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  • Negotiated Moments: Improvisation, Sound, and Subjectivity ed. by Gillian Siddall, Ellen Waterman
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 brought forth at will. In contrast, McMullen suggests that “some effort is needed to do the unpredictable thing” and that “recognizing openness and unknowingness needs to be practiced again and again” (24). Interestingly, Andra McCartney argues in her chapter on soundwalking and listening that repetition can, in itself, generate newness (49). Nonetheless, Butler and McMullen’s exchange is tantalizingly [End Page 204] short and leaves many questions unanswered— Butler’s resistance to terms such as “effort” seems to mitigate against improvisation as a directed form of progressive action, and neither contributor explores just how one practices “recognizing openness” and what actions follow such a recognition.

Siddall and Waterman also distinguish between two theorizations of the sounding body in their introduction. On one hand, the sounding body is relational, metaphoric, and discursive (2). In this mode, “we use sound as a signifier for our engagement with others and our world” (2)— we “sound off,” or “hear each other out.” On the other hand, “sound is also a physical phenomenon” (2) that brings the materiality of sound and sounding bodies to the fore. In this mode, “sound penetrates and vibrates through the body. . . . [I]t travels, insinuates, reverberates, repeats, and fades away” (2). These two theorizations of the sounding body— as metaphor and material— reverberate throughout the volume.

Jason Robinson, David Borgo, Andrew Raffo Dewar, and Jesse Stewart discuss embodiment, technology, and improvisation in strikingly contrastive ways. Robinson considers telematic performances— where performers in different spaces are connected via telecommunication technologies— in terms of latency and embodiment and examines a “dialectic tension” in the practice— that telematic performances are judged using paradigms from in-person, embodied music performance (91). Borgo offers a “neo-cybernetic” theorization of improvisation in terms of closed and open systems. He argues for a shift in focus from subjects (both human and nonhuman), which he regards as kinds of “black boxes,” to systems of subjects. Borgo’s autoethnographic analysis toward the end of his chapter is brief, and I look forward to reading more detailed and sustained analyses in relation to his theory. Dewar explores liveness and authenticity through a discussion of bodies on stage, transcription, and recent developments in self-controlled pianos and argues that increasingly nuanced realizations of prerecorded piano playing “allow us to reconsider the notation of loss implied by the reproduction of a live performance, and to conceptualize the ways many performances are in a sense re-performances” (132). Stewart outlines and theorizes many versions of David Rokeby’s Very Nervous System (VNS) in relation to embodiment, technology, and space. Importantly, the correlation between movement and sound in VNS is not straightforward, thus creating a “biofeedback loop between the technology and the improvising body” (170).

The body as a conceptual frame appears throughout the book. In their chapters, Zachary Wallmark, and Kevin McNeilly and Julie Dawn Smith posit the body as porous and hybrid. Wallmark discusses one of the most distinctive timbral aspects of free jazz— the “saxophonic scream”— in terms of Nina Eidsheim’s “timbre corporeal” (237), arguing that it both seems to “reach past constraints of the instrument, over the limits of the body, and beyond signification as a musical code” and demands an embodied response from its listeners. Listeners’ empathetic responses to timbre are, for Wallmark, inseparable from their ability to “empathize with the gendered and raced body that conveys it” (242). McNeilly and Smith foreground [End Page 205] corporeal hybridity, differentiation, and negotiation in their discussion of flautist Nicole Mitchell’s piece “Xenogenesis,” which was written in response to the work of Afrofuturist science fiction writer Octavia Butler.

Ability is a primary theme in Sherrie Tucker’s chapter. Tucker discusses two concerts of improvised music curated by Pauline Oliveros that aimed to stretch “everyday social, cultural, political, geographical, architectural, and institutional parameters” (181). Improvisation, Tucker argues, can “extend or twist” boundaries between identities and abilities to “make something new” (198). The various essays by concert participants within the chapter cover a number of topics, including software-generated sound and visual art in performance, physical spaces, pedagogical practices, and the exclusionary potential of what Michele Friedner and Stefan Helmreich have called “audist” or “phonocentric” thinking.5 Oliveros also contributes some remarks on the concerts and links them to a practice of deep listening that aims to “bring artists without disabilities into contact with artists they might otherwise miss in an ableist culture” (185). Oliveros’s passing in November 2016 was a blow to those who knew her and her work. Her contributions to this collection, therefore, are especially poignant and testify to her tireless work to stretch the boundaries of artistic practice.

