On language

On language


Below is a text sent to fellow co-organizers in 2018, while planning the 10-year multidisciplinary project called the International Summer School of Improvisation in Nice, an initiative by Alice Godfroy. 

The text basically contains two ideas: one, that as improvisers from different arts meet, we have certain words that will mean something to each of us. As long as that fact is recognised, those words can be a base for us to work together. And two, that in a group of improvisers/researchers, some are more versatile in language, have read more widely. And yet others might have other expertize. If we don’t acknowledge for that discrepancy, the read-ones will have more power, that comes from knowing and articulating freely.

Our meeting now but a memory, it keeps resonating and being informed by the present. My attention lingers on how I repeatedly heard in an affirmative tone, what improvisation is. How it is done. How it has been done. What a speaker knows about it. What is needed. 

This goes along with that doom’s day question, that was finally asked in loud voice on the last day, but not answered: “when the word improvisation is said, what is being heard?” (I paraphrase slightly)

It’s true I often write and talk from practical experience. It’s the field I know best and also the only language I can move-in with some minimal grace. But my reaching back to the source also comes from a belief, that the inner dynamics of improvisation itself should lend their form to the structures that pretend to be concerned with it.]

I’ll take the time to ruminate a bit further on the thought, that improvisation is a mixture of both knowing and not knowing. To an innocent mind, not knowing might seem misleadingly simple, since we know from experience there’s always plenty of that around. Hence that popular misconception, that improvisation could be as simple as ‘just doing anything without planning’.

This discourse could profit from replacing not knowing with staying open to. . .  Implying simultaneously the several options we might be aware or not aware of, while still letting them play out. By stepping out of the way. By seeing ourselves not as a center of the game, but as one element amongst many.

The staying open to . . .should not be assumed, or taken for granted. For it to be present within any structure, it needs to be defined with care. Maintaining-it is yet another challenge, since the dynamics change as our familiarity with the game increases. The human imperative is to-know (or is it to-be-finding-out??– but it’s what we don’t know that allows us to practice this discipline. Or more accurately, it’s the play between the two.

It was clear the Summer School is in its conception interdisciplinary; though during our three days there wasn’t much time dedicated to the practicalities of this aspect. It was suggested the distinguishing trademark of this particular event would be in the mixture: of the different arts, of international and local, of the academic/theoretical and the practical approach (and there being no separation between them). What is the right time to bring these Dedalian visions to a firm ground, not to create too great of a dissonance between the bold idea on paper, and the realities of the challenges such a mixture would face? How to provide a ground, on which these elements can indeed mix and collaborate, in the limightd amount of time available?

Here, I attempt to contribute by considering language. Given the process-oriented nature of improvisation, the first and possibly primary tool of transmittance before-and-at the Summer School of Improvisation will be spoken language (rather then shape, for example). It’s on the basis of spoken language (in utterance or in writing) that we will build towards some form of sensing/feeling/understanding.

The spoken language will hold different importance, and will be mastered to a different degree, by each of the international cast. There are some notions however (named how otherwise then by words) for which we can be sure, that when they are namedthey will hold some particular meaning for everyone. We can also be sure that these notions, though surely conditioned by a practice of a particular art form, or else by our education… will also be personal to each, and different from possibly every other person in the room.

This understanding provides a common ground of clarity and space, about what is and isn’t shared. It’s a clarity can be worked with, humble but well grounded. The structures of particular notions can provide us with a common breathing space; a space in which throwing the word “improvisation” will have a chance of producing an echo. Surely there is no doubt; that we must go beyond defining musicians as people with instruments, dancers as sweaty bodies, poets as frowning, sad and frail and painters holding a brush while lacking an ear… all of which is trivial, not worth our time and anyway, why not just let each improviser choose for themselves…?

The meanings/understandings of the notions below are probably subjective to a medium/art form, and surely subjective to each individual, whether they call themselves an improviser or not yet so.

I name just a few that first came to mind, as a start:

When? How long? Short and long time. The sensation of time. The temporality of one’s particular discipline (painting, different from dance, acting…)

Where? How large or small? How much? What shape? Personal, public, social space.

tools, such as scores and partitions

a personal idea of __ (a? the?) body
My body. A body. The body. Our bodies. Bodies.

sensations (by any/all senses), emotions 

being taught, being a student, being told what to do, an idea of authority

a lack of per-spective on ourselves (per definition) 
What is “our-selves”? (this might be more obvious to some than as to others) 

a personal per-spective on others (per definition) 
(this might be more obvious to some than to others) 

language (verbal, bodily, social, own-to-the-medium/discipline) 
The way we express ourselves and read others. The ability of abstract thought. (note: language consists of concepts, represented by words. In spite of this, saying a word doesn’t require or imply understanding.) 

an idea of subjectivity 
instinctual, or cultured, or probably both.


The idea is that this will provide a ground for observing what we don’t understand of each-other’s approaches, knowledge, wording, experience, formulation; and will provide a more realistic, and also a less hierarchical platform*** on which the meeting, exchange and learning can happen. Simplicity, or better yet, clarity could be a good foundation to build on; since in life things have a way of getting complex very quickly, and improvisation is no exception. 

What is meant above by “clarity” is the clarity of subjective understanding of each participants. Since it is also in the nature of the discipline, that each will walk their own path (“…no one can teach you how to improvise…”). Just as it can be said, that the journey will be had together. 

***knowledge can also be about power. Articulating that knowledge, and moving freely in the realm of verbalized thought, holds the potential of yet more power. Acquired by those that have invested in that particular domain (of articulating in a given language). 

When thinking of an event, where spoken language will be the main medium, I at least feel it is important to acknowledge, that some participants might lag behind if the space is created where the spoken word will over-power whatever their natural medium is. 

If we ignore this aspect we build a hierarchy to start with; and it’s the same as giving power to those that master the tool of spoken/written language and are well read; so we loose the potential of/for those whose knowledge/investment is of a different kind, perhaps more hidden, or not so easily/availably communicated. 

However, if for any reason yielding to the power of spoken language is the intention… then the pre-selection of participants should surely be made with that in mind.