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Playing (at jazz)

Ingrid Monson


Epistrophy no. 2 presents several articles exploring the theme of play in relationship to jazz improvisation. Connoting both pleasure and rules of engagement, play implies the emergent and social quality of improvisation, the seriousness of its artful rules, and its theoretical implications. The theme of ensemble interaction and its implications for social critique and advancing critical theory beyond the limits of Western philosophy have long been central concerns to my own work, as well as to the way the field of jazz studies has developed since the 1990s.

My book Saying Something : Jazz Improvisation and Interaction grew from my experiences as a musician and noticing that the then existing jazz literature had little to say about the ensemble dimensions of improvisation, despite what I knew to be their centrality in the music [1]. Since the music literature offered no models, I found myself drawn to the linguistic anthropology literature on conversational interaction and emergence, which then led to me broader poststructural, anthropological, and social theoretical debates about social construction, relationality, and indexicality [2]. In the 1990s, these interpretive frameworks were dominated by the metaphor of language as the model of relationality. To me interactive improvisation was an equally compelling model of interrelatedness and emergence. I was able to relate these literatures, because musicians themselves (both those I interviewed and in the longer historical literature) made use of language metaphors to describe both how interaction between the rhythm section and soloist took place and how the music acquired social meaning. Good improvisation had to ‘say something’ through sound. I proposed ‘intermusicality’ (intertextuality in sound), as one means through which social and cultural meaning accrued.

Although I made use of the poststructuralism’s emphasis on language, I was never satisfied with the primacy of language in the discursive world of the 1990s. Improvisational relationality was accomplished through sound, not text ; it was, in other words, phenomenological. Towards the end of Saying Something, I, therefore critiqued the anti-phenomenological claims of poststructuralism, especially those found in the work of Derrida. I suggested that music offered a model of relationality that was itself sensory and phenomenological. One of the greatest advances in philosophical and social theoretical thinking since the millennium has been the increasing attention to questions of the sensory, phenomenological, and embodied dimensions of how music and other performance mediums exist in the world ; that is, questions of ontology. Many of the essays in this issue of Epistrophy address these questions in intriguing ways.

In Saying Something, acoustic face-to-face performance served as model for musical process, which limits its application to today’s digitally mediated processes of musical creation of remix and sampling. Face-to-face performance provides an ideal type of collective collaboration, which requires tempering by issues of power, gender, race, and mixed digital and live musical processes [3]. Today’s new generation of musical scholars are employing ideas from sound studies, actor network theory, critical race theory, queer theory, postcolonialism, and critiques of neoliberalism, to richly contextualize their work on improvisational musics and technological mediation within larger networks of power and globalization.

In making music speak to larger sociocultural webs of power, the key question to me has been how to make connections between the details of music and larger levels of social and philosophical analysis. There is no formula for making these connections ; many social theoretical and philosophical offer suggestive paths whose fruitfulness lies in the effectiveness with which individual scholars make their case. My own solution in Freedom Sounds : Civil Rights Call out to Jazz and Africa, was to contextualize historical music making within questions of discourse, practice and structure [4]. The interactions between what people said, what they did, and how they navigated the societal structures in which they lived, offered me a way to talk about how music was political in the Civil Rights and Black Power eras. As I often tell my students, all theories have their limits (including this one). I encourage them to look for resonances between the particular music they study and an eclectic array of possible interpretive frameworks. The connections among these resonances offer the means of building new theoretical frames. I have been excited by the creative use of ideas from thinkers like Latour, Deleuze, Gibson, Sterne, Butler, Mbembe, and Comaroff & Comaroff by music scholars intent on creatively building on the work that has come before them [5].

The authors included in Epistrophy no. 2 explore some of these ideas in new ways that will prove stimulating to a continuing interdisciplinary conversation. Bastien Pilleul, the author of "Cassavetes-Mingus, une rencontre du jazz et du cinéma autour de la question du jeu", explores the artful dance between cinema and improvisation encapsulated by the difference of opinion between Cassavetes and Mingus over what kind of music was appropriate for Shadows, Cassavetes’ attempt to create an improvisatory film inspired by the principles of jazz. The filmmaker asked Mingus to improvise to the filmic images ; Mingus thought the score should be written. Using Deleuze, Kant, and Béthune, the author explores the gaps between improvisation and notation, and cinema and music by ultimately developing the idea of a free game oriented by bodily expression and gesture. Laurent Cugny, the author of "Le jeu du jazz comme formativité", also addresses the body through the theory of audio tactile music developed by Vincenzo Caporaletti. To counteract the domination of visual modes of understanding that are the consequent of musical notation, Cugny and his collaborators aim to explore the cognitive, embodied, technological, and written aspects of music through the concept of formativité. By putting together the notions of playing and style, Edouard Hubert, the author of "Le style : le jeu du jazz ?" analyses saxophonist Jackie McLean’s "first" style with the Audiotactile Music Theory. Sometimes accused of copying Parker, McLean tries to find his own playing and style as soon as the early 1950’s, when he first records with Miles Davis.

