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Freeplay with Stephen Nachmanovitch

“Freeplay: Cross-disciplinary group improvisation as a way to experience a creative approach to life, art and education”


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Stephen Nachmanovitch is an artist -violinist, poet, writer, composer, computer graphic designer- and a teacher. He is the author of the book “Freeplay: improvisation in life and art”, where he explains and reflects on the nature of human creativity and the way it develops in art, in the learning processes, and in our daily lifes. In his Improvisation workshops, Stephen Nachmanovitch invites us to the empowerment of our creative potentials through a particular attitude towards life and art: freeplay.

This interview was made on the 29th of February 2015, by Laura Roig and Roger Sans, after a one-day Improvisation Workshop in the Osterloh Center for Mindfulness, Germany.


Do you play and improvise everyday? How do you train in that?
Yes, I play and improvise everyday, and so does every human being on the planet, because we are talking, we are not reading down our conversations before we have them and almost everything that everybody does all day long is unscripted, so we are all practicing. I mean, I play and improvise everyday, and when I have a musical instrument that is great, and if I don’t have any musical instrument I am still improvising. And you practice or prepare by improvising.

As I am sitting at the table talking to you now, I am feeling like a little pain in my left hip, so I am noticing that. This is just normal activity. Like when you are sitting in a chair and you feel a little discomfort and then you wiggle your body around a little bit. We all do this all day but we don’t think about it. I felt something in my hip, I wiggled my body around and adjusted it and now I feel good. That’s improvising. So you feel something, you adjust yourself, and now you feel better. That’s improvising. Someone says something to you, you listen to him, you respond. That’s improvising.

Is there any difference between people that normally does these things but doesn’t feel it as they are improvising and somebody that feels he or she is improvising?
They don’t think about it consciously, yes. So we are all doing it all the time, but obviously most people don’t think about it consciously. We all adjust our body and respond to a pain or a tightness all the time. Some people think about it consciously and then they think they are discovering something but it’s just discovering what we all know how to do. So, when you are pursuing it consciously you are becoming aware of it. Like when you asked about practice or preparation, it is the same sort of thing: when I feel something in my body and I say “Ok, I am feeling that now”, and then I am adjusting myself, so now I feel different. And it’s the same thing with your musical instrument: you are making a sound and you don’t like the sound. That is wonderful. It’s wonderful to make a sound that you don’t like, so then you adjust it and now it’s a sound that you do like, or maybe it’s another sound that you also don’t like, but you don’t like it in a different way, so now you have two different things and then you add a third one and you keep finding different sounds and different ways of moving your body and different ways for things to connect. In that way you discover an enormous variety of responses.
So I happen to be sitting here with a camera. A camera can take pictures with the lens wide open or narrowed down, depending on how much light there is. If there’s a little light you want the lens to be wide open, and if there’s bright daylight then the iris of the lens narrows down. A good camera will have a big range of diameters of its iris, so that it can adjust to a wide variety of light conditions. In systems theory they call this the “law of requisite variety”. So that if you have a lot of settings to the camera, then the camera can adjust to many light conditions. If you have a lot of things that you can do in movement, with respect to your instrument, or with your voice or whatever your art form is, then you can adjust. Practice or preparation doesn’t necessarily mean doing specific exercises. What it does mean is exploring the range of things that you can do and exploring the range of things that you can’t do. And pushing that range. So that if you are playing with a partner and you want to respond to that partner you now have a wide range, you are sort of going beyond yourself to more forms of activity.
The joy of improvisation, which is not that different from the joy of composing or any art form, is when you go beyond yourself and you discover something, you realize you’ve done something that you have never done before or that you used to think you can’t do.

As we’ve been working with you in some workshops, we’ve noticed that there is a special magical moment. When you invite four people from the group, you seem to touch them with a “magic wand”. Because, instantaneously, they can start to improvise together, naturally and freely, without any premise. Your actions are very simple and minimalist. Less is more in this sense? What does this “magic wand” emanates?
I didn’t know I had a magic wand! You discovered it for me! That’s fantastic, thank you I never knew that.So there is a circle of people and I point at somebody and I make a little call-sound («Brrrrr») and then you are there, you are «up». The interesting thing is that everybody does something. Everybody has something to contribute, and part of the reason why it works, of course, is that we have created a circle of people who feel safe and trust each other, even if they have not met before. “Ok, now I call you, I point at you, and you can step up». And there is always something to do, because what we do is very simple. It’s not like demonstrating great virtuosity with your instrument or your voice, because art comes from simplicity, it comes from having simple, clear structures.For example, everybody can remember any square window when you see one, because it is a simple structure that everybody can remember. If the window had a very complex geometry that was elaborated and beautiful you wouldn’t necessarily remember it. So, simple is really great.

