Improvising has a peculiar place in the world of musical creation. As both an expression for vitality and a creative phenomenon, it has two sides: one concerns its very existence while the other is related to its disappearance. It is, as every work of art, enveloped in the bewilderment of its own casualty, of its puzzling nature, of its unresolved, unexplainable spontaneity, bending the borders of any logical syntax. Musical improvisation is against similarity. It’s not similar to anything else. That is a good reason why understanding its metaphorical connections, its psychological intuitions, its deep textures (woven without previous patterns) is one of the most fascinating mysteries of human consciousness.
The concept of improvisation comprehends experiences and ideas that are often quite diverse. Actually, the improviser may be a musician based in the oral tradition who creates music from familiar models; a jazzman who will perform original variations on a given standard; or yet a classical music enthusiast, for instance a conservatory student bound to move freely through the nuances of idiom and counterpoint she studies. Though very different from each other, these musical experiences happen to have points in common. None of them will reproduce written or totally accomplished music. On the other hand, all of them will result in unexpected stylistic features and manifestations. A performer fighting her way through improvising will continually engender unpredictable textures as part of a never-random performance founded on mental prefiguration, following its own rules, fueled by the same reality to which it refers. The only exception being free jazz, in which case randomness and the risk of invention are stronger.
A musician is urged to improvise by the unexpected character of creation and, inevitably, by the opportunity of creating what is unexpected. The material is less formed or formalized than potentially in formation or in formalization; in other words, it can emerge from a potentially infinite number of new musical expressions derived from a finite number of formal elements, instead of combinatory rules and grammars. In order to make sense, these variations must comprehend elements from the same theme, each of them partly made up of pre-established material. As every other creative activity, music is ruled by the relation between generativeness and improvisation; even if we are dealing with written music each of these terms will have different functions. While Western classical music writing is based on rules, patterns and referential styles (as it is based on imagination) all of them materialized in the score, improvising has no stable reference but in extraordinary situations. It is sustained by a tangle of implicit rules, references and creative spontaneity. In this sense, improvising has a peculiar dimension to it: the music is invented and performed at the same time. Such a reality cannot be reproduced, since product and process are entwined in such a way that an exception would still represent the rule.
Musical improvisation has been approached from many points-of-view. Given its vague nature, the term has often been misunderstood. Not seldom, listeners are disappointed in face of a spontaneous expression of creativity for they feel their own expectations or a (so-called) original performance have been betrayed. These expectations are often groundless. In a piece of improvised music, the flow of inspiration is completely unpredictable and intrinsically connected to the fluctuations of precedent creative memory beyond the limits of technique (as it’s widely known, only those who master music styles and techniques will be able of improvising). Moreover, it is inspiration that will play a crucial role in defining expressive spontaneity by reducing every formal mediation, thus exposing the Self through one’s body and generating true miracles of evocativeness, authentic earthquakes of emotion. Inspiration is a liberating force, a vibration, an outburst, a pang of the soul in emerging from its innermost depths; it cracks the syntax of things and transfigures them in ecstatic suspensions, truncated metaphors and allusions. It comes from the intersection between the subject and the object, floating in the bottom of the matter, where the roots of vitality are mysteriously woven together with the roots of reason. Down there, in this primordial, rocky place, our darkest and most mysterious profile, originated in under-cortical structures (and partly in cortical structures that control our analytic-discursive functions) lies hidden.
Improvising, our body is on its guard against the (alleged) supremacy of the I over things, against the tyranny of form. As though every note, before being transcribed, suspiciously looked around in order to sprout from the indistinctive depths of life; starting from scratch every single time, making complex grooves, fleeing in different directions between the demands of stylistic rigor and the feverish search of a way of expression of its own. Here, in this narrow passage, rejecting all narrative dilation, a performer will learn what’s essential and how to abandon every impulse towards expansion and variation; shortly, she’ll learn to reach the essence of things. Perhaps no one is in a better position than a jazzman to explore the unknown as well as the desire for moderation and self-control. Perhaps nobody else will experience the dizziness in moving from sound-land, in the limen between what can and what cannot be said, as this performer – entranced, inspired and despaired.
A piece of musical improvisation is, inevitably, a mixture of predicted and unpredicted elements, spontaneous inventions and the re-emergence of submerged material, heard melodies and tested formulas, imagined timbers and familiar emotions. Our way of understanding time, note value and rhythm is of consequence to one’s behavior and to the music one creates. Besides, we are shaped by habitat, cultural values, environments and sound manifestations. Our voice is naturally impregnated with the language we speak and of its characteristic sounds. The very instruments we play are, by their turn, imbued with musical systems, scales and timbers. Our imagination is a melting pot full of relations and quotations and narratives and connections; and it is this tangle that defines improvisation, even if some pieces of improvisation are more complex and less predictable than others. It is enough to compare different recordings of the same piece: while some performers tend to repeat themselves, others will re-elaborate a piece into something new. Of course it is not about measuring what is unexpected against what is prearranged in the process, but recognizing in such process the participation of inventive vital forces and creative impulses. Hence the question: a piece of musical improvisation benefits more from surprising, unceasing variations or from unpredictable, ever-moving harmonic lines? We’ll talk about it soon …

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