Improv

Posted: August 14, 2007 in Guitars, Theology

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“Improvisation is just composing really fast.” – Elliot Easton, The Cars

What makes live improvisation so captivating is that it is composing really fast in public. This is risky and exciting, because you add the interpersonal interactions of all who “watch.” As the amen corner of any boisterous congregation knows, this can make all the difference in what is coming off the stage. The audience is intimately involved in the performance.

We could explore the similarities between improvisational musical performance and improvisational prayer/prophesy/proclamation at length, but we won’t. We’ll simply suggest there are parallels.

One of the parallels for me is that I generally prefer live albums to studio ones, just as I generally prefer outlined sermons to manuscripts – though admittedly, the manuscript ones can often be more dense in content (though not always), just as those whose musical tradition is a “reading” tradition rather than a “hearing” tradition can often be more dense in content (though not always). Lots of time and premeditation goes into every detail in the reading method – and this has benefits, but the limitations of immediacy in the improvisational/hearing method creates its own benefits as well. Perhaps my penchant for improvisation (composing really fast under the duress/thrill of immediacy) is what makes me create best with deadlines – and especially in the last 48 hours or so leading up to the deadline…though the research has been steadily plodding along for weeks.

There are strengths to both the reading and hearing traditions, but I’m part pietist/pentecostal at heart, so I prefer it when the musicians honestly don’t know if the song will be four minutes long or eight. And try as I might, I just can’t get myself to see the long term benefits in my own musical situation to reading music – it really feels like taking the language of emotion, poetry, and intuition and asking it to do algebra and accounting.

Others more gifted than I don’t feel this way at all, and by the way, I did just recently take a year of piano lessons – and I LOVE ancient liturgy. As a listener I get it – but as a performer it still feels left-handed. Taking piano lessons did improve my ability to read music temporarily – but I’ve probably already lost that again. But it killed my passion for the sounds I can make, and songs I can write, with a piano. It reduced the beauty and smell of the ocean to a chemical equation.

Nearly everything I really know on my instrument comes from playing, as opposed to practicing. You could say, “That hour long guitar session you do like clockwork nearly every night and throughout the day IS practicing, Tim.” I would disagree. If I began to agree it might kill the joy and rob me of the point and the power of play. There’s nothing so compellingly disciplined as sustained enjoyment and love.

Similarly, beware “spiritual disciplines.” You are not a project or a skill to be mastered; you are a child, a friend, a beloved one. So enjoy, love, play. The spirit of true devotion says, “I get to meet with God!” Not, “I must meet with God.” That subtle difference is heaven and hell.

Man, I love to play, and because I love it so much I work hard at it almost every day, hours a day.

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