Rural Azerbaijan a few years ago. One of the only places I’ve stayed with two linguistic conditions: almost no one who spoke English, and the language spoken shared few origins with English. There I was delighted to discover an unexpected ability to determine the theme of most conversations. I found, however, if I listened “too hard,” I failed at knowing the subject. If I wandered my mind entirely towards the ripening figs slung from the trees, I also missed the theme. But there was a strange not-to-loose-not-too-tight Goldilocks soft-brain attention in which I could lightly listen. And when I did, later my Peace Corps friends confirmed that indeed, as I had guessed, their neighbors had been discussing why the price of tomatoes had risen, or when the brothers would return. I privately called it “soft brain” attention.
I think I may be enlisting this soft brain attention in the improvisational practice moments when I feel best … tuned. (There in “tuned” we have a musical metaphor now, instead of my initial psycho-anatomical.) I wonder, following again another workshop with Nancy Stark Smith, whether “soft brain” is akin to the “third mind” shared among improvisors –the term drawn from William S. Burroughs by Nancy.
And so I wonder further what other terms might define this “soft brain” or “third mind,” since my own terms may not serve all my colleagues and students. The concept relates to time and choice. When bassist Haggai Cohen-Milo and I both stop “playing” at precisely the same moment, from where does that same-choice come? Am I predicting his aesthetic inclination, and choosing to match (or vice versa)? Or because of our self-selection and time spent together, do we have the same aesthetic ideas about when to include a musical rest? Or(and) is there a soft brain attention that shows in the flick of our eyes at a straight-on moment that a bold choice is forming and thus ——– and it is good, because it is satisfying, because we are together. I don’t surely have these answers. I do think that when we can make the same choices, and work at what sameness is, then we expand our choices. Then whether we stop together or not, we can do what we do consciously (there’s now a psychological metaphor) together, and then we can make better composition, because we are choosing together.
But sometimes I am thinking about figs.
Sometimes I am thinking about how I want to put my elbow on their shoulder in a few moments or I want the musician to do something else other than what they’re doing.
Am I still improvising?
If, as I am doing sitting meditation practice, I wander “mindlessly,” which I do for almost the entire duration of sitting, am I no longer in meditation? I think that the fact of my intending an attention, even when I falter, indicates that I am still doing the practice when I’m not. I am here, attempting to improvise. I am failing all the while, which, thankfully, is a marvelous experience of success. Fraught words, those, success and failure. I hope they’re useful today.
So then when we’re supposedly in practice and no longer noticing what we’re noticing, as Simone Forti, as taught to me by Norah Zuniga-Shaw would encourage, what are we doing? Today I think I still am doing the practice, perhaps because I simply decided that I am practicing. I committed to a period in which my attention is on my attention. And so, when I am thinking, and thinking … and thinking, I think (ha), perhaps it’s okay to allow that I am still in improvisation. That the coming in and out can remain still ultimately defined as “in.” And I propose, that like meditation, the focus on the noticing is a tool that I can hone, or rather, tone. But like my music practice, why does this matter?
Facing improvisational practice brings forth a lot of first person discourse. But I am finding with my music research I’m particularly interested in choosing together. What is alignment, or synchronicity, with a fellow improvisor > How may I create an alignment > Why create alignment?
From my music and movement improvisational research with Haggai that I have continued in Columbus with Caleb Arthur Miller, I have hypothesized with these musicians that if we are able to define alignment between movement and sound, and then create methods of being in alignment, then from that foundation we can be in “alignment” while choosing “difference” and thus compose spontaneously. And compose well. Choose to make good improvisation. And so therein lives a question: what is good improv – and is it different with, and without audience?
That audience, that omnipresent audience. I gladly answered to the ask this semester to improvise regularly, and my improv changed –if not suffered, from assignment-mind. I knew I would be reflecting in digital words for the audience of Bebe Miller, Norah Zuniga-Shaw, and my classmates. My assignment experience was not dissimilar from the performative influence of being aware of a doubling social media avatar. Many an improv practice minute was spent in examination of what was happening – really, of what had been happening and what I would do next, because I was planning how I would report my experience. Knowing I would describe the present changed the present. But even without an actual school report, I’m not sure I yet know how to be alone without an imagined audience. This seems to be a question, too, for my age; I think it may take, for me, many years outside of school and roommates to begin to realize that no one is actually watching me.
It’s evident I’ve been researching not only choice in improvisation but particularly the duration of choice, inextricable from my colleague Jess Cavender’s co-mingling research in time. She has indicated that some cultures consider the present to last from 1 to 3 seconds; for some, the present is an infinitesimally small moment; and to others, there is no present at all: as soon as we recognize the present, it is past. As I make “split-second” choices – here we are in our clock-time language imposed on body-time experience, terms again borrowed from Nancy Stark Smith, I am planning a future, and if I hope to erase the decision-making, I cannot. I cannot: I am choosing what comes next. This is most evident in considering safety. I am always choosing to protect my brain from crashing into a hard object.
This piece began with five titles . . .
1. Can practices among improvisors that define and generate alignment create conditions for great spontaneous composition?
3. What mind setting defines improvisation?
4. Am I still improvising when
I am no longer improvising.
When am I no longer improvising?
5. Title, a haiku,
Circling in and out
and in and out and in and
out and in and out
Photo above by Shira Reisman of Anna teaching girls in Azerbaijan