Instant art — how rappers, comedians and jazz players improvise

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Instant art — how rappers, comedians and jazz players improvise

Post by jserraglio » Thu Jun 07, 2018 3:38 pm

WAPO —  The secrets of improvisation June 7, 2018
How does a freestyle rapper rhyme without rehearsal? How does a jazz improviser shape an instant solo? How do improv comedians wing it under pressure? Creativity is one of our most mysterious and fascinating capabilities, and astonishing things happen inside the brains of improvisers as they perform.
In this presentation we explore the science of improvisation, with rapper GoldLink, jazz pianist Jason Moran, and comedy duo Andy Bustillos and Alex Song of Upright Citizens Brigade. We’ll get inside the artists’ heads to see how their quick creative process allows them to step into the spotlight — without knowing what’s coming next.
 How freestyle rappers let loose 
These artists improvise lyrics and play around with rhythms, rhymes and storytelling. It’s an especially challenging form of creativity, mixing music and language. Rapid wordplay springs from a stream of consciousness, unleashed by a state of mental looseness.
GoldLink, a Grammy-nominated rapper, doesn’t often freestyle, but he was willing to give it a try to tell us about his process.
While other forms of creation — such as writing a novel or composing a symphony — can demand deep concentration, improvisation is a process of letting go. Musicians and other improvisers talk about stepping into an alternate reality, or entering a trance-like state, beyond thought. Distractions fall away; doubts disappear. Time seems to vanish.
Freestyle rappers release themselves from mental constraints, so that self-editing doesn’t impede the flow of words. How is this possible? Neuroscientist Charles Limb and others have scanned rappers’ brains during a freestyle rap and during a memorized rap. The studies show that during freestyling, there’s a functional change in their neural networks. Through practice, the rappers have reorganized their brain activity, allowing their improvised lyrics to bypass many of the conscious-control portions of the brain, which regulate behavior.
 Jazz improvisers let inspiration take charge 
Jazz musicians riff off the chord structure and melody of a familiar tune to make up a new solo on the spot. Brain studies suggest that, as with freestyle rap, this thought process is different from the ordinary. It liberates musicians from inhibitions, letting them play around with new images and combinations.
Pianist Jason Moran, the jazz director of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, is a frequent improviser who draws inspiration from sources as varied as Thelonious Monk, TV stock market reports and composer Maurice Ravel, the catalyst for the solo you’ll hear in a moment.
Limb, of the University of California at San Francisco, studied the brains of jazz pianists by having them lie down inside an fMRI machine while playing a custom-designed keyboard. The fMRI produces brain scans that show changes in blood flow to different areas, illuminating which parts are more active than others during a given task.
 Improv comedians accept everything. Everything. 
Improvised performance has been around since the days of commedia dell’arte. But like freestyle rap and jazz, improv comedy as we know it is an American art, invented in the mid-20th century from children’s games for building confidence and spontaneity.
Psychologists have studied improv techniques for what they can teach us about creativity and collaboration in everyday life. Limb is looking at improv comedians’ brains to find out if the changes he has seen in rap and jazz artists are universal across genres. He doesn’t yet have results, but he’s intrigued by the way comedians train their brains. “No matter how outlandish the idea your partner comes up with, you keep affirming it,” Limb says, “and that takes you into unexamined territories that are wildly creative.”
While in front of a live audience and under pressure to deliver, comedians draw on their training to focus on listening, openness and persistence.
Improv comedians know that creativity is an act of will and requires training. As Andy Bustillos and Alex Song of Upright Citizens Brigade show us, improvisers try to liberate their partner’s imagination by accepting every idea that’s offered. This can make them both seem fantastically attuned, even telepathic. It stems from careful listening and encouragement.
Openness and trust
Once they know that all ideas will be accepted without judgment, improv comedians can play together without inhibitions. Their sketch becomes a back-and-forth game, and the audience gets swept up in watching people work so easily together, with enthusiasm and joy.
Persistence and commitment
If they feel they’ve stunk up the stage, improvisers know it’s important to do another show right away. One way to keep the creative juices flowing is what former improv comedian Stephen Colbert picked up from his Second City director: “Learn to love the bomb.” Embrace failure, because it’s going to happen. Then dive in again.
Science has not fully mapped the neural network of creativity — that’s years, maybe decades, away. But brain studies suggest that creativity is a basic human function. It’s part of our biology, available to all of us. As improv artists show us, creativity can be cultivated by practice, which strengthens the neural pathways that lead to new possibilities.
Improvisation is a complex art, but it can also be a philosophy. It’s about opening up, loosening mental controls and saying “yes” instead of “no” to create something meaningful. This kind of creativity can be a powerful force. It’s strong enough to shape the brain, to engage the brains of others — and to build a world of surprises.

Sarah L. Kaufman is the Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic of The Washington Post and is the author of "The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life." She writes about the arts, entertainment and the union of art and science. Kaufman joined The Washington Post in 1994 after working at the Buffalo News and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.

Jayne Orenstein is an assigning editor in The Post's video department. She has covered everything from sports and food to politics and business.

Sarah Hashemi creates motion graphics and animations for The Washington Post's video team.

Elizabeth Hart is an art director and designer. She focuses on digital and print storytelling for the Arts & Style section.

Shelly Tan is a graphics reporter specializing in pop culture. She designs and develops interactive graphics.

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