My work on a piece of music always begins with free play. Slowly ideas emerge that seem worth pursuing and spending some time with. Different ideas present themselves and reveal what they need to do. Generally I find myself wanting the music to do and be a lot of other things, and the process of composition is to some extent a slow-motion letting go of all my own preconceptions about how I think things should go.
When I improvise at the piano, I set out with little to no idea of how things might or should go, and in the course of improvising I have little to no need for anything to happen or to come of any of it. I think that's a lot of why it's one of my favorite things to do. Now, when I say improvisation, I don't mean melodic improvisation on a set of chords, or running sets of pre-rehearsed patterns - to quote Beethoven: "putsch, putsch, putsch; what does that mean? Nothing!" (Although unlike Beethoven, I'm not in any way questioning those as valid aspects of improvisation, and in fact I am always working to improve my skill in those areas.) What I mean by improvisation is truly free improvisation - listening to each sound I make at the piano or with my voice, and allowing other sounds to arise in response. There's a John Cage quote I love that captures my sense of this listening and responding process:
So that listening one takes as a springboard the first sound that comes along; the first something springs us into nothing and out of that nothing arises the next something; etc. like an alternating current. Not one sound fears the silence that extinguishes it. But if you avoid it, that’s a pity, because it resembles life very closely, and life and it are essentially a cause for joy. People say, sometimes, timidly. - John Cage, 45’ for a Speaker (Silence, p. 173)
Cage isn't talking about either composition or improvisation, but rather the experience of listening beyond conditioned musical expectations. Nevertheless I think it's an apt description of what I experience while improvising freely. Lately I've been thinking of this type of listening as authentic listening. I'm not sure I could offer a clear definition or even contrast it with other types of listening. (And I certainly wouldn't want to label any of those other types as "inauthentic".) But it's a label - if perhaps only a temporary one - for a state that I access reliably while improvising freely, and a bit less reliably in other musical activities. I wonder what might be set into motion, though, if this authentic listening were cultivated and became the default state in all things musical.