Sometimes, late at night, I improvise music on the piano.
Most often, the best improvisation takes place late at night. Just as the best pure writing for me seems to take place first thing in the morning when, hair going every which way and clad in embarrassing stuff, I squint at the screen while letting my fingers just go. Putting down on the page those fragments, associations that may, at some point, body forth a coherent bit of writing.
But improvising. Ah. That’s the stuff of night.
The middle of the day is given over to adult things, transactions and interactions that serve to occupy ourselves so that we don’t think too deeply, don’t necessarily connect on that plane reserved for artists in the flow, or for two people in the first visions of love. We can’t. To do so would be fatal, as it so often was over time, dreamers caught by leopards, visionaries killed by police, theorists crushed by the practical of our race.
What does it mean, then, to improvise?
There are moments, on the piano, where the connections flow, where notes get placed as if by magic or divine intent. These happen, I think, only at the very latest hour, or at a time when the body and brain, fatigued from the visual and verbal matters of the day, pause, and in pausing, allow the flow of music to enter.
If someone were to ask me, “Please, improvise something on the piano,” I could. I would sit down and pause, take a breath or two, summon up something or other, and connect with the keyboard. Perhaps something pretty would emerge. Or perhaps not. What happens when you sit down thinking you can improvise (or, even more difficult, when you sit down when someone asks you to improvise and then you think you will improvise), is that you connect only superficially with the keys. You see the piano as a thing. You connect on one level but not another.
Before you even begin, you compromise. You stay in safe zones. And what comes out, while pleasing to the ear, is nonetheless the equivalent of an airport novel — something picked up to be read between destinations, to be read in some cases so you can forget you’re in a hollow tube hurtling a thousand feet a second over lands thirty thousand feet below.
The tougher stuff eludes you. But when you are truly in the zone — and for me, this happens only when I am alone, when it is late, when I’ve had a tumble of emotions stored up over the day — when you are truly there, you see what you need to do. You see without your eyes, which only serve to glance, to assure that your fingers are roughly where they need to be. Because your fingers already know.
This is what it is, then: you suspend all that interacts outside the music. You bury the thoughts, opinions, exchanges, stresses of the day. All those transactional things that serve to keep you grounded in and of the social world will not serve at all when you must ground yourself (or find yourself being grounded) in the real world of making music. The joy and sorrow of what you make is this — you will suspend thought, speech, the voices within, and you will create what is, at the moment, the best music for you.
The notes, the succession of melodies, the interplay between the hands which are really at this point only one — all of this serves to allow you not so much to create but to experience the sound you are placing against silence. It serves you so well, this improvisation — and, once finished, it will vanish. You cannot recreate it. You cannot pick up where you left off. It was something for you to do, for you to experience.
All you can do, reflecting, hours, days or weeks later, is to pull from the recesses of your mind what will only be shadows of what was. These you can put on paper as being both good enough and never good enough. You will try and try and try to capture that star that had been the perfect expression, the interplay of emotion, suspension of intruding thought and speech, that is itself its own capture, like a genie in a bottle, of that which eludes us almost all the time.
There are those who have managed to freeze these moments. The greatest composers have placed on paper, for the rest of us to hear and form connections, those notes and symbols that will tear the veil of silence in such a way that we can call these creations beautiful. Few and far between these people are. We sometimes describe them as those who walk among the gods or the stars. And sometimes we call them insane. Their drive pulls them so fiercely, they cannot stop.
When I am done with an improvisation (like the one I finished tonight), it’s always with a sense of loss. The notes, created in the space of my little basement studio, fill this close air with sound. When they are over, when the piece is finished, it vanishes. Like a perfect moment at sunset, it flashes and disappears.
This is the essence of what I think we feel when we are most truly alive. When we are in the flow, at our most creative, capturing for a fleeting moment something we know both belongs to us and hovers outside our daily apprehension — at these moments we know what it means to be both human and divine.