Free Play Productions
Free Play Productions   Stephen Nachmanovitch

Introduction to Free Play:

I am a musician. One of the things I love best is to give totally improvised solo concerts on violin, viola, and electric violin. There is something energizing and challenging about being one-to-one with the audience and creating a piece of work that has both the freshness of the fleeting moment and – when everything is working – the structural tautness and symmetry of a living organism. It can be a remarkable and often moving experience in direct communication.

My experience of playing in this way is that "I" am not "doing something;" it is more like following, or taking dictation. This is, of course, a feeling that has been expressed many times by composers, poets, and other artists. There is the story of one of Bach's pupils asking him, "Papa, how do you ever think of so many tunes?" to which Bach replied, "My dear boy, my greatest difficulty is to avoid stepping on them when I get up in the morning." And there is the famous example of Michelangelo's theory of sculpture: the statue is already in the stone, has been in the stone since the beginning of time, and the sculptor's job is to see it and release it by carefully scraping away the excess material. William Blake, in a similar vein, writes of "melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite, which was hid."

This book is about the inner sources of spontaneous creation. It is about where art comes from. I mean art in the widest sense. I have seen an automobile mechanic open the hood of my car and work with that special sensitivity of hand and eye, that deftness and readiness to absorb surprises, that quality of connectedness and wholeness which we also recognize in a fine pianist, painter or poet.

This book is directed toward people in any field who want to contact and strengthen their own creative powers. Its purpose is to propagate the understanding, joy, responsibility, and peace that come from the full use of the human imagination.

The questions we will delve into concern how intuitive music, or inspiration of any kind, arises within us, how it may be blocked, derailed or obscured by certain unavoidable facts of life, and how it is finally liberated – how we are finally liberated – to speak or sing, write or paint, with our own authentic voice. Such questions lead us directly into territory where many religions and philosophies, as well as the actual experience of practicing artists, seem to converge.

What is the Source we tap into when we create? What did the old poets mean when they talked about the Muse? Who is she? Where does the play of imagination come from? When are sounds music? When are patterns and colors art? When are words literature? When is instruction teaching? How do we balance structure and spontaneity, discipline and freedom? How does the passion of the artist's life get coded into the artwork? How do we as creators of artwork see to it that the original vision and passion that motivate us get accurately portrayed in our moment-to-moment creative activity? How do we as witnesses of artwork decode or release that passion when the artist is gone and we have only the artwork itself before us, to see and listen to, to remember and accept?

I began writing this book as an exploration of the inner dimensions of improvisation. I found it inescapably fascinating that the conception, composition, practice, and performance of a piece of music could blossom in a single moment, and come out whole and satisfying. When I first found myself improvising, I felt with great excitement that I was on to something, a kind of spiritual connectedness that went far beyond the scope of music-making. At the same time, improvisation extended the scope and relevance of music-making until the artificial boundary between art and life disintegrated. I had found a freedom that was both exhilarating and exacting. Looking into the moment of improvisation, I was uncovering patterns related to every kind of creativity; uncovering clues as well to living a life that is self-creating, self-organizing, and authentic. I came to see improvisation as the master key to creativity.

In my own life, music taught me to listen, not just to sound, but to who I am. I discovered the relevance of our many mystical or esoteric traditions to the practical life of art-making. "Mysticism" does not refer to cloudy belief systems or to hocus pocus; it refers to direct and personal spiritual experience, as distinct from organized religion in which one is expected to believe second-hand experiences passed on in sacred books or by teachers or authorities. It is the mystics who bring creativity into religion. The mystic or visionary attitude expands and concretizes art, science and daily life as well. Do I believe what The Man tells me, or am I going to try things out for myself and see what's really true for me?

Our subject is inherently a mystery. It cannot be fully expressed in words, because it concerns the deep preverbal levels of spirit. No kind of linear organization can do justice to this subject; by its nature it does not lie flat on the page. Looking at the creative process is like looking into a crystal: no matter which facet we gaze into, we see all the others reflected. In this book we will look into a number of facets, then keep returning to them from different angles as the view becomes deeper and more complete. These inter-reflecting themes, the prerequisites of creation, are playfulness, love, concentration, practice, skill, using the power of limits, using the power of mistakes, risk, surrender, patience and trust.

Creativity is a harmony of opposite tensions, as encapsulated in our opening idea of lîla, or divine play. As we ride through the flux of our own creative processes, we hold onto both poles. If we let go of play, our work becomes ponderous and stiff. If we let go of the sacred, our work loses its connection to the ground on which we live.

Knowledge of the creative process cannot substitute for creativity, but it can save us from giving up on creativity when the challenges seem too intimidating and free play seems blocked. If we know that the inevitable setbacks and frustrations are phases of the natural cycle of creative processes, if we know that our obstacles can become our ornaments, we can persevere and bring our desires to fruition. Such perseverance can be a real test, but there are ways through, there are guideposts. And the struggle, which is guaranteed to take a lifetime, is worth it. It is a struggle that generates incredible pleasure and joy. Every attempt we make is imperfect; yet each one of those imperfect attempts is an occasion for a delight unlike anything else on earth.

The creative process is a spiritual path. This adventure is about us, about the deep self, the composer in all of us, about originality, meaning not that which is all new, but that which is fully and originally ourselves.


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