The Art of Is
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The Art of Is

Improvising as a Way of Life

Stephen Nachmanovitch

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eBook - ePub

The Art of Is

Improvising as a Way of Life

Stephen Nachmanovitch

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About This Book

A MASTERFUL BOOK ABOUT BREATHING LIFE INTO ART AND ART INTO LIFE "Stephen Nachmanovitch's The Art of Is is a philosophical meditation on living, living fully, living in the present. To the author, an improvisation is a co-creation that arises out of listening and mutual attentiveness, out of a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity. It is a product of the nervous system, bigger than the brain and bigger than the body; it is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter, unprecedented and unrepeatable. Drawing from the wisdom of the ages, The Art of Is not only gives the reader an inside view of the states of mind that give rise to improvisation, it is also a celebration of the power of the human spirit, which — when exercised with love, immense patience, and discipline — is an antidote to hate."
— Yo-Yo Ma, cellist

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Information

Year
2019
ISBN
9781608686162
II
THINKING AS NATURE THINKS
Natural History
When you try to pick out anything by itself, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
— John Muir
Nouns: person, place, thing, idea. We treat all four as though they were solid objects with definite dimensions. But they are not. My violin is made of maple and spruce, with trimmings of ebony and boxwood. The forests in which those trees grew evolved over eons, through shifting ecological conditions. The rain, the insect vectors of plant life, the soil that is the substance of dead organisms (each with his or her own story), all played roles in the interactivity of coevolution. The vibrational characteristics of this wood are related to how it was cut, how it was cured before it was sold to an instrument maker, who in turn drew upon generations of training, art, and science in her craftsmanship. The instrument is a solid object but is also story upon story upon story. The varnish is its own story, made from minerals, resins, and organic compounds with their own past, present, and future. And eventually, in the fullness of time, the instrument will turn into debris and disappear. A dynamic, interactive system, not a thing.
In Buddhism this view is called the emptiness of inherent existence. When Westerners hear the word emptiness, we feel alarmed, because we think that emptiness means nihilism. The operative word in that phrase is inherent. The instrument is real and full of intricate happenings — biological, geological, cultural — full of labor, tradition, inventiveness, all interactive stories of great complexity. The one thing it is empty of is a separate, self-contained, self-sufficient existence.
I am holding a red guitar cable. Like the violin, the cable was made by people; the copper and steel, plastic and rubber came from many places and many stories; likewise the whole history of consciousness of the engineers who designed the cable, and the workers who labored on an assembly line factory in China. Each of those people has a past, present, and future, a family and friends and other relationships. They are employed by a company that has its own past, present, and future and is part of an environment of business and labor relations. Just those labor relations could give rise to a near infinity of stories, songs, and theater, protest and creative social action. We are looking at an immense nexus of interrelated activity, which is only temporarily present in the form of the “object” in my hand. Yet the object is eminently real — if I am playing onstage, I can step over the cable in the wrong way and trip. Emptiness is not the same as nonexistence.
Thich Nhat Hanh substitutes for emptiness a new word that is more precisely communicative in the West: interbeing. The wood of the instrument, the trees, the people who cultivated the trees, the people who crafted the instrument, the people who work in the factories who made the strings, the cable, and everything else, all of those inter-are with the violin or the cable.
There is a wonderful third-century text from China called Hsi K’ang’s Poetical Essay on the Lute. It is about playing an instrument called the guqin. While Hsi K’ang does talk about musical things like scales and technique and timing, he devotes a large part of his text to describing the mountains and forests where the catalpa trees grow, the streams and mists that nourish them. “For a thousand years they wait for him who shall recognize their value, quietly they repose, forever robust.” For Hsi K’ang, the proper study of a musician is ecology — the ecology of the forest, and also the social ecology, the intellectual ecology from which the instrument arises. This observation extends even further. On finishing the instrument, we tune it up — and tuning is yet another world of interactivity and history, where our physical sensations engage with a mixture of mathematical and cultural forms. Then we finally begin to strum it, engrossing ourselves in the ecology of our everyday sensorium — the interactive physiology of muscles, bones, nerves, the ways in which body movement creates sound and the way sound is reflected in the room and in nature. This landscape includes tunes rattling around in our heads, from the commercial we heard on the radio this morning to some piece of music we have always loved. All these things coexist with the present moment of our real-time artistic creation, and they are available for us to draw on.
The practice of improvising allows us to play with impermanence and interbeing. Person, place, thing, and idea are contingent on context. If you are sitting in a chair, you have a lap. Now stand up, and you don’t have a lap.
Emptiness of inherent existence: the guitar cable or the improvisation doesn’t exist by itself, but it coexists, it inter-is, with the air, the ear, the physics of vibration, histories, and social relations. And because of that interbeing, we can stand up with nothing up our sleeves, no plans and no stated intentions, and improvise music with each other. Such experience is possible because an infinite amount of information to draw on is already present and already with us, from the three billion years of organic evolution immanent in our bodies to the evolution of our cultures, our friends’ cultures, all the patterns with which we have come into contact.
We could spend years exploring the chemistry, physics, sociology, economics, biology, industrial design, and all the interconnected fields of existence implicated in the making and playing of the violin and cable. We could run an entire university from the study of either.
This is no vague statement that “everything is one” — it is an invitation to see at least some of the myriad, minutely delineated interconnections present in everything we look at. Each interconnection is a story. As we look at the ecology of the forest or the city, we see that each is made of infinitely accumulating stories. Thus the old-fashioned term for biology: natural history.
I see improvising as a tool for investigating reality. What is this reality that we are investigating? It is the reality of interbeing, the opposite of thingness. This mutuality is the engine that powers our natural improvisational activity. I once asked Gregory Bateson, “What is beauty?” He answered, “Recognition of the pattern which connects.”
People are more dynamic and ever-changing than guitar cables or violins, yet we have been trained to cherish the idea of the independent, isolated individual. Then we experience a catastrophe — pollution, climate change, terrorism, war — and suddenly we discover that human beings need each other. The idea of the independent, isolated individual is encapsulated in the nineteenth-century image of the composer, artist, or author sitting alone and creating works of genius from nothing. This image feeds right into the idea of music history as masterpieces hanging from the clothesline of time — an image that is obsolete and has never fit the realities of natural history.
All About Frogs
One afternoon I was giving a talk at a university religion department. My host asked me to talk about the Tao, creativity, and music. I wanted to begin with a little meditation. In this crowded classroom full of random furniture and people, we managed to get silent and still, allowed ourselves to become comfortable wherever we were — sitting in chairs, squatting on the floor, standing straight, sitting on someone’s lap, leaning on a ledge. Settled and quiet, we found our balance and let the concerns and preoccupations that we had brought with us leak away. I felt like a pendulum freed from outside impulse, swinging more and more slowly, less and less erratically, gradually coming to rest.
image
Imperceptibly, we became conscious of a bass hum in the heating system as it whirred away in the ceiling. In the silence of this room, the sound of the motor became very strong. Normally, while talking and listening, thinking and worrying, we don’t notice such noises. That motor reminded me of a wonderful realization I’d had in the hotel room where I’d slept the previous night. There was a rickety little refrigerator in the room and, as refrigerators do, it turned on and off as its thermostat switched in and out. I was lying in bed, feeling tense, almost unaware of the low, rattling drone, when suddenly pop! — the refrigerator turned off. The machine’s noise was subtle, but its cessation was like the moment in old slapstick movies when someone has been beating you over the head and then stops. How good it feels! The acute silence that occurred when the refrigerator shut off was beautiful, as I lay there in the dark smiling with contentment. It sounds silly. But spiritual realization is often sparked by the most humdrum events.
As we sat in our afternoon meditation, someone coughed. What was amazing, and just as silly as the refrigerator, was how beautiful and resonant that cough sounded. When we’re going about our business and someone coughs, it’s just noise, a distraction; but against the background of silent concentration we shared, that cough was a marvelous sound that expanded into the universe. It lasted only half a second, but we could hear the different phases of the cough so that it became something rather intricate and interesting. Later on, we will return to the cough and the silence of the refrigerator because they are of fundamental significance to our purpose.
• • •
Now let’s talk about frogs. In the late 1950s at MIT, Humberto Maturana, Jerome Lettvin, and others were trying to figure out how vision works at the level of single nerve and brain cells, how information arises from the raw stimulus of light and darkness. In particular they were studying the retina and visual cortex of frogs. They invented tiny, hair-like electrodes that could detect the firing of a single nerve cell. With such electrodes in place, they showed various visual stimuli to the animals, to see which cells fire under what conditions.
One of the seminal papers that came out of this research was called “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain.” Previously we had thought of the eye as though it were a camera that passively takes in patterns of light; the information about the light is transferred up into the brain, which then does processing on it and distinguishes faces, letters of the alphabet, all the things we are used to recognizing. In the case of the frog, the recognition happens before the signals even get to the brain, in the nerve cells of the retina at the back of the eye. These cells are predisposed to fire most strongly when they detect small, dark dots moving around. This, of course, is because frogs eat flies. Finding flies is vitally important to frogs, and what the frog’s eye tells the frog’s brain is whether or not flies seem to be present. Everything else is secondary. The researchers put various types of stimuli in front of the frogs — big, open areas of color or different shapes with different rates of movement — and they would all produce some mild excitation in the nerve cells in the eye. But the nerve cells would really start jumping around when something was presented that could have been a fly: a moving black dot that subtends about one degree of angle.
Before the information even gets to the brain, the frog’s eye has an epistemology. Epistemology normally refers to the theory of knowledge: a branch of philosophy that asks, How do we know? What do we know? What is real? What is important? How do we sort our inputs into knowledge versus nonsense? Gregory Bateson transplanted this word into biology, realizing that even a rat in a learning experiment has an epistemology, an internalized theory of knowledge that calibrates its perceptual biases. Epistemology thus becomes greatly extended in meaning, to an activity inherent in all sentient beings. Neural filtering sensitizes a frog’s eye to movements of small dots that are likely to be flies and disregards other information. Epistemology is how we parse the world: this is information, that is noise. Likewise, cultural filtering predisposes a person to believe or disbelieve in miracles, or in economic determinism. In an age pervaded by propaganda, epistemology has suddenly turned into an explicit preoccupation of our entire society: what we know, what is real, what is important.
Imagine a pond at sunset, the beautiful lily pads, the blazing sky, the frog. The frog sits there thinking, “Not-flies.”
We humans believe ourselves to be much grander than frogs. We are general-purpose organisms who can adapt to many settings. We don’t have a frog’s specific hardwiring for flies, but nevertheless human retinas are hardwired to spot edges and differences. When we look around a room, our retinal ganglion cells fire more strongly when they see borders and contours than when they see the blank middle areas of uniform color. As the information gets bumped up through higher levels of brain cells, those edges yield more information — tuned by our predispositions. We are sensitive to the outlines, because that’s where the news is. ...

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