Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( (c) Oxford University Press, 2015. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

date: 20 February 2018

(p. xi) Preface

(p. xi) Preface

It is far too early to create a history or prehistory of what many are now calling “critical improvisation studies,” but we can point to some significant early irruptions. Properly speaking, the project that resulted in this two-volume Handbook began around the turn of the twenty-first century with an important early conference, “Improvising Across Borders: An Inter-Disciplinary Symposium on Improvised Music Traditions.” The conference, which took place in April 1999, was conceived by Dana Reason, then an innovation-minded graduate student in the Department of Music at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and produced in collaboration with her fellow graduate students Michael Dessen and Jason Robinson. The conference featured performances as well as paper presentations from both scholars and practitioners, and the call for papers welcomed proposals from

musicologists, ethnomusicologists, and musicians, and also from scholars in other disciplines such as cultural studies, sociology, women’s studies, and literature. We are interested not only in performative notions of improvisation but also the cultural contexts that influence and shape improvised traditions. Possible topics include: cultural location with regard to cross-cultural trends in current music-making, the politics of reception, theorizing the social and political implications of improvised traditions, the role of gender and body, and the relationship of improvisation to current changes in music—or other—pedagogies.1

In 2002, a trio of scholar-artists, also based in the University of California system, Adriene Jenik and George Lewis from UCSD and Susan Leigh Foster from UCLA, built on this earlier effort by co-convening a Residential Research Group at the University of California Humanities Research Institute with the title “Global Intentions: Improvisation in the Contemporary Performing Arts.” The co-conveners developed an introductory guiding narrative for the research project that declared an intent to focus on

(1) how improvisation mediates cross-cultural, transnational and cyberspatial (inter)artistic exchanges that produce new conceptions of identity, history, and the body; (2) how improvisation functions as a key element in emerging postcolonial forms of aesthetics and cultural production; and (3) how improvisative production of meaning and knowledge provides models for new forms of social mobilization that foreground agency, personality, and difference. The group will ask questions concerning (p. xii) how improvisation expresses notions of ethnicity, race, nation, class, and gender, as well as how improvisative works are seen as symbolizing history, memory, agency, difference, personal narrative, and self-determination.2

The conveners observed that any practice for which such expansive claims could even be entertained, much less sustained, obviously deserved serious study. Their narrative also identified issues of power, authority, resistance, dominance and subalterity, the role of the individual in relation to the social, and models for social responsibility and action, as salient to the study of improvisation. Improvisation in the arts was seen to subvert hierarchies; challenge totalizing narratives; empower audiences; exemplify new (and quite often utopian) models of social, economic, and political relations; and in one memorable phrase, “overthrow the patriarchal organization of the art world, preparing fertile ground for a contestatory politics.”3

The research group discussions at UCHRI, which took place weekly over a three-month period, often manifested a distinct unease with then-dominant portrayals of improvisation, as well as with some of the scholarship that proceeded from those understandings. In pursuing a critical review of the already substantial literature on the topic, the group gradually realized that the purview of a new kind of improvisation studies needed to range well beyond the arts. That discovery crucially informed the current project.

In the first of this two-volume set, we hear from scholars examining topics in cognition, philosophy, anthropology, cultural history, critical theory, economics, classics, organization science, and mobility on stages of various kinds. We expect readers to jump across sections and volumes, so for both volumes, we have created a nonlinear order of chapters to foster surprise. We encourage readers to extend their engagement into Volume 2, which includes investigations into city planning, music, creativity, media, literature, computing technologies, and theology.

George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut


(1.) Dana Reason and Michael Dessen, “Call for Papers: Improvising Across Borders: An inter-disciplinary symposium on improvised music traditions,” (1999), Accessed December 23, 2014. Presenters included Douglas Ewart, Ed Sarath, Ingrid Monson, Ajay Heble, David Borgo, Sarita Gregory, Bennetta Jules-Rosette, Catherine Sullivan, Eleanor Antin, Eddie Prévost, Alvin Curran, Tom Nunn, Jonathan Glasier, and Jason Stanyek. A visionary keynote address was delivered by Pauline Oliveros, later published as “Quantum Improvisation: The Cybernetic Presence,” in Sound Unbound: Sampling Digital Music and Culture, ed. Paul D. Miller aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2008). For an account of the conference, see La Donna Smith, “Improvising Across Borders, the Symposium on Improvisation: A Review and Personal Account,” (1999), Accessed December 23, 2014.

(2.) Susan Leigh Foster, Adriene Jenik, and George E. Lewis, “Proposal for a 2002–2003 Resident Research Group: Global Intentions: Improvisation in the Contemporary Performing Arts,” (2002). The UCHRI research group included Georgina Born, Renee Coulombe, Anthea Kraut, Antoinette LaFarge, Simon Penny, Eric Porter, and Jason Stanyek.