Collective improvisation: me and we
A paradox lies at the heart of collective improvisation.
On one hand, for the individual player, improvisation requires the same kind of internal focus that all performance demands. Each individual arrives on stage bringing a life of musical and other experiences to bear, awaiting the music to begin. A high level of inward concentration
Is required to craft a sequence of sound events, whether these comprise a sequence of notes or a series of sonic responses to the playing of others. Collective improvisation may provide the listener with a musical whole rather a collection of individual parts. But at the same time, every collective is the sum of individual players. A series of notes may not sound like a conventional melody yet likely have a musical logic internal all their own. Collective improvisation may at times require giving away a degree of individual autonomy in service of the group, yet it needn’t mean compromising the uniqueness of every member’s personality.
Expressing one’s individual voice, even as one of many within a collective, requires internal focus – and this involves some degree of shutting out the world outside oneself. Let’s consider more extreme performance settings in which concentration has higher stakes: in gymnastics or high wire acrobatics, losing one’s bodily and mental attention could mean falling or injury. In performances of well-known and prolifically recorded solo or chamber music, all ears are on the accurate replication of the score. Reviewers will not treat kindly error-riddled performances or musicians who veer off the inherited manuscript. Effective performance in these domains requires tight internal focus. And so does improvised music, solo or collective.
Yet… collective improvisation demands attention to one’s surroundings in an intimate, often conversational manner. Musical depth requires registering and responding to nuance on multiple levels. What one plays (or doesn’t play) next may depend upon the actions of any individual or some combination of one’s fellow performers. Acrobatic groups require the same, although players in improvisational settings (are there improvisational acrobats or high wire acts?) have no rehearsed script to rely on. It can be more like driving a racing car, except that each individual musical navigator is aiming more for synchrony with the others than out driving them! Well, ideally.
Thus the paradox: to attend simultaneously internally and outwardly.
An analog to the internal aspect of this dichotomy – admittedly not one that most of my musical readers will expect, but then again, I am also a rabbi — may be found in mystical religious experience. A tradition with which I am familiar is a strand of 13th and 16th century Jewish mysticism, likely sourced in part within Sufi meditative practices. Early in this historical development is Rabbi Abraham Abulafia, and later, the circle of Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the “Ari.” The Lurianic “school” was centered in S’fat, in the Galilee and in other towns along the Ottomon silk trade route from the late 1500s through early 1600s.
Among the Lurianic rabbis are Rabbis Moshe Cordovero (known as the “Ramak”) and Chaim Vital. Their mystical practices include a technique called “hitbodedut,” rendered in English by scholar Moshe Idel as “concentrated thought.” (Idel, Studies in Ecstatic Kabbalah, State University of New York Press, 1988, 105). Some contemporary Jews may know this term from its subsequent development within Hasidism. Hitbodedut required varying degrees of seclusion, but often not physical separation. Certainly it required an internal separation from physical sensation and from every day thoughts. Many traditions of meditation throughout the world share this kind of internality. This act of separation prepared one — or (in varying traditions) served as a component of — practices obliterating the veil between human person and divinity.
The Lurianic circles drew upon Abulafia’s ideas and practices, specifically combining permutations of letters comprising the Divine name. “Permutation” may sound familiar to lovers of saxophonist John Coltrane, particularly his late period. Consider his method of selecting brief collections of notes and building solos by repeatedly and with great intensity, varying their order. Some of his most trance-like playing (think A Love Supreme, Sun Ship, late performances of My Favorite Things…) draws upon this technique to create textures that were ritual and dream-like. Salim Washington (2001), Eric Nisenson (1993), Lewis Porter (1998), Carl Clements (2009), and others have sourced Coltrane’s techniques within Hindustani raga traditions. Nisenson and Clements point to Coltrane’s use – as early as the late-1950s — of Vedic melodic permutation (vikriti). Coltrane’s goal seems to have been partly musically expressive and partly religious in scope.
Coltrane provides a fascinating example for reasons that may now seem obvious – musical structure and materials, and a ritual element and process — but also because of his approach to group dynamics. I think of Coltrane’s two great Quartets as “soloist within a group” more than the more collectivist attitude made famous by Ornette Coleman and expanding within the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other AACM-related (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) bands in Chicago and New York. Coltrane’s approach represented one — maybe in fact a more conventional — avenue to the dilemma we are discussing here: how to relate simultaneously as an individual voice and that of the collective. Coltrane’s Ascension (1965), building upon Coleman’s conceptual recording Free Jazz (1960) represents a more collectivist approach than his classic quartet, privileging the group, yet allowing substantive space for the soloist. In each of these recordings, the ensemble does not strictly provide a supportive background for the soloist, but engages in freewheeling calls and response, interjections, and crafts swirls of textural material, more akin to gaming in a video arcade than playing alone on one’s iPhone.
