in a more-or-less unbroken progression; nonlinear music appears to stay in one place or to reside in discontinuous, autonomous events—to exist outside of or against the inexorable flow of time. The paradigm of linear music is the melody or cyclical chord progression; the paradigm of nonlinear music is the unchanging drone or discrete sound events of a pointillist work. In linear music “before” and “after” are explicitly traced in a succession of sounds; in nonlinear music succession appears to break down entirely into a set of non-contingent moments giving the impression of an eternal “now.” (For those with a taste for metaphysics, the difference between linear and nonlinear can be captured metaphorically by the difference between becoming and being, respectively.)

Cosottini’s appreciation for the potential importance of the nonlinear in music grew out of a personal experience. When asked to compose a contrapuntal exercise over a C major foundation, he wrote a melody based on C melodic minor. After repeated playing, he felt that the dissonance of the minor third within the context of the major modality revealed itself to be of interest as an alternative, if unconventional, way of combining pitches simultaneously rather than an error. Consequently, he began to understand nonlinearity as a way to analyze and organize improvisation.

The exercises, which make up the bulk of the book, are useful not only as ways of getting to know the heft and shape of improvisation’s constituent elements, but as a means of sharpening and directing musical awareness. Some of the exercises address attentiveness and the ability to hear nonlinearity. For example, one listening exercise asks us to hear a set of simultaneously played long tones as a “totality as if it were a sphere.” As the exercise shows, Cosottini presents linearity and nonlinearity are perceptual categories that are applied through judgments that take place within certain contexts; determining whether or not an element is linear or nonlinear may in many cases be the product of a perspective brought to the work. Cosottini describes this perspective in terms of cumulative listening, through which one can discern those pitches, timbres, rhythmic figures, dynamics or other elements that seem detached from the temporal flow of the music

When specifically addressed to active play, the exercises provide practical examples of how to use nonlinearity as a strategy for improvisation. For instance, some of the exercises call for using only five pitches, timbres, sounds or dynamics. Each of these closed sets can serve as the invariant kernel around which an improvisation—its other parameters being allowed to vary—can be built. Paradoxically, the use of relatively small, limited sets of musical material can lend a sense of larger-scale cohesion underlying and tying together individual musical events. When these sets function as constants providing points of reference for development of the improvisation as a whole, the closed set simply becomes an organizing structure for an open performance.

Cosottini’s methodology opens up clear possibilities for leveraging nonlinear forms of organization as alternatives to linear forms of organization. The former are particularly useful for music that eschews tonality; an improvisation based on textural rather than tonal structures, for instance, would offer one such kind of organization. To the extent that it is a purely vertical structure, texture by nature lacks directionality—textural movement doesn’t point toward a goal of resolution as does functional harmonic movement, nor does it imply a kind of musical entailment, as does melodic development. Instead, texture can serve as the basis of an organizational logic embodied in the relative densities, voice combinations and durations of sound complexes or other simultaneous aggregates of musical elements. Organization by textural synchrony, in other words, offers a nonlinear alternative to organization by harmonic or melodic diachrony.

A concern with texture is a concern with architecture in its vertical dimension; it’s a short step from recognizing this to a grasp of the possibilities arising from the use of nonlinear elements as formal substructures upon which to build improvisational superstructures. To take an example from outside the world of improvisation, we can discern in many of Morton Feldman’s compositions a dynamic element which stays at an unchangingly low level. In such cases we could speak of a nonlinear dynamic that serves as a structural anchor, one which remains static while pitches or timbres undergo variations. These changing pitches and timbres would then appear to belong to a linear surface floating over the constant dynamic. Cosottini similarly includes exercises that define musical parameters as constants; it isn’t hard to imagine these constants serving as structural elements on which to build a superstructure of linear events.

In a seeming reversal of meaning, nonlinear elements can serve to define horizontal relationships as well. Some nonlinear strategies—such as the imposition of sudden silences to introduce discontinuity into the flow of an improvisation—could serve as structural boundaries dividing a performance into discrete sections. The pointillism of local discontinuities, by regulating the development of collective sound densities, would then foster organization at the textural level. Recurring yet invariant tones or timbres, such as are suggested in some of Cosottini’s exercises could, when played during structurally separate passages, set up cross-sectional relationships through thematic coherence. An improvisation made up of autonomous events not explicitly related to what precedes or succeeds them—the kind of piece Cosottini refers to as “without memory [senza memoria]”—would nevertheless cohere through a unity of repetition and recollection. This would seem to present the paradox of having locally nonlinear elements work together to create a global sense of linearity, or continuity, but it is through such paradoxes that the musical dialectic of linearity and nonlinearity works in practice.

Daniel Barbiero

AMN Reviews: Mirio Cosottini – Playing with Silence (Mimesis International, 2016)


Silence has always been a part of music, whether as a relatively brief pause between sounds or as something more substantial, though ultimately no less transient. In recent years, particularly in work following on and following up from the implications of Cage’s 4’33”, silence has come into its own within musical practice. It isn’t unusual to encounter compositions, improvisations or other works that incorporate silence as an independent parameter, equal to or in some cases surpassing sound, or that address silence more radically as the essential conceptual ground on which a musical superstructure arises.

It is this embrace of silence in experimental music and elsewhere that provides the context for Italian composer Mirio Cosottini’s short book Playing with Silence: Introduction to a Philosophy of Silence. As its title indicates, the book engages many of the meanings, functions and possible uses of silence in both music and beyond that, in our lives in general.

