August 1991 p. 19
Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play (208-page hardback, published by Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., distributed by Penguin-Putnam, ISBN 0-87477-631-7)
All art, and indeed all life, is essentially improvisation. But what mysterious alchemy turns some artists into fluent improvisers while others can only plod along in mental chains? In this wide-ranging volume, Nachmanovitch tries to show how each of us can tap the wellsprings of creativity that lie within us. Himself an improvising violinist, he draws freely on artistic and mystical traditions from around the world, weaving a web in which the perceptive reader can snare the muse of inspiration. William Blake rubs elbows in this volume with Miles Davis, Beethoven with James Joyce, Tarot with Albert Einstein, and the cave painters of Lascaux with P.D.Q. Bach. Yet the result is not a jumble, not a mere post-modern collage of disparate ideas. Nachmanovitch's intent is clearly unitary. He circles like a falcon around the inexpressible. His text is the finger in the haiku, pointing at the moon.
While Free Play contains a few specific exercises, it's not a how-to book for beginners (except in the sense that we're all beginners, and that everything in life comes down to the question of how to do what we're doing). It assumes that the reader is an artist who already has some technical command of a medium, and is ready to delve deeper. The kit of tools Nachmanovitch lays before us are high-level generalizations, and could be applied equally well to just about any discipline from cooking to stand-up comedy.
"Absolutely everything in nature," Nachmanovitch says, "arises from the power of free play sloshing against the power of limits." More specifically, he points out that play is a characteristic common to the higher mammals, and that it has an evolutionary value: It makes us flexible. Chapters on limits, practice, 'mistakes,' collaboration, bad education, self-doubt, judging, and quality raise a host of considerations that strike at the heart of the artistic process. I'm going to take this book home and underline lots of passages.
- Jim Aikin