Improvisation and Social Aesthetics, the latest volume in the series Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice published by Duke University Press, is a welcome addition to the ever-expanding field of critical improvisation studies. Indeed, many of the book's contributors are innovators in the field, and many are also directly involved with the international research project that inspired the book series, now called the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, or IICSI. (The present reviewer is a Research Associate of this institute.) The book itself originated in a conference held at McGill University in 2010, one of the many symposia that generated IICSI. This brief context is important, since many musicologists may not be directly familiar with IICSI, and because a wide swath of the research coming from IICSI is beyond the range of conventional musicological discourse. Nevertheless, as the presence of figures such as Georgina Born, Lisa Barg, and Nicholas Cook suggests, music and musicological research provide the disciplinary background for most of the essays in Improvisation and Social Aesthetics. Like much of the work in the field of critical improvisation studies, interdisciplinary research in the present volume often refers back to or is modeled on ideas and insights from the fields of musicology, ethnomusicology, popular music studies, and other music-centric fields. That being said, much of the focus of Improvisation and Social Aesthetics (as the title suggests) is on the complex interrelationship between sometimes seemingly disparate categories. Or rather, as coeditors Born, Eric Lewis, and Will Straw argue in their introduction, “just as social (and economic and political) conditions and processes shape art and music, so do art and music shape social (and economic and political) life” (p. 6). Born develops this idea even more explicitly in the essay that also introduces the book's central ideas, “After Relational Aesthetics: Improvised Music, the Social, and (Re)Theorizing the Aesthetic”:
While the guardians of formalism or of the philosophical legacies of German idealism might strive to maintain that music is an art of pure sounding form and that its social manifestations are secondary, they are now matched by writers for whom music's social qualities are considered in various ways intrinsic to aesthetic experience; indeed, this is now arguably an established view in ethnomusicology … and in popular music studies. (p. 39)
As Born's statement suggests, the belief in an interconnection between art and life will be second nature to many music scholars. Groundbreaking work in ethnomusicology and the new musicology over the past fifty years has foregrounded the study of this interconnection, as Ingrid Monson notes in her essay “From the American Civil Rights Movement to Mali: Reflections on Social Aesthetics and Improvisation.” However, as Monson also argues, the way in which the social and the aesthetic have been conceptualized outside of fields such as ethnomusicology has often either neglected innovative research or resulted in the development of theoretical frameworks open to significant critique. The ideas of art theorist and curator Nicolas Bourriaud act as the central foil in this respect throughout Improvisation and Social Aesthetics. Bourriaud's concept of “relational aesthetics” (from his 2002 book of the same name) provides an entry point for many of the contributors. Born, Lewis, and Straw give a useful summary of Bourriaud's ideas in their introduction, as well as framing the wider context of social aesthetics. Briefly described, their central contention is that Bourriaud's ideas are some of the latest and most influential in a developing view of the way artistic and social worlds are interrelated—that artistic objects and processes cannot be conveniently disconnected from other domains of life and that important social connections can be created through the experience of viewing and/or making art. As the editors and many of the contributors to Improvisation and Social Aesthetics point out, however, Bourriaud's ideas are grounded primarily in the world of Eurocentric visual and performance art practice. This is where the book's focus on improvisation—both as an artistic practice and as a technique for living—functions as a central contribution to aesthetic theory overall. Because of its ongoing connections to cultures and peoples typically ignored or actively denigrated in the longer history of aesthetic and historical discourse (for example, Afro-diasporic musics), improvisation offers a key conceptual framework for both developing and conceptualizing social aesthetics. As the editors note, “the lineages of improvised music of the late twentieth century often manifested a heightened reflexivity about the socialities engendered by performance, just as some practitioners set out to engage with the social in inventive ways” (p. 40). As in much of the work associated with the IICSI project, the foregrounding of improvisation here is partly a corrective to a legacy of neglect or misunderstanding. However, the editors and many of the contributors adopt a critical and self-conscious perspective on the extent to which improvisation can be validated, glorified, or otherwise recuperated in naive ways. Throughout Improvisation and Social Aesthetics, the definitions and socio-aesthetic context of improvisation are just as complexly argued over as the category of social aesthetics.
While the intricacies surrounding the definitions of and debates about social aesthetics are useful and important to acknowledge, readers unfamiliar with the larger context will nevertheless quickly and easily engage with the individual essays in the book. As befits the complex social environment that the editors indicate as their focus, Improvisation and Social Aesthetics presents ideas from many different domains and subjects. As in any edited volume, not every essay will interest or be to the taste of every reader, but to a large degree the essays form a relatively coherent body of analysis, focusing as they do on the connection between improvisation and artistic (usually musical) practice. This unity speaks not to a conformity of opinions or ideas, however, as many of the authors offer varying or even contradictory positions on their common themes; as noted above, the definition of and value attributed to improvisation itself varies widely between essays, as seen in Nicholas Cook's consideration of Western art music and Marion Froger's piece on New Wave cinema, for example. Overall, the volume offers a lively and rich selection of critical insights from a range of scholars in the fields of music, literature, theater, dance, philosophy, and film.
