I wrote this to a musician friend yesterday, concerning a Philadelphia performance/70th birthday celebration at Highwire Gallery (part of the Fire Museum series):

The “show” last night, fabulous. It took all our knowledge, experience, improvisatory skill and self-trust to make it work, which is what makes it fun. Despite planning, we were a group thrown together, “thrown into the world,” in the philosopher Heidegger’s image. Besides myself we consisted of a very lyrical pedal steel player (with whom no one there had played before), Andrew Drury with his dustpan, metal sheet and bow (he had haplessly forgotten to bring his drum and had to borrow one at the last minute), Alban Bailly, who brought a clarinet he has been experimenting on instead of his guitar, on which he is expertly skilled, and later on Toshi, who couldn’t be his normal performer-self in this odd company (and his usual snare was in storage and inaccessible). Two dancers (from our monthly improv group, which formed the core) gliding around and over two action-painters (they just showed up unexpectedly), abstracting themselves on paper laid on the floor, using mud and some of our soup and rice to work with. Beautiful chaos.

My friend replied that this would be a difficult situation for him, and I wrote back, extending my thought:

People speak blithely in publicity material of “risk-taking”, without imagining what this actually means–that some things of necessity might not work. The borderline (“transformative liminality” would be the phrase of academic performance studies) that people romanticize requires the possibility of a situation being too much to deal with. What does not work, what inhibits the beauty emerging out of chaos, must really be there in the background, threatening. We must have experienced chaos in our lives, I would suggest, to know it as a terror that is far from sublime. Beautiful chaos is then only apparent chaos, a self-contradiction, since chaos means literally senseless and incapable of being appreciated for what it is.

In the improvisatory situation ideas that we have used in the past to “make things work” might appear but will seem irrelevant and futile. Only when we are faced with this and see the situation as ludicrous (the Latin root is “play”) can we get down to the job. In the case of this unformed group, everyone bending and sculpting themselves to meet the demands of the situation, catalyzing each other, for instance, mediating between the lyrical beauty of the pedal steel and the brashness of a bowed dust pan, the dancers somehow incorporating the silly paintings on the floor.

Incorporate is indeed the word; the work of art, the work we have to do, is to incorporate and use everything. No residue! as the psychology people say, nothing left out as insignificant. In fact we have no choice in the matter, in improvisation there is no space to which we can withdraw. To incorporate means to create a whole body, to touch everything with meaning in terms of every other thing, to find the imaginary web that stretches over the whole, larger than any of us, certainly larger than our privately developed skills. It is to feel connected when there is no apparent connection, when it can only be imagined and trusted. We boldly and ludicrously proclaim that we can do it; in a way, we fool ourselves in thinking it can work. And then it does.

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