Dan DiPiero – Improvising What?: A Review of Georgina Born, Eric Lewis, and Will Straw’s “Improvisation and Social Aesthetics”

Betty Carter, a jazz musician known for improvisation. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

by Dan DiPiero

Throughout the history of Western European musical aesthetics, improvisation has been largely derided or else ignored outright, enjoying “a status of literally zero value in the Western economy of musical ‘works’” (Iyer 2014).1 In marked contrast, the emerging field of critical improvisation studies has worked not only to highlight the universal importance of improvisation in musical cultures, but also to expand what we understand by improvisation in the first place.

Improvisation and Social Aesthetics is one of the latest examples of critical scholarship on improvisation, a collection of essays that began as a 2010 conference of the same name. Both the conference and the book emerged from what was the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) research project, and which is now the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation, the intellectual home of critical improvisation studies.2 In general, the book interrogates a double relation between its two key terms: it argues on one hand that improvisation embodies and is reflective of social aesthetics. The latter idea is posed here as an intervention into the canonical Western understanding of aesthetics, an intervention that argues that aesthetic perception, judgment, and action is embedded in, constitutive of, affected by socio-cultural discourses, relationships, and practices. At the same time, the notion of a social aesthetics helps to understand what is at stake when thinking improvisation in a more rigorous and less colloquial usage.

In order to accomplish that, the editors– Georgina Born, Eric Lewis, and Will Straw– begin by demonstrating how the work in this collection operates according to a different understanding of aesthetics than those which have emerged from Western philosophy. As they write in their introduction “What is Social Aesthetics?”, the Western musical valorization of composition (as a “work” of art) over improvisation (as a real-time performance) is reflective of the broader aesthetic paradigm that the their book targets. In the same way that a composition is seen as an autonomous “object” that transcends the individual particularities of a given performance, Western aesthetic values have similarly concerned themselves with the possibility of “objective” valuations that remain true regardless of who is experiencing that art (which is another way of understanding improvisation’s low position in Western aesthetic theory). For Born, Lewis, and Straw this system of thinking

resulted in theories that are peculiarly barren of nuance, unable to understand actual aesthetic attitudes, and blind to how such social relations as those pertaining to class, race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or nationality, and the histories and power relations in which they are entwined, as well as the socialites animated by art objects and events, inflect aesthetic experience–often in ways that precisely deny that they are so inflected (Born et al. 2017, 2).

In contrast to such theories, which invariably privilege atomism (individual works of art, individual auteurs, individual perceivers), “social aesthetics” is a concept intended to foreground the collective, social, and improvisatory nature of perception and pleasure. Unlike relational aesthetics, which avoids sociological questions by focusing on “sociality as an end in itself” (Born, 38), social aesthetics seeks to understand all the myriad ways in which artistic practices are already socially engaged.3 Both the people making artworks and the people perceiving them are people with particular bodies and histories, and they interact in various modalities. Even a single painter is painting with an aesthetic sensibility, artistic technique, and subjective perspective shaped in social situations; moreover, that artist will eventually engage in new socialities when her work is shown. Social aesthetics recognizes the difference between these engagements at the same time that it recognizes each of them as essential to theorizing aesthetics. Neither artworks nor our understanding of them exist in a vacuum; instead, they are situated within networks of assumptions that are shared among groups of people, which are also malleable.

This argument will be familiar to those versed in cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, or ethnomusicology, “…where there is a long tradition of viewing…music as culture…as something that people do, as opposed to being a work-based object” (Monson, 2010). What is new here is that social aesthetics makes an explicit call for perspectives from those other disciplines, and that it uses such perspectives to ask different questions. “A social aesthetics is, then, less concerned with demarcating a class of aesthetically valuable objects that it is with explaining how and why a given set of objects or experiences…is judged to be valuable…” (Born et al., 3). While the introduction to this book proposes a new understanding of aesthetics, the essays themselves demonstrate examples of where such an approach could lead. As with the notion of improvisation itself, readers should expect to find the appeal in this book in the diverse applications and understandings presented in its essays, rather than in a unified theory. Additionally, because of the focus on multiple examples of artistic production, this collection is more about nuancing the understanding of aesthetics as it relates to artistic practices than it is about exploring, returning to, or reinvigorating the original sense of aesthetics as a study of sense perception and the totality of human experience.4

