Rzewski’s listening and forgetting while performing
In the article “Interpreting the Moment: On Improvisation and the Art of Forgetting,” Rzewski makes some general remarks about improvisation before presenting the idea that a basic condition for improvising is listening:
The improviser abandons self to the moment; abandons momentarily the world of necessity and causality for a world of possibility[; ...] things do not happen by necessity, nor by chance. They simply happen. Listening is the primary act. Performing is the secondary act. Every sound that one makes is a response to a sound one has heard. A solo improviser must respond to sounds made by self, as though made by another person. (Rzewski 2007, 102)
Rzewski’s thoughts about abandoning one’s self to the moment and leaving the world of "necessity and causality" for one of "possibility" induce questions regarding how these processes come about, and what the performer is doing in order to achieve this. He partially answers these questions in an ensuing article entitled “Little Bangs: Towards a Nihilist Theory of Improvisation” where he comes to the (perhaps ironic) conclusion that access to the world of possibility is gained through the art of forgetting:
The most basic technique of composition is that of transferring information from short-term memory to long-term: remembering an idea long enough so that one can write it down. [...] The most basic technique of improvisation is that of short-circuiting this process of conservation: forgetting - momentarily at least - everything that is not relevant to the objective of expressing an idea immediately in sound. (Rzewski 2007, 52)
Interpreting Rzewski's delineation between composition and improvisation as a distinction between composition (which, as shown in detail in the chapter On Scales of Improvisation is also improvisatory in nature) and improvisation in performance, a clear difference can be seen between writing down information and expressing an idea immediately in sound. I understand his notion of “forgetting” to be related to the process of letting the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis guide improvisation in performance, a process described in detail in the chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis. The subchapter Eusebius Traum in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods contains three recorded performances, one of which could serve as a useful example of how forgetting relates to how the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis guides performance. In two of the three performances, the constraints that I conceptualized before (as well as during) the performances were more or less fulfilled; but in the third instance, I forgot to use the designated melodic figurations and used other materials instead, which allowed for more room for the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis to guide the performance.
Levin’s yin/yang between the conceptual and the muscular
In contrast with Rzewski’s idea that it is necessary to forget in order to be able to improvise, Levin describes how "the act of improvisation makes one aware at every point that there is always a multitude of possibilities from which to choose" (Levin 2006, 509) and emphasizes the practicing necessary in order to accumulate said possibilities. Rzewski’s claim about forgetting “everything that is not relevant to the objective of expressing an idea immediately in sound” (Rzewski 2007, 52) presupposes that a musician has access to such a multitude of possibilities that he or she has accumulated by regularly practicing various degrees of improvisation. (As discussed in more detail in the chapters On Rethinking the Current Performance Practice of Nineteenth-Century Music and On Scales of Improvisation, certain approaches to practicing classical music often do not engage with diverse improvisatory activities and rather restrict themselves to very few degrees of improvisation. Concrete suggestions as to how to integrate more degrees of improvisation into one’s practicing and therefore performing can be found in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods, specifically the subchapter Practicing.)
Levin also states that improvisation "narrows […] the distinction between spontaneous invention and what is on the page" (Levin 2006, 509). The way I understand this phrase is that he is describing how one comes to understand what other possibilities a composer might have had available at his or her disposal before choosing the one that is notated in the score, and likewise what possibilities a performer has at any given moment when a decision needs to be made during the course of an improvised performance. This is most likely an awareness that emerges from practicing improvisation regularly and not necessarily a realization that happens during any specific performed improvisation.
By speaking about the multitude of possibilities available while improvising Levin references the conceptual aspect of improvisation, the planning and conceiving that needs to take place for an improvisation to unfold over the course of its duration, a notion that he expands on when he explains the “yin/yang between the conceptual and the muscular” that he experiences his brain to be doing while improvising (Levin 2006, 509). “If the fingers get too much ahead of the mind—or vice versa—there is a calamity” (ibid.). He then describes the experience of improvising a Beethoven cadenza in concert and how the yin/yang relationship between the conceptual and the muscular affected his performance. Levin’s use of the term conceptual refers to a practitioner’s ability to channel the “multitude of possibilities” available to him or her in order to plan and conceive a successful improvisation, while the term muscular indicates the embodied knowledge gained through practice and used to realize a concept in performance.2 Considering that the brain is conceptualizing during the moment of improvising raises questions about how far ahead, or to what degree(s), the conceptualizing extends during the course of a performance. When exactly is the brain filtering through a multitude of possibilities and selecting the appropriate one for the moment? If too much conceptualizing takes place during the course of performance, the playing risks becoming decoupled from the cognitive processes taking place. By contrast, if embodied processes operate alone, there is no concept guiding the music-making. Finding a balance between these two aspects of improvisation seems to be what Levin is striving for when he describes the “yin/yang” relationship between them. Touching upon the necessity to relinquish control in order to find a proper yin/yang balance between cognitive activity and embodied processes, neurologist Aaron L. Berkowitz describes aspects of Levin’s performances in his book The Improvising Mind: Cognition and Creativity in the Musical Moment by using the term "letting go." Berkowitz explains that "once reaching the stage of 'letting go,' growing confidence in the ear, hands, and subconscious competence can allow the improviser to submit freely to the moment of performance. 'Letting go' means allowing the proceduralized/automatized sub‐elements, processes, and structures of the knowledge base to guide the improviser from moment to moment" (Berkowitz 2010, 125). Berkowitz continues by saying that “Levin’s, extraordinary knowledge base, rich in both materials and their interconnections,” (ibid.) allows him to succeed while letting go in performance while simultaneously planning and conceiving that which needs to take place for an improvisation to unfold over the course of its duration. “Letting go,” in my opinion, describes the necessity to let go of certain cognitive activity, as well as certain embodied knowledge, in order to find the right balance between them in the moment of performance.