by Greg Segal (March 2000)
With as strong a base as improvisation has in 20th century music history, it is still viewed as suspect in many quarters. It's not "real music" (Or as one quiz kid shouted to us at a Paper Bag show, "Why don't you guys quit fuckin' off and learn some songs?"). Sadly this often carries over between adherents of the various current forms into a near total loss of respect. Many jazz purists hate rock improvisation and think it's a lot of undisciplined crap; many rockers can't listen to jazz improvisation and thinks it's boring or lacks balls (Most of the latter have never heard a Mahavishnu Orchestra record. Of course to some of the former even that's not "real" jazz...). And blues purists often don't fare much better, disdaining their musical neighbors to the right and left of them (Purists. Can't live with 'em, can't dump 'em in the ocean. Oh well.).
Improvisation is most often associated with jazz. But there are other forms- international and very old forms, long pre-dating jazz- which are associated with it as well. There is flamenco, in which improvisation is an integral part of the form, with master players being able to perform for hours at a time without stopping. Yes, this is viewed as a good thing. To them, Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida wouldn't be a 17 minute joke, it would be a short pop song. And then of course there's raga. The rules for improvisation here are much more strict than with jazz, but once again it's not unusual for performers to go for hours. And despite the rules, the performers do have a lot of leeway. In each of these cases, the music and the expectations place upon it by the audience all tie in to the music's social function. Flamenco is viewed as a way of life; raga is steeped in philosophical and religious precepts. In these cultures, improvisation is not only acknowledged as valid, it's fully expected as part of the proceedings.
Some of this is definitely true of the areas of improvisation which are more familiar to most of us. Certainly for a lot of people jazz, blues and psychedelic (or progressive) rock are a way of life. There are subcultures and dress and slang and behavior patterns all associated with each of these. I have certainly known fans and players of each who treat the matter with a seriousness bordering on religious fervor and righteousness. They've found their world, and damn all others! Thankfully not everyone is that narrow.
But let's take a wider look at this. Why is improvisation so suspect to the general public?
One criticism often leveled at long rock-based improvisation is that it's "drug music". On the one hand there's a certain truth to that- a truth which, I might add, extends just as easily to various heroin and alcohol-soaked jazz pioneers now ironically idolized by the very culture that once shoved them in the back rooms. In many cases, both the audience and performer were getting high on something other than life. But to anyone with even a small degree of cultural perspective, such a criticism is absurd. It's akin to saying that Van Gogh was insane so we really shouldn't pay attention to his painting. Here, I personally advocate the "taste test". What is that? It's an analogy to cooking. Yes there's an art to cooking and yes those details are good to know, especially if you're worried about getting poisoned. But what it all really comes down to is, does it taste good? Who cares how it's made- when you're eating it, does it taste good? And with music, the criteria should ultimately be the same. Ultimately you've got to like what you're listening to.
Which brings us to what may be the main surface reason why it's so difficult for the general public to listen to improvisation outside of a 16 bar solo: they have no frame of reference for it. It's not really present in mass media. All they know of it are jazz and '60's "acid jams" (Many of which, by the way, were performed mainly under the influence of beer, with marijuana running a close 2nd . Do a little digging and you'll find that most musicians of the day considered acid too disruptive to their thought processes- while playing, anyway. After the gig was a different story.). So it's foreign to them, it's peripheral, and to a busy person, there's no room in everyday life for such things. It takes too much time to listen and understand them, and that time just can't be spared. Sometimes it's not even that well thought out- "I don't like it, I like what's on the radio". They were raised on the 2-4 minute pop song. And in the sound-byte culture of the last 15 years, things have gotten worse (I wonder if anyone is using longer musical forms as therapy for attention deficit disorder?). The culture has sped up, standardization is increasing on all fronts. And in truth it often does take more effort on the part of the listener to appreciate longer, more intricate or less obvious musical forms. That's the first hurdle- most people dislike effort.
And music is most often viewed as recreational- by fans, corporations and performers- which in some people's minds negates effort as part of the experience. (But going to the gym or playing video games doesn't take effort? Say that to someone who does those things and watch what happens. Remember to duck.)
The obvious solution to this problem is education. Here's where the taste test gets tempered. You've still got to like what you're tasting when all is said and done, but an appreciation of the cooking skills can definitely help deepen the experience. The only education the media usually does is via public broadcasting. As is the case with most things obscured by the general culture, most types of people naturally attracted to such things are already there. The beauty is that since it's out there and freely accessible, it can still be discovered by anyone curious enough to give it a try. So that's a huge help. Exposure, of course, is only part of this. Knowing the ideas behind a form can really make it interesting and this is especially useful when trying to convince anyone of the worth of an unfamiliar concept. It's helpful if schools can be involved with this, but at a time when arts programs of all kinds are getting scaled back or cut altogether, we can't look to them and public broadcasting to take the whole burden. I think musicians and fans ought to take a personal responsibility for it and take the chance of introducing their uninitiated friends (if they have any) into such things. Many people are very shy about ideas which are new to them and will avoid the experience if there's any more familiar alternative at hand, no matter how boring.
At base though, it's going to be a tough sell, because there's an even deeper reason why people find improvisation suspect. It's not just that their musical expectations are structured- it's that their social expectations are structured, and improvisation is only a very minor part of that structure. Someone who thinks fast within a rigid structure and can handle unexpected interruptions and get things back on track quickly is thought to improvise well- this is socially acceptable. But the reverse- someone who integrates elements of structure into a basically improvisational framework- is not socially acceptable (Archetypes: the corporate trouble shooter vs. a sporadically employed artist.), Improvisation as a part of a rigid structure is viewed as ingenuity; improvisation as a way of life is viewed as lazy.
This bias clearly carries over into opinions on music. If it's worked out ahead of time, well, that's as it should be; but otherwise, hey- quit fuckin' off and learn some songs. People distrust anything which can't be immediately explained, mapped out or understood. They distrust the intuitive and trust the rational. While historically and pragmatically there are plenty of good reasons for this, I believe the extent of this distrust is strongly indicative of a culture out of balance, and of people out of balance within themselves. A culture is a macrocosm of its individuals; and the individual mind is both rational and intuitive. We have traditionally short-changed the intuitive as being primitive, childish, animalistic and dangerous. These can all be true, but the same is true of the rational portion of the mind at a young age. We deal with this by refining and educating the rational process. But instead of doing the same with the intuitive process- which can be done, by the way- we repress it. We desperately need some compensatory mechanism in this culture, some kind of pressure valve, to deal with this repression. The best way would be to integrate more of the intuitive process into everyday life, and every day there are hundreds of thousands of us out there trying to do just that- if you're one of us (and if you're reading this, you probably are), I salute you. But we're fighting thousands of years of cultural conditioning so don't bet on the world to change overnight any time soon. We'll move the world gradually. In the meantime, music and art are a couple of very good ways to go. And improvisation is an affront to a lot of very damaging assumptions about how people should live and behave. If I didn't already love it for artistic reasons, I'd love it for that alone.
about the author: Greg Segal was the guitarist with Paper Bag, a totally improvisational band that released 4 albums on SST in the '80's. He has been part of many projects since, most of which heavily feature improvisation. He has also composed and recorded several independent releases featuring the traditional song structures we all know and love. He is a multi-instrumentalist and is currently playing drums with Antiworld, a punk band who play very short, tightly composed songs about all things horror ("B" movies, haunted houses, etc.). For more information on Greg Segal and his nefarious activities, please visit his home page, Phantom Airship. (http://www.spiritone.com/~gsmulti/webwork/GSHP/)
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