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I am interested in what happens to people who find the whole of life so rewarding that they are able to move through it with the same kind of delight in which a child moves through a game.
— Margaret Mead
An improvisation by a small group of musicians is a microcosm of evolution. It grows from seemingly nothing, from what appear to be random elements of the environment, and self-organizes into a distinctive event with its own shape, with feeling and relevance. A leaderless ensemble cooperates, exchanging signals of give-and-take, stimulus and response, mutual respect and playfulness. No one is giving directions, yet people find a way to come together in a clear and compelling pattern of action. Paying exquisite attention to each other, they find form and refine its development. They invent a language and culture from the ground up.
As I work with groups in this ancient art, no matter how often I have seen it, I continue to be stunned by how easy it is, and how high the quality of the result. The music composes itself. Sound and movement, gesture and word, story and color, pattern and structure emerge through the ordinary means of communication and feedback at which we are all unconsciously adept.
In a workshop in Canada, four young drama students perform a brief piece, surrounded by twenty-five others in a circle of support. The quartet plays together in vocal sounding and movement. Bodies interweave through space as dynamic sculpture. Nothing is discussed beforehand, but a long conversation ensues afterward. The students discuss the imagery that came up, their communication with each other, how they spontaneously partnered in developing metaphor and complete expression of body and mind in the confines of this big, open studio. One person says he imagined the performers' bodies as earth and water, feeling the piece connected them not only to those of us in the room but also to nature as seen out the big windows and beyond, to the news of war and political insanity, of which they were acutely aware. From there they discuss their interdependence within the studio as a way into the interdependence of all human beings with each other and with our natural and social environment, cutting through racial, national, professional, and age barriers. The discussion, which began as an exchange of observations about what happened in the piece, has jumped to issues of global survival. I stand in amazement watching this conversation evolve. Another participant says, "Out of animosity comes collaboration." In the play-space of that room, they are modeling something foundational for the world.
Don't let anyone tell you the arts are just a frill — some sideshow to the main events of life.
* * *
I drive through the intersection of two busy freeways, connected by a weave lane — a single lane on the right-hand side for both incoming and exiting traffic. The entering and exiting cars weave across each other's paths — always dangerous, calling for hyperalertness. However, there are very few accidents — most people negotiate the merging of incoming and outgoing traffic safely. One day I was trying to veer off the freeway just as a large yellow truck was merging on. We were communicating with each other in split seconds, responding to ever-changing conditions. The driver of the yellow truck and I were performing a duo improvisation. When musicians or actors play together, when people converse in daily life, we are cueing each other through subtle channels of facial expression, posture, gesture, rhythm of movement, tone of voice, a tiny nod of the head. In freeway traffic we mostly communicate through changes in the velocity and momentum of large, fast-moving, blunt objects. Yet it works; we are able to perform this dance many times a day. Constrained by the architecture of the road, by the rules of traffic, people need to pay exquisitely close attention to each other. Traffic is strangely like jazz — people doing as they please but within culturally determined norms and rules. The balancing of the rules with spontaneous response, as in music, theater, dance, and sport, is mediated by instantaneous awareness of context.
Some years ago I heard that my writings about improvisation were being used in an Argentinean aviation school. This seemed surprising — one thinks of flying an airliner as a highly structured activity, in which the skills need to flow in a predictable way. Yet to get the plane to the predetermined place at the predetermined time, following the flight plan and protocols, the pilot has to absorb and react to constant interruption by the unexpected — flocks of birds, abrupt fluctuations of weather, behavior of other aircraft. He or she has to be comfortable being surprised by unforeseen events and folding that surprise into the flow of smooth activity. Interruption means having your concentration spoiled: but nothing can spoil your concentration if every change that comes into your sensorium is part of the game.
* * *
Listening to political or corporate spokespeople, we often have an intuitive sense that they are lying, even when they happen to be telling the truth. As they read their manicured scripts we sense the stilted and contrived tone, because we are used to spontaneous, interactive, face-to-face communication.
Every day we have conversations that are reasonably lucid and interesting, without needing to rehearse them. I wrote about this decades ago and have repeated the idea many times since. Each time I repeat it, I am blurring my own line between the spontaneous and the rehearsed, so I was ripe for a surprise. One day I was speaking at the University of Virginia and said, "We don't write down our conversations before we have them." Most of the students nodded in agreement, and I expected to go on with my talk. But a young woman raised her hand to interrupt. She said, "Sometimes I write things down before I say them." That stopped me. I asked, "Really? When?" She answered, "When I'm going to talk to a boy." For her, talking to a boy she liked was fraught with trepidation. The stakes were high. I found it fascinating because while she was admitting to her fear, at the same time she was brave enough to stand up and say this in front of two hundred people.
