The Focus Section on Technique in the last issue touched a nerve. I’ve been talking & writing a lot about my mentor, the anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson since his recent centennial. Those musings have touched on a lot of topics – from the Buddhadharma to the practice of Improvisation. It turns out that some 55 years ago Bateson wrote a number of his pithy little Metalogues for a contemporary dance journal, Impulse. Since you asked me to write a comment on the last issue, I have a feeling of stepping into someone’s shoes – dancing in the master’s shoes – with a certain feeling of inevitability, a form of karma.
But this is what happens every time I pick up a violin and do improv: it is a matter of jumping into the unknown and the practice of being comfortable there. Nothing given, decided or agreed beforehand, yet as the improv progresses there is a feeling of inevitability, of completing circles that were begun long ago. Moving spontaneously, yet within a pattern or archetype that connects this moment and place to the whole flow of organic evolution.
Improvisation makes explicit the truths of daily life which we always experience but do not always think about: That we live in a world of pattern, relationship, context, interconnectedness. 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 ordinary, everyday mind embodies all we need to know in order to be expressive and creative.
All perception and action vibrate in a network of relationship. Gregory Bateson said, “it takes two to know one.” The reality of the pattern-which-connects is often unconscious, but when we do improv it becomes available to us through the simplest of means.
Stephen Nachmanovitch is a musician, author, computer artist, and educator. Born in 1950, he studied at Harvard and the University of California, where he earned a Ph.D. in the History of Consciousness for an exploration of William Blake. His mentor was the anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson. He has taught and lectured widely in the United States and abroad on creativity and the spiritual underpinnings of art. He has published articles in a variety of fields since 1966, and is the author of Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (Penguin-Putnam, 1990). He is currently working on a new book on creativity, and new musical projects. He lives with his wife and two sons in Virginia.
Originally published as “Letter To the Editor: From Stephen Nachmanovitch” in Bourgeon Vol. 2 #2