The Mistake as Material.


(This article is inspired by a talk given at the Philosophy of Improvisation: Aesthetics of Imperfection Workshops)

Corey Mwamba’s thoughts on the mistake gave me more questions to run with than answers to sit down with and that is why I enjoyed listening to him so much.

In this video, skip to 1:45 and you’ll see a little trumpeter improvising. If you look carefully, there is a moment during which the boy behind him winces. Funnily enough, it is at precisely this moment that our little trumpeter plays a clashing D note over an opposing E-flat chord. “Rationally speaking”, says Corey, the D note in that harmonic context was a mistake.

But should we be rational when we are creating music?

What is a mistake? Is it signalled by someone’s response, such as the little individual’s grimace – surely that is material evidence of a mistake?

Where is a mistake located exactly? Corey believes that the mistake is located in our perceptions. What you perceive as a mistake, the person next to you might perceive as an effect, completely intended.

But if the mistake is not something we can all 100% agree on, then does it have concrete existence? I believe that the mistake does exist because we are free to decide. I believe in the idea of informed mistakes; all mistakes are made for a reason and can be used as raw material, can open doors, be exploited and explored.

Perhaps we label mistakes as mistakes because we are too lazy to understand? Something is perceived as wrong as soon as it ceases to be coherent. Maybe it is a question of putting in more effort…

Corey draws a parallel between the mutualism of two different species of animals and states that composition and improvisation, too, have a mutualistic relationship. In his book on aesthetics and music, Hamilton refers to composition and improvisation as interpenetrating opposites; elements of imperfection can be traced in perfection and vice versa.

We must then ask ourselves this question: if playing the ‘composition’ means that you are playing something preprepared, and if ‘improvising’ means that you are grabbing ideas out of nothing like a lasso, then surely the entertainment context belonging to the improviser is a safer one? The audience would be much more forgiving.

Perhaps we should focus on the symbiosis between composition and improvisation. Neither are a ‘state’ of being. The point is simply to make music. We return to the idea of the child’s world wherein we cease to be the victim of our mistakes, but we use them to our advantage.

“It is about the attempt”, says Corey, and not just about interpreting the result. The attempt can be seen as the drive, and is separate from both the process and the product.A musician can attempt to produce music as a desired result from a conceived process. This is true for both performers of a composed work, and performers who improvise on a devised structure, or interprets a set of instructions.

Children don’t wince at the remembrances of mistakes. They barely dwell on them; in fact the little trumpeter hung onto the D for a good few seconds. That “mistake”, if we are speaking rationally, is a little grain that can become a pearl.

Perhaps it is not willingness to make mistakes that matters, but to correct them. What you do in the tenth of a second following a mistake is what is important. I think that this is what Corey is referring to by the attempt to produce a desired result can take root in an emerging process.

One more thing. If you rewatch the video very carefully, you’ll see that what caused the comical little grimace across the boy’s face was not the D note that his friend played. No, if you follow his gaze, you will see that he was pulling a face at the camera. On that note, perhaps we should all subscribe to Miles Davies’ notion that mistakes are not to be feared, for there are none.


2 thoughts on “The Mistake as Material.”

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