Returning to the question of improvisation, one of the most valuable aspects of this collection is the various ways in which it foregrounds the fact that improvisation is in fact a question. In other words: “All of the contributors are aware of the dangers that arise from the very outset in discussing improvisation, whose definition and limits remain contested” (Born et al., 10). While the notion of improvisation as a line of flight in a stratified world has produced compelling work (especially in applied cases), this collection takes seriously the possibility that improvisation is no guarantee of egalitarianism or freedom of any sort, that improvisation itself is a multiple and contingent phenomenon. For instance, in her contribution, “After Relational Aesthetics,” Georgina Born argues that many of the broad theoretical statements about improvisation’s transformative potential do not take into account the full range of music’s social entanglements, and that this failure is what allows the easy association between improvisation and freedom. Born writes that such utopian arguments “invariably draw their inspiration from three sources” which, in her view, are selective in their understanding of music’s sociality: “the social phenomenology of Alfred Schutz (1964); the post-Foucauldian stance of Jacques Attali’s Noise (1985)…; and the writings of Christopher Small (1998)” (44). In drawing on these texts, Born argues, one specific type of social interaction involved in improvisation–the microsocial–is elevated at the expense of others. Born argues that music, which has “no material essence but a plural and distributed material being” (44) must therefore be understood across four planes of social interaction, rather than just one. The microsocial relates to the first plane, the “most apparent,” which consists of the “immediate microsocialities of musical performance and practice and in the social relations embodied in musical ensembles and associations” (43). In other words, the microsocial consists of the social dynamics among performing musicians, or the interactions and relationships inherent to music-making. The argument that improvisation can be associated with egalitarian social practices emerges from the way in which improvisers collectively negotiate a piece of music, as opposed to classical musicians (for example), who, in the Western tradition, follow the various kinds of instructions that are laid before them (as well as the corresponding hierarchies implicit in the social arrangements between conductor, composer, and various musicians).5 Theoretical statements emerging from only this first plane–as if it exists in isolation–“tend to be idealized and to occlude several additional ways that music…meditate[s] and [is] mediated by social processes”(13). For instance, while it might be true that a jazz ensemble collectively negotiates an improvised musical performance, drawing emancipatory conclusions from that immediate scene does not take into account the larger structures of power that prevent women from being taken seriously as jazz musicians, that prevent women from being present in that microsocial scene in the first place. To guard against such conclusions, Born’s essay spells out a theoretical approach for doing the work that, in many ways, emerges from this collection as a whole–that is, work that seeks to understand all of the ways in which improvisation is implicated within sociality, both in how improvisation is social, and in how the social is improvisatory.

In order to situate microsocial investigations within a broader framework, Born proposes a total of four planes of musical mediation.6 In addition to the microsocial (the first plane), she also introduces a second plane, in which music “has the power to animate imagined communities”; a third plane, in which “music refracts wider social relations, from the most concrete to the most abstract of collectivities” (e.g. “the nation,” “social hierarchies,” “or the social relations of class, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality.”); and the fourth, in which music is “bound up on the broader institutional forces that provide the basis for its production” (43). From all of these perspectives, Born hopes to “provide a measure of rigor for those concerned with theorizing art’s multiple social mediations” (57). Because music is a uniquely slippery kind of “object,” it is all too easy for writers to privilege one or more of these “social moments”–or else to glide between them–without recognizing the potential differences that such differences make. Born’s efforts to clarify and nuance what we talk about when we talk about music should prove extremely productive for future studies.