It is the atmosphere that you are trying to build, then?
Right, it is creating the atmosphere of the safe space. Because also it is important to bring this into spaces that are non-safe. A few days ago I was in Dachau. It was really interesting for me to go there, in particular because I used to know a man named Herbert Zipper who was born in 1904. When I knew him he was in his nineties. He was a prisoner in Dachau and he started a clandestine orchestra in the concentration camp. They found some musicians, who had previously been wonderful musicians and now they were slaves and prisoners, and they made some instruments out of junk pieces of wood with wire. He created songs and they sang together. If you look at the songs objectively as art pieces, they weren’t great songs, but the point is that they were effective songs, they kept people sane, they kept him sane and they kept other people sane. Some of his songs jumped from one concentration camp to another. Here the people were in the least safe space, most of them didn’t survive, and yet those who did survive found in making art, there was the capacity to keep them sane, while they were in hell.
It’s wonderful to be in a place like Osterloh and be surrounded by beauty and this wonderful studio that encloses you and here you have a circle of people where we’re comfortable and we can step forth and improvise, but it is not always that way, and to be able to take this and bring it out into the world is really important.

Which are the benefits to consciously practicing improvisation?
Of course, for me in my life, it is the only thing that I can practise. Practising improvisation simply means being. Wether you are by yourself or playing with other people, you just play naturally and allow things to come out. You regard things with some interest and you change them.

You know, in terms of practicing traditional music, we think in terms of correcting mistakes. But in improvisation, in a sense there are no mistakes, but in another sense, of course you are going to have things that are more interesting and less interesting, or that you feel that work beautiful or don’t work.
Practicing improvisation is just making little changes, to keep adjusting -as when you wiggle your back around and wiggle your head around and become balanced sitting in a chair or playing your instrument. In terms of practicing music, you see the piece as a relative thing. That is, “Ok, now I am doing something that I am a little uncomfortable with, and now I can shift to make it more comfortable or more interesting”, or to discover the structure that was there that I didn’t know it was there before. That’s a very different frame of mind from saying, “Ok, here is the ideal of the Beethoven’s Violin Concerto or Duke Ellington’s Black and Tan, or any piece that you want to play, where you sense “Ok here is the ideal performance or here is the score, and I am diverging from it, and I have to correct myself, so that I don’t diverge form it”.
So it is good to really play from where you are and adjust, practice through adjustment, rather than always feeling that “I have to be over there where I am not”, and fit into the square.

You talked also about mistakes. And on our experience, in our musical education and training, sometimes we had teachers that they acted like they were hunting mistakes…
Like they are looking for mistakes so to kill them!

Yes, these attitudes have a lot of presence in musical education now and it had in the past. In our education we normally punish the mistake. In your view, which is the power of mistakes in the learning process?
Yes, punishing is terrible. And that doesn’t mean that anything that you randomly play is OK, you know? What I was talking about was adjusting the way you are doing things. When you are driving a car you are constantly leaning over to the left and leaning to the right, you are always turning the wheel a little bit, and you don’t slap yourself and punish yourself every time the wheel moves. You just wiggle the wheel, you just adjust it…
When playing music, you may want to have a beautiful tone, or you may want to find certain pitch, or whatever is what you are going for in that piece of music, but instead of thinking of mistakes as something to hunt and kill you just think in terms of natural adjustment.

