Exploring boundaries of improvisation and genre in contemporary cello practice

  • Justyna Jablonska-Edmonds

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


My research and creative portfolio explore problems that I’ve faced as a professional cellist in two domains: improvisation and cross-genre work. Cross-cultural research on improvisation has questioned the relationships amongst improvisation, composition, originality, and creative freedom. Free improvisation, which aims to free itself from the rules of idiom, can entail the constraint of too much freedom. Idiomatic improvisation, despite being “traditional,” can generate originality and freedom. Musical works that cross-genre can be seen as inauthentic, but authenticity is not always desirable, and can be influenced by creative intent.

I explore these problems with practice-based research, following three lines of enquiry:

1. What is the varying significance of improvisation in different genres and performance contexts, specifically its relation to composed material, its contribution to musical originality, and the extent to which it conforms or diverges from idiomatic rules?

2. What creative constraints and possibilities are entailed by cross-genre musical performance?

3. How can this exploration of improvisatory and cross-genre work contribute to the expansion of cello repertoire and my own personal and musical development as a cellist?

During my practice-based research I undertook training in Carnatic music on the cello, an instrument that is largely absent from this tradition. I also trained in live electronics, which allowed me to alter the sound of my cello and to create loops. My research resulted in three original albums: Songs for Cello and Carnatic Violin (with Jyotsna Srikanth); Strata (with Emma Jane Lloyd); and a solo piece, Lost and Found: A Cellist's Journey. These works draw on various genres (Carnatic, Polish avant-garde, electronic, and Roma and Jewish folk music), develop autoethnographic themes, and experiment with free, idiomatic, and semi-idiomatic improvisation. Throughout my research, I navigated the interplay between freedom and constraint in improvisation and cross-genre work in a journey towards greater artistic expression.

My PhD aims to invigorate the possibilities of improvisation through training in traditional forms and expand the boundaries of cello performance. It also yields practical knowledge on adapting the cello to Carnatic music, cross-genre collaboration, and electronic technologies.
Date of Award13 Jun 2024
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorJohannes Simon Van der Walt (Supervisor)


  • Music
  • Cello
  • Improvisation
  • Cross-genre performance
  • Carnatic music
  • Autoethnography
  • Electronic music

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