Jazz improvisation has been both a theoretical and a musical encounter between the two authors of this paper. For some years we have explored improvisation, through periodic conversations in private, and via joint presentations in public with illustrative performances on two pianos.Footnote 1 We have found a number of fruitful insights from the enactive-phenomenological literature (including that of Dreyfus and Sudnow, but also of Francisco Varela, and many others working in the enactive tradition) on the jazz/improvisation domain. For some time we have been working in both directions, both using theoretical reflections to shed light on the jazz performances, and using the performances as a form of commentary on the theoretical issues.
Our work, which is partially confirmatory and partially critical of Dreyfus’s and Sudnow’s pictures of jazz skill-building, will hopefully provide a useful illustration of how the domain of musical improvisation can provide new insights into the nature of skilled action, and to cognitive science in general. We will in particular address:
the under-recognized centrality of improvisation to characterizing human expertise;
how temporality (at many different levels) conditions the in-the-moment creation of (jazz) improvisation;
the counterpoint between ego-less or mind-less intuitive unwinding, and deliberative, cognized, control in skilled performance, and in particular, in improvisation;
the open-ended nature of enactive creation of perceptual worlds for the improviser to improvise in and on, with direct agency and intention.
The present paper thus owes a great debt to the work of Dreyfusian embodied phenomenology—but also to Varelan enactivism. As a label, “enactivism” emerged from Varela and colleagues’ landmark 1991 volume (Varela et al. 1991). This book offered powerful critiques of certain assumptions then reigning within classical cognitive science, and particularly the dominance of the computer metaphor in much of the latter. Some of the central elements in the book were pre-figured in the work of Dreyfus, particularly in his What Computers Can’t Do (Dreyfus 1972), which assembled some deep weaknesses within classical cognitive science and AI. Over the decades, Dreyfus’s insights have been taken up and reworked in new ways (not always with adequate acknowledgement to Dreyfus), by many people, including Varela and those working in the tradition that he inaugurated.Footnote 2
As musicians working on honing our jazz skills, another work by Dreyfus which was of particular interest to us was the critique of cognitivist models of expertise that he co-authored with his brother Stuart (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986). The five-stage model of skill acquisition offered in that work, designed principally to exhibit the limitations of computer-based “expert systems”, showed a suggestive way to understand the progressive growth in a given skill. According to this model, practitioners of a skill will tend to progress from the status of ‘novice’ to that of ‘expert’ over five broad stages, where the novice’s performance will often start off as intellectualized or theorized, and where true expert performance is characterized by a non-reasoned, intuitive form of skilled action (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986, p. 103). We believe that the case of jazz improvisation highlights particular limitations of Dreyfus’s model, and that this has implications for understanding the role of skilled action in general—as we shall see later.
We had each of us also been impressed by Sudnow’s Ways of the Hand (Sudnow 1978, revised 2001). Working as an ethnomethodologist, alongside pioneering sociologists such as Harold Garfinkel and Harvey Sachs, Sudnow used descriptive observation methods to lay bare implicit rules and assumptions enfolded within various socially structured ways of doing things, including death and dying (Sudnow 1967), and computer gaming (Sudnow 1979). Ways of the Hand logged and explored the detailed stages in the growth of Sudnow’s own expertise as a jazz piano improviser. As Dreyfus noted in his 2nd edition preface, Dreyfus saw in Sudnow’s account many affinities with his own account of how people develop skills from the halting, self-conscious stabs of the novice to the ego-less flow of the full expert.Footnote 3
In many ways Sudnow’s volume acts as a kind of handbook (no pun intended) for many jazz musicians who have read it. This may be partly because the book helps one, as such a developing musical practitioner, to progress in the mastery of one’s instrument or genre, and also because the processes he describes may bear some similarity to one’s own experiences of progress in skill-building. But also it is perhaps because the book shows how something that often presents to many, on a superficial glance, as a highly informal and “hang-loose” activity, can be framed within rigorous, academic language.
