Monday, August 13, 2012

Improvisation in Art & Life

I was referred to an article on All About Jazz: Louis Sclavis: Maps of the Mind. Sclavis is an improvising multi-instrumentalist and composer, a prolific jazz musician who rarely repeats himself, and is always exploring new directions, ranging from tightly-composed pieces to free jazz. I first discovered his work via ECM Records, a favorite recording label that I have discussed before. ECM hosts a large stable of brilliant improvising musicians, of which Louis Sclavis is a prime example, with his nine albums recorded with the label.

Here's the paragraph that caught my attention:

In an interview with All About Jazz in 2009, [free jazz pianist Craig] Taborn—one of the most fearless of contemporary improvisers [and one of Sclavis' creative collaborators]—described improvisation as the willingness to face the possibility of failure. Sclavis has his own take. "Everybody has their own thinking about improvisation," he says. "For me, it's simpler; since I started learning clarinet, improvisation has been something completely natural, like eating, drinking or walking. I don't always improvise in the same way, though, it depends on the musicians. It's like breathing. I cannot think more about this because it's what I am."

I've often thought of improvisation from Taborn's perspective: In various groups that mostly played free, in various styles of music, we often talked about playing without a safety net. Spontaneous music with no guidelines or rules, and the risk of crashing. We did sometimes crash, but it was always something to be learned from. Facing the possibility of failure is really the risk all artists take, all the time. Everyone does, really: risk is part of life.

I find Sclavis' definition of improvisation to be resonant with my own experience as an improvising musician, too: that naturalness, that effortless simplicity. You just do it. It's not something that you think about; it happens before rational mind, before analysis. It arises from a part of the self that is often pre-verbal, even non-verbal: that deeper place from where most art arises. Granted, that place arises from long practice, from self-confidence, from knowing through experience that you have something to say, and the skill to say it on your instrument. But once you have that experience, and the self-confidence that goes with it, it becomes as easy and natural as Sclavis describes.

improvisation in art and life.

That's something I find I do all the time. We all do, although we don't all think about it this way. It's not that one only improvises within the frame-of-reference of "this is improvised music." It's that we all are making it all up as we go. Life is neither a rehearsal nor is it scripted. We might develop plans and strategies, but in life as in music, these are neither universal nor, ultimately, completely possible. Living in the present moment is what we have, as much as we like to believe otherwise. We make plans, and we improvise, and which after all is more real, more true to the nature of life?

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