Interview with Martin Simon: What is Conversational Music or “Convers”?

Excerpt from Holly Crawford’s book  Artistic Bedfellows: Histories, Theories and Conversations in Collaborative Art Practices”.




Noah Creshevsky: You talk about conversation in music. In a regular, spo-
ken conversation one person speaks and one person listens. How do you ex-
plain that in a musical conversation there may be two or more people playing
or “musically talking” at the same time? Where is the conversation here?

Martin Simon: In the most general meaning, “conversation” is a way of two
or more people exchanging ideas around various topics. Aconversation, like
speaking, implies intentionality. I call that sense of purposeful deliberateness the “action-reception-and-feedback principle.” If this principle is present, there is a foundation for a conversation. If it is not present, the relationship between the participants is somewhat in a state of ignorance. One party talking without its counter-party listening and responding does not establish a conversational environment.

NC:You say that conversation requires two or more participants, subject matter, and a sense of purpose. What happens when more than one person talks at the same time? Is that no longer a conversation?

MS: Let’s consider an example of two people interacting. When one person
talks while another listens (and vice versa), we have a conversation. Similarly,
one person holding a pot while another pours water into it is an example of a
non-verbal conversation. While the two examples differ in the essence of the ac-
tivity, both examples fulfill the general principle of conversation. The first
example—a sequential pattern in which one person talks at a time—is a linear
activity. The second example—the pouring and gathering of water—is a con-
current activity.

Analogously, one may begin to see that verbal conversation is not strictly
a linear event, but a concurrent state of listening (holding a pot), and speak-
ing (pouring the water). This example is analogous to a collaborative ap-
proach to making Conversational Music.(2)

On the other hand, when we talk to someone, it does not automatically
mean that the other person actually listens. In such a case, a conversation does
not occur. Therefore another requirement for a conversation is attention. (The
other requirements, as discussed earlier, are existence of participants, subject
matter, a sense of purpose and response.)

NC: That’s clear now, what is more important, though, how does this rule
apply to music in particular?

MS: Conversation in music happens either in a linear or concurrent way.
One performer plays something while another performer tries to grasp his or
her “intention” through a constant process of listening and reacting, musi-
cally. Attention spans vary from person to person and may often be unequal.
Differences between individual performers are natural and contribute to the
spontaneous flow of musical materials.

NC:Is this musical conversation a composition?

MS:No. It may come from a composition or it can lead to a composition,
but mainly it is a state of referencing to things we already know from prior
experience or want to explore later. Musical conversation emerges from one’s
own unique interpretation of the musical materials at hand. In contrast to
strict realizations of fully notated scores, conversational music promotes the
casual, fluid treatment of musical elements, including those represented by
printed scores. Conversational music liberates the performer from the usual
performer’s role, by releasing him or her into a comfortable personal zone.

NC:You have a deep feeling for humanity and respect for the individual’s
contribution and voice. What inspired you to develop the concept of conver-
sational music?

MS:I was not happy writing music the way I was, meaning that my per-
sonal performance did not adequately reflect the rigid indications of the mu-
sical score. Often, I also did not feel convinced by the players’interpretations
of the written page.

Plus there were many possibilities of variations running wildly in my head,
but the necessity of committing something to paper required that I choose a
single variation at the expense of excluding others. The nature of writing
forces anyone to choose a single “best” solution, and to then induce others to
rehearse and perform the rigidly notated phrase. Fully notated scores—surely
a correct path for many composers—did not feel right for me. I concluded
that there must be a way that I could create comfortably with increased pos-
sibilities for personal interpretation and open interaction. Asummary of my
experiments to develop the concept of Convers Music is documented in the
essay “Notes on Conversational Music.”

NC:How does this music sound? How does one know when it is a sponta-
neous musical conversation and not a rehearsed act?

MS:For a typical listener it is not important if one recognizes it as an au-
thentic conversation or not. Listeners are concerned about the sound of mu-
sic. Either they like it or not. There may be untold numbers of pieces that one
finds highly inspiring or terribly complicated (or terribly simple).
Convers is not a style of music; it is a style of a person. The gestures of mu-
sic are the gestures of the individual making them. That elusive personal char-
acter makes it difficult to put a label on the musical result. (3) Nevertheless, one
may sense improvisatory qualities in the textures, rhythms and articulations
that are not readily expressed through performances of fixed scores.

NC:What is the difference between conversation and improvisation? Isn’t
the term “Conversational Music” just another way of saying the same thing?

