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The New Spirit in the Arts

What is Improvisation?

by William Harris

We are living in a new age in which "Improvisation" has become a key motivating force in all of the arts. This started originally as a reaction in the early 20th century against stiffness and calcification which had taken the inventive spirit out of theater, dance and music . It was a plea for a freedom which would revitalize new performance and new composition in all the arts. But Improvisation was soon seen as more than a protest, as it became a regular part of the creative spirit of the mid-century age. We can no longer think of Improvisation as affecting one segment of the creative arts; it is probably much nearer the core of the creative impulse than we had thought in our teaching programs in the Humanities. Striving for standards of excellence in the established arts, we had lost the thread to Plato's "holy enthusiasm", the special attitude which had infused Greek creativity. When imitation and the standardized practices became part of a 3rd c. Hellenistic education, the great art of the Hellenic period withered and disappeared. Improvisation for the Greeks had been as alive in philosophy and science, in mathematics and medicine, as in the world of drama and poetry. Our models of creative behavior often have to go back to the Greeks for good illustrative examples..

In imaginative philosophical terms, Improvisation might be metaphorically described as the act of stepping out of the fixed and fossilized world of the Past, standing for a moment on a tight-rope Wire representing the moment of the Present, while preparing to test the waters of the Future with an exploratory toe. Yes, this is a mixed metaphor, but it is intentional and it is perhaps like much of life itself!

Improvisation in one form or another is the premise of all living beings, which are constantly maneuvering one way or another to escape the formaldehydization of homeostasis. It is a condition of life for a proto-amoeba to improvise its status by splitting in two, making possible both survival and extension in teh same stroke. If God or some thinking being had just designed a new form of life, his next act would probably be fidgeting with it in some experimental way, to add the last touch to his creation as an act of Improvisation. What is sexual reproduction in its myriad forms but a way of re-mixing a thousand code signals to improvise some slight variability in the coming generations?

If these remarks seem fanciful, I note that attitude as a part of the improvisatory instinct. There are many metaphors for the problem of change as against tradition. For some situations the static state of mind is OK, for others it misses the point. Recall Heraclitus's statement that "All flows..... " like a river, and a river has a direction from the past into some sort of down river future. You cannot step into the river twice because it has changed while you climbed down the bank. All is Change, and he who deals with the flow of the world, does so with an Improvisatory mentality, which can turn and re-fashion each chunk of the passing data. Last year I was showing a woodworker how to sharpen his chisels in a better way, it was quicker and they turned out razor sharp; but he said he would continue to do it the old way, because "it was the way I was taught". We all do most of the processes in living "the way we were taught"; habit and imitation are the cement which make a "Culture" possible, while change and improvisation move it slowly into new directions.

The famous case of the monkeys isolated on a Japanese island but fed grain on a weekly schedule, is a case in point. Their food was dumped on the sand, and it was difficult to pick each grain out of the sand for a daily dinner. But one wise old female scooped some up and carried a handful out to the water, where the grain floated to the top. That was Improvisation, who knows how or why it took place, but the others saw how clever this was and copied it, thereafter making it a part of their local simian culture. They were doing exactly the same thing as she had done, but it was very different because it was repeating and not improvising. Much of what we do in our daily lives is of this repeating pattern, our "Culture" is the mass accumulation of traits which others have at some point improvised.

But it is Improvisation in the arts which I want to talk about here. I believe the primal "experiment-on-the-spot" effort is the same in all living activities. A group of mechanical engineers a few years ago published a series of papers in their professional Journal asking if Engineering were really a discipline, since much of its work was just extrapolation from known data by complicated derivations in order to be applicable to present problems. They probably sensed that a discipline like molecular genetics where there is so much unknown and waiting to be explored, is a very different kind of field. Some academic studies have huge banks of data become focused on past research, while imaginative tinkering is distrusted or deplored. The security of a scholarly past as recorded in the library shelves often influences scholars to look backward and ignore an uncertain and tentative road to the future.

