In and beyond the burgeoning field of critical improvisation studies, many scholars from myriad backgrounds have attested to a strong link between musical improvisation and “everyday life.” However, this relationship is most often acknowledged in passing, or is otherwise taken for granted. In order to more rigorously study this relationship, I take a comparative approach, first comparing three musical case studies, and subsequently comparing those musical cases with improvisations in everyday life. Proceeding in this way, I argue, calls into question how we understand or recognize improvisation in the first place, raising the question of definition that improvisation studies has traditionally avoided.

Drawing on work in musicology, cultural studies, and critical improvisation studies, as well as my own performing experience, I argue that improvisation is not a creative capacity proper to the acting subject, but is instead coextensive with a contingent encounter among subjects, objects, and multiple environments. Against conventional readings of improvisation as a domain of relative freedom, I argue that thinking improvisation through contingency shifts our perspective, showing that it is particular social investments that cause improvisation to be read as an exercise in freedom. In contrast, this book explores the aesthetic and political implications of considering improvisation as simply the way that we live, exceedingly normal and ubiquitous. 

Contingent Encounters is divided into two parts: “Contingent Music” and “Contingent Life.” In the first part, I compare how improvisation appears across three musical case studies: “Out to Lunch” by Eric Dolphy (1964); “Waves, Linens, and White Light” by Norwegian free-improvisers Mr. K (2015) ; and the two improvised tracks on Kris Davis and Ingrid Laubrock’s duo album, Blood Moon (2020). In the second part, I explore improvisation and contingency across several quotidian activities, including walking, baking, listening, inhabiting, working, and perceiving. Interdisciplinary at its core, this series of nested comparisons elicits a different conversation about what it means to improvise, overturning longstanding assumptions about this notoriously slippery concept.