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"We Are All Mozart"

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Mantra Canon score pages Dennis

previous   February 27, 2007   next

I've been thinking about improvisation again. We're doing a Vermont Improvisation Festival next year, and as one who has improvised both solo and in groups, I've been wondering whether ultimately this is a meaningful activity, an escape mechanism, or a giant whiteboard of artistic change.

That's pretty strong, yet one can apply it to all sorts of that most common human thread, conversation. Perhaps reconsidering improvisation is useful because, unlike verbal conversation, the arts are a kind of study in failure. Certainly in terms of conversational languages music's meaning and vocabulary have never been successfully defined. Asking what a composition means is a futile exercise, but that's also a different kind of question, leading down a hopelessly deconstructionist path. The post-traumatic stress disorder of deconstruction encourages surgically implanting a zipper on one's mouth and ordering a full set of discount padding for the walls.

The arts are a special case. We all ceaselessly do this thing called improvisation, accepting sensory input, adding it to our experiences, and mixing it with previous input, drawing biochemical conclusions that are selves. Individual personalities are created from the discarded scraps of ancestors and the strewn detritus of family and friends, sewn together with the lockstitch of question marks. And through some extrasensory subtext, a compromise of meaning occurs sufficient to effect understanding. Sometimes. Under scrutiny, it fails, whether that scrutiny is cross-examination, interpretation, or something so simple as passing the salt. Color, tone, elipsis of intent collaborate to crush meaning and undermine significance. A thin, crusty layer of hope is left, with a void above and below. We live inside this crust of silent hope, building our Babels.

The approximate communication at the heart of improvisation works, approximately. When we drive, for example, the structure of roads and signs is a guide within which we make improvisational choices. But combined with motion drawn from thousands of other decisions of speed and closeness and intent and distraction, there are destination successes -- and bottlenecks and swerves and wrecks. How many travel this way for pleasure, improvise for pleasure, unconcerned with destination? If improvisation is not about success and destination (and improvisers shrink from the very idea), then is it about the getting-there engagement and the passing tones of meaning?

Some improvisational structures are familiar -- chords and rhythms or, coming now into view, the laptop performers. Keeping the laptop expressing one's meaning (sonic, not verbal) is tough. Interfaces, whether a mouse or glove or the ReacTable are (decreasingly) crude. This is good. They pressure the artist to go beyond the technology, and dissociate improvisation from familiar structures.

Several incomplete premises are now piled up above in this commentary like the aforementioned wrecks. So first let's look at solo improvisation. Solo improvisation is self-reinforcement, and improvisation is one of the steps toward the creation of self-standing artwork. It is personal, some would say solipsistic because there is no other view than that from the inside out. It is one of the serious critiques of Eurocentric art -- its one-person orientation, its self-aggrandizement, its glorification of the completed object. Simplification this is, sure, for nothing is truly solo. Take, interpret, mix mix mix.

In fact, it's little new. A really good improvisation, what is that? Does it break new ground or rather create a quickly crumbling mortar to cover existing ground? I propose the last, with rare exceptions. And here is improvisation's strength: the visibility of the process that's invisible in, say, Sacre du Printemps. Listening to the career recordings and studio takes of Charlie Parker exposes the development of bebop -- but not necessarily alone. Nevertheless, he and thousands of others could be solo improvisers. What were they hearing as accompaniment? Were there chords and rhythmic structures that were assumed, the givens of the improvisational equation? Or had they dissociated their movement entirely from the imaginary tracks? Are Dizzy Gillespie or Miles Davis always creating a gravitational pull?

Okay, next bit. Group improvisation. Get that highway traffic image in mind. What is it? Delving into each artist's background of technique, knowledge and experience is the starting point, following by offering that individual expression into a group setting, and collaborating to make a fit, layering, contrast. The hope? That something new and worthwhile will arise? Or is this that Euro-centric concept at work? Perhaps there's a different question, since we move away from pain and towards pleasure: Whom does it gratify? That is, why are you doing it? Perhaps this makes it more interesting for the player than the listener, and accounts for the limited appeal of the most experimental of jazz idioms over the last century -- and their near-disappearance today.

There are other approaches. Across the North American continental and psychological divide is group improvisation with collaborative overtones. Group work builds with mutual sensitivity, where grasping each individual vocabulary is interesting, and musicians have effaced egos and become helpful to each other. The implicit collaboration of giving the solo is different from taking the solo -- the former is handing over the object method from ex-post-hippie- or AA-style meetings. That's the solo.

Who was it said if you make a mistake, do it again until the mistake becomes the purpose? The inspiration from chance, the manifold events arising from the single moment, the Heisenbergian infinite choices. Cage meets Bird in the experience of errors. But if music has the linguistic significance that it's credited with, does this misspeaking represent a lie? In the conversation of several, who hears the lie and who does not? Does the conversation fail under scrutiny?

Ah. The lockstitch of question marks.

Maybe more tomorrow.

Train as plow
The Amtrak plows through the fresh snowbanks last week. No question of traffic choices. Low Cage, low improv, low chance.

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