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:-
• 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:-
• 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