Improvisation and Limitations
“I’ll play first, and I’ll tell you about it later. Maybe.”
When we build, we take bits of others’ work and fuse them to our own choices to see if alchemy occurs. Some of those choices are informed by best practices and accrued wisdom; others are guided by the decisions of the work cited as inspiration; while a large number are shaped by the disposition and instincts of the work’s creator. These fresh contributions and transformations are the most crucial, because they continue the give-and-take of influence by adding new, diverse material to the pool to be used by others.
Happily, these materials do not behave like physical materials when they are shared, because they do not run out. Their properties are eloquently explained by eighteenth century haiku master Yosa Buson. Translated from Japanese, he wrote:
Lighting one candle
with another candle—
Buson is saying that we accept the light contained in the work of others without darkening their efforts. One candle can light another, and the light may spread without its source being diminished. We must sing in our own way, but with the contributions and influence of others, we need not sing alone.
Buson’s haiku is also instructive in how to work with the contributions of others. Haikus come from an older Japanese poetic tradition called renga, a form of collaborative, give-and-take poetry. One poet would write the first three lines of a five-line poem, and then pass his work to another poet to write the last two. From there, the last two lines would be used as the basis to begin three new lines from a third poet, and then another two lines from a fourth. The poem went on and on, two – three – two – three, with each new contribution linking into the previous portion like a daisy-chain. Renga required the acceptance of old contributions as the basis for new additions, and this arrangement ensured the poem’s strength and provided a structure that guided the poets during the poem’s creation. The poets were able to get to work by using what was already there as a material, and then building atop previous parts with their own contributions.
Perhaps Buson’s haiku and the methods of renga offer a way to curb the ruthlessness of the blank page. They imply that starting from zero may be elegantly side-stepped through the contributions of others. They also show that imposing some sort of structure can help us begin and gain momentum.
The first step of any process should be to define the objectives of the work with Why-based questions. The second step, however, should be to put those objectives in a drawer. Objectives guide the process toward an effective end, but they don’t do much to help one get going. In fact, the weight of the objectives can crush the seeds of thought necessary to begin down an adventurous path.
The creative process, like a good story, needs to start with a great leap of lightness, and that is only attainable through a suspension of disbelief. The objectives shouldn’t be ignored forever, but they should be defined ahead of time, set aside, and then deployed at the appropriate moment so that we may be audacious with our ideas.
To begin, we must build momentum and then reintroduce the objectives to steer the motion. I find the best way to gain momentum is to think of the worst possible way to tackle the project. Quality may be elusive, but stupidity is always easily accessible; absurdity is fine, maybe even desired. If the project is a business card for an optician, perhaps you imagine it is illegible. (This is in the spirit, but you can do better.) If it is a brochure for an insurance agency, imagine otters on the cover and deranged handwriting on the inside for the copy. (Further!) If it is design for an exhibition of Ming Dynasty vases, brand it as an interactive show for kids, and put the vases on precariously balanced pedestals made of a shiny metal that asks to be touched. (Yes!)
The important realization to have from this fun – though fruitless – exercise is that every idea you have after these will be better. Your ideas must improve, because there is no conceivable way that you could come up with anything worse. We’ve created the momentum necessary to slingshot us toward a desirable outcome by stretching our muscles and playing in the intellectual mud. Now is the time to take the objectives out of their drawer and use them as the rudder to this momentum. We must steer our ideas, but we can be less discerning than if we were starting from scratch, because progress at this point is going in any direction. Any step is guaranteed to bring you closer to the border that marks the end of bad ideas and the start of good ones. Even wandering is productive, so that is precisely what should be done.
The way one creatively wanders is through improvisation. Now that the objectives are in front of us again, we can use them as a way to guide our ambling and riff on ideas. It sounds strange, but I suspect that while you are riffing, you’ll find yourself reusing parts of the awful ideas you created earlier. The bad ideas have been documented and captured in some way, which turns them into a resource that can be mined in the process. New and better ideas will certainly come as well, but mixing the two speaks to the cumulative nature of improvising and the special sort of presence it requires. Ideas build on top of one another, and to do so well, one must be in the moment, actively poking at the current situation to use its opportunities as material for construction. Formalizing the properties of improvising is valuable, because it ensures that one can respond to the moment in artful and fitting ways before it fades.
We should look to jazz and improvisational theater – the two formalized creative pursuits that use improvisation – for guidance. Both have developed common rules that are meant to ensure a fruitful process. The first maxim of improv is “Yes and….” This rule is easy to understand, but like most cardinal virtues, it is much more difficult to execute than to grasp.
“Yes” dictates that each contribution is valid and accepted. The rules of the game, the whims of others, and indeed our own, preserve momentum and keep us from self-editing too early. Momentum is the most important aspect of starting, and rejecting and editing too soon has a tendency to stifle that movement. For instance, if you and I are improvising a scene on stage, and you say something I wasn’t expecting, I can’t pull you aside and ask you to change your line. The continuity would be broken, so I must accept what you offer, and then build on top of it. It’s the same whether we are working collaboratively in a group, or if I am simply in dialogue with the work like the painter at his easel.
The “and” part of the “Yes, and…” maxim dictates that improvising is an additive process that builds itself up with each choice like a snowball rolling downhill. The back-and-forth dialog that happens from these contributions in jazz and improvisational theater resembles the structure of renga. The renga master Basho described the spirit of collaborative poetry as transformation: the poem achieves a newness when it changes hands, has new words added, and cumulatively builds up.
