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  • John Diamond-Nigh

Happy Birthday––improvised




Happy birthday to a dear friend; happy birthday to anyone with a birthday this month.

Please take a minute or two (after reading), and go to YouTube, paste in––#Orgelmarathon – Improvisation pour l’anniversaire: Happy Birthday - Olivier Latry––and listen to #Latry’s stirring improvisation on Happy Birthday. If you don’t want to listen to the whole thing, slide to the last few minutes (12:55) to hear the familiar tune.

Robert #MacFarlane cites a term from companion naturalist, Michael McCarthy––‘the great #thinning’.  It’s a thinning in its most important form of a material basis of life, of a biodiversity, but it’s also a thinning of language, and a thinning of possibility. What’s extinguished when ecosystems go, when species go, when languages go, is knowledge, is possibility, is a deep ancient coding.


I believe in what might be called ‘distributed cognition’, which is to say that the ways we think . . . are not contained within our single skulls, but are made possible by the surroundings, the weather, the lights, the atmosphere, the ecologies, the landscapes and the people and the objects with which we share our spaces. They do our thinking for us, and with us, and sometimes to us. So of course when we lose these things, then the possibility of thought is thinned as well.


#Wildness has its origins as a word in the idea of #self-willedness. And when wildness is released into thought, into societies, into communities, it can rip through them, like wildfire, for the good.


#Improvisation, is, at its best, that wildness, that reclaiming of lost language, that making up of new words, new shapes for new hopes that our conventions preclude. I watched my aunt, as a boy, shaking with pythian ecstasy, gibbering what I now believe was a lost language, still embedded deep within her. A mineral/fire language. Who knows if that’s where my love of improvisation began, in that helter-skelter wildness, that terrifying making-up, that utterance of something magical, unintelligible and new.

On a snowy, sunny afternoon my students could expect this improvisatory assignment: scavenge the studio for any thing you can carry, take your brimming armful of ‘found’ forms out into the snow and compose the most lyrical or outlandish shadow that you can. All in thirty minutes.

True, improvisation belongs to some arts (and sciences, and even countries) more than to others. But it reaches one miraculous apex in the #French #organ-playing tradition. The organist, with no doubt some riffs up her sleeve, sometimes starting small, sometimes starting big, just makes up the music as she goes along. Some implacable, instinctual momentum takes over, like speaking in tongues; like a competitive swimmer finding that #porpoise self, that winning fraction of time inhumanly extracted from all those years of training. It goes beyond––and here’s the frizzy bliss of it––what any conventional musical score could ever contain.

What, in the end, calls this forth? Certainly no great improvisor thinks. Is it that some other force, as MacFarlane believes, thinks through him. Textures grow thin, languages inadequate, our addiction to destruction too starving. Some rapture, some disheveling birth, some ancient code, is needed.

(Pictured above, the punk, wizard, American #organist, Cameron #Carpenter. Check him out too if you’d like.)