Much of what I know and understand about improvisation, at least on a theoretical level, I've picked up from M. Segal. One of the first lessons I learned was that in art it is the act of creation that is most important. I have kept this in mind as I have made my own observations.
Our culture, like most cultures claims to value creativity. But we express that valuation in a backwards manner. We worship the results of creativity, we revere the creators but we ignore the process. The sculptures and paintings of Michelangelo are admired the world over. Beethoven's symphonies continue to play to packed houses. The poems of Dylan Thomas can still be heard on the radio and in the schools. We teach our children that beauty is a virtue and the creative mind a thing to praise. But we never teach them to examine the process of creativity, to study that process, to praise that process. We only show them point A and point B, the artist and his artifact. Ah, "art is artifact", another "Segalism".
We are told that the artwork is the important part. What I say is this: Bullshit! In no way do I mean to diminish the quality or importance of any given artwork but I come at this from a slightly different standpoint. For me, the artwork (sonata, poem, sculpture, house of cards) is in essence a byproduct of the creative process. We eat, we burn calories, we crap. We absorb input, we mull things over, we paint. Or compose, or design or whatever. We don't place our crap on a pedestal and charge people admission to look at it. (Well John Waters might but that's another story.) Clearly the important part of the process is the actual creation of the artwork. The act of creation, that's where the fire burns, the angels sing, the lightening strikes, etc.
Unfortunately we, the audience, are kept away from this part. How often do we get to see the marble chiseled away? When was the last time you were able to observe a poem being written? Granted the creative process can seem pretty dull from the outside even while the artist himself is burning and sweating with his brain spinning in seven different directions. Performance/exhibition of an artwork can be a wonderful experience but it necessarily excludes the audience from the most vital aspect of art. On the surface this would seem to be an unbridgeable gap.
But here comes the improvising musician to save the day! By improvising in front of an audience creation is linked to performance. Indeed creation becomes performance. By improvising in front of an audience the artist not only lets the audience in on the process, he makes them a part of it. No artist works in a vacuum, but the improviser sucks up the moods and attitudes of the people for whom he is performing. Their mere presence has a major impact on the music being created/performed. Any musician can tell you that the audience's reaction to a performance can make or break a show. A crowd that's in a good mood, hootin' and hollerin' can make the musicians play that much harder/better. Conversely, a crowd that's dull, dim and distracted will make the band the same. When the band is improvising that audience/performer relationship becomes a very serious factor in the composition of the music. It's not only unavoidable it is absolutely necessary.
It is a little different in the recording studio but really not much. The audience is still there if only in a virtual sense. The musicians know they are performing for someone beside themselves and that mental reality impacts their playing.
The essential aspect of the creative process remains the same no matter what forum or medium is being used. Creation itself is the most amazing thing in the universe. Look! There's nothing. Look again! Now there's something!!! It's fantastic to be a part of that. It truly is becoming part of something larger and more important than yourself. It is a wonderfully spiritual experience. It can be like meditation, or LSD, or seeing God, or sex. On the other hand, it is so not like any of those things, and yet it is all of those things together.
To watch someone create can be an explosive, impressive event. To create and have other people actually interested and enjoy watching you do it...well that's something else altogether. It's probably the closest thing to seeing God that an atheist can know.
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