14 July 2012

Toward a New Isolation (iii)

New as it is to me, the solo improvisation endeavor presents a choice: traipse out on stage and spill my guts without any knowledge or expectation of how I'll respond physically or mentally, or "prepare" for this challenge in private before bringing a somewhat more refined but hopefully still spontaneous product out in public. Mirroring the technique discussion, these first moments of self-discovery are either the best or the worst you'll ever play depending on who you talk to: preparing could mean leaving your best shit in the practice room, or it could mean paying your audience the respect of shitting on your time instead of theirs. I think that true naivete of the kind so valued by the former camp is a tremendously compelling thing, but also don't think it's something someone like me can ever hope to truly recapture.

I say this because while "unaccompanied solo improvisation" is new for me, neither the "unaccompanied," "solo," nor "improvisation" components are new functions in isolation, and I am of course undertaking all of this on an instrument with which I've already spent several thousand hours of my life developing other techniques and fluencies. It's not that the arguments in favor of the more naive approach don't sway me; to the contrary, probably the most eye-opening improvised music experience I've had, more so even than being thrown into my first free playing experiences with little warning, was working with a group of adult beginners as part of a weekly educational workshop. Much of the music that ensemble made had a quality which I've never really experienced in person anywhere else, and which I'm sad to say I'll never be able to produce myself. The reason I say that is because it was not just the "free" setting that was relatively new to these students, but in some cases also their instruments and the very idea of playing in an ensemble.

Of course, there are many unfamiliar instruments I could pick up and new musical situations I could seek out that might bring me closer to this ideal, but I would still have my entire depth of listening, performing and composing experience to contend with. The performative act itself could hardly be called naive even if the instrumental technique involved could be. Would it not still be worth it to at least see what happens? Perhaps, but the outcome I would expect gives me pause. To elaborate: it seems to me that most professional musicians, whether improvisors or readers, creators or recreators, end up trapped in the vast but unremarkable middle ground between true naivete and expert mastery, a middle ground which is, importantly, much easier to ascend into from the naive side than it is to ascend through to the expert side. Truly naive improvised music is a beautiful, ineffable thing, but it has an exceedingly short shelf life: the act of producing it precipitously destroys the very naivete which made it possible. Expertly crafted, technically astute improvised music can not only be equally beautiful but can be made in much larger quantities by the few who achieve the requisite skill. If there is a drawback, it is the time and effort that must be invested on blind faith that mastery is in the cards (a drawback, that is, only to the extent that the task becomes monotonous or otherwise unenjoyable).

Unaccompanied solo improvisation is indeed new to me on one important level, but not new enough on most any of the others that my very first efforts at it could truly be called naive the same way my students' could. In any case, I'm reasonably certain that when I sat down to try this for the first time on tuba, it sounded neither naive nor expert; in other words, it was the worst of both worlds, a big fat middle ground mess. For someone in this situation, picking up a totally new instrument ensures a truly naive quality in only one dimension of the performance. Surely this process could be expected to lead the player to new approaches to all of the other parameters; therein lies the greatest value of such an endeavor, but also the very antithesis of naivete, no? At that point, we've simply returned to the middle ground without our technique, something which, for reasons I outlined in the previous missive, doesn't interest me right now. I'm more inclined to pursue mastery, fraught as that mindset is with its own pitfalls.