Speaking of scholarly collections of data, I find that the word Improvisation is relatively new in the English language. Here is an overview from the vast collections of the historically based Oxford English Dictionary, 2 ed.:

A. adv. Without preparation or premeditation; off-hand, on the spur of the moment; extempore.
1669 LADY CHAWORTH in 12th Rep. Hist. MSS. Comm. App. v. 11 Mr. Elliot..desired Mr. Titus to make some verses..which he did thus, impromptu [etc.]. 1788 BURNS Let. to Mrs. Dunlop 16 Aug., She sometimes hits on a couplet or two impromptu. 1791 BOSWELL Johnson (1816) I. 31 note, This was made almost impromptu. 1882 FARRAR Early Chr. II. 375 note, This was afterwards improved into the story that he [John] wrote the whole Gospel impromptu.
B. n. Something composed or uttered without preparation or premeditation; an extemporaneous composition or performance; an improvisation. Also, a musical composition having the character of an improvisation.
1683 D. A. Art Converse 44 We must deal plainly and seriously with such men, waving all in promptu's and subtilities. 1693 DRYDEN Juvenal Introd. (1697) 37 They were made extempore, and were, as the French call them, Impromptus. 1776 JOHNSON Poem (title), To Mrs. Thrale, on her completing her thirty-fifth year, an impromptu. 1847 DISRAELI Tancred II. ix, Lady Constance..had a variety of conclusions on all social topics, which she threw forth..with the well-arranged air of an impromptu. 1880 GROVE Dict. Mus. I. 768/2 The two sets of pieces by Schubert known as Impromptus..were..not so entitled by him.
C. adj.
1. Composed or uttered without preparation or premeditation; improvised; invented, produced, etc. on the spur of the moment and without previous thought.
1789 MRS. PIOZZI Journ. France I. 240 Who would risque the making impromptu poems at Paris? 1830 D"ISRAELI Chas. I, III. Pref. 4, I am not fortunate in impromptu replies. 1849 THACKERAY Lett. Apr., I daresay I shall have to make an impromptu speech.

2. Made or done on the spur of the moment; hastily made for the occasion, or converted to use in an emergency; extemporized, makeshift.
1764 MRS. HARRIS in Priv. Lett. Ld. Malmesbury I. 118 Lord North took an impromptu dinner with us yesterday. 1800 E. HERVEY Mourtray Fam. I. 67 They had a little impromptu ball. 1856 MISS MULOCK J. Halifax xxii. (1865) 215 My daughter encouraged me to pay this impromptu visit. 1872 BAKER Nile Tribut. viii. 128 We prepared an impromptu raft.

Hence impromptu v., to compose off-hand; to improvise, extemporize. impromptuary a. = C. 1. impromptuist, one who composes off-hand, an improviser.
1802 H. SWINBURNE in Courts Europe (1841) II. 334 The soldiers sing in the evening an endless German song, and the sailors impromptu in Danish. 1802-12 BENTHAM Ration. Judic. Evid. (1827) II. 2 Answers impromptuary. 1834 MEDWIN Angler in Wales I. 48 In a pelting rain, impromptu"d the following epigram. 1848 Athenžum 5 Aug. 773 Ballast-waggons..impromptued and filled up with seats. 1882 Chamb. Jrnl. 742/2 Theodore Hook..was a most prolific impromptuist. 1897 F. HALL in Nation

In the above Oxford English DIctionary citations, the word Improvisation is variously applied, first to a style of fluent speaking, also to the quick making up of rhymed couplets, further to songs of various sorts, and even to a surprise dinner menu. It is a apparently a variable word with many meanings.

Historically the word Improvisation appears only toward the end of the 18th century, but it is equivalent to rthe earlier expression Impromptu, borrowed from French with same meaning. It is commonly used from the middle of the 17th c. on, and is much the same in usage as the Latin ex tempore. It is interesting that the copious OED does not have examples from the vibrant and experimental Elizabethan world, where the master wordsmith Shakespeare actually improvised some 2500 new words into the language. But lack of a term does not mean lack of an idea: Greeks and Romans had no word for our concept of ART, using techné and ars which are craft words, as sufficient for their well developed and artistic Arts.

Improvisation in the Arts theater music painting speech and poetry

Painting by its nature has to be improvised. The artist has a rough idea to be sketched out on his canvas, but from there on it is all testing and trial with brush from the palette as he invests great care into each micro-mosaic portion of his canvas. In Picasso's line drawings brash Improvisation is virtually the whole painting, there is often nothing else on the sheet. When Rembrandt in his old age stared with blurred eyes into a mirror and transferred with pigment to the easel in-exact representations of what he saw, he was departing from his prior realistic depiction and moving into a new way of representing his mind's eye. He improvised paint to look like a cloudy eye as it existed in his mirror and slowlytransferred the image to his canvas. Copy-painting in the Louvre or painting from the numbers is a different process, one which makes nice wall decorations but misses the heart of the art. Georges Matthieu's "action painting" of the 1960's was a flashy demonstration of Improvisation as new painting technique, probably better for showing the real-time process than producing finished work as art. At the present time hundreds of well known painters are thinking of their work as largely improvisational. They start from a few brush strokes which by addition and over-printing and re-coloring become, as if by itself an organic coherent painting. The contemporary abstract painters think of their work as growing in an organic manner, rather than following the lead of "abstracts" from the mid century period following DeKooning and Rothko.

