Recently, I was surprised to hear that a few professors of music had been quite curious about the "Theory" that was the creative rule-set for bands like PB & BT. I have always enjoyed musing about this subject. It falls into the same category as questions like "What was the Holy Grail, really?" and "Where did Amelia Earhart go?" and "Why Daisies, for God's Sake?" Mystical and perplexing and with no empirical answers, these questions.
So I thought and thought and I've come up with some suppositions and propositions from which a rough syllogism may be constructed, and I leave it to you to determine the validity and soundness of the arguments made. Perhaps the tautology behind it all only exists on some other yet-to-be explored plane of consciousness. Perhaps it's all pseudo-intellectual bullshit. I don't know and I offer no clear-cut edges, I only have my gut instincts and limited sensory apparatus to trust in these matters, and that renders all this discussion completely subjective, so consider yourself caveat'ed.
1) On the Matter of Communication in a Non-Verbal style:
In sign-languages there is a certain set of gestures which are common to all human experiences; rocking a baby in your arms, cutting a throat, jerking a penis, etc. These are probably so universal as to fall into the category of cultural archetypes like those proposed by C. G. Jung. They are symbols created by the mind and expressed only with the hands. Their very nature is primitive and reptile-brained. When music is improvised using hand signals, is it possible that the pre-verbal hand and the non-verbal music connect in some archetypal way? I have found that sometimes the music that ensues from a mere hand-signal has a directional quality that is unmistakable and very clear. There is no necessity to state a word if the seer is responsive enough. Even when watching someone's hands playing their instrument there is a communicative dance implicit in the manner in which the musician moves. They don't have to signal--their hands mirror the attack, intent and emotion of the notes being played. We always watch each other's hands play, and not just for overt signals. We watch for the subtle gymnastics and dance-gestures created by the hands (and eyes and body language in general) for clues and information that we process on multiple levels of intellection and simple kinesis in order to order our improvisations. This is why it is hard to improvise with people you have no history of playing with. You have not had time to "read" them and understand what their non-verbal motions "mean". Effective improvisation requires intimate knowledge and understanding of another's "musical body language."
2) On the Matter of Musical Communication and Musical Symbolism and Context
According to the level of musical ability and familiarity with various musical forms and idioms, a player can musically communicate very specific ideas without saying anything verbally. A suggestion of familiar motif or genre or other concrete musical building block played can then influence the other improvisers to begin "speaking similarly" and a musical "conversation" within a fairly confined context then ensues. This can, like a verbal conversation, evidence the same thrust & parry, give and take, asides, and tangential subject matter as any verbal conversation. You could obviously extend this analogy unto absurdity, but think about it anyway. If I play in unison with you I am in effect supporting your musical "argument", and if I do counterpoint, am I not doing the opposite? How much of a parallel between verbal conversation can be drawn will of course depend on the "conversational skills" of the players. Therefore, to be a skilled improviser, just as being a skilled and witty conversationalist, depends on the level of musical cultural literacy one brings to the table. The more musical forms and sybols and contexts you "speak", the more people you can speak to meaningfully, and the easier it is to sustain a meaningful discourse and dialog. I believe that the best improvisers must also be the best listeners and interpreters of music. It will never be enough to just be a great player.
3) Where does this Stuff come from anyway?
Not to get too metaphysical about it, but all of us in the band that improvise have occasionally experienced something like a transcendental fugue state where you could swear on your mother that the music has taken over and the piece is playing itself and dictating it's own direction. Rather a spooky feeling, but also way cool, like you're getting a glimpse ofsomething that usually always remains hidden from most people. In sports, very well trained athletes speak of being "in the zone" and I understand this is a similar state of being. When you're in the zone, you can't drop the ball or hit it wrong or even try to move incorrectly. It's like it happens without your volition any longer and your body has merely become a mute instrument of pre-destined change. Weird as hell, but pretty cool too, as I've said. Anybody who has tapped that state of being (and maybe it's just the peculiar chemical endorphin cocktail of an oxygen-starved cortex for all I know that I'm choosing to interpret romantically) knows what I'm talking about.
This is the nirvana of the improviser. When you are permitted entry to this plane, however briefly, you are made to feel that the music you play has always existed somewhere, and is merely funneling through you at the moment, having found an acceptable sluice.
