Lennart Nilsson: On improvisation

Feb.13, 2010

On improvisation

The Problem
Music exists and has existed in all cultures and societies. Clearly music is something important. Still literary and pictorial art exists as well, though there is an essential difference. Words and pictures carry meaning and as such have had important uses early on. These have ranged from down-to-earth tasks of passing on simple messages to the creation of myths aimed at shaping a shared conceptual world for a defined group. It is from these activities that the verbal and pictorial arts have developed. However, when it comes to pure music there is no comparable origin, for which reason history abounds with varying perceptions of the nature and function of music.
This essay aims at sketching just such a perception, especially in relation to improvised music. The sketch will not take the form of a verifiable or falsifiable statement such as “This is how it is”, but should rather be seen as a suggestion, a la “Let’s look at it this way and see where it takes us”.

The Function of Music
As opposed to the verbal arts and some pictorial art, music does not convey meaningful content. The order, consistency and unity present in music are pure form. However, those structures created and shaped in music can be applied to the ambient reality as forms of empty metaphors and thus contribute to making that reality meaningful and understandable. That which in itself has no meaning can thus become an instrument for creating meanings.

How we perceive reality determines how we think, feel and act, which in turn produces new meanings in an endless cycle. In other words, music is a part of those activities that create meaning, serving as structurisors of our experienced reality, our ‘world’, and thus our thoughts, feelings and acts. An individual’s personality or identity consists of those regularities and similarities that are found in this constant, continuous and individual process. The process works within a social network that also encompasses the formation of regularities and similarities within reality perceptions and activity patterns. These constitute a society or a culture.

Seen in this way, music is a creator of tools for understanding and readiness for action, thus serving as an active power in the shaping of mankind and of society. As part of this shaping process, music delineates parts and aspects of reality often well beyond consciousness, words and pictures. These parts and aspects can easily remain in darkness in our culture, inhabiting a grey zone where consciousness, verbal language and pictures join to impress the production of meaning and thereby the perception of reality heavily. The ear becomes a less important tool to ‘build’ the world with than is the eye, which world therefore ends up poorer and smaller than it needs to be. Music is a means for enriching and expanding our ‘world’ by making new aspects understandable, thus making our lives richer and our identities more secure.

Grasping Reality
A capacity for perceiving system in the sense of predictable order as part of human interaction with the ambient world has always been essential for human survival. Such order ranges from practical know-how relating to separate situations to models of the universe, philosophies, faiths and Weltanschaung. Our everyday experiences teach us that event A always or most nearly always is followed by event B. We expect this relationship when confronted with event A and act thereafter. In the pre-scientific era much time was spent on seeking overarching systems governed by gods, demons or other non-worldly spirits with varying characteristics and wishes. This is still going on today. Oracles and other supposedly insightful individuals were thought to own knowledge of and contact with the world beyond, telling people what would happen in different situations or if the commands of gods were disobeyed. The natural sciences seek completely different types of systems where order is decided through natural laws. In certain areas, mathematically defined laws of this type can often provide very exact predictions. Social scientists work with other types of comprehension, ones that tell us in other ways what we can expect from certain types of situations and thus provide us with means to react.

In the early history of the sciences the world was seen as strictly deterministic. Only intellectual limits kept humans from gaining total control of existence through understanding all rules that bind it. Today science teaches us the opposite – there are sequences in the world that are basically unpredictable. Our everyday lives will always lead us to situations for which no identifiable prediction system exists. Being prepared for such situations is just as important for our survival as finding the predictable rules. Our interaction with reality demands a capacity for improvisation, for dealing with a non-anticipated reality through unplanned action.

The ability to predict by defining systems and to improvise is both necessary for successful human interaction with the world. However, system seeking must never degenerate into a rigidity in the form of an exaggerated search for control, power, order, rules and intolerance against everything that falls outside one’s own, narrow framework. An attitude of improvisation implies a criticism and an alternative to this.

The word ‘improvisation’ comes from the Latin improvisus meaning unforeseen or unexpected. A large part of all music that has existed or exists has been and is improvised, including Indian raga, Spanish flamenco and the various African musical traditions. Even our Western classical music formerly contained significant improvisation, though today it is almost entirely written. Several of the masters of tradition were superb improvisers, including Bach, Mozart, Liszt and Chopin. In our culture jazz is the clearly dominant form of improvised music.

