Thursday, April 16, 2009

Improv or Improve

There is a chance that I am becoming less mature artistically and intellectually. Then again there is a chance I am not, which is something that actually concerns me. I am not a religious person, but I do think that as we grow old we need to put away childish ways etc. Well, I am not here talking so much about my many childish ways (love of ice cream, toys, sci-fi, fast cars etc, all of which I don’t see a problem with) but rather the way I view process in art. When I was 21 years old I directed my first play, and went on to direct 10 or so others over the next few years. When I first started directing, I was just out of acting school, and had experienced some self transforming exercising in improvisation, which had changed my world view, as much as my acting(which by the way never got very good). These exercises were so powerful to me, that as a director, I would bring them into rehearsal. In fact for those first few plays, much of rehearsal was spent doing some intense improvisation. I had great actors, who never complained, and worked very hard on this. Unfortunately it left too little time to actually work on the mechanics of the play, and the result was not so good. It wasn’t long before I discovered that professional play directing was better off when you leave this kind of exploration to the actors, and instead focus on staging the most effective production possible. I don’t direct now, but if I were to, I would continue to stage the play, talk to the actors about character, but certainly not mess around with improv.
Now, 10 years later, I am performing and putting out recordings of completely improv’d free jazz music, and feeling the same emotional spirit that drove my work as a young acting student and director. So, the natural thing is to ask myself, “is this a phase in discovering something, but not the product?” I wonder how I got to this point, and realize that the cliché that life is the voyage and not a destination, is actually true, and applies where music and science are concerned.
I read many biographies and memoirs of people I respect. Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Priestly, Moss Hart, Richard Feynman, The Dali Lama, Einstein etc, and one thing is fairly common, and that is that most of them spent most of the time not working on a final product, but instead on the process. Strangely this process became a product, or revelation. Einstein dreaming of riding on a beam of light became the theory of relativity. They were often lucky to have time to play with process. It is so prevalent that I would almost say that discoveries and beautiful art only come from the type of contemplation and experimentation that could never be done in a controlled atmosphere of trying to “get the product up”. This must not be true (as major corporations innovate all of the time, on a schedule, and occasionally good plays and pop albums are also made), but it has convinced me that the process is worth it. The question remains is it worth it enough to make it the end product itself. Though I am not sure, my guess is that Da Vinci’s notebooks will be read for even more centuries than they already have been. That the Picasso, and the Renoir studies and sketches will continue to be valued by collectors. Perhaps discoveries will still be made from the late night scribbling of philosophers and scientists, or even obscure blog entries. Either way, I am going back to my youth and practicing my way through performances and experiments, in order to find something unique, about myself and the art and science I am exploring.


  1. I think that the very fact that you ruminate on this question negates your suggestion that you are growing "less mature..."

    Improvisation can certainly be a viable compositional tool. I suppose a great jazz solo is a mini-composition of a sort, but on the other hand, some pieces a Miles Davis tune (or Lucas Foss was doing in the classical world in the 60's), are structural platforms upon which improvisation is a textural element more than the "composition" in a macro sense.

    For me, artist's sketchbooks are different. They are related to improvisation, a sense of being open to the Muses. "What are the motives, and germs, or building blocks, that I am going to structure my piece with?" "Is this how I'm going to work it out? Or this? No, this." So, peering into a sketchbook can provide psychological insight into the creation. (Or maybe I just liked 33 Varations too much....did you see it?) But I think it's more about the editing, and whittling away the needless material, than straight-up improv.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I did see 33 Variations and loved it. As far as sketch books and finished art pieces, I am no expert at this at all. Still, I wonder if a completed work may be more random than we think, or maybe more of an expirement in process. Like Picasso's "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon". If indeed it is the first cubist painting, then there is no template to say when it is complete. It is only when Picasso decided to show his work in process. The same for the first Pollack drip painting. Maybe no different than recording an improv. I also wonder if the same thing applies in literature. Kerouac writing continuously for 3 days until a novel is "finished", is also an improv of sorts. Maybe this is all pointless to consider as a whole, and rather just important for the artist to be satisfied with what he is putting out as a work, which then will automatically be complete. Rather others consider it complete or not does not so much matter.

  3. Interesting thoughts Matthew... I think the purpose of art is to invoke a uniquely human thought or emotion in the audience, whether that is through literature, theater, film, voice, dance, sculpture, etc. The success of the art is based on how well that emotion is reproduced or perhaps how complex the thought. That being said, you don't want to give humans too much credit, thus the success of mass produced art, which is usually fleeting. The true great artists practice (process) and strive to connect with others now and in the future. That process is constant and a fascinating one to follow (through sketches/notes/practice recordings/improv/small projects) but the artist must know how and when to bring the best of the best to fruition to reach a grander audience. That's the tricky part, I think.


Please feel free to comment. It helps me with ideas, and to start a discussion.