Corey Mwamba


Alacrity: ready for the improviser’s art

This piece of writing is like a preliminary provocation for thinking: I'm recording the idea because I want to think about it later on. I first thought this through in January, after the Documenting Jazz conference in Dublin. I then mentioned it at the improvising workshop in Newcastle in February; and again at the Research In Music Education conference in Bath in April.

Here, I want to think about spontaneity and consider how it might really connect to improvising in music, and specifically jazz+. This may seem like it will be a short exercise at first. The term spontaneity and its relations are used in most literature and media about improvising. But what function does the word have in the act of improvising?

According to The Oxford English Dictionary (henceforth OED), the first recorded use of the word spontaneity was by Thomas Hobbes in 1656. At the time, its use showed heritage from Latin – sponte, meaning “of one's own accord, freely, willingly”. The meaning then evolved (or metastasised): it described a state that was born of natural impulse, with no external stimulus or constraint. It also describes states where no premeditation, preparation, or thought has occurred.1

Following this, the verb to improvise is allowed a tautology:

To compose and perform music, poetry, drama, etc., spontaneously or without preparation; to speak or perform extemporaneously. (my emphasis)2

To my knowledge of performers, there are very few musicians who come close to this definition. Multi-disciplinary artist Maggie Nicols is one of them. In an interview for the British Music Collection, Nicols talks about connecting to a source within, “that spontaneous source where pure potentiality is waiting to manifest.” Nicols’ powerful statement chimes with her process in improvising, which combines speech, song, and dance.

When I do solo in particular, I’m doing a combination of talking, singing and philosophising. I’m quite interested in blurring the so-called right and left brain; what’s rational and what’s intuitive, but all coming from that improvising place (Improvised dialogue). However there might be things that are on my mind, things that are important to me – like issues of liberation, which of course the music addresses so powerfully. It’s a musical liberation.3

Nicols talks about an innate source that she describes as a site of potentiality, and her skill as an improviser enables her to reach that source at will. But she also highlights the importance of mental and emotional processes within her work: thinking is occurring. For most other performers, the definition seems to run counter to more detailed conversations about improvising. In academic circles, there are studies from research into the arts that show how, what, and why various improvisers practise. In addition to this, music improvisers from various genres have discussed notions of preparation or study before the act of performance.

At this point, I’d like to share an extract from a transcribed conversation between the pianist Dan Tepfer (DT) and alto saxophonist Lee Konitz (LK).4 The extract comes from the first section of the conversation, which Tepfer has headed “Spontaneity”. Konitz makes some specific qualifications about the place of spontaneity and preparedness in improvising. This is done early in the conversation:

DT: To look at it another way, I always think of Lee as a Zen master. Like there’s nothing keeping you from responding to what’s actually going on in the moment.

LK: Well, I appreciate your bringing that out, because I’m actually pretty shy. I think I have some of what we might call “ham” tendencies in front of an audience. I might figure I have to do something now in front of this audience; what am I going to do? Make a joke, or play a good phrase, or whatever. So usually some silly thing comes into my mind, and, as far as that, I love to hear people laughing.

DT: But you just wait for a silly thing to come to mind; you don’t plan it out.

LK: Oh, right. Well, you know, I memorize some of those lines [laughter].

Konitz then sets out saying that spontaneity is a “a specific discipline that requires specific attention and can be developed”; Tepfer agrees with this and goes on to bring up a specific example.

DT: Well, that’s the thing, right? If you’re going to decide to take that route, you’re going to have to be really, really good at that, otherwise it sucks. [...] For example, I was hanging out with a friend of mine a few months ago and he played me two takes of an Ahmad Jamal track—an early track—and they’re just two takes of the same track from a record date, and Ahmad plays pretty much the same solo on both takes. And my friend’s reaction was, “Isn’t this amazing? He cared so much that he developed his solo and wasn’t improvising!” To him, it was a very positive thing, and he also brought up Thelonious Monk, who would sit at home practicing [sic] one of his compositions over and over and over again until he kind of worked out what felt like the right thing to play to him—

LK: And he’d play it over and over again.

