Here’s some more thoughts on the form/content question…

I will discuss these issues as they come up in my improvising “day job” of playing the piano for dance class.

Every now and then, while playing for class, I get an idea for a specific form for the music I am about to play. My job is to come up with music which will help the dancers to learn to dance, by supporting the rhythm, style, and emotion of the movement, and I often come up with ideas for quite specific chords, melodies, and musical structures which will cleverly perform these tasks: get the students to feel a specific accent in a jump, or to feel the sweep and contour of a phrase, or understand a particular style of dance. Because I’ve been doing this work for 23 years, my ideas are usually quite sound, and, when I play them, they seem to “work” in a basic sense, that is, they go with the movement, and nobody gets confused or complains about what I’m playing. However, nobody seems to get inspired by what I’m playing, either. The students don’t seem to get particularly turned on to the movement, and the teacher doesn’t particularly react to the music.

Then, I come back to my senses. I remember the basic principles of my improv technique. There is only one goal. There is only one thing to focus on in any improvisation. Saturation. (See the first blog entry on saturation for a detailed definition.)

In this particular situation, my improv has a very particular structure: it has to follow the exact rhythmic structure of the movement it goes with, and support the movement in the ways outlined above. (The school teaches fairly traditional Modern Dance and Ballet, so it is not usually appropriate to play music that is greatly at odds with the movement.)

So, in this case, “saturation” as a goal means: feeling the movement. More specifically, feeling the flow of energy-and-emotion which underlies the movement. So the goal of more and more saturation means that, as I play, I continually open myself up to feel the flow of the movement more and more fully.

Another way of thinking of the same thing is to be more and more completely “inside of” the flow of the movement. The goal is to be in a state in which every cell in my body and every aspect of my being is inside of the flow of the movement, with no part of me remaining on the “outside” as an observer. No longer how long I keep playing, I can always be more and more completely “inside.” The image of “being more and more inside” sometimes works better than thinking of “saturation.”

What happens when I come to my senses and start focusing on saturation? I resolve not to spend any effort whatsoever in trying to “make” musical forms. I will put all my effort into one goal alone: feeling more and more saturated. (Of course, the “flow of the movement” which I am saturating myself with includes the musical form of the movement, so my music still has the correct form.)

Suddenly, the dancers are inspired by the music. They get excited. They dance better. They start smiling at me. The teacher says that the music is terrific. The dancers thank me after class for the terrific music, which was so inspiring to dance to.

In a way, dancers respond to music in the same way a theater audience responds to a scene, but more so. The dancer will only respond to music if it makes her feel something. Similarly, “saturation” is really the only goal an actor needs for an improvisation, because that’s the only thing the audience cares about. The only reason anyone goes to the theater is to feel something. When was the last time you heard someone say they had to go back and see a play a second time because the form was so well-constructed? The only reason an audience appreciates a well-constructed form is because it enables them to feel something.

But, when I focus exclusively on the goal of saturation, a funny thing happens to the form of the music: it’s better than anything I came up with when I consciously tried to “make” form. It has a simplicity and clarity which is expressive, and sounds as if I had spent months refining a written composition. At times it has an amazing complexity. I’ve found myself playing multiple voice fugues, and in styles I didn’t even consciously realize I knew how to play in. In general, the form of the music is powerful, clear, expressive, and perfectly suited to the movement.

In other words, by giving up the goal of consciously trying to “make” forms, and sticking to the goal of maximizing saturation, I come up with the best forms possible. This is because beautiful form is beautiful precisely because it is the natural, organic form which is necessary to a particular flow of energy. As Ben Shahn said, form is “the shape of content.”