Art of Is



Improvisation: Twists and Turns; Rubbing; Mushrooms and Tide Pools

Select excerpts from The Art of Is: Improvising as a Way of Life
by Stephen Nachmanovitch, author of Free Play | May 13, 2019


Improvisation: Twists and Turns


Sing O Muse of whatever comes to mind. Begin anywhere and follow the flow. There's no telling where you might be swept off to. The improvisational process is rooted in free association v and the near guarantee that after a while, free association will turn up significant patterns. Even the most trivial thoughts can lead to a network of connections. The first gesture, sound, word, brushstroke, or thought may seem arbitrary, but it reminds you of this; this suggests that; that suggests the next thing. The pieces start fitting together. After a period of wandering, you may find yourself standing in a strange place that turns out to be your ancestral homeland — to encounter your original nature and know it for the first time.

Freud developed this simple and childish game into a tool of great power and elegance. In the free play of words, thoughts, feelings, and images, we need not be looking for repressed memories, for answers to life's conundrums, or for great art; we can allow spontaneous answers to take us someplace meaningful. The "free" of free association does not mean wild or random but free of deliberate purpose. No association is free of context and meaning, but it may reveal deeper truth if it is free of conscious (and often fearful) control.

As a teenager Freud was influenced by the essays of Ludwig Borne (born Loeb Baruch, 1786-1837), especially an essay called "The Art of Becoming an Original Writer in Three Days." Borne suggests, "Take a stack of paper and write. Write everything that goes through your mind for three consecutive days with neither hesitation nor hypocrisy. Write down what you think of yourself, of the Turkish war, of Goethe, of a criminal case, of the Last Judgment, of your boss — and when the three days are over you will be amazed at what novel and startling thoughts have spilled out of you." This prescription for spontaneous prose (prefiguring Baudelaire, Breton, Ginsberg, ruth weiss, Dorothea Brande, and many others) is not automatic writing, which is supposedly dictation from spirits, but dictation from ourselves: our own spirit. Write, noodle on a musical instrument or toy, doodle on the piece of paper until it gives up its secrets. You can refine it later. The output may not be something you want to share publicly (the delete button and the trash can are always available), but once unblocked you can start your journey in earnest.

Borne wrote, "To do this there is nothing one needs to learn, only much one needs to unlearn." And, "A shameful and cowardly fear of thinking holds every one of us back."

Free Association


Methought I was enamored of an ass.
—Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream

Free association is also free ass: you are free to make an ass of yourself. If I'm afraid of this freedom, I won't get up in the morning because I am sure to make an ass of myself at least a few times a day. Onstage and performing improvised music, the risk is nothing compared with my fumbles and mistakes in everyday life. Improvising thrives on our imperfection and how we integrate it into the flow of our activity. Everyone has problems, everyone is a mystery to him- or herself, everyone at some point begins to explore mind and feelings and relationships in some way, attempting to see the patterns that got us where we are. "I come," Blake wrote, "to cleanse the Face of my Spirit by Self-examination." By giving ourselves a space in which to slough off the veneer of perfection or professionalism, we can reach our next evolutionary step.

Freedom to make an ass of yourself might mean that your improvisation goes nowhere. It might peter out or go around in circles. In the creative context, as in the therapeutic one, it might mean bringing up awkward or humiliating material. We may feel that we are wasting our time with the music that wanders, the writing that no one will ever see, the drawing that we crumple up and throw away - but without these episodes we would never produce anything of quality. Vulnerability is a precondition of creative work.


Our age is seeking a new spring of life.
I found one and drank of it and the water tasted good.

—C.G. Jung

Journeys may start with free association, but they don't end that way. We discover a direction and follow it. We draw, write, paint, sing our way into clarity, into connections to other people, into the workings of nature. Themes of which we had long been unconscious gradually come into focus, like islands emerging in the distance.

Carl Jung, after his break with Freud, extended the practice of free association to include hands-on modes of artistic creation. He called his method active imagination, allowing ideas and correlations to take tangible shape through visualization. For Jung, the practice took the form of painting and writing; for other people, it takes the form of music, theater, crafts, tinkering with technologies and expressive arts of all sorts, old and new. Freud's free association is a mode of mental-verbal exploration. Jung's active imagination is a concrete mode of doing, making, creating. His was an enterprise of knowing the self in order to transcend it. It is a journey of revelation: uncovering patterns within and around us that cannot be seen or even known until we manifest them. "The patient can make himself creatively independent through this method. He is no longer dependent on his dreams or on his doctor's knowledge; instead, by painting himself he gives shape to himself."