Melodic sensibility is horizontally defined, not by an individual alone, but by the ensemble members, who each contribute to the melodic interweaving. Despite their communal definition of the global sound, each band member must also articulate his or her own voice and individuality of sound. The coherence of the sound consequently requires the articulation of alterity while at the same time being collective. In a similar manner plurality in the vertical sphere (synchronization) requires both staying together and individual rhythmic sensibilities registered in the individuality of an artist’s articulation of swing eight notes. The theme of alterity is present in Francesco Paradiso’s – the author of “Playin(g) Iterability and Iteratin(g) Play" – exploration of Derrida’s methods of text reading to explore the durability of the jazz standard in improvisational aesthetics. What the artful improviser accomplishes, in this framework, is akin to Derrida’s performative acts of the reader, which in reiteration transforms and innovates in a manner which goes beyond the implications of the original tune. Deconstructive reading locates the ‘otherness’ in the standard that creates the possibility of new interpretations.

The authors of “Contre le neutre : John Zorn, les Game Pieces et le moment « postmoderne »” – Claude-Marin Herbert – and “Improvisation, Interaction, and Intermusicality in the music of Bill Evans” – Mike Mackey – provide case studies of the work of particular composers/improvisers. Mike Mackey provides a close analysis of three versions of “All of You” performed by the famed trio of Bill Evans, Scott LaFaro, and Paul Motian on their album Live at the Village Vanguard (1961). Claude-Marin Herbert presents John Zorn’s Game Pieces, contextualizing them within the trickster-like paradoxes of New York’s Downtown scene of the 1980s. Noting Zorn’s position between the new music of Cage, Wolff, and Stockhausen and the experimental music of Anthony Braxton, George Lewis, and the AACM Claude-Marin Herbert explores postmodern aesthetics and the importance of developing a living community.

This issue of Epistrophy will delight with its combination of writerly creativity, philosophical engagement and musical invocation.


[1Monson, 1996.

[2Examples include : Duranti & Goodwin, 1992 ; Silverstein, 1976 ; Bakhtin, 1981 ; Derrida, 1982 ; Foucault, 1972 ; Spivak, 1990 ; Bourdieu, 1977 ; Clifford, 1988.

[3Two examples include Stanyek & Piekut, 2010 ; Born, 2005.

[4Monson, 2007.

[5Latour, 2005 ; Gibson, 1983 ; Sterne, 2003 ; Butler, 2015 ; Mbembe, 2010 ; Comaroff & Comaroff, 2011.


Bakhtin, Mikhail, “Discourse in the Novel”, in Michael Holquist (ed.), The Dialogic Imagination : Four Essays, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1981 [1935], p. 259-422.

Born, Georgina, “On Musical Mediation : Ontology, Technology, and Creativity”, in Twentiety-Century Music, Vol. 2, no. 1, 2005, p. 7–36.

Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a Theory of Practice, New York, Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Butler, Judith, Senses of the Subject, New York, Fordham University Press, 2015.

Clifford, James, The Predicament of Culture : Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1988.

Comaroff, Jean & Comaroff, John, Theory From the South : Or, How Euro-America is Evolving Toward Africa, Boulder, CO, Paradigm Publishers, 2011.

Derrida, Jacques, “Différance,” in Margins of Philosophy, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1982, p. 1–27.

Duranti, Alessandro & Goodwin, Charles (ed.), Rethinking Context : Language as an Interactive Phenomenon. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Foucault, Michel, The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. New York, Pantheon Books, 1972.

Gibson, James, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1983.

Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the Social : An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Mbembe, Achille, Sortir de la grande nuit : Essai sur L’Afrique décolonisée ; Paris, La Découverte, 2010.

Monson, Ingrid, Saying Something : Jazz Improvisation and Interaction. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Monson, Ingrid, Freedom Sounds : Civil Rights Call Out to Jazz and Africa, New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Silverstein, Michael, “Shifters, Linguistic Categories, and Cultural Description”, in Keith Basso & Henry Shelby (ed.), Meaning in Anthropology, Albuqurque, University of New Mexico, 1976, p. 11–55.

Spivak, Gayatri, “Poststructuralism, Marginality, Postcoloniality and Value”, in Peter Collier & Helga Geyer-Ryan (ed.), Literary Theory Today, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1990, p. 219–244.

Stanyek, Jason & Piekut, Benjamin, “Deadness : Technologies of the Intermundane”, in The Drama Review, Vol. 54, no. 1, 2010, p. 14–38.

Sterne, Jonathan, The Audible Past : Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction. Durham, Duke University Press, 2003.

02, 2017


Jouer Jazz / Play Jazz


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