Friday 11 October 2013

The Apotheosis of Improvisation?

What is a creative process? How does improvisation relate to the creative process? As I always wanted to be a composer (and never really managed it), these questions have troubled me for a long time. Sometimes, I would ascribe my creative frustration to the time I was living in: the telly, the computer (in 1982), school work and family were all madly distracting. "It was never this difficult for Beethoven, Mozart, etc.. they didn't have these kind of distractions!" I would say in my teens. Having said that, I would reflect that if it hadn't been 'that' difficult, then there would have been an awful lot of Mozarts and Beethovens around - and there aren't! So it must have been difficult.

I think there is something in the distraction argument though. There is something about the time that we live which envelopes us in a manner similar to Walter Benjamin's description of the arcades. 'Envelopment' is now part of the human condition, and its whole principle is the difficulty in stepping outside it and getting "back to ground". As I waited for my family in Starbucks in Manchester Arndale the other day, I was thinking about the envelopment of my situation.

Sonically, this environment has a rich composition. Music blares from loudspeakers everywhere. But there are different spectral qualities depending on the kind of loudspeaker, its position relative to me, etc. Playing with formants in the sound spectrum can reproduce these kinds of effects - it is a particular property of loudspeakers. On top of this, the amounts of redundancy in the sound environment are remarkable. What actually is perceived are different rhythmic pulses in different spectral regions. Personally, I enjoy the experience of being immersed in this. I feel it "empties my head" - which I find pleasurable. I have no reason to feel that I am any different from anyone else. We all have our heads emptied!

But I want to be a composer. That means I want to say something with sound. This is not the world of Beethoven, and the country walks won't do it for me (pleasant as they are). And my attempts to compose flounder on my attempts to be like Beethoven (or Stravinsky, or Berio, or Tippett, or...) It's never good enough.

At least when I improvise, I am able to be in control of my own sound world within which my mind can wander. Indeed, I am able to create my own atmosphere and 'empty my head' in the same way that I might to in Starbucks. But too often, my head emptying makes empty music. I am not in control of what I am doing. I am not saying anything except "I somehow have to do this".

But then I think, that's the point. I have to do this improvisation because of all the distractions. What I am doing is creating my own sound environment within which I can empty my head. Saying something is to acknowledge this to be the case. If I really want to say something, then I have to articulate my struggle to say something in sound.

I am thinking of ways of doing this. It's not altogether successful yet. Tools like Ableton allow for the reproduction of the kind of sonic environment of a shopping mall. It's continuous loops provide an environment for stimulating thought - empty headedness and creativity work well together. Music I have started to feel bad about can become part of a landscape (manipulated by spectral effects) within which I can think of new music which I might feel less bad about. I can continually recreate the environment of my own creativity.

The key to this process is the absence of getting rid of anything. I can recreate the sonic richness of many things going on at once, gradually bringing into focus those things that emerge as the most important.

But I don't know if this is composing or improvising. It's different from anything I might have hoped to have done before. But the idea of composing as a way of articulating the struggle of composing tickles me. I wonder how long it will last...

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