Protecting the word “improvisation” from a new president’s (allegedly) “improvisational style”
“New President Is Improvising Wave of Edicts,” declares a New York Times headline (January 22, 2017). The “improvisational” style of the inaugurated one has been much “trumpeted.” But this not at all what I mean when I refer to musical improvisation.
I remember hearing, years back, people making this claim about Cecil Taylor: “any child can play like that; it’s just random.” What is meant is that this music sounds unfamiliar to these listeners. Rather than reflectively acknowledge this unfamiliarity, and commit to close and patient listening, why not smugly toss out a one-liner.
Vastly different from the highly intentional structure of Cecil Taylor’s compositions and improvisations, young children sitting at the piano do indeed play quite randomly. The piano becomes a playground filled with sound toys that offer instant feedback when physically manipulated. What fun – and if only more adult pianists could remember the playful abandon of young children!
But child’s play, however improvisational has a strong element of impulsivity. Improvisation implies close listening and response to one’s surroundings, sonic and other. Improvisation with other people is responsive to fellow ensemble members. Improvisation is emotionally sophisticated behavior. Impulsive playing is self-centered, a constant recycling of favorite tropes, random, non-responsive. This is the antithesis of great collective improvisation. It is akin to an experience most people know: choosing a window seat on a train, bus, or plane, and being joined by a prolific, self-referential talker. One can chose to strategize about where to insert a comment, despite your inability to choose the topic, to firmly (or subtly) disengage, or to tune out. The results may not net a real conversation, one you have chosen, or a comfortable ride.
A self-centered stream of riffs is not improvisation. It is impulsivity with a platform. And when you witness action that is as strategically consistent action as this, it is certainly not improvisation. Look out and listen to the world around you and notice how it changes in every moment.