Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Conversation as Improvisation

What a joyful thing it is to listen to the improvisation of a gifted musician! Experiencing the synergy that arises when multiple musicians, freestyling poets, dancers, or comedians improvise dynamically in response to one another is even more compelling.

So why don't people improvise more often? Improvisation can certainly have negative connotations (as in situations where one has to improvise or "make do" because one lacks sufficient resources of some kind or another). However, I find that I tend to associate it more with a competence that yields flexibility, fluidity, and spontaneity. In order to improvise, one must possess a broad, deep, internalized understanding of not only the fundamentals of a field, but also of its intricacies, its subtleties, and its nuances. One must know the rules so well that one can consistently and accurately predict the effects that breaking them (and thus, the expectations they engender) will have on one's audience. All of humor rests on this principle (of setting up expectations and then purposefully deviating from them in ways that engender a well-spring of surprise that produces an involuntary emotional reaction). One must also know one's audience.

From the point of view of the improviser, I imagine that it is most fun when one discovers someone who not only understands the improvisation one has just finished rendering, but also has the competence, sensitivity, and wit to reply in a meaningful, but novel way. This makes me wonder about conversation as a form of improvisation. What makes some conversations so much more satisfying than others? Are fabulous conversationalists those who bring tremendous stores of knowledge to the table--both in terms of the topics of conversation and also of the audience, context, and culture of the conversation? Or is knowledge less important than finely honed observational skills that allow one to recognize opportunities within the conversation for novel contributions, recursions, or new iterations? Or is it simply the flexibility that such knowledge, skill, and understanding provides that makes it work?

Whatever the case, scintillating conversations are unmistakable. I always know when I'm having one, and it is easy to recognize when others feel they are engaged in a similar experience (irrespective of the actual content of the conversation).

So, once again, I raise the question of improvisation. Are scintillating conversations merely the product of skillfully manipulated elements and patterns of conversation? Are they the result of agile and flexible participation? Or is something more aesthetic in nature at work . . . a sensitivity to natural rhythms, the ebbs and flows of the tides of a conversation, and an ability to weave balance and harmony into the composition? Certainly there is an element of risk involved in improvisation . . . a willingness to let the composition emerge, unfold, and guide. There is also an element of play at work . . . a willingness to experiment, to explore, to be surprised by one's own discoveries, and to pursue them to see where they might lead. That requires tremendous confidence (or a strong sense of security).

Perhaps we don't improvise because we don't feel competent enough, confident enough, or safe enough to do so? Yet, in some ways, isn't improvisation what leads to some of the most creative and amazing breakthroughs in science, in art, in mathematics, in poetry?

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