Prof. Andy Hamilton—The Aesthetics of Imperfection Revisited


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.

16967033090_979c359261_o.jpgBrief bio

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.


2 thoughts on “Prof. Andy Hamilton—The Aesthetics of Imperfection Revisited

  1. Some comments gathered:

    Hi Andy,

    A question from Andrea Baldini:

    In the paper, he says that churches are semi-public spaces. (It seems that this somewhat matters to his argument.) Gordon Graham to had a paper in JAAC (“Can There Be Public Architecture?”) where he argues for the opposite claim. Churches were — in the Middle Ages — places open to everyone, even to those of different faith. They seeem places more public than a club or concert hall, where you need to pay a fee to get access. How would he respond to Graham’s point?

    Dear Andrea
    Thanks for your question.
    I have only recently been developing my ideas about art and the public space.
    I am suggesting that the presentation of art in modernity is connected with the evolution of a public sphere, of which public spaces such as art galleries and concert-halls are a part. The idea of a work (artwork) informs and is informed by such presentation.
    I doubt if this is original to me, and I need to research the literature more. But I wonder if there is a concept of a public sphere and space in pre-modern times, e.g. the medieval church. Clearly, the gallery of an aristocrat, and private performances, were not in a public sphere. But the church may be the nearest to a public space. However, we are talking only of the nave, not the choir…
    So, lots to think about I reckon!


    PS something can be fully public and involve a fee – indeed, that is the idea of a public concert, where the paying audience select themselves, and are not selected by the producers of the play or entertainment.
    I need to read the Graham article however, it looks interesting.
    Peter Cheyne:

    How about the panem et circum in Imperial Rome as a pre-modern and very important precedent? These were conscious public diversions and entertainment in huge public spaces, such as imperial parades with elephants and leopards marching with centurions, or the spectacles in public plazas and fora and amphitheatres such as the huge Colosseum. The Colosseum being a public space that is also itself a spectacle, a bit like the Millennium Dome, but with more gore.

    Is that a paying audience?

    Not sure about the Colosseum. I thought they were free circuses, but I’m not sure. The parades and the Public Forum events were free, being in the open streets and squares.

    Remember its the bourgeois public sphere with a paying audience that is modern

    Yet, the Athenian Agora was populated by discoursing citizen free men (not quite an equivalent of the bourgeoisie, but an historical counterpart), as opposed to women, slaves, and foreigners.

    The Agora would have rhetors and poets, and so arts were enjoyed in that space, not only politics and philosophy. For the philosophy and some arts, money was paid, but that was in a private capacity, to sophists and so on.


    1. Dear Andy,

      The intersection between art, public space, and public sphere is a fascinating topic. I wrote my dissertation on modalities of artistic discourse that produce (or are related to) a public sphere. It’s nice to hear that more people are getting interested in these issues!

      Jennifer Barrett wrote a book on museums and public spheres. (Museums and the Public Sphere, Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.) Theoretically, I find it a bit cumbersome, but it presents a detailed historical discussion. Then there’s Public Art: Thinking Museums Differently (Altamira, 2006) from our Hilde Hein, who is probably the only Anglo-American aesthetician who wrote systematically on these issues. They might be of help.

      Nowadays, there is strong consensus that the public sphere is not a product of the 18th century (it’s one of those Habermas’ claims that many reject today), but public spheres could be found in other historical times. If you’re interested in this topic, you can look at Massimo Rospocher’s work on public spheres during the Italian Renaissance. Fabrizio Nevola also writes amazing stuff on Renaissance street art and public spheres.

      As for the relationship between publics and fees, couldn’t one think that entry fees are devices for producers, writers, etc., to select their audience?

      Thanks again for the great paper and this discussion. I hope we can meet in person soon.

      And, once again, thanks Peter for making all of these possible!

      Andrea Baldini


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