Esa Onttonen

Composer and guitarist from Helsinki, Finland.

Experiments in improvisation

01 June 2021

In December 2019 I received great news from Koneen Säätiö / Kone Foundation: they had awarded me a grant for the year 2020 to develop a real-time notation software and to start a new improvisation group that utilizes that software in practice. My project was titled Developing and utilizing real-time notation technology in improvised music and starting a new improvisation group (in Finnish: Reaaliaikaisen nuotinnusteknologian kehittäminen ja hyödyntäminen improvisoidussa musiikissa sekä uuden improvisaatioyhtyeen perustaminen.)

Logo of Kone Foundation

Now, roughly five months after the project ended it is time to look back what was achieved. My main goal was to develop a software that could be used in improvisation contexts to communicate musical notation and other relevant information in real-time. While I had previous experience in “non-digital” conducted improvisation (e.g. Gnomus project with a string orchestra in Amiens, France in 2004), I missed the option to quickly deliver exact pitch information such as pitch sets and chords, which I consider essential ingredients and structural building blocks in music. Additionally, the currently available real-time notation solutions were not particularly suitable for my purposes.

To overcome these problems, I designed and programmed an application that runs in browser, converts MIDI input to either pitch sets or chord progressions and sends them in real-time to other musicians. The application also allows to modify the notation and send other parameters such as tempo, dynamics, density etc. Note: the app is not currently available publicly due to its experimental nature. My aim is to eventually release it after it has reached a more mature state of development. (For tech-oriented readers: the current version uses React, Node.js, GraphQL, Material-UI, VexFlow, JZZ and a few other open source libraries).

As a more audible result of this project, the improvisation group Esa Onttonen Lab was launched. For the first incarnation of the group I invited Aki Rissanen (keyboards), Antti Kujanpää (organ), Joonas Riippa (drums) while I played guitar and bass. According to Merriam-Webster, a laboratory is “a place providing opportunity for experimentation, observation, or practice in a field of study”. The aim of my “lab” is exactly that: to experiment, observe and practice improvisation with and without the use of the software tool. There is now about five hours of multi-track recordings made by the group. Some of that material will be made available later in a digital or physical format. Please read the Esa Onttonen Lab page for more information about the group.

If you are a concert or festival organizer and would like to hear us play, please use the contact form and I’ll get back to you!