Changing the way we approach mistakes…
That’s right. One day I was at Julliard in New York, and these were students that were incredible musicians. They were much better musicians that I am. They were incredible. Many of them had never improvised before and they did some beautiful improvisations. And then, the third improvisations that they did was kind of off, they were not really listening to each other, and you could see the guilt on their faces, like they had made a mistake. Then, I suddenly remembered the image of Beethoven’s father, Johann von Beethoven. He had the image of Mozart, like the young brilliant prodigy who was going around Europe playing for all the kings and queens, and bringing money in for the family. And he thought his son, Ludwig von Beethoven, would be the next one like that. Beethoven would practice all day, and the father had a big stick, and he would smack it on the fingers when he made a mistake. We don’t do corporal punishment any more, at least in civilized countries, but there is still that idea. When you talk about hunting and killing mistakes, there is that idea there. So I had the students do finger-kissing. I said “Ok let’s just walk around and kiss all your fingers”, as the antidote to the Beethoven’s smacking on the fingers with the stick, you know?

Nice antidote! You say that our most potent muse is our inner child. Why is it so important to recover our inner child, and the attitude of playing in our life situations?
Well, I don’t know…

It’s more fun!
Yes, there’s certain kinds of what you may call it “new age literature” where people talk about the inner child as an entity or a being, which I don’t care for. “Ok, here is me and here is my inner child”…like, where is it? Is it in your stomach or is it in your pancreas? Of course, that is ridiculous, you know?
It’s just like when we were laughing one second ago. All this things are completely normal, there is nothing about it that is unusual or strange. People have conversations, they laugh, their body start shaking and then, they become a slightly different person, so that is in a sense, recovering your inner child, ok?
People get playful and people get less playful. Like when we talked about wiggling in terms of adjusting your body, or adjusting your sound as a musician, it is all the same thing. Again we are wiggling around between the more serious and the less serious. Though, of course, play is not the opposite of seriousness, because you see children or adults playing together and they are often very serious and very concentrated and doing something that seems very important at the time and that is also play…

We’ve noticed that one of the main focus in the improvisation you practice with people is cross-disciplinary (we can play with our body or our instrument, we can sing, paint, act,…) Is it important that a musician can dance, a dancer can act, and so on…?
It is very important, yes. I often work with mixed groups of musicians and dancers, and we often have this preconceived idea that, if we have a performance or even a class with musicians and dancers, the musicians will sit in a corner here and make sound, and the dancers will take up the space and move. And it is very important for musicians to know that they can move and that dancers can make noise.
There is still what you call disciplinary -though this nouns are always a little bit troubling to me- but there is also the interconnection between all those different specialties.
This is what in Buddhism they call it “Emptiness of inherent existence”. Westerners freak out when they hear that word, because they hear the word emptiness, and they think you are talking about nihilism. But what we are actually talking about is like: Ok, here is a wooden table, and we can see the grain of the wood, we can see that it came from a tree, and the tree came from billions of years of organic evolution, and organisms changing and changing and changing. Somebody cut the tree. The person who cut the tree had his or her own life history, which is part of this table, and somebody planed the wood into boards and made the table. And those people have their own life history. The table is part of chemistry, is part of physics, is part of biology, is part of industrial design, is part of economics. Somebody sold the table, and somebody bought it, and somebody put a price on it, so it’s part of economics. Eventually the table, beautiful as it is, will become junk or burned, or something will happen to it, and its molecules will go some place else. So it is impermanent. So it is full of the whole universe. The only thing it is empty of is an inherited existence: it doesn’t exist by itself, it exists in relation to innumerable stories.
So, when you create a university, clearly the chemists who study the molecular composition of the wood, are going to have a particular perspective on it that can go deeper into their specialty than you and I go, and the physicists will, and the economists will.
And when the musicians and the dancers play together, the dancers will probably move with more flexibility, speed and beauty, in a way, than the musicians will, but, for the musicians to participate in the movement is very important. And the musicians may be able to play their instruments more extensively than the dancers can, but still they are participating together.
So the disciplines are really great, really important, to the extent that you can go deeper into the chemistry, deeper into the dance, deeper into the economics, and explore each of those things with a level of detail. But then, we also need the improvisational sense, to realize that all of these things are impermanent and that they are all participating in a bigger reality that we share in. So, clearly it’s great to have both, it’s great to have specialties and it’s great to be able to cross over them.

Is there a link between the work you do and a process of self-knowledge or introspection?

Is it a target or is it something that just unfolds?
Both. Let’s say that you get it more easily if it unfolds than if you set it as a target. If you go into whatever practice of introspection – meditation, for example- and you have a target, you will be sitting there for a long time. Right?