I recognize that a more obvious parallel to consider is Black Holiness churches. I have experienced charismatic religious settings but I choose here to write about models that arise within my own religious tradition (rather than either Christian or Vedic traditions). Jewish traditions are what I know and can more authentically and personally speak to. Also, I find the Lurianic mystical practices to be particularly useful in exploring the questions I am raising. This is because unlike many religious traditions that emphasize the individual worshipper, Jewish traditions tend to be communal by design. Most Jewish prayer requires a “minyan,” a quorum of ten, and Jewish mystical prayer practices are often extensions of conventional prayer.
“Individual within the group” dynamics characterized Lurianic rituals since these circles functioned as communities, sharing communal mystical practices. This is in keeping with the generally collective nature of Jewish religious activities. The Lurianic community was unusual in developing practices beyond the traditional times and settings of prayer, including an innovative ritual called “gerushin.” These were collective wanderings of rabbis through the fields. By taking walks following a spontaneous, unscripted course, the rabbis sought to reenact the religious and existential experience of exile. While walking, the rabbis discussed biblical verses and individuals among them experienced spontaneous insights, novel textual interpretations (often in the language of Jewish mystical symbology). Moshe Cordovero recorded accounts of these experiences, noting some of his interpretive insights that arose during those occasions.
Can one speak of Lurianic “gerushin” as a collective mystical improvisational activity? Were these ritual activities more like the collectivist Ascension and Free Jazz, or more akin to a conventional soloist supported by rhythm section of the Coltrane Quartet? Since insights during gerushin arose within each individual rabbi, is the collective aspect just a group induction of mystical experience or was the revelatory experience itself collective in nature? In other words, did the enactment of collective wandering generate individual insights or were the results collective?
Further, did each insight result from the shared walk or was it a consequence of the successive insights of each rabbi’s peers? Were other people’s words the spark – was it conversational? — or merely the context – the accompaniment — within which individual insight arose?
In short, were the rabbis of S’fat engaged in a supportive activity for solo expression, or something closer to a collectivist expression?
Were gerushin a collective trance? Can collective musical improvisation can be thought of as trance-like? If so, how does individual agency occur? What is the source of the individual voice? Certainly it is less likely to be the kind of conscious, deliberative mental process that western aesthetics privileges. But this raises the question of how people can simultaneously function musically as individuals and part of a group. Is there an individual process within what some term “group mind”? Is there such a thing as “group mind” and if so, it is the sum of its parts (or, borrowing from Buckminster Fuller, greater than the sum of its parts)? Or is it something else entirely? What guides each individual musician’s fingers, mouths, and throats when we are embedded within a musical collective?
I interviewed saxophonist Dave Liebman for my book The Miles Davis ‘Lost’ Quintet and Other Revolutionary Ensembles (University of Chicago Press, 2016). Liebman spoke of the activity at his 19th Street New York City loft around 1970 as “free jazz in the style of Coltrane’s “Ascension” and late period.” Liebman explained: “meaning a lot of horns playing all the time, cacophonous, free form jazz.” The implication is one of more parallel play than close mutual listening (I’ve listened to recordings). In this music the listener perceives the whole becomes foreground; one cannot attend as fully to the individual parts. Yet the attention of each player seems to be more on his/her own individual playing than on the overall sound. This represents one approach to collective improvisation.
Another band addressed in my book is the Revolutionary Ensemble (Leroy Jenkins, Sirone, Jerome Cooper). RE was a small ensemble that often engaged in another form of parallel play. But here, each musician listened very closely to the others. In that setting, the listener toggles back and forth between the individuals, pairs, and the trio. I pair RE with the Miles Davis band (1968-1970) and Circle (Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, Barry Altschul). Each of these bands continually shifted back and forth between a range of modes of individual/group interplay.
Comparing these four ensembles showed me both commonalities and differences between how bands may approach the question of how to “think” individually and collectively at the same time. What my approach did not seek to answer is how musicians can simultaneously attend on both levels. And that’s what brings me to considering Lurianic mystical groups in search of non-musical analogies. If you are a musician, how do you think “locally” and “collectively” at the same time? Every musician who plays with other musicians experiences this paradox.