Is (free) improvisation a liberating World View?


1. Introduction

The sociological quest is to name motivations, connections and dependencies in the world of human interaction. The field is wide; perception, communication and expression are as much to be considered as historical and economical connections. And they are to be weighted in their effect; is the materiality of human conditions more important than their intellectuality? Are humans essentially economical or cultural beings? Choice and answer of these questions result in different sociological theories. The sociological theories we touched in the course “The Sociological Imagination” had one thing in common: their similar method stemming from the common premise that it must be possible to find some causal connections in the world of humans by analysing that world. In whatever humans do there must be an inherent reflection of why they do that the way they do it; a discoverable Weltsicht or Weltanschauung frames our expressions about the world, and is expressed in the world that we create thereby.

This essay will study the Weltanschauung of a specifically expressive kind of people. I studied writings from and about musicians and composers who were active in the considered timespan from roughly the nineteen fifties to the early nineteen seventies. Based on these texts this essay will describe the world view of musicians who integrate improvisation in varying degrees into their musical practise. The quest is to look for Weltanschauung and to examine it regarding freedom and liberation.

This essay will introduce two different approaches to improvisation in music. Section will contextualise the use of the term improvisation for this essay. Furthermore this section will constitute two distinct musical traditions of improvised music. By tracing their histories it should be made clear that these are two applicable categories Afrological and Eurological musical cultures. Section three will develop further on these categories, describing their Weltanschuung looking at the role of improvisation. Section four will compare the two traditions and their potential of liberation and notion of freedom. It can be shown that there is a certain liberating power within the claim of improvisation as a valid cultural practise. Section five will briefly evaluate the completeness of this essay and formulate a statement to the subject.

This essay can be but a glance at improvised music and Weltanschauung. Many aspects would benefit from a more profound look. The intention is to provide an insight that suffices to form an opinion about the liberation potential of improvisation.

2. Improvisation in music; how come?

Improvisation is nothing unusal in the realm of human life. It designates the way we approach to a problem or task. Either we do it in a conventional way, which means for example using the appropriate screwdriver for tightening a screw, or we do it in a way that deals more freely with what is available to solve the problem (and use a spoon to tighten the screw). Improvised speech is a good analogy to musical improvisation in two aspects: it happens in the realm of acoustic utterances and also is subject to making sense or meaning of the acoustic utterance in the context of what is said; the speaker knows what s/he wants to speak about but hasn’t written down his/her speech. In order to get the message across s/he has to improvise from word to word, establishing the subject and making context from phrase to phrase until everything is said. Here we speak of free speech. In hip hop culture it is called freestyling. In calypso music the same approach was called singing ex temporenously.

When it comes to music, the task is to make music. So if we call improvisation unconventional problem solving, we also have to speak about what is conventional problem solving in music. And if we want to evaluate the result of improvisation we have to have an understanding of what music is. So the speaking about improvisation in music necessarily includes speaking about the musical Weltanschauung.

2.1 Developments in improvisation in music

In western classical music (especially in baroque times) many composers included ex tempore parts in their orchestral compositions with the idea of giving room for a musician – the soloist – to demonstrate his/her skills and abilities. In the mid-18th and 19th century this improvisatory element was vanishing in favour of composition. Composition was defined up to the 1970s a musical idea fixed on paper with the intention to be performed. (Lewis 1996)

In the new world millions of slaves gained their freedom (formally) with the abolition of slavery. The possibility of an afro-american culture was born[1]. In Jazz a musical cultural field emerged wherein the stigmatised black inhabitants of the US could begin to build up a positive identity defined by themselves. That music included the improvised solo as an integral part. In its (conceptual) idea largely the same as ex tempore playing in western music, the jazz-solo had something more immediate than in classical music. Playing a jazz-solo didn’t only mean to play as brilliantly as possible for the purpose of the music alone. It also meant that the soloist could make his individual voice heard – an individual with rights and a name and a context; he was free to express also on behalf of his listeners and furthermore of all who identified with him.

In the nineteen fifties John Cage and other composers from the New York School, but mainly Cage, developed a compositional aesthetic that “present[ed] an explicit challenge to [their western tradition of] fixed notion of composition”(Lewis 1996, p.96). Cage introduced the term indeterminacy to western musical tradition. It describes a certain approach to composition, where the composer leaves aspects or parts of his composition undetermined – open to chance or interpretation or improvisation by the musician. Cage presumably chose the term to discriminate that practise from the term and practise of improvisation as it had been used by jazz-musicians since the early 1950ies in the field of bebop music (Lewis 1996). He traced back traditions of improvisation in classical western music which had nearly been forgotten in order to justify his new term within his musical tradition. Modern classical western music at the time was highly conceptual. Its performance tradition was full of relicts from ceremonial practises of court and church. Cage’s music challenged that system fundamentally by questioning the very definition of music. He intended to open-up the rigid framework of western music-culture (Caroll, 1994). However fundamentally challenging Cage’s claim was for the tradition, it could be seen as part of a tradition within that tradition. That of experimental music. Cage had to support his claim, but didn’t have to struggle for a position to be listened to.

