Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts

Unknown-38What is the source of a creative idea? What is the link between art and spirituality? How can we unlock our inner muse, find joy in the creative process and unleash the full potential of our imagination? Stephen Nachmanovitch’s book, Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts delves into these questions. Nachmanovitch is an improvisational violinist and violistcomputer artist and teacher. Musicians and non-musicians alike will find his book meaningful, inspiring and thought provoking.

Nachmanovitch stresses that improvisation is not chaotic, but flows from a natural formal structure:

[quote]We carry around the rules inherent in our organism. As living, patterned beings, we are incapable of producing anything random. We cannot even program a computer to produce random numbers; the most we can do is create a pattern so complex that we get an illusion of randomness. Our body-mind is a highly organized and structured affair, interconnected as only a natural organism can be that has evolved over hundreds of millions of years. An improviser does not operate from a formless vacuum, but from three billion years of organic evolution; all that we were is encoded somewhere in us.[/quote]

Nachmanovitch also highlights the common threads which run through music, dance, visual art, literature and religious traditions. He shows that life and art are inseparable. Michelangelo believed that the statue already existed and that his job was simply to carve away the excess stone. Nachmanovitch suggests that:

[quote]As stone is to a sculptor, so time is to a musician. Whenever he gets up to play, the musician stands there facing his own unsculpted block of time.[/quote]

Nachmanovitch stresses the ephemeral aspect of improvisation and the spontaneous creative impulse:

[quote]The fact that improvisation vanishes makes us appreciate that every moment of life is unique-a kiss, a sunset, a dance, a joke. None will ever recur in quite the same way. Each happens only once in the history of the universe.[/quote]

To learn more about Nachmanovitch and his work, visit his website, listen to this podcast and watch this short interview:

[quote]If you forget yourself , you become the universe.[/quote]

-Hakuin Ekaku

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Anyone Can Whistle

Anyone Can WhistleThere’s an interesting irony at the heart of musical performance. As musicians, we spend countless hours in the practice room in order to achieve the highest level of technical control. Technical assurance gives us the freedom to let go, enter “the zone” and allow the music to come to life. We cherish the rare, exhilarating performances which rise above “good” or “technically solid” and tap into a higher energy. At these moments the music almost seems to be playing the musician. Discovering the ability to let go and overcome ego is a lifelong challenge for all of us.

Stephen Sondheim’s song, Anyone Can Whistle, may make you think about the creative process and the ability to get out of your own way. The song comes from the second act of his 1964 musical by the same name. The show closed after only nine performances, but it launched the Broadway career of Angela Lansbury. Anyone Can Whistle is sung by Lee Remick on the original cast album:

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[quote]Anyone can whistle, that’s what they say-easy.
Anyone can whistle, any old day-easy.
It’s all so simple.
Relax, let go, let fly.
So someone tell me, why can’t I?
I can dance a tango, I can read Greek-easy.
I can slay a dragon, any old week-easy.
What’s hard is simple.
What’s natural come hard.
Maybe you could show me how to let go,
Lower my guard,
Learn to be free.
Maybe if you whistle,
Whistle for me[/quote]

Notice the contour of the melody and the way it relates to the words and the character. Sondheim gives us a dissonance on the word, “hard” (1:19), evoking a feeling of “hardness”. 

Other notable songs from this show include Me and My Town There Won’t Be TrumpetsA Parade in Town, Everybody Says Don’t  and See What it Gets You. One of Sondheim’s earliest shows, you can hear echoes of his later works in the score of Anyone Can Whistle.

December

composer Michael Torke
composer Michael Torke

Music occupies the mysterious realm of metaphor, expressing realities which cannot be put into words. For American composer Michael Torke (b. 1961) music is inextricably bound to extramusical associations like colors, memories and feelings. His evocative titles give us a glimpse at these associations. In a previous post we looked at Torke’s synesthesia, a neurological blurring of the senses which allows him to “hear” colors.

December for string orchestra was written in 1995. Why do you think Torke chose this title? Is there something about the music which specifically feels like December? For me, there is something satisfying about the the way Torke’s music neatly unfolds with one small musical cell and harmony spinning into the next. Consider the role of repetition and gradual change in the music:

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Now that you’ve heard December, here is what Michael Torke has to say about the piece. His description sheds some light on mysteries of the creative process. Some questions worth considering: What is the source of a musical idea? Do extramusical associations unlock musical ideas for Torke, or are they just a simultaneous byproduct?

