The Aesthetics of Possibilities.

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

What is the perfect performance? Does such a thing even exist?

Perhaps perfection is a transient moment. Upon looking back at a video or recording, for example, is it still perfect?

Most importantly, can we draw something positive from the aesthetics of perfection?

An aesthetics of imperfection versus perfection can be toxic. Improvising pianist, Pak Yan Lau, suggests that we should opt for something more positive, namely, an aesthetics of possibilities.

Often, when we are just trying to be, calm is gatecrashed by the inner judging spectre who is inside us all. It ceases to be all about the music. An aesthetics of perfection can lead to comparison to others, for example. Brahms never felt that he could live up to the music of Beethoven. An attitude of perfectionism means that it is all about getting there, less about the process of going through getting there.

12309570_543347505823871_2255958730379151864_o.jpgWilliam Blake refers to man’s judging spectre as their Urizen (their ‘reason’) – a jealous, unimaginative, loveless tyrant. I believe that to think reason is the enemy is closed minded, passive and cynical. I believe we need to think in order to be ready to confront our judging spectre.

We are all capable of making coherent choices informed by knowledge and creativity.

For Pak Yan Lau, it is less about how she gets there. “I just go through it”, she explains, telling us about her performances.

Pak Yan Lau shared with us a fascinating but brief resume of her life up until now; specifically, how she changed from an interpreter (performing compositions) to improviser. Classical training in the conservatoire translated to little creativity and hampered freedom in terms of what she could and could not do musically. So she left.

“I learnt a lot by bumping into things”

Pak Yan Lau played in bands, experimented with instruments and toy instruments. It was a liberating counter reaction to her life at the conservatoire.

Both composition and improvisation involve possibilities, she clarified. This reminded me of something Camus explains in his The myth of Sisyphus; the idea that two men of completely different lives but who are the same age, are given the same number of experiences in their life. It is about how aware you are of those experiences – about richly you choose to experience. Similarly, the improvisor and composer are each given the same number of possibilities. Perhaps it is about how much they listen out for them, approach them, live through them.

There is freedom in interpretation – that is, playing a composition. Without interpretation, our experiences can only be narrated through literal descriptions and the senses, claims Alasdair Macintyre in Fact, Explanation and Expertise. 

Pak Yan Lau believes that improvisation harbours more freedom. Possibilities of adapting to who you are playing with, the room you are playing in, the time you are playing at are more spontaneous. It is human. Improvising with others can convene people with very different ideas and backgrounds in order to create a common ground.

But, if you are familiar with the musicians you are performing with, is it still improvising?

I asked Pak Yan Lau about her practice. Interpreters practice to be prepared – you don’t want to mess up those scales in that Bach suite. Do improvising musicians practice to be unprepared? To be ready to take risks?

The focus of composition and improvisation is the same – to make the best music possible. This involves a level of preparedness.

To my question, Pak Yan Lau replied that everything she does is preparation. Thinking about music, taking out the instrument. Hers is a very non dualist approach – she becomes one with her performance. She listens. Listening is an act of making an effort.

Perhaps practice builds up a personal language and style. Through style, we can move and display our true selves.



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