Why Improvise?

Most of the music that I’ve played in performance is improvised. When I’m given a part to read, it usually contains a large amount of letter-name chord symbols that serve to suggest strategies for voice leading and the briefest of stylistic descriptions (e.g. “medium funk,” “up-tempo swing,” “ballad”). Because I play the bass (contrabass and bass guitar) I’m not expected to read or play the melody on lead sheets, just the chord symbols. Sometimes I’ll get a part that includes a specific part to play, but these are usually short phrases that are repeated and used as a jumping-off point for improvisation. So most of the music that I play is improvised; upward of 90% of it, maybe even upward of 95%. And this usually goes for the people I’m playing with.

Granted that this kind of playing keeps you “on your toes,” in a state of hyper-awareness of what and how your fellow performers are playing. It necessarily takes a strong unifying element, usually in the form of the leader, to sculpt the session of group improvisations into something palatable to those listening to it because the aesthetic that informs most American audiences renders improvised music inaccessible. It’s a fact that the more popular the music to an American audience, the less improvisation is a part of it (which doesn’t necessarily mean that music that has no improvisation in it gets a leg-up on the Billboard charts, though).

So why improvise?

I can only answer that question for myself. My mother, brother and I were living on public assistance (it might have been Aid to the Disabled with Dependent Children) in Ronald Reagan’s California and, when I was finished with high school, I could get work playing in restaurants and jazz clubs around San Francisco by improvising. I was teaching myself to compose, but didn’t pass the instrumental audition to the San Francisco Conservatory—in a very real sense, it was my “Plan B.” But in retrospect, Plan B has been a great thing. Improvising music has allowed me to view the world through a myriad of lenses without sacrificing my artistic vision. Instead of principally exploring and explaining my inner world vis-à-vis pen and paper, I have the immediacy of the moment to do so. There is a trade-off, of course: when I improvise, I lose several degrees of control over the finished product and, as a bassist, I spend most of my time accompanying other musicians. I do compose music, of course. Not as often to meet deadlines as I think I might wish, but often enough to keep me in practice.

I am very interested in reading comments about why others choose to improvise. I hope some of you will take the time to comment on this.

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One thought on “Why Improvise?

  1. mclaren

    #1: We’ve entered a new era in the 21st century in which there is no longer any such thing as an “original.” There are merely different versions of a given piece of music, some of which will sound radically different. This has been forced upon us by digital technology, which erases the difference between a copy and an original, but jazzmen got there first — and a long time ago. There is no such thing as an “original version” or a ‘definitive version” of a jazz standard. There exist only different facets, like 2D cross-sections of a higher-dimensional structure.

    #2: Some of us want to cover all possible bases. That means producing music that sounds as much unlike ourselves as possible. To do that, improvising according to radically different schemes helps a lot. For example: if you use a rule-set for improvising in which a conductor picks the rhythms by choosing and holding up rhythm cards while the players choose the pitches, that’s going to produce drastically different results than an improv in which a conductor picks the pitches by choosing and holding up pitch-set cards while the players choose the rhythms. Or again, if players use footswitches connected to LEDs to signal one another when to stop or start or change up, this is going to produce radically different results than if players improvise according an emergent rule-set like “play this melodic fragment at least three times in a row and then move on to the next when you feel like it.” Or, once again, this will produce enormously different results than if players improvise within limited pitch-sets written down for them but using multiple click-tracks each of which accelerates and decelerates in Nancarrowesque multiple simultaneous tempo-streams. Which in turn will produce wildly different results than if a group of people improvises from a cue sheet which merely requires that each person looks at a clock and stops playing for long periods (different periods for each person) of several minutes or more.

    The best way to produce an extremely wide variety of different-sounding kinds of music is to change the tools you use to produce it, and improvisational rules represent some of the most basic kinds of tools we have for making music. The tools shape the materials; the form shapes the tools; the mind shapes the form; the tools shape the mind. It’s a living breathing feed-forward loop you don’t get from writing notes down with pen & paper, or mousing around on the computer with a notation program.

    #3: In the 21st century, everything has gotten technologized. Brian Eno remarked that the characteristic “sound” of the 21st century is that all the music adheres to a rigid quantized grid. The music’s all autotuned and quantized to hell now, it all gets fixed in the mix and tweaked in post-production. Live improvisation shatters that technological bubble and gets us back in touch with the real world and real sound.

    #4: There’s a continuum in the musical spectrum twixt improvisation and composing. Isn’t composing really frozen improvsation? And isn’t improvisation really just impromptu composition? The differentiation twixt composition and improv remains an artificial divide with little connection to the real world, so we might as well just admit it and improvise (or, if you prefer, “compose in real time”).

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