During the last half of the 20th century there has been much attention paid to improvisational Dance as a less formal and more intuitive art-form than traditional thoroughly choreographed ballet. This is seen not only in staged performance but also in teaching methods where colleges which have a Dance program will usually have coursework introductory to the art based on an improvisational approach. A brief survey of college catalog offerings shows how widespread this has become, and much of this new approach is documented in various web discussions and description. There are more than a dozen major schools of what is now called Contemporary Dance, which draw upon Modern and Post-Modern Dance, in turn going back to the early work of the 20th century which started to break free from the formal and all choreographed dance of the time. Here the word Improvisation is an attractive open-door to making Dance an accessible and personal activity, a new and alive direction coming from an ancient art tracing back to the earliest stages of civilization.

Improvisation in Theater was already being developed in the early years of the 20th century and has continued in regular theatrical technique with increasing interest after the mid-century mark. It has also been used in many ways in cinema production, directors like Altman made major use of Improv. even to the point at times of not furnishing actors with a script. Full stage and film improvisation can bring life to a production in surprisingly interesting ways, and in the last quarter century improvisation has been widely used. Often unrecognized if aptly done, it can fuse invisibly into the fabric of a written stage script or film scenario. There are hundreds of groups worldwide which one way or another feature the idea of improvisational theater in plays and theater workshops.

Improvisation as an important part of Theater, uses a variety of experimental techniques designed to enliven the performance of a dramatic reading or a performed staged play. Without formally realizing it, stage directors have tried to incorporate an actor's intuitions into performed parts of a play. When confronted with a stiff and unconvincing part, a director will often say to ad-lib it a bit, and if the actor has a good improvisational skill, he will act out the part on his own as if he were the writer laying out the script. Life and liveliness come naturally from Improvisation and in theater and cinema this has been established as a common and worthwhile technique. We often can't be sure when a part is being improvised or read from memorized script, except by noting that it sounds very agile and good, perhaps better than the surrounding scripted material. Reversing the situation, a skilled actor can perform a part brilliantly by reading it froj script as if he were improvising the words, of which there are well known examples in the history of modern cinema.

As we learn more about that complex set of neuro-physical activities which we somewhat simplisticly call Language (especially in the light of new approaches under the heading of Cognitive Science), we find gray areas in human Speech not properly explored under our traditional speech and grammar approaches. The way a person assembles a communicative speech "sentence" is far more complex than the grammar books outline, and there are areas which are by no means clear even to investigative speech scientists at the present time. But it is obvious than a great part of the construction of any speech-segment or "sentence" is done in an improvisational mode. There is a general "intention" in mind before any words are summoned up. Then first steps given as an effective start to a cumulative string , often by a meaningless lead-in-word, even a cough or a gesture, After this a more formal assembly of word-elements can start to fall into a regular order. Multiple phrases and sentence divisions are improvised real-time "on-the-fly" in every spoken sentence, but it is done so quickly and so deftly by the automatic routing mechanisms of the brain, that the assembly of even a single sentence can take place entirely in the background . The act of talking, somewhat like the automatic processes of breathing and digesting and walking, involves summation of dozens of separate individual functions, of which we have little awareness in our daily communication. If we try to become conscious of the muiltiple steps our minds take in speaking, we run a risk of becoming sound-bound and stage struck; so the best way, as in taking a walk on a country road, is for most purposes just to go straight ahead.

This might be compared to the act of going for a swim at the beach. First there is an intention for a swim in the sea, then going to the beach, next getting up from the blanket and changing clothes, then walking over the sand, testing the water with a toe and splashing up to knee height. After a decision about going further or retreating, perhaps a slow entry into deeper water and finally a dive and floating around before actually beginning to swim. Constructing a sentence on some unimportant intent, is not unlike this. You start in the sunlight on the sand with an intent and you end in the waves with a well developed idea in action.

