All Life is an Improvisation (R15)


For twelve years I’ve been privileged to be a member of a Music Group in Colchester, Essex, UK called ‘Firewire’ under the auspices of CoMA (Contemporary Music for All). We play members’ own formally composed music – all sorts – and spend a lot of time freely improvising. When a new member who is already accomplished at playing their own instrument in an orchestra joins the group they are often rather bemused when it comes to making sounds without a score.

We don’t very often discuss what goes on in our sessions – the music does the trick. But a recent newcomer commented after one of our two-hour long sessions that it was quite an experience having to be personally responsible for every sound you made. This was a comment that got me thinking…

1. In General

• We have names for things in order to manage them; names seem to give things a permanent ‘reality’ they don’t necessarily have. In music there are so-called ‘concords’ and ‘discords’, ‘minims’ & ‘crotchets’ and so on, ‘whole tones’ & ‘half-tones’ & ‘quarter tones’, ‘sharps’ & ‘flats’. Names are mind-generated prisons that cage what is forever flowing freely round the ‘music of the spheres’.

• In improvising freely we go beyond all labels, get out of mind-generated prisons to experience what is forever flowing freely.

• Paradoxically, getting out of prison can get us back into a different way of conceiving of composition should we choose to go that way.

• When we emerge from the mind-imposed prisons of names & labels we can see them not as personal possessions but simply as conventional quite useful signposts.

• Names & labels for things depict a map we imagine we always need to guide us musically but they do not contribute much to the whole territory of sound.

2. When we are engaged in free improvisation

• we each have a responsibility for the sounds we make

• we each respond separately to the sound others make:-

March 15th 2018

• as a group we are responsible for the group-sound

• we are uniquely related to each other – the sound we conjointly make with our breathing (including vibraphone & piano) is a group-sound

• the group-sound may be appreciated by each of us in our own way when we go into the part of us that listens from the outside. This may be called Meta-I – the part of me that exists in a meta-position which is an emptiness

• we are each responsible for not playing at a particular time

• lack of sound is sound – it’s all the sounds we might have decided to play but didn’t

• when we decide not to play we go into a meta-position to feel for the right moment to make a new entry into the group-sound

• at each moment of an improvisation we are each asking the virtual question – ‘What shall I play next?’
We are not necessarily conscious of asking a virtual question

• it’s just the same when you are composing except that then you’re on your own

• improvisation is composition

• it would not be the same if we were not as we are

• each one of us can decide at any time to say to ourselves, “And the music starts now…” leaving others to join in the flow of sound

• it is remarkable how the group as a whole knows exactly when to stop playing

• it requires the treading of new neuronal pathways or else a shift into a different part of the brain whatever that might be – it’s likely that most people are reading notes off a score with the left side of their brain while simply sensing what to play next is a right brain activity, attention being paid to rhythm, pattern, structure

• attention is all – suspension of thought while it’s still available in its emptiness

• though we say it does, the mind does not think – the idea that it does is forced on us by the way we construct sentences; it’s more correct to say simply ‘there is a hearing’, then it’s a virtuous circle, a system, with part of us being the Emergent Property all systems have:-

• a sound-world unpremeditatedly ‘ordinary’ can be followed by a sound-world unpremeditatedly ineffable – there cannot be one without the other

• there are so many beautiful ‘lost chords’, so much lovely polyphony, so many delightful discordancies, so much that one would like to write down as conventional blobs

• improvisation is composition

• we should remember that all life is an improvisation

20 thoughts on “All Life is an Improvisation (R15)

  1. Yes – Life is improvisation…

    However, I wonder whether how we improvise is governed by what we have previously learned in both structured and unstructured, deliberate and non-deliberate learnings. In other words, I wonder if it springs forth from the other than conscious internal rules we have. If we don’t know about the other than conscious internal rules, how would we know when we have been able to let go of them.

    Also, the actions of Mirror Neurones, our own and more especially other peoples, plays such a large part in how we act both when we are in the company of others and afterwards, it is nigh on impossible to tell who initiates what in a context like improvised music.

    It is known that the stronger the intention of the person “It’s time to play now” the stronger the response, (mirroring) that takes place in the brain/mind of the other persons, initiating and creating the possibility for like action.

    In a conventional sense, one has an idea of what a piece is to sound like, as it’s written down and we have the guidance of the composer; so we have s defined aim. However, there is not even a skeleton to go by.