Possibly, this is the real goal of improvisational music. As so many human pursuits can and have become doorways to higher consciousness, perhaps music can function like religion or drugs or sex or any other consciousness-varying modality. Maybe this is why I find improvising so "addictive?". The trip is not always great, but when it is good, you can go somewhere outside yourself using the music as a vehicle.
I believe that with training and sensitivity and of course the all-important willingness to assume that music can have such power, improvisers can become adept at traversing the "zone" and channeling improvisations from wherever it is that they come from. I also think that to achieve this is very likely the whole point of the experience of music. If you're a human, that is.
4) the Theory of Everything
Physics wants a TOE. A Grand Unifed theory. I don't think improvisation will ever get one because it can't be reduced to mathematics--there is too much subjectivity in human nature and music. And if you take the stance that music is really all about human nature and it's subjectivity, you'll probably agree that trying to codify rules for improvising is like trying to predict the weather based on thermodynamics and chaos theory. Maybe it could be done in the far future with 50th generation Pentium processors, but not anytime soon and frankly, why bother? So much more important things to think about, like what to eat for lunch and stuff.
So you have to theorize improvisation in the manner the early philosophers theorized about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, etc. That is to say that you could make up some general guidelines and use them randomly as if they were arbitrary game-playing rules and then see if the results are pleasing. Working empirically gives the imposition of order on what is mostly so infinitely variable as to be essentially random. We impose the conditions of structure on this randomness to reign in an essentially ungovernable beast. We make it heel, of a fashion. We try not to let it rip up the cushions. But really, it is a wild thing at heart, and must be so and remain so, for to rein it in too much would stifle it and constrict it and ultimately kill it dead. So too with improvisations. We liken them to "controlled accidents" like using musical crash-test dummies in idiomatic cars against audience walls and then measuring the results and storing them for future playback. Capturing a moment of randomness fixes it eternally in time, according to Heisenberg, and paradoxically, forever fixes the observer as well. This is why the music can never be anything but disposable, for like cycles of life, the current note displaces the old notes, and will in turn be displaced by the coming notes. The randomness has a purpose, therefore, like genetic mutation. It is through improvisation's core purposes that music evolves to encompass the real and imaginary, and informs the language of non-verbal human communication.
So the improviser's creed would seem to indicate a need to respect the serious and essential nature of chaos and it's generative power. You must learn to improvise not like the master of a plow-mule, but rather like the jockey of a magnificent race-horse, sensitively knowing when to pull in the reins, and when to let the animal fly of it's own accord.
I hope that these observations prove to be springboard for your own thinking about the nature of improvisation, and do think about it, will you? It's only through the thoughtful musician that improvisation acquires meaning, anyway.
See you in the Zone.
9:43 PM 1/1/02
Some additional thoughts and summarizations about the mental processes of improvisation may require further illustration. My prose is often dense, so I apologize in advance:
I'm trying to simplify very abstract and subjective ideas here, and may fail miserably, but I feel I owe it to you, the interested reader.
1) Concrete Musical Skills vs Abstract Musical Skills
First, let me own up to the fact that I am not a professor, philosopher or theorist in any remotely professional sense of the titles. I am a musician who improvises. My beliefs are a subset of the mindset that allows me to function creatively as a musician. Other aspects of this mindset are purely concrete--my sense of timing and rhythm, my knowledge of scales and chords, my understanding of the physics of sound and the technical manipulation of my musical equipment, etc. These things are part of any musician's experience, and I can measure these things out and weigh them and label them and wield them as the tools they are.
But how does one go about understanding one's own subjective proclivities and playing tendencies and musical foci? I assert that it is a shallow thing to just say "I play what I like to play" and be done with it. A musician needs to not only understand his motivations for playing a certain way, he needs to also be able to step outside of his own comfort zone on a regular basis in order to learn the vocabulary required to become a skilled improviser. I would say that this quality of daring experimentation and willingness to embrace new musical methods and approaches is a centrally important quality of any musician who would become an improvising musician.
I have heard people tell me that I have a unique voice on my instrument--that is possibly the highest compliment I could receive, and it resonates with me for many reasons. First and foremost, it means that I have learned enough expression on my instrument to 'speak' what I wish, not mimic the 'words' of others. Many musicians have a vocabulary consisting only of riffs they cadge from this hero or that influence, and some, if you hear them play often enough, seem to always end up repeating themselves, quoting their own few ideas over and over againin each musical context they play in, instead of or despite the opportunity to try to do something differently each time which any playing situation easily affords. This definitely is something each musician needs to be completely objective about before attempting serious improvisation. If you cannot recognize your own limits, you cannot be expected to learn to surpass them. An improviser by definition makes do with whatever is available to him as a possible musical resource--you gotta have that MacGyver thing going on, or you end up trapped in a musical cell of your own making, to which only you have the keys if you are daring enough to admit first that you are locked in and not as creative yet as you kid yourself you think you are. Your only hope to grow as an improviser is to recognise that you can never stop learning how to do this. To allow yourself to assume a mastery of anything is to lose the hunger of the student mind, and that is what dooms you to being a boring, faceless, mere middleman of sound.
I've been playing the bass for 25 years--the one thing that remains consistently in the forefront of my mind when I consider that span of years is that I still feel like a freakin' beginner...I think if I ever lose that feeling, I'll be ready to be put out to pasture.
2) Where does MY music come from?
You may as well ask yourself this question and wait for an answer. It is not so much rhetorical as it is like a sphinx-riddle or Zen koan. Truth is, it comes from someplace personal, and visceral, and intellectual, and emotional. It comes from pre-verbal and primitive impulses, channeled through active cognition. The very set of experiences and feelings and immediacies of the interactive 'now' filter the impulse to music.
Only you know you. To make your own music, you must know your own music, you must understand your musical self and not don a "musical persona" that only lives when you don your instrument. I don't think really musical people can concieve of the two as separate: you are your music in a fundamental way.
Try this thought-experiment based on the ideas of composers like John Cage and others. Just listen to the world and try to hear it's natural sounds as if they were musical sounds. Filter them through your psyche and order them with your mind and listen to the music that materializes. That's all you-- that's your musical self impressing itself on the very substance of sound. Your interpretation is everything.
3) The Space Between
When you improvise with others, the interpretations you bring to interactive instants within the playing context are constantly changing and modifying themselves, with your conscious intent and your subconscious sensitivity acting as the input-output system. Using the example of a simple stimulus- response machine can help illustrate this: I play a note, which causes you to respond with your note, which influences me on my next note, etc. But this is obviously way, way simpler than what is really happening. First, you're trying to be musical (with all that implies) and then you're trying to be receptive and reactive, and you may be trying to hold down a groove, or take a solo that makes a statement and is creative, and you are doing this while simultaneously judging and evaluating the constantly shifting situation about you, which of course is happening to each musician in the group at the same time. Phew, talk about millions of variables at work!
So it is very important to acknowledge that you are not alone at work. Your musical meaning is completed through these interactions. You are not merely playing with other musicians in an ensemble context. You are attempting to fuse into one musical organism that thinks and feels and reacts in a unified way (I don't necessarily mean playing the same way or even the same thing--do all the organs of your body do the same things?) to create a musical event that exists as a holistic thing, not as a violin solo with orchestral embellishments, for example.
Therefore the highest degree of concentration and dedication to the overall whole is mandatory for an improvisational group. There can be no egos or wallflowers. Each member is a leg of a table that cannot stand with even one less, or less committed member.
What happens there, in the interaction of the musicians, is the magical, unpredictable and unknowable heart of creation.
I have used an analogy before to attempt to describe what is happening in another way. Imagine you have a group of painters who are working on a canvas together, attempting to paint a unified picture with little or no discussion or planning, starting each at a corner and working their way towards the center of the canvas, and realizing their subject only gradually as they view what each other creates at their ends, and revising their own painting and methods as they work to that hopefully unified center of artistic realization. Sounds hard, doesn't it, especially if one of the rules is you can't go back and paint over anything you already did!
The often-overlooked element that is actually one of the most beautiful aspects of improvising is that it is something like nurturing a momentary child from it's birth-pangs throughout it's evolution into something strong and purposeful. At least that's how it can seem. Good parenting helps.
Trying to boil these down to single sentences as a kind of chapbook for improvisers is hard, but I'll attempt it with these few wrap-ups:
1. be responsive to all signals overt or otherwise--use your primitive pre-verbal senses as well as your modern evolved intellection.
2. listen and study all music and sound. Understand music as a form of elaborate but non-verbal communication, and learn to speak it well.
3. Try to achieve the "zone" each time you play. Be sensitive and open.
4. Understand that ultimate control is not the goal.
5. Cultivate your concrete skills and your abstract skills equally.
6. Understand your limits and your own musical self and dare to surpass them.
7. Interpret everything as music.
8. Don't just play. Actively participate in an evolution of music.