Tomie Hahn’s chapter also relates to the notion of stretching boundaries, although in a more literal sense than Tucker’s. Theory and practice intersect in striking ways in Hahn’s chapter. She describes “banding”— linking people together with large rubber bands and asking them to focus on their own movements in relation to the collective— and presents a series of reflections from participants in her banding workshop. Banding, argues Hahn, illustrates that “physical orientation in space and time, with people and things, can be realized through disorienting experiences” (148). Participants’ reflections show that “finding orientation through disorientation mean[s] simultaneously a physical orientation in space and time and an orientation of subjectivities within the larger community” (149). Perhaps the most arresting account is from François Mouillot, who suffers from cerebral palsy. Mouillot describes control over his body as fleeting and temporary and reports that banding allowed him to let go of the urge to control, listen to the group, and achieve a sense of togetherness (158). Hahn’s chapter demonstrates how her theory of “orientation through disorientation” emerges out of the practice of banding and that embracing disorientation in practice allowed participants to cultivate trust and a sense of community. Theory and practice also intersect in provocative ways in the chapters by Borgo, Tucker, Robinson, Oliveros, and McCartney.

Many of the authors in Negotiated Moments examine how subjects resist oppressive political regimes or societal norms. Illa Carrillo Rodriguez and Berenice Corti discuss public political protest, performance, and demonstration, nationhood, and political and bodily dislocation in Argentina. Their chapter could be productively read alongside other theorizations of political protest and improvisation, [End Page 206] such as those by Yves Citton, Danielle Goldman, and Enrique Silva.6 Along with resistance, temporality is a distinguishing theme in the chapters by Gillian Siddall, and Mandy-Suzanne Wong and Nina Sun Eidsheim. Siddall’s analysis of gender, class, sexuality, race, and ethnicity in Ann-Marie MacDonald’s novel Fall on Your Knees posits the improvising body as a mode of both chronicling and resisting oppression. Female characters in MacDonald’s novel use improvisation— musical or otherwise— as a means of resisting and destabilizing “notions of meaning and identity as coherent and unitary” (201). Similarly, Wong and Eidsheim argue that musicking bodies bear witness to their direct and indirect experiences through sound. The body is thus “a living archive of other bodies and experiences, which are audible in the musician’s improvisations” (226).

Cooperation, exchange, and organization are pivotal to resistance. Ellen Waterman analyzes the music of Canadian group Safa in these terms. Waterman argues that clarinetist Françoise Houle’s musical “code switching” makes the different musical backgrounds of the group’s members— Iranian, Puerto Rican, and French— audible and productive. Musical exchange via improvisation thus becomes a metaphor for larger sociopolitical questions regarding multiculturalism and living harmoniously together. Waterman’s chapter resonates with other analytical work on cross-cultural exchange and improvised music, such as that by Michael Dessen and Niko Higgins.7

Negotiated Moments makes a number of important contributions to critical studies in both improvisation and identity. The contributing authors pay close attention to the configuration of power, gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, nationhood, and class. Their discussions of embodied identities demonstrate that improvisation is not inherently progressive. Instead, improvisation is fraught with risk. The authors also discuss improvisation in terms of both embodied knowledge and theoretical understanding through a combination of ethnography and autoethnography, phenomenological frameworks, interviews, and analysis. Rather than cast embodied knowledge and theory as opposites, Negotiated Moments demonstrates some of the ways in which the two productively intersect. I hope that other scholars of improvisation will adopt and develop similarly hybrid methodologies toward these ends. Finally, any scholarly discussion of resistance hits close to home given the current political climate in the United States. Effective and sustained resistance is more important than ever, and deeper and more critical understandings of improvisation may help us respond and resist in these unpredictable times. Negotiated Moments contains important contributions to this end. I [End Page 207] hope that the volume will lead to more work on the theory and practice of improvisation and political resistance. [End Page 208]

Marc Hannaford

marc hannaford is a graduate student in music theory at Columbia University. His scholarly interests include improvisation (both musical and otherwise), critical identity studies, embodied cognition, and rhythm and meter. He is also an improvising pianist and composer.