In his own life Jung practiced this method of exploration in his massive work of fantasy, myth, painting, and calligraphy. The Red Book, created during World War I, is an illuminated manuscript that looks like it tunneled here straight from the Middle Ages. The Red Book was known about for decades but only published fifty years after Jung's death. While leading a busy life practicing psychiatry, training analysts from around the world, and writing books, Jung managed to devote years to the arts of building, stonemasonry, and carving. Over decades he built a stone house with four towers at Bollingen on the shore of Lake Zurich, like a structure out of ancient times, new wings added as he discovered new patterns in his own personality, externalizing them in stone, in the form of alchemical carvings and other psychic symbols. On his seventy-fifth birthday in 1950, Jung made his way down to the lake, and with his wrinkled hands chiseled into the rock a fragment from Heraclitus: "Time is a child at play, gambling; a child's is the kingship."

Craftsmanship elevating personal evolution to a universal scale is also reflected in the dreamlike Watts Towers in Los Angeles, Nuestro Pueblo, seventeen enormous spirals stretching skyward, covered with mosaics made mostly from what had been trash, hand-built by Simon Rodia from 1921 to 1954. This was not practical, it was not economical. But it was the expression and discovery of life, and without that, what is there, mere survival?

An image pulls us into an interconnected network of patterns. Suddenly a fresh universe of thought and feeling is born. Curiosity and wonder motivate us to persevere. These pathways become a portal into Indra's net: the jeweled lattice of interrelations that encompasses the cosmos but is reflected from myriad points of perception.

Free association is the booster rocket, allowing us to attain escape velocity. But with active imagination, we eventually find ourselves gravitating elsewhere, to a center that draws us in, and we start firing thrusters to navigate toward that place and explore it.

The work of active imagination allows us to bridge the gaps between conscious and unconscious, logic and fantasy. It opens pathways to collective patterns we share with other people. Follow impulse in creative expression, see where it leads, let images unfold into an extended drama. We go from island hopping to pursuing a story with a shape. We find our unique linkage to nature, culture, and psyche.

Improvising is inductive. Whether a monologue or a conversation with partners, it moves in time from tone to tone, word to word, form to form. Looking back at the improvisation, we feel the inevitability of the pattern as though it were intentional. In collective improvising or conversation, the inductive paths of two or more people thread around each other like strands of a double helix, open-ended and relational, mutually reinforcing and contrasting. Thus we follow the poetic process of research by which links are tracked, threads woven, as in Blake:

I give you the end of a golden string,
Only wind it into a ball:
It will lead you in at Heaven's gate,
Built in Jerusalem's wall.

Jung knew his paintings were not "art" in the normal sense but a vehicle for investigation. He discovered that as he relentlessly excavated into the most deeply personal material, he began to identify archetypes, universal patterns shared among many cultures. Paradoxically, the deeper we venture into the roots of the self, the closer we come to transcending our self-centeredness, precisely because what we discover is how inseparable we are from the total structure of being.

In ancient times people described certain experiences as visits from gods and goddesses. In The Odyssey the goddess Athena appears to young Telemachus disguised as an older man named Mentor, his father's friend, to guide and help him. The same goddess whispers words into the ear of his long-missing father, Odysseus, on his ten-year journey home. Athena is the voice of inspiration; without her mastery and cleverness at devising tactics, Odysseus would never have taken back his home. Thus we now speak of having a mentor, an adviser, one who has taken particular interest in our story, in guiding us through our unique journey.

Odysseus's intention was simple: sail back to his family when the Trojan War was over. He had the goal, the ships, the men: it was supposed to take a couple of weeks. But it took ten extra years. If he had carried out his plan successfully, no one would be telling his story three thousand years later. Our purposes are one thing; our actual adventures are something else entirely.

Take a walk, anywhere. One step at a time, finding out where you are going by going there. Be led by a dog into a forest. He drags you along hard, and you go where his nose goes. Get lost in the middle of the road of life (Dante) and make underground and supernal discoveries; be blown off course by an angry god (Odysseus), or simply wander down the ordinary streets of your middle-class city (Leopold Bloom), and unforeseeable connections will spring up and surround you.