Additionally, Born’s nuanced analysis of such “moments” of improvisation reinforce the arguments in the introduction regarding the multiple understandings of improvisation itself. In other words, if the microsocially-derived and idealized characterization of improvisation remains dominant, it is still one understanding among many.7 Improvisation is a more complicated notion than its colloquial invocations would imply, and it cannot be reduced to a set of binaries (free vs restricted, creative vs habitual, etc.). The essays included in Improvisation and Social Aesthetics–for example Darren Wershler’s “Kenneth Goldsmith and Uncreative Improvisation” and Winfried Siemerling’s “Social Aesthetics and Transcultural Improvisation”–take this premise seriously, and situate it squarely at the center of the questions that they pose. Improvisation, like all artistic practices, means different things to different people at different times in different places, and between those improvising as performers and those improvising as listeners.

It is, then, the differences in how the term ‘improvisation’ may be employed, and the ways in which practices, discourses, and cultures of improvisation diverge or are in tension, that are of greatest interest, since they point to the radically contingent nature of improvisation as it is understood and empractised, and as it has developed historically in relation to specific artistic media (11).

An example of such a difference is explored by Ingrid Monson in her essay “From the American Civil Rights Movement to Mali.” Here, Monson shows through her ethnographic work in Mali that while the idea of improvisation as a practice of community-making is shared between Mali and the West, there are no such parallels in terms of the West’s use of “sonic dissonance and avant-garde experimentalism as a sign of social and cultural critique” (89).  In other words, improvisation, like any artistic practice, is not a technique, method, or skill that emerges in the same way across cultures (or genres, locations, moments); rather, how it is practiced and how those practices are understood become specific to certain communities and discourses over time. By detailing and comparing the contours of these discourses, Monson is able to break away from a monolithic view of improvisation in a manner that also takes into account Born’s call to move beyond the microsocial:

My discomfort with uncritical claims for the creation of new social relations through music has led me to take the position that ensemble improvisation is not inherently egalitarian or emancipatory; instead it offers only the potential for such human interaction…Whatever microsocial claims we make for musical process as modeling the social relations we would like to achieve, in other words, need to be tempered by a larger understanding of power and social hierarchy (83).8

Both Born and Monson’s essays belong to the first section in this book, “The Social and the Aesthetic.” Accordingly, both essays show the diverse ways in which improvisation and social aesthetics–two seemingly unrelated concepts–are in fact deeply implicated in one another. The second section, “Genre and Definition”, shows this relation by exploring the ways in which understandings of genre both express certain social commitments and further constitute them. Genre, in other words, provides another lens through which to understand how and why improvisation comes to be understood according to the definitions particular to a generic discourse at a given moment (however unstable they may prove).

As an example of how genre figures into social aesthetics, David Brackett’s essay “The Social Aesthetics of Swing in the 1940s” identifies the different connotations improvisation contained simultaneously within a plural discursive environment. Here, Brackett uses a specific case study to show what others have also argued concerning Jacques Rancière’s aesthetic theory: namely, that in its focus on European high culture, it does not account for the multiple, competing, coexisting regimes of sense through which popular culture moves, nor does it account for the ways in which those works shift through such social mediation.9 Rather than understanding the social aesthetics of swing as situated strictly in Rancière’s aesthetic regime of art, Brackett argues that tracks like “Tuxedo Junction” operate within

simultaneous and competing artistic and aesthetic regimes that had been enshrined in music industry practice since the 1920s with three main categories: popular/mainstream (implying a white, bourgeois audience), race music (implying an African American audience), and old-time/hillbilly music (implying a white, middle-and upper-class audience) (119).

While a genre and a regime of sense are not synonymous, they are still tied up in one another, since the generic distinction shapes, at least in part, the sense according to which musical criteria are interpreted. In his essay, Brackett analyzes two interpretations of “Tuxedo Junction”–one by African American bandleader Erskine Hawkins and one by white musician Glenn Miller–to show the ways in which

differences in approaches to improvisation and other musical elements were often correlated with the social position of the recordings, the fluidity of their circulation, the size of their audience, and their access to various modes of dissemination (120).

