Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

Utopian Medieval Town

Why musical improvisation is utopian? Because it is a place of the spirit that does not lead to any place. Utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’. This is the reason why we say that musical improvisation is utopian. This idea in fact belonging to my generation – that improvisation was the big thing that could produce new insights & musical discoveries – led to nowhere.

In the 1970s musical improvisation as a theory and practice greatly influenced musicians. It was based on concepts like intuition, immediate action and reaction, and on the idea of mysterious mental faculties not far from Zen which were thought to favour the discovery of new patterns and unexpected solutions. Maybe it is not by chance that J. D. Salinger was attracted to Zen (see our post on digression in speech and writing; there is a subtle link between that post and the present one).

As far as we know (and our taste goes) improvisation has rarely created anything really interesting, with its tendency towards superficial results we can observe for example in some (or many) jazz pieces. Great composers and pianists like Chopin and Liszt used to be oustanding improvisers as well but their piano impromptus were seldom published and in any case were regarded by their creators as works inferior in quality (listen below to the Fantasie-impromptu in C-sharp minor by Chopin played by Valentina Igoshina; it is a work Chopin was not very proud of … well, maybe it is not too profound, but Chopin is Chopin … ;-) ).

In 1975 the American pianist Keith Jarret carried out a tremendously successful jazz improvisation at the Cologne Opera House in Germany. It was the famous Köln Concert that created a new fashion of piano solo music based on improvisation and which in my view is a beautiful piece of music but here too we note flaws like excessive repetitions and passages confused and predictable (you can listen to the beginning of this work thanks to YouTube).

Note. This Köln Concert – not to mention the splendid Impromptu by Chopin – is great stuff, I do not want to diminish it, being an explosive mixture of jazz with a scent of classical, blues, gospel and rock, all so inspired and “flowing with human warmth” (quote from Jazz: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 1995.) Just try to follow my point though and compare for example this Chopin’s Impromptu with other compositions by the same Polish-French musician.

An interesting aspect of improvisation is the high level of concentration required by the artist to produce anything decent, which some critics say it can favour a strong empathic relationship with the public. This is true but one can equally say that the same thing occurs during an inspired execution of composed music, namely music which did not spring out extemporaneously and was instead previously well constructed and thought over.

A great interpreter is in fact able to relive with renewed freshness a work composed even centuries earlier, which equally allows him to involve the public in ways empathic and with the added value of a work which is deeper and better constructed.

In short (and as far as we understand) the process of musical construction (composition) produces better results compared to this more or less spontaneous way of creating music called improvisation. What we are saying of course applies to other arts as well, such as theatre, dance, literature or rhetoric (i.e. public speaking, or writing, with the goal of persuading the audience): Romans like Marcus Tullius Cicero and Julius Caesar carefully prepared their speeches, even though, when necessary, they were able to improvise.

This doesn’t mean that improvisation isn’t a valid creative tool. We can play our instruments and express ourselves freely, or we can speak on the microphone of a computer in search of ideas for our writings. The resulting matter though should go through a post-production phase. It should, in other words, be purified and wisely inserted into the compositional process.

Italian version

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See also:

Digression vs Sticking to the Point
A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Improvisations by MoR:

Two Piano Improvisations
A Dionysian improvisation



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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. [...] Summarizing a bit, improvisation is the thin link among the present post and these earlier ones, Digression vs Sticking to the Point and Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian. [...]

  2. [...] related posts: A Novel in the Hands of the Killers Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)10 Signs Guy is in LoveOld WordsThe White House – [...]

  3. [...] result were a dozen improvisations that lead to nowhere and sound now so badly because of analogical worn out tapes and especially when compared to the pro [...]

  4. There is improvisation and then there is improvisation. Pure improv is indeed utopian. However in jazz as in theatre, improvisations call for a basic theme, a basic line from which the performer elaborates and embroiders.
    When improvising a speech, the orator ususally has a basic knowledge of the subject at hand and knows where he wants to lead his audience, just as in music.
    And one should never ever compare one to pros if one considers himself an amateur, learned as that amateur may be.
    Commenting on a blog is improv on a known theme.

    • I agree Paul, but my position here is not rational, it follows my taste. In speech, theatre or writing (commenting on blogs for ex as you so well argue) I see good stuff every day, but in music I was too often deceived by both the real pros and by myself. Is music different? That Chopin, Beethoven, Schubert etc. disliked their improvisations may say something.

      Jazz I adore but I find it a bit superficial. Because this whole thing imo is around depth. Possibly music is too complex to reach real depth in this manner.

      I have been a bad dilettante piano improviser, and an almost pro guitar one. In the 90s all my (keyboard alas) compositions were based on improvisations. I strongly disliked them and it made me reflect on this topic.

      I much prefer my blabbering posts to my blabbering music. Possibly I felt a flopped musician and this reflected on the music itself. Indian music may offer the perfect improvised music, it’s in its genes (as a metaphor). I’d like to know more about it.

  5. In the 50 years that I have sat at the piano improvising to myself I have not produced anything of any worth, so evident when I return to listen to real music.

    This applies whether I have followed the flow or whether I have imposed disciplines and structure upon a previously conceived idea. What results in either case is a pale, thin shadow of others’ creations.

    It is possible that the difference arises from motivation: is the exercise self-indulgent or for the benefit of others? I think it is much more to do with innate gift or absence of it.

    • Interesting. So you are a musician too, we have so many things in common. I’ll reply when I can since I have been to the canine hospital: Lilla (our Bolognese) will survive!

      • I shall keep a watch out for good news about Lilla.

        btw It is over-stating it to call me a musician! I simply related a personal experience.

        • I am going to take Lilla back home soon, thanks for your support.

          Oh Romans always ‘over-state’! But we, well I, am careful not to ‘over-rate’ (Philosophy, Art etc.): to me everyone is a philosopher, a sportsman, a musician etc.
          Pros are better only for the level of training & specialization. Which doesn’t mean the non pros should keep silent. We do blog, don’t we? I want to start with guitar again, life is short.

          Motivation could be crucial, but talent is over-rated too imo, the world being full of talented people who flopped. Discipline counts more I believe.

          • You are so right. Life is short. All of us can only do the best we can. If we try to do the right thing, that is all that can be asked of us. Needless to say, there will be many mistakes.

          • Yes, the right thing …altho what is ‘right’ varies according to cultures. Peaceful a) ‘inter-culture’ and b) ‘inter-gender’ is possible only via understanding, compassion, which seldom occur. I am shifting, I wonder why.

  6. [...] I blabber with words, why shouldn’t I blabber with sounds. Here are two 1995 piano improvisations. My background is classical but the influence of American music is felt here, the US jazz icon Keith Jarret especially.

    Some mushy hesitations, no style choice, are due to slowness of mind: I just didn’t know where the heck to go – improvising is damn hard. [...]


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