Tuesday, July 24, 2012

A Jazzman Prepares

In March of last year I posted a passage from Beethoven's Anvil in which I told about a few moments when the music had unusual power. Jeb's recent comment on acting reminded me of a passage from Stanislavski that I quoted in some commentary subsequent to that blues story. Here's that commentary, from Beethoven's Anvil, pp. 94-95.

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While this account makes it seem like I was doing a lot of thinking and calculating while playing, I wasn’t. For one thing, there was no time; the whole solo couldn't have lasted much more than a minute and a half. The thinking was mostly a matter of a few quick intuitive judgments and was done in (imagined) music and images more than in words or verbal symbols. It more resembled the mental process of riding a bicycle or carrying on a conversation than playing chess. On a bicycle, if you see a pothole, you don’t need to explore and weigh alternatives; you just avoid it and continue pedaling. In conversation you say what you think; you don’t make conscious decisions about each word and phrase.

So it was with that solo. Once I had decided to take a solo I followed an improvisatory strategy I'd used thousands of times before: start simple and build from there. The details, particular notes and riffs (melodic fragments) simply fell into place without any specific effort. The decision to attempt a second chorus consisted of a brief moment of panic, followed by an image. I remembered a concert where Sonny Rollins, the great tenor saxophone player, ended a solo to great effect by going to his bottom register and playing with strength, force, and cajones. The flash of that image was, in effect, both my decision to continue playing and my strategy for how to do it. Once I started that second chorus I had a definite sense that another force had entered my playing.

I have no idea how common such momentary inspiriation is among performers. Musicians don’t talk about such things among themselves, and journalists don’t ask. These moments certainly do not happen to me on a regular basis. Whatever their frequency, however, they are not unique to music. Constantin Stanislavski, the great director and acting teacher, talks of such things in An Actor Prepares. The book takes the form of an imaginary dialogue between a distinguished director and his students. At one point the director suggests that “you are playing the scene in the last act of Hamlet where you throw yourself with your sword on your friend Paul here, who enacts the role of the King, and suddenly you are overwhelmed for the first time in your life with a lust for blood.” The director goes on to ask whether or not “it would be wise for an actor to give himself up to such spontaneous emotions as that” and to assert that:
[T]hese direct, powerful and vivid emotions do not make their appearance on the stage in the way you think. They do not last over long periods or even for a single act. They flash out in short episodes, individual moments. In that form they are highly welcome. We can only hope that they will appear often, and help to sharpen the sincerity of our emotions, which is one of the most valuable elements in creative work. The unexpected quality of these spontaneous eruptions of feeling is an irresistible and moving force.
That is what we must understand, those “spontaneous eruptions of feeling.” Whether in music or theater, these eruptions enliven unite performer and audience in a single encompassing consciousness.


  1. Seriously interesting. Helps put absorption as an academic subject into context as I don't have to think to understand this, description is instantly recognizable.


  2. That's kind of what I'm about, at least in part. I'm interested in these things because they happen to me. And obviously not just to me. But I want to make sense of the academic work in terms that I can identify with my own experience.