    I listened to a choreographer this morning, she was speaking about contemporary dance composition. How there is no initial narrative, there is no story, (score) she has no fixed idea of what she is after. She might have a series of images but has no idea how they go together or what they mean. She has a sense of the feeling of what she is trying to create, so she must first invent the language to communicate her nascent sense of how she wants to affect the audience, the music and the dancers become a part of the creation and eventually the narrative of the piece becomes apparent.

    However, what the audience members experience is unique to each of them.

    I find it absolutely fascinating. In your context, the wondering when to stop, and the decision when to stop, appears to be taken on a covert collaborative basis, a kind of felt sense the group has, but neuroscientists expert in the filed of mirror neurones, would say the strong intention that one person has to stop, influences the rest of the group who absorb the intention to stop, feel the need to stop and stop.

    How do you decide to start or who is to start?

    Do you think that in improvisation in the musical sense, one person leads, or whether the lead is swopped around or is more a question of different individuals leading in different aspects at the same time?

    Personal responsibility, is an interesting concept in this context. To what is the responsibility, is it to the piece itself, or to the other people playing the piece???

    Standing outside of oneself – perhaps allows one to over-ride the neural activity. It would make a fabulous piece of research for someone.

    Thank you for posting an interesting a ever little mini glob.


    Could you all play inside a fMRI machine??

    Liked by 1 person

      1. cosy – BUT, just the other day, I saw an interview with a scientist who had invented a scanner that was worn, thereby permitting movement of the participant.

        It looked like a cross between the mask in phantom of the opera and Frankenstein, but would probably do the trick.

        Thanks for the distraction. Although I’m willing to think that thinking about creative thinking stimulates creative thinking.

        Pat x

        Liked by 1 person

  2. As often happens, Colin, I found a little bit of Buddhism in this post: your assertion that “the mind does not think … it’s more correct to say simply ‘there is a hearing’ ” aligns perfectly with the notion of no-self, whereby it’s less correct to assert “I’m having this particular thought” or “I’m really angry now”, and more correct to say instead “This thought is arising” or “Anger is arising”. What’s new and intriguing for me in your easy is the relationship between Buddhism’s no-self concept and your declaration that “all life is an improvisation”. As always, you point me “onwards”!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Whatever it is that’s doing this bit of thinking expects that it’s a very long-time flirting with Zen that’s percolated through these old bones & flesh + a bit of Mr G which arrives at the positive state of Nothingness which can be improvised into a temporary something-or-other.

      Or maybe it’s just that I’ve been reading Simone Weil who’s into ‘unselfing’ (‘decreation’ she calls it) and Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘The Other Shore’ sent to me recently by Pat.

      Everything is connected… as we know!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I would simply add that there are imaginative leaps happening during an improvisational piece that can cause a sudden shift in time or tempo. Some musicians like everything to be set in a permanent structure, “just play it the way it’s written!” A group can practice for hours a day until everything is just so and present their music in this way to the public. I just can’t seem to play the same thing the same way twice, nor do I want to, and so I surround myself with players who just go for it. Some players are so talented and seem to have no limits to their playing and it’s these types that possess the imagination I mentioned above. Great piece Colin.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Ah ha! So you get into flow – wonderful…

    Now, I do know that has been measured, and so scientifically “proved” to be a thing by a jazz musician who also happens to be a neuroscientist. My memory being what it is, I just can’t remember his name. Hey ho..

    Essential of course because as we know experiential evidence of our own eyes, body’s, ears etc. is simply not enough these days.

    I wonder what the difference is that makes the difference between those who have a preference for the improve route and those who definitely do not. Have you noticed Colin?

    Are they I wonder kino-types who trust their body’s to let them know, when and what etc.? I also wouldn’t mind betting that during improvisation the whole group is in a state of expanded awareness.


    1. yes – that’s brilliant.I became less lazy and googled the guy I was talking about – He’s Charles Limb, I came across his paper, long and technical, but I also came across a Tedtalk which I will attempt to attach, but in case it doesn’t work I will send by email.

      Happy days


  5. And then after a bit of frustration I Goggled exactly this:-

    8-The Neuroscience of Genius, Creativity, and Improvisation …

    an interview with Heather Berlin, neuroscientist, who is brilliant on how an improviser swaps brain circuits from one that filters, suppresses things that have them self-conscious about what they’re playing to a circuit that operates with a free flow of internal stimuli creating novel associations but can also take what others are doing into account…


  6. Thanks Pat! There’s a lot of overlap but the pattern is pretty clear! They all seem to be on the same track. One thing’s pretty clear though – you couldn’t fit eight people into a scanner. Pity!

    Charles Limb is a lovely guy. You’ve successfully interrupted what I was intent on doing this morning 🙂


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