Improvisation is the underlying ground of creativity. To improvise is to perform an extemporaneous act of creative expression. An improviser thrives on the frontier where the known gives way to the possible without being certain of what the outcome will be. This spirit of exploration as well as the acceptance of vulnerability is fundamental to creativity. In a deep sense, improvisation is a vital skill we need to help find our way through the vicissitudes of life and to pursue the ideal of living a good life.
We all live an improvised life. We move through the confluence of everyday life by making decisions and choices that have downstream consequences we cannot predict. It is delusional to think that life can be planned, managed, and scheduled. The full force of life can only be experienced, never tamed. We are all vulnerable creatures on a fleeting and fragile trajectory across a finite and uncertain amount of time. Our life course is an emergent property of the decision, choices, interactions, and experiences that coalesce into that uniquely personal phenomenon called, “My Life.”
Music is familiar ground for the practice of improvisation. Classical composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven were master improvisers and they displayed their improvisational prowess during concerts. It was improvisation that fueled their creative output, a fact that seems lost in modern classical music pedagogy and performance. Perhaps jazz is the last bastion of music improvisation, but the repetition makes it feel less creative than it was when it was flourishing roughly a century ago.
Improvisation is not the exclusive domain of the artist. Nor is it not a form of expertise that we can achieve. Improvisation is a mode of being in the world that thrives on creative interaction with experience. An improvised life is one in which our sense of identity remains in conversation with the unfolding of our life course. This means our attention is focused on novelty rather than routine. Our sense of identity is dynamic; that is, the person we call “My Self” is an emergent property of the confluences of situation and circumstances that unfold across the entire arc of life. We are a single self; we are a series of selves that ebb and flow over time. Creativity is the essence of identity.
Improvisation is a condition of vulnerability. It confronts genuine threats and demands risk taking to proceed. To improvise is to be utterly lone with our own creative abilities and not knowing what is going to happen. Improvisation offers no guarantee of success, nor should there be. Without the consequences of genuine risk, real improvisation cannot emerge. A crucial condition of improvisation is that the potential for failure must always be lurking near by. The bars of uncertainty must be sticking in our sides when we act. We must feel the presence of the unexpected on our skin. The threat of failure is, for the improviser, a source of inspiration and personal growth, not retreat.
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, “music that belongs where you live.” He embraces the beginner’s mind when he performs. Each of his solo performances is a means to, “withdraw from following through with something that he already knew could work.”
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 other words, Jarrett embraced the adversity as creative challenge with remarkable results. More importantly, he provides an inspiring metaphor of how we can approach adversity in life.
In 1996, Jarrett was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome and could no longer perform in public. The illness became a trusted mentor. He decided to lean into the directly felt experience of chronic fatigue syndrome as material to improvise with. He embraced the struggle 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.
Life alternates between periods of relative calm and the weight of adversity. Sometimes, like Keith Jarrett, we find ourselves in situations from which there is no hope of retreat. Adversity can be momentary, or it can become a lifelong companion. In this context, improvisation is the art of leaning into adversity to see what we can find and then to try and craft something meaningful out of it. The art of improvisation is the act of turning directly into the full force of life and allowing ourselves to experience the fear, awe, and wonder that is the privilege of being alive.
We are all engaged in a struggle to live a meaningful, fulfilling and good life while inhabiting a modern epidemic of stress, anxiety, and depression. It is obvious that obsession with progress has not resulted in better mental health and wellbeing. Sociopathic narcissism has become the new face of power and influence. We knowingly live in unsustainable ways because it is too inconvenient to make fundamental changes to our way of life. Rather than being a source of growth, culture has stagnated in outdated assumptions and misguided expectations. We mire ourselves in a bog of economic stench. We complain about our hectic lifestyle yet wear it like a badge of honor. We talk incessantly about productivity without questioning what that it is aimed at. It seems the only way to survive inside modern culture is to place ourselves into a state of frantic somnambulance… and then we die.
No one has all the answers. The ideal of an improvised life focuses on challenging outdated assumptions, misguided expectation, and dependence on external expertise. In other words, living an improvised life is a call to action to pursue greater insight into the nature of living a life worth living and hopefully discover some wisdom we can share with others along the way. It is also a rebellion against the status quo life; that is, we embrace subjective experience as a raw material we use to fashion a good life. In this way, we broaden and intensify our creative participation and contribution to society.
An improvised life invites us to consider that our course in life is a creative act. We will face situations and circumstances not of our own making, but we retain the ability to give them meaning and purpose. This ability cannot be taken away from us; that is, we can always choose to seek meaning and purpose in life, even when life weighs heavy on our spirit. None of this is simple or easy. An improvised life is, however, the best way to pursue our innate desire to live a life worth living.
- Learn more about Keith Jarrett
- Learn more about the Koln Concert
- View The Art of Improvisation
- Phil Best has written an article about the demise of improvisation in classical music called, What happened to improvisation in classical piano music?
- See An Artist’s Journey for a compelling example of an improvised life.