Improvisation is a tool for
What is the reality we are
Let me approach that question
sideways through a couple of stories.
When I was writing Free
Play, I was visiting a dear friend of mine, Michael Stulbarg, who was a
pulmonologist in San Francisco, what we used to call a left-brain
person, very logical and scientific. I asked him, as a doctor,
what does improvisation and creativity mean to you? Without
hesitation, he said, it means actually seeing the patient who's in front
of you, rather than a textbook case or a diagnosis you've been taught.
Any doctor , who is in practice, and who really practices their
practice, knows that each person is absolutely individual and cannot be
completely categorized except in terms of their own situation.
To see clearly that uniqueness,
to see another human being, is a remarkable thing. And that
ability is at the core of improvisation. Many people have the idea
that improvisation means acting wild and crazy or behaving without
pattern or procedure. They tend to associate improvisation with
randomness. Of course everyone knows it's the opposite.
Our experience as improvisers is one of direct encounter with what is
directly in front of our noses, whatever that may be: our partners
when we're improvising together, the unconscious, the room that we're
in, the people that we're playing for or with. In improvisation,
we get as close as we possibly can to the data of experience.
Improvisation is similar in my
mind to the 19th Century scientific practice of natural history which
was Gregory Bateson's home territory. In natural history, you
aren't compounding a carefully controlled situation as in experimental
science or fully scored music, you're looking at what you find in
nature, and trying to deal with it, and react to it, and understand it.
In natural history one approaches a complex system whose multifarious
interactions are impossible to specify in advance, coming to that
encounter with no fixed expectations, but with a disciplined capacity to
observe and react, a capacity which has been honed by experience.
I often play with partners in
chamber improvisation. A friend of mine who runs a children's
theater in Charlottesville came to one of our concerts. In our
concerts, there's no discussion, no planning of any kind before we go on
stage--other than preparing the equipment, tuning up, and the agreement
to listen to each other completely and produce out of that a coherent
and coordinated music. My friend sayd that as she was watching us
on stage, that she never had seen adults listen to each other so
Out of the pure and complete
act of listening and nothing else, you can produce coordinated,
organized music; which is nevertheless from that time and place and from
I teach at chamber music
festivals where people normally come together to play Mozart,
Shostakovich, and so forth. We do improv workshops where groups,
usually quartets, concertize together, after perhaps three days of
rehearsal. One of the things that's remarkable in these people's
experience -- people who are classically trained, who have had that
lifetime experience of having the music stand as a barrier between them
and the audience, between them and their fellow players -- is the power
that they experience of being there with and audience with
nothing in between.
I'm speaking not just of a
music stand as a physical barrier, but also the virtual music stand of a
memorized score. To have nothing at all between you and your
fellow players, you and your audience, is such a remarkable experience.
From that experience of encountering each other, comes all of what I'm
calling the natural history data of music. All that observation,
all that feeling, all of the millions of nerve impulses that come in and
out every second as you encounter other people, as you encounter a
situation, as I encountered a few minutes ago when I was playing here.
At one of these chamber music
workshops, the faculty would evaluate the participants' playing, not for
the purpose of giving them grades, but for the purpose of placing them
next year with compatible people and playable scores. The people
with the more basic skills would be given Mozart and Haydn, and the
people with more developed skills would get the Brahms and the early
20th Century material, and the most advanced skills would be given the
brand new contemporary scores, which are often complex looking,
difficult to follow, and require a lot of experience to play.
There was one fellow who was a
fantastic improviser. He was a violinist with excellent control of
his instrument, he could make all kinds of weird, whispery, wonderful
21st century sounds, microtonal, sliding, jumping and bouncing, doing
all the wonderful things that you can do with a violin. He was
minutely responsive to his partners. I thought he was fantastic.
Then to my great surprise, we go to the faculty meeting, and all the
other faculty members gave this guy what you might call a C grade,
saying he was only advanced enough to play Haydn and Mozart,
because what they were looking at were his reading skills. And
indeed, his reading skills were at that level. What I got to
experience through his improvisations were his musical skills,
which is a whole different ball of wax. It's so fascinating to be
able to encounter real musicianship, real skill. We've all met people
who are naive musicians, not well trained, that can get incredible
sounds out of instruments, out of their voices. Where do we place
that on a scale of musicianship?
