Free Play Productions
Free Play Productions   Stephen Nachmanovitch

The Art of Is - Introduction

Stephen Nachmanovitch


I have been a professional improviser for more than forty years. I’ve taught workshops from Germany to Argentina to Japan. I’ve played a black electric violin in a Buddhist temple, and a three-century-old viola d’amore in the Large Hadron Collider. This book is the trace of decades spent traveling around collaborating with, teaching, and learning from ever-widening circles of people. It has grown from playing with music, words, movement, images, and even computer code, learning about the forms and interdependent patterns of play. Such play is a way not only of connecting with people but of discovering the connections that were already present but unsuspected.

Those of us who gravitate toward improvisational music do so because we enjoy relating to other human beings as equals. That is the core of the experience for me. That is the chief relevance of our practice for the world beyond art. Our work, at its most genuine, can bring us into a living model of social openness through the practice of listening. In a world where people are prone to retreating into academic, aesthetic, and professional cubbyholes, where people are divided by the fault lines of very real racial, gender, and economic inequity, there is an ever-pressing need for this kind of practice.

When asked to define improvising, I say I play music that is less than five minutes old. Yet it is ancient, in that the sounds that attract me have an archaic feel. When it is truly happening, I feel I am lightly touching something deep in culture, deep in genetics, deep in our animal nature — a fundamental connection to others. Making art, whether you do it solo or in a group, derives its patterns from everything around us, in an interdependent network. We learn to work as nature does, with the material of ourselves: our body, our mind, our companions, and the radical possibilities of the present moment.

In my twenties I met another young American, a Zen Buddhist priest. He spoke of doing zazen — sitting meditation — as practice. The word practice is consistently used to describe meditative activity; I had heard and read it many times before, but that day, for some reason, it hit me between the eyes. I am a musician, I thought, and now I know what practice is. Music, dance, sports, medicine, sitting still on a cushion in a state of concentrated awareness: all are forms of practice, skilled disciplines of doing and being what you are rather than some preparatory work to get to a goal. So began for me a lifelong exploration of the Buddha dharma, the Tao, and other traditions East and West that link up to artistic practice. And with a Buddhist perspective, I began to link improvising with the other imps: impermanence and imperfection. I learned to relish these essential qualities of life and art. And above all, I came to see art-making not as a matter of displaying skill but of awakening and realizing altruistic intentions.

When I was even younger, I was sure I was going to be a biologist. Then a psychologist. I was fascinated by living organisms: bodies, minds, social relations, play. The first article I ever published was in the Journal of Protozoology. I was enthralled by how a single cell can perform all of life’s essential activities, sustain itself in an environment, swim, hunt, interact with others. That protean quality of life is still what guides me as an artist: creating music without dividing into separate functions of composer and performer, doing intermedia art forms such as visual music that speak to several senses at once.

Teachers in universities, conservatories, and high schools regard improvising as a fresh, mysterious item that should be included in the curriculum, if only they can figure out how to do it, earnestly trying to catch up with their students. But it is not an item in a list of skills we might check off in a syllabus. It is not a style or form, not a department or specialty. Improvising is life itself.

What I offer in the following chapters, from different angles and aspects, laced with journeys into music, art, science, politics, business, philosophy, pottery — are glimpses into moments of human contact. These glimpses may take place in the relatively safe and tame environment of a classroom, but later we will meet Herbert Zipper, who was able to cultivate them in the living hell of a Nazi concentration camp. We’ll visit John Cage’s living room, where we will discuss the merits of noisy refrigerators and discover the resonance between mushrooms and music. We’ll learn what we can from frogs. We’ll meet an experimental musician who becomes mayor of a small town and changes it for the better. We’ll unearth the connection between Clint Eastwood’s hat and Japanese folk pottery. And we’ll see how an old koan about a priestess who defends herself from assault with a slip of paper she manifests into a sword speaks to our duty as artists and free human beings.

Throughout these diverse settings, similar themes and lessons crop up and repeat. Improvising cannot be understood as merely a musical or theatrical technique. It must be examined from multiple perspectives, turned over again and again, to reveal their commonality. We examine many types of moments because the crucial lesson of this book is that artistic power is available to anyone, at any moment. It is not a psychological tool, or an artistic tool. It is a way of being.

This book is about what happens in the moments and spaces between people when we create together. Music, movement, image, words are experienced as physiological, as unforced as breathing or the circulation of blood. Such experience is possible not only in the arts but in medicine, in teaching, in civic engagement — anywhere we like. This intimacy doesn’t happen all the time; it comes to an end, and mundane pursuits take over. But when it happens, it is a form of magic and bliss. We co-create something that arises out of listening and mutual attentiveness. We discover that the nervous system is bigger than the brain, bigger than the body. The most ordinary act of creativity is spontaneous conversation — the art of listening and responding, interacting, taking in environmental factors unconsciously but with precision, modifying what we do as a result of what we see and hear, touch and make, a multidimensional feedback. In our daily lives we create and recognize connections all the time. We don’t need extraordinary credentials. There is nothing special about it, but from that nothing arises our opportunity to attain some wisdom and compassion about the world in which we live. And so we can take art off the pedestal and put it where it belongs, in the dynamic center of our lives.