Intimacy through Improvisation

I met up with Heather today, who runs a music group for visual studies at the art college. We got chatting about improvisation. It was interesting how many parallels there are between improvising jazz and improvising tango dance:

Firstly In the way it is learnt: you have to narrow down the scope to just a couple of notes to play, or a couple of steps to make in order to get started. Too much freedom is paralysing and is met with fear, terror sometimes if the person is not used to thinking in this way.

The next step is repetition. A phrase of music or of movement is repeated to set up a rhythm or just as a framework to build from.

Then comes breaking out of the repetition, this requires us to take a risk. A foray into the unknown, with each note or step occurring spontaneously, judgment of whether the sequence was successful or not comes after but not during.

Heather is interested in the nature of improvisation as a life skill, and an education tool. Given that many of the skills you need to improvise; the spontaneous action, repetition for comfort, occasional risk taking by pushing oneself, are skills needed in life, she argues it would be beneficial to encourage improvisation from a young age. She talked about changing the way music is taught to encourage and nurture the freedom she witnessed in her 2 year old niece, who was happy to play notes without worrying about the outcome and how it would be received. For some reason, possibly the way we are educated, we tend to lose this freedom to express ourselves freely as we mature. Our focus shifts from process to outcome and we produce finished pieces of work.

The similarities in the way one learns to improvise were interesting, but even more fascinating was the similarity in our descriptions of why we like to improvise, what rewards us and keeps us going back to it as a means to find this reward. We both agreed that improvisation solo could put us into a pleasurable state of mind and we could feel quite swept away in it, but an interesting discovery was that improvising with a partner or group is when we have had the most powerful experiences.
On particular occasions we have both felt, Heather through improvised music with another person and I through improvised dance with a partner, something we described in remarkably similar ways.  A sense of extreme intimacy, that we ‘got’ each other. As if only in this state was our deepest truest self simultaneously revealed and understood.

I got home and started surfing the net, as I do, and came across these pages, all to do with improvisation and collaboration. some to do with flow, which I guess is what I’ve been talking about. There has been much talk about flow, but I have only heard it described as something possible to achieve when engaging in an activity one is very skilled in alone, I’m interested to find out more about this particular flow that you feel when you are working collaboratively in the same activity. – Nancy Stark Smith apparently wrote extensively on flow in dance, I haven’t found any papers yet but I will keep looking. a magazine devoted to new dance/movement and improvisation practice. – Mary Prestidge:
attending to the moment and keeping open and responsive to the signals within and outside of the body. Moving in contact with another person offers many options in terms of direction, and speed, resting and listening. It allows for the interplay of different energetic states creating unique partnerships and conversations.

Starting to look at improvisation Jazz theory:

5 thoughts on “Intimacy through Improvisation

  1. Improvisation, in my opinion, is vital to most practises, there are rules mostly created from current thinking and to establish something that is acceptable or achievable for most people, but in reality these would be guidelines only with the scope for the personal touch endless.

    In music as an example, the groundbreaking guitarists of the late 60’s and early 70’s took the root influences of early american blues players and turned the music scence on its head, all the rules were cast aside and the result was the incendiary playing of musicians such as Jimi Hendrix, dissonance,tritones,harmonics and the use of extreme but controlled feedback ensured that things were changed forever, he rarely ever played the same number in the same way twice, it was all about feel and mood and little to do with rigid note choice, sounded amazing, still does, but theoretically some of the songs, Hey Joe for instance, do not follow conventional chord practise yet such is the delivery that the ear is unconcerned and mightily pleased.
    Sometimes there is a convention of culture i.e use of scales with flat 2nd interval from the root then the 4th and flat 5th , the start of a Japanese ‘iwato’ scale , play it up and down and it will sound familiar but not western, the intervals are very eastern sounding, dissonant/unresolved but they work, much in the same way as the question and answer structure of the blues.
    I guess we improvise constantly when we speak using socially accepted convention some of the time sprinkled with the more ‘heart driven’ stuff at times which is just who we are , this cuts across into everything we do , music , dance and on.

    Congrats on the distinction , well deserved.


  2. Thanks for your comments, really nice to get a response. I just watched Jimi hendrix playing Hey Joe on youtube, pretty amazing!
    Maverick… Pilot?… Japanese connection… rock guitar. You sound like someone I know… do I know you?


  3. You are very welcome, interesting your discovery that the more powerful experience came when another person or group of people were involved, could this be that the act of sharing something which is intense and generally buried deep within us with others gives us the greatest satisfaction, for my part I feel this is true when others are on the same wavelength.

    What beautiful vehicles music and dance , it is wonderful to explore things that bring forth such emotion, I love the quote by Agnes De Mille ‘ To dance is to be out of yourself, larger, more beautiful, more powerful.
    and ‘Musc is a moral law, it gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and charm and gaiety to life and to everything. I don’t know who first said that but I wish it was me.

    Do you know me? I doubt it, linking Maverick to that late 80’s T Cruise movie I see , that and rock guitar, wow you must know some fascinating people!

    On the youtube front check Tender Surrender by Steve Vai,
    this guys ability to provoke emotion is legendary.

    Nicely produced blog.


  4. Hi
    If you’re interested in improv you must, must, must listen to Keith Jarrett. Try the La Scala or the Summertime clips on YouTube.

    Nice wrapping paper designs by the way. Thought of a revised one for wallpaper? Esp the carp pattern?
    Don’t know who/where to show them. They look groovy, for contemporary wallpaper patterns.


  5. Went to Keith Jarret’s solo concert at the south bank centre last week, amazing! Summertime was the only standard he did, and just at the right time too, to get the audience going. Standing ovation and four encores!


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