Book Review: Free Play

RfG Newsletter, Volume 3, Number 1, Fall, 1993

Free Play
by Stephen Nachmanovitch
Los Angeles: Tarcher/Perigee Books, 1990.

This is a marvelous, insightful, elegant and easily readable work on the inner dimensions of improvisation. The author, holding a doctorate in Human Consciousness, performs internationally as a concert violinist; he is a composer, author, the creator of videos and computer software, lectures internationally on a wide range of subjects and creates multimedia works involving dance, theater, poetry, photography, painting and film.

Drawing on personal observations of his own intellectual and emotional processes, as well as those of a wide spectrum of artists, mystics and scientists, Nachmanovitch views improvisation as a master key to creativity, a means of attaining spiritual connectedness and a dissolver of the artificial boundary between art and life. Merely acting within a field labeled as “artistic” does not make it creative; as he points out, “Any action can be practiced as an art, as a craft, or as drudgery.”

This 200-page book, illustrated by 28 paintings (particularly those of William Blake and diverse Oriental Masters), is not organized around discrete topics so much as themes which interrelate Nachmanovitch’s observations on improvisation, creativity and life. Some of the interwoven themes are: the relationship between inspiration and artistic creation; the interplay between form and freedom; the indivisibility of life and art; psychological obstacles to free play; the value placed on creativity in contemporary society; using the power of mistakes; and the importance of practice and preparation in improvisation. Accordingly, one can get value from reading the chapters in most any sequence; the browser and the methodical reader will be very nearly equally rewarded.

It is difficult to reduce the author’s message to a summary statement, as he presents both impressionistic and analytical thought, sometimes side by side. As he points out, “No kind of linear organization can do justice to this subject; by its nature it does not lie flat on the page.” As an example, consider this passage regarding spontaneity: “In improvisation, there is only one time: This is what computer people call real time. The time of inspiration, the time of technically structuring and realizing the [performance], the time of playing it, and the time of communicating with the audience, are all one. Memory and intention (which postulate past and future) and intuition (which indicates the eternal present) are fused. The iron is always hot.” (p. 18) I found the insights offered to be honest and helpful, not only to artists but to everyone seeking to open to his or her own creativity.

While much of the book focusses on improvisation in the arts, Nachmanovitch is aware of the possibility of artfulness across all endeavors. Regarding the practice of psychotherapy as a healing art rather than an applied technique, he offers these observations: ” You are immersed in the case itself, letting your view of it develop in context. You certainly use your training; you refer to it, understand it, ground yourself in it, but you don’t allow your training to blind you to the actual person sitting in front of you. In this way you pass beyond competence to presence. To do anything artistically you have to acquire technique, but you create through your technique and not with it.” (p. 21)

Nachmanovitch includes a brief chapter titled, “Playing Together” in which he notes that “The beauty of playing together is meeting in the One.” Rather than shared improvisation being an averaging or compromise, he views such collaboration as fruitful by evoking a new group entity. Performance can become a transcendent experience in which felt boundaries dissolve. He has portrayed the spirit of improvisation in a manner that includes the reader in just such a shared experience.