Monday, May 26, 2008

The haunting beauty of Tord Gustavsen’s paintings…and Cézanne

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”


Halewyn said...

Improvisation don’t let you impose limits with sense, so self-censorship tends to get out of control reorganizing those limits or “playing rules”, but not removing them (if we do not consider an insane or incoherent mind), in a way that the brain still allows us to identify our own work as ours: as if we go on vacation to another country being aware in all moment that we will be back to our own country.. which is finally the situation that let us experience as a whole those “alien” events, or (taking into account that idea), as something belonging to us.

Creativity would depend then in that “alien” but real world (¿T.Gustavsen’s Microworld?), as well as in that “non-alien” -that could be recognized- but fiction world (¿T.Gustavsen’s Macroworld?). Or at least this is what I lived as an artist.

Tord Gustavsen said...

Hmm.. first of all: a big and warm thank you for the interesting (and also flattering) perspectives in this blog. Great reading!

I feel like commenting on two things.

First, you say "one feels that (in spite of what he says about the listener), Gustavsen is playing for himself" – referring to an earlier remark on me being "insistent on the critical role of the listener".

Well. I do play first and foremost for myself; you're right about that. Thinking about the audience prior to my own musical lust and longing would not work for me. What I am trying to insist on when writing “[t]he shaping of a musical landscape takes place in the listener”, is simply a radically 'democratic' and phenomenological perspective, acknowledging the unique status of every single listener's consciousness – there are as many perceived musical landscapes connected to a specific performance or recording as there are listeners to it. It's an almost simplistic point to make – but one that is easily overlooked. (We don’t have to say that every perspective is equally interesting and certainly not equally sophisticated or evolved, but we do have to acknowledge every subjective reality as subjective reality for that person, and interesting as such.)

However, what I am really passionate about in this respect, is the discovery of the power of PLAYING FOR MYSELF AS A LISTENER. Transforming my being on stage from pure inner urge and expressive and/or spiritual 'pressure', into also receiving the music and taking it in – as it were – from the outside; actively listening to my own improvisation AS PERCEIVABLE SOUND as it unfolds, really helps.

It’s about getting into a dialogic presence that includes and unites 1) myself as player and 2) myself as listener. It’s about trying to play what I myself would like to hear, instead of what the good boy may think that he ought to play (sometimes there's a difference...), or what the vulnerable boy feels forced into playing by circumstances he can't control even if he knows he doesn't really like it.. It’s about searching for ways to fulfill my own lust and longing through the musical objects I produce. It’s about being open to the music actually offering more than I thought it could. For some, this may sound trivial. But to me, it most certainly is not. It is so easy to get short-sightedly and helplessly stuck inside the musical process in ways that are definitely not about flow or being led by divine intuition – on the contrary, being ’inside’ can just as well be about stiffness, alienation and trying to hard. To me, actively opening consciousness up to the richness of simultaneously producing and taking in is extremely important. I play so much better when I get there with fullness.

Of course, one can argue that this is always happening to a certain degree no matter what, and why make a big deal out of it..? Any sane person will have a degree of dialogue between the pushing of inner impulse or drive and the perceiving of what is actually uttered, acted, played or produced.

But contemplating this duality, and actively stretching toward the listener’s role when playing is not trivial at all to me. It can be a way out of ego-centric playing damaging the musical totality. It can be the way out of alienation and stagnation. And it can help us transcend the gap or reformulate the dilemma between an arrogant and disembodied version of 'music for music’s own sake’ and a populist 'music for the sake of the audience'.

Tord Gustavsen said...

Second, regarding self-censorship. This is hugely important. But the reality is not that there is a continuum between total self-censorship (bad) and fully un-censored free flow (good). I believe in transcending self-censorship (including the most critical, stalling forms of self-evaluation) into dialogic self-listening. Then, you bring your analytical skills (at least those skills that are sufficiently embodied to make them creatively retrievable during improvisation. You bring all the good aspects of self-evaluation – such as the ability to adjust, to challenge and also, importantly, to actually praise yourself – into the flow. Sometimes this presence can feel like total, intuitive non-interference and non-duality. Other times it can feel like a fat and juicy mix of rationality, impulsiveness, research and play. But it is always about openness and about letting it flow through you, rather than pushing it out with yourself as the only source. And – thus – fundamentally linked to complexities and challenges and potentials of ‘playing for yourself as a listener’.

S.Z. said...

Thank you very much for your very thoughtful response. I very much appreciate knowing that you play for yourself - as I suspected - and your comments about censorship. The new element in your response, which I had not considered sufficiently but which seems obvious now that you state it, is playing for yourself as a listener. This naturally introduces a complexity that is most interesting. Now that I think of it, I suppose that most people do not listen to themselves while talking and most musicians probably want to convey the music without listening intellectually to themselves playing. I think that there must be a difference here between a player and a composer/player. The latter can interpret or re-interpret his or her own composition whereas the former is perhaps a little more bound by the intentions of the composer. You also introduce a very interesting neurobiological point that is worth thinking about, and I will do so.

At any rate, your response has given me - and I hope other readers of this - much food for thought.

I am incidentally, much looking forward to your concert in London on March 9 - for which I am returning to London from (wait for it) Oslo!!!

Thanks and best wishes.

Semir Zeki