Saturday, July 28, 2007

On Improvisation 1

Improvisation is not “just anything”; it can have the same satisfying sense of structure and wholeness as a planned composition. But there is a case to made for the opposite side. There is a time to do just anything, to experiment without fear of consequences, to have a play space safe from fear of criticism, so that we can bring out our unconscious material without censoring it first. —Stephen Nachmanovitch.

The creative process begins with the inner ear, with the imagination. The process continues with the manifestation of this inner auditory experience in the vibrational spectrum. Voice, instruments and human interaction enter the picture. This inner auditory vision is expressed as a unique human story through the development of musical langauge. Any new musical language must be based on understanding existing musical languages in their uniqueness and through their underlying universal principles. The principles are based on an essence in its dual manifestation: Sound as rhythm and rhythm as sound.

In improvisational music, the human interplay of this manifestation becomes dialgoue. It is the mirror which reflects both group and individual states at the moment of creation, bringing us together in our most human being.
—Adam Rudolph

What is improvisation?

Improvisation is play, instantaneous creation. When I get up to play, I don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a lot like life. (Jerzy Kozinki once said in an interview: Novels are rehearsals for life.) We follow the rules we’ve learned, or make up new rules. Rules are a safety net, a sense of security we build for ourselves. The forms we use to structure our music are the forms we use to structure our lives. The creative life is about change, because creation requires change and growth, the search for the ability to see through the structures we invent to the common vacuum field behind the world we imagine to be solid. Every tradition we now hold sacred had, at one time, to be invented. Who did the inventing? People did.

How do we learn to begin to improvise? The real question is: What’s stopping us?

Zen Buddhism talks about beginner’s mind, the mind that is always open, the ability to see things as always fresh and new. The saying goes: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few. The trick is not to seek inspiration, but to get out of its way.

Where does improvisation come from?

Head, heart, and hands. In any musical culture, the learned musical tradition shapes the spontaneous musical expressions of the culture-bearer: forms and rules that at the time are accepted as the grammar of the voicings. (Whether you follow them or rebel against them, they are the heritage you learned.) This is the head’s contribution.

The hands’ contribution is in the material products of culture, the physical techniques and instruments we use to make music. (I include voice here, as it is the original instrument.) These are as much products of musical culture as the ideas we have about the music we make, and the evolution of a musical language and the insturments to produce the music often develop together. The history of jazz is deeply intertwined with the history of the saxophone and the drumkit, for example.

What the heart brings to the music is feeling, intuition, and inspiration. For many, playing music is more about expressing feelings than thoughts. Improvisation is the spontaneous expression of inscape. Heart is also the will, the compulsion to create. Many creative people feel they don’t have a choice: they feel required to do what they do, even at great personal cost.

But head, hand, and heart must work together. Balance is essential. If the hands dominate, one can get lost in technique for its own sake. If the head rules the world (so easy a trap, and so common, especially perhaps in poetry), one can think too much before acting. and get lost in games. If the heart swoons romantically, we can be overly self-indulgent, sentimental and shallow, believing every puerile gesture profound. None of these are enough by themselves: balancing all three results in better music.

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