Our explorations take on the character of a journey to strange parts, which becomes a journey home. "I give you the end of a golden string, only wind it into a ball..." Golden strings of association, threads of awareness, spin themselves into stories. Spin strands into yarns, yarn into multidimensional patterns, like Bach's Chaconne. This monumental work for solo violin is often experienced as a journey there and back again. A motif of four descending tones, three beats each, repeating over and over with sixty-four variations, that's all it is, but it takes us through myriad territories, wild, exuberant, terrifying, joyful, excavating under the earth, soaring, and finally, repeating the initial theme, with a depth that can only be understood through the journey itself, all to a steady, slow pulse. Penelope spends three years weaving and unweaving, weaving and unweaving a shroud for her father-in-law, spinning a lie to deceive the suitors, to string them along and save herself. Scheherazade jumps from story to story for a thousand and one nights to save herself, stitching the strands of one into the next. We pick up the tools of our chosen art and shape tones and syllables into an unfolding plot. The string is spun out in time as a linear sequence, but in retrospect it feels inevitable.

We mischaracterize the act of finding pattern in seemingly separate facts as "connecting the dots." That metaphor implies that facts are separate entities, dots that stay still on a page. But each event is a wriggling thread of interactivity in spacetime, with its own past, present, and future. We spin them, or watch them spin themselves, into patterns that cannot be predicted.

Improvising is not "just" fantasy and imagination; it is what happens when our intentions meet the real world, with all its unpredictability. We smack into the limitations of materials and our abilities to manipulate those materials, the limitations of our relationships with other people, our collaborators or our opponents. Then what do we do? How do we pick ourselves up, change our shape, learn to do new or old tricks?

Homer gave us Odysseus, "the master improviser," "man of twists and turns," wearing countless costumes and shapes as he seeks to merge back into the simple life he once had. Though he arrives at his destination and reclaims his home, we speak of an odyssey as the journey itself, not as reaching a goal. We still follow his wanderings over the swarming sea, making up lies and stories to save his skin and cover his tracks, yarns that are still retold with pleasure three millennia later.

Improvisational actor, his wily wife and son actors too, imagination guided by a gray-eyed goddess wearing the body and bearing the voice of a man called Mentor.


Improvisation: Rubbing


One of the most eye-opening things Gregory Bateson ever told me was how he felt when he was writing a draft of Mind and Nature in a cabin in British Columbia while listening to a cassette tape of Bach's Goldberg Variations. He realized there was an alignment between the structure of the music and the structure of his own body. At that moment he was thinking of his sequence of twenty-four articulated vertebrae, each vertebra different from the others but each a modulation of an underlying pattern. And there was Bach, presenting a theme, then creating a sequence of thirty variations on the theme, then restating the theme at the end. Each variation different yet each related to the underlying pattern.

Bateson proposed that what you recognize in art is that you are a living organism with all the structure and patterning of a living organism. You are, as it were, rubbing the patterning of your organism alongside what you're seeing out there. This is the nature of aesthetics: comparing one form with another, when one of the forms is us. When we feel a visceral connection of body to music, this is it. Walking, dancing, sitting still, our body has patterns, and music has patterns. When they connect, the sensation is remarkable.

The violin is a sculpted form crafted by a woodworker's hand to complement, be the partner of, a musician's hand. At the same time, that form is made to complement other patterns, the waveforms that arise when you pluck or bow a stretched string.

I rub my fingers up and down one string of the violin. I easily feel small distances and angles — the difference between the part of my fingertip on the string and the part on the fingerboard. I learn things by rubbing that I wouldn't learn otherwise. The sound of a stringed instrument is the rubbing of the strings by the bow hairs, moving at an angle to each other, pushing and pulling on a thin wooden bridge, which vibrates the belly and back of the instrument, pushing and pulling on the surrounding air. Violin playing is made of simple, elemental touch-actions. Playing music, on any instrument, is an art of feeling — you feel an object with your fingers and with all the muscles up and down your body. This is obvious when you say it out loud, but it is not trivial. Singing and speaking, you feel your lungs and throat, back and belly muscles, as you push air out and shape sound — moving-touching-sensing-acting-on, all in one gesture. We feel the feedback of vibrations returning to us, back into fingers, back into skin; a continuous loop. The simplest sensorimotor activity. Protozoa do it.

Rubbing isn't simply physical adjacency, but tactile exploration. It exposes details to our senses that might otherwise go unnoticed. It's the massive gulf between something looking slimy and something feeling slimy. Movement is essential. Rubbing back and forth, up and down, new parts of each surface come into contact with one another. This action can be seen as a talismanic gesture for engagement with art because it can never occur in a vacuum. One thing must be rubbed against another. There is a mutuality in the rubbing of an object not necessarily present in the contemplation of an object. People are said to have mannerisms that rub off on one another. A hand rubbing a tree will leave dead skin cells on the trunk and bark particulate on the flesh of the palm. Rubbing is not a one-way street; it is inherently an exchange of information, a cross-pollination: not addition but multiplication.

