Stretching The Boundaries: Improvised Interaction Across Liminal Spaces

Marc Hannaford

Humanist/Post-Humanist Improvisation

One often hears about the radical socio-political potential of musical improvisation—its revolutionary capacity to transcend barriers of difference and unite those who do not share languages, backgrounds, or even life philosophies. These universalist declarations regarding jazz and/or improvisation appear in both neo-classical and experimental circles : Wynton Marsalis states that jazz is the only music in which people can collaborate and negotiate their differences together in real time despite never having met;1 Michael Dessen discusses productive exchanges between the New York jazz scene and Afro-Cuban traditions (Dessen 2004); and Ellen Waterman similarly examines the cross-cultural exchange between improvisers from contrasting cultural backgrounds within an ensemble (Waterman 2016). In each example, improvisation constitutes the means to productive collaboration despite differences and often incorporates broader implications of global social and political cooperation.

This humanistic strand of improvisation studies stems from the fundamental connection between jazz and progressive social movements, particularly efforts by African Americans to assert their individual and collective human rights in the face of slavery, subjection, and ongoing racism. Jazz, as Cornel West states, features a balance of individual and collective freedom (West 1993, 150–1), and Robin D.G. Kelley notes that jazz and improvisation participate in an Africandiasporic tradition of imagining and building better futures (Kelley 2002). Both scholars recognize and foreground the radical socio-political potential of jazz and improvisation, as well as ground this possibility in slavery and its aftermath. Improvisation thus functions as a means of expressing freedom, pain, individuality, collectivity, and hope.

Yet the notion that improvisation traverses boundaries of difference runs the risk of idealization, in which improvisation suggests that anyone can cooperate given the requisite conditions or improvisatory knowledge. These characterizations recall similar, universalist accounts of Western art music, where Classical and Romantic “masterworks” speak to a common humanity. Those claims regarding Western art music almost always fall short of their lofty humanist goals, as evidenced by then numerous accounts of racism, misogyny, and sexual abuse that occur under the cover of the “greatness.”

In contrast with this “humanist” orientation, recent work that links improvisation and posthumanism questions anthropocentric views of the world. More specifically, posthumanists insist that “matter matters” (Barad 2003); that non-human elements in our environment are crucial and constituent ontological and epistemological factors in human life. Some materialistminded music scholars link pedagogy and theory to instruments and technologies that help facilitate knowledge and skills. Benjamin Steege’s influential Helmholtz and the Modern Listener (Steege 2012), for example, contains multiple instances where materials such as the tuning fork and piano facilitate experiments and undergird proofs related to both physiology and music theoretical concepts. Andrew Goldman’s work on improvising pianists suggests that improvisers’ specialized knowledge is inherently connected to the materiality of their instrument (Goldman 2013). In both cases, which resonate with posthumanist issues even if the authors would not characterize their work as such, interactions with non-human objects guide the ways that we understand and exist in our world.

This essay excavates further connections between posthumanism and critical improvisation studies. More specifically, I examine composer, trombonist, scholar, and improviser George Lewis’s improvising program, Voyager, to suggest that the way that we aurally detect and analyze improvised interaction warrants closer scrutiny. Interaction is a crucial concept in improvisation studies because it often evidences cooperation between humans, but it also provides support for claims that non-humans can improvise. I tease out this argument through a concentrated analysis of an excerpt of a performance between George Lewis, Voyager, and pianist Jason Moran. I subsequently examine three additional examples—Achim Zepezauer’s Slotmachine, David Rothenberg’s interspecies improvisation, and, finally, a discussion of disability and improvisation. I invoke these examples to facilitate a broader understanding of improvised interaction and suggest possible ways of creating more inclusive analyses and creative practice.

