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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Gary Peters – Improvising Improvisation (University of Chicago Press, 2017) ****½

By Chris Haines

In recent years we’ve seen the literature published on improvisation grow considerably, from a few obscure titles to an ever increasing canon of works. Recent ones such as Trevor Barre’s Beyond Jazz, David Toop’s Into The Maelstrom, and Duncan Heining’s Trad Dads, Dirty Boppers and Free Fusioneers, to name a few, have mainly been historical accounts fleshing out the sketchy details of a somewhat forgotten and murky past. However, Peters recent book analyses the experiences and creative moments of musical improvisation using a philosophical lens to bring the finer points into focus and to extract meaning from the improvising of improvisation, hence the title. Peters’ work isn’t for the faint hearted and it’s not an easy book to skip through as a light reader. This is a serious academic text, which following on from his first book a few years ago – The Philosophy of Improvisation that also uses the theorizing of Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Adorno, and Kant among others to shed light on the concept of improvising, whilst this new book is focusing on the ‘performance’ (in it’s widest connotation) of our beloved spontaneous musical art form.

Peters mentions early on in Improvising Improvisation that he had taken the criticism from his first book, of the lack or scarcity of musical examples to illustrate his points, and he has regularly included case studies and memoirs in this publication either as a jumping off point or to indeed illustrate the philosophies in a practical manner. Some of these include a piece on Lol Coxhill, another on Jimi Hendrix, one on Miles Davis, and a slightly amusing one on Gato Barbieri (really focusing on his drummer at the time Bernard Purdie). Because of this Improvising Improvisation makes for a much more interesting and enjoyable read than it’s predecessor, although personally I did still find some of the philosophical theorizing quite dense and difficult to grasp. This is not a reflection on the writing per se, although I did find myself ‘translating’ similar theories through a psychoanalytic lens, which for me seemed to make more sense in a much less roundabout way. It is a personal view but I couldn’t help thinking that some of the theorizing seemed quite ‘clunky’ and ended up chasing it’s tail on occasion. However, it is well written even though at times it seems like he’s using inferior tools to do the job – I appreciate this is a contentious point of view. More importantly though this type of work can only be a positive, not only to raise a more detailed enquiry, and Peters excels at this, but to also raise the profile of our much misunderstood art form within academic circles. Having previously been a classroom music teacher and an examiner for musical composition within the education system in the UK it was sad to see that the set understanding for improvisation was reduced to an anecdote whilst the esteemed and illustrious cousin of composition was crowned with full technical treatises based on the likes of form, structure, motivic development, harmonic progressions, etc., and if anyone dared to produce an improvisation for their coursework it was damned by being moderated through the same strict criteria set for compositional work, which was doomed for failure – especially something resembling free improv.

Even though at the beginning Peters suggests that he has written the book as a kind of improvisation in itself, bringing to mind a type of ‘grounded theory’ approach (another interesting book from last year – Gagel, R. & Schwabe, M. (2016) Researching Improvisation – Researching by Improvisation, Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag), although there are threads such as the ‘event’ and the ‘moment of now’ which gives the text a sense of linearity, implying a journey, although not necessarily a planned one (Klee’s taking a line for a walk, anyone?). Other topics include the beginnings of improvisation (does it actually end?), the difference between precision and accuracy, the scale of categories from fixed idiomatic to the somewhat theoretical notion of unfixed non-idiomatic (get your head round that one!), and a new stance on the ol’ chestnut of improvisation and habit a lá Boulez.

Although by the very nature of the book it’s sure not to appeal to a wider audience, hopefully it might at least generate some discussion and act as a blueprint for future theoretical texts on musical improvisation, like a shot into the future where it may be discovered again at a critical time for the art form we all covet and desire. In some ways it reminds me of the Interpretation of Music by Thurston Dart, not for it’s content (this was an early treatise for the performing of early classical music, medieval, Renaissance, Baroque etc., on period instruments, which many years later lead to the ‘Authenticity’ movement - which in itself was highly invented!), but as a catalyst for the development of a musical genre (is improvisation a genre?) to be taken in full seriousness as it rightly deserves.
This is an important text for improvisation and it has been written by someone who not only, as the chair of philosophy and performance at York St. John University, in the UK, has a very good command and understanding of philosophical thought, but also as an improviser himself (he used to be in the band Stinky Winkles with Veryan Weston) you feel as if your in good hands as he leads you through the dialogue step by step, with the knowledge that as a practitioner himself he has a better understanding than some dry academic holed up in an ivory tower. In his conclusion Peters hopes that he’s written a ‘good enough’ book and in a Winnicottian sense he certainly has. It’s a book that I feel we should all try to read and re-read, again – like the Beckett quote in the book (during an interesting comparison between Derek Bailey and Samuel Beckett, and for more than just looks!) “…You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”


Anonymous said...

New book by Fred Moten, Black and Blur, due out soon....