Two or three weeks ago, now, I went to see the Science Fiction movie, Arrival. It’s definitely a movie worth seeing – insightful, intelligent, and surprisingly emotional. Without giving away too much of the movie, I can say that a sub-plot of the movie revolves around a rather obscure theory of linguistics, of all things, that says, “The languages we learn tend to shape the way we think.” I had run into this theory before in reference to translations of Chinese texts, especially older ones. The pictograms of Chinese are much more versatile than words in Western languages, and can be used as nearly any part of speech. This tends to lead to more verbs than nouns and more verbs as nouns. It tends to give the language more sense of process than a noun-rich language such as English, which emphasizes things.
What struck me most about this theory was how similar it was to one of the axioms of the philosophy of Marshall McLuhan, that the tools with which we learn shape how we learn and think. (Or as he so famously stated, “The medium is the message.”) Language is, of course, a major tool but it’s only one of many.
McLuhan’s main interest was how the print-based society ushered in by Gutenberg was being supplanted by the electronic age emerging in the twentieth century. He claimed that a print-based culture was very linear and logical because written language, as printed, was very logically organized. He claimed the electronic age, where we learn from electronic media, presented many ideas and sensual data at once and therefore promoted a more intuitive but emotionally connected mode of thinking. His first book of many on the subject, Understanding Media, was published in the 1950’s and made a splash on the pop culture of the 1960’s. It had a very real effect on me and made me acutely aware of how I was thinking as much or more than what I was thinking.
McLuhan was a favorite philosopher of mine in my early twenties, as he seemed to help explain the social and especially artistic turmoil that was taking place at the time. Though he was not a reason for my interest in improvisation, I was quite aware that improvisation, as a methodology, was more associated with the electronic age and that written composition was more associated with the past.
In 1999, I wrote an orchestral work around one of McLuhan’s notions, that at the intersection of these two distinct cultures would be a seminal generation or two of thinkers who would be influenced by both cultures. As an example of this supercharged cultural hybrid, he pointed to people like Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Galileo, and Monteverdi who were able to combine the newly unleashed logicality of the Renaissance with the old intuitive sensibilities of the Middle Ages. The piece, Millennial Opening, simulates gates at the opening and closing of the era. The piece itself was a compositionally written work that was based on an improvisation, both in its musical material and its structure. It was truly a hybrid of the two creative modes of thought, stimulated by this intersection between cultures.
I had started to combine composition and improvisation in this way in 1993, and felt that I was onto something. I wrote several works during this period, but what I didn’t anticipate was that my own hybrid opening would also close. As I was writing compositions on my improvisations, I was also becoming more comfortable with improvisation. As my improvisations affected my writing, so my resulting compositions also affected my improvisation. The way I manipulated the improvised material worked its way into the improvisations to the point where I found myself as a composer trying to manipulate the manipulations
.Around 2003, these two trends met head-on. I wrote a couple of pieces that were not manipulations but variations on improvisations, and then I wrote a couple more pieces that were not much more than adapted transcriptions. I had reached a point where what I wanted to do compositionally and what I was improvising were similar enough that I no longer saw the point of filtering them through any sort of compositional process. I didn’t see the point of writing them down. Technically, aesthetically, and musically, they were basically the same.
Of course, I improvise on the piano, not string quartet or symphony orchestra. However, I could always base a work for another medium on an improvised piano transcription, and I have continued to do so. Certainly adapting and modifying improvised transcriptions is less trouble than composing from scratch, if less engaging, but the creative spirit will always find a way to affect just about anything it’s allowed to touch.
Beyond all else, a creative act is always a learning experience. You always remember the stuff you make up yourself. If how you learn is how you think, then how you create is an even more convincing inculcation. My improvisation has, in a sense, assimilated my compositional hybrid experience and become a hybrid of its own. When the linguistics professor in Arrival found herself being able to catch glimpses of her own future, it did not change how she experienced time, only how she thought about it. Improvisation has not changed my experience of music, but it has changed how I think about it, how I think about its creation, and how I see it’s role in my future.