I use “alien” in this essay to refer to that which is unknown or unknowable to us. My consideration of the alien in relation to improvisation, therefore, foregrounds the tension that arises between improvisation as a universal account of what it means to be human and as a practice that broaches the threshold of humanism altogether. In this sense, improvising with aliens means critically investigating—philosophically and creatively—the ways that we interact and detect interaction during improvised collaboration with multifarious sets of agents. Put another way, I explore the kinds of sonic relations that indicate collaborative interaction and how a posthumanist perspective might broaden that understanding. First, however, I outline one of the most compelling recent enquiries to combine posthumanism and improvisation studies.

Edgar Landgraf (Landgraf 2018) utilizes Niklas Luhmann’s work and visual artist Gerhard Richter’s process of painting to tease out interactions between improvisation studies and posthumanism.2 He suggests that the humanistic focus of improvisation studies risks uncritically positing humans as autonomous agents. Improvisation, Landgraf argues, contains an inherent critique of this argument—improvisation requires one to relinquish control in the face of unpredictability.

Straightforward attributions of human agency ignore the multifaceted and complex interactions between humans and non-human agents that undergird improvised behavior, argues Landgraf. Thus posthumanism :

Allows us to reject or at least circumvent the reductive scheme which looks for the agent or subject behind the deed. Critical and methodological posthumanism invite us to develop more sophisticated explanatory models that can take into account a multiplicity of limiting and enabling factors, both internal and environmental. They allow us to appreciate dynamics inherent to any complex, self-organizing process. (Landgraf 2018, 213) 

Landgraf decenters the human by problematizing straightforward attributions of intention, agency, and control. My essay houses similar aims, although I examine sonic signifiers for interaction rather than Landgraf’s human–material connection. Interaction is commonly invoked in improvised music because it is a central part of many musical idioms. For many experimentalists, however, interaction is something to interrogate through creative work, rather than something that is simply given.


George Lewis’s Voyager software represents a compelling case study for posthumanist inquiry. Lewis has adapted various platforms, interfaces, and operating systems to the program since its initial development and performances in the early 1980s. Each iteration, however, prompts musicians, listeners, programmers, and scholars to investigate the epistemological and ontological underpinnings of improvisation. Lewis emphasizes this point in his foundational article, “Too Many Notes : Computers, Complexity and Culture in Voyager” (G.E. Lewis 2000). The program does not simply ask (or answer) questions such as “can computers improvise ?” or “can humans program improvisation ?” Rather, “Voyager asks questions concerning ways in which historically contingent meanings are exchanged through sound . . . how personalities and identities become articulated through sonic behavior” (38). Importantly, these “historically contingent meanings” are articulated through personal histories, sounds, and approaches to improvisation, as well as “through processes of interactivity” (38, my emphasis). Interaction constitutes one of the primary modes of signaling collaborative improvisation, and Voyager queries connections between sound, interaction, and improvisation. 

Voyager has performed in diverse settings with a relatively large cross-section of improvisers. Footage of the debut of the program, under the title “Rainbow Family” at the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music (IRCAM) features Lewis’s fellow AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) member Douglas Ewart, bassist Joëlle Léandre, soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy, and guitarist Derek Bailey.3 Subsequent concerts include other AACM musicians such as Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers, the late Geri Allen, and younger generations of musicians such as Courtney Bryan, Vijay Iyer, and Jason Moran.4 

Voyager receives information from its collaborators via a stream of Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) information (either directly or through “pitch-following” programs), which it uses to generate sound. The means by which Voyager produces sound have changed over the years : it employed a Yamaha DX7 for “Rainbow Family,” later performances utilized a standard set of MIDI sounds, and more recent performances feature Yamaha Disklavier acoustic grand pianos, which allow MIDI control of an acoustic instrument. The fundamentals of the program remain the same, however : It generates musical gestures using combinations of various programmed processes related to pitch, timing, timbre, and orchestration, among other factors, and often with reference to the incoming MIDI data. Lewis outlines one of these processes, called setresponse, in his article :