DT: —and that’s what he would play in public, maybe rearranging the order of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle or whatever. But basically, to my friend who’s a musician I really respect, that was like, “Look how much these guys cared. They weren’t just going out there unprepared.” So this is the crux of the matter to me—why you’ve decided to take the approach you took. Because the thing is, when you, Lee, go out there unprepared, it’s pretty much always great. I don’t know how you do it.

LK: I’m not unprepared! I mean, I’ve been preparing for 70 years, but not in that specific a way, I presume.

Konitz then relates that he prepares or practises his “taste”, and he does this by practising improvising. He speaks about being “on the right wavelength” with whoever he is working with, and taking time to listen to them so that their sounds can influence him: he responds to the situation that is happening around him. In this, Konitz describes a spontaneity that is prepared and developed, influenced by external stimuli and constraints, and involves the will of not just himself but the other people he is playing with. Tepfer praises Konitz’s playing for sounding fresh every night, which Konitz notes as something he aims for: the goal of playing is to be “in another time frame and another emotional setting and the whole thing feels like magic”; a feeling echoed by Nicols in her interview.

From these two short examples, I’d like to infer two issues. The first issue concerns how we define improvising. Even with the wealth of literature available on the subject, the academic field seems hard pressed to produce a concise definition that works for a wide range of activity. This is not a question I will be attempting to answer here; but my performance practice experience informs my world view, and my internal mantra for the question “what is improvising” is: improvising is using something to make more of that thing in the time that you are doing that thing. So improvising in music would use music to make more music in the situation of performing music.

The second and more urgent issue is that in each of these cases, the term spontaneity is accompanied by the very things its definition states it rejects: preparation, forethought, and externality. Musicology and jazz studies over the last thirty years has invested considerable time in problematising the following syllogism:

A) spontaneity is natural and unthinking    
B) jazz improvising is spontaneous    
C) If A and B are true, then jazz improvising is natural and unthinking    

This framing relates strongly to older, Euro–American colonialist thoughts on Africana music practices: gesture in Africana music practices have been treated as essentially primitive or primal. As Susan McClary and Robert Walser argue,

Those who have accepted such theories have often embraced African and African–American musics as sites where the body still may be experienced as primordial, untouched by the restrictions of culture. Yet although such attitudes may sometimes contribute to cross-over and to promoting the appreciation of black music, the cost is enormous. For in such accounts, the mind and culture still remain the exclusive property of Eurocentric discourse, while the dancing body is romanticized as what is left over when the burdens of reason and civilization have been flung away. The binary opposition of mind and body that governs the condemnation of black music remains in force; even when the terms are inverted, they are always ready to flip back into their more usual positions.5

Thus there has been considerable effort to re-contextualise the body in Africana musics, especially since these musics (especially from the United States) have had and continue to have a profound effect on world culture. In an article in Popular Music, the cultural theorist and musician Bruce Johnson probed into issues surrounding critical discourse about and within jazz. Johnson relates these issues to Jacques Attali's ideas on the political economy of music; that “the discourse of high art is largely the instrument of a political project which requires the reduction of the art process to a commodity”.6 Johnson sees this as indefensible in relation to jazz, describing the process of jazz as bodily action and performative: discourses around jazz too readily utilise ideas “imported from the realm of the fully scripted, completed art work, canonised in a print-dominated milieu”.7 Similarly, Olly Wilson highlights that physical body motion is integral to the process of music-making for black music.8 I have no intention of rejecting McClary and Walser’s criticisms, or the points put forward by writers such as Johnson and Wilson. But the issue here is that although we reject the logical construction, we don't reject the word that enables the construction. As long as improvising is described as “spontaneous”, it allows people to say that it does not require thought, and keeps open the path towards essentialism.

Do these questions mean that we should change the meaning of spontaneity for the field of music? How do we describe what improvisers are doing if (by definition) they are not being spontaneous? What do improvisers really mean when they use the word?