Cosottini brings a multifaceted background to these various ways of considering silence. A graduate of the Academy of Music in Florence, Cosottini has composed music for dance, theater and film, and is an improvising trumpeter who co-founded the Gruppo di Ricerca Improvvisazione Musicale. In addition, he pursued a doctorate in the philosophy of music from the University of Florence. Cosottini’s practical and philosophical sides are both well represented in the book’s brief introduction and its collection of questions and exercises meant to bring the reader into a more conscious relationship to silence in its different manifestations.


The bulk of the book is made up of questions intended to guide the reader to think about what silence is, can be, and can mean to him or her, or exercises suggesting actions that encourage the reader to become aware of the role that silence has to play in music, performance more generally, and life most broadly. Each page contains only one question or exercise; the sometimes vast expanse of empty space left over on the page itself suggests a visual analogue of silence. The book is meant to be read at a pace of one page per day; whether or not the reader chooses to act on them or to treat them instead as thought experiments, the questions and exercises serve as occasions for developing an awareness of silence.

Many of the exercises are directly relevant to musical practice. For instance, Cosottini asks, “Where do you find silence in music?” and, “If you play an instrument, do you think about sound or silence?” There are exercises for listening to silence after playing long tones or points of sounds, and an exercise that seems aimed at finding where musical silence ends and non-musical silence begins. Other exercises apply explicitly or implicitly to dance and movement, where “silence” can be read as denoting that state of actual or virtual rest which is the dancer’s equivalent to the musician’s silence. There are also several partnering exercises, many of which call for physical contact between participants. They can be used to attune musicians to one another prior to a performance or can act as the first step in a collaborative improvisational dance. Some exercises are more ambiguous in scope, seeming to apply equally to music or to dance, or to other, unspecified kinds of performances. And some seem to be independent of performance altogether.

Not far into the book, Cosottini asks the fundamental but by no means simple question, “What is Silence?” The answer that gradually takes shape is just as fundamental, and far-reaching.

As practical and concrete as many of these exercises are, it quickly becomes clear that Cosottini uses “silence” in a predominantly figurative way. Taken literally, “silence” can refer to a situation or state of things in which sound is absent. This absence of sound may be an objective feature of the world, existing independently of one’s perception, or it may be a phenomenological or perceived reality, the result of one’s inattentiveness to, for example, ambient sounds. In either case, silence is a sonic property actually attaching to or attributed to the world “out there.” By contrast, “silence” as it is often used on the book goes beyond a narrowly focused emphasis on the external environment per se and instead signifies a state of emptiness or rest generally. The use of “silence” as a rough synonym for “stillness” in which one refrains from moving is one such figurative use. But at a deeper level, what Cosottini means by “silence” is a matter of comportment, referring more generally to a way of being in the world. In this sense “silence” is a manner of engaging oneself in relation to oneself, to others, or to the environment, sonic and otherwise. In most of the situations and hypotheticals that Cosottini presents, it is this deeper sense of “silence” that emerges.

“Silence” in this sense names a state of receptivity, a being still in order to be open to surrounding influences sonic or otherwise. In performance, this may translate into an openness to what a collaborator is doing. That seems to be the underlying relationship or structure intended by many of the partnering exercises in the book. To find the silence in the collaborator is to lay oneself open to what that collaborator might do, even if what he or she does is to remain silent or, in the case of dance, still. The point of the exercise is to be attuned, to be directed toward the other in the state in which the other, and the surrounding world, both are disclosed through a mood of receptivity. “Silence” in this sense has something of a dual nature: It is both the occasion for a receptive attunement to one’s way of being in the world and with others, and is that attunement itself. “Silence,” as the presence to self that resides at the heart of quiet, is both an inward- and outward-facing state; it makes us present to ourselves and to others in a particularly attentive way, which can deepen our engagement with our own playing as well as with our collaborators.


If silence runs deeper than the simple absence of sound, absence of sound may be the primary way we recognize silence. Silence is an aspect of the world as we take it, but not only as we take it—as it appears to us—but more fundamentally, as we give it meaning. Through silence we disclose the world in a mood of tranquility or rest, or openness; our openness conveys a certain meaning on the world around us, and we designate this meaning as silence. When we do so, we are exercising a type of judgment that indicates something about the way we are engaging the world and imbuing it with a certain significance.

To disclose the world through silence is to undertake a commitment—to take up an active and not a passive stance. Committing to silence, one actively puts oneself in the relationship of openness, one responds to it drawing on a repertoire of strategies that may include the concord of mimesis or the assimilation of what is happening around one; the contrast of opposition or contrary motion; the counterpoint of complementarity and balance of reciprocity. One becomes attuned and then takes that attunement up into one’s project, which is to act in relation to the other. To play.

As is summed up in the book’s final exercise: “You are a source of silence. Cultivate silence. Play.” As with many of Cosottini’s exercises, this one ends with an invitation to play. And to play is to act—to make choices and pursue ends in a situation as that situation is interpreted through attunement. Silence informs play by disclosing possibilities; silence is an element in play in multiple senses of the word “play.” It is something to be played with, something that comes into play through an act of commitment on the part of the player, something that can be played the way one would play a sound on an instrument. And that in essence seems to be Cosottini’s message: Starting with an awareness that comes with silence, play, and let that awareness inform play as it unfolds.

Daniel Barbiero