The response task word setresponse . . . processes data from both the low-level MIDI parser that collects and manages the raw data and a mid-level smoothing routine that uses this raw data to construct averages of pitch, velocity, probability of note activity and spacing between notes. This information is used by setresponse to decide in greater detail how [Voyager] will respond to elements of the input, such as tempo (speed), probability of playing a note, the spacing between notes, melodic interval width, choice of primary pitch material (including a pitchset based on the last several notes received), octave range, microtonal transposition and volume. (G.E. Lewis 2000, 35–6)

This remarkable music-theoretical routine allows Voyager to base its responses on incoming information from other players. The program’s other responses and processes run simultaneously and asynchronously during the performance, meaning that listeners can rarely aurally identify its specific processes of interpretation and generation. This opacity does not mean that Voyager’s decisions and interactions with the other players are hard to hear per se, but rather that its precise modes of analysis and reinterpretation are largely difficult to discern from listening alone. 

A second important point is that Voyager is able to produce music without incoming data from human collaborators. Lewis incorporated various “attitudes” towards the incoming MIDI data into Voyager’s code, which range “from complete communion to utter indifference” (36). Voyager therefore shifts between various behaviors in relation to its human collaborators during performance, and in instances of “utter indifference” generates music independently, much like a human improviser would. This point is crucial because it means that, in addition to the opacity of the program’s interpretive processes mentioned above, it may also be the case that Voyager is ignoring the human performers altogether. 

I take a different but complementary view to those outlined in Lewis’s article. I posit that, if interaction is a crucial part of collaborative improvisation, then an important part of Voyager is the way it questions what interaction sounds like. With this in mind, I turn to a 2016 performance featuring pianist Jason Moran along with Lewis and Voyager at the Kennedy Center.5 The footage of this performance allows the viewer to see both keyboards, which is useful for parsing the human and non-human pianists.6

George E. Lewis, Jason Moran, and Voyager at the Kennedy Center (2016).

Voyager begins this concert (12:15 of the video) by performing solo, as it does at many of its appearances. Its rippling fragments of whole-tone scales fly across the keyboard, creating enormous rhythmic momentum without necessarily delineating a regular pulse or rhythmic pattern. At 12:29 Voyager transitions to the lower register of the piano and begins incorporating silence to create short, disjunct phrases. Its whole-tone fantasy, perhaps signifying on Thelonious Monk or even Moran himself, expands into polyphonic polyrhythm at around 12:35, and the camera cuts to a medium shot of the piano, parallel to the surface of the piano keys, that emphasizes Voyager’s fantastic extrapolations. 

Over the next four minutes of its solo performance, Voyager transitions between different sonic areas. One gets the sense that it could continue indefinitely, creating and developing multiple trains of musical thought. At 16:38, however, Moran enters the scene and sits at his piano. His initial pianistic pronouncements at 16:43 do not appear to be included in the audio of the performance (his audio begins a few moments later, at 16:47), but his bodily movements suggest that they contrast markedly with Voyager’s rippling polyphony. Moran’s initial sonic gestures comprise largely of short, sharply articulated phrases of one to three notes, a point clarified once his audio emerges and the camera cuts to a clear view of his hands at 16:49. 

Moran’s staccato attacks contrast with Voyager’s more continuous playing, and a few seconds later (at 16:52) the program suddenly falls silent. This break in activity is latent with meaning, and the camera fixates on Voyager’s inactive keyboard at 16:58 as if to emphasize this significance. I regard Voyager’s silence—just moments after Moran’s entrance—as a kind of performative gesture towards listening ; a move that resembles the musical space and attention that a human performer might offer a collaborator who enters the field with a new musical idea, as Moran does. Importantly, Voyager does not need to cease playing in order to listen—it continuously and automatically receives MIDI information from Moran’s piano—so its performative moment of listening suggests an analysis of the aural manifestation of interaction ; that is, if Voyager’s silence sounds like a moment of listening and hence interaction, then we might attend to other moments in this performance that suggest interaction between the musicians.7

Voyager reenters as 17:01 after an ascending flourish by Moran. It changes its musical tact by offering a spacious, legato, almost tentative single-note melody one octave above the middle of the keyboard. Meanwhile Moran gravitates towards a low pedal point, which he establishes with a series of rolling octaves. Moran’s repetitive octaves contrast with the more frenetic pace that both he and Voyager established in the opening minutes of the performance, suggesting a turn towards a more static or repetitive musical space. 

Voyager responds to Moran’s turn towards repetition with repetition of its own. At 17:05 it plays four two-note clusters in succession before descending into the middle register and offering a repetitive, blues-inflected dyad at 17:06. Furthermore, Voyager’s bluesy inflection harmonizes with Moran’s pedal point, which emerges as the tonic in relation to Voyager’s descending third figure.

I suggest that Voyager’s sudden silence in response to Moran’s entrance, its mimicry of Moran’s turn towards repetition, and finally its harmonization of Moran’s pedal point by signifying on the blues all provide sonic evidence of interaction. Moments of convergence or response such as these saturate the performance, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to examine all of the ways that musical interaction manifests between the players. Nonetheless my analysis suggests that interaction appears particularly salient at moments when one player clearly incorporates or somehow accounts for elements from the other and weaves them into their collective multi-layered musical fabric.

To return to one of Lewis’s foundational statements about his program, however, it is moments like these—where musical analysis supports the claim that Voyager interacts with its fellow improvisers in real time—that Voyager suggests we critically scrutinize. Thus when he states in his conclusion that our “identities are continually conditioned and reinscribed through processes of interactivity, where negotiation, difference, partial perspective—and in the case of music, sonic signaling—enter the picture” (38), one might also ask how listeners and analysts construct meaning through identifying and analyzing “processes of interactivity.”

Recent work in both music theory and human-computer interaction (HCI) further complicates this query, because it suggests that interaction exceeds easily analyzable moments such as those that I foregrounded above. Jazz scholar and music theorist Benjamin Givan recently posited that many analyses fail to capture the manifold interactions during collective improvisation, resulting “in an overly narrow and homogeneous conception of the idiom” (Givan 2016, [27]). A crucial feature of Givan’s answer to this challenge is that improvisers interact continuously as they perform. Analytical emphasis thus shifts from locating specific interactive moments in a performance to describing multifarious, more continuous valences of interaction throughout. 

Ritwik Banerji, an ethnomusicologist and improviser working with HCI, offers a congruent perspective on interaction from a contrasting disciplinary perspective. He suggests that, despite the primary importance of interaction in musical improvisation, “improvisers report that they experience ‘adaptation’ in interactions with systems which lack any meaningful capacity for adaptation” (Banerji 2018, 46). One may therefore “detect” interaction in systems that in fact have not been programmed to adjust their playing in relation to external input. This claim has important consequences for both creative practice and musical analysis. Like Givan, Banerji problematizes straightforward descriptions of interaction in improvisation in terms of recognizing sonic cues from the other players, whether that be from the perspective of the performer or listener. 

In my analysis above, I foregrounded three kinds of relations between Moran and Voyager to support the claim that they interact : first, Voyager drastically alters its playing when Moran enters ; second, the two players converge around similarly static figures ; and last, Voyager creates a harmonically consonant relation with Moran’s repetitive octaves while signifying on a blues tonality. Givan’s and Banerji’s work suggests that interaction is more continuous and varied than these moments imply, however. We must therefore develop more robust frameworks for its analysis.

Improvisation incorporates a very broad range of musical practices, which affords critical reflection on interaction from different vistas. I turn to three examples in the remainder of this essay in order to expand our understanding of interaction : Achim Zepezauer’s Slotmachine, David Rothenberg’s interspecies improvisations, and Stretched Boundaries, two concerts curated by Pauline Oliveros that interweaved improvisation and notions of ability/disability.

