‘Subject Matter: Improvising Cyborgs’ at TWO Thousand + TEN

November 6, 2010: I’ll be presenting a paper ‘Subject Matter: Improvising Cyborgs’ at the TWO Thousand + TEN symposium at the Sonic Arts Research Center, Belfast, N. Ireland.


The instrument—that’s the matter—the stuff—your subject. (Steve Lacy)

Approaches to music analysis based on ideas of musical ‘material’ and their ‘manipulations’ privilege simplicity and coherence, creating problems when approaching performance, and, in particular, real-time interactive improvisation. Such approaches assume rigidly hierarchical causal processes and simplistic notions of agency and volition. The effects of such analysis render physicality and the body largely invisible or, at best, peripheral to the site of creation.

Donna J. Haraway’s cyborg, a playful and disruptive boundary-breaching entity, suggest a way to theorize the relationships between the various entities (such as bodies, instruments and traditions) during improvisative play. Partly a socialist feminist subversion and reinvention of Bruno Latour’s network, cyborgism also promises a mode of analysis that takes relationships and interaction seriously while avoiding the easy impulse to erase difference, complexity and contradictions.

With particular focus on techniques associated with Derek Bailey, I will reverse engineer and demonstrate modes for illuminating cyborg relations; arguing that the cyborg is a possible generator and subject of improvisative play. Techniques such as tone clusters and natural harmonics can amplify the historical and physical contingencies of the guitar-guitarist network, exploding and exposing normally hidden instabilities (and creative possibilities) in that relationship. Tone clusters, for example, may be identical on the fretboard and the keyboard in terms of a discorporate abstraction of ‘musical material,’ but they have very distinct implications for practice (their significance in terms of traditions) and performance (their physical articulations). Consequently, what might be articulated in improvisation is not ‘unfettered choice’ or ‘limited musical material,’ but the dynamic interactions of agencies and identities, and of the temporary and the durable.

The presentation will be a practitioner’s report, and a demonstration of baby steps towards a mode of music analysis that foregrounds real-time interaction. I argue that, if performance in general, and improvisation in particular, is the (re)enactment and (re)negotiation of identities, boundaries and relationships, then the space between entities must be a site of (re)construction and (trans)formation. It is in the (re)negotiations, and the fluid motions, of the boundaries, the (temporary) creation of hybrids and networks that radical music can be improvised.