Experimenting with Musical Improvisation

Investigating interaction in performance

Music can reveal valuable information about human culture, cognition, and consciousness. Dr. Borgo, Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego, works as a performer, improviser, composer and researcher to shed new light on how creativity is fundamentally shared between, and spread across, persons, things, places and times. He is particularly interested in technologically mediated live musical performance, but he also researches other uses of new technology that offer immersive, intense, and deeply personal engagements with sound.

A particular joy of musical improvisation is not knowing precisely the relationship between one's thoughts and one's actions (one has to surprise oneself, after all) and between one's actions and the actions of other improvisers (did you do that because I did that, or did I do that because you did that?). Improvising in electroacoustic situations can heighten the joy (by extending one's musical resources and horizons) and the complexity of the situation (by introducing additional technological actors and agency). Dr. Borgo's research explores interactive strategies and emergent phenomena in musical improvisation through experiential, qualitative, and comparative analytics, while also insisting on ecological and contextual sensitivity towards the cultural and discursive practices involved.

As we continue to integrate and hybridize our artistic expressions in the age of computation, we have the opportunity to learn more about the distinctness of human creativity as it interfaces with computational "artificial intelligence." Dr. Borgo's research expands the frame we use to describe music by challenging the conventional notions of what music should sound like and what role it plays in modern society. 

Dr. Borgo's current research takes an experimental and theoretical approach towards musical creativity, and it involves both creative output and scholarly work:

  1. Dr. Borgo co-leads the musical group "Kronomorphic," for which he composes original music exploring polymetric time. Most popular music is composed using four obvious beats per measure, but Dr. Borgo's approach involves interlocking rhythms with, for example, 9-against-13 beats, or 7-against-11 beats overlaid in the same measure of time. Many of these complex polymeters have no common denominator, yet by discovering claves, or "keys" that interlock between the two remarkable music is created. Exploring different ways music can be organized temporally, as well as timbrally and texturally, questions deeply ingrained concepts of perception, culture, and meaning.
  2. Another musical group, the duo "KaiBorg" with Jeff Kaiser, is an electroacoustic improvisation group that blends acoustic instruments and live digital signal processing in performance. KaiBorg's performances involve custom musical software and hardware interfaces and incorporate laptops, physical computing, and often live digital video processing. For this ensemble Dr. Borgo develops new interfaces and new strategies for combining acoustic and digital sound in real time, and he investigates how these expanded sonic palettes and performance gestures affect listener perception.
  3. Dr. Borgo is currently contributing a chapter to an edited volume on New Jazz Studies that explores the post-millennial moment by tracing a variety of approaches to, and attitudes about, human-computer interaction in jazz and improvised music. What do these various attitudes tell us about the conceptual work that art can do in the computer age, and how might these artistic and conceptual activities expand or revise our notion of improvisation?


Dr. Borgo began playing the saxophone at age eight. Despite his early musical passion and success, he originally intended to major in computer engineering and eventually work in the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence. By the end of his senior year in high school, however, he found himself more interested in the music of saxophonist Charlie Parker than in calculus. Parker's music provoked an epiphany for Dr. Borgo that these remarkable solo constructions could be different, often radically, every night in the hands of such an accomplished improviser. He realized then that creativity, interaction, and improvisation are cornerstone pieces of the musical experience, and that they can reveal new insights into culture, cognition and consciousness.

As an improvising saxophonist for nearly 40 years, Dr. Borgo continues to be motivated by exploring the creative process. In-the-moment creativity has always fascinated him, and his passion for music has translated into a career directed at understanding the confluence of factors and influences that contribute to, and benefit from, the creative moment. His more recent work designing and performing with interactive computing systems has allowed him to revisit some of his early passions for technology and artificial intelligence while also highlighting the integral and essential role that the arts play in the digital age.

Dr. Borgo specializes in playing the saxophone, but he also enjoys playing various flutes and reed instruments from around the world. Beyond music, Dr. Borgo spends much of his free time on the soccer field with his kids, or riding his motorcycle around east county San Diego.


Kronomorfic: Entangled, 2014

Chosen as a Top-10 jazz CD in the San Diego Union Tribune

Kronomorfic: Micro Temporal Infundibula, 2011

Top-50 Recommended CD from allaboutjazz.com

Alan P. Merriam Prize, Continuum, 2005

for most distinguished English-language monograph published in the field of ethnomusicology during the previous year; awarded to Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age

First Prize at the John Coltrane Festival, 1994