Playing Touchy-Feely

Musical improvisation as an oscillation between two opposing poles: the willingness to be open to the sounds produced by others and the urge to direct the musical direction of the improvisation.

Musical improvisation is a metamodern practice. It is an oscillation between two opposing poles: the willingness to be open to the sounds produced by others and the urge to direct the musical direction of the improvisation. It is impossible to unite these two stances, but musicians sincerely try to do so anyway, by entering into a state of self-deceit during the performance.

Musical improvisation is serious business. Even though I am a Dutch scholar and improviser who grew up in a country that brought forward so-called clownesque musical improvisers such as Willem Breuker, Mischa Mengelberg, and Han Bennink, I sincerely believe that improvisation isn’t possible when musicians aren’t seriously engaged. Musical improvisation can be playful, and it might even be argued that all excellent improvisations are, but it always takes itself seriously.

This is because play itself is a serious affair. More specifically, play is a matter of attitude. As Stephen Nachmanovitch explains, play is always a matter of context: “It is not what we do, but how we do it” (1990: 43). Play is not defined by kinds of actions, but the manner in which these actions are performed. This means that the playfulness of musical improvisation, too, depends on the way it is carried out.

To play, Nachmanovitch contends, is

[…] to free ourselves from arbitrary restrictions and expand our field of action. Our play fosters richness of response and adaptive flexibility. This is the evolutionary value of play – play makes us flexible. By reinterpreting reality and begetting novelty, we keep from becoming rigid. Play enables us to rearrange our capacities and our very identity so that they can be used in unforeseen ways. (43)

This implies that musical improvisation is playful when it tries to avoid the tried and true. An improvisation that can be considered an instance of play needs to be one in which the musicians strive for innovation, flexibility, and unpredictability. This does not mean that each and every improvisation always has these characteristics, but the intention to be innovative, flexible, and unpredictable needs to be there. Musicians have to be very serious in their aim to attain these goals, for they are not easy to accomplish. Moreover, it could even be argued that it is impossible to arrive at a state of constant innovation and unpredictability, despite the effort one might make.

So why bother? Why treat musical improvisation as play, if it is so difficult to improvise playfully? According to Nachmanovitch, play is crucial to human existence:

A creature that plays is more readily adaptable to changing contexts and conditions. Play as free improvisation sharpens our capacity to deal with a changing world. Humanity, playing through our prolific variety of cultural adaptations, has spread over the whole globe, survived several ice ages, and created stupendous artifacts. (45)

Play has ensured our continuing survival on this planet. Play allows us to deal with changes, with the unknown, with the unexpected, in short: with life. And while musical improvisation as play might itself not be crucial to our existence, it can be regarded both as a celebration of this human ability as well as an opportunity to rehearse these faculties. To playfully improvise musically means playing with the intention to reach for the new, the unheard, the uncertain, and to always be ready for this.

However, as postmodernism has taught us, intention is a problematic concept. How can we possibly find out what is going on in an artist’s mind while he or she is creating an object? And even if we were able to do so, it still isn’t an option to reduce the expressivity of an object to the intentions of its maker, as some theorists have tried (and some are still trying). Yet, musical improvisation as play forces us to rethink the notion of intention.

Take for instance the following free improvisation, performed on July 10, 2012 by the trio Molloy, with Marc Huisman on drums, Jasper den Hertog on keyboards, and me on electric upright bass.[1]




Is it possible, upon listening to the performance, to determine whether or not the improvisation is playful, i.e., if the musicians are striving for innovation, flexibility, and unpredictability? A regular listener would probably have a hard time trying to determine the attitude and intention of the performers. However, as one of the musicians, I might be able to judge, to a certain extent, the playfulness of the performance, although attempting to assess one’s own intentions is as fallible as trying to figure out someone else’s.

Nevertheless, I believe I am able to point out at least certain moments in the performance in which an attempt at genuine play is made. For instance, at the beginning of the performance, I played fast lines in order to avoid getting stuck in a repetitive bass line and trying to come up with something new instead. This continued until 2:40, when I played a repetitive figure that is not generally considered a typical bass line, as a response to what the piano was playing at that moment. I tried to both play with the piano (in both senses of the word) and attempted not to assume a role that is conventionally expected from a bass player. At 3:05 I decided that it was time for something new, so I started another repetitive figure, this time in the low register of the bass. My aim was to get the other players to follow me rhythmically, but as soon as they did (at 3:21) I changed my playing once again and invoked a musical closure, which was also picked up by the other players. At these moments too, the risk of playing too repetitively motivated me to introduce these changes. After the closure, at 3:50, the musical atmosphere changed once again and I entered into a musical dialogue with the drummer. At 4:05, quite unexpectedly, I stopped playing altogether, and resumed playing at 4:15, with a repetitive figure that complemented the synthesizer’s part. From 4:37 until the end of the performance I attempted to have a genuine conversation with the two other players, a conversation that was lead by the keyboardist, while the drummer and I responded to what he was doing, by accepting the sounds he produced and attempting to complement them. In short: to accept the new and unexpected sounds the keyboardist produced, and to go along in the musical direction he suggested.

