Book Review: “Free Play,” by Stephen Nachmanovich

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In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.
~Charles Darwin


Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art, by Stephen Nachmanovich

Pages: 197
Chapters: 22
Back Matter (10 pp): notes/sources, bibliography, illustrations list, bio
4 Sections: The Sources; The Work; Obstacles & Openings; The Fruits

(At the end of this review is a link to an mp3 of my improv group Meh! playing an improvised story with Nachmanovich.)

Free Play doesn’t deal directly with music practice, but it is nevertheless an important book for anyone interested in music (or other arts, or life). I strongly believe that improvisation benefits practice. To me, improvising is an essential musical skill, one possessed by musical greats (Hussain, Bach, Shankar, Beethoven, Duke, Mozart, etc.), and is practiced in musical traditions all over the world, as well as by young children who haven’t developed some of the fear associated with improvisation in those overly focused on the written notes. Remember when you drew letters over and over as a young child, taking great care (or not) with the shapes? Now imagine that despite all that practice time forming letters and sounding out words, that you never (ever) spoke extemporaneously. Crazy, right? To me, that’s about the same as practicing scales over and over until they’re memorized, but then never using that tonal material to improvise. Crazy talk!

Free Play is a great introduction to what improvisation is and how it can work. The book is chock-a-block with illustrations and anecdotes (including a talking tennis ball), and draws from spiritual traditions including Christianity, Sufism, Shamanism, and Zen. Despite the complexity of the topic, Nachmanovich’s style is conversational and interesting and you can tell the man is both excited about and dedicated to his art. It’s a short book, with a lot packed into its 200 pages. Some of the questions explored are:

  • What is the Muse?
  • Where does the play of imagination arise?
  • When are sounds music? (or patterns and colors art; or words literature; or instruction teaching)
  • How does the passion of life get coded into artwork?
  • How do we decode and/or recreate an artwork when the artist is no longer present?
  • How does it feel to fall in love with an instrument or an art form?
  • Why has there been a split in the West between improvisational and notational music-making?

Some of the themes in the book include but are not limited to:

  • playfulness
  • love
  • concentration
  • practice (yay!)
  • skill
  • using the power of limits
  • using the power of mistakes
  • risk
  • surrender
  • patience
  • courage
  • trust

The book is broken up into four sections, each of which will be briefly outlined below.

The Sources (6 Chapters: pp. 17-55)

After an introduction by way of a mythic story that chronicles how one musician came to be a Master, the first section continues to expand on what improvisation is and where it might come from, including the reasons why it’s important. Nachmanovich explores inspiration, the mind at play, the muse, and the dissolution of the self during acts of creation and the need to get out of our own way in order to let the Art come through us, whether it’s sound or some other medium. He covers archetypes like the Fool, the Trickster, the Child and the state of samadhi, when one is ultimately absorbed that the self dissolves into the infinite. Heavy stuff, but handled in a deft and interesting way.

The Work (6 Chapters, pp. 59-111)

This is the strongest section of the book, in my opinion and includes an eponymous chapter on practice. Most valuable for me was Nachmanovich calling our attention to the separation of practice and music-making, a distinction brought up by others, too, and an important thing to think about, as well as notions of perfection and what that might mean, how it can hamstring one’s music-making. Also incredibly valuable is his exploration of the power of limits and mistakes. The chapter Playing Together is really about improvising together, and is also worthwhile.

Obstacles & Openings (6 Chapters, pp. 115-160)

This section is about the ways in which the inherent creative impulse we have as children gets buried by living in the world, by criticism, by judgment, addictions (and not just to ingested substances but to ways of thought as well). This is balanced nicely with ways of overcoming some of these challenges, including surrender, patience, perseverance and other useful tactics. Nachmanovich stated in the introduction that one of the purposes of the book is to provide “a block-buster, a wedge for breaking apart creative blocks,” and this section fulfills that purpose most directly, while the rest of the book also fulfills the purpose but more indirectly.

The Fruits (4 Chapters, pp. 163-197)

This shortest section of the book explores what it can be like to create with freedom and how this can benefit not only the individual, but everyone and everything. He also explores tangentially, the slippery notion of Quality, and although he wisely doesn’t define it, he shows us why it is vitally important, and also delves into why Art is important to living a fulfilling life, whether one creates or enjoys it. The book ends with a celebration of the difficulty of the process and the joy of knowing that through struggle with issues and with ourselves, we can achieve breakthroughs that take us to a higher level of understanding and humanity.

This is a book I highly recommend, especially for those curious about or fearful of improvisation.

Two years ago, Northwestern University held a series of talks on musical improvisation and we heard from, and played with prominent thinkers in music improvisation including Pauline Oliveros, Ed Sarath, Victor Goines, and Stephen Nachmanovich. I invited Nachmanovich to come play with a free improvisation group I started–named Meh!–and we created an improvised story with music. One person started a story; the next person in the circle began to “play” the story musically and then all the others joined in. When that part of the story had been musically “illustrated,” the next person continued the story and the entire process repeated. Click the link to hear an excerpt of our resulting performance, “The Camel’s Journey.” Nachmanovich plays violin and voice. I’m on trumpet and percussion; Nasim Niknafs, piano; Ness Buder, sax; Eun Lee, clarinet; Racheli Galay, ‘cello; Daniel Arkfeld, saxes. Enjoy.

The Camel's Journey (by Meh! w/ Stephen Nachmanovich)


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