Assembling elements for a sentence is in a parallel situation. There is a process going from mind-intent, to physical motions of the speech organs and facial musculation, to the uttering of tentative sounds based on a learned grammatical function and order, and at last to the point of producing a string of word elements, which start the flow from phrase to sentence to a paragraph of notions, and finally to a communicative conversation. (This sentence is a good example of the process in construction. . . .) At every point, especially at the start, there will be moments of re-consideration about what word to choose, what phrase will best follow, and what the sense and the tone of the sentence will be like. This is done by dozens of acts of real-time on-the-fly Improvisation, without which the natural fluidity and intuitiveness of human speech cannot develop.

There are people who do not have this technique mastered, they speak in disconcerted jerks, they use memory cards to outline phrases as the elements of a paragraph, they prefer reading sentences from a script rather than engaging in a speech-flow as a progressive messaging system. They do not know how to speak in a relaxed and interesting mode, they have no capacity to use words in a fluent manner, in short they do not know how to "improvise" while they are speaking. Good story tellers and stand-up comedians have to be great Improvisers, while academic committee members reading a proposal from a set of 3 x 5 cards, are always a bore.

But Poetry, although virtually identical with every other form of Language, is somewhat different. In the Western tradition, we think of poems as consolidated and highly structured speech-forms, printed on a page to be read by college graduates as a silent form of personal meditation. Much modern poetry was actually written to be read in silence, and when we hear a recording of an author reading his own verse, it is often a disappointing experience. We say we prefer to look around on the printed page as we readin order to get the message exact and intact. College teaching of poetry focuses first on the Meaning which the author is trying to convey, it generally misses or dismisses the interior musicality and rhythmic complexity which all good poetry has, a sad end for the evolution of an ancient verbal art.

But I mention this for a specific reason. We are just now beginning to see the possibilities of "improvised poetry", but we are hampered by the way we have been accustomed to deal with poetry, as a visual rather than a spoken art. Artful dramatic reading of poetry can restore an awareness of poetry as musical art, but we are not yet comfortable with the next step, which is to actually speak poetry without a script, the way we speak a sentence. When Sappho in the 7th c. B.C. constructed her poems, they were sung with her lyre accompaniment. The writing down of the words in phonetic characters was secondary as a way of preserving her song for others to recreate in their own singing. A parallel for us might be composing a poem and after recording it tearing up the autograph copy intentionally, so it would exist in future time only as musical word sequence on a CD recording. But this is not the way we do our poetry; we write it down on paper, hoping to get it printed in a book for others to read in their armchair by the fire in an hour of relaxing silence.

We are now ready for experiments in improvised poetry, which is starting to take place in experimental poetry "reading" groups here and there. But it will take a while until we get as natural and free with this new use of the ancient art, as the Gaelic poets of the last millennium were, or the South Slavic guslars who continue their oral art even today. But there is something new in the works.

There have been important changes in the way Music has developed as a social and economic segment of the American culture. In the post Civil War decades a large number of piano manufacturers set up business, providing inexpensive upright instruments in a price range which the rising middle class could afford. The piano in the home became a sign of modest affluence, also a virtual home entertainment center as piano lessons made popular sheet music playable with family singing or for religious use with scored hymnal parts. Churches which could not afford an organ used the piano for services, and when the silent film arrived after 1920 in thousands of small local theaters, the piano as improvised fill-in following filmed emotions and actions, became a common musical experience. All in all, more live music was in the air in the years around the turn of the 20th century than at any previous time.

Around 1900 only way a person could hear music outside of the home, was in the concert hall. Recording had been developing for some time, first on wax cylinders and later on shellac discs after 1920. They were crude but sold well because of the novelty of being able to hear all kinds of music at home. When the standard 78 rpm, record was replaced the "50's by the thirty three and a third disc, a longer playing recording was possible and by 1970 in the post war boom of inventions and expansions, the high fidelity pressed disc on a plastic blank became an ubiquitous part of American scene.

The explosion of the musical scene after mid-century was startling. Having the mechanical control over reproduction in increasingly faithful recordings, a flood of recordings appeared as a widespread and profitable business. Now music could represent all the varieties of the American social configuration, from the early New Orleans blues origins and authentic country singers from the back country, to something called "jazz" which could become the blaring band music in the gaudy 1930's or even a derivative art-music like that of Gershwin who combined elements of Debussy with the sound of American jazz. When "rock" appeared in the fifties, it signaled a new acoustic eruption, which was quickly divided and re-divided into the dozens of sub-styles becoming the branches of the developed end-century musical tree. This is all history and I summarize it here only because it leans so heavily on the meaning of the word Improvisation.

