by Levi Dayan
[left to right: sun ra, jerry garcia, mary halvorson, nicole mitchell; originally posted December 2020]
I first came up with the name of my radio show, Everything Is Improvisation on WOBC, at the beginning of quarantine. Weirdly, I didn’t react much to the sudden fear and panic at the onset of the pandemic. My response was to drink heavily for a week before I had to get the hell out. I did a terrible job of time management in terms of packing, and the result was one of the most anxiety inducing experiences of my lifetime, in which I, eager to leave behind a college campus that was suddenly draining, had to spend hours figuring out how to fit all of my shit in the car and how to get rid of everything I didn’t want. A six hour drive home with my dad followed, with the same music we’d always play on long car rides - Springsteen, The Band, CCR, etc. playing - but with an unwelcome sense of dread and sadness. It was less like the music of my childhood, and more a reminder that everything I could look at with any sense of perspective or stillness before had fallen down a well, and what was left was a droning feeling of emptiness. The freedom of not being in school faded almost instantly, and the first few weeks or so of quarantine were among the deepest depressions I’ve experienced in my lifetime. And there have been quite a few.
I can’t say how I got over that depression, or if I did at all; after all, I’ve been dealing with anxiety and existential dread for years now, and this was merely that turned up to 11. I think at a certain point I learned to roll with the punches. Sitting at home, burdened with what felt like a grislier version of ennui, the line that kept repeating in my head was “you know what plan never fails? No plan at all. If you make a plan, life never works out that way.”
Much of the Jewish faith revolves around how we struggle to react to senseless tragedies that happen without reason. Even at my lowest point amidst the pandemic, I still felt that I could, and had to compromise with the ephemeral nature of the moment. Between the pandemic, the election, and the mind-boggling number of things that would be altered by it forever, it felt like there was nothing I could do but improvise. What I did when I woke up every morning, the things I’d do around the house to keep myself busy, the ways I’d try to cope with the uncertainty - all of it was improvisation, even if I didn’t realize. And it was listening to music that helped me comprehend what I was doing and how it worked.
I tend to spend a week or so listening exclusively to one kind of music and later, swing abruptly to a totally different kind for another week. However, at a certain point of this quarantine-listening-program, I began to notice commonalities between different music I was listening to. Whereas in the past I’d listen to whatever I was interested in, I was noticing that almost all of the music I was listening to centered improvisation in some way or another. It wasn’t really something I thought about before. To me, listening to a rapper freestyle, or a jazz musician do a solo, or a singer do a vocal riff, or even a sloppy punk band make it up as they went along was always just music being music. Which, of course, it is. But as I spent more time trying to come to reconcile my faith in humanity with my distraughtness, my need for happiness with the certainty of hardship, I began to understand improvisation as a musical language. And in times that nobody had any plan for, it was the only language that not only made sense to me, but spoke to something in me. When I listened to the overwhelming dissonant free jazz of someone like Cecil Taylor, or the weirdo psych-punk of bands like Sun City Girls and Boredoms, or something traditional and holy like Indian Classical Music, I wasn’t hearing just those adjectives, but rather the sound of unbridled creativity. And with each improvisation, each change or shift or risk the musicians would take and work through, or even make into something new, I could feel the sheer volume of opportunity and chance in the music as something profoundly inspiring. The fundamental truth underscoring all music is that it exists in its own sphere, a space between the known and the unknown, however one may wish to interpret that. It isn’t in any one individual’s knowledge or willpower, and its existence rests on collectivity and community as much, if not more, than autonomy. And to me, improvised music - whether it be incorporated into the form as it is in Indian and Arabic classical music or utilized with no structure as in Free Jazz and Free Improvisation - represents a full surrender to that spiritual power. It represents an understanding of the power, opportunity, and beauty in every living moment.
But drawing these connections - connections that had somehow escaped me in the past - made me understand that improvisation is not just a musical language, but a human language. Through music, it’s the one language that everyone can communicate with on the exact same terms. It’s that very language that connects people trying to navigate a world in which friends and loved ones can’t be seen, and fear and uncertainty lurks at every corner. No one has the answers, but all of us learn as we go along. And in improvisation, we have a language that provides no answers, but endless possibilities. British guitarist Derek Bailey once described it as “the basic characteristic of music-making,” but it could also be the basic characteristic of day-to-day life, warts and all.
Naturally, considering the role music has played in my life and in helping me understand tragedy, these realizations had a major impact on how I looked at life in quarantine. I had always felt the most immense power in the world was the ability for music to act as a medium that could take pain, suffering, and fear and somehow filter it into something that could bring joy and inspiration, while simultaneously maintaining truthfulness. There is no joy without complication, no way to siphon off sadness from any positive situation, no true peace without chaos - and yet music is always there. It’s no wonder that it plays a central role in nearly every religion; while it’s impossible for myself and I think most people to imagine heaven - at least in the sense of a world where all of your loved ones are there and nothing is wrong, difficult, or complicated - or any kind of world without sorrow, music shows that there is a spiritual vastness within the medium that it maintains.
At a time when every living moment can sometimes feel worse than the last, it feels like one of the few endless and truly life-affirming entities left. Because life is full of improvisation, ranging from falling in love to seemingly insignificant things like choosing what clothes to wear and what food to eat on any given day. Whereas musicians like Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits pretend to be people they very much are not in order to tell stories - a different, but equally important tenet of human expression - the great improvisers teach us not to fear the spur of the moment that defines our very existence, or dread it in hope of something purely good and uncomplicated, but to embrace it. It’s as much of a reminder of the power in every individual, our innate goodness, and our ability to create as our blood and oxygen.
In other words: everything really is improvisation.