Tuesday, November 08, 2005

beta opening night

Through a combination of two assignments discussing outre jazz labels, I have been brought to re-think, re-consider my ideas about improvisation. Or more to the point, why I have abandoned it, in terms of my own music as well as in just listening pleasure.

Maybe that's why I wound up re-watching John Cassavetes's Opening Night. This is the film that Alan Licht once told me should be requisite watching for improvising musicians (he mused if Derek Bailey had ever seen it). And not for that mistaken assumption that Cassavetes's movies are improvised, which they most certainly are not, but crafted to feel as if they are in the actual and as spontaneous as life. The crisis for Gena Rowlands character, as she puts it, is that "I somehow lost the reality of the reality." It's an existential crisis kin to that of the actress in Bergman's Persona, but of course John doesn't package it as such. Instead, it nestles its crises amongst the double-scotch tumbler upending and its resulting slurred "I love you"s that get uttered that the film concerns itself with, of breaking down in public, of no fourth wall as Rowlands continually crumbles on-stage and eschews her scripted lines to instead remind the audience of their role, and the actor fact of this stage (the film is famous for its theatre scenes being shot in front of a real audience). "It's so simple, you just don't see it," she implores, which could correlate to her own aging self, with heavier and heavier doses of drink, she refuses to come to terms with this fact. She imperils the entire play and teeters on the edge of disaster. But who wouldn't toy with the strings, tear the curtains down, as the dialogue of the actual play is fucking atrocious?

The key tenet of improvised music is that it is more real, more actual, more like life is, interacting with people, engaging in dialogue and the moment at hand (maintenant, the French word meaning now, breaks down as "holding in hand"), not in the lock of script or notation or the past. That it is alive somehow, a proper reflection of life. When Tonalamotl played this music, it was the only way that felt natural to us. It was the only way for players of every level, be they strangers or friends, it was the only way for everyone to communicate equally. Trying to script it, to conscribe it in anyway, rang false, and worse than that, it sounded like a disaster when contrasted with anything of the past. It had to keep moving, keep changing. Which is a fine lifestyle, but one at conflict with routine, patterns, and stabilization via simple, rote moves and concision. What good is the ever-present when your show comes on at 7:30pm or when you have to work at 8am?

While improvisation is about social openness, about forum and equality, listening to it becomes its own cult. Most improv is in fact exclusionary, not for the laypeople or the uninitiated. The amount of concentration needed to focus on such music is too demanding for most people (this one included). Not able to give ones senses over to it fully, when it demands all your attention, or to spend the time necessary absorbing it when there's all sorts of new tracks to hear on shuffle. Rather than reflect the random noise bursts and chaos of the world surrounding, I've instead taken to the overlay of shape, meaning, divisible rhythm, the illusion of order and sense in a world that shares little oof these traits by and large. If I can hear the outside improvised, how it devours the orderly stream of reggaeton radio, then why listen for it inside?


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