Bo Van der Werf: ‘ Methods for using the languages of Messiaen in (jazz) improvisation ‘

Doctoral Project

Bo Van der Werf, PhD in the Arts

- modus operandi : labelling Messiaen’s compositional systems into a wide range of functional harmonic and melodic vocabularies (based on the modes of limited transpositions) that can be assimilated and used by an improviser in the many-sided contexts of jazz improvisation: in closed circuit  (symmetric modes in isolation: generating organized (micro to macro) systems impervious to tonal hierarchical organisation), and in open circuit   (generating tonal-sensitive organized (micro-to-macro) systems). The music of Messiaen is all about colours, one of its distinctive features is the separation of rhythm, melody and harmony, the harmonic field of action is mostly delineated by the 7 modes of limited transpositions and their polymodal combinations. How could this system radiate in jazz contexts ? How to translate an organized system for composition (fixed forms)  into a wide array of real-time situations where improvisation remains the vital  organ (that is to say spontaneous composition, here and now, indeterminacy and interdependance) ? Everything has probably been written about the music of Messiaen, so many great books and studies already exist, but they mostly refer to composition techniques and language, that is to say fixed forms and structures. Being an improvising musician, my research is 100% based on real-life situations, my aim is to develop practice-based methods for using Messiaen’s ideas and materials in ‘jazz’, accessible to all experienced improvising musicians interested in enriching their vocabulary. Correlations between the modes of limited transpositions and the major-minor tonal system are multiple: using these modes as harmonic/melodic materials, when functioning in - or escaping from - gravity and hierarchy, involves methodology but also intuition, subjectivity and taste. This makes it a living and interconnected process: the experimentation (playing/searching) and transmission (sharing) generates many different approaches and results.


  • Dr. Carl Van Eyndhoven (supervisor, KU Leuven/LUCA)
  • Dhr. Jozef Dumoulin (co-supervisor)

Research Unit: Music & Drama

Duration: 2017 - 2021