As the above account indicates, improvising playfully with others implies trying to be innovative, to create something new, to respect and respond to the sounds the other musicians come up with. As an improvising musician one has the responsibility to be playful, to embrace the unexpected creations of fellow musicians. A musician has a responsibility towards the ideas and activities of other musicians, a responsibility that feels true, and is true for the musicians, at least during the performance itself. It is a temporary willingness to believe in the truth of playfulness, even though all participants know that true playfulness is impossible to attain. It is impossible to always be fully open to the new, the unexpected, yet an improvising musician always continues to try to assume this attitude, despite being fully aware of the fallibility of this endeavor.

The responsibility towards playfulness, i.e., the embracing of the unexpected, of the new, created by fellow musicians during a particular musical situation, feels so real, so sincere, so true, because the engagement musicians enter into during an improvisation is literally physical. Guerino Mazzola and Paul B. Cherlin (2009) explain that making music with others requires gestures that bind the actions of the performers, just as it requires listening to all musical participants. Ensemble playing consists of corporeal imitation and variation. The musicians are influenced by each other’s movements. Playing music together not only means paying attention to the sound each performer makes, but also coordinating each other’s bodily movements. Making music with others thus is not only a temporal affair, but a spatial activity as well: “Musically speaking, the sender musician throws his hypergesture [a complex combination of physical and musical gestures] to the sender’s hypergesture. What does this mean? It means that the sender’s gestural surface is projected to the receiver’s one” (Mazzola & Cherlin 2009: 94).

In musical improvisation this embodied relationship is exemplified. As Mazzola and Cherlin suggest: “The aesthetic value [of free musical improvisation] lies entirely in the dynamics of the gestural exchange. These movements transcend codified rules and create their own. They do not follow, but make them” (17). Movement, not just musical movement, but physical gestures in particular, is what musical improvisation is about. It is about touching people, both through the affection of sounds and of physical gestures. Sound, “[…] as spatial intensity enfolding the body in on itself, as tactile event” (LaBelle 2006: 96), and physical gestures together constitute what David Borgo calls a “muscular unison” (2005: 134), a situation in which bodies move together, influence each other, touched by sonic gestures and affected by each other’s physical movements.

It is because of these connections, created through touch, that the responsibility towards playfulness feels so true and sincere. Touch, Erin Manning explains, implies responsibility, for “[…] I cannot touch you without being responsible for doing the touching, I cannot touch you without being responsive” (2007: 9). Touch is always intimate: To touch someone is to enter into a very private relationship with him or her, a relationship that cannot remain without consequences. As a result, playful musical improvisation, i.e., the openness towards the sonic and physical gestures of others, as well as the intentions to touch fellow musicians through sounds and gestures, is something that has to be taken seriously, for it establishes an intimate bond between musicians.

In this sense, the relationship between improvising musicians can even be considered erotic. As Laura Marks explains, what is erotic is

[…] the ability to move between control and relinquishing, between being giver and receiver. It’s the ability to have your sense of self, your self-control, taken away and restored – and to do the same for another person. […] [It is the ability] to trust someone or something to take you through this process; and to be trusted to do the same for others. (2002: xvi)

This is exactly how the relation between me and the other musicians of the trio Molloy felt during the musical improvisation that I discussed above. It felt true, compelling, sincere, and as a result I was willing to let myself be controlled by the other players, just as they were prepared to be guided by me. There was complete trust between us, a trust that enabled us to explore the new, the unexpected. Without trust we wouldn’t have been able to open ourselves to the touch of others, or at least wouldn’t be willing to try to do so.

Once musicians engage in a musical improvisation, they sincerely try to connect with the other participants, to touch them by throwing gestures, as Mazzola and Cherlin call it, towards each other, as well as being prepared to be touched by the other musicians, in order to arrive at unexpected, new, and innovative musical territories. Put differently: In musical improvisation players set out to unify two opposing poles: on the one hand an open attitude that allows musicians to be touched physically by other players, and on the other hand an attitude in which musicians consciously try to touch other musicians. It is an attempt to bring together a physical receptive stance and a literally provocative position.

It is this oscillation between physical receptivity and intentional directionality, as well as the awareness that it is impossible to unite these two stances that makes musical improvisation metamodern. Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker (2010) maintain that the willful self-deceit to believe in something in spite of itself, which Raoul Eshelman calls  “performatism,” is characteristic of many metamodern practices. This is exactly what is at play in musical improvisation. As an improviser, it is impossible for me to be both open to the touch of others and to provoke others to react to the sonic gestures I myself create. Yet musical improvisation demands both stances from musicians. It is this struggle that can be heard in the Molloy improvisation: a constant hesitation, a fluctuation between instigating musical gestures and trying to go along with the sonic touches already produced. It is the sound of an impossibility that is nevertheless pursued by us, because we believe in it, at least during the performance itself.



Borgo, David. 2005. Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age. New York: Continuum.

LaBelle, Brandon. 2006. Background Noise: Perspectives of Sound Art. New York: Continuum.

Manning, Erin. 2007. Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Marks, Laura. 2002. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Mazzola, Guerino and Paul B. Cherlin. 2009. Flow, Gesture, and Spaces in Free Jazz: Towards a Theory of Collaboration. Berlin: Springer.

Nachmanovitch, Stephen. 1990. Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.

Vermeulen, Timotheus, and Robin van den Akker. 2010. “Notes on Metamodernism.” Journal of Aesthetics & Culture 2,


[1] The performance can be auditioned at


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