The midnight discussion after the day’s performances at the 100° Festival brought something back to my mind. The fundamental differences between attending a set performance and an improvised performance.
(The verb “attend” is fully meant, beyond its more usual meaning of “being present”, to “paying attention” and all the way back to its etymological Middle English root of “applying one’s mind or energies”.) I tend to forget about these differences because I’m very much into improvisation, both as a performer and as an audience, and I find myself amongst people who are on this same boat that sets sail without a written course. But I mustn’t forget that not everybody ploughs the seas this way.
All my thoughts emerge around two questions that were posed about Shazaam‘s instant composition performance: “what was it about?” and “what’s the purpose?”.
What was it about?
This is based on the assumption that the artists must have some underlying concept, thesis or message. For sure, the performers will have ideas about many things and they will go with them on stage, but concepts, discourse, argumentation and rhetoric tend to be unwieldy and make for awkward journeying from moment to moment. Furthermore, instant composition does not usually try to tell something, but rather to manifest something – and most often, that something is discovered in performance. Yes, a lot can probably be dissected once the performance is done, but improvising with too much intellectual intention is a bit like diving with chains tied around one’s waist.
However, if somebody has time and space to elaborate, that’s the audience. Their perspective of the performance tends to be broader than the performers’, so perhaps the question “what was it about?” is more relevant for the audience. And there’s no reason why there should be one single answer. Every member of the audience will have their own response – which will reflect what is relevant or latent for them at that moment in time. The Natural Depth in Man, by Wilson Van Dusen explores this in detail,
The most profound tendency of the psyche is to represent itself.
What’s the purpose?
This question is definitely important, after all it’s the unanswered question regarding existence that all spiritual traditions and religions aim to address. (Oh yes, quoting an author with a two-word surname could only herald things getting serious!) All of them have provided answers, but none of these make everybody happy. If we take the issue right down to the biological level, we could say that life itself is the purpose of life – life wants to be. Strictly speaking, anything other than fulfilling our biological needs to perpetuate life is really not necessary, it’s an extra: shopping, reading, having a bubble bath, going to university… Not everybody is interested in all the options. Some may find that TV series really enhance their evenings. Others may choose instant composition. It’s just a matter of taste and it could be argued that neither have a purpose.
What is it then, that some people like about instant composition? I can’t speak for everyone, but here’s something that I find fascinating: everything that exists, even if it’s inanimate, appears, transforms and then disappears. It’s kind of predictable – and yet the when and the how are fascinating: flowers blooming, children growing up, the sunset, leaves changing colour and falling… Watching the fire, the sea and the clouds are classic change processes that most of us have enjoyed at some point. Fire, water, wind… what about earth? If watching mountains emerge, transform and erode doesn’t exert the same fascination upon us, it’s probably because their time frame surpasses us, otherwise, there would already be videos in circulation, just like those of sprouting-bean miracles captured using time-lapse photography. The enjoyment derived from witnessing the manifestations of existence is as simple as it is profound. Analyzing and explaining tend to kill the fun of perceiving and experiencing, which is the only and very elevated purpose of contemplation.
Once the attention is focused, it becomes possible to open it up and notice, not only the individual phenomena but how these relate to each other to form a gestalt, a form that emerges from the undifferentiated everything. Going back to the microcosm of performance, its space and time constitute a field (the range of a certain condition, so that any particle within the field experiences a force associated to this condition). Both the performers and the audience are creating and experiencing this field at the same time with their awareness. The only difference is that the performers are manifesting, giving form to the forces at work, while the position of the audience favours a wider perspective of the whole.
Next time you attend an improvised performance, forget everything I’ve said and just honour the Middle English origins of the verb – that is, apply your mind and energies – to witness what is happening and how it’s happening. That’s all. If you’re so inclined, you’ll have plenty of time afterwards to reflect upon what it was about for you and, if you want to make the event more purposeful, make use of your realizations in any way you like. However, while it’s happening, relax the thinking and simply be there. Instant composition: for enhanced satisfaction, serve chilled!