MS: For me, improvisation in its purest sense is the building unit of any ac-
tion. It is the first thing one does intuitively before learning (or never learn-
ing) the consequence of an action. It is manifested in every moment of our
lives, starting from the way we use our fingers to scratch our head before get-
ting up from bed, to the way we bend over the washbasin in front of a mirror
when brushing our teeth before falling to sleep (and far beyond). Improvisa-
tion moves in every and all directions.

Conversation and improvisation both utilize improvisation as a stimulus to
any action. However, in a conversation one focuses a multi-directional impro-
vised force on a particular goal with the intention of achieving that specific goal.
Conversational Music is built with the same spirit as improvisation—the liberty
to express our selves freely, but also requires a heightened level of attention—
the desire to absorb and to give back.

NC: Is Conversational Music only present in unwritten formats or are there
written examples, too?

MS: Conversational Music can be generated from themes both known and
unknown. Conversation does not require notation but may be based on or in-
spired by it.
Conversation is not like reading a book; rather, it is talking about what hap-
pened in the book (or what will or will not happen). (4)

For example, “Anaconda” (a game for unspecified instruments) from
“Melting Away,” a collaborative multimedia community project, was con-
ceived from its inception as a composition based on a conversational model.
The preparation for a performance includes the players’ familiarity with
every page of the score, but it is understood that some pages may be played
out of order, or not be played at all, while other pages may be “discussed”

“Anaconda” is a title for a music-game piece designed specifically to en-
courage performer-driven musical conversation. It is based in full on a
simple, relatively well-known piece of music—the Canadian national anthem
“O Canada” (from that the anagram: Anaco[n]da). The whole project “Melt-
ing Away” thematically covers the work of Canadian artists living in New
York and was conceived in collaboration with video artist Elizabeth Whalley
and composer-programmer David Reeder.

The musical score of “Anaconda” is written and presented in a way that
leaves performers a way to personally engage their own senses. They are
given the responsibility to make individual decisions, figure out workable
connections, pace themselves appropriately, choose a co-playing partner, be
as loud or as silent as they find considerate or harmful to others in the group.
The personal judgment of circumstances and responsibilities for actions and
consequences are in the hands of players.

The written musical piece itself (the score) is one thing and the performance
influenced by it is another. Conversational Music is what emerges from the in-
dividual and group interactions with and without regard to the written score.

NC:Are you collaborating with Elizabeth Whalley, David Reeder or Paul
S. Ray when writing a Convers piece?

MS:These people do not collaborate in writing or performance of Convers
music, rather they collaborate in the production of the event.
In the work “Little Pictures,” for example, the goal was to produce a
collaborative multimedia event. One part of the project was that a group of
musicians collaborated in open musical interpretations of small fragments of
numerous musical miniatures that had been composed independently at an
earlier time. The music performance itself was a collaboration.

NC: Can any piece of music be performed as a Convers piece?

MS: What comes to my mind is a silly comparison: “Can any physical
movement be considered yoga?” Convers is not a single piece of music but a
broader category. Like yoga, the practice of Convers maintains an attitude of
an internal questioning mind.
The answer is “yes”—absolutely, almost any music can be reinterpreted,
deconstructed, improved or adjusted to fit one’s own needs or interests.

NC: Did you invent Convers in the US? When exactly and what drove you?

MS:Conversational Music has been around for quite a long time, mostly as a
natural practice, unconsciously cultivated by many musicians and developed
informally. It may never have been formally labeled and identified as such. A
conversational attitude is a pre-starting point of many works of popular, serious
or any other music. It is a state of looking for alternatives and possible
answers—a way of exploring the full span of momentary capabilities and inspi-
rations before selecting elements that will best complete the work for public per-

It was around spring 2001 during my music studies in New York when I
happened to observe, by a coincidence, a non-public performance that was for
that moment unusually sensitive, spontaneous and inspiring musically (and
also a pleasure to watch). I have been at once captivated by an image of mu-
sical performances that would come out from authentic musical representa-
tions of participants’personalities and their momentary capabilities.
That early incident was so satisfying to me for its human communicative-
ness, accessibility and non-stiffness that I begun to wonder how to encourage
more of these or similar performances. I sought to identify conditions and at-
titudes responsible for activating these resourceful personal forces inside any
player. Ultimately, I envisioned how Convers could aid as an alternative prac-
tice to improve overall musicianship.


I N S I D E R   S E C T I O N

— read the following articles (to be published soon):

1. Who Is in Control?
2. Conversational Flow and Structure
3. The Inner Face of Convers
4. Facts versus Interpretations
5. How Does One Start Practicing Convers?