The image of a painter taking a couple of steps back to see the painting in perspective is familiar. The bigger the work is, the easier it is to lose the capacity to perceive it as a whole. It’s easy to become absorbed in the working process and not to stop until it’s finished. However, pauses are part of the work. They allow us to go away and get in touch with what we’ve done with a bit more distance, from a different angle. Taking a step back in order to carry on going forward.
Real-time composition is the process of improvising composition, that is, composing in real-time in front of an audience. The essence of improvisation is being present in the moment and in the development of events one by one. On the other hand, the essence of composition is viewing the whole that is created by combining elements. The two seem to contradict each other. Ruth Zaporah, creator of the Action Theater methodology offers a way to bring the two together by improvising as if you’re walking backwards, “You can see where you’ve been, but you can’t see where you’re going. But what you see does affect where you’re going” (The Improvisation of Presence, Ruth Zaporah). Interestingly enough, this matches the way in which the Aymara people of the Andes and the Tuva People of Siberia conceptualize time: the past is in front of us, where we can see it, and the future is behind us, where we can’t see it. Any intention of composing our lives can only be put into practice in real time, because we’ll never get the chance to make adjustments once we see the finished whole. Perhaps we can start making our way through life backwards like the Aymara and the Tuvans.
A composition is the result of combining elements to form a whole. Although the word may be more traditionally associated with music, it is also used for other live arts. Composing is materializing an idea or inspiration using the elements that are available. The same elements can be used to make a huge amount of radically different compositions. If we think of notes in music, the elements are finite, but the compositional possibilities, like permutations, are vast. Think about time parameters like order, duration, repetition and simultaneity. Think about space parameters like distance, size, progression and symmetry. Think about the layering of elements. Think about intensity. Think about the relationship between each part or aspect to the whole. Our lives can sometimes feel limited in terms of what is available to us. Sometimes we can open up more possibilities. Sometimes we can’t. What we can always do is compose with what we have. For one thing, some compositions are bound to satisfy us more than others. For another, we will be consciously exercising our birthright to create a path in life.