3. Afrological and Eurological music culture; Weltanschauung through music

It has sufficiently been demonstrated that there are two fundamentally different developments of music in general and specially regarding improvisation. Two different logics, that deserve separate names: Eurological and Afrological music culture (Lewis 1996[2]).

Bebop music is a music where improvisation is essential. Improvisation in Bebop is not a formal experiment. It developed from and within Jazz by putting bigger focus on the improvised solo. It is fast and fiery and demanding to play and listen to. Bebop is not an experiment to make music sounding new or different. It has these aspects, too. But the Afrological background of Bebop emphasised the expression of the living conditions of the players in their solos. In Afrological thinking it is impossible to separate the conceptualisation and performance of music from its social and historical context. The context expresses in the music and the music is expression about that context.

Bebop is the roots of what was to become more free and also more conceptualized improvised Afrological music. Free Jazz presented an even more radical Weltanschauung of improvisation: the claim is that music can be made without any prior fixation, purely in the Moment. As in Bebop’s solo that music reflects the social circumstances of the players. Furthermore this act of ‘musicking’ is an example for how humans could live together – dealing with the problems that arise while doing something together. The social condition of music making is stressed here. Every individual has equal rights, is in the position to pose problems and resolve them. And everyone does that in his/her individual way. The result can be heard and has an outcome of the social connectedness of individuals. That outcome has its right. It is valid because it speaks of something. It represents a collective at that moment of existence.

The new bebop music was interesting for musicians around the world – wether they cared for its politics or not. By approaching it with an Eurological background both changed, the musician’s attitude as well as the musical expression and practise that arose. Free Jazz with the strong notion of collective playing expanded the musical Weltanschauung of musicians from diverse backgrounds even more.

Eurological Weltanschuung of improvisation from the beginning rather focussed on the experimental. And thence on the inclusion of silence and accidental sounds into music. Reflection on improvisation discussed what music is or can be. And it often focussed on the activity of improvised playing and psychological attributes to the player. The conclusions from these reflections may well have further implications of social of spiritual dimensions. These are not necessarily considered to be inherent to the improvisation but are occurring in improvisation. The improvisation is a metaphor in music for what could happen in other situations as well if we can dispose our psyche accordingly.

4. Improvisation, Weltanschauung, liberation

Whichever the logic of musical culture, including improvisation has set something free from the moment it has been claimed. Neither the rigid system of racial segregation nor the strict system of Eurological music could withstand this claim unchanged. Or did these systems only change, because there were people behind that claim, insisting on its validity? Relative to the Weltanschauung that framed the claim of improvisation changes occurred; the Afrological claim was made within a Weltanschauung that included the social aspect in music and brought social changes. The Eurological claim was directed to music as such and brought changes in that field.

In the claim to validate something that was considered as invalid because of its lack of intellectual/rational accessibility might lie less liberating power than in doing it and insisting on it to be valid. With the intention of changing a system, a Weltanschauung is needed to support that claim. It can provide the rationale to what is expressed as unacceptable behaviour in that system. The behaviour’s contextualisation within a Weltanschauung makes it an controversial thing where it was just a negligence – makes a riot into a revolution.

The improvised tightening of a screw can clearly be evaluated, because there is a utilitarian moment to that improvisation. There is no such notion in music – surely not from a Eurological perspective. This is why Cage’s claim for the validation of indeterminacy could be successful. If there was a purpose to music in Eurological thinking – for example to please the audience – I doubt that Cage’s project could have been successful.

As for that other culture: if there wouldn’t have been an Afrological Weltanschauung behind the improvisations, they could not have meant as much in the culture they appeared in. The improvisation couldn’t have been subject to the notion of uprising but would have been restaint to be a musical experiment.

Improvisation as Weltanschauung certainly has a liberating power. I hope this could be shown in the course of this text. And it did not only have this power in the historical moment of its occurrence. The very essence of improvisation – to react to the present in the present – frees its Weltanschuung from temporal conditions and therefore resistant to ossification. Improvisation that had to follow a certain formula for improvising would in fact loose its liberating powers, its notion of freedom. But such a formula cannot be found. Improvisation is improvised only when it is unconventional.

5. Closing words to open-up

Jazz – with its often as inherent perceived notion of improvisation – gradually climbed the cultural latter. Musicians from Eurological tradition joined in. Jazz got accepted by the Eurologically dominanted culture politics of the US, expressed in the “Resolution 57” from 1987 (see Fischlin 2012) which calls Jazz a “indigenous american music and art form”(Cit. Ibid. p.13). By practising the musical logics synthesised coining the term improvised music.

A look at improvised music as mentioned above cannot be discussed here. The subject of improvisation and Weltanschauung could be elucidated sufficiently to form an opinion about it. From musical practise I know that there is a moment of freedom in improvisation. Once freedom has been claimed – and even more so when it was framed by a Weltanschauung – it cannot easily be taken away.

If the world says No to what you want to do, you have to improvise your Yes!



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[1]   In the sense of becoming potential subject to “official” or governmental recognition.

[2]   Lewis’ distinction is explicitly not one of race or history, it is one of different internal logic of music making or one might say of musical Weltanschauung. Lewis (1996) pp. 93-94