Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Review: The Philosophy of Improvisation – Gary Peters


Peters, in his synopsis, points to the fact that “improvisation is usually either lionized as an ecstatic experience of being in the moment or disparaged as the thoughtless recycling of clichés.” This book is written to “elaborate an innovative concept of improvisation”[1] that draws on the work of continental philosophers from Kant to Levinas. This paper will discuss concepts that resonate most strongly with me.


Peters is chair of critical and cultural theory at York St. John University, England. His main area of research “is in the area of continental philosophy and aesthetics from Kant to the present. This often overlaps with certain areas of pedagogical research as well as a range of art practices (from music and the performing arts to visual art and literature). Some recent research and conference papers have also begun to look at issues within the fields of philosophy, art practice and science.”[2] He is also an improvising and composing guitarist that is obviously influenced by bluegrass and country music, but seems to create music that occupies a space outside of traditional genres, as you might expect after reading this book.[3]

The Junkyard Improviser

Peters’ discussion of the junkyard improviser stems from two sources: Walter Benjamin’s vision of Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus (Figure 1), and television shows such as Scrapheap Challenge (U.K.) and Junkyard Wars (U.S.A).

Figure 1: Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus

Both the television shows, where contestants are asked to construct various, functioning objects from items found in a scrapheap in a certain time limit, and the poem by Benjamin provides many points of discussion:

A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel

looking as though he is about to move away

from something he is fixedly contemplating.

His eyes are staring, his mouth hangs open, his wings are spread.

This is how the angel of history must look.

His face is turned toward the past.

Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one catastrophe,

which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage

hurling it before his feet.

The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead,

and make whole what has been smashed.

But a storm is blowing from Paradise;

it has got caught in his wings with such violence

the angel can no longer close them.

This storm irresistibly propels him

into the future to which his back is turned,

while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.

This storm is what we call progress.[4]

Both the Benjamin and the shows ask the participant (the artist or contestant, respectively) to look backwards to explore how “pile of debris” might be used “into the future to which his back is turned.” The challenge for the improviser is how to take what is already there (Levinas’ ‘Il y a’) from history and use it productively; that is, make it give (Heidegger’s ‘Es Gibt’) something that it previously didn’t.

Peters draws the readers attention to the following predicament for the improviser: “the there and the given are not identical but, rather, a shift dialectical or differential relation that, precisely because of its interminable mobility, demands both obedience and disobedience to ensure one never collapses into the other (the there into the given): the death of improvisation.”[5]

Such a description of the challenge facing the improviser neither ritualises improvisation using ecstasy or inspiration, nor reduces it to a regurgitation of previous materials. Instead it allows for constructive discussion of improvisation as a process.

Negative and Positive Freedom

“Freedom” is a problematic word in the discourse on improvisation in that it is used often as an excuse to not engage to the “scrapheap of history” and is tied to states of ecstasy. Isaiah Berlin, in his Two Concepts of Liberty, provides Peters with the notions of negative and positive liberty: the former is a “freedom-from,” and the latter a “freedom-to.” Negative freedom is a collective ideal in that it “protects the collective by establishing a realm of non-interference that . . . allows the individual the scope and the space for ‘spontaneity, originality, genius [and] mental energy,’ all of which figure large in the world of improvisation.”[6] Positive freedom, on the other hand, has an association with the individual striving, above everyone and everything, for mastery. As Peters points out, many regard this view of freedom as violent and destructive. Drawing on Anthony Braxton’s ambivalence to free-improvisation, the striving individual becomes “the master who would rather enslave you than go unrecognised as a nobody.” It is the interplay between these two types of freedom that, in my opinion, create the gainful tension necessary for engaging improvisation. Negative freedom allows for a collectivity positive freedom cannot, but can result in an aesthetic space too precious for any strong gestures, resulting in overly polite, static improvisations. The brashness of positive freedom brings excitement and momentum to a collective, providing it does not destroy it: in this case the collective demands everyone to engage in positive freedom.

The Origin of the Work

The becoming or emergence of the work “requires the marking of an unmarked space.”[7] A marked space “demands a continuation that is governed by the available mark-making resources, thought both materially and as a history of mimetic patterns,” while the unmarked does not. Marking the space sets in motion the work that (invoking Heidegger) is a dualism between artist and artwork: “The marking of a space . . . sets in train a movement, an emergence or occurrence that, while producing an artwork, is also originary and originating in gesture of the artist too . . . ‘The artist is the origin of the work. The work is the origin of the artist.’ ”[8] What Peters is expressing here is that art is made by artists, each demands the other. Therefore the marking of the unmarked space is not simply a moment but a process that the artist engages in, what Peters calls the “working of the work,”[9] that defines him as well as the works origin.

While the sensus communis “grounds the aesthetic judgement of taste . . . in the free play of human cognition, which is common to all,”[10] it does not account for how a work is produced prior to the judgment of taste; this is done by Kant’s genius who “appears to be able to spontaneously originate artworks untarnished by the history of representation.”[11] Mimesis, acting as reproductive imagination, intermingles with the productive faculties, and sets the scene for the self-reflexive artist beginning of the work. The power of origination, as described by Kant, can be “followed” but not “imitated.” The process of bringing the work into being, and of not letting this work become fixed, is what will be followed, rather than the materials of patterns of mimesis themselves. The works “primary aim is to produce beginnings” that “concerns the gathering of past and future time in the now of the work that must begin again at every moment if its negative and positive freedoms are to be maintained.”[12]

What, then, is required of the artist if, as Kant says, they are unable to imitate genius but all works are also transient and therefore unable to be followed? Peters arrives at the conclusion: and “originary ‘yes!’ ”[13] This affirmation allows the artist to sense their own creativity; Kant speaks of a quickening of “productive imagination and the understanding, a cognitive intensification that is responsible not only for the feeling of pleasure associated with the reception of the work but also for the production of the work out nowhere.”[14]

The artist also makes the originary mark with material from the “scrapheap of history.” Rather than discuss the use of this “scrap” in terms of transcendence or liberation, Peters states that “success for the scrap yard improviser . . . [depends] on the ability to find new and novel ways of inhabiting the old and reviving dead forms through a productive process of reappropriation that promotes improvisation more as a means of salvation and redemption that of creation: re-novation.”[15] “Novel” is a problematic word, as it often used to describe that which Peters wishes to avoid: an endless demand for the “new” that can only end in the contrived, something transcendence and liberation won’t do.

Dialogue and Competition

Theatresports helps Peters highlight the role competition and dialogue play in the working of the work because “although fundamentally competitive, Theatresports is almost exclusively focussed on the work . . . rather than on the players.”[16] Any “fixing” of the work, in the Theatresports model, is a failure; players keep the work moving through improvisation and, sometimes, chance. In this way Theatresports is exemplary in allowing dialogue and competition to coexist productively. Dialogue might be thought of as the sensus communis of the group; together they create a common sense of purpose that allows each member to make decisions. These decisions are also, due to differences that stem from each player, are in competition to one another, not through an ego-based need to control, but through the spontaneous juxtaposition of gestures. The resolution of these differences is necessary to allow the work to continue working, what Keith Johnstone calls “failing gracefully.”[17] Linking failure to productivity returns Peters to the discussions of Benjamin and Heidegger, and the “scrapheap of history.”


Peters cites irony as being the method by which improvisers can “deflate the inflated, mock the portentous, and the reduce the fetishism of ‘spontaneous creation to knockabout anarchy.”[18] Not to be confused with impartiality, irony is “a manner of inhabiting forms, ” rather than a form itself, and “allows fascination to continue, the fascination necessary to draw both producers and receivers to the artwork again and again to there confront what Blanchot describes as the ‘image’ that is neither immediate or mediate but rather the intoxicating distance that holds the Being and being of art apart.”[19] Without irony art falls back into the fixed, producing more and more cultural artifacts that reinforce the “there” without “giving.” Irony is the means by which artists can seriously engage in the tradition without merely imitating.

I find this discussion particularly useful because I am interested in developing a language for improvisation that is both unique but informed by the history of jazz and improvised music. “Imitation . . . assimilation . . . innovation”[20] are oft-used but rather unspecific and unhelpful explanations for engaging in the jazz tradition. How one could go about realising these steps, particularly the processes of assimilation and innovation, is very rarely addressed. Analyses of contemporary improvisations in terms of ironic engagement with history’s “scrapheap” would make these processes clear and provide one way of developing the personal voice informed by tradition that the above mantra propagates.

My previous paper, “Two Views on the Application of the Work Concept” suggested that artists working within the jazz genre run the risk of having their work fixed by the “work concept.” If this is the case, then irony presents a way of avoiding this.


There are other concepts covered by Peters that I have not fully outlined here. They include tragedy, comedy and chance. I chose not to cover these not because they are not fascinating, or well explained, but simply that the above topics are most applicable to my practice. Far from having the “light touch” Ian Buchanan describes in his back-cover blurb, it remains one of the most fascinating, courageous and useful discussions of free improvisation I have come across.


Banjamin, Walter. "Theses on the Philosophy of History." In Illuminations: Schocken, 1969.

Berliner, Paul F. Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Peters, Gary. "Gary Peters - York St. John University - Academia.Edu."

———. The Philosophy of Improvisation. London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 2009.

[1] Gary Peters, The Philosophy of Improvisation (London: The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., 2009).author's synopsis

[2] ———, "Gary Peters - York St. John University - Academia.Edu,"

[3] The webpage (accessed 30/09/11) contains mp3 files of Peters’ music.

[4] Walter Banjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History," in Illuminations (Schocken, 1969).

[5] Peters, The Philosophy of Improvisation, 12.

[6] Ibid., 23.

[7] Ibid., 12.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 17.

[10] Ibid., 36.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 38.

[13] Ibid., 39.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 18.

[16] Ibid., 58.

[17] Ibid., 60.

[18] Ibid., 69.

[19] Ibid., 70.

[20] Paul F. Berliner, Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation, Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1994), 120.quoting Walter Bishop Jr.


  1. Thank you for the info. It sounds pretty user friendly. I guess I’ll pick one up for fun. thank u.

    Paul Klee Paintings

  2. Hi Marc,
    I read recently that Picasso, coming to art at
    the time he did, was, perforce, only able to engage with the established genres, eg. still
    life, portrait, double portrait, landscape, in an ironic manner. Seems to me the same would apply to jazz.

  3. .......and as an addendum to the above, check out the paper by Laura Cull 2008'
    Confronting 'emergence' with Deleuze and Goat
    Island, which mentions Brian Massumi, incidentally, who has written on emergence/improv.

  4. Interesting review...a small point is that Kant is not normally considered a continental philosopher methinks.