Musical Bodies: Corporeality, Emergent Subjectivity, and Improvisational Spaces

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Stover, Chris
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Interactive improvisational musical spaces (which is to say, nearly all musical spaces) involve affective relations among bodies: between the bodies of human performers, between performers and active listeners, between the sonic "bodies" that comprise the multiple overlapping events that constitute a musical performance’s unfolding. Music scholarship tends to focus on either music’s sonic materialities (the sensible; what can be heard) or the cultural resonances that locate in and through music (the political or hermeneutic; how meaning is inscribed in and for a listening subject).

An embodied turn, however, has recently been manifesting, bringing music scholarship into communication with feminist theory, queer theory, and approaches that foreground subjectivity and embodiment. Exemplary in this area are works by Naomi Cumming (who asks a critical question, “does the self form the sound, or the sound the self?;” Cumming 7), Suzanne Cusick, Marion Guck, Fred Maus, and Susan McClary. All of these scholars, in various ways, thematise the performative—what it feels like to make or experience music, and what effect that making or experiencing has on subject-formation.

All of these authors strive to foreground the role of the performer and performativity in the context of the extended Western art music tradition. While each makes persuasive, significant points, my contention in this paper is that improvised music is a more fruitful starting place for thinking about embodiment and the co-constitutive relationship between performer and sound. That is, while (nearly) all music is improvised to a greater or lesser degree, the more radical contexts, in which paths are being selected and large-scale shapes drawn in the “heat of the moment,” can bring these issues into stark relief and serve as more productive entry points for thinking through crucial questions of embodiment, perspective, identity, and emergent meaning.

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© The Author(s) 2016. This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License ( which permits unrestricted, non-commercial use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, providing that the work is properly cited. You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.
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Film, Television and Digital Media
Communication and Media Studies
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Stover, C, Musical Bodies: Corporeality, Emergent Subjectivity, and Improvisational Spaces, M/C Journal, 19 (1)