The Living Art of Improvisation
by Nowick Gray
I might say that my life story, in the living, was one long improvisation. We might say the same about any life, as we adapt day by day and moment by moment to whatever life throws at us, as a matter of survival or measure of success. My own intention to stay free to choose was partly conscious, to have the future remain open-ended for more alternatives to appear. Instead of coping on a daily basis with a fixed schedule or lifestyle, I set my forward vision one step at a time, wanting to keep my options open further down the road.
Is the grass always greener? I wanted to find out for myself: you never know unless you try. And then? Always more choices beckon. Eventually it can be reduced to an exercise in déjà vu: been there, done that. There comes a time to turn around and look deeper at where you are.
No formula or dogma can solely choose the way forward, the right speed or distance, the time to rest and take stock. Legendary free-jazz leader Sun Ra expressed the dual nature of the adventure with two seemingly contradictory statements:
“Heaven is where you’ll be when you are okay right where you are.”
“The possible has been tried and failed. Now it’s time to try the impossible.”
The state of bliss could be available now, under our noses… or it could be right around the corner… or over the next mountain. We still have to discern.
I did finally settle on a long-term project melding home, lifestyle, relationship, and personal identity in a vision of cooperative rural self-sufficiency. My improvisational skills were put to the test within that field of play. And when that twenty-year experiment played out, it was time to shuffle the deck again and see where my muse wanted to take me next.
Long inspired by Jack Kerouac and the way in which his fluid lifestyle was so well expressed by his prose style (which he described as “spontaneous bop prosody”), I came to appreciate the power of improvised music to embody that fresh spirit of self-creation. In the hamlet of Argenta, BC, I helped organize an annual event at the community hall, a “24-hour drum jam” where the only collective rule was “keep the beat going.” That was a slice of Sun Ra heaven.
To experiment in such a living laboratory, in cooperation with others and always open to the spirit of the moving moment, provides practice in living with an open mind and open heart. Freed from expressing past preoccupations or predetermined ideas, one learns to let go and to channel what wants to come through, what carries forward on its own momentum. Life, like music, can become a live adventure.
Everything, they say, is choice. Even money: but the paradox is, you can’t grab for it: only open your hand. Dreaming, there is no decision to halt the flow: except in waking. Waking, I can take the present instance and hold it closer for view. Wild free jazz in the summer night, or a cozy tete-a-tete. Morning truck mechanics, or flute on the fickle breeze. A ride west, or north, or home to the heart of connection more pure and mysterious than I could ever tell… except I must try anyway.
So I continue… this my mantra, my defining moment.
Is mine more worthy than the next fella’s story? Certainly not: just that I have chosen to tell it, come what may. Can it possibly matter, for instance, what transpired during a day twenty years ago? Delivering apple juice to town, and shopping for chainsaw parts, mountain maps, firehose, alternator brushes, camping food… entertained along the way with an interview on the tape deck, the rapping rhapsodic harmonies of the droning angelic Brooklyn hard sax of Dr. Sax himself, ramblin’ Jack, mentor and guru however undeserving—if an alcoholic waste of a life be any measure of a man even so daring and gifted.
In this electric universe if our feet shake and our head explode, if our lungs rise up through the bony armor to take our message to the peaks, let us scrape star-snow there onto our tongue, the better to cool its hot intensity. In this sensation of homely recognition, let us assume a posture of humility, of democratic surrender in which each is regarded as sovereign in our own right. This is not mere compliment but allowance, confirmation, appreciation and encouragement of gift-showing, niche-growing, room for all. In this competition there is a wider field in which to roam. There is a way for all to share what we do best with another. My musical portrait for your load of firewood? Good deal. Next we go out together to catch fish by the mouth of the river.
In the antler age we were closer, you and I. I came to your mother and she said to find you in the north wood. I found you there stalking, you shushed me and flung your spear. We lapped blood together there, side by side with our chins to the leaf-mold, eyes fixed on the fixed eyes of the deer on its side, throat-cut, lifeblood coursing warm still on our tongues.
Today we meet rather on the clean bridge of the chasm-crosser, the screen of images we draw from the magic bag our ancestors bequeathed us, the rune hoard, the bone-bundle. We drink in bladder-skins the water we have crossed to get here, taming our blood with admonishing clarity from high places.
If I have not yet prepared my summary report nor the office schedule for the coming month, I am sorry. If the bumblebee had not taken part of my soul for its meal among the raspberries, this morning between breakfast and lunch, I may have found another occupation and been lost to the scene forever. As it is, I have found another story to believe, another teacher and teller of tales I can recite without fatigue.
