I mentioned in a previous post that I recently attended a winter workshop at the School for Improvisatory Music in Brooklyn. The overall experience was nothing short of eye-opening and soul-liberating. I worked with a wonderful group of musicians, peers, and teachers from all over the world. Because the nature of our exploration wasn’t focused on style or technique, but rather raw expression itself, the entire week had strong parallels to a spiritual retreat. Many of the truths being put forth pointed just as much to the human experience of the divine as much as they did to the human relationship with creativity.
The SIM philosophy in a nutshell is that beyond style, beyond tradition, beyond unexamined beliefs about what music is and is not, lies an approach where the emphasis is on creating and performing with openness and honesty, devoid of judgment. This “musical authenticity” is explored through the practice of improvisation. The faculty likes to say “spontaneous composition” because “free jazz” is a term that promotes misunderstanding. When dealing with music in such an abstract/transcendent way, I noticed how words can sometimes only vaguely point to a truth instead of embody it. That said, here are some of my favorite quotes from the faculty:
“Free improv isn’t a pre-conceived style, but rather a clean slate, a point of departure: it is ‘all-composed.’ ”
“People don’t want to accept, they want to own.”
“We are exploring the possibility of a universal ‘tonality,’ a place where traditions dissolve into pure sound.”
“Thinking is the deathknell of everything.”
“Don’t feel like you always have to go somewhere.”
“You can’t be aware of music if you aren’t aware of life.”
If these sounds like koans, well, they are. If a rational, dogmatic musician (or listener) were to walk into the room in which we were playing, they would have heard nothing but awful noise devoid of “meaningful” structure. This is what I heard as well until I could get into a deeper space and really Listen. Then it was beautiful.
Thankfully, the practice of spontaneous composition isn’t a dark art with no easily definable path of mastery. Bassist J. Granelli pointed out that the quantifiable skillset has to do with fostering two things: listening and intent. Whenever we create music, either in a straight-ahead rock band or an avant-garde collective, we are called to be aware of our musical surroundings: what we are playing, what others are playing, the aggregate sound and what it is asking of the players. This involves getting out of the way of our thoughts and taking on an observer role. Meditation, anyone? Intent is to really “mean what you play”: although you can be open to your surroundings, you don’t necessarily have to be swayed by them. There is great power in truly “believing in yourself,” an idea that jazz-spiritualist Kenny Werner also promotes in his text, Effortless Mastery.
It is difficult for me to be succinct in this blog post; many of these discussions and ideas can be so paradoxical. If anything, the SIM workshop helped me understand that (in a way) no one can teach you anything, you have to learn and know for yourself. I am starting to realize that growing up (as an artist and a person) has a lot to do with becoming your own teacher, accepting and enacting your journey through life. I came away from the workshop totally energized to have an amazing year of art and connection with community. I also came away with an utter sense of gratitude, knowing that there is a community of humble, open artists exploring the unknown and sharing the results with each other. This year I hope to be more open to my music-writing process instead of immediately critical of what comes out. I have also planted the seed of an idea for a dream ensemble that weaves together umpteen musicians and dancers, improvisation, latin rhythms, theatrics, moody lighting, spirituality, and joyousness. I know it will come together one day, I can already hear faint strains of the music we would play.
Here’s to a fulfilling, creatively rewarding 2009 for everyone. May you know the path you walk along is the right one.