We see things at a distance, but in effect we are rubbing our eyes over the world. If our eyes do not move, the unchanging pattern of light causes our retinal pigments to blanch out in a matter of seconds, and the image disappears. The eyes constantly vibrate in saccadic movement so that the contours of the image keep sliding back and forth across the sensitive rods and cones. Vision is not a passive perception but active engagement.

We are interested in dynamic physical contact, discovering comparison and analogy through body movement and direct sensation. As we handle something and know it, the sensations we experience come from actively moving in relation to it.

Whether it is Jackson Pollock's drippings — the dynamic trace of a man crouching and jumping around a canvas on the floor with a can of paint in his hand — or a rap song or a handmade table, art is, as Bateson put it, form secreted from process. The bodies of living beings, the sounds we make, the artworks we make, are secreted from a process of movement, touch, and interplay, which is life. That is what we're doing, whether we're receiving the art or making the art. Of course creating and receiving are inseparable arcs of the same feedback loop.


Improvisation: Mushrooms and Tide Pools


Thirty years later I sit out on my porch on a January morning, gazing at the midwinter sun and the slanting play of light and shadows from the bare trees. A few years ago this would have been a freezing morning, but we live in the age of global warming, so I am enjoying it and trying, for the moment, not to think of the long-term consequences. The thought that pops into my head is: The sun is up so I will go outdoors and write about improvising. The sunrise every morning, the cycle of the year, is the archetype of the regularity of life: predictable clockwork. What could be less improvisational than the Earth's movement around the sun? We think of improvisation as creative, original, surprising. But I return to my daily experience of improvising music — and these improvisations are so much like each other. I have the occasional breakthrough to an extended technique or fresh infusion from another culture. But mostly (and even with new acoustic and electronic toys, with new partners and their diverse personalities) my improvisations sound like me, my dancing looks like me. We live in an art culture that identifies creativity with novelty. We think of creating as making something new that has never been made before, a eureka like the theory of relativity or the Eroica Symphony. But often we create more of the same, and that is just what's needed. Beethoven's compositions, through all the phases of his revolutionary inventiveness and spiritual development, sound like Beethoven. The style is the person. The clockwork activity of the Earth rotating, our regular experience of the sun, coupled with the variations of weather and the local ecosystem, physical, chemical, biological, mechanical cycles of activity, all keep producing results that amaze me.

With chance operations designed to bypass personal desires, Cage generated a huge output of texts, musical compositions, visual art, and other performances. Yet these distinctively look, sound, and feel like pieces by John Cage. He could not bypass the patterning of his organism. His work is full of his personality and style. Speeches he wrote using aleatory methods still look exactly like John Cage writings. I don't think any of us can escape memories, tastes, likes and dislikes. Ornette Coleman's free jazz opened up limitless possibilities for other musicians, but he always sounded marvelously like himself, and he encouraged us to sound like ourselves as we evolve and learn. Keith Jarrett, one of the most brilliant improvisers on Earth, has recorded and performed solo improvisations on piano for some forty years. He starts from a blank slate each time and jumps into the unknown. He strives every day to develop his improvisations beyond what he had done before, to never repeat a piece he played before so that each concert is a step into a new territory for pianist and audience. Yet his improvisations sound exactly like Keith Jarrett improvisations.

Life replicates as it evolves, evolves as it replicates. The biologist Conrad Waddington coined the term chreods, which we can think of as grooves in spacetime, grooves of patterned activity. Heraclitus's river wants to flow in a certain bed, with variations: body, mind, patterns of movement, memory, the epigenesis of cells as they grow. I don't have any cells that existed seven years ago, but new ones keep growing into more or less the same patterns.

There are themes to one's life. Jung called this individuation. As we get older, if we are aging consciously with a sense of personal evolution and learning, we grow and develop, in concert with our companions and our community, but at the same time we are plowing that furrow or chreod that is our personality. As we learn and evolve, we become more distinctly ourselves.

Jane Austen, James Joyce, John Lennon, Georgia O'Keeffe, any creative person we can think of, no matter how prolific, had five or six elements that recombine and interplay in their work and by which we know them. Cage's warm grin was his own and carried his tastes and the imprimatur of his life history.

If you have read Austen and Joyce, they are inside you; if you listen to music, influences from diverse cultures are inside you, digested and assimilated into the integrated complex that is you. Even the music you hate sticks with you, as do advertising jingles and ditties from kindergarten. Likewise with stories, images, films — everything you've seen and known and read can be digested and can become you. Let the influences of your childhood reading and experiences be there. This is why there is no reason to be concerned with originality. Your particular expression of what has gone into you and is now coming out is always already yours: you are the origin.

Let us revisit those two old mystery people, grandparents of Western civilization: Heraclitus and Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes said there is nothing new under the sun, that every event is a part of cycles that have repeated forever. Heraclitus said you can't step in the same river twice, everything changes, nothing repeats. Both were right. Rub those two perspectives together, like rubbing your hands together. Pattern and change move as a pair, like the foot before and the foot behind in walking.

One night I took a walk on a rocky California beach, remembering that I had come to the same place when I was about twelve years old. Back then I was interested in marine biology and dragged my parents there because that piece of coast, from Pacific Grove down to Big Sur, has some of the most beautiful tide pools in the world. Walking down to the shore conjured my childhood fascination with tide pools. They are replete with colorful, wriggly life, close to the dance of evolution. In the history of Earth, the tide pools were the stewpot where life arose, the first Eden. Stepping from one wet rock to another, I became a witness to the ultimate creative process, to the interbeing of the natural world. Crabs and mussels, coral and anemones create little harbors in the rock that fit their own bodies. I saw how each animal and plant adapts its little zone of rock and water, even its very shape, to the presence of the other creatures. They've created their space. Community and individuals relate in ever-shifting balance. In the complex ecosystem of the tide pools, every living thing has created a space that fits its own organism in relationship to all the others with which it lives. Over a period of time, which may be one month or millions of years, they mutually adapt so that there is a niche for each creature.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus says, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these." The plants, the animals, beings in and of their own nature thrive, they eat each other and compete, they coevolve and learn and express their individuality in concert with others. How does nature make space for her burgeoning creativity? The answer that came to me that night, standing out there by the tide pools, was deceptively simple:

Beings in nature create space for themselves by being themselves.

This image intertwines all the entities that we normally split into categories with our plans and purposes. Form and freedom, habit and novelty, work and play, sacred and secular, are inseparable in the spontaneous flow of life. Questions of self versus community, of self versus environment, questions of new versus old cease to exist. Are we following the path of genetics, culture, personality, and habit, or are we innovating? Expressing ourselves or altering ourselves, or discovering what others have to teach us? These are false dichotomies. We get a taste of this ecological vision in our art that evolves over years and our spontaneous play with each other that arises and disappears.

I take a break from writing and step outside onto the verge of the forest. I find a giant puffball mushroom growing in community with pine, maple, moss, creeping cedar, and ground cover on the moist soil.

Creatures in the tide pools don't create space for themselves by being something other than themselves. They are not concerned about agenda, image, or someone else's idea of how they should act. We can learn something from these simple animals. If you really want to be this, whatever expression of your inner nature this may be, don't shift over to another place to prove or justify what you are doing. As they evolve and adapt, these creatures are not worrying about whether their activities are innovative or conservative. The vital activities of making a living, of creativity, growth, heritage, sameness, difference, change, are intertwined with the totality of life. It is with the same instinctual vitality that artists should approach their work.

Stephen Nachmanovitch is the author of The Art of Is and Free Play. He performs and teaches internationally as an improvisational violinist and lecturer. Having collaborated with other artists in music, dance, theater and film, he is passionate about creativity and exploring the spiritual underpinnings of art. He lives with his family in Charlottesville, Virginia. Find out more about his work online at www.freeplay.com.

Excerpted from the book The Art of Is: Improvising as a Way of Life. Copyright ©2019 by Stephen Nachmanovitch. Printed with permission from New World Library — www.newworldlibrary.com.


Improvisation as a Way of Life


When you search for "the best books about improv," Stephen Nachmanovitch's Free Play is always near the top of the list. With more than 200,000 copies sold, it's in its 30th year of publication and still going strong. Nachmanovitch's long-awaited second book is finally here! The Art of Is: Improvising as a Way of Life shows exactly how the passion and immediacy of improvisation can be cultivated and how, in fact, we all improvise all the time. It is not a special act of genius of which few are capable but is in fact the natural activity of all humans, whether we're driving a car or holding a conversation. People who might claim they could never improvise negotiate these tasks with fluidity and ease every day. We hope you'll enjoy thesee excerpts from the book.


Art of Is: Improvising as a Way of Life


Twists and Turns


Rubbing


Mushrooms and Tide Pools


Quoteworthy


This is what it is to be human: to learn and assimilate the patterns of culture, community, and environment, both conscious and unconscious, and alter them as needed, make them ours, so that the voice spontaneously emerging is our voice, interdependent with the human world in which we live. Thus we breathe life into art and art into life.


Improvising means coming prepared, but not being attached to the preparation. Everything flows into the creative act in progress. Come prepared, but be willing to accept interruptions and invitations. Trust that the product of your preparation is not your papers and plans, but yourself.


Making art, whether you do it solo or in a group, derives its patterns from everything around us, in an interdependent network. We learn to work as nature does, with the material of ourselves: our body, our mind, our companions, and the radical possibilities of the present moment.


Music, movement, image, words are experienced as physiological, as unforced as breathing or the circulation of blood. Such experience is possible not only in the arts but in medicine, in teaching, in civic engagement — anywhere we like. This intimacy doesn't happen all the time; it comes to an end, and mundane pursuits take over. But when it happens, it is a form of magic and bliss.


The most ordinary act of creativity is spontaneous conversation — the art of listening and responding, interacting, taking in environmental factors unconsciously but with precision, modifying what we do as a result of what we see and hear, touch and make, a multidimensional feedback.


What can we learn from improvising? There is no "takeaway" that we can carry with us. There are, rather, some things we can leave behind, including the fixed idea of self as a sack with certain contents. Qualities of interaction are not things we possess; they are activities that we manifest in a particular place and time. We can see people without captions; we can allow music to unfold without attaching labels to it. We can allow our own stories to play out in the complexity of real life.


Artistic creativity won't heal the horrors of the world; it won't save anyone or anything. But it is practice — and through practice we change the self, and the relationship of the self with all things.


Art activates empathy, and creates the opportunity for it, inviting us to see for a while through someone else's personality and experience. Gregory Bateson said, "It takes two to know one." We know ourselves through each other.


Improvising makes visible some truths of daily life that we experience but seldom think about: that we can navigate our way through complex systems in the simple act and art of listening and responding; that creativity is the property of everyone and not just of a chosen few; that the ordinary, everyday mind is expressive and creative. From this magical interaction the work is born.


I am not a writer — I am writing. Yesterday I was not writing. I was doing dreary errands and engaging in distraction, entertainment, and memories. It is natural to write sometimes and not to write at others. Rimbaud wrote, and then he didn't write. But if I stick with nouns — "I am a writer" — then a frustrating day like yesterday would have to be framed as "writer's block" — a disease for which I seek a cure. By treating activities or states as though they were solid objects, we buy a world of trouble.


We are trained to say, I am this, I am that. We may spend much of our day playing music, driving a delivery truck, treating patients in a hospital, forecasting the weather, investigating crimes, but to be pinned down and solidified by a professional identity leaves out the immense variety of every human life. We can make the jump into thinking systemically, to realizing that we are verbs, not things.


Listening requires no special equipment or prerequisites. What is our experience now? Immediately sounds become present, from all directions.


Whether it is Jackson Pollock's drippings — the dynamic trace of a man crouching and jumping around a canvas on the floor with a can of paint in his hand — or a rap song or a handmade table, art is, as Bateson put it, form secreted from process. The bodies of living beings, the sounds we make, the artworks we make, are secreted from a process of movement, touch, and interplay, which is life. That is what we're doing, whether we're receiving the art or making the art. Of course creating and receiving are inseparable arcs of the same feedback loop.


How much of what we say and play, how much of what we write, comes directly or indirectly from interactions with other people? Almost all. This is the essence of ubuntu: How do we know anything? By being taught by other living beings, in conversation or reading, through experiencing nature and culture, through making mistakes and picking ourselves up and helping one another.


How often do we create a piece of art and have it turn out like the picture in our head? Even if we have a blueprint, making that idea work with real materials and real people changes it. And after we have made it, it keeps changing.


To improvise is to act in accordance with what is happening now, with who you are now, with who your companions are. At the same time we realize that this now flows within a long sequence of nows. To improvise is to find the pattern in these happenings and develop it into something interesting, without expecting that it will turn out a certain way. Notice that pattern, amplify and share it where possible, and let it go when the time comes.


Art, which may be beautiful or ugly, heartening or disturbing, can put people in touch with the power of their own viewpoint, the validity of their individuality.