Going more into your own experience. How did this interest in improvisation come into your life?
There were so many influences that came together in my life. My academic degrees were in psychology and anthropology and I thought I was going to be a scholar of some kind. I was also trained as a classical violinist when I was a kid, but that was always aside (I thought it would be on the side). And in my early twenties I ended up with a person who became my lifetime teacher, who died when I was thirty: Gregory Betson, the anthropologist. There was a perspective that he had (that I also shared, but he made it much more conscious) in terms of seeing everything that we might study as an interconnected system. He also opened up the works of William Blake to me. Blake was an entry point, for me, into being an artist rather than talking about art.
Then, when I was 25, I lived in Switzerland for a year, in the french part of Switzerland. I had stopped playing classical music by then, and I ended up taking table lessons with an indian table teacher who lived there. So I started learning the structure of Indian music, which is one of this forms of semi-composed, semi-improvised music, half way in between. Like jazz.
That was important for me. And later on, I began practicing Buddhism. And that was very important in terms of experiencing this emptiness. So there are a lot of different things that came together. So then, when I came back to the USA, in the San Francisco Bay Area, I started giving improvised concerts and sometimes working with dancers and actors, and people across. I met Yehudi Menuhin, and actually he told me to write the book “Freeplay”. He said I had to write about what I do. I thought that the book would be more in the context of music, but it quickly became much bigger.

You did a project called “Improvising Together” for musicians, dancers and actors to work and create together. Could you talk about it?
That was not a particular project. That is a way of working that I have in many contexts, wherever I am invited to teach. It is more like an attitude towards doing projects. So let’s say that I come to see you in Barcelona. We will see who is there and what they can do, and discover what we can make together. And possibly we will produce a performance or a product at the end. So it might involve whoever you bring, whoever is interested: people with words, music, movement, visual arts,…

And do you focus more on the training and practicing of improvisation, or the creation of a performance for an audience?
Well, you want to do a little bit of both. Because it’s nice to be able to play together and improvise together in an open-ended way, but it is also really nice to produce a performance. Because it’s nice the feeling of «Ok, on Friday people are going to come, and we are going to have something for them, and we won’t know what is it going to be, but we know that we will have come to the point of trusting each other enough that we can do something together.” Of course, when I do one-day processes, it’s more like a workshop, not a performance. But, even then, I like to work in this context of «Ok, let’s create a one minute piece with a beginning, a middle and an end». Because you are already thinking, and people can think that way structurally.
How do you create something that is not just anything? That is a piece. It’s interesting. It ends. And people can see it and know what they have seen. And what is interesting also is that when you are successful at that, the audience doesn’t even know that it was improvised.

So you never say it is improvised?
Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. But I guess, if you want to talk about quality, – which is a very difficult word with a lot of loadings from that world of «Beethoven’s slapping you on the fingers»-, in a sense the quality of an improvisation is related to the fact that people can’t tell the difference: was this composed and planned or was it improvised? The more they think it was composed, that becomes a compliment. But that is actually even true the other way around. If people are the other kind of artists who work from scores, and let’s say they are doing a Shakespeare play. How can you do a performance of a Shakespeare play so that it feels improvised? That, even though it’s lines have been composed hundreds of years ago, you can present it in such a way that it flows naturally, that it feels as though it is happening in the moment?
So, I love working with those isolating poles of improvisation and composition, so that a great improvisation feels composed, and a great composition feels improvised.

Very nice! In your way of working with improvisation, you use something you call “gibberish”. What is it and why do you use it?
Yes, working with gibberish is very important. I don’t know what’s the word for gibberish in Spanish. Of course, gibberish is not even the entirely good word in English because it implies nonsense, and in a sense when you go «Badabagee nonbada boduebuginee…» (unintelligible speech) it is not nonsense, because gibberish carries meaning.When you expressively use voice and movement, you are doing things that aren’t words and that don’t have meaning in the normal sense, but they still have meaning in the sense that they are carrying emotion and they’re carrying the pattern of your being. So to work with gibberish is really wonderful because it is like placing everybody in the same place. I call gibberish the universal language. Because, first of all, here I am in Germany and I don’t speak German and there are certain sounds of German that I have to struggle with. I can hear them well but to say them, I have to struggle and get somebody to teach me. When you are infant you have all the sounds of all languages, and then, the ones that don’t belong to the language that you hear spoken around you, start to disappear. But even as adults, we retain that capacity to communicate directly through sound. If you call it gibberish, that makes it sound kind of silly, and easy and baby-like, which is really good because is the place where everybody can meet. It is not like when somebody says “well, you know, I have not been in the Hochschule für Musik and I don’t have the training or the skill” or something like that, because everybody has the skill to speak gibberish. So it becomes a nice entry way into improvising together. And then you can pick up your instruments or pick up your other skills later and go back.