[quote]I remember experiencing a kind of cozy cheer in the early days of winter back in suburban Milwaukee, when, on the rounds of my afternoon paper route, I would anticipate with pleasure the forecast of the season’s first snow. The cold and the precipitation never bothered me; I loved the season: young girls wrapped up in parkas with only their bright faces showing, outdoor Christmas lights being strung out on the front lawns, warm meals waiting when I got back home. Music never literally represents things, but it does evoke feelings, impressions, and sometimes memories. In writing this piece, I noticed that the music that came out didn’t just refer to itself — it is my habit to set up certain compositional operations to give each piece its own profile — but that the music seemed to refer to things outside of itself. This is something I discover as I’m writing; it is not that I set out intending to describe the last month of the year through music; rather, the associations creep up on me, as I’m composing. I had originally called this piece Rain Changing to Snow because at first the listener might hear a kind of musical ‘precipitation’, a resultant wetness that comes from some of the strings sustaining notes that are moving in the other instruments. And as this develops, the music moves to a more tranquil key, where it sounds as though the rain has turned to snow and there is a strange stillness everywhere. But to me the music is about more than meteorological patterns. In my goal to write more thematic music which is less process oriented, I believe this music can afford a wide range of responses in the listener. I am against music that is merely cerebral, and I welcome the simple, physical experience of listening, and responding directly, without undue brain circuitry.[/quote]

December snow

 

A Question of Timing

images-3Timing is an important element in music as well as comedy. A great comedian knows how to build up to the punch line of a joke . Similarly, great composers have an intuitive understanding of proportion in music. They know how long to repeat an idea before moving on. They allow the music to unfold organically in a way that seems “right”, as if the piece is composing itself.

As musicians, we also have to consider timing. How are the notes working together to create a phrase, or musical sentence? How long should a note be stretched? Should the music sit back on the beat or have a sense of being right on top of the beat? How do we group notes to create a sense of flow? James Morgan Thurmond wrote an interesting book on this subject called Note Grouping: A Method for Achieving Expression and Style in Musical Performance.

Top instrumentalists and pop artists alike have mastered the art of timing. Listen to the way the young Michael Jackson shapes each syllable in a flowing and expressive way in the The Jackson 5’s 1970 hit, “I’ll Be There.” His performance coveys a natural and powerful sense of timing, right down to the release of each “there” in the repetitions of the chorus at the end of the song. Or listen to Broadway legend Barbara Cook shape the lyrics in Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind.” 

Violinist Isaac Stern summed up the importance of timing the following way in an interview: [quote] “Music in essence is what is happening between the printed notes, not on the notes themselves. How in that milli-milli-millisecond of time in going from one note to another note do you do what you do? Instinctively, thoughtfully, with head, heart, taste, and talent.”[/quote]

Watch Abbot and Costello’s famous “Who’s On First?” routine. Think about how it may be similar to the flow, development and timing of a musical performance. The routine centers around the confusion which ensues when players on a baseball team happen to have unusual last names such as “Who”, “What”, and so on…

Mozart and Salieri

Croce-Mozart-DetailWhat is it about the greatest music that keeps us coming back? Mozart’s music, written in an era of powdered wigs and aristocracy, speaks to us as powerfully today as when it was written over 250 years ago. It embodies a universal reality which transcends fashion and style. Meanwhile, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), a respected contemporary of Mozart, is now little more than a historical curiosity.

You may remember this scene from the 1984 movie, Amadeus in which Salieri laments his mediocrity when compared to Mozart’s genius. Along the way to the film’s powerful and thought provoking themes, the real Salieri gets a bum rap. In reality Salieri represents most of us. He never poisoned Mozart. He was actually an excellent composer, firmly in control of his craft. Towards the end of his life he taught several young students whose names you might recognize: Beethoven, Liszt and Schubert. But where Salieri’s music ended in good craftsmanship, Mozart’s continued with that extra “something” which is hard to define…perfection and inspiration on a different level. Its source is a mystery. Mozart was able to tap into the highest level of “hearing.”

Consider Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Picasso and Einstein and you find the same level of inspiration at work. “God is in the details.” said the great twentieth century architect, Mies van der Rohe. As an architecture buff, I was fascinated to discover that Mies, who designed New York’s famous Seagram Building, elevated something as mundane and utilitarian as a gas station to high art. Can you identify what sets this gas station apart from millions of others? Is it the materials and sense of proportion?

