by Stephen Nachmanovich

In a sense, all art is improvisation. Some improvisations are presented as is, whole and at once; others are “doctored improvisations” that have been revised and restructured over a period of time before the public gets to enjoy the work. A composer who writes on paper is still improvising to begin with (if “only” mentally), then taking the products of the improvisation  and refining and applying technique and theory to them. “Composing,” wrote Arnold Schoenberg, “is a slowed-down improvisation; often one cannot write fast enough to keep up with the stream of ideas. Finished artworks that we see and may love deeply are in a sense the relics or traces of a journey that has come and gone. What we reach through improvisation is the feel of the journey itself.

Improvisation is the most natural and widespread form of music making. Up until the nineteenth century, it was integral even to our literate musical tradition in the West. Leonard da Vinci was one of the great pioneers of improvisation on the viola de braccio, and with his friends put on entire operas in which both the poetry and the music were made up on the spot. In Baroque music, the art of playing keyboard instruments from a “figured bass” (an harmonic outline that the player fills in according to his fancy of the moment) resembled the modern jazz musician’s art of playing over themes, motifs and chord changes. In classical times, the cadenzas of violin, piano, and other concertos were meant to be improvised - a chance for the player to put his own creative display into the total artwork. Both Bach and Mozart were renowned as very free, agile, imaginative improvisers, and many stories both moving and amusing are attached to their exploits in this field. Beethoven, when he first came to Vienna, became known as an astounding improviser on the piano, and only later as a composer.

Unfortunately, tape recorders were not available in those days. So when artists wanted to preserve their music, they had to be as deft with the pen as they were with their instruments. Mozart was perhaps the greatest improviser with pen and paper. He often wrote the fair copies of his scores and parts straight out, inventing the music as fast as the pen would go and hardly ever blotting a line. Beethoven, by contrast, intimately knowing the sounds he wanted, carrying them inside his head for years at a time, could only record them on paper by the most laborious and energetic process of sketching, editing, crossing out, rewriting and refining. His notebooks were a copious mess; through them we are able to trace, step by step, the evolutions of his musical thoughts.

The rise of the formal concert hall in the nineteenth century gradually put an end to concert improvisation. The Industrial Age brought with it an excessive emphasis on specialization and professionalism in all fields of living. Most musicians confined themselves to the note-for-note playing of scores written by a handful of composers who somehow had access to the mysterious and godlike creative process. Composition and performance became progressively split from each other, to the detriment of both. Popular and Classical forms also became ever more split from each other, again to the detriment of both. The new and the old lost their continuity. We entered a period in which concert goers came to believe that the only good composer was a dead composer. 

Improvisation made its reappearance in the twentieth century, notably in the field of jazz. Later in the century, Indian music and other improvisational traditions reintroduced musicians to the pleasures of spontaneous creation. Beyond these forms of extemporization on a theme within a set style, free improvisation and the invention of new and personal styles of art making are coming into their own. Today many artists are joining together in improvisatory chamber ensembles.

There has been a surge of free play as a modus operandi in many other art forms, notably theatre and dance, where increasingly improvisation is used not merely as a technique for developing new material in the studio but of presenting totally spontaneous, finished performances for the public. Visual art has had its tradition of “automatism”, painters such as Wasily Kandinsky, Yves Tanguy, Joan Miro, and Gordon Onslow Ford approached the canvas with no preconceived theme, but allowed the colors and forms to flow of themselves, from the spontaneous and intuitive promptings of the unconscious. In Kadinsky’s breakthrough series of paintings called Improvisations, which set the stage for much twentieth-century art, he saw himself tracing spiritual states and transformations as they occurred.

There is in all these forms of expression a unitive experience that is the essence of the creative mystery. The heart of improvisation is the free play of consciousness as it draws, writes, paints, and plays as the raw material emerging from the unconscious. Such play entails a certain degree of risk.

Many musicians are fabulously skilled at playing the black dots on the printed page, but mystified by how the dots got there in the first place and apprehensive of playing without the dots. Music theory does not help here; it teaches rules of the grammar, but not what to say. When people ask me how to improvise, only a little of what I can say is about music. The real story is about spontaneous expression, and it is therefore a spiritual and psychological story rather than a story about the technique of on art form or another.

The details of any art form - how to lay the violin, how to improvise a raga, how to write English prose, how to make movies, how to teach - are of course particular; each instrument or medium comes with its own language and lore. But there is a kind of metalearning, a metadoing that transfers across styles and forms; and it is that essence that I want to touch on in these pages. While there are certain principles that apply to a particular field, others apply across the board to all fields of creative activity. Any action can be practiced as an art, as a craft, or as drudgery.

How does one learn improvisation? Or any kind of art, for that matter? Or anything at all? It is a contradiction, an oxymoron. Here is the elemental double bind: Go up to someone and say, “Be spontaneous!” Or try letting someone do it to you. We submit ourselves to music, dance or writing teachers who can criticize or suggest. But underneath it all, what they really ask of us is to “be spontaneous,” “be creative.” And that, of course, is easier said than done.

How does one learn improvisation? The only answer is to ask another question: What is stopping us? Spontaneous creation comes from our deepest being and is immaculately and originally ourselves. What we have to express is already with us, is us, so the work of creativity is not a matter of making the material come, but of unblocking the obstacles to its natural flow.

- from the introduction to Free Play : The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts by Stephen Nacmanovitich c. 1990 (Putnam).


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