About a month ago, I had another essay published on BLARB. Since then, the world has changed again, and the moment I was writing about feels distant. Still, I’m really happy with how it came out, and thanks again to those of you who have read and shared.

In other news, tomorrow I’ll be presenting a paper at this online conference on autoethnography and music. I was very much looking forward to being in Glasgow, but it will nevertheless be a really welcome opportunity to think and talk with others during this time of isolation.

My paper is a version of arguments that I’ve presented at various points in the past. I’m essentially making the case that the study of improvisation, which is fraught by a series of persistent tropes (above all, the freedom trope), can be moved forward productively by in effect replacing all of these tropes with one: contingency. The rationale here is that only contingency guards against falsely universalizing assumptions/narratives about improvisation, such as the persistent conflation of improvisation with notions of freedom, democracy, horizontality, etc–a conflation which, as I’ve repeatedly argued, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. On the other hand, if contingency and improvisation become synonymous, then every improvisation simply depends, and must be rigorously re-investigated in each case.

If I can make this case moderately convincingly, the question then is: what does this have to do with autoethnography? My answer to that has to do with method, and the ways in which scholars approach the study of improvisation. Approaching improvisation in the way outlined above means that you can’t assume anything about improvisation at all, ever, even if you just came to some convincing conclusions about a particular case, and even if you’re talking about another example from (let’s say) the same artist (because, again, contingency requires re-assessing how the context might have changed, whether that has to do with the musical approach, environment, time period, or whatever).

So, every time you go to study an instance of improvisation, you’re again asking, ‘in this case, what is improvisation doing, what does it mean, how does it function, and on what factors does it depend?’ Since scholars cannot possibly account for everything that goes into a given improvisation (subjects, objects, environments, histories, emotions, affects, political structures, recent experiences, and so on), the listening encounter between the scholar and the music becomes of central importance. The scholar chooses what factors to focus on, and that choice has consequences for how we understand the improvisation in question.

What do I hear when I listen to this music? What stands out to me as relevant? Where do I want to focus my study, and why? By practicing an autoethnography of listening, the improvisation scholar can more responsibly disclose the factors of a given improvisation that are of interest, what investments they may have in the research, and what effects those investments might have on the work being done. Autoethnography in this case becomes a way of narrating and accounting for the interaction between the scholar and the music in order to factor that interaction as one that partially structures our understanding of the improvisation we are studying. The improvisation itself–ephemeral, hopelessly mediated–is partially inaccessable. So what we’re accessing as readers is partially dependent on, partially a result of how the researcher handles and presents that example. Autoethnography is another way of helping to guard against assumptions about improvisation through disclosure, while redirecting attention to the mediated and irreducible encounters that present themselves as an improvisation.


  1. Barry Shank

    Concise and clear.

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