Art and music improvisation: an observation and reflection

Watching an art and music improvisation session reminded me of the various collaborations I’ve had with artists in London, Utrecht, Crete, and Brugges. It’s about the process.

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As a finishing touch to my recent application for an innovation grant, I asked the Maui-based artist Mike Takemoto if he would consider having his students collaborate with mine. I was thinking along the lines of an exhibit of paintings of musicians, music instruments, or music notes. It would be an extension of the piano ensemble poster exhibit that I “curated” and organized with the photography teacher Harvey Reed and his photo and design students last spring. Such interdisciplinary collaboration raised awareness of the activities we wanted to promote.

Mike asked if I had heard of or seen the art and music improvisation events of Ebb and Flow Arts.

“Yes, I’ve heard but I’ve never seen it,” I said.

He handed me a 20-minute DVD of “Ebb and Flow Arts Presents The Joining by Emil Richards” dated March 21, 2009.

“That’s before my time,” I said. I promised to view and return the DVD.


When I sat down to watch “The Joining” in which three large blank canvasses were placed adjacent each other to form one long horizontal canvas, I didn’t know what to expect. The first artist made a few broad strokes with big brushes – a pale grey oil paint followed by a black water color. He sat down. Mike was next. He picked up a bigger brush and made some large gestures in a different color. He sat down. The last artist sized up the painted canvas and proceeded to create.

Meanwhile, the music was clearly being improvised. As a musician, I can hear and feel where the music is going. There is a certain momentum. With visual art, I can’t be so sure.

My mind was swimming with questions and worries.

  • Did the artists discuss a plan before they started?
  • Did they have a goal or criteria in mind? In other words, did they want to create something that was beautiful, bore meaning, and had a purpose?
  • Did they know what they were going to paint?
  • Did they decide on colors or type of paint?
  • Did they set constraints or boundaries?
  • Were they being guided or influenced by the improvised music?

When I saw each artist paint around the previous and sometimes over the previous, I began to wonder if the process may become political. I mean, I’d be upset if someone painted over mine. Around my work was okay but not covering and suffocating my work — surely!

I felt the momentum of the music and the art work as the artists’ strokes increased in tempo. They were now painting simultaneously, each on a canvas. From afar, a powerful kaleidoscope was taking shape.

Were they painting tropical scenes? A part of me wanted desperately for their output to make sense. It can’t be random. It can’t be an accident. It had to be worthwhile.

For whom? For the artists or the musicians? For the audience? Why does the output have to be worthwhile or make sense?

I watched the DVD three times. These were master painters. The musicians were professionals, too. Why couldn’t I relax, sit back and enjoy the process and see the product unfold?

Have I forgotten the golden principle?

It’s the process, not the product.

“The journey is the destination.”


Later I googled “Ebb and Flow Arts The Joining” and found another art and music improv session, a different one. The three artists worked independently of each other.


How would the art and music improvisation be different with less skilled artists and musicians?

I’ve always preached that it’s more fun to play than watch. That’s my motivation for teaching piano, sightreading, and music theory. It’s more fun to play with others than by yourself, I say. That’s my rationale for conducting my piano class as an ensemble.

How can I involve the audience as participants in the creative process?

Maybe I need to ask the audience. Do they have the same kinds of questions and concerns I had when viewing “The Joining” ?


When I was in London, the Iraqi artist-in-exile Yousif Naser invited me to a D-double-D event in his studio in South Ealing.

“What does D stand for?” I asked. He made a joke that it could be a D-double-D or a D-triple-D. The name of the event attracted people to come.

He set up his easel and began to draw while I recited a poem. There was wine and food. People came and went. When I saw his chalk portrait of me, I asked if I may keep it. In just a few sketches, he caught the essence of me.

D stands for draw, dance, dine, or anything you want.

The purpose is to get together and create something on the spot.

We could have had writers, slam poets, musicians, chefs, dancers, and other creative-types.

Chalk portrait by Yousif Naser, 2003
Chalk portrait by Yousif Naser, 2003

Later in the Netherlands, I had the chance to work with two American artists. The film maker Julian Scaff projected raw video footage of different modes of transportation against performances of new piano duets of the Dutch composer Heleen Verleur in an evening event called Effusion, in our Monument House Concert Series in Utrecht, Netherlands.

For a subsequent concert, we exhibited polaroid photos of water images taken by Liz Miller to launch a concert of the South African classical guitarist Derek Gripper. Two years later, we finally took the exhibit down, but not before Texas-based pianist Brendan Kinsella played Glass Works.

Between Effusion and Glass Works, Julian invited us to participate in an artist residency in Paleochora, Crete, creating something out of natural ingredients we found outdoors on a windy hill. We later exhibited, documented, and performed a concert in Brugges, Belgium, in an exhibition curated by Liz Miller.

How could I forget the joy of creating and collaborating across disciplines and geography?

Author: BLOGmaiden

As one of the earliest bloggers (since 1999), I enjoy meeting people who embrace "out-of-the-box" thinking and fear not the unknown. I believe in collaboration for sustainability because it increases stakeholder value.

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