This post will take its starting point in the article Constraint Satisfaction by Stephen M. Kosslyn taken from the book: This will make you smarter. The book is a series of short articles contemplating how to make humanity understand the world better. The question posed to 150 of the world's leading thinkers is: What scientific concept would improve everybody's cognitive toolkit? The full article can be found here.
In short the article Constraint Satisfaction discusses "'constraint' as a condition that must be taken in to consideration when solving a problem or making a decision and constraint satisfaction (as) the process of meeting the relevant constraint". So... as an example Kosslyn uses the illustration of furnishing his new bedroom knowing he has a bed with a headboard, a sofa, a chair and a lamp that he will need to fit in. That is already four constraints in place for this task. And by the time he places the headboard against one wall, satisfying the remaining three constraints is easier, as options for where the sofa and the chair will go are limited. As a matter of fact we daily encounter this principle when, for instance, we get dressed and decide "what goes with each other" in colours and style or when we look in the fridge to cook a meal, where the eggs, tomatoes and cheese are getting close to 'eat by' date.
Now you may be wondering how this relevant to improvisation. Well... as I was reading this article my work with the Mathilde improvisation collective came to mind and how we structure our rehearsals. This is what I thought:
Most of our Mathilde rehearsals evolve around task based exercises where we set a number of parameters to which we respond.
Examples of improvisation exercises:
- From one side of the room dancer/musician explore the quality of electricity/erratic movement starting on an intensity of 10 on a scale from 1-10 while crossing the floor. On the other side dancer/musician explore the quality of flow/constant movement also with an intensity of 10 while crossing the floor in the opposite direction. As the two groups make their way across the floor the intensity diminishes to 1 and as they meet in the middle they swap tasks and cross to the opposite end of the room going from 1-10 in intensity exploring the opposite quality. The constraint I'm satisfying is sticking to the quality I'm exploring (erratic or constant) and moving in one direction across the floor.
- Each improviser writes five instructions on five pieces of paper. These can be very tangible instructions: 'intervene in a duet' or allowing for more interpretation: 'do things upside down'. The notes are mixed and each improviser in turn draws a note and improvises using the instruction. More or less constraints can be added by limiting the number of improvisers to three at a time so that only when someone leaves the space a new person can enter.
The purpose of these exercises is to create a structure to generate the improvisation. If I'm told to improvise with my right hand on my head, standing on one leg while only making round shapes I have a limited amount of movement options. Kosslyn points out that there are often only a few ways to satisfy a full set of constraints simultaneously. As I aim to satisfy each constraint I liberate my brain and creativity to seek new connections and possibilities. With a given task I can let go of responsibility of 'making something up' and instead concentrate on fulfilling the task that is given and thus allow new movements to emerge. So paradoxically, limitations become freedom.
The contemplative improviser:
Seth reading between rehearsals
Stephen M. Kosslyn finishes his article:
"Finally, much creativity emerges from constraint satisfaction. Many new recipes were created when chefs discovered that only specific ingredients were available — and they thus were either forced to substitute different ingredients or to come up with a new "solution" (dish) to be satisfied. Perhaps paradoxically, adding constraints can actually enhance creativity — if a task is too open or unstructured, it may be so unconstrained that it is difficult to devise any solution."
So although Kosslyn is describing a scientific concept it seems very relevant also for my artistic practice. Concluding that constraint satisfaction is already a part of my improvisation toolkit, the next question is then: how many constraints can you add before creativity starts decreasing? Or when does the constraint become a crutch that restricts the free improvisation? And even more relevant... (how) does improvisation work if there are no constraints at all?