- A Way Forward
The story of how this article came to be is significant. Some time ago, I made a claim that improvisation involving musicians and dancers does not work. Years later, I was asked to write an article about this opinion. I don’t deny professing this belief and, in fact, I’m sure that whatever words I chose to express it were spoken quite vehemently. No one is more sure of the impossibility of something than a person who is unable to accomplish it. What is telling, though, is that the proposal to write this piece came to me in the middle of rehearsals for the first Toronto performance of my work with corporeal mime Julie Lassonde, with whom I had been working as an improvising sound and movement duo since 2006. I had long since changed my mind about my earlier claim. Instead of writing in support of this claim, I have chosen to reflect on what has changed, on what has happened between the time I made that statement, and now, years later, when I have been asked to write about it. What was the way forward and how did I find it?
I am a musician. I play, compose, and teach music, organize musical events, and sit on boards of directors of not-for-profit musicians’ organizations. I consider myself a member of a number of overlapping musical communities, but the one with which I have been most often associated in the past decade or so is a community of Improvisors (please note the capital “I.”) Most musical practices involve some sort of improvisation, of course: a rock guitarist will often improvise a solo at a particular point in a song, a jazz saxophonist will play a solo on the chord changes of the song-form being played, a singer of South Indian classical music will embellish the melodic material of a piece of music using the scale at hand as a guide. The practice of Improvising that I’m speaking of, though, takes the “rock,” the “jazz,” the “South Indian classical” away and leaves only the improvisation, that is, Improvisation, behind as a practice in and of itself. The musicians and audiences involved move through a performance with ears perked, listening urgently for the next sonic gesture, the next bip, boom, tap, or scratch that will both contextualize and be contextualized by the music of the coming moment, always hoping to hear something beautiful that has never been heard before, always aware of the very real risk of failure.
To me, the practice of Improvisation is about re-examining, re-considering, and experimenting with the assumptions that human cultures have made about music throughout our histories. I hold that the practitioners of this music tend to use sounds that past humans have perhaps set aside as not musical and that, by using them in musical contexts, they ask the listener to reconsider the sounds’ musical-ness. By juxtaposing these sounds with others deemed musical by the same process of history, and by offering them up in concert performances and on recordings, practitioners ask that the validity of these sounds be reconsidered. This reconsidering can also be accomplished by and through other music, of course, but for me, Improvised music must do this.
As a practitioner of improvised and Improvised music, it has always seemed natural to me that involvement with dance should be a part of what I do and that, furthermore, a similar description to the one above about the world of music could be written about the world of dance. My early attempts to get together with dancers to Improvise were a lot of fun, but after a little while I came to realize that the work that I had done as an i/Improvising musician and the work that they had done as i/Improvising dancers didn’t translate to this new, interdisciplinary situation. Two scenarios seemed possible: I could provide music for someone to dance to, or I could play a musical translation of their movements. Each session I took part in tended to consist of an unsatisfying back and forth between these two approaches. I pushed...