On February 8, 2003, performing at the Bowery Poetry Club without prepared text or notes, Steve Bensonimprovised a long poem composed entirely of questions. His transcript of this performance later appeared in his book Open Clothes (Atelos, 2005) as "Did the lights just go out" [text]. Later, Steve McLaughlin created two excerpts from the full audio recording:
Three nights later, then at the Kelly Writers House, Benson again improvised a long poem composed entirely of questions, and then he responded to questions from the audience. His transcript of this performance also appears in Open Clothes as "If you stop to listen to yourself think" and "Is your thinking about the words." A full audio recording of the event can be heard here. Again, Steve McLaughlin created excerpts:
Below is a short essay written by Andrew Levy about improvisation, first published published in W Magazine at the Kootenay School of Writing some years ago (which we here gratefully acknowledge: W #12 “ALL MUSIC,” 2007). He revived the old note after having read Jake Marmer’s piece made available recently in Jacket2 in this commentary: “Improvised poetry: palimpsest of drafts.” Levy’s original note had been inspired by something Anthony Braxton had said: the idea that some people believe jazz improvisers are simply making it all up in the moment, that they are somehow tuned in via a form of trance or something, that it’s an expression of their personal genius. He dismissed that notion of spontaneity. For him improv is a form of hearing and thinking. It is making measure in the familiarity of one’s attention. “If I were to revise my essay today,” Andrew wrote me recently, “I might search for a different word than ‘constructivist’ with which to counter the notion of spontaneity. It has an art historical resonance that might be unnecessary.”
Grateful acknowledgment is made to Jake Marmer, who has consented to the publication of this essay here. — A.F.
I remember listening to Marc Ribot’s band Ceramic Dog, thinking: My entire brain — the main line and the back corners — is burning to grasp this music. That night, the avant-garde guitarist played what was likely an entirely improvised set with three fellow musicians. I tried to follow each new direction the music took, each new interaction that erupted; I was fully consumed in some new state of attention, witnessing all the multiple levels of the work coming together in front of me.
I wanted to improvise poetry as Ribot had improvised his music. It’s not a new idea. Jack Kerouac, like a number of other poets of the Beat era, wrote ecstatic, unedited compositions that felt raw and spontaneous. Kerouac famously explained that he wanted to be known as the “jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jazz session…” But his improvisation was limited to the writing process. Once finished, these poems remained more or less static throughout the publications and poetry readings that followed.
Two months after my initial conversation with Amanda Stewart, which I described in one of my first commentary posts, I returned to her house to continue talking: this time, to ask specifically about her work in the collective Machine for Making Sense, who were active from 1989 to 2005. Machine were Amanda Stewart, Chris Mann, Rik Rue, Jim Denley and Stevie Wishart. They simultaneously and dissonantly worked with improvised and composed music, sound, text and performance. Their recorded output includes five CDs (you can preview tracks from the CD Dissect the Body here). They toured internationally and impressed significantly on local formations. The interview below is specifically interested in Stewart's experience as a member of the collective; her answers do not attempt to represent the collective, or to speak on its behalf. The text has been transcribed and edited from a longer recording (which features beautiful early-summer birdsong of Sydney, as well as the blissful snores of Stewart's mother's dog, Suzie, who was happily adream for our nattering!)
Reggie Watts on improvisation in Artforum: People usually end up thinking, What the fuck is he doing? At some point in a set I’ll start doing stuff that’s not funny. It’s weird or depressing. Or on the verge of depressing. Or just confusing. Then I do something absurd, and there’s a release––and then we’re back on track again. There isn’t an obvious or logical nature to it. I’m recontextualizing things, or taking two disparate elements and making them clash. And when that happens there’s a reaction. Usually it’s something laugh-y. Or maybe the audience is just laughing because they’re nervous. Or just like, huh? Hopefully it provokes some kind of reaction. But it’s really just about absurdity. I like going down the road and taking people way down this path through the thorns and thickets and then, at a snap of the fingers, they’re in a McDonald’s and wondering, how did I get here? I like humor that really goes somewhere and takes chances. I think every joke is an experiment. The experience of performing is very similar to channeling. The more open I am, the more these ideas come into mind ahead of time. I’m performing but I can see these options in the future and can continue performing. It’s like in Tetris when you see the preview of the next shape coming. You’re playing the game in real time and you’re placing the block, but you’re also aware of the next one. I’m performing live, and I get a preview of a potential idea. I can use it however I want. I can rotate the shape. I can put it over here or put it over there and create a strategy in real time. When I’m open, I see more pieces ahead of time. I like abstraction because it frees you from structure. As an audience member listening to or watching Bill Cosby, or any of the masters, like George Carlin, it’s absolutely fascinating to hear what they have to say because you feel like you are there with them. But their style also follows a familiar logic. I mean, they throw some curveballs at you because that’s just the nature of the comedy. But when I’m watching Monty Python or Bill Hicks, at times they have this way of creating a psychedelic experience. I think it’s the psychedelic that I’m interested in, because after a while people ask themselves, What’s the joke, where is this leading me? And then I fail to lead them anywhere they expect. And then they let me try it again. And after so many times of being let down, you have to either go “I hate this. I’m leaving,” or just surrender to it. Then you can just go along for the ride.