That newness only worked, in Basho’s words, by “refraining from stepping back.” To steal from our old analogy of stepping back from the easel as a way to analyze the work, judgment is an important part of the creative process, but when improvising, self-criticism and evaluation from others must be avoided in order to let ideas develop from their delicate state. Criticism has a crucial role in the creative process, but its rigor should match the heartiness of the ideas, which become stronger as they develop. The more real an idea becomes, the less suspension of disbelief is required, and the more criticism it should withstand. But all ideas, both good and bad, start young and fragile.
This delicacy requires acceptance, but rules need to be set before starting so the work has a more focused direction to travel. Saying no beforehand allows yes to be said unequivocally while working. These limitations are the fuel for improvisation, becoming the barriers that hold the sand in the sandbox so that we can play. The promise of a smaller scope makes us forget our fear, and the limitations become a starting point for ideas. An improvisational structure allows us to get to work, because we no longer need to know precisely where we are going – just choose a direction and trust the momentum. All we need to know are the rules of the game.
A framework for improvisation allows us to get into the process of making things more easily. Perhaps the most famous example of an imposed framework was created by jazz musician Miles Davis during the recording of his album, Kind of Blue. Davis, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Jimmy Cobb, Paul Chambers, John Coltrane, and Cannonball Adderley packed into a CBS recording studio in New York in March of 1959 without any songs pre-written. Jazz musicians routinely tolerated this sort of ambiguity, because they made their living by winging it. But it’s unlikely that any of them predicted that jazz would be reinvented that day.
The predominant style of jazz at the time, called Bebop, was frenetic and lively, but had a tendency to overstuff songs with notes. The abundance sometimes hindered the musicians’ melodic expression by occupying all the space in the song. Bebop has been described as musical gymnastics, because the style’s flourishes and showmanship forced musicians to negotiate complex structures. In spite of the artistry necessary to maneuver in the Bebop style, it can become too large a load to carry. It’s hard to swing if there’s no room to move. Davis wanted to let the air back into the songs, to give the musicians more space to play. They were asked to improvise with simple scales and modes rather than Bebop’s chord progressions.
The recording session began with Davis handing each of the seven men a small slip of paper where he had written down a description of their part. None of them had seen any of the songs before coming to the studio, but with the guidance of the slips of paper, they recorded the whole day, and booked a second day a few weeks later. After two sessions, the album was finished.
Kind of Blue is unequivocally a masterpiece, a cornerstone to jazz music created in just a few short hours by altering the structure of the performance. The musicians accepted the contributions of one another, and ventured out into a new frontier, using their intuitions as their guides. Davis amassed a stellar group of musicians, and with a loose framework of limitations to focus them but plenty of space for exploration, he knew they would wander with skill and play beyond themselves.
Davis’ example is a bit misleading though, if only for its efficiency. Improvisation is a messy ordeal, wasteful in its output, and it should be accepted as such. The key is to generate many ideas, lay them out, and try to recognize their potential. Don’t be concerned if you improvise and don’t use most of the ideas. There’s always a significant amount of waste when mining for gold. (Unless you’re Miles Davis, apparently.)
Limitations and frameworks, however, need not be given to us only by someone else; they can also be a self-initiated set of rules that open the door to improvisation. Many of the greats have used limitations to encourage their work: Vivaldi wrote four violin concertos, one for each season. Shakespeare’s sonnets follow a specific rhyming scheme and are always fourteen lines. Picasso, during his Blue Period, painted only monochromatically. Limitations allow us to get to work without having to wait for a muse to show up. Instead, the process and the limitations suggest the first few steps; after that, the motion of making carries us forward.
The restrictions of a framework take many shapes. They may be conceptual and based on the content, where the limitations determine the subject matter of the work:
- Write a song for each one of the muses.
- Create an illustration for each letter of the alphabet.
- Write a short story inspired by each of the astrological signs.
Restrictions can also be structural and create compositional limitations:
- Paint on surfaces that are three inches wide and twenty inches tall.
- Write a sonnet or a haiku.
- Choreograph a dance contained in a six-foot square.
Self-imposed limitations might also be related to the tone of the work, where the inflection of communication is deliberately restricted:
- Paint monochromatically.
- Create a song using a mistuned guitar.
- Draw with your opposite hand.
Once some restrictions are set, it’s helpful to take a step back and assess how the qualities of the limitations are interrelated, because they may offer some suggestions about where to begin. For instance, a restriction in the tone of the work can provide guidance for deciding what sort of content is best, like how only painting in blue might suggest sad scenes or places bathed in cavernous light.
Limitations narrow a big process into a smaller, more understandable space to explore. It’s the difference between swimming in a pool and being dropped off in the middle of the ocean with no land in sight. Those limitations also become the basis for the crucial first steps in improvisation. After those, the momentum of making accelerates as ideas are quickly generated without judgment. New ideas interact with the old, and spur off into unexpected places. Each decision is a response to the last and an opportunity to pivot in a new direction, so the process imposes a beneficial near-sightedness, an inability to see anything clearly other than the next step. But like driving a car at night, a little bit at a time is enough to finish the trip.Continue to Chapter Four