really do not have theories about improvisation but rather a body of
experience. It seems almost an unnatural act to write about
improvisation except (for me, at least) to do so as a free
improvisation. Except to correct spelling, that‘s what this is, no
going back to edit or polish. Improvising is the ultimate realtime
musical act and I‘m going to stay in that spirit. While playing,
sometimes I emit a phrase or note or idea and immediately think „oh no!
– how is that going to be made to work?“ And most of the time there is
way to weave this odd thread into a cogent fabric. When not, it just
gets cut. Left hanging, dangling, hopefully soon forgotten in the flow
of things. Same for this prose.
I improvise alone I make a few conscious choices about the nature of the
music, its spirit and starting direction. Then its an interior dialog
made audible. Improvising with others is conversation. The best
listener is the best improvisor, whether playing solo or in a group.
There was a time when I tried to be an actor -- taking a role as a
starting point. Some kind of dramatic personae or
self-transformation. Psychedelic Shakuhachi blaster in molecular
space. Fire-spitting iguana (too many bad sci-fi flicks surfacing
there. Pity, because iguanas are so loveable.) This phase, which took
place several decades ago, was happily short lived. If one is not
telling an inner truth of some kind the music will be made at a
distance. Second hand clothes on the first person. So whatever iguana
is inside, it need not be called upon like learning a part in a play.
It will manifest itself or it won't. ("You may keep the fly, dearest.
Iguanas can be gentlemen.")
Learning to trust that my inner dialog was of interest was the most
important step. As an enormously self-critical person, I also had to
trust that my automatic critic, the unconscious editor that accepts or
rejects ideas, was enough. There was no need to fish in the lake of
angst, to doubly (or more) criticize the flowing music to the point that
it stopped. There are of course moments when silence is the answer.
Sometimes there is nothing to say that will contribute to an ensemble.
So the experienced improvisor will stop. Listening and looking, the
place to rejoin the audible part of the music will show up, or it
won't. And learning to use silence is vital to making good music. So
often the most powerful note one can play is a silent one. When silence
gets scary, its no different than any other musical element that may be
slipping out of control. Hopefully one's choice in dealing with this
sort of critical moment will be memorable in a positive way.
There are so many mental states in which I find myself while
improvising. The blank minded spirit, open to the cosmos and just
beaming in the right stuff is for the most part a myth in my life. It
has happened a few times, this is not to say that pure, spiritual
inspiration in the form of a silent mind while making music does not
occur -- just that its really rare. Oftentimes I find myself more as if
I were on the top level of several streams of consciousness, observing
the music while at the same time totally in it. There is a part that
is making instantaneous decisions, a part involved with the relatively
near term, and a part taking a kind of overview. It took a long time to
understand and accept this, because all these activities go on at once
and all are equally vivid. And that in a context of being a very
physical musician. My body has a lot to say, too. When all these
levels are happening, it is inspiration.
when all these levels are ALMOST happening, its a hell of a struggle.
When playing solo, sometimes it isn't possible to just go silent. So
the lovely, multi-layered being isn't so lovely when out of synch. From
the "top" down: the conscious, long term mind unsure of itself (true
pain, that), the mid-ground mind searching for the longer view because
it isn't being fed that, the instantaneous mind resorting to its
repertoire of sure-fire, known gestures, causing the body to be most
discomforted. The physical problems of course create waves of
self-consciousness that radiate through all the other mental/emotional
levels. Waves that don't help at all until somehow they harmonize.
(This moment of harmonization often comes at the hands of a musical
partner. There it is! We know what we're doing. Or at least we've got
a working hypothesis.) When playing alone, the moment of harmonization
can be brought about consciously with a willingness to let every level
breathe together. Success is never guaranteed, but improvising has a
thrill-seeking aspect. If one crashes and burns, its embarrassing, but
one can play the next piece. Its not like really getting killed while
on skis, and it counts for more.
to here, all this riffing and rapping about playing together in groups
has been about improvising when it "works". To define "works" isn't
really practical. But its obvious when its happening and when its not.
But what happens when its not? So often there are times when a fellow
musician just isn't listening. (Yes, of course I too have committed
this sin. Who hasn't?) But what to do?? Depends a lot on the
personalities involved. To be like a sheepdog, trying gently to nudge
the wayward partner back into awareness? To register a protest by
finding a way to disrupt? Or to let "nature" take its course and just
relax? While the last option is easiest, I dislike it because it leaves
the audience stuck with somebody in masturbation land. Boring. So it
has been with a frustrated, heavy heart that I have occasionally walked
off stage and had a drink at the bar while a partner finished off our
duo. (Hour duo is how that felt.)
Often the music that stands up best on recording is not comfortable to
make. I think "comfort" is far too over-rated as a value in musical
performance. Are you comfortable? No! Why should I be? There's too
much going on for comfort. In fact, enjoying the music while making
it is a real danger sign. It means that too much energy has been
diverted into an audience-like level of listening. We are blessed to
live in a time when we can record. Relax and enjoy during the
playback. Or suffer like hell. We are also blessed to be able to erase
our recordings. And we don't need recordings to know if our music was
inspired or not.
why improvise in the first place? The transcendent feeling one gets
from creating inspired music is unmistakable. Back in the days when I
was content to be a flute virtuoso life was so much simpler. Too much
simpler. The natural impulse to make music is more fundamental to human
nature than the impulse to take music. By that oddly Beatle-esque Koan,
I'm trying to say that we go through life speaking our words, not
reading scripts. (On some levels this is not always completely true,
but then again, this is improvising, not a complete philosophy ready to
withstand Jesuit-level logical assault.) It is simply natural to make
music and one form of doing that is improvising. Improvising gives me
the highest level of joy of all the ways of music making that I know. I
love free music, and with every fiber of my being, wish that a wider
public loved it too.
improvising, all of life is there to draw from. Louis Armstrong put it
so well "What we play is life." Its an endless challenge to confront
one's own limits, to not let oneself play those phrases again and again
until they stop being "style" and devolve into cliches. To find the
balance between exploring ongoing musical concerns and pushing for
something new. I've heard it said that a musician can not create
something completely new while playing solo. This was saddening to hear
until I realized it was someone talking about himself, putting his
personal case forth as a universal value. Case closed. The original is
reachable. At our best, we are doing a lot more than just pushing our
personal pawns around a musical chessboard. Ego can be very dangerous.
While a healthy sense of self is a good thing, a useful base camp and
tool for explorations, too much concern for the self cripples. Whether
manifested as over-enjoyment while playing or construction of a rigid
interior self portrait, the effect is alienation from one's spirit.
now I suppose I've cornered myself into discussing "spirit". Its what
makes us alive. Define it how you will, I'll stick with that. Its the
most inspired lick in this solo. Wham! Coda time:
relationship between composing and improvising is fascinating.
Improvising is like composing without erasing. One goes from beginning
to end no matter what. When composing, its possible to spend hours,
days on a micro-moment. This option to reflect, out of the flow of
time, helps develop refined and highly defined choices. But when
composing its often a trap to get so involved in the instant that one
loses sight of the larger structure. Conversely, when improvising,
sometimes the micro-moment isn't explored in total depth, there just
isn't time. But one had better keep the larger picture in sight and
draw in the details as well as possible while on the fly. So I believe
that composing has made me a better improvisor and that improvising has
made me a better composer.
now its time to approach that important moment in any improvisation,
indeed in any artwork in any media -- the ending. Have I said my
piece? I think so. There will be more to say on other days, but this
interior dialog has reached its conclusion. What's needed now is a good
phrase to go out on. Have you got one?
©Robert Dick 2005