Tord Gustavsen’s sublime jazz improvisations are a sort of musical painting, and not only because, for me at least, they induce a synaesthetic visual impression of vast and lonely spaces and an extraordinary sensuality. I have listened to the lonely notes that introduce At Home and Draw Near time and time again and they never fail to create that visual impression. I do not know whether this is unique to me or whether others share the experience. But Gustavsen discusses visual imagery in his article entitled The Dialectical Eroticism of Improvisation, so I cannot be far off the mark. How one sensory input provokes another is of course a problem that is worthy of study in neurobiological terms. But the article offers a very interesting musical glimpse into the problem of improvisation, coming as it does from a master improviser and raises important issues in the neurobiological study of creativity. And it also raises in my mind some parallels between the characteristics of improvisation in music and painting.
Gustavsen thinks of improvisation as “on-the-spot composing [which] involves a certain amount of on-the-spot analysis”, a process in which the composer is “constantly forming and being formed by” the music being improvised. The composer-improviser is thus changing through the music that he or she is composing. In this, the process is perhaps not vastly different – except in the time scale – from painting. Henri Matisse once wrote, “A Cézanne is a moment of the artist, not of nature…Despite the continual use of the same means, there are different effects; it’s the man, Cézanne, that has changed” (my emphasis). What is the neural process that mediates such a change, which in the case of music must be immediate?
There is, as well, the emphasis on the continual play between whet he calls the micro and the macro levels, while maintaining the unity of the whole work. This is the advice that Denis Diderot gave, advice passed to Cézanne by Piassaro and enthusiastically accepted by the latter: “Nothing is beautiful without unity”, to which Cézanne replied: “I advance… all of my canvas at once, together. In the same movement, the same conviction, I bring into relation everything that is scattered” since “Only from their sum, their relation and interaction, do the objects they define reveal themselves to the viewer”– a description that can equally, and accurately, be used to describe the improvisations of Gustavsen.
In the process of improvisation, the musician may make mistakes or take unsatisfactory steps. “When you disappoint yourself, it is therefore crucial to be able to transform the disappointment into a kind of challenge that can enter into a dynamic dialectical movement towards satisfying totalities”…much as I imagine Cézanne and other painters – when they make a mistake – use the mistake as a challenge to enter into a new dynamic.
Gustavsen is insistent on the critical role of the listener. He writes: “The shaping of a musical landscape takes place in the listener”. Not dissimilar to the (then) controversial view of Cézanne: “I conceive of [painting] as a personal apperception. I situate this apperception in sensation, and I ask that the intelligence organize it into a work”.
There are, of course, many other interesting points in Gustavsen’s article and above all in his music. I have highlighted only some here, to draw attention to the similarity in the creative process. A reading of Gustavsen’s article and his music show the enormous challenge to the neurobiologist who wants to understand the neural bases of creativity – the integration of the micro with the macro within a concept, the use of working and long-term memory, the mobilisation of the emotional and motor brain, the planning and the execution – a lifetime’s work, I imagine.
There is however one element that I missed in Gustavsen’ s article, but which I hear in his music. That relates to censorship – I mean self-censorship. It was Schopenhauer and Wagner who insisted that a work of art should flow “from the sub-conscious”. I take this clumsy phrase to mean that it should be free from the worry that it may not accord with the views or concepts of listeners or from the artist’s inhibitions; I take it to mean, in brief, that it must be free of all censorship and above all self-censorship. As with Ella Fitzgerald’s marvellous modulatory improvisations, or Martha Argerich’s sensational rendering of Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto (and especially its second movement), one feels that (in spite of what he says about the listener), Gustavsen is playing for himself and in the process engaging the listener more. Self-censorship must, possibly imposed by activity in the frontal lobes, surely be one of the greatest enemies of art in general and improvisation in particular. Perhaps this is best summarised in the opening lines of Marcel Proust’s Contre Sainte-Beuve:
“Chaque jour, j’attache moins de prix a l’intelligence. Chaque jour, je me rends mieux compte que ce n’est qu’en dehors d’elle que [l’artiste] peut…atteindre quelque chose de lui même et la seul matière de l’art”
which in free, rather than literal, translation, can be rendered into:
“Every day, I attach less importance to intelligence. Every day, I become more aware that it is only outside it that the [artist] can… attain something of himself and the only material of art”