The other day I was in the
grocery store and ran into a little girl I know, Vlera, who is two years
old. Her parents are from Kosovo, so she's half an
English-speaking environment and half in an Albanian-speaking
environment. When she talks to strangers, she can only say one
word, which is "Nah." We had the most wonderful conversation in
"Nah": Nahhh in innumerable tones and timings and colors of
expression, Nah! Na? Na.....h passed back and forth between the two
of us for many minutes. I realized that with a one-word
vocabulary, naaaaah, you can come up with an infinite variety of
expression. And she could do it because she was completely
uninhibitedly wired into her nervous system and to her surroundings and
her feelings of shyness and fear and boldness and playfulness and flight
and fight. All these expressions and moods and explorations of
relationship were swirling around inside that single syllable which we
tossed back and forth to each other.
I sometimes teach a workshop
called "Gibberish, the Universal Language." When I work with
chamber musicians, we often spend the first hour doing gibberish
pieces--put the instrument down, put your years of training and skill
away, and lets just make noise together and learn to listen to each
other completely. Listening is everything. Pauline Oliveros,
for decades, has been talking about deep listening as the essence
of the work that we do.
Sometimes I am invited to theater or poetry departments where people
don't have musical skills and they want me to do musical things with the
people, so I do this gibberish work. I've found some fascinating
things working with trained improv actors who are already good
improvisers, professional, marvelous actors, they're used to doing
theater improv. For many people, the idea of theater improv is
associated with comedy. There is a reason for that. If
somebody on stage performs something intense or serious, or that brings
tears to your eyes, the performer doesn't see that. If the
performer does something that makes you laugh, the performer gets that
immediate feedback, and there's a kind of Skinnerian learning going
on--You're funny and the audience laughs and you respond by being funny
some more-- you stay in the groove of comedy.
Now in classical music, you're
not allowed to laugh during the performance, so that doesn't happen.
If laughing were allowed, then classical musicians would be funnier too.
The interesting thing that I've discovered when I had actors working in
gibberish, rather than words, they could still be funny, but in addition
they suddenly had a huge range of other and more serious emotions
available to them. It is quite a strange thing, but they would do
these pieces with three or four words like chuchki and
jajamene, and slap their body parts, and bang the floor, and they
were able to get into very profound riffs: you can never say what
it's about in a literal sense, but primal pieces about life and death
and love and loss and basic human relationships and tragedy and all
kinds of things that improv actors usually don't ccover in their work.
Somehow nonsense and gibberish gives them permission to do that.
Because it is so unlabeled , they are able to go anywhere with it.
Language labels things for us.
Jean Piaget wrote: "Intelligence organizes the world by organizing
itself." The problem with language is that it turns the world into
things. Because of the incredible convenience of language, we
hypnotize ourselves into believing the reality of linguistic symbols,
especially nouns. Gregory Bateson, following the inspiration of Anatol
Holt, used to say that he wanted to get a bumper sticker that would say,
"Stamp out Nouns."Nouns, representing so-called persons, places, things,
and ideas, are a marvelous convenience to allow us to get up and to move
our mouth parts at each other and communicate, but they don't represent
anything except for a very provisional and temporary kind of reality.
These musical instruments: they
are made of wood, the wood came from forests, and the forests came from
particular ecological conditions, from the rain, from the earth.
The characteristics of the wood are related to who cut the wood down,
and in what way and how it was cured before it was made into an
instrument. And eventually in the fullness of time, these
instruments will turn into debris of some sort. In Buddhism, they
call this the "emptiness of inherent existence." When Westerners
hear that term, "emptiness," they ten to get alarmed, because they think
that emptiness means nihilism, as if things don't exist. The
operative word in that phrase is "inherent." Look at this red
guitar cable connecting my red violin to the amplifier in the podium
over there: like the violin, it was made by peopl; the plastic and metal
and materials came from some place; the whole history of consciousness
of all the people whose inventiveness and whose labor that went into
making a guitar cord is here! So, we're looking at an immense complex of
interrelated activity, which is only temporarily present in the form of
that "thing." Obviously, if I step over that cable in the wrong
way, I can trip over it-it is eminently real- emptiness is not the same
thing as nihilism. Thich Nhat Hanh substitutes for the word
emptiness, a word which is more precisely communicative:
inter-being. The wood of the instrument, the trees, the people
who made it, the people who cultivated the trees, the people who work in
the factories who made the strings and everything else, all of those
inter-are with the violin.
