Another post on music, this one inspired by a great essay on the etiquette of improvisation, by Howard Becker:
Collective improvisation–not like Keith Jarrett, where one man plays alone, but like the more typical small jazz group–requires that everyone pay close attention to the other players and be prepared to alter what they are doing in response to tiny cues that suggest a new direction that might be interesting to take. The etiquette here is more subtle than I have so far suggested, because everyone understands that at every moment everyone (or almost everyone) involved in the improvisation is offering suggestions as to what might be done next, in the form of tentative moves, slight variations that go in one way rather than some of the other possible ways. As people listen closely to one another, some of those suggestions being to converge and others, less congruent with the developing direction, fall by the wayside. The players thus develop a collective direction which characteristically–as though the participants had all read Emile Durkheim–feels larger than any of them, as though it had a life of its own. It feels as though, instead of them playing the music, the music, Zen-like, is playing them.
This is largely the experience I have making music when I gather with others to play traditional Irish tunes. In the traditional Irish session, the players sit in a circle, and call out tunes on the fly, changing from one to another as the tune sets evolve. It never takes long to get to the flow state described above, where small variations in the tune suggest other things.
When the session is really humming there is a chemistry that arises between the musicians. I have often thought of this state as one in which all the individuals in the group take a significant emotional investment in the music and place it outside of themselves, in the middle of the circle, like a glowing ball of energy that we all try to keep aloft. It feels on the one hand solid and on the other delicate and vulnerable. It can trigger powerful emotions, and I remember one session where, in the middle of the tune Over the Moor to Maggie (mp3 here), I had a sensation of 1000 suns exploding in my chest. I was weeping tears of joy at the immensely generous space that had opened up in between us.
This is one reason why I think that music, even played by people with a most elementary of technique, is a wonderful practice ground for all of the other areas of collaboration we face in life.
Tomorrow: the things you have to do to invite other to improvise.