Friday Takeaway: In praise of improvisation


Saturday, October 14, 2017

The other day I attended a jazz concert. The lead was Anat Cohen, an inspiring Israeli clarinetist, who, with her quartet, played a variety of pieces, a few of them infused with Brazilian and other Latin American rhythms. 

A passionate lover of jazz, I never tire of listening to Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and John Coltrane. The artists I am most attracted to are the ones who submerge themselves in a tradition in order to revamp it. In that sense, perhaps my favorite is Astor Piazzolla, whose bandoneon, a type of concertina, like the accordion, is Argentina’s national instrument. When I listen to Piazzolla, the entire history of tango is summed up in a few harmonies only to be reformulated in mysterious ways.

Something in Cohen’s approach made me think of Piazzolla. She was able to compress and enlarge time, to freeze it like water suddenly turned into ice. She made me think of the medieval concept of furor poeticus, or poetic frenzy, explored by the 15th-century Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino, who believed in a divine inspiration that gives place to rhapsodic rupture.

I left the concert set free by the improvisational quality of the music. My impulse was to search Merriam-Webster for a definition of “to improvise.” It was a bad idea. What I found — to play extemporaneously, to arrange offhand — was nicely packaged. It is just that dictionaries are rather stiff, inflexible. Improvisation is much more giving: a life force and a creative source.

There are a few misconceptions about improvisation. The first is that it is random, even accidental. The second is that is impulsive. These views are mistaken. Improvisation is deliberate, even premeditated. It is based on knowledge. There is a powerful scene in Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical 1987 film, “The Magic Lantern,” in which a character says that “only he who is well prepared has an opportunity to improvise.” 

Improvisation calls for the recognition that what we do is ephemeral. What is improvised on one occasion cannot be replicated another time. To improvise, one must be ready to let loose. It demands courage. To improvise is to disrupt. But improvisation isn’t a simple “no”; that is, it isn’t a rejection of how things are but a recognition that there are other ways — elastic, flexible, adaptable — to reach a desired result.

Another misconception is that improvisation is restricted to the domain of art. Artists, we conventionally tell ourselves, are courageous in that they break ranks and go off track. But breaking ranks is anyone’s prerogative: Life as a whole is improvisation. It is hard to acknowledge this idea because much of our existence is hyper-regulated. From childhood, we are given a series of specific expectations and are persuaded that a fulfilling journey is about racing frantically to the finish line. 

No wonder the improviser often feels alone, unsure, nervous. Yet those feelings are essential to be creative. Improvisation is about turning uncertainty into self-assurance. I agree with the Russian writer Boris Pasternak, who observed, “Salvation lies not in the faithfulness to forms, but in the liberation from them.” To improvise is to say, “This is me,” to give oneself permission to be spontaneous, unrehearsed, to shape things in impromptu fashion.

I am often asked where my ideas come from. As much as I try to explain it, I really don’t have an answer. I’m not a romantic who thinks he has an exclusive channel to appreciate reality. I also know there is no treasure box one opens at will where ideas are patiently waiting to be dressed up. And I don’t believe in divine inspiration or in the Greek muses who worshipped on Mount Helicon. 

Creativity for me is about letting loose. It happens this way: I wrap myself around an intuition; I let my mind explore it from all perspectives; I resist becoming stiff, inflexible; I wander as I wonder what it would be like to bridge realms and go beyond disciplines; and then I bring in words, allowing them to accommodate themselves naturally, without presumption. 

That’s what Ficino’s furor poeticus is: an explosive yet disciplined surge that leads to insight. Confusion that leads to clarity. Stuff that was forgotten comes to the fore. A sensation of peace, acquiescence and level-headedness sets in. And then, miraculously, one’s own path makes itself clear and unencumbered. The recognition that this path is mine at a given time, that I found it by my own devices, is the rhapsodic rapture.

All of these thoughts bring me to a central issue: originality. That there is nothing new under the sun is liberating. Everything is fixed, static, immovable. Only our perception is fluid. When Juliet tells Romeo, “O, swear not by the moon,” it is the exact same moon we see at night in the open sky. The same moon that Francisco de Quevedo, Emily Dickinson, and Charles Baudelaire reflected on. It is left to us to describe it uniquely, to appropriate it, to make it our moon. Originality is not about doing things “new” —  but about doing them differently. 

Herbie Hancock once said that jazz is a means to an end rather than the end itself. I say the same about improvisation. It might be a tad poetic, but it’s a better definition than the one in Merriam-Webster.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of the NEPR podcast about culture in the making, “In Contrast.”