Commentary  The Conversationalist: Improvisers’ lessons on present-mindedness

W estern society’s communicative ability has been ruined! Ruined by advertising, and all that second-by-second grabbing of our attention with bright lights and colours and naked bodies appealing to our urges and whatnot.

Harold Innis foresaw this threat back when television was just coming to popularity: he characterized the threat as “present-mindedness,” and as the “continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of [those] elements of permanence essential to cultural activity.” Knowing what we know now, there is little to argue about Innis’s theory – we are all acutely aware of the pernicious effects of media and advertising on our psychology; but I believe that there are forces at work, right here in our present midst, that are in direct and positive opposition to these threats.

Philosophy of music professor Eric Lewis speaks of a sort of communication relying on an individual’s instantaneous response, in the present moment: something that could be construed as present-mindedness. This communication is not verbal, nor is it written, nor physical, but is communication through musical improvisation. This present-mindedness is not an unfortunate symptom of the modern world and its discontents; improvisation has gone on since music-making began. In the case of improvisation, present-mindedness describes a state of engagement, of “laying yourself out there,” in Lewis’s words.

And if we look at the rules they follow, musical improvisers seem to be championing some of those attributes that are most laudable in any individual. In sympathetic circles of musical improvisers, no communicative “rudeness” is permitted: talking on top of someone, talking too loudly, etc. According to Lewis, there are “three sins of improvising: a) not listening, b) not knowing when not playing is also contributing, c) not being honest and authentic to your own musical sensibilities, i.e. being what you are not.”

Whether or not they intend to, people really reveal themselves when they are improvising. “When I improvise with the people I improvise with, I come out with a more nuanced understanding of who they are,” Lewis says.

Musical problems are set up, and then the musicians attempt to solve these problems, as a group. “You might learn that someone might not like leading an idea, but is happy to follow, that another is pigheaded, and won’t let something go until he’s tried it again and again. Others might prove to be subtle and careful modifiers. Some might have the ability of leading without seeming to lead.”

Refined stuff, one’s musical identity, and I would argue that many of these subtleties of personality would not be accessible through verbal or written forms of communication.

It was the Greeks’ ability to strike the perfect balance between verbal and written communication that Innis had idealized. Looking at the Greek root of the word “dialogue” – “to flow through meaning” – we see that Lewis’s understanding of communication through improvisation might be even closer to the original meaning of the word than was Innis’s.

According to Lewis, “A lot of people who improvise will say that there are a number of stages, of cognitive states that they find themselves in, ‘The Zone’ being this ultimate state. I’m loathe to characterize it in any way, but it is some precognitive, non-discursive, not-thinking state. There’s something about this state that seems to be different than normal thinking; your responses seem to bypass the brain. This sort of embodied knowledge could come in very sophisticated forms. When it seems to be working quite well, I lose the sense of linear thought.”

This state of mind, therefore, is not exactly present-mindedness, but is something like no-mindedness – quite elevated for a society that has been habituated to television commercials. What Lewis taught me, in other words, is this: All is not lost. Our modern world is not full only of bright lights and flashing colours. Look deep, listen deep, and you will find those whose primary concern is to listen.

Listen up: another dose of Rosie’s interesting academia will be back in a couple weeks. Send thoughts and queries to