Improvisation and enaction
Enactivism originally arose out the biological work of Francisco Varela and Umberto Maturana, who together propounded a new view of a living organism as an “autopoietic” (literally, “self re-creating”) unity operating under principles of internal coherence, rather than as adapting to an independent world.Footnote 4 The autopoietic view which Maturana and Varela propounded, evolved from its original biological focus on cells, nervous systems, etc., into a theory of cognition, experience and action—particularly that of humans. As developed by Varela, Thompson and Rosch (in their 1991) it became recast as “enactivism”. In our view, enactivism offers a productive vantage point from which to reflect on improvisation, both in jazz and more generally. Two phrases used by core enactivist texts seem particularly fruitful: “Laying down a path in walking; and “Sense-making”.
(1) “Laying down a path in walking”. This phrase, used as the title to the final chapter of (Varela et al. 1991), may be seen as expressing a central essential strand of the enactivist approach. According to Varela, a human and/or any other biological being “lays down” a world, as one may “lay down a path” as one walks. The phrase also occurs in the title of a 1987 paper by Varela, whose primary focus was biology, but which he also saw as giving a novel cognitive and metaphysical outlook (Varela 1987)Footnote 5. As Varela says of an organism’s relation to its world (ibid.): “It is not the mirroring of a world, but the laying down of a world”. And as Evan Thompson put it (Thompson 2007, p. 13), the first proposition of the enactive approach is that “living beings are autonomous agents that actively generate and maintain themselves, and thereby also enact or bring forth their own cognitive domains”.
The path a walker takes is of course not totally arbitrary, but is rather constrained and shaped by the conditions in the walker’s environment, (as well as by the walker’s constitution, history, and skills). In a similar way the world an organism knows is not a totally other realm which has to be recovered in perception, but is rather a domain of significances, or a set of possibilities that are made determinate by the organism’s actions, and established via the organism’s developing skills.
The trope of laying down a path in walking is derived from a celebrated poem of Antonio Machado, a Spanish poet of the late 19th and early twentieth century. Here is an English translation of part of the poem, (quoted in full in Varela 1987):
Wanderer, the road is your footsteps, nothing else;
Wanderer, there is no path, you lay down a path in walking.
In walking you lay down a path,
And when turning around you see the road you’ll never step on again.Footnote 6
This striking metaphor also captures a key feature of improvisation in jazz, and in other arts that feature extemporized performance. The jazz player is constantly bringing forth novelty which is given existence in the moment of playing. Unlike the musical recitalist who takes a pre-written piece of music and renders in performance, the improvising musician generates the composition, (or elements of the composition) as the audience listens, rather as a street food seller cooks a dish in front of the customer. In the case of a pre-created composition, one can (in principle) edit, or re-order, the composition before it is finally assigned for performance. In case of improvisation there is no chance to edit or correct—one lays down the piece in playing. Machado’s lines even capture this unavailability of going back to correct one’s past performance: “when turning around you see the road you’ll never step on again”.
In jazz improvisation, there is, actually, sometimes the possibility of a kind of “post-editing”, where, for example, a note or chord that sounds incongruous or unsatisfactory can be recontextualized by the player’s (or a co-musician’s) offering of further notes that give it more sense as part of a longer sequence. However, Sudnow, for example, refers to such “post-editing” as only an intermediate stage of improvisation that is “very much backward-looking and [only] reparatively forward-going” (Sudnow 1978, p. 56). Yet at the highest levels of freedom, (in line with Machado’s wanderer), improvisation—and perhaps life—are inherently forward-going. The jazz pianist Herbie Hancock recalls an incident when playing with Miles Davis in the 1960s. Hancock, as a young, but already highly acclaimed pianist at the time, played a chord that sounded, as he thought, embarrassingly off the mark. To his surprise, Davis just paused for a second, before responding (on his trumpet) with “some notes that made it right. .. with the choice of notes that he made, and the feeling that they had” (Cheadle 2015).Footnote 7
(2) “Sense-making”. This phrase, which seems to have originated in a paper by Varela in the early 1980s (see Varela 1984), is also one that Varela (and Thompson) saw as central to what later became known as the enactive approach. As Thompson puts it (2007), “the nervous system does not process information in the computationalist sense, but creates meaning”. Looked at in terms of a biological organism, sense-making can be seen as a kind of interplay between the maintenance of self-identity by an organism and the world with which it maintains a sensorimotor coupling. The organism’s environment is a world of elements that matter to the organism, as assisting or threatening the latter’s self-maintenance. So the environment is not a neutral, exterior world but a world already interpreted as an array of self-generated significances. It is perhaps not too far a stretch to say that the continual unfolding of the process of an organism’s meaning-making encounter with its environment is like an improvising jazz musician generating musical responses that make sense in the context of her fellow players’ (and her own) previous musical “moves”.
