The Nature of Improvisation

Creativity - Part 4

Improvisation is always a roll of the dice. On one hand, you can have all the best ideas but be paired up with the wrong partners. On the other hand, you can be with ideal people and have no ideas. But if you're aware, and in the moment, there is a chance for a spark to arise and things to take off.

"I learned at a very young age that music teaches you about life. When you're in the midst of improvisation, there is no yesterday and no tomorrow — there is just the moment that you are in. In that beautiful moment, you experience your true insignificance to the rest of the universe. It is then, and only then, that you can experience your true significance."
Charlie Haden

Another aspect is how you approach improvisation. You can play it safe and fall back on a set of well worn cliches (and we all have our cliches we like to play), or you can take things out and walk the edge, putting yourself in danger. One of my favorite quotes is from the great Germanic poet, Rainer Maria Rilke: “No great art has ever been made without the artist having known danger.” This has become my motto and it is this sense of danger that fuels great improvisation. When improvising, there's always the question in your mind, "What if nothing happens?" This is the danger. But even better, what if magic happens? More often than not, magic does happen, because the musicians involved are willing to trust both themselves and their fellow musicians. They are willing to walk out to the edge and trust that something magical can happen in the face of danger. 

My good friend and master Swiss drummer/improvisor, Fredy Studer, is fond of saying that drummers need to have “big ears.” I would say that al musicians in an improvised setting certainly need “big ears.” For improvisation to be cohesive (and interesting), it needs to be about listening to what is happening, as much as it is about the actual playing. I always listen and often try to provide counter point to what the other musicians are doing: staccato bursts of rhythm against long held notes, or metallic soundscapes providing a backdrop for the others to ride on top of. Or I'll find some sort of sound/tonality that matches what is going on and try to blend with the other instruments. And sometimes I'll just sit out, letting the music breathe and the others have the space. 

Suffice to say, in improvisation, not everything is magical. But if you leave your ego home, and work to play as part of a unit, magic can appear, gifting us with music that at times sounds thoroughly rehearsed, even though it is composed in the moment. 

~ MB


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