It’s something the body has learned to do, over the ages, the mind to create. In this juncture am I rested awhile on this day’s jaunt, another stretch of miles undertaken, a series continued, a means to tell what this sun over this portion of sky has seen, has enabled. If there is no justice in its harsh stare I may still take comfort in the higher grace of a new slide already coming into focus in its place, whereby all is recorded as blameless, past judgements reversed, calls to emergency session obviated with a different slant to the air, a certain loveliness revealed.
In this voice am I comforted, the voice of silence; the fertility that gives rise to new flowers of pain and gratitude; the business of being real. The knowledge that knowledge is limited, possibly even destructive; that the only way forward is forward, at this moment; and that forward can always go back again. This is no number line but weather vane, clock hand, sundial, pendulum.
We go further into the forest, walking side by side, video camera at the ready. When one mountain comes into focus, the other ones fade. You only get one in the frame at a time, or they lose definition. In this shamanic journey I get one symbolic father, one peak to call my own. Nevertheless, tears will be shed and we will come walking hand in hand to the garden. There we will be thankful for the rain, and the constant creek, and the bliss of summer sun come calling, wanting to live in our place.
Come shine on us, we say, we’ll hold your deposit and it doesn’t even have to be in dollars. First right of refusal, and nonetheless we go deeper into night, a fading glory of sunshine, the civilized world with no grand goodbye just yet.
In the travelling circus, the jam of the everyday moment, it is never too late to redeem this life in its entirety for coupons to the show, starting now. There is no need for the exotic imagination to take us away, no compulsion to construct walls of illusion: only doing this, one life, what is. If there is a continual questioning in this vein, it is because of the constancy in that thread of what is, and my thin desire to honour it spiderifically, weblike, unending and with insect intent to crawl forward… day-like, circling, waiting, feeding on the waywardness of what life brings, fly by fly.
Is there still time for wind in the trees, a rattle of bells? Or will the aerial drones and robodogs take all in their over-potent stride, and leave cats laughing and dying in the gutters?
Each breath counts, and each is new again. Thus is written the whole history of religion—complete, as the world is complete, in every moment. Barring the rooms of grammar, we come to the modern age. Sincerity is down this week… so I come to the one emotion: the freeing of breath; the pulsing with the whole; the entry into union; the sigh of release.
I go to the outskirts, dancing; shaking bells. There is no time but what we keep there, shaking free: all time, shaking bells, all time.
Jammin Fulltime Now: another stage name? What is the act?
Living, writing in the telling, moving the beat around, listening, taking the next pulse a step forward one by one, timed in the meter of the breath, under shifting clouds, world in upheaval, birth marriage death and a thousand smaller gifts accumulating, I let them go too, to fly right now…
Such a life sings overhaul and transformation: always moving on. Or, does such an outlook turn inevitably inward, in a vortex of irresponsibility?
Rather, I might suggest, it is the very symphony of Nature at work, through the chief agency available to our dim understanding: Time.
Time passes: how banal and obvious, yet profound in all its implications. The past is dead, long live the future! This cry gives great liberation, which is available in jail cell or study carrel, as well as in meadow or woodland. It brings alive the present moment which is all life has to live by. Yes, we live by memory and forethought also, great tools for our survival. But neither is sufficient or comparable in utility to the flexibility of our response to change, to the unpredictable, to fate and the whims of nature and circumstance.
Thus a synonym for “spontaneous” is “organic”—complementing from nature what is arbitrarily or rationally constructed from our human wish-bones. Intention is balanced with adaptation, desire with synchronicity, will with fate, the arranged with the guided, the chosen with the welcomed, the seeded with the grown. In its time, the harvest; and beyond, the flow that surpasses even the bounty of fruit and flower.
Sun Ra: BigOther.com
flute: Sivalla Lin
all others: Nowick Gray
Now available in one volume, Nowick Gray’s collected essays from The New Agora, 2019-21.
Facing an accelerating war on humanity, we break free of the narrative box of the old paradigm, and reject hierarchical power, for the sake of our sovereign human future.
Nowick Gray’s fiction and creative nonfiction crosses genre boundaries and bends categories, with unconventional characters on the margins of society, exploring the heart of nature and authentic human being (see NowickGray.com). Nowick is a regular contributor to The New Agora and also offers perspectives and resources for alternative culture and African drumming. He helps other writers as a freelance copyeditor at HyperEdits.com.
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