“Whatever goal is set for art eventually proves restrictive, matched against the widest goals of consciousness. Art, itself a form of mystification, endures a succession of crises of demystification; older artistic goals are assailed and, ostensibly, replaced; outworn maps of consciousness are redrawn.”

— Susan Sontag, The Aesthetics of Silence.

Traditionally composition precedes performance. The composer communicates his or her vision across time by means of a ‘score.’ The score is interpreted, rehearsed and finally, performed for an audience. Improvisation is composition in real time. In improvisation there is no score in a traditional sense, no interpretation. Composition and performance come together ‘in the moment.’

What is the nature of this moment? Performers and audience lose track of time, an hour seems like a minute. The moment becomes time-less, existing outside normal time. We experience a state of heightened awareness. We have entered time. Instead of standing aside watching as time flows by, we plunge in and are carried along letting time unfold around us.

Time flows through the present, the future unseen, the past memory. We look back from the present into the past; replaying the images collected by our culture and ourselves. We keep the good images, toss away the bad, and feel secure in the illusion that we can know the future. What if, instead of looking back into the past or forward into the future, we concentrated on the present – on being present to our-selves and to the world? Maybe, instead of ghosts and fantasies, we could see, in that moment, an opportunity to create something ‘real.’

Entering the moment releases energy. Performers and audience alike share this energy. Shaping and directing this energy is the responsibility of the performers. It is the glue that holds the composition/performance together. The performers must maintain focus or more specifically, an awareness of each other and the audience. Together the performers and the audience shape this energy, creating beginnings and endings, dynamics and color, tension and release, all the elements and attributes of composition.

Improvisers cite this energy as the ‘raison d’etre’ for doing what they do. In his book Free Play, Stephen Nachmanovich describes improvisation as “a spiritual path” and as “the master key to creativity.” Experiencing this energy is transformative; the ordinary becomes extra-ordinary. A sense of wonder pervades. Perhaps this is what movement artists mean by ‘holding space.’ In free improvisation the space or container is real and becomes an integral part of the performance. The audience is not asked to suspend belief, to enter a fairy kingdom. They are invited by the performers to make the space ‘real’ – aurally, visually and kinesthetically.

Without a traditional score, what is there to prepare, to rehearse? First and foremost the improviser must be ‘present’ and how does one rehearse being present? The teacher told the novice, “come back when you can play as if you were 5yrs old.”

What is it like to experience the world as a 5yr old – When the world and the objects in the world are all new? The child learns to symbolize, to experience the world both as real and as metaphor. The child is open to reality and to the possibility for abstraction – to thinking creatively. The key word is ‘open.’ As we grow up, sounds once identified gain meaning but become less ‘real.’ This phenomenon applies equally well to images and to movement. The improviser must ‘let go’ of this habitude of perception in order to be ‘present to’ the world, to pierce the ‘veil of Maya.’ The improviser rediscovers sounds, images, movement, and the world, as ‘real.’

The improviser prepares by listening directly to the world with his/her eyes, ears and skin; and without thinking. The improviser silences the voices in his/her head – the “Chihuahuas of the mind.” Is there a place for exercises, for discipline, for rigor, practice and technique? Of course, the point is that these are secondary. Good technique, even to the point of technical mastery, is no substitute for compassion and understanding.

Why do we as free improvisers insist on performing without a traditional score? Wouldn’t it be less risky, for both performers and audience, to interpret a precomposed score? After all, everything can be ‘thought out’ in advance. There wouldn’t be any unwelcome surprises. The critics, by comparing the performance to those that they have already experienced, can assess its merit. The audience can read the reviews and be assured that they got ‘their money’s worth.’

What is there to be afraid of – of being surprised, of taking a risk? For me, surprise is the ‘raison d’etre’ for improvising. Improvisers are open to possibility, to chance. As improvisers we constantly surprise each other and ourselves. We move into the moment with a sense of anticipation and when things are working well, leave with a sense of joy and fulfillment.

Improvisation is not rehearsed. It is real and at the same time, a metaphor for reality and for positive social interaction.

Improvisation is a way of getting on in the world. It can free us from the habitudes of perception, from the ghosts of the past, and from the fear and urge to retaliate that permeates our current socio-political system by making us aware of opportunities for cooperation. It can free us from the knee-jerk responses written into the script of ‘good versus evil’ and ‘us versus them’ by making us sensitive to the possibilities in the moment.

As improvisers, we work with the universal languages of sound, movement and image. In contrast to the traditional arts, improvisation is about re-inventing the rules in real time. Nothing is set, thus communication is always open-ended, and fraught with possibility.

Focusing on possibility, on what could be, is a radical socio-political statement, and hardly a new one. It’s perceived as radical only because our culture and its institutions are hide-bound by tradition and conservatism. The potential for a society based on a way of thinking and acting that is open, inclusive, and creative is certainly something worth considering. A society willing to withhold judgment, to explore multiple outcomes, to reinvent itself continually, and to engage in collaborative dialogue with others: Wouldn’t it be nice?

2 Responses to “Improvisation”

  1. Josh Baker Says:

    This is a beautifully worded explanation of time-based improvised expression. As a relative new participant in the community of experimental improvisation, these words provide a reminder of the why and how. This essay can also serve as a self-inflicted critique as to the effectiveness of our works as improvisational artists.

    Thanks Walter. I thought you were retired from teaching …

  2. Boyd Nutting Says:

    Dreamtime redux
    Swimming naked
    Now, a backflip
    Mystic lens, focus
    Arc gently, then fire
    Grace, then fall
    Water to steam
    Awake, dream
    Dance, form
    Rhyme and sequence
    Big white clouds and blue sky

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: