There is always a place for improvisation. Art, in fact, depends on it.
Look at any painting. Listen to any piece of music. Consider the choreography of a company of dancers moving across the stage. No matter how composed these things appear to be, how carefully arranged and executed, I promise there was some moment during the creative process, when happenstance, fate and a willingness experiment played an important part.
I once asked the artist Ed Rice, painter known for his carefully composed architectural paintings, about his creative process. He pointed to a painting he had hanging in the exhibition I was interviewing him about. It was a female figure, clothed in a rather old-fashioned bathing costume, at the beach. Instead of his regular saturated colors and polished finish, the colors were muted and the style was much more painterly. It was beautiful, but certainly not his signature style.
He told me that he had planned on something very different. He thought it would be bright and bold – like an old color postcard. Instead it was more muted and ethereal – like a memory. The reason, he explained, was that he picked up the brush to paint one day, looked at the canvas and decided, in that moment, that the painting was done. The painting succeeded because he was open to improvising, to making a spur-of-the-moment decision that altered the end result.
While this is a process that happens in all creative fields, it is most famously a core component in music. The possibility of improvisation, of stepping away from the script, is what makes live music so exciting. And when a performance is willfully built on a foundation of improvisation, when the music is literally created and arranged in front of an audience, it’s even more exciting.
In the not too distant future, local audiences have two opportunities to see two very different ensembles take the idea of improvisation on. The first is ABBA. No, it is not that ABBA. It’s the Augusta Big Band Aggregate, one of the many jazz projects established by local horn man Rob Foster. Taking on the classics of big band jazz, the group performs its takes on the classics originally written and rewritten on a nightly basis by the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other jazz royalty. ABBA performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, May 8, at Sky City. Doors open at 8 p.m. and admission is free.
The following Thursday, May 15, the local improvisational electronic act Sure Eel takes the stage, again at Sky City. This act’s performances are really about drawing inspiration from the smallest things – a tone, a short progression, a snippet of sound – and building something expansive. It’s a fairly remarkable trick and well worth checking out. Doors open at 8 p.m. with music at 10. Admission is $3.
And while ABBA and Sure Eel offer excellent reminders of how affecting artistic improvisation can be, they are only two examples. It happens all over the community. Be it the popular evenings of improve at Le Chat Noir or the always-interesting collision of art and music at the occasional Social Canvas events, public improv is an essential element of the area’s creative culture. True artists are those rare individuals capable of creating freely, and we are fortunate to live somewhere that is the rule rather than exception.