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Caroline Kraabel asks Why Is Improvising Important?

The saxophonist and London Improvisers Orchestra member sounds out writers, activists, musicians and dancers about the role of improvisation in art and life for a new Resonance FM series

Saxophonist Caroline Kraabel presents an extensive new Resonance FM radio series in the coming months exploring the relevance of improvisation in art and life. Called Why Is Improvising Important?, the series coincides with the 20th birthday celebrations of The London Improvisers Orchestra, of which Kraabel is a longstanding member.

“Improvisation permeates our existence, surfacing in most of our behaviour and interactions: conversation, relationships, work and the market place,” state the programme notes to the Resonance show. Its diverse roster of guests includes musicians, activists, artists and writers, adds Kraabel via email, continuing: “Alex Papas, for example, will discuss antinomian Sufi dervishes in central Asia from the 15th century until the mid-1950s, and the way they kept changing their methods for relating to God and society, not wanting to become fixed or overly dogmatic.”

The programme’s aim is to bolster recognition of improvisation as a vital skill in art and life alike. As Kraabel puts it in the show notes, “‘Making it up as you go along’ is more often used to belittle than to praise. And if everyone improvises all the time, what value can it have? Are there some people and institutions that are ‘better’ at improvising, and what would that mean?” In the world of sound, she continues, “The notion of music that doesn’t involve improvisation is a Western one, and relatively recent, partly to do with establishing ownership of music through publishing and copyright (as mentioned in Pat Thomas’s interview). It may be being rolled back today when recordings of improvisations act as proof of intellectual property.” Other contributors to the programme include John Butcher, Evan Parker, Joëlle Léandre, dancers Solène Weinachter and Max Reed, political journalist and music fan Paul Mason, and restless improvisor and current London Improvisers Orchestra director Steve Beresford.

In the workplace thinking on your feet is often seen as a magic ingredient sought by creatives to unlock new ways of working or connecting with customers. Kraabel's show, however, aims to return the focus to the autonomous individual and what improvisation can do for them in their own life. “If there’s a war or competition to be ‘won’, it’s between power and the oppressed,” she says. “Those for whom the former is more important may attempt to co-opt improvisation, but the latter will make more out of it.”

In the sphere of music, recent books by Jack Wright, Simon Rose, David Toop and Trevor Barre have attempted to contextualise the practice of improvisation across many decades of activity and writing. When asked if there is a core attribute or essential ingredient to real improvisation, Kraabel offers: “Courage, respect for self and others, trust, temporal awareness, reflexes, practice, openness, listening, not listening, memory, integrity, having an idea of what feels right and being able to change that idea...

“Learning how to share power, to navigate, negotiate and create,” she concludes, quoting another of her forthcoming guests, Maggie Nicols. The 12 week series begins at 4:30pm on Thursday 13 September. The London Improvisers Orchestra will further celebrate their 20th anniversary with performances at London’s Cafe Oto in December and a forthcoming double CD of live recordings from recent years. You can read more about The London Improvisers Orchestra here.