31 October 2011

How Improvisation Enhances Life/Spirituality Through Sound

How Improvisation Enhances Life

The optimist says, "Life is an improvisation!"

The skeptic says, "There is no such thing!"

We can recognize a certain obvious truth in both of these seemingly contradictory statements, and without resorting to the physiological (i.e. neurological) explanation, be that line of reasoning as it may rather incontrovertible. Put more simply, the term "improvisation" is an exceedingly imprecise one: it describes only our sensation of the act, not the act itself. The "enhancement" in question, then, might be most readily schematized not by setting Improvisation and Life as x-y axes and then seeking points of optimization, but rather by considering the myriad degrees and types of improvisation we engage in; where we were and what we were doing when the act of improvisation seemed impossible; and, by the same token, when it seemed inescapable. This is the empirical approach; for a cultural analysis, substitute matters of taste for those of mere possibility in the preceding sentence.

Performing these two exercises for myself, what I find first and foremost is that improvisation is a useful foil to much "business as usual." This requires, of course, that normalcy be defined as tending toward the premeditated, which is certainly not true in every culture, but my sense is that it is true in those which I have been thrust into most often (and even if premeditation is not truly the norm, it is still, perhaps, overutilized, if not just in my humble opinion). I suppose I'll know that this is no longer a constructive viewpoint when I am being assigned to write a short reflection on "How Planning Ahead Enhances Life." I should reiterate, though, that this dynamic of contrast also exists between specific degrees and types of improvisation, perhaps more powerfully than it does between the premeditated and the spontaneous more broadly construed (overbroad categories, actually, which, as hinted at above, are not always what they seem).

Spirituality Through Sound: Shostakovich's Fourth Symphony

It is crucial that I preface my explanation for choosing this piece with the fact that I knew almost nothing about it or its composer when I first heard it, and that it immediately became my "new favorite piece" in absence of any such historical perspective. Spirituality being for an agnostic like me an earthly concern with a finite duration, I think it's valid to respond to an assignment such as this with one's most favorite music, whether or not that music is particularly spiritual in some other way; after all, it is this music which is, literally, all we have to live for. This is a piece of music which I find just this compelling in the abstract, and yet the circumstances of its creation also lend it an intensely spiritual dimension.

Shostakovich had already begun composing his Fourth Symphony when the infamous Pravda article appeared (in January, 1936) condemning his work and putting his very life in danger. His work in progress was if anything more subversive of the party agenda than any which had preceded it, and though he completed it anyway and had even secured a premiere, this was canceled after "...a series of unsuccessful rehearsals clearly influenced by the new condemned standing of its composer." Shostakovich's subsequent contrition, genuine or not, was adequate to save his career (and his life), but he would never truly return to composing in the vein of the Fourth Symphony, a piece which he himself once considered a watershed in his creative development. Shelved by the political climate, the orchestral score was lost during World War II; it was only the later rediscovery of the parts from the canceled premiere that allowed the original version to be reconstructed piece by piece. The work was premiered only in 1960, 24 years after it's completion, and not published until 1984, nearly a decade after the composer's death1.

It is, in other words, a miracle that the piece exists at all. What lends this history a spiritual profundity, I think, is that it points to the transient, impermanent nature of art, and by extension, of life. The saying goes that you don't truly appreciate what you once had until it's gone, and I think that a similar dynamic exists where the object's provenance will not permit its being taken for granted, even by those who have not actually been deprived of it (and especially with the knowledge that there are many who were.)

1. Anderson, Keith, "Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), Symphony No. 4 in C Minor, Op. 43." Liner notes. Shostakovich: Symphony No, 4 in C Minor. Naxos Records, 1993.