Some Thoughts on Improvisation


Styles and Goals


Improvisation in different styles generally proceeds towards different but similar goals- with the common goal of artistic freedom and celebration of chance being at the root in most cases. Jazz improvisation seems to center around technique and theory being put to the test under fire; classical avant-garde improvisation is often engaged in a similar but wider exploration in which theory and sonic structural boundaries are expanded in search of more answers to the question, "What is music?" (Some of the more progressive jazz and rock appear to be equally concerned with this question.) Improvisation in a rock context seems usually to be more about the concert being an event, especially if the artist is (or was) big. From the musician's standpoint, however- and this is true in any of the forms mentioned above- there is the much simpler explanation that improvisation is a whole lot of fun for them. And on a good night the audience digs it too.


(If I appear to be hedging in the above paragraph- seems, appears, etc.- it's because analysis can only go so far with art and there are at least as many answers and as many questions as there are artists. Analysis of the arts can never escape being general and presumptive. So I will at least try to let the language show that.)


Beyond Form: Improvisation as an element


On a more subtle level, improvisation is spread throughout all forms, if seen as a matter of degree. Working towards structure from total free improvisation we can take a few examples and see: improvisation within a simple framework- head, improv, and tail; improvisation only in the context of solos, with the rest of the piece carefully constructed; and finally, improvisation on the smallest degree- the difference between performances of fully composed pieces. The most competent musician will of course never be able to play the same piece in exactly the same way regardless of effort to do so. There are too many variables- intonation, attack, vibrato, and all the things which physically affect a performer's skill with these. So is this actually improvisation? Yes, insofar as any performer must adapt to physical and mental conditions in order to perform, and those conditions can never be the same twice. In this way every performer must interact with the moment- regardless of how pre-structured a piece is- in order to play well. And that is the essence of improvisation. So what we are dealing with here is actually a root element that can be elevated, evolving into many forms and used in virtually every context.


The Controlled Accident


I first came across this concept in 1981 in an Asian Cultures course, in connection with Japanese pottery and Zen philosophy. The idea, as I understand it, is this: if there are cracks in the fired piece, you work with them, incorporating them into the original design. They can become flowers, vines, whatever they might suggest to the artist. And a piece in which this was done well is considered even more beautiful than one that has turned out "perfectly".


You can see how this ties in well with music. First, most players have experienced those moments on stage where it is vital to turn a mistake in one's favor- the controlled accident in spades. However, a great many people raised in our culture will fail to see the beauty in this. I think that has to do with cultural conditioning- mistakes aren't OK, they aren't something that happens to everyone. Performers are supposed to be infallible, damn it! So, there's no gentle sense of humor that allows one to marvel at the recovery. The players I've met over the years seem to fall into two camps- those who get this and those who don't. The ones who don't seem to have a lot in common with religious fundamentalists and tend to be more restricted (and restrictive) in other areas of their life as well. There is no separating personality from art! (Or any other human activity for that matter.) The clash is usually one of form vs. feeling. It's my opinion that in the highest art there is no clash between these two, but instead an integration. Almost everyone will agree with this but almost no one agrees on the ratio!


Second, I have found the controlled accident concept very useful when creating recorded music. When doing multiple tracks for a composed piece, I will almost certainly do unplanned things along the way- different notes, spontaneous flights of inflection, etc. And in the successive tracks, I will play off of these, sometimes changing the entire feel of the piece in ways ranging from subtle to blatant. Sometimes these experiments are a success and sometimes they are not. But I have found that the surprises- to me, the composer- are usually both great fun and a real learning experience. If you have something very, very specific in mind, then such surprises aren't welcome. But on the whole, I think to deny oneself the joy and learning opportunity out of a misguided loyalty to supposed perfection, is conservative to the point of being pathological. It's an excellent skill-builder on one end of the spectrum, but to have a full experience in music I believe you must develop skills of the moment as well. It's enriching both as a musician and as a human being.


An extreme form of using the controlled accident in recording is to multi-track free improvisation. Lay down the first one, and then react to it in successive tracks. The options, paradoxically, may be viewed as both increasing and decreasing with each successive track. Increasing because there are more sounds to play off of; and decreasing for the same reason! How you view the situation and react to it will depend largely on your ideas about arrangement.


Improvisation in Life


Well, you can't get around it, can you? The bottom line here is that you can't plan everything. Most people recognize this and try to structure their lives to exclude as much of the random as they can. This does not prepare them for when random things do occur- as they inevitably will. It would be better to do much the same thing- keep things reasonably well controlled- but with an acknowledgment of the random, backed up with some kind of training for dealing with it. This doesn't mean training so that you can try to get everything strictly nailed down- do that and joy, which is spontaneous, all but disappears. Whatever training is used should include a view of the random as enjoyable, and direct people towards an acceptance of its beauty. For the most part its negative aspects get the publicity, and it is treated with fear and distrust. This is a societal, cultural prejudice. While it is not entirely without basis, it is not, in my opinion, the healthiest approach to a very basic fact of life.


I have found that playing improvised music is very good training for this. Initially it may be more a matter of tendency than training; I had always been inclined towards creating things on the spot and acting in the moment, long before I ever considered becoming a musician. However I believe that this way of thinking can and should be exposed to everyone as a viable approach to life, regardless of natural inclination, and hopefully developed to some extent. Sports develops it and is probably the most common and culturally accepted method for achieving some degree of facility in dealing with the random. A player who can't think and act in the moment won't be much of a player. Watching sports heightens cultural appreciation of the random and playing them heightens skill in dealing with it. But sports are surrounded by their own particular type of cultural baggage- of a type, in fact which more often than not trains hostility to the acceptance of the unknown- and unfortunately the positive message of interaction with randomness frequently gets buried, overlooked, or simply does not get translated to the rest of life. Sports are sports, life is life, and what the hell kind of music is that you're playing?


I am not suggesting that people whose natural inclinations are towards the structured should be forced to live in a world of chaos. I believe people should discover which way they lean and go with that, but not give themselves over to it completely. Whatever their tendency, it should be tempered to a beneficial degree by its opposite, again through training or exposure. Unfortunately for those whose tendencies are naturally more inclined towards the spontaneous than the pre-structured, I think overall this culture views that as aberrant. That's not only a shame, it's a waste of natural resources! People perform best for the culture and humanity in general when working primarily with, not against, their own tendencies.


Everyone should be encouraged in the opportunity of developing the capacity for celebrating the positive aspects of randomness, as well as taught to fear its dark, unknown and dangerous aspect. Improvised music is a pretty benign means of learning that. It's a good way to safely explore the full range of possibilities for interaction with the random. At its most dangerous it is only as harmful as the idea of freedom.


- Greg Segal, 3/12/00



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