Notes on Improvisation (after Sunday’s gig

On Sunday night Julian Green introduced the set [Jonathan Zwartz on bass with Julien Wilson (saxophone), Carl Dewhurst (guitar) and Hamish Stuart (drums)] saying, ‘As improvising musicians we spend all our time practicing for the unknown.’ There are degrees of improvisation and they had scores. Much is circumscribed from the tradition encapsulating the performance, of jazz, of taking solos in turn, of certain rhythmic patterns, familiar chord structures, of expectations of how a concert works.

Improvisation is ancient. Hindustani and Carnatic music is improvised. People came to hear the improvisations of Mozart and Beethoven. Both have bare sections in piano concertos that are meant for improvisation. Improvisation lies at the heart of organ playing.

Score-based performance inevitably embraces nuances (including the unprescribed and the unprescribable), but improvisation suggests a more substantial commitment to real-time decision-making that sets it apart from written music. Improvisation is a process of allowing freedom an alternative to concentration on a score, sometimes entering a trance-like state at barely conscious level.

I first heard ‘Free improvisation’ at an AMM concert circa 1974. They had instruments and non instruments like radios. Nothing seemed planned, no idiom apart from total freedom. The shifting complexities not easy to appreciate by a young student used to listening to Can, Robert Wyatt, Coltrane and Miles. Eddie Prévost of AMM later said they, ‘denied all external authority and resisted attempts to impose their will upon events.’[i] The guitar work of AMM’s Keith Rowe is so different to Carl Dewhurst.

Even birds improvise. Hollis Taylor writes on ‘Improvisation and the Australian Pied Butcherbird’. She explains, ‘their remarkable preoccupation with novelty and variety, and traces improvisation’s role in the creation of their complex song culture.’[ii]

David Antin viewed his own improvised poetic work as much more radical than the Language poets who ‘generally hold this traditional, non-discursive view of poetry.’[iii] An early example of a discursive poem would be Whitman’s Song of Myself (1855). Its 1,346 lines are loose in form and vary from the poetic to unpoetic, with no a linear argument or narrative. Antin didn’t realise that his talk (a second talk piece at Pomona College but his first collected talk-poem, ‘talking at pomona’ (1972)) was a poem, until his wife, a conceptual artist suggested it was as they listened to the tape driving back home.

Antin presents speech as the heart of poetry. He does not use the tape as inscription device to ‘capture the poem’, as poets did in the early sixties, nor is he a technological determinist. He produces texts of his talks edited so that they become representations of the talks (since speech and writing have such different formal properties with extensive lexical and structural differences.) Antin abandoned the line as a formal device and inverts the traditional phonocentric relation between text and voice by speaking first then writing. His improvisatory skills allow for discursive modes relying on a personal voice rather than a script. This approach allows for rapprochement between the philosophic and poetic.

Wittgenstein’s philosophy was based on improvisation. He told Norman Malcolm that, ‘he had tried to lecture from notes . . . but was disgusted with the result; the thoughts that came out were ‘stale,’ or, as he put it to another friend, the words looked like ‘corpses’ when he began to read them.’  As a photographer I improvise, being dependent on the light and what is unfolding in real time around me.

But life itself is improvised.

Psychologist James J. Gibson talks of affordance of how consciousness and works through  animal perceptual systems evolved to ‘pick up’ information that is relevant to its survival and ignore the rest. The relevant information concerns opportunities afforded by the environment. Daniel Dennett uses the example of trees that afford climbing if you’re a child or a monkey or a bear, but not a lion or a rabbit.

At another level, habitus is the taken for granted skills and habits individuals use to navigate their position in the social world. These dispositions are usually shared to an extent by people of similar backgrounds. It’s a key concept in the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu and one with flexibility. Habitus writes Bourdieu has, ‘a generative spontaneity which asserts itself in an improvised confrontation with ever-renewed situations.’


[i] Edwin Prévost, No Sound Is Innocent: AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention. Meta-Musical Narratives. Essays,  Copula, 1995, p10.
[ii] Hollis Taylor, ‘Blowin’ in Birdland: Improvisation and the Australian Pied Butcherbird’, Leonardo Music Journal, Vol 20, 2010
[iii] David Antin, ‘Wittgenstein Among the Poets’, Modernism/Modernity 5.1, 1998, p163.