Improvisation is our most valuable resource in overcoming adversity that inevitably emerges into our lives. For an artist, improvisation is the underlying ground of creativity. In a larger sense, improvisation is an essential skill in finding our way through the vicissitudes of life. In this sense, everyone is an artist trying to improvise a way through the confluence of life.
Keith Jarret stated it pretty eloquently on is new record, Always Let Me Go. He explained how he had to really withdraw from following through with something that he already knew could work. That’s a very important point.
(Lee Konitz in The Art of Improvisation)
Improvisation is the essence of musical creativity. Keith Jarrett is a master of creating music extemporaneously; that is, he improvises musical performances on the piano in real time in front of a live audience. However, improvisation is also influencing his way of life and is a primary resource in overcoming adversity.
Overcoming Adversity in Life
We all lead improvised lives. All forms of improvisation invite risk. To improvise is to find ourselves alone with no other resource available to us than our own creativity. We are inspired by the knowledge that improvisation means that there is no guarantee of success. When we embrace our own creativity, failure is no longer a form of defeat; it is a powerful source of growth.
Adversity is the condition of hardship, difficulty, and risk. It is a source of distress in life that we would rather not experience. Adversity emerges as a physical, emotional, or spiritual threat to our sense of wellbeing. It can overwhelm our mind and agitate a primal sense of fight or flight deep within. And yet, adversity is a natural, normal, and inevitable requirement of life.
The idea of overcoming adversity often conjures images of conquest; that is, when we overcome adversity we defeat it. Myths and stories are permeated by narratives of heroic action leading to the elimination of an adverse situation or circumstance.
However, not all forms of adversity can be conquered.
Sometimes adversity means permanent change as if we have moved through a mysterious threshold between what once was and what now must be. Sometimes adversity is permanent. For example, an age-related disease can be thought of as a form of adversity that permanently alters the feeling of being alive.
When these primal creatures of adversity emerge, our course in life can be dramatically and permanently altered. Overcoming adversity is not always possible. Sometimes, adversity imposes genuine humility, and our only task is to find a way to accept, appreciate, and understand its presence.
Keith Jarrett: The Art of Improvisation
In the documentary The Art of Improvisation, Keith Jarrett describes improvisation as a way of constantly trying to undo what has already been done to discover the, “music that belongs where you live.”
In other words, improvisation is as much about creating music as it is creating a meaningful and fulfilling life.
He embraces the beginner’s mind. Each of his solo performances is a means to, “withdraw from following through with something that he already knew could work.” Improvisation means that what he plays can only be fully revealed in hindsight.
The piano is a direct extension of his body, mind, and spirit. His presence at the piano blurs the distinction between performer and instrument as if the piano and flesh were the same things.
One of his most remarkable performances was The Koln Concert. The piano he was asked to use was inadequate; it generated a sense of adversity. Instead of canceling the performance, however, he embraced the technical deficiencies of the instrument as a source of inspiration.
In overcoming the adversity of a deficient musical instrument, Jarret improvised a profoundly creative improvised performance. The Koln Concert is a milestone in solo piano improvisation.
Illness is a Great Educator
In 1996, Jarrett was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and could no longer perform in public.
Instead of the piano generating adversity, now a form of adversity had emerged inside his body that would permanently alter his way of life.
Jarrett leaned into chronic fatigue syndrome as material to improvise with. He decided to work in whatever capacity he could to transform his disease into song. He describes his illness as “a great educator.”
One of the life lessons he gleaned from his illness is that “the more experience a person has the more simplicity becomes profound.” By the end of 1997, amid exhaustion, Keith managed to record The Melody of the Night, With You as a Christmas gift for his wife.
At the time of writing this article, Keith Jarret is 71 years old and still performing. His shoulder and arm constantly shake. And yet, his inspiring response is that “the miracle of playing is all I ever need.” You can follow his work on his Facebook page.
Being Alone with our Own Creativity
Sometimes I will sit at the piano and try to play something new, or more specifically, to withdraw from playing music that I know will work.
Quite often, sounds emerging from the piano are less than interesting. My ego can become adversarial in the form of relentless criticism filling me with doubt. However, there are moments in which new music, or music that I didn’t know I could play, emerges.
Ethnomusicologists will often transcribe a performance to render it visible in the form of musical notation. The Koln Concert has been transcribed and made available for others to “learn.”
However, learning to play the Koln Concert from musical notation is nonsensical and is contrary to the spirit in which the music was created. In other words, a pianist who has learned to perform the Koln Concert note-for-note has completely missed the point.
We cannot transcribe someone else’s life and perform it as if it were our own. While there may be some benefit in exploring the transcription to deepen our appreciation for Jarrett’s performance, it cannot be performed more than once. There is only one performance that matters.
Improvisation and Adversity
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations from which there is no hope of escape.
Adversity can be momentary, or it can become a lifelong companion.
The art of improvisation is the art of leaning into adversity to see what we can find. Creativity is the kindness of placing ourselves at risk to:
- withdraw from the status quo;
- turn a disease into a song;
- Discover the profound within simplicity.
In other words, the art of improvisation is not discovered in a performance; it is most fully revealed in the trajectory of a person’s life.