Improvisation and Mistakes

My friend Brendan made a great comment and asked a helpful question about my last post:

I would also add [to improvisation] the role of mistakes. Some of my greatest musical moments began as a mistake about which I was willing to have curiosity and creatively trace its relationship back into the original harmonic structure. Your thoughts on mistakes as they relate to improvisation?

I think Brendan is especially on to something when he says that the task of the artist when dealing with mistakes is to ‘creatively trace [the mistake’s] relationship back into the original.’ Here, the artist becomes a host, welcoming the mistake into fellowship with what has already been created. It is a kind of generosity.

Improvisation is an inherently open-handed posture toward the world. It invites surprise. Seen this way, welcoming and incorporating mistakes is a natural outpouring of the spirit of improvisation. From a harmonic perspective, mistakes are only the notes or colors or words that are farthest away tonally from the center of the work. Part of the task of the artist is to lovingly and thoughtfully welcome these estranged motifs on the margins into the center. Or, even more provocatively, to allow the mistakes to become a new center that now coexists alongside the original center of the work.

Really long nerdy footnote:

I would want to make a distinction between three different kinds of ‘mistakes.’ The first kind of mistake is what we might call a ‘sin’ in the singular. This kind of mistake is a moral wrongdoing committed against someone else. The second kind of mistake is the mistake that is not a ‘sin’ but is still a failure or non-perfect action. These mistakes are a feature of our finite nature as human beings, and in art they are not necessarily something to be avoided; they can even be celebrated. The third kind of mistake is a mistake judged by the internal rules of an art form. So, for example, within Western art music, a tritone could be judged a ‘mistake’ in certain musical contexts. But, as we know, in a different context, this kind of mistake can be re-evaluated to actually be something very good.

The first kind of mistake is moral, the second two are aesthetic. But as soon as I make this distinction, I am compelled to say that it is a false distinction. As much as the modern world has tried to sever them, the moral and the aesthetic are intimately and multivalently linked. I don’t think we can cleanly parse the three kinds of mistakes (And indeed, if you go with Augustine, even the first kind of mistake can take on aesthetic beauty, as in his idea of the “fortunate fall”.) But as serious as the first kind of mistake is, it should not prevent us from wholeheartedly embracing mistakes of the second and third kind, for the joy of artistic exploration.

Improvisation and Spirituality

I played jazz bass for the first time in a while last night. There’s nothing quite like creating new music in real time with two other people. I love those moments when I go off in a different harmonic or rhythmic direction right at the same moment when the drummer (Ben) or the pianist (Larry) breaks loose too, and for a split second something completely unexpected and beautiful happens.

I know that it bothers some people, but this is why I never play a song the same way twice in church. I’m always looking for those unexpected moments when a different harmonization or a different rhythm joins with the congregation in unexpected and beautiful ways. I love improvisation and I think that spirituality can be deeply improvisational.

Anyone who has ever improvised can tell you that it’s not simply “making something up.” It takes hours of practice, hours of discipline before the happy accidents can happen. There are rules and values that the improvisers share among themselves as they enter into improvisation together. Our walk with God is the same way. Hours and hours spent in lonely silence, in prayer or in scripture, can eventually lead to the most beautiful improvisation with God.