The jazz parallel further suggests an extension of the idea of sense-making from a process enacted by an individual agent, into the inter-agential realm—as an ongoing interplay of mutual significances between members of a social group. Hanne De Jaegher and Ezequiel Di Paolo have described interactive encounters between two or more humans as a process of “participatory sense-making” (De Jaegher and Di Paolo 2007).Footnote 8 The idea of mutual sense-making involving multiple actors yields a powerful, recursive picture of the complex reflections and interactions that occur in a group of people attending to each other’s attention. To take the dyadic case for the sake of simplicity: if two agents each attend to each other, each attends to the other, but also to the other’s attention, and to the other’s attention to their attention to the other’s attention, …. and so on. A complex nesting of relationships is thus set up—rather as two mirrors, held together, may generate a “tunnel” of images of reflections within reflections.
Obviously, the interpersonal relationships between jazz players in any given performance are, like any cultural or cognitive activity, shaped by the local social contexts within which any such performance takes place, and the broader socio-cultural history of the genre. The improvisatory nature of jazz performance makes it, we believe, particularly suited to be a model for a broader range of cognitive activity. This point has been well articulated by Michael Tomasello, who is perhaps one of only a few cognitive scientists to make an explicit connection between jazz improvisation and cognition in general. Critiquing traditional in-the-head models of thinking, Tomasello writes:
“…. [F]or humans, thinking is like a jazz musician improvising a novel riff in the privacy of his own room. It is a solitary activity all right, but on an instrument made by others for that general purpose, after years of playing with and learning from other practitioners, in a musical genre with a rich history of legendary riffs, for an imagined audience of jazz aficionados. Human thinking is individual improvisation enmeshed in a sociocultural matrix.” (Tomasello 2014, p. 1).
There are, of course, a number of other ways in which enactivist and allied approaches can be deployed to shed light on musical activity and improvisation in particular—for example—theoretical concepts such as autonomy, environmental embedding, dynamical embodiment, perception-as-action, and so on, all lend themselves to being applied to jazz and other improvisatory art. Some of these concepts, and the bodies of theory that lay behind them, have been grouped together under the label “4E cognition”—an abbreviated way of summing up mind, cognition and action as embodied, embedded, extended, and enactive (Newen et al. Forthcoming; Menary 2010; Rowlands 2010). There have been many useful suggestions of how improvisation can be theorized in terms of the 4Es or Enactive framework.Footnote 9
Some interesting conclusions may be drawn from these observations on the relation between improvisation and the enactive approach (and related approaches) to cognition and action. First, enactivism may offer a fruitful theoretical backdrop for understanding improvisation in jazz and other performance arts. Second, the case of improvisation (not just in jazz but more generally) may, in turn, offer a source for powerful ways of deepening enactive theory and other phenomenological and 4E approaches. Third, as enactivism is a theory with general application to agency, cognition and, indeed, life, it may thus be time for improvisation and related concepts to be promoted to taking on a more central place within cognitive science research per se. Perhaps, if such a promotion had taken place some decades ago, its subject area might have been rather different.
Improvisation and embodiment
In sum, we would suggest that jazz, given its improvisatory nature, would be a good starting point for an alternatively reconstituted science of mind—where “mind”, as seen from this vantage-point, obviously includes a lot more than merely “cognition”. One obvious reason for that is that jazz, and music-making in general, for all their cognitive aspects, are highly embodied—the “hand” of the pianist, to use Sudnow’s key term; the mouth and breath of the flute or trumpet-player; the throat and lungs of the vocalist; but also the way the whole body of the player moves—whether seated at the keyboard or drum kit or standing holding the bass or blowing the sax. Music is embodied because of the interactive, unified way in which the musician is linked to her instrument. It is embodied also in virtue of the nature of our response to the music, whether as player or listener: jazz audiences, in particular, tend to explicitly register their listening through physical signals such as clapping, foot-stomping, whooping, etc.; players often make similar gestures in their performance. Again, as in all musicianship, jazz performance is about physical mastery of the skill of playing the instrument. Developing skillful musical agency involves assuming and assimilating various embodied stances, postures and movements (Bowman 2004). This holds for improvisation in particular. In his phenomenological report about learning how to improvise, David Sudnow relates his most substantial developmental transition towards improvisation to working on timing and temporal stances with his body after observing how Jimmy Rowles (a pianist described as a “musician’s musician”) moved on the bench (Sudnow 1978, p. 81 ff).
Being so emblematically embodied, jazz performance, apart from its intensively physical nature, is also often affectively highly charged, and experientially vivid. As such, it incorporates many features of embodied activity that are marginalized within the traditional cognitive scientists. Indeed, jazz may present an embodied, but also cultural and social, activity that incorporates many aspects of what happens when we are spontaneous in life (Corea 2016; Mercer 2007; NYU Steinhardt Jazz Studies 2014). However, with jazz improvisation the abilities of players span a wide spectrum of performance levels. Thus jazz presents ample opportunities to study embodied improvisation at multiple levels of proficiency, yielding insights into how such skills develop.Footnote 10
Embodiment is, of course, one of the key terms grouped under the heading “4E cognition”. A large subset of the cognitive science research that takes embodiment seriously focuses on how our embodied interaction with the world can be productively discussed in terms of the dynamical progression in time of our bodily activity. The temporal flow of our embodied action plays a central role in understanding the nature of improvisation in performance. Temporality is a feature which complements the intensive physicality of jazz-making. We thus now move on to examining how jazz-making, and improvisation more generally, is temporally enmeshed in a multiplicity of individual, social and cultural processes.
Improvisation and temporality
The spur of the moment
The most obvious way in which the notion of improvisation relates to temporality is in terms of its etymology: the word “improvise” is derived from the Latin Improvisus, or “unforeseen”. The term suggests an implicit contrast between performing a task “in the present tense”, as it were, without much prior preparation; and executing a task which has been pre-planned or pre-scripted, where steps in the task-fulfilment involve either reading off from a notated set of directions or working from a previously internalized set of rules. Much musical performance may, of course, be unforeseen by, or surprising to, members of the audienceFootnote 11—but improvised music is often unforeseen (or often has elements that are unforeseen) even by the performer, not to mention the other players.
We shall see later, however, that it is a mistake to link the “improvised” too closely with the “unprepared.” In fact a considerable amount of improvised performance is extensively planned in advance—and much jazz performance includes, or is indeed mainly comprised of, playing from pre-written sheet music.Footnote 12 Even in most contemporary jazz performance, where musicians may improvise singly or collectively over extended stretches, there will usually be pre-arranged structural constraints (for example, a prior agreement that a specific passage of improvisation should last for a fixed number of repetitions of a particular chord progression, or a fixed number of bars, etc., or that one of the ensemble should give a specific signal when it is time for a pre-composed section to be resumed).
