I’ve been thinking about my “method” lately and realizing how easy it might be to mistake my focus on contingency as a new materialist impulse.
Although I focus on the interdependent relationships between “subjects, objects, and environments” in an improvisatory scene, I do not wish to trod down the new materialist path, which aligns itself with “hard science” epistemologies against so-called “representationalist” social theories, erasing queer and feminist work while instantiating (when applied to sound) what Marie Thompson calls “white aurality” as universal. Although I am invested in interdependence as the necessary flip-side to contingency (see Kriti Sharma’s Interdependence), my goal is to show how actually incoherent, indecipherable, and inexhaustible something like an improvisation becomes when viewed through this perspective.
Many theories of musical interactivity (such as those utilizing complexity/emergence, Actor Network Theory, or critical posthumanism) resonate clearly with my approach insofar as they are all concerned with how improvisation actually emerges from a total social scene and is thus irreducible to the intentions, creative practices, or even unconscious habits of the acting subject. Where I part ways with these theories, however, is in their implicit focus on cataloguing such “actants” as a question of outcomes, a rationalist impulse that aligns such studies with new materialism and its affinity for the hard sciences. Not only do I find this focus on outcomes methodologically inadequate for studying improvisation (particularly in music studies, which is already historically overdetermined by sheet music), it is also politically problematic insofar as I aspire to orient my research in alignment with the queer/feminist scholarship that new materialism discounts.
As Robin James writes in The Sonic Episteme,
Similarly, new materialism’s turn toward hard sciences like biology and physics has the effect of aligning philosophy with the most prestigious and well-funded fields in the twenty-first- century academy. Much like analytic philosophy in the twentieth century, which allied itself with the hard sciences against the rest of the humanities just as these humanities fields began to incorporate feminist, queer, and critical race theory and scholars from those underrepresented groups, new materialism appears to be a turn toward hard science and all the prestige (which is not unrelated to its whiteness and cis-maleness) that comes with it (James 2019, 105).
So not only do such methods carry an objectionable politics, but additionally, as I said above, new materialisms are also simply inadequate for studying the densely affective, singular, experiential encounters that produce and constitute an improvisatory scene. No matter how thoroughly we trace the factors involved and their complex interactions, improvisation isn’t simply a question of causality. In other words, we can’t exhaust improvisation by tracing the outcomes of a process or how they came to be. All that we can do, and what is more interesting in any case, is to become familiar with sounds and their relations through the repeated touch of contingency, through a musical intimacy or close listening, an intimacy that becomes a feminist method by virtue of its context.
That is: by listening closely to sounds and the embodied situations through which they arise, we pay attention to the uneven, inexhaustible things that matter to both performers and listeners, understanding music as a socially significant but non-rational, affective space. In viewing improvisation in this way, we can begin to think about what improvisation and music do: how they move people, what forces push in what directions, and what the significance might be of turning this way instead of that. This can be a feminist method if we consider its direct opposition to masculinist rationalisms, and if we consider the long history of both deep listening and the intimacy of care in feminist scholarship. To listen deeply is to become intimate with the social histories, questions, and feelings circulating in and through performance, to put oneself into contact with those factors and to use that contact to think.
In sum, while chapter 4 of Contingent Encounters in particular explores the idea of musical intimacy as a feminist practice in a particular recording, the book overall attempts to deploy this kind of intimacy in its general method, by listening deeply to its material, and by following this listening without the aim of rational outcomes or total mastery. This, I hope, is facilitated (rather than made more difficult) by a focus on contingency and interdependence.