In other words, it is not just that the different uses of improvisation affected listener’s racial perceptions of the performances, but also that these perceptions corresponded to larger generic categories (“race records” among them) that carried certain material consequences for how the music circulated. In showing how the material, ideological, and aesthetic intertwine in specific ways, Brackett demonstrates how the “large categories used by the U.S. music industry…map certain aspects of musical style onto categories of group identification” (130). The question of whether improvisation is perceived as either present or absent (where and how), as well as the question of what such absence or presence might signify, are circumscribed by the understandings these regimes permit. And, as with Eric Lewis’ examination of perceptions of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in 1960s Paris, the perceived significance of improvisation often bears directly on questions of racial identity, with musical and generic demarcations that were entangled with perceptions of race and of collective subjectivities. Thus, once again, improvisation is not a transcendental notion but one which is understood contingently, as it associated with other concepts from within a regime of sense. Both Lewis and Brackett’s essays demonstrate not only that this is true, but how and with what consequences.

The linkages that exist between improvisation and racial identities–one of the most central concerns in contemporary cultural studies on jazz–sets the tone for the third section in this collection, “Sociality and Identity.” Here, Lisa Barg discusses the queer sociality of Billy Strayhorn’s arranging practices; Tracey Nicholls examines improvisation in the visual art criticism of bell hooks; and Marion Froger explores how improvisation functioned as a signifier within the discourse of French New Wave cinema. The latter two essays (along with Zoë Svendsen’s “The Dramaturgy of Spontaneity”) in particular bring to the fore the “very different senses that the term [improvisation] has accrued in relation to particular media and art forms, their cultures of production, and their communities of practice” (11). For instance, where Nicholls locates improvisation in bell hooks’ aesthetics of everyday life objects, Froger details the ways in which improvisation was employed by various participants (actors and directors) and the ways in which it was perceived by various parties (audiences, tradespeople, et al.) working in film. In demonstrating the specific ways in which improvisation is understood, located, perceived, and discussed between these media, Nicholls and Froger continue the discussion from the previous section viz a viz improvisation’s multiple manifestations, at the same time that such negotiations are invoked in the service of foregrounding questions of identity. Improvisation as practiced always carries particular connotations for the performers and the perceivers; just as improvisation carries different aesthetic implications from genre to genre, it also carries different implications for the individual and collective identities of the improvisers and the audiences in question.

The final section of the collection, titled “Performance,” focuses on the myriad social relations involved in live performance, the real-time active process that distinguishes improvisation from other art objects (or at least, which allows improvisation to direct attention to the real-time active processes involved in all artistic production). In this section, to touch on one final theorization between improvisation and social aesthetics, consider Susan Kozel’s essay “Devices of Existence.”

In this essay, Kozel uses two separate dance performances–Small Acts and IntuiTweet–to show that improvisation, always occurring through the body, is social by virtue of what the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty would term inter-corporeality, where “perception, agency, and subjectivity in general take place as a body opened up to the bodies of other” (284).  Kozel draws a link between Merleau-Ponty’s notion of subjectivity as being constructed intracorporeally and improvisation as an inherently intercorporeal practice. From this, she theorizes improvisation along the lines of a Rancièrean aesthetics, as a “mode of being” rather than one of “doing.”10 Improvisation, in short, is a Merleau-Pontian mode of being in which we are connected to each other and to the world through the body. Subjectivity, for Merleau-Ponty, is constructed through this element-in-common, an opening towards the other in which we are both seeing and seen, toucher and touched, in which we experience the common world both together (in it) and separately (from our own viewpoint), self-reflexively but never omnisciently. In the same way, when we improvise, we are touching the external world, and the others who compose it; we cannot distinguish strictly where we end and the world begins, just as we cannot distinguish which of our connected hands is the toucher and which is the touched. Both improvisation and subjectivity consist in a being-with, in a connection to our element in common. When we improvise, we are touching the world through which interaction and improvisation occur. How we exist in the world is therefore “fundamentally improvisational in that I am forever acting and responding, without really having a starting point in one or the other…” (284).

This quote from Kozel is specific in its conceptualization of improvisation as an “ontological” and “experiential” mode of navigating the word; it is also general in that it reprises the central focus of this book: “Improvisation is a mode of social interaction” (285). Here, rather than focusing on the ways in which improvisation is understood discursively or practically in a given time and place, Kozel focuses on the improvisatory nature of life itself, pushing the outer limits of how we understand this multivalent practice. At the same time, this understanding still links itself with the notion of the social–that is, if improvisation is more synonymous with being as such, it is in part because being is always being-with.

Improvisation is perhaps the creative practice that most obviously demonstrates the social and collective aspects that constitute (ultimately) all artistic practices, and perhaps all experience in general. Again, improvisation both embodies (is reflective of) and elucidates (reflects back on) the social aesthetics of both art, and, in this final sense, of life itself. Improvisation and Social Aesthetics is a means of demonstrating different approaches to these various understandings of improvisation, with projects that both investigate improvisation and which use improvisation to investigate. Like the other IICSI publications, it forms an indispensable collection that cracks open a site for more rich and interdisciplinary work.


Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. 1985. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Berlant, Lauren. 2017. “Big Man.” Social Text. Accessed August 10. https://socialtextjournal.org/big-man/.

Born, Georgina, Eric Lewis, and Will Straw. 2017. Improvisation and Social Aesthetics. Durham: Duke University Press.

Certeau, Michel de. 2013. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

DJ Spooky and Vijay Iyer. 2013. “Improvising Digital Culture” in People Get Ready: the Future of Jazz Is Now! edited by Ajay Heble and Rob Wallace, 225-243. Durham: Duke University Press.

Iyer, Vijay. “Theorizing Improvisation Syllabus.” 2017. Facebook post. Accessed August 10, 2017.

Highmore, Ben. 2011. “Bitter After Taste: Affect, Food, and Social Aesthetics.” in The Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg, and Gregory J. Seigworth, 118-137. North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Monson, Ingrid, in conversation with Georgina Born, Elizabeth Jackson, Eric Lewis, and Jason Stanyek at the “Social Aesthetics Conference,” IICSI McGill Colloquium, Montreal. 2010.

Nettl, Bruno. 1974. “Thoughts on Improvisation: A Comparative Approach.” The Musical Quarterly 60 (1): 1-19.  http://www.jstor.org/stable/741663

Ranciere, Jacques. 2004. Disagreement: Politics And Philosophy. Translated by Julie Rose. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Rockhill, Gabriel. 2011. “Rancière’s Productive Contradictions: From the Politics of Aesthetics to the Social Policity of Artistic Practice.” Symposium 15 (2): 28-56. doi:10.5840/symposium201115227

Thompson, Scott. “The Pedagogical Imperative of Musical Improvisation”. Critical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation 3(2).


1. This is not the same as claiming that improvisation has not been practiced or valued at any point in Western art music; improvisation clearly figured heavily in pre-Romantic musical practices, but did so in such a way that its separation from other musical activities–composition and performance–was not clear-cut. It is with the rise of Romantic conceptions of genius and the composition as a work of art that such distinctions take over. Generally speaking, insofar as such distinctions remain commonplace, this Romantic aesthetic tradition is still dominant.

2. See: http://improvisationinstitute.ca

3. Born discusses her understanding of Nicholas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics in the first chapter of this book as “engaging” but ultimately beholden to “reductive generalizations.” Moreover, relational aesthetics explicitly dismisses sociology and similar disciplines, concerning itself with one particular type of sociality generated by contemporary art, rather than the myriad ways in which social practices figure in making and experiencing artworks.

4. Although some of that work is done intermittently throughout the book. In particular, see Kozel, “Devices of Existence.” For more on the distinction between these senses of the aesthetic, see Highmore, 2011.

5. Perhaps the most well-known of these arguments is that of Jacques Attali in Noise (Attali 1985). While his argument does focus on broader societal formations, Born’s critique still holds in that Attali’s contentions on behalf of free improvisation are based on inter-group musical dynamics.

6. “Moreover, the four planes are irreducible to one another, yet they are articulated in contingent and nonlinear ways through relations of conditioning, affordance, or causality. It is precisely the mutual mediations of and complex articulations among the four planes that enable musical assemblages to engender certain kinds of socio-musical experience that are also forms of aesthetic experience, as well as offering the potential for experimentation with those diverse modes of social aesthetic experience” (43).

7. One of the more prevalent colloquial uses of improvisation is referenced by Lauren Berlant in relation to her notion of “genre flailing” (Berlant, 2017). On the 2016 Presidential election, she writes, “In a crisis we engage in genre flailing so that we don’t fall through the cracks of knowledge and noise into suicide or psychosis. In a crisis we improvise like crazy, where “like crazy” is a little too non-metaphorical. Plus, when crisis is ordinary, flailing…can be fabulously unimaginative, a litany of lists of things to do, to pay attention to, say, to stop saying, to discipline and sanction. Prefab frames are a lot of what there is to fling because as the powerful hunker down into phrases that become acts, so must the freshly vulnerable find some phrases too, anchoring and transformative.” Far from a “non-rigorous” notion of improvisation, Berlant’s usage simply points to the existence of the many understandings contained in this word. This quotation is useful in illustrating a notion of improvisation that is non-idealized in at least two senses: first, that it is “unimaginative” or repetitive (which decouples improvisation from originality) and second, that it is more reflexive or reactionary than it is the herald of newly imagined futures. In other words, we improvise when something goes wrong. This usage also has some resonances with Michel De Certeau’s use of the word (De Certeau, 2013).

8. I would also note here that even a provisional focus on the emancipatory potential of microsocial interactions is predicated on a kind of sensory consensus, one which I would argue should not in actuality be taken for granted. The ostensibly horizontal, anti-hierarchical, or smooth space of an improvising group should not, in my view, be read as fundamentally different from any other kind space of musical interaction for at least three reasons: first, because as Nicholas Cook points out in this collection (he is supported by other, earlier arguments–see Nettl 1974; Thompson 2008) the distinction between improvised and non-improvised music is far from clear or steadfast; second, because the musicians in an improvising scenario are still operating based on a set of affordances over which they have limited to no control; and third, because these musicians operate based on a kind of consensus that is assumed but is in fact radically contingent. In Rancière’s terms, those playing together are already those equals who recognize or are in a position to recognize the sounds of the others as speech, rather than noise. The utopian microcosm of musical interaction is such because it contains not a radical politics but no politics at all; it is the place of consensus, of parapolitics, an isolated community of equals operating “freely” within a police order. (For more on these terms, see Rancière 2004.)

9. Notably, see Rockhill 2011.

10. In this sense, Kozel’s understanding of improvisation resonates with one proposed by Vijay Iyer, in which improvisation is more synonymous with experience itself than it is a particular behavior. Significantly, this is an understanding that cuts against the grain of many of the most well-known claims made on behalf of improvisation. On Iyer’s view, improvisation cannot be understood as, for instance, inherently (or extrinsically) egalitarian or emancipatory unless we somehow intervene in the definition; nor would improvisation be limited to a kind of “making-do” in adverse circumstances. If life itself is improvised, then emancipatory, flailing, and also overtly evil deeds are all equally the purview of improvisation. In other words, we would have to take seriously the possibility that improvisation is a power harnessed not only by anti-capitalist humanitarians, but also by the “Dick Cheneys” and the “Haliburtons” of the world (quoted in DJ Spooky, 2013). As Iyer puts it, “they’re improvising, too” (227).



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