Going towards the fields of general education, which are, in your experience, the potentials of this kind of work in an educational environment for children or for people in general?
Well, there are so many ways you can go with this. That question has a hundred answers. Just thinking of two or three of them now, but you (the reader of this interview) can think of many, many more directions that this could go and that I am not mentioning. So, one direction, relating to that story of finger-kissing, would be to educate not by hunting mistakes or not by looking towards the examination, but towards the processes. Whether it is education of children or of older people, experiencing the process of discovery through adjustment, you know? I talked about that metaphor of sitting in a chair and adjusting your body, that everyone can do. Of course, readers cannot see the wiggling of my back as I am adjusting my vertebras, but let’s say that even if you are a business person in a suit in a very formal meeting, you can still adjust. You can make these subtle movements and adjust your back. Nobody will see it, but you are actually becoming comfortable and adjusting yourself.

And children in a classroom are often told to sit up straight for hours in a day in a chair, and “Don’t move. And don’t talk. And listen. And absorbe…” This is a very difficult thing for children, and for them to learn that they can actually make themselves comfortable, is really interesting.

For teachers, to listen to the children and find out where the children are going. There is a system of schools that started in Italy, but has spread around in many places, called Reggio Emilia. There may be some of them in Spain. They are in many countries. And they are partly based on Gregory Betson’s ideas, among other people’s. I visited a school like this in Sweden and that was really, really interesting. In there, the kids would see some pattern, for example in the leaves, in the trees around them: «Oh that’s interesting! So now, let’s start collecting leaves. Let’s find out all the species of trees. Let’s arrange them in evolutionary scale…”. So, whatever you are looking at can become a field of interest.
There is a line in “Ulysses”, where James Joyce wrote that “Anything, intensely regarded, may be a gate of access to the incorruptible eon of the gods”. Back to my example of the table and it’s “emptiness of inherent existence”, you can look at anything and study the universe from that point. And study it very precisely, it is not a mystical thing, it is actually what is here.
So, on thing is the absence of punishment and the capacity to adjust, and the other is the presence of following curiosity. Following the leads, so that every questions leads you naturally to another question, to another question, to another question. And of course, education is not individualized, so you have a teacher with a group of kids, and all the kids have various interests. This is why group improvisation is such an interesting exercise. Because you have to be able to relax enough to find the direction that the kids can all connect to, which the teacher cannot possibly have planned.
Teachers are taught to write down a lesson plan and a syllabus, so they say “Ok, this Tuesday we are going to do this. And on Wednesday we will do that. And on Thursday will do that…” But you actually can’t do that. The teacher is the repository of knowledge and the teacher has something to teach. But in what order it is taught, and how one thing leads to another, in a sense, has to come from the kids. So again, as in artistic improvisation, it’s a matter that is not random, and it’s not just anything. It is very precise and clear, but how it unfolds happens differently in every context.

So then, teachers could also be enriched by an approach that would help them to improvise in the classroom, so they could listen and adjust all the time to the group and be more flexible in their lesson plans.

What do you take with you from the experience of the improvisation workshops you give?
Hopefully nothing! And what I mean by that is that I hope not to be conditioned by what happened. Because, imagine that what happens is extraordinarily rich. It will be the confluence all people’s talent, all people’s perspectives and the things that they contribute. So if I come out of this experience, either having taught the workshop, or having taken the workshop, and I say “Yeah! That was really good, I am going to do that again!” That’s the problem, ok? Because next time will be different people.

