On the edge of the edge.

review by Komninos Zervos


Improvisation hypermedia and the arts since 1945
Hazel Smith and Roger Dean
Harwood Academic Publishers 1997
RRP Hardcover AU$168
ISBN 3 7186 5878 X
RRP Paperback AU$58
ISBN 3 1786 5888 7


Having read an advance reference to this publication in an article in the magazine 21C I asked my friendly bookseller, Guy Coaldrake, to order me a copy, as it was scheduled for publication in May, 1996.

To my disappointment the publication date was put back to August, and so I had to wait.

My own particular field of academic study is performance poetry in Australia since 1945, the overseas influences on and development of the skills by poets for the public presentation of their work in the sixties, the more direct involvement of poets in the publication of their work in the seventies, the emergence of 'career' performance poets in the eighties, and the global presence of Australian performance poets, by means of the internet, in the nineties.

So Hazel Smith and Roger Dean's book seemed like the book for me as I was not only interested in the changing role of poet in Australian Society, but also in the skills poets had to develop along the way and the influences of other media on the style and content of poetry being written.

I waited and I waited and I waited and each time I'd ask Guy or Glenys they'd report a further delay in publication date. My interest in reading this book increased as my experience on the internet was opening my mind to the new possibilities of delivering art across the internet. And my expectations of it grew.

Late in 1997, Tess Brady handed me a copy of this book for review for TEXT. I was elated as I packed the book into my hand luggage and boarded the British Airways flight for London. It will be read by the time I reach Heathrow, I thought.

But this is by no means a light book for recreational reading; it is a densely written academic text, I assured myself as I made my way through customs and onto the tube, knowing I had only read the introductory chapter.

London would be my home for the next four months and as Artist in Residence at Artec, a multimedia training and resource centre in Islington, I would have plenty of time to give this book the thorough reading it deserved, I thought, as I ploughed through chapter two, 'Improv(is)ing the Definitions'.

Over Christmas I took my children to Greece to show them where my grandparents, and their great-grandparents, had come from. The book was carefully packed so that I could perhaps read it in a more relaxed state of mind far from the city on an idyllic Greek island surrounded by the tranquil blue waters of the Mediterranean. But I found it difficult to get past the first two chapters, I kept re-reading them over and over again.

Something was stopping me from going deeper into this book, there was something I wasn't getting. Maybe it's me, I thought, maybe I've built up my expectations for this book so much that it's not living up to them. Maybe, because I have worked as a performer, I may have thought there were inconsistencies between what I was reading and what I had experienced. Maybe it doesn't relate to my field of study at all and I am trying to make sense of it in terms of what I know about performance poetry. Maybe I'm not cut out for academic theory, I thought.

Maybe I should just go fishing with the kids.

But maybe it's the book, I thought. Maybe the authors are in fact confused and are not presenting logical arguments, after all as I read further into the first two chapters I keep ending up at the start of chapter one with the definition of improvising that constitutes the first sentence of the book.

A very simple definition of artistic improvising is that it is the simultaneous conception and performance of a work.

This definition and my previous conception of improvisation places it in the category of art of the moment and, in front of an audience, an art on the edge of the edge.

Smith and Dean spend the rest of the first two chapters altering this definition to include forms of improvisation that we might call other things. They make the point that improvisation has other forms, that there is 'pure' improvisation and 'applied' improvisation which is conceived of in the moment but re-worked and rehearsed and performed. There are also recordings and transcriptions of improvisations which are different again. Smith and Dean even challenge the notion that improvisation has to happen in front of an audience.

Surely they are describing the artistic process, the process of creation of art, the process of composition where artists come up against the restrictions of an art form and push against the rules and definitions that exist and navigate their art into previously undefined areas. Since both authors are also practitioners of improvised performances surely they are trying to present an academic justification for the work that they do. What is so different about the process of pure improvisation that separates it from life itself? Chapters one and two had me going around in circles as the authors set up definitions only to challenge them and bend them even more.

Back in Australia, and confronted with the urgency of a deadline for this review, I read the next section of the book which is different in form and conception from the first two chapters. What follows is a very thorough breakdown of The Arts into monomedia (sound, word, body and visual art), bimedia (sound/word, sound/body, word/visual, etc.), polymedia (theatre, film and multimedia), and the historical aspects of the influence of improvisation techniques by practitioners of the various art forms.

With my swirling concept of the definition of improvisation gained from the first two chapters I became even more convinced that what the authors were really describing was the creative process. Through the historical tracing of improvisation through many art forms, its association with avant-garde and experimental art movements, they had convinced me that improvisation, pure improvisation as a process, existed and that it separated itself from life by calling itself art, as all art does, and separated itself from composition by being practiced for its own enjoyment. Their strongest argument for pure improvisation in performance was in the field of improvised music, but in every other field they convinced me of the importance of improvisation in the creative process.

For many writers, improvisation is probably now a technique available in a palette of compositional procedures (including some revision) rather than one to which they rigidly adhere.

What I had seen in chapters one and two as the authors blurring any definition by challenging their own definitions was in fact preparing me the reader, the practitioner with already rigid ideas on the creative process and improvisation, to be in a state to accept that improvisation extended (undefinably) into all art forms and was at the basis of most creative processes.

In effect the writers actually presented their conclusions first; and that is why I was having so much trouble getting into the latter part of the book, the body of evidence for their arguments. The authors obviously did not want to take the traditional journey through evidence to arrive at a conclusion but rather challenge the reader's perceptions from the start, opening up the reader for the concepts they wish to present.

They also did not present their theories on the much-debated essence of the creative process and then attempt to convince the reader of the significance of improvisation in this process.

By the time I read the chapter on 'Computers and Improvisation' I was fully prepared to accept the possibilities presented: to see it from the perspective that improvisation will in fact determine the creative processes that develop from the introduction of this new tool to artists and the creation of the new space, cyberspace/the internet, for their art to exist in and be performed in. It may even be that the computer will allow the original definition of improvisation presented in this book, pure improvisation, to be the art, rather than a part of the creative process that creates the art, to be the simultaneous conception and performance of a work.

I am hesitant to accept the authors' implications - in the section titled 'Other Uses of Improvisation', or 'But Wait - There's More, Steak Knives, Steak Knives, Steak Knives' - that like religion, education and literature, improvisation may well be seen as the panacea of society in the future.

I do, however, after reading this book, see the value of the pedagogical uses of improvisation.

Since improvisation can be identified to be at the root of most creative processes, greater emphasis should be given to developing improvisational techniques at school rather than presenting rigid definitions of art, i.e. this is a painting, this is a poem, this is a play, etc.

If you can visualise art as an object, like a sphere that contains all the forms of art, you can see improvisation either as sitting at the edge of the blurry edge between art and not art or you can see improvisation as the very centre of the sphere from which all the other mass is generated.

This book has allowed me to see it both ways.


Komninos Zervos is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland.


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Vol 2 No 1 April 1998
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady