Some thoughts on Gary Peters’ “Philosophy of Improvisation”

This post was originally published on my PhD blog: stay and make kin.

There are definitely some salvageable insights in Peters’ Philosophy of improvisation (2009), and I will do my best to tease them out over time. I’m also aware that a lot of this will take a fair bit of thinking and engaging with some philosophy I’m not super familiar with (esp. Heidegger), and that the surface reflections I write here are just that and could potentially be laced with near-lethal misinterpretations (it wouldn’t be the first time). But I’m confident at least that Peters’ approach and most of his conclusions virtually embody exactly the kind of thinking and writing on improvisation that I’m aiming to push against, or rather to step away from into a new and in my mind much more exciting direction.

Okay, so I’ve read the introduction and first chapter. As far as I can so far tell, Peters’ improviser is the Romantic artist par excellence (i.e. Heidegger’s artist) – the tragic, solitary figure, who converses not with his* collaborators but rather with the improvisation itself, conceived of as the “artwork” (although Peters insists that this does not make it a “product” in the Adornian sense, I’m yet to find out how). He rails against an unattributed supposedly universal conception of free-improvisation as founded on empathy – “a glorified love-in dressed up as art” (p.3) – and so works hard to present an alternative formulation, but as yet it’s unclear to me exactly how the conception of the improvising subject he gives is at all unique to improvisation (and not composition).

While building this image of the improviser, he also looks outside of music for examples of improvisation in action. For Peters, improvisation is supposed to capture something of a reproduction of a “lost origin” of freedom. Using the analogy of the “Scrap Yard Challenge” (a kind of reality-TV show popular in the UK and US, for which I can’t think of an Australian equivalent besides “Bush Mechanics”, which is a celebration of the ingenuity and ability of Indigenous Australians in remote areas to get the most defunct vehicle up and running with the most extraordinary means, and seemingly has quite a different focus on purpose and necessity), he conceives of improvisation as constructing something new out of the discards found in the dustbin of history – an idea I can get behind, especially with the help of Anna Löwenhaupt Tsing’s matsutake mushrooms “at the end of the world” and Donna Haraway’s insistence that we “stay with the trouble”. But for Peters this is an entirely negative conception. Peters’ improvisers work according to Keith Johnstone’s figuration, “like a man walking backwards. He sees where he has been, but pays no attention to the future” (in Peters, p.9).

A long quote:

Improvisers pride themselves on their openness to the other: this is at the heart of the collaborative practices that dominate the improvisatory field, particularly in music, dance, and theater. But the humanity of one being opening him- or herself to another within an aesthetic space created by improvisation only touches upon one aspect of the work of the artwork: its createdness. But our scrap yard improvisers are doing something different. Certainly, there is collaboration (they are in teams) but the human interaction that provides the dramatic tension necessary in the world of entertainment should not be allowed to obscure the fact that it is the knowledge and will of the individual participants “in the midst of what is” and their preparedness to use this will to preserve the openness of the wreckage that is piled up before them that ultimately determines the success or failure of the improvised response to their predicament. It is not so much working together to make something new out of the old but, rather, the more solitary act of “standing-within” the old, occupying it in such a way that its own opening into being or “thrust into the Open” is preserved. If there is a collaborative dimension to improvisation it is not empathetic but closer to what Heidegger describes as the “unsociability” of “Being-with”. (pp.16–17)

Hang on – is he actually saying that these improvisers are no more than the sum of their parts?? Is that really his lived experience of improvisation?

Vanessa pointed out in a discussion with Louise and me yesterday that this idea is not wrong – such a practice definitely exists in the world of free improvisation. Certainly I have had experiences with improvisers (not to generalise lol, but usually men) who are so deeply focussed on their internal world, caught up in their own musical egos, that to play with them is essentially an exercise in non-relation. I wrote about that some more in my post on sympoiesis and Haraway – musicians like this are engaging in autopoiesis. They seem not to recognise that existing in isolation is always already an impossibility, even when playing solo, and are blind to the effect their internalised focus is having on those around them. These improvisers are the ones more likely to decide on what their “thing” is, and to do that “thing” ad nauseam at the expense of all other possibilities of relation, expansion, collaboration, contamination, and co-creation. This approach is sterile, and while it can produce some very impressive and “virtuosic” musicians, often it leads to the extreme frustration of any and all collaborators and sometimes (speaking from experience) audience members. Louise noted that this absurd and ineffective non-relation is often the case when jazz festivals throw together an “all star” band. Such practices also lead to questions I have heard from a number of people: “Is free improvisation really free? Is it not just its own particular style?”

I think Peters sees his enemy in what he perceives as an unselfconsciously hippy/New Age-style conception of connection and togetherness. He doesn’t name culprits, but one can’t help but feel he wouldn’t be a great fan of Pauline Oliveros’ “deep listening”, nor perhaps my thinking of improvisation through sympoiesis. He is quite disparaging, and paints this “empathetic” improviser as somehow not grounded in reality or truly engaged in art. My thought is that perhaps he has had some negative experiences of improvising with musicians that focus all their energies on signifiers of relation: principally imitation, which also leads to frustrating experiences (for me too). But his solution is to turn to philosophical idealism (Hegel, Heidegger) – while he cites Adorno on occasion, most of his ideas are very far from materialist. In my thinking of improvisation I’m finding Haraway and Tsing’s grounding in the messy reality of biological contamination, interpenetration, and chance collaboration so much more fruitful and fertile, with the optimism of newness a constant possibility without chaining the idea of “new” to that of “progress”. It’s about addition, not subtraction: the improviser in tentacular relations with human and non-human elements at play in each and every moment.

Still from Annihilation

Last night Liam and I watched Annihilation, a film that in Australia went straight to Netflix because it was considered too intellectual (and… women-led?) for cinemas here. Without giving too much away (it’s a worthwhile watch!), it features a kind of alien life-form that could perhaps be thought of as forming a kind of subjectivity that falls between singularity and plurality: eternal refraction of information, including DNA, leading to a single life-form (plant, animal, fungal, presumably also microbial) adopting the characteristics of multiple species (or genera, or kingdoms, or even non-life crystallised structures such as salt). In the “shimmer” zone you are at once yourself and everything else, but you are somehow still just one singularity (Liam pointed out that this is definitely on the eerie side of Mark Fisher’s “weird” and “eerie”). The image of refraction is heavily associated with psychedelics; fractal imagery is exploited throughout the film – the whole thing looks at times like a Björk film clip. But there is something deeply melancholic about all this, especially the potential for human subjectivity to be forever changed and for life to be left “not knowing what it wants” – that is, without the stability of the “selfish gene” (Dawkins, after Darwin) of reproduction and species survival we have no drive towards progress, posited as something essential to what it means to be human. Is this kind of what Peters is afraid of?

At the beginning of chapter two (which I’ve just started), Peters notes that free improvisation should be conceived of more as “freedom-from” than “freedom-to” (p.22) and to some extent I agree: we want to be free first of all from stylistic constraint, from expectation, from tradition, from tonality, and so on. But of course freedom-to is also an important component, which should perhaps be seen in dialogue with freedom-from. Affirmation is hardly the enemy at play. It will be interesting to delve deeper into his conception of liberty, and to think more about my own. So: to be continued.


* Likely in large part due to the dated texts this draws upon, “he/him/his” is the universal pronoun in this text – where “she/her” appears in Peters’ own writing it is only ever in addition to the “he”; why writers of this kind don’t just use “them” is beyond me except that of course it has everything to do with the assumed masculine subjectivity of the artist.

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