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Improvising Improvisation

From Out of Philosophy, Music, Dance, and Literature

There is an ever-increasing number of books on improvisation, ones that richly recount experiences in the heat of the creative moment, theorize on the essence of improvisation, and offer convincing arguments for improvisation’s impact across a wide range of human activity. This book is nothing like that. In a provocative and at times moving experiment, Gary Peters takes a different approach, turning the philosophy of improvisation upside-down and inside-out.
Guided by Kant, Hegel, Heidegger, and especially Deleuze—and exploring a range of artists from Hendrix to Borges—Peters illuminates new fundamentals about what, as an experience, improvisation truly is. As he shows, improvisation isn’t so much a genre, idiom, style, or technique—it’s a predicament we are thrown into, one we find ourselves in. The predicament, he shows, is a complex entwinement of choice and decision. The performativity of choice during improvisation may happen “in the moment,” but it is already determined by an a priori mode of decision. In this way, improvisation happens both within and around the actual moment, negotiating a simultaneous past, present, and future. Examining these and other often ignored dimensions of spontaneous creativity, Peters proposes a consistently challenging and rigorously argued new perspective on improvisation across an extraordinary range of disciplines. 

288 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2017

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Music: General Music

Philosophy: Aesthetics, General Philosophy


"Peters presents a work on improvisation that is itself an improvisational work—what he calls in chapter 4 a 'live enactment of aesthetic judgment.' As not only a philosopher but an experienced musician with a wealth of knowledge of the subject, he clearly understands his topic both viscerally and philosophically. He provides more of an exploration than a philosophical foundation for improvisation. With lively descriptive and critical examples of jazz improvisers such as Lol Coxhill, Bernard Purdie, Charlie Parker, and his own band, Stinky Winkles, Peters displays an extensive background in Continental philosophy, music history, and education. Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Deleuze, and others are liberally referenced for theoretical connections. The reader should be warned that this book sometimes has a seat-of-the-pants feel that can be refreshing and stimulating at times but can seem scattered and arbitrary at other times, depending on the reader’s taste and mood. Undeniably, the diligent will learn much about the history and theory of musical improvisation, and a lot of philosophy as well. This well-intentioned, often idiosyncratic and obscure book is an enlightening labor of love about a vexing but fascinating topic. Highly recommended."


"[A]n ambitious attempt to reframe the way we think about improvisation and to phrase it in the vocabulary of Continental philosophy. Some of these terms are more transparent than others, and at times the path of the argument becomes entangled in an undergrowth of abstractions. Although it occasionally seems to lose its way—as can happen during an extemporized performance—the book contains some valuable insights into the nature of improvisation, particularly in regard to the preconditions underlying improvisation—the cognitive and physical resources that improvisation presupposes and indeed is dependent on."


"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... 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.'"

The Free Jazz Collective

"This book is an exceptionally sophisticated treatment of improvisation. Peters is equally immersed in music and philosophy, making this a substantial contribution and a giant step forward for the topic."

Michael Gallope, University of Minnesota

"The case studies are valuable and most fluent are those concerning music, for Peters is an accomplished multi-instrumentalist."

Koninklijke Brill NV

Table of Contents


1 I’ve Started, so I’ll Begin: Heidegger’s Other Beginning and the Origin of Improvisation
2 With What Must the Improvisation Begin? Kant and Hegel on Certainty
3 Memoir: Lol Coxhill (In Memoriam)
4 Case Study: The Recedents (Lol Coxhill, Roger Turner, and Mike Cooper)
5 Precision, Decision, and Accuracy: Heidegger and Arendt on Singularity and Solitude
6 Decentered Center/Displaced Periphery: A Deleuzian Perspective
7 Memoir: San Sebastian Jazz Festival, July 20– 25, 1980
8 Case Study: Bernard “Pretty” Purdie
9 Fixing and Unfi xing Idioms and Non- Idioms: Developing Derek Bailey’s Concept of Improvisation
10 A Diff erent Sameness: Borges and Deleuze on Repetition
11 Memoir: Bluegrass in Cheltenham
12 Case Study: The Del McCoury Band
13 Virtuality and Actualization: Deleuze and Bluegrass
14 Deleuzian Improvisation
15 Improvisation and Habit
16 Case Study: Jurij Konjar and Steve Paxton: The Goldberg Variations
17 Habit and Event: Rehearsing, Practising, Improvising
18 Memoir: The Woburn Pop Festival, 1968
19 Case Study: Jimi Hendrix
20 Composition, Improvisation, and Obligation: Schoenberg and Beckett on Duty
21 Bits and Scraps: Derek Bailey and the Improvised Situation
22 Memoir: Miles Davis, Royal Festival Hall, July 1984
23 Case Study: Cyndi Lauper, “Time After Time”


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