Gas stations aside, let’s listen to two piano concertos, one by Salieri and the other by Mozart. Here is Salieri’s highly enjoyable Piano Concerto in C Major performed by Heeguin Kim and the Amadeus Chamber Orchestra. There are three movements: Allegro Maestoso, Larghetto (8:51) and Andatino (15:58).

Now, here is Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major, K. 414. The performance is by Murray Perahia and the English Chamber Orchestra. The movements are AllegroAndante (10:31) and Allegretto (18:50):

Think about what you just heard. What makes Mozart’s concerto so extraordinary? What sets it apart from the Salieri? Share your thoughts in the thread below. Also, what music from our time do you think will endure? Don’t worry too much about the last question because it’s almost impossible to know how music will withstand the test of time. At one time J.S. Bach’s music was considered outdated and only useful as a source of study.

As musicians we’re challenged to open up our ears and imaginations, “hear” the music as clearly as Mozart did and let the musical vision come to life. It’s a nearly impossible task, but one we must strive to fulfill every day.

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Why Music is Essential to Education

What is the role of music and the arts in education?  Unlike the arts-centered education of ancient Athens, modern American public education has increasingly moved towards jobs training.  In this commodified world of standardized tests, the arts are often pushed to the periphery so that students will be “prepared for college” or “competitive in a global economy.”

Does the current system teach students what to think instead of how to think?  In his book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges writes:

“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success,” defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Advocates of music education often cite studies that document the effects of music on academic performance.  The Mozart Effect, this study about music’s effect on learning and the nervous system and this study which links playing music from an early age and brain health after age 60 are only a few examples.

While many of these studies have merit, they obscure the real value of music education.   Music is fundamental to the human experience.  There is speculation that music predated language, with the discovery of flutes carved out of animal bones by the Neanderthals 53,000 years ago.  Music expresses something deep in humanity and conveys a sense of meaning that cannot be put into words.

In his Philosophy of Music Education Larry Judd, a music educator of 36 years writes:

“Music is an expressive, aural art…It is a means of emotional fulfillment, an explanation of existence.  Through its creative nature, music aids the search for self-realization and identity.  Music is an active, personal art which demands emotional and physical participation.  

A study of music based upon an active, creative involvement insures the gaining of immediate enjoyment and satisfaction.  It is such that allows man to develop aesthetic sensitivity to the beauty around him and enables him to enjoy a richer, more meaningful life.”

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.” said Albert Einstein, an amateur violinist and pianist.  In this article Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein suggest that it was through entering the unique, creative world of music that Einstein gained his greatest insights into physics.  “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…. I get most joy in life out of music.”  Einstein told Dr. Shinichi Suzuki that “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.”  Stressing the importance of intuition, Einstein stated that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”   

In his book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil suggests that, with the exponential growth of technology, artificial intelligence will one day surpass human intelligence.  Kurzweil paints a somewhat optimistic view of this new world, but would the essence of humanity, so mysteriously captured in our experience of music, survive?  Would we enter a new and sterile reality?  Perhaps there has never been a better time to hang onto those things which make us fully human.

Insights of a Great Humanitarian

shinichi-6-300x202

Quotations from Nurtured By Love by Shinichi Suzuki:

About Children:

They have no thought of self-deception.

They trust people and do not doubt at all.

They know only how to love, and not how to hate.

They love justice and scrupulously keep the rules.

They seek joy, live cheerfully, and are full of life.

They know no fear and live in security.

About Education:

Any child is able to display highly superior abilities if correct methods of training are used.

Ability breeds ability…Ability grows as it is trained.  Experience and repetition improve talent or ability.

A true artist is a person with beautiful and fine feelings, thoughts, and action. Character first…Ability second.

However wonderful the other person may be, it depends on us alone whether we have the capacity to absorb their greatness.

One has to educate oneself from within to benefit from the greatness of others.

Improvement in ability depends on action and attention.  Life’s success or failure depends on the habit of action.

Thought, to be profitable, must immediately be followed by correct action in order to acquire a better habit to replace the present poor habit.

Any skill can be acquired by constant repetition.  Progress is the acquisition of new skills.  One of the most vital skills is the ability to memorize.

Practicing according to the correct method and practicing as much as possible is the way to acquire ability.