I’ve had a really refreshing couple of weeks of musical activity as of late. Somehow I rekindled a liking for freely improvised performance. It is intensely liberating to create something on the spot with other musicians in front of an audience. I find the idea that both parties bare witness to the birth of new ideas to be both exciting and slightly perplexing. How better utilized is a musician, to spontaneously conjure up and share with others an audibly tangible depiction of what he/she thinks music should in fact sound like at that particular point in time? What better test of a musician’s musical intuition? This applies equally to the listener. Anyone who has ever found themselves as an audience member at an improv event knows all too well the level of attentiveness and amount of patience needed to actively make it to the other side. I have had my fair share of “oh shit” moments as both audience member and performer at such events, where the sudden realization that bad and uninteresting ideas are going to be strung together haphazardly for the next 5-30 minutes kicks in. The feelings of discomfort, helplessness, and panic felt by both the listener and performer in the midst of an unsuccessful happening can be surprisingly similar for each party. The converse of such a situation, of course, is the occasional improvisation that manages to connect all participating parties to a similar stream of engagement, where the music almost takes the helm and commands all to do as they are told. More often than not, this occurs not as a single composition, but as a single moment within a larger body.
I, and many other composerly people, find improvisation to be a great stone for sharpening our organizational axes, as a means of instant development and structuring. Tons can be learned from an unsuccessful run. A bad improvisation might purely be the result of just an inability to grab hold of a single idea. This is what leads to the directionless meandering through an endless barrage of stream of conscious noodles. We’ve all been guilty of this one. Commitment to an idea makes all of the difference in the world. I feel at my best when I pick an idea and just go with it. The idea need not even be a gem, which makes me feel somewhat Beethovenian when I can exploit the hell out of a seemingly insignificant cell of information. There does, however, lie some danger in clinging too closely to an idea and failing to realize its directional potential. Space and balance also become problematic during the process. Improvisation is a very democratic experience and it is all too easy to be oppressive, without letting the others have their say. Even a solo performer needs to be aware of the fact that the performance space with its inhabitants is always in attendance and available for a solo spot!
In other news, there is a picture that John Adams posted on his blog that I think very accidentally and humorously sums up the current social attitude towards the modern music portion of your typical symphony orchestra concert:
Note the extreme enthusiasm Mr. Adams is exuding to the orchestra, here represented by the bored and unengaged violist, in front of an unimpressed and uninterested audience. The audience appears to be made up of senior citizens, empty seats, and what seems to be a person in a snowman suit in the 7th row.