Research Observations: improvisation

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Research Observations:

Below are a series of observations obtained during the recent collaboration on ‘The Landscape Scrambler’ project. Some are more closely associated with the nature of this particular project itself, whilst others, I hope, are more general observations upon the nature of improvisation. I have attempted to provide some context to the more general observations by referring to a number of pieces recently exhibited in the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism exhibition, from the 24th September 2016 to the 2nd January 2017.

Improvisation

A creative act that happens ‘in the moment’, improvisation is by its very essence transient and ephemeral, and as such inherently tricky to ‘pin down’. Derek Bailey, the improvisational Guitarist described improvisation as; ‘always changing and adjusting, never fixed, too elusive for analysis and precise description’ (1). He goes on to state that; ‘…any attempt to describe improvisation must be, in some respects, a misrepresentation, for there is something central to the spirit of voluntary improvisation which is opposed to the aims and contradicts the idea of documentation.’ As a practitioner of improvisation myself, I have tried on numerous occasions to define the use of improvisation in my own painting practice, and have generally always failed. There is something almost magical about improvisation, something of the occult about it. Having conducted much research into the practice, and undertaken many a discussion with other practitioners of improvisation also, I have come to the conclusion that improvisation is something different to each individual who practices it. That it is a deeply personal practice, and as Bailey states, ‘…has a part which perhaps only those involved in doing it seem able to appreciate or comprehend’ (2).

Landscape Scrambler

The Landscape Scrambler was an animation collaboration undertaken through the medium of Painting. For a painter, a project such as this offers in many respects a unique opportunity. Not often does a painter embark upon a painting without the burden of having to resolve the piece hanging over them.  However in a project such as this, the painting is simply a bi-product, a means of producing the finished animation. This is a rare experience and a liberating one, one I found emboldened me, and enabled me to focus on the purities of painting ‘in the moment’, and not become burdened by the complexities of resolving a piece.

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Undertaking the painting through an abstract mode: not directed towards the representation of the visible world, (an otherwise legitimate concern), and through a monochromatic palette – enabled me to concentrate on the paintings formal elements, and avoid becoming distracted by colour and its emotionally loaded connotations.

One of the most important elements to the project, and one that attracted me most to it, was the opportunity to practice improvisation within the context of painting. Having recently returned from a period away from the studio focussing on improvisation’s antithesis; ‘non-intention’, this was an exciting opportunity to research, explore and experience once again, first hand, this most unique creative act. In taking my first tentative steps ‘back into the water’, the nature of the project allowed me to focus very clearly on improvisation without many of the distractions that painting can often entail.

Mark

When working through abstraction one is able to focus predominantly on the formal elements of painting, and its most raw ingredients; line, shape, texture, tone and colour. And by working through a monochromatic palette, one is able to further still distil the essence of painting. For the purposes of this exercise I use the word ‘mark’ to include all of the above descriptors, and use it as it portrays, I believe, the most primitive form of visual communication, and rawness of expression.

Room 10 at the Royal Academy’s recent Abstract Expressionism exhibition was focussed on works on paper and Photography. As it discusses in the accompanying exhibition guide, the heft of the Abstract Expressionists treated drawings, and smaller works on paper as finished pieces in their own right, on a par with the their often grand-scaled canvases. It goes on to discuss that; ‘For de Kooning, Kline and Motherwell the monochromatic and linear austerity associated with drawings allowed them to strip their signature idioms to essentials’ (3). Upon viewing these pieces I was immediately struck by the ‘rawness’, and immediacy of them. The pieces appear more ‘distilled’, and through their monochromatic palette free from the distractions of colour in order to focus on mark and expression. They appear liberated from, and not bogged down by the density of mark and layer often present through the Abstract Expressionists more grand canvases. Many of the marks present, especially in de Konning’s ‘Untitled’, 1950, and Phillip Guston’s ‘Untitled’, 1953 appear akin to a Chinese calligraphic aesthetic, and are loaded with a rawness of expression.

This same visual analysis and description of mark can also be applied to the Landscape Scrambler project, ‘…the monochromatic and linear austerity’ of which we were working within enabled us to focus freely on the essential task of improvisation, and by ‘stripping’ the piece to its essentials of mark, were able to encourage a deeper embodiment of spontaneity and working ‘in the moment’.

Collaboration

When working collaboratively through improvisation with another participant, the piece becomes to all intents and purposes a duet, where the participants seek to explore the nature and possibilities of a meaningful and productive interaction. The aim in collaborative improvisation is to create a dialogue of experiential exchanges, like the ‘question and answer’ or ‘call and reply’ Free Jazz improvisations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. By removing the burden of; resolving a painting, working monochromatically, and focussing on mark (as in the Landscape Scrambler), we were able to work quickly and ‘in the moment’ through our instincts, intuition and experience of the medium to generate a visual ‘dialogue’.

Working with other participants’ also encourages one to cease an element of control over a piece. The temptation to create or to resolve something, (an otherwise a legitimate concern) is negated due to a lack of control over the other participants’ actions. By the same reasoning, the urge to ‘direct’ the piece in some way is removed also. One has no control over the other collaborator(s) and must therefore shed an element of control and responsibility over the piece.

Through these means, the painting ceases to become the centre of the exercise, and merely
becomes a record of an interaction, and due to the overall nature of the collaboration the piece holds a clearer, more accurate description and record of the act of improvisation.

Immediacy

Fundamentally, improvisation is about ‘response’ and ‘dialogue’. In the Landscape Scrambler it was about responding visually from what we saw, heard and experienced: shape, line, tone, texture, pattern, scale, size, simplicity, complexity, variation, repetition, layering, proportion, resolution, duration, speed, movement, gesture, space, tempo, rhythm, pitch, silence, cacophony, light and dark. And it’s about dialogue; establishing a creative dialogue with someone (collaborator/ participant), or something (environment, painting).

During the Landscape Scrambler it was the parameters within which we were working that was important to improvisation. By removing the otherwise legitimate distractions and restraints around painting, encouraged a greater embodiment of the properties of improvisation, and that in-turn created the environment in which we were able to focus exclusively on response and dialogue.


  1. Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. 1992
  2. Derek Bailey, Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music. 1992
  3. David Anfam, Royal Academy of Arts: Abstract Expressionism (gallery guide). 2016

Links
The Landscape Scrambler – improvisation/sound/drawing

The Landscape Scrambler – Trailer

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