Towards A Personal Improvisational Aesthetic

The following is a paper I submitted for Susie Allen’s Aesthetics and Ontology of Free Improvisation class at CalArts.

The paper discusses the aesthetics behind my improvisational process and was written as an improvisation (i.e. in a 25  minute writing session with no edits) .  This writing style was done in the spirit of the class – but I hope that it addresses some real points regarding improvisation and not just my undying love for the Sledgehammer riffs of Black Sabbath 😉

While highly personal (it is my own aesthetic I’m discussing) – I’ve posted it as it brings up some questions on the nature of improvisation.

When I went to Berklee, there was a very dogmatic definition of “improvisation” in play that typically involved playing well rehearsed licks over well worn changes.  This has as little to do with improvisation (in my way of thinking) as me being spontaneous at a party and deciding to tell the story about the time I was on the number 1 bus with the wasted hooker on the way to Central Square I’ve told a dozen times before…

Derek Bailey’s Improvisation book, is a good beginning toward a real discussion of this topic – but it really only scratches the surface.  A difficult topic, along with aesthetics and one that certainly isn’t deeply represented here.  Nevertheless, you may find a point or two of interest below….

Note: – Unlike the paper I submitted to Susie, I did edit this post for spelling mistakes.


Towards A Personal Improvisational Aesthetic


“This paper is being written as an improvisation.  I have a central idea that I am working on, namely the aesthetic of what I do, and then will base a series of observations around that.  With any luck this will lead to a logical conclusion.


My aesthetic comes from a variety of sources, I am fond of saying that Arika Kurosawa’s RAN was probably more influential to my musical development than any composition.  This is of course an oversimplification.  Growing up in a white middle class home in a small town in upstate New York…An early love of horror and science fiction films…early Saturday Night Live episodes and classic comedy, the works of Charles Schultz, of Borges, Marquez and the other magical realists.  The stylism of Yukio Mishima.  Punk rock and Bartok.  Ornette and Black Sabbath.  The Beatles and the Swans.  Eiko Ishiyoka.  Ingmar Bergman.  Woody Allen.  Son House.  Charlie Patton.  David Cronenberg.  This list alone would take up four or five pages.  The point is that my aesthetic is formed by not only all of the things I have experienced, but in fact, from all of the things around me.


While my aesthetic has a variety of things in its origin, it is fueled by a resonance with passion.  It is what unites the Balkan folk tune with Patsy Cline.  I seek passion in performance.  I seek actions that come from a real place.  That are transmitted somehow in a real way – a way that resonates with my own emotions.


I seek the articulation of the scream, of the sob.  I seek the frame work for tears and joy.  Occasionally I seek the image in the blade of the knife.  I seek the commonality of the intimate connection.


My own “art” involves sonics – and while I am frequently fond of dismissing it as, “all the same to a deaf person” – my music – my sound is part of the core of my being.  And with it comes baggage.  Baggage is not always a good thing in sonics.  Neitzsche’s abyss gazing back into thee.  Familiar things that go everywhere YOU go.   That start to define you.  People look at baggage to see where you have been.  They look at your baggage to make judgments about you through your travels…your experiences, “Oh you’ve never been to Lisbon darling – oh you really must go sometime”.  Baggage is a difficult thing because your baggage usually carries things that are yours.  This is important, there is a little of you in all of your baggage and that is why it is so difficult to get rid of.

I understand the importance of repertoire, but repertoire is ultimately not of terrible interest to me.  Repertoire to me equates to repetition.  Our culture thrives on repetition.  If you do something successful, the thinking is you should immediately do it again.  Society seems to tell people that you should vary responses only if there is a guarantee of succeeding at an even greater level and that you should never vary responses if there is even the faint stink of failure.


Repetition can be an anathema to improvisation.  It is acceptable to me in some elements of improvisation.  For example, a person improvises an idea and repeats it – setting a stage for motif or a tonal idea.  This is acceptable to me.  The concept of repertoire as I learned it, the old music of a number of dead old men – all performed with an archivist’s attention to detail, is not really in line with my thinking.


I like improvising.  I like creating new repertoire.  I like knowing that this moment is unique.  That it will never happen this way again.


Still I can’t leave well enough alone.  I have the consistent idea to document these improvisations.  To edit out the warts and polish them like a stone.  The world belongs to the editors. The editors determine history and the people who determine history determine the basis for context.


This is a problem with improvising a paper.  Ideas ramble and there is no way to reel them in.  This paper, however, is a true improvisation.  It has been started with a goal in mind and is moving towards a conclusion.  My marketing experiments with improvisation, trying to clean up recordings to make them more viable for other consumers is not going to have an effect on this paper.  This paper is a stream of thought that will not be altered.


And this process is necessary.  It is necessary because the only way to get to the heart of this issue is to do so without self-editing.  To write this down as if I can split the singular voice in my mind into a conversation. That these words – these chemical reactions in my brain that generate these disgusting, silly guttural hang-ups are now reduced even further into lines on a page…into dots on a computer screen is humorous to me.  Because somehow these lines work their way back through the reader’s complex neural network and allows those ideas to be interpreted by the reader in a very similar way.


This is the point of improvisation.  Improvisation idealistically creates a communal idea.  It creates core material from something unique and allows for a direct transmission to the audience.  This is the ideal.  Improvisation is a language. When people are listening – improvisation takes metaphoric words and phrases and transforms them into a dialog. The beauty of improvisation is that where words will generally have a similar meaning (i.e. when I write the word chair there is a platonic idea of a chair that is generated in the reader’s mind’s eye.)  But in improvisation, the audience is an active participant in facilitating a dialog that can never be interpreted by the audience in the same way that it is for the improvisers.  It is a translucent image rather than a transparent one and it is in this distortion that there is beauty, there is horror and there is the essence of what it is to be human.


Improvisation as a practice is the focus of an idea through an imposed restriction.  This restriction could either be self imposed or be imposed upon the improviser through other means. Improvisation as it relates to common experience can be seen in the example of the car that stops running in the middle of a trip.  A person experienced in auto repair may attempt to pop the hood of the car to see if they can ascertain how to repair the vehicle.  Or they may try to flag down help.  Or they may try to use a cell phone to contact a garage.  The point being that within the context of a vehicle malfunction, different actions are improvised based on the improviser’s facility with both the situation at hand and the tools at their disposal.  The same is true for an improvising artist.


This is why improvisation and the aesthetic behind that improvisation is so important.  Because life is essentially an improvisation.  As individuals we are brought into an unknown situation and then required to come into each day not exactly knowing what will happen.  We know that there is an eventual end, but we don’t know when or how it will end.  But we continue to improvise, because it is in the active improvisation and in the aesthetic behind our improvisational choices that we create meaning.”

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