CAITLIN ROWLEY
composer

Considering improvisation

For many years, improvisation has been a bit of a bête noir for me. Ask me to improvise and I would make the sign of the evil eye and edge away from you. As a mediocre instrumentalist and also a perfectionist, improvisation took me about as far from my comfort zone as it was possible to go. I was terrified of ‘getting it wrong’, not realising that if I played with confidence then – rather than a ‘wrong’ note being the end of the world like I was convinced it would (or should) be – it could mean a whole new direction for the music, a new idea for others to feed off.

Right now I’m in the throes of Creative Pact, for which I’m finishing Manifesto (begun as part of my MFA project), a piece rooted in learning-as-I-go and taking risks, and I’m finding it rather amusing how casually I have embraced improvisation as a key strategy of this project. True, I’m not improvising with other people, trying to pick particular notes; true, I don’t need to show anybody else an improvisation which I think is poor. But also true is that there’s rarely been an improvisation I’ve done for Manifesto (with the exception of the first improvs for the very first piece when I was still trying to work out what I could do with Max/MSP) that I’ve felt was actively bad and which I wouldn’t even consider putting out in public. I’ve had a little difficulty with picking out which version of the last two pieces would be the one that would be used in the final format of the work, but it hasn’t been because I thought they were rubbish or was embarrassed about them, but because I found that pretty much all the versions I had made were Good Enough to use.

I think Good Enough is a key concept here. Not that I’m not striving for the very best version I can produce, but because a line has to be drawn somewhere. I could keep making versions of these pieces forever, just as it’s all too easy to keep on tweaking and refining a piece of notated music, but what I want to do is to move on, to apply what I”m learning in Manifesto to other pieces. Good Enough means that what I’ve produced fits the aim I have for the piece, that it’s satisfying for me, that anything I feel is not perfect doesn’t mar the whole.

Voltaire (the internet tells me) said that the perfect is the enemy of the good. Maybe one of the things I should take away from this project is to pay more attention to when I should simply say “that’ll do, pig” and move on, rather than obsessing over trying to achieve perfection in every tiny detail.

Manifesto is a piece which draws on ideas explored in my MFA research, of amateur activity as a valid part of professional creative work and to that end consists of working with recordings of my own vocal and body-percussion improvised recordings in Max/MSP (which I had never used before starting this piece) along with video material both specially-filmed and pre-existing, to create a composite audio-visual work which explores an assortment of dualities which have become central to the way I think about my work. To follow my progress on Manifesto (updated every day in September 2014), visit my Creative Pact 2014 blog.

The first improvisation for the video section of Manifesto I’m currently working on. It’s not quite ‘Good Enough’, but there’s a lot I like about it.

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