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Improv 04






I 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.


When 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.


And 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. 


Up 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.


So 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. 


When 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.


And 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: 


The 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.  


And 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