But a good deal of the surprise and edge that is associated with jazz playing (see below for some commentary on this from musicians) comes from the fact that much of what is being produced is as much “in the moment” to the players as it is to the audience. So there are of course some notable free jazz performers or groups, where improvisation is the central determinant of what happens, and almost all pre-set parameters drop out of the performance.Footnote 13
Another way of characterizing the unforeseen nature of (much) jazz is to say that certain key aspects of the composition take place in the time of the performance, rather than beforehand, as is generally the case with music prepared by a classical composer. So, while there may be much preparation in advance for any given jazz piece, much of the composition—at least during solo, or “group-blowing”, passages, takes place at the time that the music is “consumed” by the audience. So a distinguishing feature of improvisation in jazz, and of improvised performance more generally, is that preparation-time significantly overlaps with, or bleeds into, performance-time.
A number of jazz musicians have commented on this in-the-moment aspect of jazz improvisation. When asked for a brief characterization of improvised music versus music composed before its performance, the jazz saxophonist Steve Lacy summed up the contrast as follows:
“In fifteen seconds the difference between composition and improvisation is that in composition you have all the time you want to decide what to say in fifteen seconds, while in improvisation you have fifteen seconds.” [Quoted in “A Passion for Jazz: Music History and Education,” 2017 (online)].
More pithily, the pianist Bill Evans has said:
Jazz is the process of making one minute’s music in one minute’s time
(Quoted in Cavrell 1966, The Creative Process and Self-Teaching—film available on YouTube).
Jason Rebello, a prominent UK jazz pianist, has commented as follows on the precarious, in-the-moment, nature of jazz performance, which often requires split-second reaction and response:
It’s the unpredictability of life that drew me to jazz or improvising in the first place. The ability to sit there with no idea of what is going to happen next and to trust that whatever does happen will be ok, is one of the most vital qualities needed to improvise well. One thing I have found over the years, is that thinking does not really help the improvising process. If anything, it hinders it as it is too slow and clunky to be of use in the moment of a rapidly changing musical landscape.…
(Rebello, private communicationFootnote 14).
Before the moment
While we have stressed the “in-the-moment” character of improvised jazz, it is important to stress that for any improvised jazz work, much preparation for the moment of performance will need to have been done in advance. Indeed a well-trained and well-rehearsed jazz musician will spend many hours in a week learning, and crucially, mastering, tonal and rhythmical relations in various harmonic and rhythmic systems, to exploit this practical expertise fluently in real-time performance. So there is something a little misleading in the quotations above, as they both make it sound (when taken in isolation) as though the jazz is simply about just turning up and playing. In fact, as with any performance art-form, there will be a substantial pre-performance period devoted to skill-building, and to preparation for the specifics of any given performance.
This misconception is sometimes built into the way improvisation is conceived or defined. Thus one dictionary website gives the following as one of its two definitions of improvise: “to perform or make quickly from materials and sources available, without previous planning.” (https://www.collinsdictionary.com—emphasis added.) Again, dictionary.com defines improvisation as “the art or act of … composing, uttering, executing or arranging anything, without previous preparation.” (Emphasis added.) However, as we have pointed out above, much improvised jazz is meticulously prepared beforehand.
It may surprise the newcomer to jazz to hear that improvised elements in jazz may contain such strongly pre-fashioned features. Is not the whole point of improvisation to “make it up as you go along”, to “let it all hang out”? In fact, the picture is a lot more complicated: there are many different aspects to improvised jazz, many or most of which will be addressed in offline rehearsal to make the actual performance possible. Some of these aspects will involve relatively restrained variations on the performed material; others will involve some rather more radical ways of generating (or searching for) novelty.
A linked point to this is that improvisatory features in jazz performance can usefully be thought of as lying on a spectrum from conservative to radical, or from “safe” to “risky”. At the more conservative end, the novelties that are generated in the performative moment may consist of a relatively limited set of variations along melodic, chordal, tonal, rhythmic and other parameters—although such performances will be likely to be much more than straightforward recitals as if from musical scores on the page, and will still exhibit considerable amounts of spontaneity. At the more radical or “free form” end, one will tend to find a greater emphasis on more extreme kinds of novelty or exploration that may renounce any constraints during the time-frame of the performance itself. (See Fig. 1.)
