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.
Improvisations by MoR: