- Improvisation and Social Aesthetics ed. by Georgina Born, Eric Lewis, and Will Straw
Improvisation is a tricky topic. By nature, improvisation is changeable, of the moment; once fixed in notation or recording, improvised music is no longer improvisatory. The literature on improvisation began with early, mostly philosophical essays by practitioners such as John Stevens, Cornelius Cardew, Wadada Leo Smith, and Anthony Braxton. Derek Bailey's Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (Ashbourne, UK: Moorland, 1980), a survey of Indian, Baroque, jazz, pop, and free improvisation, is the most comprehensive of these early works. Later works are more narrowly focused. David Borgo's Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age (New York: Continuum, 2005) presents a universalist proposal about free improvisation, but it is structured entirely from the author's personal experience. Eddie Prévost's No Sound Is Innocent: AMM and the Practice of Self-Invention, Meta-Musical Narratives, Essays (Harlow: Copula, 1995), discusses the music and philosophy of a single group, AMM (an acronym of which the meaning is secret), which Prévost cofounded. Recently, however, critical anthologies of writings on improvisation have appeared, including Improvisation and Music Education: Beyond the Classroom, edited by Ajay Heble and Mark Laver (New York: Routledge, 2016) and The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, edited by George Lewis and Benjamin Piekut (2 vols. [New York: Oxford University Press, 2013–16]). These anthologies present a number of voices and positions, usually from a vantage point of academic study rather than practical survey. Improvisation and Social Aesthetics is the newest work in these critical anthologies.
Improvisation and Social Aesthetics arose from a conference on the subject at McGill University and focuses on social [End Page 125] interaction in improvised creation. Among a host of complementary theories, the base theory of the book is Nicholas Bourriard's Relational Aesthetics (Dijon: Les presses du réel, 2002), a text on artistic practices as reflective of human relations in a social context. This relationship is fundamental to musical improvisation, as the themes of conversation, cooperation, and debate have formed a continuous thread in its history and literature. The present book's introduction (attributed to all three editors) begins with relational aesthetics, using a short example from the Fluxus intermedia art movement, then discusses ways in which the following essays examine elements of social aesthetics in a wide range of topics, including music, cinema, theater, and dance. In practice, however, the essays conform to or diverge from the stated aims of the introduction in completely different ways. Eric Lewis's essay "What is 'Great Black Music'? The Social Aesthetics of the AACM in Paris" follows the titular brief most closely, as it has perhaps the best-balanced examination of improvisation and social aesthetics of any chapter. The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and its groups, the Art Ensemble of Chicago and another ensemble of Smith, Braxton, and Leroy Jenkins, are, by their nature as musical groups and political forces, ideal subjects for relational aesthetics in improvisation. Lewis provides a welcome structural description of Smith's piece "Silence" and musical descriptions of a number of other works by both groups. Such musical detail is absent from other chapters, which focus instead on music and its history as a social act. Ingrid Monson's "From the American Civil Rights Movement to Mali" provides a useful study of the musical and social activities of the Malian balafonist Neba Solo. In "From Network Bands to Ubiquitous Computing," George E. Lewis presents the topic of artificial in telligence in computer music of the 1970s at Mills College. Like studies on microtonal music, computer music history commonly dwells on technical innovation, so this critical social history of AI improvisation is rare and very welcome.
The inclusion of other arts in this collection is another strength of Improvisation and Social Aesthetics. Marion Froger's "Improvisation in New Wave Cinema," translated by Will Straw...