Andrew Hodges
Category: Improvisation

Just Firefighting? (Part 2) - The TROUBLE WITH IMPROVISATION

In the article "Just Firefighting" which I published last year, I referred to musical improvisation as a possible metaphor for non-musical improvisation. However there is a major problem with improvisation used in this way because musicians and composers are unable to agree as to what improvisation is.   In some circles improvisation is even regarded with some suspicion.  Not only that, musical and theatrical performance are coloured by the same characteristics as those that exist in business, e.g. perfectionism, a potentially destructive blame culture, overweening control dramas, and a hypersensitivity to the fear of error.   What musicians do seem to have on their side is a passionate commitment to freedom of expression and seeking the effective means of personal creativity. 


Can the musical community form an understanding of improvisation and its relationship to the output of their creativity?  For many musicians, improvisation is in some way separate from composing and performing.  In the case of performance, as this mainly consists of playing and practising previously composed pieces, the player normally focuses on what he or she sees on the paper in front of them and would find difficulty in perceiving ‘something between the notes’.  The processes of practice, preparation and performance seem not to be viewed as remotely connected to the characteristics of improvisation. 


From this one could draw a generalisation from some musicians that there are things which are distinctly improvisational and some things which aren’t such as musical pieces and recordings.  For survival's sake there is a strong need to objectify musical output e.g. create ‘pieces’, notate them, record them and get them played if at all possible.  This raises the question of the ‘reality’ of music.  Is music a ‘thing’ or is it actually rather more ephemeral?     There is a kind of ‘either-or-ness’ about musical creativity which seems to hint at musical creativity being somewhat dualistic in character; the object that music becomes and everything else that isn’t.   This peculiarly bipolar world can be somewhat artificial and rather unhelpful. 


If instead composing and its performance on the one hand and improvisation on the other are seen as part of a continuum then it becomes possible to consider the notion that all musical behaviour could in some way be improvisational, that improvisation is not a separate activity.  It might even be more beneficial (and a good deal more interesting) to consider composition and performance subset of improvisation. 


If the improvisational universe can be extended, with composition and its performance being a more controlled part of that universe and improvisation itself tending towards the freer, less controlled dimension then something rather interesting occurs in the ‘fuzzy space’ between the two extremes. 



Einstein said: “So far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are uncertain.   And so far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality”.    Reality is not bipolar.  Truth is blurred, even to the extent of seeming chaotic.   Improvisation seems to offer some kind of order to chaos.   If reality is truly ‘fuzzy’, we can expect form & process to emerge from the fog just long enough to be useful.  Process doesn’t remain fixed.   Instead it’s recycled.  Improvisational behaviour with its fuzzy processes seems to offer us a more creative and productive route towards effectively managing our moment-to-moment relationships with people.      


In the improvising music group, excessive ‘noise’ and extraneous sounds may be produced from time to time but the process of improvisation seems to fold these aberrant activities back into the improvisation either to be utilised constructively or to be, ‘without judgement’, quietly dropped as ‘not helpful’.   In business, this might mean that after transforming current-style management to an improvisational management style, we might expect the newly transformed managers to say that their world has been made significantly easier now that the team has started to perform optimally.   This is because they will be intervening less.  We might expect this because the now more effective team should have reduced substantially old negative behaviours such as excessive ‘gossip’ and other compensatory behaviours.    The ‘sounds’ they now produce no longer lead to disharmony that ordinarily would have led at some point to management intervention.  


It means that by adopting improvisation as the general case, to foster creativity, we need to be in position to flexibly move between different parts of the improvisational universe.  If the improvisers and the composers can agree that all musical behaviour is in some way improvisational then both as a metaphor and maybe even as reality the notion that all behaviour is to a greater or lesser extent improvisational is extremely helpful. 


By adopting a global improvising mindset we can start to view control processes in a different context and with a different meaning to their purpose.  We can begin to rebalance the machine-like stranglehold that modern existence seems to have over us.  Within a musical improvisation there is little evidence of blame and a strong desire to work cooperatively on a shared basis.  This means that whilst aiming for high standards of workmanship we can equally value and utilise creatively the well-intentioned mistake.  The output at any moment can be thrilling, engaging, motivational or at the very least sufficient for the purpose at that time.   This is the kind of mental map that will aid creativity wherever it’s needed, both inside and outside the field of music. 


The improvisational metaphor supplies the nurturing landscape through which which we creatively move.  We no longer need be driven purely by the loneliness and rigidity of process.

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