The conventional demarcations maintained between composition and improvisation are fake ones; or, to put it just a bit more generously, they’re at the very least more than a little misleading; Allegations that improvisers don’t compose only imposes more unnecessary and distracting confusion. The distinctions addressed here don’t actually relate to the act of composing itself (choosing among sounds in the assembling of a sonic image is what musicians are doing in either setting). A differentiation that really does matter, however, concerns how the activity of composing is situated.
Steve Lacy deftly contrasted these options in precisely 15 seconds: “In 15 seconds, the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what you want to say in 15 seconds, while in improvisation you have 15 seconds.”
The cosmology within which a composer acts, the terms of action, the kinds of information available, the relationship with the sonic image, all differ radically, but musicians might easily snap from one end of this spectrum to the other just like that; and they’re additionally apt to organize a plethora of mixed strategies in relation with what it is they want to accomplish.
Improvisation is not a complete misnomer for situating the compositional process within sonic events as they unfold. A composer has to integrate responses and anticipations toward what’s imprevisto, toward what’s unforeseen, as a given feature of the field of action. A composer here weaves coherences amid an open system. In physicist Ilya Prigonine’s notion of dissipative structures, the more coherent, the more interconnected an open system (and, in the case of music, the more communications effected), the more unstable it is — the more capable of (or liable to) sudden transformations. Under these conditions, as the poet Charles Olson also relates in his essay Projective Verse: “ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION. …keep moving, keep in, speed, the nerves, their speed, the perceptions, theirs, the acts, the split second acts, the whole business, keep it moving as fast as you can, citizen.”
Compositional immersion in the quick of the moment affords intimate access to, and direct rapport with, the fine local details of the actual sounds at hand — timing, timbre, envelope, emphasis – vital details of affective touch that can move deeply a listener’s attention, and which, taken all together, would be, in practical terms, simply too intricate to either average, map or delegate.
What comes along with such compositional intimacy is a necessity to respond inventively to whatever unannounced shifts happen to permeate a musical biosphere. The fluctuating sonic imagery that’s so characteristic of music being composed in this way demonstrates the telling impact of the call and response exchanges that are so intrinsic to how open systems interact with their environment.
Improvisation as attitude — as an open system, give and take cosmology — as an ethos, relates (not so surprisingly) with a lot more than musical activity. Albert Murray writes in The Hero and the Blues that “Improvisation is the ultimate human (i.e. heroic) endowment. It is, indeed; and even as flexibility or the ability to swing (or to perform with grace under pressure) is the key to that unique confidence which generates the self-reliance and thus the charisma of the hero, and even as infinite alertness-become-dexterity is the functional source of the magic of all master craftsmen, so may skill in the art of improvisation be that which both will enable contemporary man to be at home with his sometimes tolerable but never quite certain condition of not being at home in the world and will also dispose him to regard his obstacles and frustrations as well as his achievements in terms of adventure and romance.”
But, from the point of view of crafting an audible sonic image that’s faithful to an imagined one, improvisation also freights a good share of inconveniences, liabilities and lacks. Improvisers may willingly choose to compose within acutely abrupt horizons; but in having situated themselves inside (rather than outside) a musical event, composers can only act from where they actually are at any moment, at most passingly with the beginning of an event and only briefly with its end along the way. Musical information continues to shift throughout, perpetually contingent and imperfect. A profound influence might be effected through adroit blendings of cooperation and counterstatement, but any total control over a global sonic narrative is simply not in the cards for any participant — and it can’t be. Accurate knowledge of an evolving and still indeterminate soundscape can never be more than provisional and speculative. These are the both limiting and liberating conditions that shape the context and basis within which instantaneous musical invention asserts itself.
Completely out in the open, improvisation radically exposes compositional process and ensconces it without retroactive safety nets within a series of irreversible actions and commitments. Coherence and presence have to be achieved adaptively and cumulatively. And the debris of improvised music’s construction – its scaffolds, its hesitations, mistakes, digressions, experiments and reassessments — splays openly within unforgiving earshot. All of this, together with the composers’ responses, assembles what narratives greet a listener.
The doubts intrinsic to improvisation, its continual spar and dance with approaching vortices of unresolved probabilities enact a drama immediately inhabitable by listeners and composers alike in a way that all can share a stake in the outcome. This shared intensification of expectancy can become a collective achievement. And, given its dicey, if not occasionally adverse, circumstances, it’s not all that surprising that persuasive composing from-the-inside-out smacks so much of miracle and revelation for both listener and composer in a way that vividly immerses all participants in the suspense and dynamism of creative process.