In the middle ground between both extremes, one can find improvisation that strives to go beyond pure variations of existing structures without giving up on form entirely. Thus players may extemporize some dimensions of prior structure, such as the spontaneous re-harmonization of the harmonic progression of a tune while remaining faithful to other features such as the tune’s original melody. On another level of novelty, improvisers occupying this middle ground may depart from standard roles in performance, such as soloist versus accompanist, in favour of equally co-leading roles for all. Notable pioneers in the latter were the musicians in the first trio led by pianist Bill EvansFootnote 15 (Berendt 1982).
Yet common to all accomplished jazz musicians, even to those whose preference is to play at the radical or risky end of the spectrum, is that they will have put an prodigious amount of prior effort and time into rigorous off-stage preparation—both in isolation and with fellow-performers—of the many skills necessary to deliver fluent and convincing—as well as courageous and fulfilling—improvised performances.
This is well expressed in an interview conducted by Japanese writer and Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, two of the world’s leading jazz musicians. This is summarized by Ikeda as follows:
“Improvisation embodies the power to create value freely from an instantaneous encounter….At the same time, polishing the power of improvisation to its true brilliance demands constant, unseen effort. As is only considerate and a sign of good faith, I prepare for dialogues by thoroughly studying the person with whom I will be talking.” (Ikeda et al. 2006, emphasis added).
Other temporal aspects
So far we have looked at temporality in improvisation in one broad way—in terms of the contrast between what happens in the before-phase of a performance—when a work is being prepared, composed, rehearsed, etc.—and the now-phase, when the work is being performed to an audience. Improvised jazz (and improvised art in general) has what appears to be a special property: the two phases at least partly, and maybe significantly, overlap. We conjecture that this makes an important contribution to what people often describe as the ‘immediacy’ of jazz.
However, it is worth noting that there are many other ways in which improvised music displays time-related features. For example:
Because of the way music performances unfold in time, it is natural to discuss the characteristics of such performances in terms of various temporal features (which may vary according to period, region, genre, and so on). In jazz the most usual time-related features include time-signature, tempo, rhythm, syncopation; simultaneity and sequentiality (e.g. chords versus arpeggios); and so on. These features are largely shared with non-improvised music performance.
intra-player coordination: any musician’s skill will involve coordination along a number of elements inside the player’s body/brain boundary: for example, between hand and hand; hand and ear; between the player’s body and her instrument; and, where two or more players are performing,
inter-player coordination: there will be various kinds of interaction between players that take place in a near-instantaneous or tightly sequential fashion. There are many analogies between temporal patterns in joint music-making and in conversation. For example in joint speech one has turn-taking modes of talking/listening, and overlapping or collective speech patterns (such as heated argument, verbal expression during love-making, by crowds at sports matches, and so on). Similar variations occur in joint music-making.
Improvised musical performance (as much other human action) is characterized by a tension between “fast” and “slow” thinking processes: in-the-moment composition often requires rapid, pre-conscious, intuitive processing, while players will also need to monitor and control performance using slower, conscious, deliberative or mindfully-engaged processing.Footnote 16 Much of the skill of the improviser consists of knowing how to mediate between these two speeds of output. (We will return to this point later, when discussing Dreyfus’s account of expert cognition and skillful embodied coping.)
On a markedly longer timescale, it is obvious that much (most?) artistic production takes place within a historical tradition. Again there is another tension here: on the one hand there may be a more or less self-conscious acknowledgement by the artist of the past legacy of one’s particular genre (stretching back years or centuries): this may generate constraints to which the artist more or less agrees to conform (for example the 12 bar blues pattern). In contrast (and again especially in improvised art) there may be a kind of “now-ness” to the playing, that departs from the traditions governing one’s idiom—possibly critiquing or challenging that tradition in various ways (self-styled “avant-garde” jazz takes such challenge as central).