In the notes for "De Motu" saxophonist Evan Parker describes Derek Bailey's label of "non-idiomatic free improvisation" as keeping hold of a false antithesis between composing and improvising. He then goes on to describe what materials he feels improvisers work with:

[...] the improvisor [sic] seems to be working with memories of past improvisations which were themselves, at least in part, imagined at the time they were made but which may also have made use of material that had been learned by rote and techniques which have become automatic, shifting material from one area of consciousness to another, moving back and forth between the known and the unknown. (my emphasis)9

Parker conceptualises a flowing of material between parts of the brain and consciousness; his reference to the unknown in the above quote also connects ideas of the mystical in the same essay. All three examples connect playing with notions of feeling magic (Nicols, Konitz) or the mystical (Parker). For Parker, there are external stimuli, processes, and constraints which have served and continue to serve in the development of the improvising musician; and these things are not "natural" to the musician. But he also talks about making the use of material automatic; there is a notion of speed of thought, or speed of process. This could give the feeling of spontaneity – of an effortless, naturalised process that seems to be inexhaustible. And indeed, to sound spontaneous is mentioned as an aim.

Spontaneity, then, is moved to point to how the improviser feels, or what is felt or perceived by a person who experiences the work of an improviser. But it does not describe what is actually happening in the activity of improvising. The term spontaneity is doing more work than it is defined to do. Thus I would like to propose another word as a way to ease that burden.

If you have ever played Dungeons and Dragons (or any related game), then the term alacrity may be known to you. In the role-playing adventure domain, Alacrity is a magical effect. It exists either as a spell, or as a weapon, piece of clothing, or armour that has been imbued with the effect. More basic descriptions of the effect mention speed, but it is not the same effect as Haste or Speed, which both alter rate of movement generally. Alacrity alters the speed of attack and/or defence; it commonly affects a character’s Dexterity or Agility score.10 For magic users, it can reduce or eliminate the amount of time needed to rest between casting spells; and for melee characters the effect increases their chances to dodge or deflect an attack.

Thus, alacrity is not merely about speed: but speed of response and reflexes. The word itself dates back to mid-fifteenth century Europe,11 where it meant the state of “cheerful readiness” or liveliness. In most later cases of usage (after 1510), alacrity gives a sense of the speed of response to a stimulus or situation. This meaning has carried through to the domain of biology as well.12

Improvisers train to be able to respond to a range of contextual situations. Those responses have to be timely and aesthetically related to the context. Improvisers also prepare to be ready to create within a context, using the tools and objects at their disposal at the time. In this sense, I contend that improvisers display alacrity.

The use of the noun alacrity and its adjectival (alacrious, alacritous) and adverbial forms (alacriously, alacritously) have the potential to reframe how scholars, journalists, and musicians describe what improvisers do; rather than an unthinking, or naturalistic “doing”, we can indicate agency of the performer in physical, mental, and emotional processes.

  1. ‘Spontaneous, Adj.’, OED Online (Oxford University Press) 

  2. ‘Improvise, v.’, OED Online (Oxford University Press) 

  3. Kjær, Julie, ‘An Interview with Maggie Nicols’, British Music Collection, 2016 

  4. Dan Tepfer, ‘Lee Konitz on Spontaneity, Originality, Drugs & Playing Sharp’, Dan Tepfer, 2014 

  5. McClary, Susan, and Robert Walser, ‘Theorizing the Body in African–American Music’, Black Music Research Journal, 14.1 (1994), 75–84 

  6. Johnson, Bruce, ‘Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: Problems of Jazz Discourse’, Popular Music, 12.01 (1993), 1 

  7. Johnson, pp.2–3 

  8. Wilson, Olly, ‘Black Music as an Art Form’, Black Music Research Journal, 3 (1983), 1 

  9. Parker, Evan, ‘De Motu’, Sheffield Free Improv Pages, 1992 

  10. ‘2e Spell List’, Regal Goblins 

  11. ‘Alacrity, n.’, OED Online (Oxford University Press) 

  12. Lefkovits, I., ‘Alacrity of Cells Engaged in the Immune Response’, Scandinavian Journal of Immunology, 77.1 (2013), 1–12 

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