A Philosophy of Improvisation

by M. Segal


The philosophy of improvisation is ambiguous, amorphous and deeply personal. What follows are my own concepts, which may differ somewhat from that of the other Paper Bag theory authors, Greg Segal, George Radai, Kenny Ryman and Dave McIntire. They will certainly have their own ideas to convey.

In the world that improvised music has existed in for the last fifty years, popular opinion (informed or otherwise) has ventured definition by dividing it into four general categories:

1.) Lengthy jams sessions- blues, rock, bebop, groove music, etc.

2.) Noise with very little groove or discernible rhythm pattern.

3.) Endless grooves or rhythms with no melodic content/intent.

4.) Performance Art catharsis, a vehicle for the expulsion of personal angst and little else.

This is what the audience will be expecting. While the Paper Bag: Theory allows one to borrow liberally from these elements, you must owe allegiance to none of them. Depending on the audience in front of you, or the audience you hope to reach with a recording, always avoid the expected. Never give the listener what they want, give them what they need. It is necessary to shake them from their idiot-trance, to slap them from complacency with an aural glove in the face. If you challenge them, then you also challenge yourself and the circle will be complete.

Indifference is the most deplorable of states, and neutrality is the worst possible outcome. Better that your music be vehemently hated than offered the coffin nail of such critiques. The ideal situation occurs when the listener, out of enjoyment or intrigue, feels he is an indelible part of the creative process. This person is the final participant, the receptor, vital for true creative ignition. In the studio, musicians will tend to imagine this audience. The recording process, as it applies to the Paper Bag: Theory, is done 'live in the studio' and is always a more introspective venture. Each player must decide for themselves what pushes the boundaries.

Rehearsals are a deep and reflective endeavor, a mad alchemy lab where ideas are attempted and unique art is created. Much of what you do during these hours will be better than anything you do live or in the studio. Record all of your rehearsals, but never treat the rehearsal as a recording session.

Performance with an audience as the final gear is nothing like working in the lab. When such human energy is added to the Paper Bag: Theory, a factor of unpredictability becomes part of the controlled chaos, and one more lunatic is admitted to a very efficient asylum.

Recording sessions, which include an apprehension of time and budget constraints, are nothing like the four-walled liberation of the rehearsal room, and lack the physical energy of having a participant audience.

Every performance is a one-shot deal.

Do not become attached to anything you've created in the lab, live, or in the recording studio, because it will never be performed again. You must be willing to throw it away, love it enough to let it go forever. Your art is sacred only during the moments you give birth to it. After that, it's over. For this reason, all improvised music is disposable, etched onto the moving winds. Only the memory remains, and that is as it should be.

The notion that 'art is garbage' is the bottom level reality for everything you create using the jelly-like strictures of the Paper Bag: Theory.


M. Segal 3/2000


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