Tuesday, February 1, 2011

We Are Not Alone

Improvising musicians often think of themselves as a lonely, unpopular, and misunderstood minority, who have little hope of ever being understood and appreciated.  We each sit on our own little creative island, bemoaning our fate as cultural castaways.  

At one time, there may have been some truth to this attitude, but now it couldn’t be farther from the truth. We are now at the point where improvisers need to acknowledge that we are no longer on the fringes of society. We are smack dab in the middle of it.  

For the first time since the invention of the printing press, the way we acquire and transmit information and knowledge has fundamentally changed, and this has sparked a fundamental change in the way that people process and utilize information.  As a result, people everywhere are turning to improvisation as a vital and inescapable part of the answer to the questions posed by digital media and information technology.   We are entering the Age of Improvisation.

What does that mean for us improvising musicians?  It means we have to stop thinking about what we do as some weird thing that nobody except for the other people who do this same kind of weird thing are interested in.  It means that there is longer any excuse for pretending what we do is exclusive, and every reason to make what we do as inclusive as we can – to welcome and encourage everyone to take an interest in and to participate in this glorious process of improvisation.  It means we have to accept that we are the repositories of a vast amount of knowledge about the process of improvisation, knowledge that is direly needed and sought by many people.

Over the next month, I'll be writing about some of the many ways that improvisation is being used, and places where talk about improvisation is showing up.  I'll be adding links to my webpage, and a blogroll of improvisational allies.  It's all connecting up, and improvisation is at the heart of it. 

We are not alone.


  1. The notion of improvisation as "esoteric knowledge" is really epiphenomenal to the notion of music as "artifact," which means "written music," which means "music in the West" for the most part. In almost every oral tradition there are elements of idiosyncratic variation that are articulated and appreciated; folk musicians improvise constantly, of course — both in the short-term sense of intra-performance variation, and in the long-term sense of continuous transmutation of material over years/decades/centuries. We've never been alone.

  2. Could be yer epiphenomenon applies to even the idea that one can separate improvisation and creation? I'd be interested to know which cultures had a word for improvisation. I know many of them didn't have a word for "music" as we define it today.

    But even completely composed western music only comes to life through the improvisation of the performers - and that separation of music performer and music creator is a conceit that is rapidly breaking down! Us humans are improvising mofos - no doubt about it - which makes the alienation of modern improvising artists all the more remarkable.

    It's way past time to bury that "we're so hip and out that the audience all left by intermission" attitude. We're just not that weird anymore, and if free improv is done well, pretty much anybody can understand it, and even enjoy it (although they might not particularly like it or seek it out).

    Let's include everybody in our club of hip improvisers, because the human race is improvising the hell out of itself! Look at the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions for an incredible example of modern group improvisation, of how new media has enabled people to improvise and create together in ways we could never dream of before, and how powerful that can be!