There is a wonderful third
century text from China called Hsi K'ang's Poetical Essay on the
Lute. It is an essay about how to play the ch'in, the Chinese
lute. He spends about half of his text about tree cultivation
and ecology and what goes on in the forest and how you choose the trees
and that sort of thing. For him, the proper study of a musician is
ecology. The ecology of the forest, but also the social ecology,
the intellectual ecology. When your instrument is not built and if
you're doing a free improvisation, there are tunes that are rattling
around in your head from the commercial you heard on the radio this
mornng, or some piece of music that you've always loved, or some type of
ethnic feeling that's very present in your life, all of those things
coexist with the present moment of your real time artistic creation, and
they are available for you to draw upon. Emptiness means emptiness
of inherent existence. The guitar cord or or the improvisation doesn't
exist by itself, but it coexists, it inter-is, with absolutely
everything in the universe. And because "absolutely everything in the
universe' is information, that is why you can get up with nothing up
your sleeves, and no plans and no stated intentions and improvise music
with each other, because you have an infinite amount of information to
draw upon that's already present and already with you, from the four and
a half billion years of organic evolution of your own body to the
evolution of all of our cultures, and all of our friend's cultures and
everything that we have come in contact with.
So if we go back to our initial
question of improvisation as a tool for investigating reality and ask
what is the reality that is being investigated, that reality is
inter-being. Inter-being, then, is the opposite of thing-ness.
Some of you have probably read the work of Christopher Small, who does
this wonderful deconstruction of the concert hall environment. H
plays with the whole notion of how all these works have become works.
How the process of the composer's mind and the process of the playing of
the instrument and the process of its reception of the audience
have turned these things into works a s if they were solid objects, and
then the history of art or of music is the study of those objects as
though they had thingness. All of us can sit in a concert hall and
love hearing Beethoven, and we can also sit in a concert hall and just
imagine if Beethoven himself walked into the sanctimonious
atmosphere and saw the kind of straitjacket that he'd been placed in.
He was a man who was prone to have temper tantrums so you can imagine
what he would have said. It wouldn't be quite as bad as what Jesus
might say if he could come back and see what's being said and done in
his name, but it would have still been pretty bad!
Here is another entry point
into the reality which we investigate with improv. I recently met
an extraordinary man named Colin Lee. He is a music therapist in
Toronto, originally from England. He has written a book called
Music at the Edge. It's the chronicle of his music therapy journey
with an AIDS patient who was also a skilled pianist. I haven't had
too much to do with the world of music therapy and frankly haven't known
that much about it. My wife, a hospice and palliative care doctor,
once described to me a couple of people who come to the hospice units
and play the harp for the patients. It sounds a little horrifying
to me; if I was dying, do I really want harp music with all the cultural
connotations that has in Western civilization? But then I
encountered the work of Colin Lee, and I found out what music therapy is
about. What he does is improvisation with patients. He was
mostly working in hospice/palliative care with lots of AIDS and cancer
patients. He was working with people who were in states of great
terror-knowing that they were going to die soon. He would
improvise together with them. He had some patients who could play
musical instruments and others that couldn't and they banged on drums,
thumpers, and shakers and percussion instruments, the piano keyboard.
He improvised with them, allowing the music to reflect incredible pain,
anxiety, peacefulness, or reconciliation. The whole gamut of
extreme emotions were made available through this musical conversation
which could take place at a speed and with an articulateness that no one
could have with a verbal therapist, because language is simply too slow
and clumsy. The amount of information that gets passed
back and forth in each second of music is simply beyond what ordinary
language can do. For this reason, we can use music as a tool to
investigate the emotional reality of people in the greatest distress.
That reality, even though it's hard to talk about, is something that you
come face to face with, quite intimately through hearing the sounds the
patient plays. Since many of the patients look very bad, or very
odd, if we were presented with video recordings we would be affected by
the visual appearances and not listen as clearly to the emotional
content that is being expressed. When we have the audio-only
content of a CD, we have the opportunity to get much more intimate with
the patients' feelings.
Colin played me a tape of an
improv that he did with a seven year old Down's Syndrome boy who had
never spoken an articulate word, and at the end of the session of
playing the piano with Colin, said, "Bye." Some of the people in
these situations look funny, look bad - if you see them you get a
certain impression ofwho they are, but if you hear the sound they make,
theyn you get a very different impression. You are going directly
into a relationship with them, and experiencing their thoughts and their
emotions in real time.
What's magical is that all
improvisers can participate in this kind of work. There are
so many styles and ways of doing things, in every single one of the many
styles is an immediacy and complexity of real time improvisation, real
time information that's transported by sound waves, that cannot come any
There is a South African word,
Ubuntu, which is the same thing as inter-being. Desmond Tutu
brought it into currency in the West and it is the opposite of
Descartes. Descartes is famous amongst other things for saying, "I
think, therefore I am." Ubuntu means "I have my being
through your having your being. Ubuntu is the
territory that we get into as we do our improvisational explorations.
Keynote Address -- International Society for Improvised Music
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
1 December 2006
Stephen Nachmanovitch is the author of
a book about the inner sources of spontaneous creation.