The original new Orleans players who accompanied funerals with band music in the streets, were not graduates of a high school music training program. They were self taught, they loved the sound of their instruments and played what they had in their minds as they progressed from note to note and step to step in the funeral procession. They were complete Improvisers for two reasons. They knew how to improvise because they could not read scored music. We owe to the early blues players and the various music threads which followed out of their playing, the first modern flush of truly improvised music, at a time when 19th century instrumental teaching had killed the improvisational spirit by rote learning and eternal drill.

By mid-20th c. the importance of the jazz effect had hardly been registered in educated America, as a quote from a 1948 standard reference book (Reader ' Reference Encycloipedia, ed. S. R. Benet) shows:

JAZZ: Syncopated or ragtime music played by a band over very loud clangy instruments, tremendously popular during the 1920's especially in the US. Jazz music is said to have originated in New Orleans. According to one story, in March 1916 Bert Kelly's "Jazz Band"(said to be the first so called) was engaged by the Booster's Club of Chicago, and started jazz on its conquering career. The term was soon applied to modern life with such expressions as a jazz resort, this jazz civilization, and the adjective jazzy (meaning loud, gaudy, vulgar, exciting to the senses) coming into common use.

Who would have thought that half a century later Jazz would be taught in college courses as a regular performance art, that it would have generated millions of vinyl and then CD discs, that it would be accepted and imitated worldwide as something from the United States now finding its place in the global World Culture? We cannot speak of pure Jazz anymore, it will be a question of which jazz do you mean, and is it leading into Rock hard or soft, or toward MTV everywhere and pop concerts coming and going in each new season. In the world of Pop Music there are ranks and levels, there is also university based historical scholarship, and taped interviews with Jazz/Pop artists as national treasures in their later years, recalling the old days with an interviewer before they slip away into a pop-music heaven.

There are pop music performers who produce serious music, in a world of music production where every singer with a mike and a one chord guitarist is called an Artist. A new term "non-Pop" has been coined for serious contemporary music, but this usually means non-harmonic and non-triadic, so it stands apart for a special audience. Then there are accumulations of tens of thousands of scrappable CDs, sometimes noted as the toilet paper of the youth musicants, made possible by the low cost of writing a music CD. Has European Free Improvisation left jazz behind by going atonal? Is modern Pop, if scored for copyright reasons on occasion, still improvisational in part? In this farrago of musical production there are everywhere traces of the effect of improvisational freedom, but in very different degrees.

It seesm strange that Music, which is the area of the greatest improvisational development two hundred years ago, is one of the last fields to be touched by the improvisational spirit. If you asked someone in 1950 what Improvisation in Music was, you could get a spread of several answers:

Improvisation is "playing be ear", although it is not clear what that means if you ask further. This implies auditory imitation of "real music" by an intuitive shortcut of some sort.

It could mean the piano playing of someone who never took lessons and cannot read score, so in a sense a musical ignoramus or a dilettantish fakir, even if facile at the KB and clever with the chords.

"Improv." is often taken to mean Jazz pure and simple. After all, who else but the New Orleans black players started it off in 1910, they were the original jazzmen, so it must mean something deriving from their blues/jazz. But it could be three high school students in the garage in 2010 with a drumset, two e-guitars and a mike, doing a recording for an unsellable CD.

Only if the question were put to a well educated college grad, would the name of Bach as a master improviser of his age come up, with a footnote that in the 18th c. everyone who considered himself a musician could improvise easily on the spot. Elegant young ladies improvised on the harpsichord as part of their ladylike education. But such improvisation is not usually taught now with the music lessons, and the college Improv. course will be specifically directed to the popular area of Jazz!

"Improvisation?" says a current, well known and much recorded concert pianist with a distinct grump, "No, I don't do that, I play Bach and Beethoven who are the real masters, their music is better than anything I could do, so I never thought of improvising." Asked to play something on a host's new piano, he has to ask for a score. He has missed an important part of his music education.

"Improv." says the upcoming Rock artist after a recording session for a track on his new CD: "It is the soul of our work, if we didn't improvise along with the set parts which we have planned, it would be absolutely dead." He understands the life and vivacity which the unexpected moment can bring to his performance. He is on the forward moving edge of the new wave.

But it not just in music that the artistic tsunami is rising up, it is in all the arts and once we get used to the idea of the creative moment, and accustom ourselves to the artistic talents which that moment requires, we will look back on the stiff and stolid days and wonder how we got along for all those years without the fresh aroma of Improvisation in our artistic atmosphere.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College