We may well do many of the same activities, but the flavour of them will different, and that flavour will be made by the mixture of people. So that it is important to take nothing with you, because then you go into the next situation able to respond to what is really there. It is very funny because, in USA, when I get invited to speak at a conference, the organizers might send me an email saying “Ok, what will people get out of your talk?” I mean, I don’t know! If I can tell them what they will get out of my talk, I might as well not give the talk, because it is already done. So, of course I don’t know that.
And, at the same time, there is some kind of statement about improvisation (and there’s actually a book about theatre improvisations, which I like very much, entitled like that) that says “Don’t prepare, just show up”, which I don’t agree with. Because it is actually important to prepare. Of course, one thing that is absolutely terrible is when you go to a conference and somebody is reading a prepared speech. That is so boring. But if you are going to give a speech tomorrow, maybe you want to sit down and write a lot of notes. You want to list the things you might want to say. That is really important, to prepare. It is really important to organize your thoughts and to do all of those organizational, geometrical arrangements, so that you feel that you can go in and you know what are you talking about. But then, when you walk out into the room, don’t take the notes with you. They are gone. And now, you are in the room with the people, talking to the people. And very likely you will forget some of the things. But if you thought of seven things that you want to talk about and you only mention five of them because you forgot the other two, who will know? Nobody will know. Jajaja… But what will happen is that what you say then, gets coloured by the context and by the people who are there, and by the natural flow of speech. And if you stumble a little bit that is okay. And if you forget something that is okay. Because forgetting leaves room for something new.

Imagining a future context, if the «Freeplay» style of improvisation would be part of an artistic education and culture, which things would change in the way we approach art?
Well, I think the idea of art being more participatory. It’s very, very important. I like going to museums… If you are seeing art, whether it is centuries old, or brand new art, and it’s up on the wall, and you are there viewing it, there is a certain connection between you and the art. And it is great to see art that way. I love doing that. So there is a way in which seeing art, even passively like that, is a participatory act. And you are learning from it or changed by it in some way. And the same when you go to the symphony, or the theatre, or to any kind of highly prepared performance were there is a gulf between the performers and the audience. And it is great to see those things, and they are inspiring. But at the same time you need to be able to participate in some way, and not make the creative process the domains of certain specialized talented people. Like when we were discussing gibberish before, or interdisciplinary art.
There is ways in which certain people who have practiced for many years are going to develop levels of skill that other people won’t. This is on a continuum. But the other people need to feel free to participate in their own way. Because creativity belongs to all of us, and when you separate the so-called “creative people” from the other people, then the other people feel that they have to be led or taught or something like that, and in fact we are all in it together.

What do you think should be the role of this work of improvisation in an art schools, music schools,…?
There should be lots. And it might even in some way start with that. Because if you think about kids, when they are presented with a musical instrument and it’s the kind of instrument where you have to spend several years studying the instrument before you can do anything interesting, some kids, of course, will do that, because they will be highly motivated, but there will be other kids that will be “Ok, that’s the end”, you know?

However, if you can do something interesting with the instrument now… And “interesting” is the key word, rather than perfection or something like that. If you can do something interesting and if you can make it interactive and social and collective, so that people are listening and they are part of a community with each other, and they are doing something very simple, but they are actually doing something. Then, they are not just doing exercises until you are good enough to play “real music”. So it’s important to start with that. And that doesn’t mean “Don’t do the symphonies, and all that.” I mean, do all of those things we have traditionally done. But put them together in some way so that you begin by feeling your connection to creativity. And then go on from there.

Doing “interesting” things… You made me remember that in my general education, many times I felt the lack of doing something interesting to me. I can imagine that this approach of bringing more improvisation to education can help children and youth to find more interest in the process of learning…
Right. In the new book on improvisation, that I’m writing now, there’s a chapter called “Interesting”. I told you about this man, Herbert Zipper, the composer who was imprisoned in Dachau. He described an experience to me that was also described by other creative people from the time when they were imprisoned in the concentration camps. So, they are there in that terrible place, but there is some moment when the sunlight shines on the corner of a barbed wire, or on the mud, or something like that. And there is this kind of interesting glow. Or the interesting shape of something. And he kept using the word “interesting”. Beauty and greatness, and all that, those words are somewhat strong. But “interesting” is an easy thing to attain. And to be kept alive or kept sane by being interested is really important. And when we do those improvised one-minute pieces in the workshop nobody in the room is considering if this is great as Beethoven or something like that. But we were able to find it interesting. And through the path of “interesting” you actually do get to the really fine art.

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