Improvisation: It’s not all about jazz

I recently went to Thee Parkside to see Judgment Day with a group of friends; we were all stoked because we had each seen them a handful of times before and knew we were in for a great show. We always know what to expect when they play tracks from “Peacocks/Pink Monsters” or “Dark Opus,” but this time was different.

Judgement Day. Left to right: Anton Patzner, Jon Bush, and Lewis Patzner. Photo by Riki Feldmann (http://www.flickr.com/photos/brokenobelisk)

At the end of their set, Anton and Lewis Patzner initiated an improvised violin vs. cello battle. My friends and I exchanged glance, shrugs, and smiles as if to say, “What is this?! I’m not sure… but I like it… a lot.” When their set ended, we burst out laughing, shared an obligatory exchange high fives, and repeated variations on “That. Was. Amazing.” There was something so exhilarating about having your expectations demolished and collectively experiencing an anomalous moment with your friends and fellow audience members.

This got me thinking: As a Bay Area native who has attended local shows for going on ten years, I’ve seen a lot of my favorite bands more than once. Well versed with their studio albums and live performances, I come to a show more-or-less knowing what to expect. I know when to sing along and nod my head to the beat, I know when to anticipate a potential mosh pit, I can feel when there is going to be one of those pregnant pauses where people who don’t know better will think a song is over… but it isn’t.

However, improvisation changes all of that. This particular Judgment Day show couldn’t have been the only time I had ever attended a partially improvised performance—where has my head been?

I investigated this further by asking Lewis more about this show in particular. He explained that in his experience, improvisation is something that the audience innately picks up on regardless of whether or not they’re familiar with the a band’s discography. Lewis mentioned that from both the musician and audience’s point-of-view, when it’s done well it “seems right…[successful] improvisation make something unpredictable seem inevitable.” It’s nearly seamless, and if, as an audience member, you aren’t present with this progression in the performance, perhaps you could miss it. However, the energy exuded by a performer at the moment of conception of something knew is “hard to fake.”

Robin Landy and Eric Kuhn of Silian Rail

Silian Rail, a Bay Area-based band and long-time favorite of mine, recently posted an improvised piece on their Facebook page. I asked Eric Kuhn, Silian’s drummer, to share some of his experience with improvisation with me. Much to my surprise, Eric’s insights on the subject were compatible with my own initial thoughts. Without wandering too far the realm of cheesy kumbaya talk about feelings, I would be remiss not mentioning the essence of the matter: Art and music in particular are mediums by which we can express ourselves and our emotions, often times from an unconscious place. Improvisation is as much a feeling as it is an action, for both the performer and the audience. In regard to live improvisation, Eric articulated some of the finer points of the overall experience:

I would say improvisation in a live setting can be particularly powerful because it acknowledges that that one context for the sharing of music is completely unique– the physical setting, the particular place and time, the particular group of people there to witness it and the energy they bring, the equipment being used– all of these things, which you can multiply out to infinity, are variables which shape the music in to the one distinct thing that it will be in that moment and no other moment. So, improvisation is a nice acknowledgment and celebration of that fact, and it also gives the artist a chance to create something which is intentionally born of that unique moment, rather than taking something pre-existing and fitting it in to that context.

In the handful of conversations I had with diverse groups of people on this subject, they repeatedly returned to the idea that improvisation operates within a conventional context, then goes on to break away from our expectations and rational thought.

Perhaps needless to say at this point, but these conversations got me really stoked. So much so, that I had to explore how other people, specifically non-musicians, integrate improvisation in to their work.

Lauren Baines

Lauren Baines.

Lauren Baines, a contemporary dancer based in the South Bay, expanded on the implications of improvisation on modern dance. I have to admit, I had never thought of dance in those terms. Before speaking with Lauren, my knowledge of modern dance was laughable and my personal experience with dance non-existent. Lauren explained that modern dance, like modern visual art, is about “setting yourself free from tradition, expectations, and structure and instead allowing the personal voice of the choreographer and the dancers to have free reign.”

Lauren recently performed with ahdanco (Abigail Hosein Dance Company) in Ernest Jolly’s installation at the SF Arts Commission’s window front gallery space.

A trio of dancers

San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery Ernest Jolly - Natural Reaction. ahdanco performance

performed a partially improvisational dance. The structural foundation was a “follow the leader” format where Abgail would do a movement and the other two would copy her. None of the dancers knew what movements Abigail would do, it was completely spontaneous. The other catch? They were all facing different directions in the space.  This added layer of complexity challenged them as dancers to try and see what movement she did, then repeat in our own space. Did I mention they were also in several inches of water? This is another instance where I can’t speak to what the audience’s expectations were going in to this performance, or if they could tell it was improvised, however, Lauren images “there was a certain spontaneity to that section…to see the movement echo through the dancers in slightly different forms… as if the three dancers were all going through similar thoughts and emotions, but not connecting with one another.”

Brian Chu, editor and director with The Werehaus, had encountered improvisational elements in film making. A lot of time and thought goes into pre-production and planning what type of shots and lightening to use, but Brian said it really all comes down to the subject (and as we all know, people are unpredictable). With Brian’s documentary film making, “unplanned shoots have come out feeling so natural and real…more so that I could ever imagine.” As a visual medium, films with a documentary point-of-view purposefully capture genuine unscripted moments and present them to an audience with the expectation of sincerity and authenticity without leaving too much on the proverbial cutting room floor. It’s a delicate balancing act between improvising when the subject of a film takes the conversation or action in an unexpected direction, and responding by crafting the narrative around a moment of spontaneous inspiration.

What are the implications of all of these ideas to us? Here is my charge to you: Put yourself out there, attend a performance that you are interested in but know little about, and go without holding tightly to your expectations. I think you may surprise yourself when you tune in, listen and watch carefully. It wasn’t until after I finished writing this blog that I realize how Artlarking-centric this idea truly is; I first thing I always tell people about Artlarking is that the heart of the mission and vision revolves around collaboration. Improvisation is a quintessential form of collaboration on a number of levels, but keep a sharp eye, otherwise you may miss it.

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