Saturday, July 31, 2010


Exerpt from Chapter Two of Free Improvisation: A Practical Guide

When people get together to do something there is usually an established set of social agreements about what they will be doing and how they are expected to go about doing it. There is a different set of agreements for attending school and attending a sporting event, or for playing in a blues band as opposed to playing in an orchestra.

Freely improvised music doesn't necessarily rely on established musical styles or structures, so many of the common agreements people have about improvising and playing music together simply don't apply. But eventually, every group comes to some kind of mutual agreement about how to improvise together. Whether conscious or unconscious, implicit or explicit, these agreements always exist.

For the purposes of practicing free improvisation, I find it useful to begin with a set of agreements that creates maximum openness and room for exploration. The specific agreements of any group will evolve over time, depending on the interests and focus of that particular group, but the following ideas are a good starting point for exploration...

The pot drips... Part III

One of the reasons I detest the genre-ization of free improvisation is that I am a passionate advocate of the most open, the freest definition of it.

Reaching a mutual understanding about “improvisation” seems to get easier and easier. Although there are lots of ideas about how to improvise, and lots of potential for quibbling about what’s truly improvisational and what isn’t, everybody knows what it is and can easily understand it. It’s kinda like breathing. We all do it. It’s an unconscious and omnipresent part of being alive. We barely notice it most of the time, but if it’s brought to our consciousness we can easily become aware of it, and can learn to use it in all different kinds of ways to make us stronger and make our life better.

But lots of people seem to want to attach a limiting definition to the “free” part. I know there’s a historical and political journey that leads to a sense that it refers to freedom from something... freedom from traditional forms, ideas, etc. I understand why this is so, but I feel no need to be constrained by those ideas, any more than the free pioneers felt the need to be constrained by the ideas and boundaries of bebop.

To me, the “free” in free improvisation means I am free to do whatever I want to do.

Of course, as soon as I say that, I start bumping up against all the real (and imagined) limitations of freely improvised music.

I know some things (like grooves, melodies, and music that sounds more traditional) are not conventionally considered a part of the “free improvisers” palette. So what? I am not practicing free improvisation to be conventional – even if it’s the convention of being unconventional. I consider ALL my entire personal universe of sound to be available to me as a part of my improvised communication.

I know some things (like complicated unison melodies and chord changes) are virtually impossible to freely improvise as a group. Well, that’s what composition is for...

I know some things are relatively easy to do when you are freely improvising. (These are often the same things people talk about when they say free improvisation is a genre.)

I know there are other things that are more difficult to do (and that doesn’t particularly mean more out, or even more complex). These are the things you have to PRACTICE, whether by years of playing stuff together, or by actually practicing improvisation together as a group. These are the things I’m most interested in exploring – which means working out with the same group of folks, because the only way to gain that kind of individual and group awareness of musical and improvisational possibilities is to practice doing it together.

You play what you know. The pot drips what is in it.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Pot drips... Part II

Not long after my last blog post, while I was still contemplating how to proceed with Part II, I opened up Facebook, to see that Samm Bennett (who shared my first free improv experiences in Ensemble Garuda) had written "Free Improvisation is a genre."

I think it's a telling sign that, out of nowhere, this person with whom I have shared countless hours of improvising writes a thought that neatly encapsulates the dilemma I am writing and thinking about. My first reaction was one of horror (Noooooooo!!!!) then of childish petulance (Is NOT!), then my public persona got the upper hand, and I wrote a more measured response: "Oh well, back to the drawing board. Can I be a genre too?" To which he replied "Yes, Tom! We can ALL be genres!"

But I don't want to be a genre, and I don't want free improvisation to be a genre, and despite my last post's hinting towards a Part II about the inherent limitations of free improvisation as a musical process, I believe that the limits of the process of free improvisation have barely been explored. I believe that many of the perceived limitations of "free improvisers" are as much the result of a lack of disciplined group improvising practice, and an acceptance of self imposed stylistic boundaries, as they are a limitation of the process itself.

The pot drips what is in it.

(to be continued)

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Pot Drips What Is In It

I've been thinking of this as You play what you know, but today, in a Rumi poem, I found a more evocative way to put it:

The pot drips what is in it.

This is true for each of us as individuals, and equally true when we're improvising together.

The pot drips what is in it.

I love doing The Sessions. I love improvising with other people who love improvising. But throughout all the wonder and surprise of playing spontaneous music, with all different kinds of improvisers, one thing is always true.

The pot drips what is in it.

This is one reason why free improvisation is simultaneously so compelling and so frustrating to me. Compelling because it is a gift and a privilege to share creation with other people so openly and intimately - to taste what is in their pot. The act of sharing in this way overflows with creative joy, and power, and boundless energy.

Frustrating because we are sharing this through the act of creating sound together, and sound is physical and finite, contained and created through boundaries and limits. We embody even our most free and open creative intention through the physical act of creating sonic spaces and boundaries...

More on this later. For now here's the poem I read today

The Phrasing Must Change

Learn about your inner self from those who know such things,
but don't repeat verbatim what they say.
Zuleikha let everything be the name of Joseph, from celery seed
to aloes wood. She loved him so much she concealed his name
in many different phrases, the inner meanings
known only to her. When she said, The wax is softening
near the fire, she meant, My love is wanting me.
Or if she said, Look, the moon is up or The willow has new leaves
or The branches are trembling or The coriander seeds
have caught fire or The roses are opening
or The king is in a good mood today or Isn't that lucky?
Or the furniture needs dusting or
The water carrier is here or It's almost daylight or
These vegetables are perfect or The bread needs more salt
or The clouds seem to be moving against the wind
or My head hurts or My headache's better,
anything she praises, it's Joseph's touch she means,
any complaint, it's his being away.
When she's hungry, it's for him. Thirsty, his name is a sherbet.
Cold, he's a fur. This is what the Friend can do
when one is in such love. Sensual people use the holy names
often, but they don't work for them.
The miracle Jesus did by being the name of God,
Zuleikha felt in the name of Joseph.

When one is united to the core of another, to speak of that
is to breathe the name Hu, empty of self and filled
with love. As the saying goes, The pot drips what is in it.
The saffron spice of connecting, laughter.
The onion smell of separation, crying.
Others have many things and people they love.
This is not the way of Friend and friend.

-- Mathnawi VI: 4020-43
Version by Coleman Barks
"The Essential Rumi"
HarperSanFrancisco, 1995

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Improvisation: More Important Than Ever

Now, more than ever, being a competent and aware improviser is the best grounding I can think of for a joyful and fulfilling life.

The ability to freely improvise is more important now than at any time since the invention of the movable type printing press. The primary issue is no longer how to find information, but what to do with it. Our ability to creatively interact (to improvise) with the information around us is becoming more and more important relative to the ability to store and reproduce that information. Cultural structures (like schools and arts institutions) that once placed the highest value on acquisition (of knowledge, music, media, information, etc.) are being overwhelmed by the new paradigm of nearly instantaneous access to a continual flow of information, a constant barrage of creative input and output.

But the people growing up in this environment are not overwhelmed. There is spontaneous creation and improvisation happening all over the place, and I'm finding that many of my current improvisation students have an intuitive knowledge and understanding of free improvisation that was rare in students of 15 years ago. Improvisation is a bigger part of their life, so they understand improvisational concepts more easily and use them more fluidly.

It really is time for the teaching and practicing of improvisation to come to the forefront of education of all kinds.