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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.

Author Information

Gary Peters is chair of philosophy and performance and head of research at York St. John University. He is the author of Irony and Singularity: Aesthetic Education from Kant to Levinas and The Philosophy of Improvisation.


“Peters offers a rich account of what is at stake—what is actually happening—in improvisational events. To do so he brings a remarkably wide range of philosophical perspectives into dialogue —Deleuze and Heidegger above all, but also Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Husserl, Levinas, Arendt, Derrida, and quite a few others. One of the most impressive things about this book is the creative way in which Peters draws pairs of authors into virtual conversation with one another, as well as the way he brings critical thought together with that of iconic improvisers from music and dance.”
— Chris Stover, The New School

"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

"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."
— Choice

"[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."
— Arteidolia

"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

Audience: Professional and scholarly;