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Reviewed by:
  • Negotiated Moments: Improvisation, Sound, and Subjectivity ed. by Gillian Siddall, Ellen Waterman
  • Marc Hannaford (bio)
Negotiated Moments: Improvisation, Sound, and Subjectivity. Edited by Gillian Siddall and Ellen Waterman. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016. 376pp.

Negotiated Moments frames improvisation as a practice that is both potentially emancipatory and full of risk, simultaneously embodied and theoretical, and as a means of resisting oppressive power structures through musical and nonmusical sound. The chapters engage with critical studies in both improvisation and identity, and contributing authors explore subjectivity as an intersectional and dynamic [End Page 202] space: gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, nationhood, and class interact in complex ways throughout the volume. Their methodologies and frameworks include ethnography and autoethnography, phenomenology, interviews, and a variety of modes of analysis.

The themes covered in Negotiated Moments reflect the scope of contemporary critical improvisation studies and its congruence with critical identity studies. The collection is not the first publication to consider both improvisation and identity: scholars such as Lisa Barg, George Lewis, Julie Dawn Smith, Yoko Suzuki, Jeffrey Taylor, Sherrie Tucker, and Ellen Waterman have published influential pieces on improvised music and identity.1 Yet one of the distinguishing features of critical improvisation studies is that it is not exclusively concerned with jazz or even with music. A recent two-volume set, The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, for example, contains theorizations of improvisation across a widely varied set of practices, including farming in Sierra Leone, yoga, and poetry.2 Negotiated Moments similarly uncouples improvisation and jazz and examines a variety of improvised practices.

Negotiated Moments is the most recent publication from the Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice (ICASP) series, a product of the International Institute for Critical Studies in Improvisation. The goal for this series is to “advocate musical improvisation as a crucial model for political, cultural, and ethical dialogue and action.”3 This goal resonates with work in critical identity studies by scholars like Suzanne Cusick, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Jack Halberstam: although these scholars are not usually associated with improvisation, their work often focuses on locating individual and collective agency, finding alternate solutions to [End Page 203] recurrent problems, developing and participating in communities, and negotiating difference in the face of oppressive structural or theoretical paradigms.4 The influence of critical identity studies on Negotiated Moments is most apparent in the contributors’ attention to intersectionality and multidirectional flows of power, as well as in their avoidance of idealistic conceptions of improvisation as automatically emancipatory.

Improvisation, editors Gillian Siddall and Ellen Waterman argue, does not guarantee the upset or transformation of oppressive paradigms (3). Instead, improvisation “makes negotiations . . . of subjectivity audible” (3). Such audible negotiations suggest a practice of being in the world that looks past one’s immediate surroundings toward a broad range of cultural, social, artistic, and intellectual issues and viewpoints. The emancipatory power of improvisation thus lies in its ability to initiate audible exchanges across boundaries of difference, although how each exchange unfolds is contingent on both the individuals involved and the surrounding aesthetic, musical, and social structures.

Deborah Wong’s chapter, for example, demonstrates that improvisation in taiko drumming can be a means of both doubling down on stereotypes and emancipating oneself from them, depending on how it is employed and framed. Rebecca Caines discusses her new-media audio art project, Community Sound [e]Scapes, in similar terms. She reveals that participants’ unexpected modes of engaging with her project brought out issues of power, economic disparity, ability, age, and other factors that she might not have otherwise considered. A breakdown in communication in her project led to instances in which “dominant bodies spoke in place of those who might improvise their ‘community’ and their sites, space, and places a little differently” (69). Despite the many differences between Wong’s and Caines’s chapters, both demonstrate that improvisation remains high risk— that making space for exchange between subjectivities can reveal theoretical and methodological blind spots.

Chapter 2 presents an interview between Tracy McMullen and Judith Butler. McMullen and Butler disagree about whether subjects can purposively lift themselves out of repressive paradigms. For Butler, every repetition includes potential for newness and difference, irrespective of intention. Newness therefore cannot be...


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