Urban Planning and Musical Categories: Exploring the Notion of Improvisation

This paper shows how urban development may be considered in terms of musical categories, and associates spontaneous and informal urban actions with their analog in musical discourse: improvisation.

"The concept of improvisation helps us challenge the common rhetoric of urbanity. Improvisation is the practice of acting and reacting, of making and creating, in the moment and in response to the stimulus of one's immediate environment. This can result in the invention of new thought patterns, new practices, new structures or symbols, and/or new ways to act. By giving rise to informal ways of life and allowing for creative thoughts, innovative ideas, radical opinions, cultural movements, and underground niches, as well as new entrepreneurial models to flourish and grow, improvisation is an all-present part of the daily experience of world-citizens in complex multicultural metropolises."

"A dose of improvisation makes people aware of the unpredictability of urban life, but also of its sensuality and playfulness. Improvisation ultimately makes cities atmospheric environments."

"All the abovementioned qualities are surely vague, nevertheless they are somehow strongly rooted in our common feelings about urbanity. Playfulness could be explained as a feeling of freedom allowing for the experimentation of new ways of life, as well as new cultural and intellectual manifestations. Sensuality could be defined as the magic ability of the urban setting to seduce the human being, much as 19th Century Paris bewitched Benjamin's flâneur. Atmosphere might be described as the quality that is more deeply rooted in the soul of the human being, and makes him "miss" a city he left, or 'long for' a new haven; it is the state of mind (the recalling of flavors, images, memories) that the human being associates with a specific urban setting."

"According to Rowan, 'rational planners have been obsessed with controlling how and when and which people use public as well as private space. Meanwhile, ordinary people continue to find creative ways of appropriating spaces and creating places, in spite of planning, to fulfill their desires as well as their needs, to tend the spirit as well as take care of the rent [ ] Improvisation thus becomes a figure for liberation, expression, risk, spontaneity, and excitement; at another register, for noise and cacophony; and also for flexibility, cooperation, and even an idealized conception of democracy. Indeed, democracy is often figured in terms of multitudes of voices, and certain kinds of music whose performance is deliberately intended to require relatively little preparation at all are referred to as free music, free jazz, or as guitarist Derek Bailey puts it, 'freely improvised music'."

"A dose of improvisation, or 'anarchy', is what makes metropolises those cauldrons of creativity and cultural production that they are, and what makes people living in dense urban settings more tolerant and socially and politically mature than their suburban counterpart. Again Rowan, mentioning sociologist Richard Sennet, explains: "Sennett has proposed no less than a 'new anarchy' as a necessary solution to urban settings: 'The great promise of city life is a new kind of confusion possible within its borders, an anarchy that will not destroy men [sic], but make them richer and more mature' (107-08). Sennett's anarchy is thus an objective correlative of the adult's 'acceptance of chance in life' (123-24). An adult accepts chance only after having survived risks, not by having avoided them, and 'cities where people are forced to confront each other' present such risks. Drawing from Weber's ethics of responsibility, he calls for 'a willingness to get involved in the kind of messy, disorganized social experiences that are immune to some transcendent end or justification'."

Thanks to Alessandro Busà

Full Story: The Urban Reinventors Online Urban Journal, Issue 2, Dec. 2007

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