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Book Review

The Improvising Mind

The Improvising Mind by Berkowitz

Cognition and Creativity in the Musical Moment

Aaron Berkowitz
Oxford University Press, 2010 xxv + 205 pp
ISBN-10: 0199590957
ISBN-13: 978-0199590957
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan Find it at JPC

This is a short book at under 200 substantive pages. But it's one well deserving of attention. All music, it can be argued, is improvised – at least to start with. Unless a composer uses as their starting point someone else's theme, idea or melody etc; or unless they take their own, that of a folk song, or hymn, for example, then the first iteration of such an idea will be effectively improvised. Even when elaborating on pre-existing material, it's usual that the elaboration has few or no strict, prescribed "rules" against which to develop it. In the case of improvised performances, the feat is particularly fascinating. Aaron Berkowitz is a musician and composer with higher qualifications in both music and biology and the mind sciences. And in this well-organized, closely-argued, expertly-referenced and groundbreaking book he looks at an area of cognition in music that rather surprisingly has received less attention than you might imagine.

Berkowitz's starting point is that improvisation is one of the greatest musical gifts, activities and disciplines. Using the prevailing idiom, the improvisor must be able to produce stylish, relevant and pleasing music – without preparation. And probably do so differently next time. Berkowitz draws on cognitive neuroscience, past tracts on improvisation, (musical) analysis of improvised performances, and interviews with an array of musicians. Although there is overlap, this is a truly interdisciplinary study, for the core rigors and tenets of exploration in each field of study are respected and drawn upon throughout.

Although a paradigm in which study of improvisation is often situated in that of language (the ability to improvise as the ability to speak a language (because) cognizant of its own conventions), The Improvising mind: Cognition and Creativity in the Musical Moment examines the process as one akin to the acquisition of language and spontaneous speech acts. As you start to read (comparing pianist Robert Levin's account of his own and Mozart's improvisation in cadenzas, for instance), you realize – if you hadn't already – just what a remarkable act improvisation is. On the one hand, the notes for which you are responsible have to be essentially new, to represent a departure, an improvisation, no less. On the other such a departure must be recognizably related either (or both) to what has just been played and is about to be played. At the same time what is improvised mustn't be a mere derivation from the "source" or inspiration. Yet cannot afford so wildly to eschew it that what results is a separate entity entirely.

Levin adopts the twin terms, "creator" and "witness" very aptly to address this dual role of the improvisor. But there's a further dichotomy and one just as crucial: that between being conscious, being in control and aware of the course of the improvisation. And being "wildly" driven by the music's essence. The former tends to come from an in-depth knowledge of the music's construction; and indeed from a true understanding of the very characteristics of music as applied universally… to appreciate, for example, that avoidance of the root triad in a Mozart cadenza is likely to prove more convincing. The latter must rely to the same extent, though in different manner, on having the musical blood in your veins.

Berkowitz's thesis rests on the hypothesis that the spontaneous fluency on which (great) improvisors rely can only flourish (or be successful at all, perhaps) when knowledge of the musical elements has been thoroughly and perhaps irreversibly absorbed and internalized by the improvisor. If this be accepted, then three questions present themselves in order further to understand (and thus to be able to reproduce!) the process: Which are those musical elements? In what does this acuity in their acquisition and internalization consist? Then how is such knowledge drawn on for the (subsequent) act(s) of improvisation?

Berkowitz also suggests that "…improvisation involves many aspects that appear to be inaccessible to consciousness, at least in the moment of improvising." That's where things from an interdisciplinary point of view begin to get interesting. And, of great historical interest, Berkowitz examines primary evidence affording invaluable insights into practices in the past – before, of course, anything available to us now could have been recorded. His perspective is wide, too, looking at musics from a variety of cultures worldwide. Just as intriguingly, Berkowitz draws on the neuroscience of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Lastly, in the philosophical realm, Berkowitz situates his inquiry as a highly specialized instance of the more general facet of human behavior which spontaneously combines elements according to known rules to produce the New. This can be extremely general: from the "native wit" employed to talk oneself out of an awkward situation to running a marathon successfully along a completely unknown course. As Chomsky has demonstrated, all speech (and in our case, all improvised music) is new, unrehearsed; yet successful because of (learned) rules which may not be new.

It's essential, though, that such a potentially unwieldy set of knowledge-systems as those on which Berkowitz relies, and the many complex intersections between them be well organized in their presentation and structure; and that they not be pursued in perhaps linear fashion counting on the strengths of empirical exposition. So it is in this closely and carefully-woven book. Such dangers are everted admirably. As such, it's a delight to make the journey with the author. An obvious music lover and expert in his scientific fields, he is highly successful in inviting us to understand what he has come to understand.

Berkowitz uses the first chapter to set out his definitions. In part I (chapters 2 - 5) the focus is on pedagogy and learning in improvisation. The "input" if you will. The corresponding "output", the performance and the cognition of improvised performance, is dealt with in the second part of the book (chapters 6 - 9). This makes sense for it both closely (and effectively, successfully) supports the basic assumptions already identified on which Berkowitz makes his case; and it allows much scope for a non-prescriptive and positively discursive exploration of music as it and the art of improvisation have developed.

By the end, you accept and appreciate the feasibility of the central theses. You see how they apply to music and performance practice with which you are already familiar. And you are struck by how certain aspects of each illuminate others. Berkowitz has done a first class job in advancing a useful, credible and viable thesis. What's more, he has covered the ground at the right pace, withe ample though never confusing examples. And made sustainable conclusions, using each incrementally to draw the reader and musician more and more deeply into this interesting field. One suspects, too, that he has opened the topic(s) up sufficiently well and carefully for others to follow and expand upon his work.

Although the primary readership for The Improvising mind: Cognition and Creativity in the Musical Moment is likely to be musicologists, psychologists, musicians and educators, anyone fascinated by the act, process, development, skills and even the miracle of creativity will find much in Aaron Berkowitz's book to intrigue, inform and stimulate them. It's well-produced with an appropriate number of musical examples, clear inline footnotes and well-referenced sources with extensive bibliography and index. At almost $60, it's expensive. But the authoritative, clear and comprehensive style, substance and approach with which Berkowitz advances his arguments and draws and supports his conclusions make it worth that price.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Sealey.