The ubiquity of improvisation
Within Western academic musical communities, much discourse on music and teaching of music tends to view improvisatory art as unusual or anomalous, as a mode of musical performance that deviates from the normality of recitative music. So the musical skills that are taught academically are dominated by mastery of correct reading and playing from notated works by composers of distinction. It is not uncommon to find people who have been “classically” trained to find it very challenging to break the spell of the printed manuscript when invited to experiment with musical improvisation. Within such a mind-set, jazz, and improvisation in general, are considered to be a special case within music. However, in fact many musical traditions besides jazz treat improvisational skills as central to their genre. Further, it appears that many composers and recitalists within the Western classical tradition in earlier centuries appear to have used improvisation of different kinds quite frequently during their performances.Footnote 17 Today European and North American music departments and conservatoires are much more likely to include improvisation as a core part of the curriculum than they were, say, 40 years ago.
So improvisation seems, perhaps unfairly, to occupy a rather anomalous, or specialist, position within many views of music production. Yet when we turn to improvisation in a wider context, the reverse may well be the case. How far, then, does the phenomenon of improvisation extend outside the artistic sphere? We could define improvisation very narrowly so that it only exists in art. However, that hardly accords with common usage, or with the strong intuition that something very much like what is exhibited within the jazz sphere occurs widely outside art.
The suggestion could indeed be made that improvisation is ubiquitous—maybe even the norm in life. Take walking around a town, for example. Most of the time, one might say, we “just walk.” But many aspects of the walk are spontaneous and improvised. We invent many things as we go. Do we amble, march or break into a trot? Do we cross the road here, or a bit further on? And so with many action-types in life: talking, eating, sleeping, washing, sport, and play. Humans improvise when making love, when fighting, and when giving birth—and there are perhaps improvisatory elements even in being born or dying. So, it would seem that, in much of life, we extemporize more frequently than we follow a script. As jazz pianist Chick Corea has put it: improvisation is not something special, but “living, just something natural.”Footnote 18 And, as Walton et al. write (2015): “You can never step into the same river twice, never play the exact same game of soccer, never navigate your car through the exact same highway traffic, or cook your favorite meal the exact same way …”.
These considerations raise the further question: if improvisation is ubiquitous in our lives then surely it deserves to be discussed more centrally in cognitive science or in psychology? Some areas of cognitive science—for example—those that revolve around notions such as situated action/cognition—may be thought to be particularly amenable to giving improvisation special status.
An early study in situated cognitive science (specifically of AI planning), which foregrounds improvisation is Agre and Chapman (1987).Footnote 19 They suggest that the immediacy of real life makes the techniques for constructing action-plans in classical AI systems inappropriate (they dub this “capital P Planning”). In what they call “lower-case-p planning”, by contrast, the rules or recipes are relatively sketchy and the execution continually involves “rearrangement, interpolation, disambiguation, and substitution” (p 268). As they put it: “[L[ife is a continual improvisation, a matter of deciding what to do now based on how the world is now.. . Life is fired at you point blank: when the rock you step on pivots unexpectedly, you have only milliseconds to act.” (see also Agre 1988; Agre and Chapman 1987, p. 268).
These remarks harmonize with our earlier observations concerning the ways in which key notions within the enactive tradition (laying down a path in walking; sense-making) already seem to suggest that improvisation is a general feature of lived action, rather than a side-show, and for that reason should be put into the foreground of a considered account of cognition and action. Dylan Van Der Schyff, writing in the field of music education, has similarly argued that improvisation is central, not merely to music, but to the understanding of human action and knowledge in general, seeing it as reflecting “the adaptive and relational nature of human meaning, and world making more generally” (Van Der Schyff 2017, p. 1). Van Der Schyff goes on to point out that much of the writing in the enactive (and, more generally, 4Es) tradition within cognitive science may be considered as compatible with an outlook which regards lived activity as fundamentally improvisational in character. Indeed, Van Der Schyff entitles an important section of his paper “Cognition as embodied, embedded, enactive and extended and … improvised.” (van der Schyff 2017, pp. 9–11). We applaud this suggestion that improvisation should be given a higher profile within studies of cognition and lived action, and that the notion can be used to complement insights gained within enactive and related approaches.Footnote 20 (It was suggested by a referee of our paper, that, in place of “improvised” one could rather add a 5th E, namely “extemporised” !).