Thursday, November 16, 2006

endings: or engineering serendipity

How do improvisers, in an open, group context, know how to end? How do they manage, on occasion, to stop on a dime?
If, as a performer in such contexts, you’ve yet to experience such a moment—that knock-your-socks-off coda—please, come back to this post at a later date: There’s no substitute for discovering the phenomena yourself.

Yeah, go away, do some playing, come back when you’re done.

Okay, you’re back. Now you know that it is possible to create satisfying endings—maybe heart-stoppingly dramatic, or maybe subdued and elegant—spontaneously. You’re perhaps asking self-conscious question such as, what is the underlying mechanism behind these endings, or whether there are steps to maximize the chances of such endings (and minimize the probability of damp squibs and fizzles).
A solution that less experienced improvisers sometimes suggest is the cue. However, should just one performer in the group miss the prompt, you’re not only back to the original quandary, but you’ve now got yourselves in a situation which a skeptical audience may view as a goof-up (well, ’cause it was). Cues are useful things, particularly in time-constrained, large group settings, and in settings where there is an escape hatch (I’ll maybe talk more about such things in another post), but as a control signals for (more or less) instantaneous, collective, group behavior, it has, I think, far too many pitfalls.
I’m also distrustful of pre-agreed (or stereotypical) musical gestures (e.g. cadence like shapes) as markers for potential endings. Although an audience is less likely to notice a goof-up, you’re still stuck with some of the same problems as cueing. In addition, if part of the point of improvisation is to take us to the unknown, then there’s no guarantee that pre-agreed gestures will make any kind of sense when we get there. And there’s no way you can plan for every single eventuality in such an open context.
How an improviser approaches endings in a group context may be the best kept secret in the practice of improvised musics. Well, it’s a secret in so far as it’s seldom discussed or theorized, but the mechanism itself can be as simple as you want it: See a potential exit; just take it. Should the rest of the group not follow, that’s fine, the performance continues without you, at least for the time being. Should all but one of the performers ‘end,’ well, that wasn’t and end was it? It was just the point at which that person started a solo. That solo might directly lead to an end, or maybe it segues into another section which, maybe, then ends.
Do you see the pattern here? As improvisers, we are spontaneously, and retroactively, justifying what is happening and has happened. You are avoiding the “reflex of trying to make it into something you think it ought to be, rather than letting it become what it can be.” The significance of a gesture is not written in stone, it’s up for grabs and, in all probability, will be recursively defined and redefined as the performance continues.

…There’s a certain amount of anticipation and tactical considerations which help make the bigger shape. But on a detail for detail level, it’s not done by adding one thing to another, it’s done by… instantaneous is the wrong word because you’ve done it before you’ve thought about it. You can only listen to it… after it’s happened. But you’ve done it before you’ve thought of it.
Evan Parker quoted in Graham Lock (1991), ‘speaking of the essence’, Wire (issue 85), p. 32.
The character and function of every element in the performance is generated performatively rather than preordained. Is that the ending coming up ahead? Well, maybe, but we won’t know for sure until it ends.


Peter said...

i'm a bit late on this one, which is somehow ironic. i think you're doing a great job of trying to quantify what seems like an almost mystical experience. or at least when it's happend to me it's felt mystical or as apparently inexplicable as the synchronised manoeuvring of a flock of birds...

the improvising guitarist said...

“…mystical or as apparently inexplicable…”

Which is presumably why such simple phenomena is sometime so hard to describe. Thanks for the comment, and, as way of reply… ‘structure|ings: engineering serendipity.’

S, tig.