Improvisation has a disposability problem. Our (Western) civilization values longevity in general, and the art world is no exception. I sat on the Phoenix Arts Commission for a while in the 1990’s, which administers the city’s public art program. I made several attempts at convincing the other commissioners to consider commissioning music or another performing art as part of the public art program, but they could not get over the fact that after a single performance, the work’s visibility and association with the capital expenditure would vanish. A work of visual art is solid, always at the site, and a constant reminder of the commission’s insight. I never asked them about improvisation, but I am pretty sure it would have not received much more than a chuckle.
Because improvisation is impermanent, some people have a lot of trouble taking it seriously.
Because improvisation is impermanent, some people have a lot of trouble taking it seriously. Nobody carefully unwraps their candy bar because they are going to throw the packaging away, no matter how wasteful they think it is. We kick the tires and slam the doors when picking out a used car, but we don’t do that when calling a cab. The impermanence of improvisation bothered me for a while. I felt I had to turn my improvisations into written music for them to command the respect I wished them to have. I remember once entering a transcribed improvisation into a composition contest. When I received written comments from the judges afterward, I found that one judge had written, “It sounds like an improvisation!” I was a little unnerved.
Though I am a child of the 1960’s, I didn’t learn about Buddhism and Taoism until I was in my forties. I had returned to graduate school during shaky times in the symphony business, and was taking Composition lessons from Chinary Ung. He is a native of Cambodia with a Buddhist background, and I was having trouble communicating with him because we had different ideas about fundamental concepts such as creativity. To remedy this, I began reading about Buddhist, Zen, and Taoist philosophy and discovered an entirely different attitude about spontaneity and impermanence, not to mention desire, time, concentration, and ability. I knew that I was not the first Western artist to discover these ideas, but it opened up a whole dimension to many artistic movements I had not previously understood or paid much attention to.
Impermanence, being a tenet of Buddhism, is one of the fundamental aesthetics of Asian art. Spontaneity is more important to Zen and Taoism, but is a staple of their art as well. The Japanese, in particular, have a special eye for spontaneity in poetry and visual art that I can’t say I fully understand. But as a musician, especially one who improvises, I do understand the magic of moments of inspiration, even in written music. In a sense, my attraction to music has always been about those magical moments. Though knowledge of music has enhanced some of these moments, it is their emotional content that drew me to music in the first place.
Eastern religious philosophy started to appear regularly in Western art in the middle of the last century, and has flowered in my lifetime. Impermanence in visual art such as ice or sand sculpture, moving or living artworks, not to mention movements such as Performance Art, have become rather commonplace. Improvisation in dance and drama, as well as music, is common and now rather widely respected. But still, it is the existence of photography and audio/video recording that has allowed these arts to flourish. The old adage, “If a tree falls in forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?” is very real when it comes to impermanent art forms. Without audio and video their impermanence would be lost as well!
When I perform, it is generally for Classical audiences. I had an audience member ask me once, “Could you play that piece again?” I told her I could improvise a different piece, but not that one. “Hmmph,” she said. I asked if that was good or bad; she said, “I don’t know.”
The ability to improvise has always been considered a performance skill. There is no doubt that there is skill involved beyond the ability to play the instrument in the first place. However, my interest in improvisation has always been as a compositional technique. I had a long back-and-forth with a good composer once when he asked me if I was really improvising. He said that the shape of my pieces was always so good that he couldn’t imagine that happening without planning. I told him that this was one of the mysteries of improvising; the overall shape was not only intuitive, but also subconscious. I suspect being a Classical musician for fifty years has something to do with it though. I told him that the trick was to trust my urge to end when it felt right. There was no preplanning, and it didn’t always happen but that was all I could tell him. Different parts of a piece feel different, and when it is time to end, it’s time to end.
Using improvisation as a composition technique comes with several complications, however. Though some improvisers like to work with given motives or even tunes (creating improvisations on something else), I always start from scratch and “discover” the musical material I am using. But things happen. Sometimes I don’t remember the material very well or transform it, sometimes I get distracted and forget it completely, sometimes I am remembering musical material from some other improvisation, sometimes I have even found myself playing parts of McDowell’s “To A Wild Rose”, or Barber’s “Violin Concerto” or some other piece. But all this is part of improvisation. When it is going well, I seem to be playing from one phrase to another, either drawing from or reacting to the last phrase. There is focus, but not planning. I end up where I end up.
Though not always, a composer can spend months or even years finishing their pieces. It is difficult to convince somebody that the quality of an improvisation could be as good as that of a composer spending so much time on it. To me, the quality of spontaneously generated art is different than that of deliberately created art. Music, drama, dance, or literature that is created piece by piece acquires the quality gained by continuous reflection. The creator goes over and over the work until it has reached a level of completeness that he or she feels comfortable with.
Quality in spontaneous creation is gained through depth of experience.
Quality in spontaneous creation is gained through depth of experience. How strong is the focus and concentration? How honest is the expressive content? Is their imagination engaged and taking chances or is it just routine? Do they take advantage of discovered material or just pass through them? These are the kinds of aesthetic questions that need to be addressed with spontaneous art. I can’t say that improvisation takes more concentration than composition. Working on a piece for hours and hours, keeping several different things in mind can become almost hypnotic if not meditative. But I can say that the concentration has a different type of intensity. Both take serious artistic effort, and need to be taken equally seriously.