How to approach improvised music – a suggestion

The other day, I was listening to the fantastic video broadcast of the y2k9loopfest. Festival manager Rick Walker would introduce the next artist, and conclude his short speech with the phrase “so, you see, this is ALL IMPROVISED!”

I’ve heard this mentioned quite a few times recently at various concerts of contemporary music, and everytime the person mentioning it (either the artist himself or the emcee) would say that in that exact same voice that a circus director uses to announce the next trick of his animals or some dubious salesman would use to sell some worthless paintings “painted by a woman with her mouth, because she has no arms!”

So what does that tell us about what improvised music (or improvised art in general) is about: some kind of in-between of a breathtaking circus routine or an otherwise worthless piece of art which gets its appeal from the fact that the artist has a rare brain disability which keeps him from playing “proper” music?

There’s tons of different views on improvisation, but I’ll start with a radical one: that of the normal (meaning: not being a musicologist) listener:
“I only care if I like the music. If it’s a live performance, I also care about the presentation. Everything else is irrelevant.”

There you have it. The quality of a piece of art is not influenced by the method used to create it, nor by specific features of the artist. Taking an improvised approach will lead to different results than when playing composed material, and some people enjoy that kind of result. But for any given work of art, and let’s take Miles Davis’ “In a Silent Way” album as an example, it really doesn’t matter for the listener how much of it exactly was improvised, or how much was even changed later by tape editing. It’s generally regarded as a timeless work of art (and I share that view), much the same as e.g. Bach’s “Die Kunst der Fuge” (the art of the fugue) is.

So for all the artists and emcees: nobody (except for the musicologists in the audience, and they may bloody well ask the musician) needs to know if the performance is improvised. Either it’s great (and neither the fact that it’s improvised nor the fact that it isn’t will take anything away from that), or it sucks, and in that case it won’t help you to announce that it was improvised and your keyboard player had a pain in his leg.

And for the listeners: simply ignore that information, and for exactly the same reasons. Go to the circus to see impressive tricks, but go to a concert to listen to capturing music.


This article was originally posted on my old blog on October 20th 2009 under the title “What is improvised music?”. As I still believe it’s valid today, and as I also want to write about some more aspects of improvised music, I decided to put it here as well.

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2 thoughts on “How to approach improvised music – a suggestion

  1. Very nice post. I laughed so much with the worthless paintings thing :)

    I absolutely agree that the fact that something is improvised doesn’t magically make bad music any better. But I would say that there are some exceptions to the rule. I think there’s something awesome about seeing a virtuoso on stage, and certain improvisations are to me mind-virtuosoness (just made that word up).

    I remember going to a concert where an organist improvised a perfectly composed double fugue. It was a good fugue, but I was blown away from the thought that there was a guy up there doing all the counterpoint work in seconds and planning at the same time a good dramatic form.

    Anyway, as you say, at the end of the day what matters is that the music is good. I’d just add that if it is great music, virtuosity gets some extra points for the musician (either “Wow! Look at those fingers!” or “Wow! This guy thinks fast!”). The problem to me is when people think virtuosity is enough. That’s putting the cart before the horses :)

    1. Dear Alex,

      thanks for your comment. There’s really not much to add, perhaps only to you statement “virtuosity gets some extra points for the musician”.

      This is no doubt true (and I’m guilty of being impressed e.g. by Stanley Jordan ALSO because of his virtuosity) – but I’d like to point out that for me, virtuosity does not get extra points for the music.

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