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A Free Improvisation Goes Wrong, meaning Exactly Right

When a free improvisation doesn’t go the way I planned it leads me to the conclussion that sometimes the best-laid plans are unlaid plans.

But really, it’s a combination of intention and non-intention that makes for the best art. Sure, that’s very Zen, or at least partially Zen. In any case, the sweet spot seems to lie somewhere between making a choice and letting the choice be made in the moment.

Leonard Bernstein & Original Intnet vs. Intuition

The approaches to how we make and interpret music draw on knowledge, history, analysis, etc. But at the end of the day, we can only rely on the data and information so much; we don’t have infinite knowledge, we can’t make all decisions based on information, perfect skill, perfect knowledge, so we rely on our intuition.

Berstein talks about this in reference to how two (hypothetical) conductors approach the tempo marking in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, but the idea is equally true with free improvisation; when you are creating music on the spot, there are innumerable decisions to be made at every moment. You can’t possibly control all of them. You are, in a way, at the mercy of where the music takes you.

In the End it Will Sound Like it Was Intended, Though it Wasn’t

In the moment of its creation, an improvisation can often feel like a struggle between what is and what is possible but not necessarilly achievable. So while the intent is there, it rarely, if ever comes out the way you actually intended. Ironically, though, when I go back and listen, it does sound like it was meant to be the way it it is.

The moment of creation, whether improvised or not, always involves struggle.

Episode #9 Transcription


Well, that really wasn’t what I intended, but then again, intention is a double-edged sword


Meaning intention is just part of the overall intent, meaning in improvisation, composition, story writing, painting, anything, if it were all just intention, you would go down a path that was dull, predictable, maybe even dangerous.

I was watching a YouTube video of Leonard Bernstein. It was his New York Philharmonic broadcast back in the, what, ’50s, ’60s, and at the beginning of this, he was performing the opening of the Eroica Symphony by Beethoven, this thing, something like that. He was talking about the different ways you could interpret that, and he was referencing two conductors in particular, one who was known as a kind of strict interpreter, constructionist, constitutionalist, an original intent fool, that kind of thing, like a lot of justices appointed by conservatives these days, assholes in other words. Another was more intuitive in his approach and had a very fluid sense of tempo, whereas this stricter conductor was very much on the beat all the time and everything had to be metronomic.

So Bernstein had a demonstration with a full orchestra at his disposal, which is a nice gig to try to make your point with 90 people supporting you, and both seemed to work, although I preferred the more intuitive, naturalistic approach. The point of this demonstration was can you ever really know which is the correct way. Is there a correct way of interpreting a piece of written music?

One of the things that Bernstein pointed out was that there’s a limit on how much information we as humans can process at any given time. You can’t control all the elements. You can’t possibly be omniscient and control everything. The only solution at the end of the day when your mind, your controlling mind can’t handle any more information is your intuition, your musical intuition in this case, taking over where the abstract thinking, controlling, mathematical mind can no longer control, and that our musical intuition or our intuition in general takes over at that point, can make decisions that are out of control in a sense, but also more deeply in control.

So when I said at the beginning that’s not what I intended, when I go back and listen to it, the irony will be it will sound in most cases, unless there was like a major faux pas as opposed to all the numerous minor ones that go on all the time, it will sound like that’s what I meant, which is strange and wonderful. In other words, you can have the grandest plans for your composition, or improvisation in this case, and it won’t be what you expected. It will be better, or maybe worse, but it will be what had to happen at that moment, and that’s why the lack of intent or the mixture of decision making and intuition or just blind luck or accidents can sound like they were absolutely meant to be…


Which has to be good enough.

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