R is for Free Play

| May 4, 2014

I began studying jazz as a teenager. When I was studying improvisation (well, not that I’ve really ever stopped), there were a number of books that catered towards musicians seeking to “open up” their sense of risk-taking and improvisatory confidence.

When I was in music school, I was significantly influenced by Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book “Free Play”.

“Free Play” is ostensibly about the inner sources of spontaneous creation, where art comes from. It’s an instructional manual in unleashing “the flow of unhindered creative energy: the joy of making art in all its varied forms.” Nachmanovitch writes about finding your “authentic voice” through improvisation. “Free Play” also heavily references painter Vasily Kandinsky’s “Concerning the Spiritual in Art“.

What is “Improvisation”?

Thinking about the study of musical improvisation, I started to wonder what improvisation looks like on other media. With music, since it is so time based, the notion of improvisation seems somewhat easy to imagine – you play your instrument in a discrete period of time, and the improvisation is over. Music is sequential – the music begins, the musician plays, the piece ends. But what about media that are less sequential/time-based: writing, painting, drawing, etc? We’ve discussed “automatic writing” in class, for instance – is this what “improvised” writing looks like? Put your pencil to the paper and write linearly until you’re “done”? And what is “improvisation” but spontaneous composition?

Jack Kerouac famously wrote “On the Road” is this type of mode – the myth is that he wrote the novel in three weeks on a continuous sheet of toilet paper. Although this is exaggerated, he did compose the core of the novel in a fit of what he called “spontaneous prose”.

“That’s not writing, it’s typing.”

-Truman Capote, on Kerouac’s writing style

But in honesty, I ask myself, as human beings when aren’t we improvising?  Even when we’re “editing”, we’re improvising. Is anything ever truly a “spontaneous” act?  We learn techniques of production over time, we practice these techniques, and we execute them according to our personal inclination.

I’m reminded of jazz pianist Kenny Werner’s book “Effortless Mastery” which builds on Nachmanovitch’s work, but is specifically geared towards aspiring jazz musicians. He speaks of techniques to get into “the space” – a precognitive, or subconscious space below the level of the conscious mind… Maybe this is what improvisation means – not thinking too hard, just letting your creative ideas flow.

I always found it ironic that Kenny, as an educator, espoused an approach of “letting go and surrendering to the space,” but as a pianist, Kenny has a very particular foible of using the same quotes in his solos repeatedly…

Can we really abandon our conscious mind in any aesthetic act?