In October 2018, I presented my doctoral dissertation at University of California San Diego.

'Why Do You Play The Way You Do?': Musical Improvisation, Identity, and Social Interaction.


This dissertation is an ethnographic study analyzing how four improvising musicians articulate their music as social interaction and how they conceive of their practice in a larger stylistic and historical context. The musicians—Andrea Neumann, Joe McPhee, Suzanne Thorpe, and Axel Dörner—share in interviews the formative factors of their music practice, including the direct influence of local music scenes, socio-cultural considerations, gender and race dynamics, and their intimate relations to their instruments.

The interviews were preceded by an exchange of recorded solo improvisations with each of the musicians. This exchange served as the catalyst for a broader discussion about musical interaction and what constitutes a musical dialogue.

In my analysis, I focus on: first, their sense of agency in a context of individuality and community; second, performativity in music and the relation between musical practice and social interaction; and third, the connection between a distinct musical practice and the notion of musical fluency.

I pay attention to three vantage points articulated by Ingrid Monson. She proposes a framework of discourse, structure, and practice to parse out the relations between influential external factors and individual agency. I am also applying Erika Fischer-Lichte’s notion of perceptual multistability, in this context signifying the potential overlap or disconnect between the musician and the character of the music, or the blurry lines between an identity on stage and off stage. Ellen Waterman’s use of the term performativity, relating to a listening trust, and Tracy McMullen’s neologism the improvisative serve as concepts to better understand the formative qualities of empathy and generosity in musical improvisation.

In conclusion, I am showing the different ways four musicians experience agency and the performative dynamics of interaction in improvised music. The dissertation analyzes the close link between personal identity, music communities, and an individual music practice. In connection to this multilayered context of stylistic influences and social interaction in music, I propose the term family resemblance as a term affording both similarities and differences in a global musical community characterized by a great stylistic diversity but ultimately a shared focus on improvisation.

Music included in the dissertation:

Kjell Nordeson - Solo

Andrea Neumann - Solo

Axel Dörner - Solo

Suzanne Thorpe - Solo

Joe McPhee - Solo

Family Music