Stephen Nachmanovitch’s ‘The Art of IS’ Decodes Improvising As a Way of Life

Over the past couple of months, we’ve been devouring Stephen Nachmanovitch’s new book The Art of Is: Improvising As a Way of Life hunks at a time, but even more enjoyably, opening it at random to find something rich and illuminating. Our copy is leafed with post-its. YoYo Ma described it perfectly as “a philosophical meditation on living, living fully, living in the present.”  We find it full of surprising ideas and insights that are also incredibly helpful. Nachmanovitch, an improvisational violinist whose first book Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art has become a classic, is a master guide and teacher.

The index gives a good idea of how far-ranging Nachmanovitch’s references are in talking about the creative process and ways to open ourselves up to it:  Alexander Technique, Basho, John Cage, Clint Eastwood, Indra’s Net, mandalas, mirror neurons, regret, Plato, systems thinking, tea ceremony, Herbert Zipper…. to name a few.



A sampling of our favorite passages —there are many!— give a sense of why we view The Art of Is as a perfect gift:

[The] concept of objects as offers really struck home for me. As an improviser and teacher, I love people, and practice a social and extraverted art form of give-and-take with my partners. In my studio I sometimes feel dried up and dumb. But to look around me and see my instrument as an offer, each of its parts as an offer; to see my instrument as an Other, a somewhat alien being with its own desires, is wonderful. Accepting objects as offers—this is why we like to play with toys and technologies. A new tool is an offer of pattern-making possibilities….And it might invigorate our interaction with our old tools too. Such are the pleasures of the machine shop or the woodworking garage…

I have learned to see the objects on my desk as offers, and even the desk itself. I am rescued by the mundane object right under my nose. It’s never ending. I’m fortunate to be able to interact with these objects, which are nothing special but are precious in the surprises they bring.

The midwife Ina May Gaskin said in Spiritual Midwifery that a woman in labor can regard her pain as unbearable suffering or she can regard it as interesting. “This is not pain, this is an interesting sensation that requires all of my attention.” Pain is sense experience. Suffering is one way we frame experience. We often manufacture extra suffering on top of the pain. We let it make us suffer twice.

To load extra layers of expectation onto things, to find the vicissitudes of life as occasions for suffering, for self-congratulation, for worry or price, to see one’s story as important, is normal—but it doesn’t help us. To see them as merely interesting is, paradoxically, to tap into the extraordinary space between attachment and detachment.

I went to the hospital for an echocardiogram. I told the technician administering it that I wanted a copy of the video files. If there was nothing wrong with my heart, then I at least wanted to be able to edit the video and make a visual music piece from it. She said, “I’m an artist too.” I asked her what her art form was. I thought she was going to say that in addition to her medical job she was a painter or songwriter. Instead the patted the machine and said, “This.

Listening is touching. The hair cells in our inner ear feel the vibrations that move them; it is not a distance sense, not abstract. Seeing is touching. Speaking is touching. Tasting is touching. There is no separating the active and passive modalities of perception. Active listening flowers in the present moment, utilizes all the senses: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind, sense of humor. Such sensitivity is the alpha and omega of all arts, and beyond the arts, of all skilled activity. To do science, listen.




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