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Making It Up Together

The Art of Collective Improvisation in Balinese Music and Beyond

Most studies of musical improvisation focus on individual musicians. But that is not the whole story. From jazz to flamenco, Shona mbira to Javanese gamelan, improvised practices thrive on group creativity, relying on the close interaction of multiple simultaneously improvising performers. In Making It Up Together, Leslie A. Tilley explores the practice of collective musical improvisation cross-culturally, making a case for placing collectivity at the center of improvisation discourse and advocating ethnographically informed music analysis as a powerful tool for investigating improvisational processes.

Through two contrasting Balinese case studies—of the reyong gong chime’s melodic norot practice and the interlocking drumming tradition kendang arja—Tilley proposes and tests analytical frameworks for examining collectively improvised performance. At the micro-level, Tilley’s analyses offer insight into the note-by-note decisions of improvising performers; at the macro-level, they illuminate larger musical, discursive, structural, and cultural factors shaping those decisions. This multi-tiered inquiry reveals that unpacking how performers play and imagine as a collective is crucial to understanding improvisation and demonstrates how music analysis can elucidate these complex musical and interactional relationships.

Highlighting connections with diverse genres from various music cultures, Tilley’s examinations of collective improvisation also suggest rich potential for cross-genre exploration. The surrounding discussions point to larger theories of communication and interaction, creativity and cognition that will be of interest to a range of readers—from ethnomusicologists and music theorists to cognitive psychologists, jazz studies scholars, and improvising performers. Setting new parameters for the study of improvisation, Making It Up Together opens up fresh possibilities for understanding the creative process, in music and beyond.

Author Information

Leslie A. Tilley is associate professor in ethnomusicology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is particularly interested in exploring analytical approaches to world musics and has published in Ethnomusicology, The Springer Handbook of Systematic Musicology, and the Current Research in Systematic Musicology volume Computational Phonogram Archiving. She loves and plays Balinese music.


“In this innovative book, Tilley employs two Balinese gamelan-based case studies as the basis of a broadly cross-cultural examination of collective musical improvisation. This is highly original work that importantly expands the scope of research on gamelan, cross-cultural improvisation, ethnomusicology, and analytical approaches to world music. A game-changer!”
— Michael B. Bakan, Florida State University, author of "Speaking for Ourselves: Conversations on Life, Music, and Autism" and "Music of Death and New Creation: Experiences in the World of Balinese Gamelan Beleganjur"

“Both a closely argued and densely textured work on Balinese musical practices and an inter-/multi-musical exploration of collective improvisation as a process, Making It Up Together is a demonstration of and argument for music theory and analysis as a method for ethnomusicological and comparative research.”
— Gabriel Solis, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, author of "Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall" and "Monk’s Music: Thelonious Monk and Jazz History in the Making"

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