The Aesthetics of Imperfection Revisited: The Alleged Uniqueness of Musical Improvisation
Andy Hamilton (Durham University)
Most of the world’s music, through most of its history, has been improvised in the broadest sense. This near-universal tendency needs no defence. However, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the growing authority of the composer increasingly inspired a reaction from improvisers. Following Ted Gioia in The Imperfect Art, we can talk of two rival aesthetics. The aesthetics of perfection emphasizes the timelessness of the work and the authority of the composer; ultimately it is, loosely speaking, Platonistic, viewing music as essentially abstract sound-structures. In contrast, the aesthetics of imperfection is consciously humanistic, valuing the event or process of performance. The idea of an “aesthetics of imperfection” appears paradoxical—how could imperfection be aesthetically valuable?
Composer and improviser Alfred Zimmerlin (piano) takes vigorous exception to an “aesthetics of imperfection”. Discussing his trio with Harald Kimmig (violin) and Daniel Studer (bass), Zimmerlin comments: “Our music has nothing to do with imperfection…I could call it an aesthetic of making a piece of art in the moment—sculpting a sound directly, working on its components. Probably you could compose these complex sounds, but is it necessary? Composition has other aims and advantages. Working so directly on a sound is one of the qualities of free improvised music—along with collective time flow, collective energy, collective mobile forms”.
For him, the aim of improvisation and composition is the same: “Composition and free improvisation are two very different methods to lead you to the same goal: to get as good and as lively a music as possible. Composition usually is a lonely—solo—métier where you carefully reflect every note and every sound. You reflect it in verbal thinking and in imagination, and you have all the time in the world to do so. It is a slow process”.
“In contrast, free improvisation is a collective work”, he continues. “All your decisions as a performer affect the decisions of the others – you have a common time and a common space of expression in which to act in real time. This doesn’t mean that an improviser reflects less than a composer, but they do it before and after the creation of the music. This way of thinking while creating is musical thinking in the purest sense, a thinking in sounds – the only thinking that is possible in real time, thinking in words is much too slow! If you think in sounds, you think and create in the same moment. You get into a state of a collective musical energy, a flow, which creates the form of a piece, which in the end is as convincing as a composed form, but different”.
Since I’ve been trying to develop the idea of an aesthetics of imperfection over some years, Zimmerlin’s comments give pause for thought. I don’t disagree with anything that he says, except about the label—but although, to reiterate, “aesthetics of imperfection” does not imply a deficiency or failing of improvisation, his argument suggests a continuing hidden bias in it. At its best, the form of an improvised piece is as convincing as that of the best composition. But it’s approached from a different perspective, not as more or less well-formed. In this paper I attempt to defend the idea of an aesthetics of imperfection against Zimmerlin’s objections.
Andy Hamilton is well-known for his work in aesthetics, especially on the previously neglected topic of rhythm philosophically considered. His areas of expertise are philosophy of mind, history of 19th and 20th century philosophy, and Wittgenstein, and he is currently working on topics in aesthetics and political philosophy. Here is a recent open-access article on ‘Populism, Elitism, And Democracy’ (In The Age Of Brexit And Trump). He has published many articles in Journals including the British Journal of Aesthetics, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, and his books include Aesthetics and Music (Continuum 2007), Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art (Michigan University Press 2007), Scruton’s Aesthetics (eds Andy Hamilton & Nick Zangwill (Palgrave Macmillan 2012), The Self in Question: Memory, the Body and Self-Consciousness (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), the Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Wittgenstein and On Certainty (2014), The Nature of Rhythm: Aesthetics, Music, Poetics (eds Andy Hamilton & Max Paddison Oxford University Press forthcoming 2017).
This conference is supported by JSPS Kakenhi grant number 16K02109.