Perhaps the person to whom we're speaking might think we're a fool, or perhaps we're being graded or assessed. We want to nail things down so that we appear to be in control. Improvising, we might make fools of ourselves; but when we speak from a script, we also have the possibility, at least as great, of making fools of ourselves.
Blurting out the truth can be a high-risk action. Often big stakes and legitimate fears are involved. Diplomats learn to speak with circumspection because misunderstood words, especially across diverse cultures, can spark an international dispute. Who among us doesn't sometimes avoid speaking out, from politeness, from fear of failure, or simply because we forget to pay attention to our own minds? Who among us has not lied to avoid making a cruel remark?
But blurting out the truth can also result in unexpected professions of love or friendship. Blurting out the truth may lead to unexpected commitments to a life project. Blurting out the truth may lead someone to quit a job in which he or she is required to do something dishonorable — causing short-term havoc in the person's life but perhaps improving just a little bit the lives of others. Often playing a musical instrument or dancing allows us to make such statements more directly, getting to even deeper truths and patterns than we can reach with speech. The language of body and action may teach us a simpler way to do things and reveal knowledge we had within us but had not suspected. Dreams, the royal road to the unconscious, are sometimes a way of blurting out the truth, in images, metaphors, and connections that give rise to creative breakthroughs in our life and work.
Art is the act of balancing: knowing what to prepare, what to leave to the moment, and the wisdom to know the difference.
* * *
Composer Phillip Bimstein moved from Chicago to a small town, Springdale, Utah, to live in the beauty of nature and concentrate on his work. But somehow he found himself drawn into local affairs and was elected to two terms as mayor of Springdale. This town was so rife with conflict that the previous mayor found dead chickens thrown on his front lawn by irate citizens. Bimstein discovered that he could use his experience as an improviser and composer to facilitate communication in town, and he dramatically changed local politics for the better. Certain principles of listening and mutual respect pervade music making, whether in small groups or symphony orchestras. If you can't hear what your fellow musicians are playing, you are playing too loud. People become attuned through practice to listening to each other, listening to the environment. In music, contrasting themes and emotions blend — not necessarily harmonizing or agreeing, but weaving together in exposition and development. "When musicians improvise together the interaction between them is as collaborative and communicative as it gets. Improvisation brings out not only individual expressions, but collective efforts to build something together." Bimstein found himself facilitating, and bearing witness to, a small community "composing and performing a new democracy." He describes the development of a new collaborative tone in town meetings, used in resolving disputes over real estate and city services. He learned how to be a conductor, allowing consonant and dissonant combinations of voices to move together without squelching individual voices. In a 1997 article, Parade magazine called Bimstein "The Man Who Brought Civility Back to Town." Living is art, and living together with people who are not just like us is really art, perhaps the most important art.
* * *
In the Theatres Act of 1843, the British Parliament criminalized improvisation. All performances had to pass through the filter of state censorship, and theater managers were required to submit an advance copy of the script to the Lord Chamberlain's Office. Unscripted theater could not be predicted and controlled. This law was eventually overturned — but not until 1968!
* * *
I value what I have learned as an improviser, but improvising in itself has no value. Plenty of amoral demagogues are fluent improvisers. History, right up to this day, presents us with examples of tyrants deft at spinning stories, modulating frames of reference, using imagery and emotional rhetoric to incite fear and hatred in a crowd. Such manipulators, ranging from showmen, salesmen, and petty politicians to brutal, violent dictators, are often skilled at spontaneous speech that, like art, touches the interface between our conscious and unconscious perceptions. Like actors, such people often have more control over their facial expressions, tone, timing, and other communicational qualities than is good for them, or for the rest of the world. We can be fascinated and entranced by the sound of poison pouring into our ears.
Creation has an essential ethical dimension. We often conflate creativity with cleverness, or with superficial innovation. Defining the ethical matrix that separates creativity from destructiveness is notoriously difficult, but it has something to do with recognizing our kinship with each other and with the natural world we inhabit. We can begin by cultivating the activity of the drama students we encountered at the beginning of this chapter — mutual respect.
