The rotation of the earth around the sun, the seasons, the menstrual cycle, the beating of the heart, the breath (… taxes!). We experience life as patterned and rhythmical, for indeed it is. Our very survival depends on staying in sync with all the rhythms of life—look what happens when we get out of sync with the rhythms of our planet’s climate.
But life’s rhythms aren’t perfect; they come with irregularities, imperfections, instabilities. Hearts skip beats. Along with life’s rhythms come a kind of spontaneous arrhythmia. It seems that we can’t ignore this either; life’s arrhythmia must also be lived with.
An awareness of all this is hardly new. Brilliant attempts to find meaning in life’s rhythms and arrhythmia form the bedrock of the human family’s store of knowledge and wisdom. Consider these meditations on life’s arrhythmia:
The Roman poet Lucretius, who more than two thousand years ago (and riffing on Epicurus, two hundred years before that) thought he’d discovered the origins of the universe in the arrhythmia of atoms. Atoms, the idea goes, move downwards together in straight lines. But by chance, some go their own way and swerve into their neighbours—these random collisions creating solids, from which come our physical world. Aspects of Lucretius’ thinking captivated the radical Enlightenment, and radicals closer to home, like Marx, Einstein, de Beauvoir and Derrida.
Consider Darwin. DNA is the result of millions of genes copying uniformly. Mutations result from disturbances to this uniformity. Darwin places these mutations in the engine room of evolution. The point here isn’t the detail of Darwin’s or Lucretius’ ideas, but that life’s arrhythmia has been recognised and thought about deeply for about as long as there’s been deep thought.
It’s fascinating to observe in the arts of our own time the myriad ways life’s arrhythmia gets dramatised. The 2019 film Terminator: Dark Fate has moments in its introduction when a flash of visual and sonic static shoots across the screen. Where once the technological imperative of ever more refined imaging meant eradicating all such impurities from the screen, it’s now a chic reminder of life’s disorder to reinsert them. In the fanfare that opens Joe Zawinul’s 1996 album, My People, the pitch suddenly swoops down, then returns. This isn’t modulation as such, but—in the age of digital pitch correction—a deliberate and unmotivated disturbance to the pattern of the music’s tuning. Or from earlier in the modern era: The Rite of Spring. In the section “The Augurs of Spring”, we meet the most infamous, in-your-face arrhythmia in all of western music.
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That we (mostly) stay in sync with life’s rhythms means that carried around in our species’ toolbox is an aptitude for rhythmical patterning—we’re good at getting into life’s grooves. But our responses to the arrhythmical call on a different aptitude: the ability to act or react spontaneously. Importantly, we’re good at this too.
We’ve almost arrived at improvisation. Just as the rhythmical is woven into the fabric of our lives, so are disturbances to it and our responses to these disturbances. Our responses are not, therefore, just a succession of isolated fight-or-flight impulses. But what weaves them together?
Few of us want to linger ‘in the moment’ while our heart palpitates; instead, we anxiously anticipate the return of its steady rhythm. So it seems that our response to all of life’s arrhythmias holds within it a similar anticipation: a reordering of disorder, a restoration of rhythm. And because we’ve always attached meaning to life’s rhythms, this is nothing less than a restoration of meaning and purpose. We have now, I think, arrived at improvisation.
Improvisation = spontaneity + purposefulness.
Science tells us that the physical world and its chance events are not purposeful or directed towards a goal. While this might be ok for the inanimate world, it’s not ok for us. Humans can’t live this way; we need meaning and order, and when it’s not forthcoming, we improvise it into existence.
Here lies the genesis of improvisation. Its roots are primal and existential, deeply implicated in the way we restore, protect, preserve meaning and coherence when these are absent or disturbed in our less-than-perfectly-coherent world.
It’s funny then (in more ways than one) that the only place outside of jazz where improvisation gets a good rap, or any kind of rap at all, is in the light entertainment of popular culture. Theatre Sports and its TV derivatives—participants thrust into awkward situations, then left to improvise their way out—are enormously popular. Here, our primal aptitude (i = s + p) is put through its paces under the glare of the cameras, albeit only as some kind of clever party trick.
But I want to believe that our delight in this ephemera is triggered by a deeper recognition: that improvisation is a generative force in our lives. For improvisation is not just responsible for the impromptu witty words of comedians, but for the totality of the human expression we know as “language”. It’s not just responsible for the advertising ditty, but for the human expression we know as “music”—jingles and Beethoven and Coltrane.
Marx and all the rest saw the errant atom’s arrhythmical swerve as a breaking free, the original act of liberation. What wasn’t seen was that, whether its trajectory would eventually return it to the fold or end up outlining some never-before-travelled path, that atom would be improvising as it navigated its way along.