“Making It Up” – a discussion on (and including!) improvisation

Through no design, I seem to have picked a series of talks at the Edinburgh Science Festival that effectively hang together around a theme – first play, now improvisation (and, later, innovation).

“Making It Up” gathered together musicians and a choreographer – and all of them psychologists – to explore the nature of improvisation, and got the lively audience to indulge in both improvised music and movement to demonstrate their ideas. The basis for each contributor was that improvisation can change the way those who improvise think, and can have benefits outside of the medium being improvised: how we learn, how we think, and our creativity.

I was attracted to this talk for several reasons, both professional and personal. Fundamentally, I believe that everyone is creative, and that most jobs involve creativity in one way or another. My guess is that even those in the most mundane jobs perform their tasks differently from everyone else – if business processes allow them. And those of us who work in the “knowledge economy” probably spend a lot of their time improvising one way or another. At a personal level, I listen to a lot of improvised (free) and semi-improvised (jazz) music, and I wanted to increase my understanding of what was going on in the art form.

The discussion was chaired by Martin Parker, a musician and academic. Parker said that he thought all of us improvise much of the time – our very conversations being made up as we go along; it is, he felt, a fundamental part of being alive.

The first contributor was Peter Lovatt, a psychologist and former choreographer and dancer, didn’t necessarily agree: many of our day to day interactions follow familiar patterns which we stick to rigidly, and we need to learn how to improvise; it is hard to make things up from scratch and easier to start within an understood structure. (The use of “standards” within the musical improvisers repertoire reflects this – the standard structures with which to launch an improvisation.)

Lovatt got interested in the psychology of improvisation following improvisers discussing how their perception of the world changed following improvisation – colour and sounds would seem more intense and their perspective changed. He devised experiments to test the hypothesis that improvisation did actually change the way people think. Working initially with verbal improvisation exercises and later, to remove the possibility that the exercise itself was priming the subjects for oral tests that followed, movement exercises, he found that just twenty minutes of improvisation improved people’s functioning in divergent problem solving tests. (Divergent problem solving, I learned, is where there are many several potential answers to a question – for instance, “what uses are there for a brick?” Convergent problems are those for which there is only one answer – such as “what is the capital of France?”) Clearly although improvisation might be fundamental to our being alive, it is also something that we need to practise to get the benefits.

Lovatt went on to work successfully with Parkinson’s sufferers to correct what he described as their “divergent deficit”, resulting in a reduction of symptoms lasting several days after the course of improvisation has stopped.

Raymond MacDonald is another improviser-turned-academic, and he brought his saxophone along to give us a demonstration. He also got the audience improvising music within a structure. He started off by returning to the tension between people being natural improvisers and improvisation being something that we need to practise, reflecting Parker’s earlier comments by paraphrasing Gilbert Ryle (who apparently had a lot to say about improvisation):

“a brain that is not improvising is not alive”

maintaining that improvisation itself is part of life, and that we learn from an early age by our mistakes – making it up as we go along. (Pat Kane had made exactly this point in the session on play.)

Outside
Raymond MacDonald playing in Gateshead.
Photo by Andy Newcombe on flickr, used under Creative Commons licence

MacDonald also contended that everybody is naturally musical from a very early age (if not from birth), and that everyone can be moved by music and communicates musically – even if they are not aware of it. It was at this point that he got us improvising, something which sounded surprisingly harmonious – and it was great to see the whole audience try this out, and, apparently, enjoying it!

Children improvise through play; the difficulty is that we soon learn not to as we grow up. We are taught in music classes to play the “right” notes, and that before one can improvise, one has to have complete mastery of one’s chosen instrument. (Something MacDonald took pleasure in disproving through our attempts at harmonic improvisation!) MacDonald linked improvisation and music to health and wellbeing, saying cancer patients who had been taught (or retaught?) to improvise could communicate better and felt better.

This is where Tom Cochrane came in. He wanted to investigate the emotional state – and the awareness of the mental state – that arises from improvisation. Based on models of how we perceive the world and react to it (using cybernetics and control systems), this would require feedback loops, adjusting our awareness of our state within the world; in order to improvise, Cochrane maintained we’d need three loops: the first detecting the world and responding to it (ie developing emotions from it), the second building on the response and responding to that by playing music, and the third changing the music in response to what has been played. (I think I got that right; I’d have drawn it but the drawing programmes I have just do my head in!)

In Cochrane’s models, our emotional cognition of the world is partly constituted through music, and we can improvise our emotions to become “more powerful, more graceful and more meaningful”, creating shared emotions as others react to our music.

Using sensors and – of course – computers, Cochrane has developed a programme he calls the “mood organ”. It detects the emotional state of the subject and creates sounds based on that, which the subject can then change and influence – thereby allowing anyone to improvise, regardless of their musical expertise.

He demonstrated this with Raymond MacDonald hooked up to the “mood organ”, improvising with his saxophone along to the music created by his emotional state. The effect was quite haunting.

There were of course a lot of unanswered questions arising from the session. I was curious – obviously – to know what effect listening to improvised music had on its audiences – basically, has my mind been changed through the experience of listening to improvised music? Does the nature of the music matter – do classical musicians improvising work in the same way as jazz musicians, or rock musicians, or …? Do their brains work in the same way? What if they jump between genres? And what happens to classical musicians who are playing the music as written but improvising the mood and the emotions?

I also wanted to know about the effects of improvising movement: I am sure many people make up dances in the privacy of their own homes, dancing along to the radio – does this have the same as effect as Lovatt’s courses of improvised movement?

And there was something missing about the connection between learning, improvising and creativity – though I can’t quite work out what!

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2 thoughts on ““Making It Up” – a discussion on (and including!) improvisation

  1. Dan Sutton

    I agree with both Parker and Lovatt.

    Everyone can improvise and does so all the time. Any conversation is a form of improvisation. People tend to improvise within well understood structures of status and conversational rules. We have rituals, conventions and protocols and status and running jokes. People need to practise how to do it when asked to and they often do it in quite structured ways even when going about their daily lives. Theatrical improvisation isn’t quite the same as improvising in real life.

    I like Cochrane’s model of improvisation and it matches my own experiences.

    For me there are three things going one when improvising. Firstly, what’s going? What is the offer that is being made. Secondly, what are the applicable improvisation structures or standards or protocols? What are other people expecting me to do? What makes sense next? Are there any rules or guidelines I need to be aware of. Third, how does what is happening fit in the with the narrative or character requirement of the scene

    This is the comic about improve that I was thinking of. The main structure for theatrical improv that applies here is the one about jumping the curve. You can do anything you want but in order to bring everyone else with you, you need to do something obvious.

    http://storyrobot.com/improv/intro-to-improv/

    Reply
    1. patrickhadfield Post author

      That’s really interesting! I have been pondering this quite a bit, particularly the structures/rituals thing.

      I wonder if different improvising in different media work in different ways – music, mime, spoken, dance?

      And there is something about social here, too, that I can’t quite get my head around – whether improvising with others (where you have to take others with you) and/or in fornt of an audience are actually different things.

      I am afraid I have too limited an experience of improvising myself to guess at the answer!

      Reply

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