* * *
Del Close, one of the gurus of instant theater, said that your job as an improviser is not to come up with clever lines but to make your partner's shitty line sound good. Keith Johnstone describes this principle using the wonderfully old-fashioned word chivalry. This is something we seldom see in the public sphere: mutual respect, mutual support, building something together that we might never have dreamt of on our own. Improvising is all about human relationship. It is about listening, responding, connecting, and being generous. When a group of free players gets together and unfolds a coherent and interesting piece without a prior plan or template, it is like watching separate beings become integrated into a single nervous system. It is a partnership, with each other and with the audience, in the deepest sense of the word. I even get this feeling when I am playing or hearing a solo improvisation. Each tone and gesture can be seen as an invitation to deepen the information and feelings that are unfolding. The discipline of improvisation involves sensing invitations, accepting them, and supporting each other. There is not much room to be egotistical or greedy for attention. Leadership might be clearly visible at one moment and subtler at others, but it is fluid and shared; it slides around from person to person, like a fugue. We are able to engage in the give-and-take of communication. Exchange, flow, listening, responding: our improvising can become a mini-economy, a miniecology, a template, in fact, for a self-organizing, organic form of democracy.
Artistic creativity won't heal the horrors of the world; it won't save anyone or anything. But it is practice — and through practice we change the self, and the relationship of the self with all things.
* * *
Union organizers have a technique for bringing a factory to a standstill without actually going on strike. It is called an obedience strike, or work-to-rule. Quite simply, the workers follow every rule and regulation to the letter. We're going to do our job exactly as it is stipulated. The problem is that no one can design a formula, job description, or software algorithm for every contingency. Soon everything grinds to a halt. If management wants to frustrate the work-to-rule action, they have to command the workers as follows: you must interpret your jobs freely, using personal judgment about each case based on context. What a marvelous double bind! "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life" — one of the most practical statements in the Bible.
* * *
The pioneering theater and film director Peter Brook pointed out that in the days of Ibsen and Chekhov, people went to the theater to see well-written plays acted out with the magic of lights, sets, costumes, and so forth. Today, with movies and TV, many of those elements can be realized far better than on the stage. So what now is the function of live theater, whether improvised, composed, or a hybrid between? Brook's answer is that we go to the theater to be personally involved in an event that can only happen in this place, at this time, at this temperature, in these acoustics, with these people. We come for an experience of presence. It is that sense of concrete immediacy and impermanence that theater must provide.
The unmediated presence of players with each other, with spectators, is the true purpose of live art. A young man at one of my university workshops remarked that during the two-hour session of a hundred people playing together, he was not once tempted to take out his phone. He said that every time he was at an event that interested him, he compulsively shared photos or videos. But this time he realized that the essence of the experience was being there. The more our society dissolves into a mirror labyrinth of screens and telecommunication, the more vital is the experience of simply being with each other.
There is such a ferment of artistic exploration today, occurring almost entirely below the radar of both mass media and high-culture media. These encounters bring forward the element of music that is more important than sound, of theater that is more important than story, of art that is more important than imagery. That element is people, interacting and present for each other. At each moment we are there to witness an event that has never taken place before and will never take place again. This is true not only of theater but of every instance in life. The key to creativity is other human beings. As we realize this in our day-to-day practice, our art becomes, in the words of the musician and scholar George Lewis, a power stronger than itself.
* * *
There is a word from the South African Bantu language, ubuntu: mutual humanity. In the related Zulu/Xhosa language, they say, "Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu." "I am a person through your being a person." Ubuntu is intimately related to Buddhist ideas of interdependence, and as Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains, it is the opposite of Descartes' Ithink, therefore I am. It is the opposite of our idea of the solitary genius-creator-intellect who produces masterpieces in a room.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Art of Is"
Copyright © 2019 Stephen Nachmanovitch.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContents
1. Tell Them About the Dream
I – Interplay
4. Verbs and Nouns
5. Knobs and Dials
6. Stuck or Sticky
7. Finger Kissing
8. Nothing Forever
9. Universal Language
10. Bedtime Stories
II – Thinking as Nature Thinks
11. Natural History
12. All About Frogs
13. Twists and Turns
15. Interruptions and Offers
III – Art and Power
20. Cloud of Companions
21. The Way It’s Supposed to Be
22. Art and Power
23. Daughters’ Daughters
25. Heart Sword