As the complexity of the wider theoretical framework suggests, some of the most intriguing essays in the volume are those that purport to focus on a particular topic but deliver unexpected insights into a different area. One of the benefits of reading the entire book, as opposed to picking essays that match a particular topic or interest, is that the volume as a whole includes an almost kaleidoscopic range of history and mystery (to paraphrase Sun Ra) from the world of human artistic practice. For example, in theater scholar Zoë Svendsen's essay, “The Dramaturgy of Spontaneity: Improvising the Social in Theater,” we learn that the preparation drills for Cold War–era nuclear attacks included a set of contexts and instructions remarkably similar to that of improvisational theater texts. In “Scripting Social Interaction: Improvisation, Performance, and Western ‘Art’ Music,” Nicholas Cook gives a remarkably succinct history of Western art music performance practice that will be familiar to many musicologists, but the way in which he intercuts his personal experiences as an oboist and connects the larger Western music history to a complex reevaluation of jazz history is all achieved while discussing the relationship between architecture and improvisation! George E. Lewis details part of the history of computer music via the figure of composer and Silicon Valley corporate guru Rich Gold in his essay “From Network Bands to Ubiquitous Computing: Rich Gold and the Social Aesthetics of Interactivity,” linking the genealogies of computer music to those of video games. And in dancer-theorist Susan Kozel's essay, “Devices of Existence: Contact Improvisation, Mobile Performances, and Dancing through Twitter,” an analysis of Kozel's dance work leads to one of the most concise and revelatory insights about the benefits of improvisation in daily life: “if we want to escape rigid habits that control what we see and how we move, we need to be interrupted by difference” (p. 274).
Many of the essays in Improvisation and Social Aesthetics offer provocative new perspectives—or renewed and revisionary attention to older perspectives—on improvisation. Darren Wershler's essay, “Kenneth Goldsmith and Uncreative Improvisation,” is probably the most exemplary contribution in this regard, starting out from the premise that improvisation need not be “creative” and developing it through a detailed analysis of poet, DJ, and theorist Goldsmith's work. Similarly, Marion Froger's essay, “Improvisation in New Wave Cinema: Beneath the Myth, the Social,” translated from the French by Will Straw, contends that many New Wave films contain little if any “actual” improvisation (despite statements by directors such as Jean-Luc Godard about the spontaneity involved in their filmmaking processes). While the complexities of what can be deemed “actually” improvised in terms of spontaneity, editing, and other elements (in film and other arts) have been rigorously debated and investigated for at least the past twenty years in critical improvisation scholarship, Froger's larger point about the social relationships played out in New Wave cinema is fascinating and illuminating. Like many of the pieces in the volume, her essay makes us want to go back to the archive and investigate the material for ourselves, whether or not we are connoisseurs. Winfried Siemerling's essay, “Social Aesthetics and Transcultural Improvisation: Wayde Compton and the Performance of Black Time,” will undoubtedly introduce many non-Canadian readers to a poet of great range and interest. In “What is ‘Great Black Music’? The Social Aesthetics of the AACM in Paris,” Eric Lewis contends that the Art Ensemble of Chicago and other groups connected to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians offer a more “aesthetically thick” (p. 136) form of artistic practice. Whether or not you agree with this position (and I think I do), Lewis's essay, which considers the ways in which the Art Ensemble and other African American musicians in Paris during the 1960s negotiated aesthetic and social categories, is a compelling analysis that will make readers want to go listen to the music with fresh ears. Similarly, Tracey Nicholls's essay, “What's Love Got To Do With It? Creating Art, Creating Community, Creating a Better World,” is a helpful corrective to the conventional view of bell hooks that offers readers a chance to reevaluate hooks's work from new angles. David Brackett's and Lisa Barg's pieces, which could be broadly described as investigations of popular music in the 1940s and 1950s, will make readers want to reassess what they think they know about iconic figures such as Glenn Miller, Rosemary Clooney, and Billy Strayhorn.
Like all of the volumes in the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice series, Improvisation and Social Aesthetics presents challenges to readers who expect a clean, linear narrative of theory and practice, musical or otherwise. As the editors state in their introduction, “the very notion of an improvisatory art is a product of specific aesthetic and social conditions—conditions that often pull in contradictory directions and that may themselves be the sites of potent contestation” (p. 11). The field of critical improvisation studies is arguably now at a watershed moment, with the continuation of this series (edited by Daniel Fischlin) as well as the publication of other major edited volumes such as George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut's two-part Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (2016) and Ajay Heble and Rebecca Caines's The Improvisation Studies Reader: Spontaneous Acts (2014). Improvising through and with difference, scholars sympathetic to these intellectual currents will be encouraged by the diversity of perspectives in Improvisation and Social Aesthetics; those “guardians of formalism,” in Born's phrase, who find themselves resistant to the field would also do well to investigate the wide range of topics offered herein.