It may be that human beings from different times and cultures have developed different forms of improvised music from a need to shape tools in part to understand unpredictable situations and in part to question and break up rigid systems.

An Example
The time is the early 50s. The Second World War is over as are the limitations it placed on people’s lives. A better, richer life is taking shape. One important part is the expansion of the educational system with its new opportunities. Persons with limited resources can get free schoolbooks and reduced fees. Free school meals are offered. Intellectual talent has become the most important condition for studies and success, rather than the parent’s finances.

A number of the young in society knew they would be changing societal class. Our parents were workers, farmers with smallholdings or lower level civil servants. There existed no learning tradition in our homes. But it was thought that we had good heads for studying and so we faced a long class trip whose goal most often was the ‘educated middle class’.

Class travel is no simple process. You can’t only shake off one social context with the lifestyle it presupposed and move into another, already defined one. A person who merely does this becomes no more than a poor imitation or a caricature. In order to be accepted in the new class one must contribute something new, which in turn calls for conceptual constructs, processes that form meaning and behaviour forms that exist in neither the old nor the new class. All this must be created in the no-man’s land between the classes. Successful class travel places great demands on vitality and creativity.

Both the point of departure and the goal of the class journey in question existed in rather rigid systems. Especially the ‘educated middle class’ was something rather narrow-minded, owning petrified norms and modes of behaviour. And even if we neither could nor wanted to accept all this unconditionally, we still had to find some way to relate to it. To accomplish that called for a preparedness facing the new and unpredictable, a capacity for understanding and, not least, to form new meaning constructs. The world we were to create was necessarily richer and more comprehensive than both the one we were leaving and the one we were heading to. This placed great pressure on the ability for liberation, vitality and creativity, as well as that preparedness for dealing with the unpredictable. These demands could not be satisfied in a vacuum.

However, jazz contained much of what we needed. The entire history of jazz can be seen as an increasingly thorough liberation from basic musical material. Much of the jazz played in the 50s was taken from musicals and films. The original structures were parsed by jazz into free melodic presentation, syncopated rhythms, new and more advanced harmonies and above all improvisation. New, technically and harmonically complicated melodies were created based on the basic material in the standard tunes. Taken together this created an atmosphere of self-confidence and sauciness.

The liberation from the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic base materials was often enough aided by irony. This not only affected the popular, musical base, but also jazz itself in its older, more established forms. The ironic version was considered superior to the original in accord with an aesthetic shared not only among the practitioners, but also by others. Stan Kenton’s version of Santa Lucia became what today would be called cult and we grooved unreservedly to Dizzy Gillespie’s Pop’s Confession, Donna Lee replaced Indiana, and Whispering by Groovin’ High. We used our own best talents to jazz up Gärdebylåten and Flickorna i Småland.

Irony generally implied working with double meanings, suggesting one thing while clearly meaning the exact opposite. Through its choice of many of its melodies, jazz seemed to stand with conventional music, but by changing the melodic presentation, the rhythms and harmonies the result was allowed to express criticism, alienation and repudiation. In the world beyond music this ironic distance often became not only a means to liberation from our origins, but also a weapon in our new class situation.

Still the most important part was the creative process. You could do whatever you wanted to a melody, changing its presentation, rhythm, tempo and harmonics – nothing was prescribed. The syncopated rhythms and dissonant sounds seemed much more vital and powerful than the more meek and mild popular music most of us grew up with. Most important the improvisation and musical collaboration shaped in us a capability for meeting and developing the unpredictable.

We did not stay in our original setting, nor did we accept a fully formed life style. We gained new possibilities and used them. Our world was to be larger than the one we left and we were not satisfied with just entering the new class we found. We transformed it. In this way classical music lost its monopoly as the music of the educated and it was no longer evident that academicians voted conservatively. The educated middle class would never more again be what it was.

Jazz was an important part of this process. It showed us that freedom can exist alongside rules and limitations, boundaries can be crossed, old structures broken up and new ones created.

Jazz became our practice fields.

Lennart Nilsson
(English translation by Sven Borei)