1. Lisa Barg, “Working behind the Scenes: Gender, Sexuality, and Collaboration in the Vocal Arrangements of Billy Strayhorn,” Women & Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture 18 (2014): 24–47; George E. Lewis, “Improvised Music after 1950: Afrological and Eurological Perspectives,” Black Music Research Journal 22 (2002): 215–46 (supplement, “Best of BMRJ”); Lewis, “Gittin’ to Know Y’all: Improvised Music, Interculturalism, and the Racial Imagination,” in The Improvisation Studies Reader: Spontaneous Acts, ed. Rebecca Caines and Ajay Heble (London: Routledge, 2015), 296–320; Julie Dawn Smith, “Perverse Hysterics: The Noisy Cri of Les Diaboliques,” in Big Ears: Listening for Gender in Jazz Studies, ed. Nichole T. Rustin and Sherrie Tucker (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 180–209; Smith, “Playing Like a Girl: The Queer Laughter of the Feminist Improvising Group,” in The Other Side of Nowhere: Jazz, Improvisation, and Communities in Dialogue, ed. Daniel Fischlin and Ajay Heble (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 224–43; Yoko Suzuki, “Two Strikes and the Double Negative: The Intersections of Gender and Race in the Cases of Female Jazz Saxophonists,” Black Music Research Journal 33, no. 2 (2013): 207–26; Jeffrey Taylor, “With Lovie and Lil: Rediscovering Two Chicago Pianists of the 1920s,” in Rustin and Tucker, Big Ears, 48–63; Sherrie Tucker, “When Subjects Don’t Come Out,” in Queer Episodes in Music and Modern Identity, ed. Sophie Fuller and Lloyd Whitesell, 293–310 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002); Tucker, “When Did Jazz Go Straight? A Queer Question for Jazz Studies,” Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation 4, no. 2 (2008); Sherrie Tucker, “Bordering on Community: Improvising Women Improvising Women-in-Jazz,” in Fischlin and Heble, The Other Side of Nowhere, 244–67; Ellen Waterman, “Naked Intimacy: Eroticism, Improvisation, and Gender,” Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation 4, no. 2 (2008)

2. George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, 2 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

3. “Improvisation, Community, and Social Practice: Overview,” 2016,

4. Suzanne G. Cusick, Francesca Caccini at the Medici Court: Music and the Circulation of Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Kimberlé Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1989, article 8, 139–67,; and Jack Halberstam, In a Queer Time and Place: Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives (New York: New York University Press, 2005; Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

5. Michele Friedner and Stefan Helmreich, “Sound Studies Meets Deaf Studies,” Senses & Society 7, no. 1 (2012): 72–86, 72.

6. Yves Citton, “Politics as Hypergestural Improvisation in the Age of Mediocracy,” in Lewis and Piekut, The Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, 1:160–81. Danielle Goldman, “Bodies on the Line: Contact Improvisation and Techniques of Nonviolent Protest,” Dance Research Journal 39, no. 1 (2007): 60–74; Goldman, I Want to Be Ready: Improvised Dance as a Practice of Freedom (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010); Enrique R. Silva, “Deliberate Improvisation: Planning Highway Franchises in Santiago, Chile,” Planning Theory 10, no. 35 (2011): 35–52.

7. Michael Dessen, in Fischlin and Heble, The Other Side of Nowhere, 173–92; and Niko Higgins, “In Search of Compatible Virtuosities: Floating Point and Fusion in India,” in Jazz Worlds / World Jazz, ed. Philip V. Bohlman and Goffredo Plastino (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 338–63.

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