Purposeful Stasis

Achim Zepezauer is a sound artist and musician based in Dortmund, Germany, whose online sound installation, Slotmachine provides many opportunities to examine what interactive improvisation sounds like.8 The site assembles a single performance by combining three recordings, represented by three “slots” in the slot machine. Most of the recordings feature solo experimental improvisation, although some include field recordings. There are 225 different recordings in Slotmachine’s repository, each lasting around 45 seconds. Pressing “Autoplay” assembles a performance from three randomly selected clips, and new clips are automatically and randomly selected as each one concludes.

Suffice to say that in each of these “performances,” the musicians are not really interacting : The individual recordings were made separately and thus, despite their significant aesthetic overlap in experimental improvisation, real interaction between the musicians is impossible. Nonetheless, I do not find it very difficult while listening to Slotmachine’s various assemblages to imagine that the musicians are actually improvising together. 

In one instance, I click “Start” and hear drummer Michael Vatcher, sound artist Richard Lerman using contact microphones and a hydrophone (an underwater microphone), and violinist Carolin Pook. Vatcher obstinately hammers out a driving, almost punk-ish drum groove, Lerman offers a rich soundscape of drones and clicks, and Pook presents sliding, harmonically rich glissandi into the violin’s stratosphere. To me, the three musicians sound like they are playing together, yet the kinds of analytically salient moments that I foregrounded in my analysis of the interaction between Voyager and Moran are largely absent. Instead, arguably the most striking aspect of the way Vatcher, Lerman, and Pook perform is that they each obstinately maintain their respective musical ideas. 

This kind of parallel development is familiar to many modern listeners. To take two examples, Anthony Braxton often purposively establishes quasi-autonomous streams of improvisational extrapolation in his compositions, and Igor Stravinsky’s famous The Rite of Spring opens with three intertwined but independent streams of musical thought in the bassoon, clarinets, and oboe. The prevalence of such independently coexistent streams in contemporary music makes it relatively easy to hear the culmination of Vatcher’s, Lerman’s, and Pook’s recordings as an interactive ensemble. Zepezauer’s Slotmachine therefore proposes that a relationship of purposeful stasis between the players—neither converging nor
diverging—constitutes an important aspect of interaction in improvisation and suggests that we might also hear interaction in terms of what I call stubborn quasi-autonomy.

Slotmachine facilitates a new understanding of interaction by placing improvisers alien to one another—in the sense that they are not actually performing together—into an ensemble. This theorization builds upon Banerji’s notion that listeners and analysts may perceive interaction in instances where there is in fact none, as well as the philosophical perspectives on improvisation that George Lewis’s Voyager poses. 

Furthermore, we might follow Eric Lewis’s (no relation) recent compelling suggestion that human improvisers interact with one another during performance without needing to know one another’s decision-making processes (E. Lewis 2019, 97). This view further perforates any binary between human and non-human improvisers, because in both cases improvisation unfolds without members of the group requiring access to the cognitive processes of their collaborators. One might rationalize this point by arguing that, despite this lack, a fundamental humanist commonality undergirds improvised performance ; that is, even though we may not have access to our collaborators’ cognitive processes, we assume that their processes are fundamentally similar to ours. I interrogate this argument by examining improvisation that occurs between species. Interspecies improvisation affords an opportunity to examine improvisation in instances where both agents are sentient but we cannot necessarily assume common cognitive processes.

Interspecies Improvisation

David Rothenberg’s work provides an excellent case study for interspecies improvisation. Rothenberg, a clarinetist and philosopher, improvises with whales, nightingales, and cicadas, among other animals. Rothenberg discusses this performance in an essay for George Lewis and Ben Piekut’s landmark Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies (Rothenberg 2016). In this section I discuss an improvised duo between him and a humpback whale near the coast of Maui, Hawaii.

Rothenberg states that one of the goals of the project is to “interact musically” with whales, and asks if his analysis “can prove that the whale is responding” to his playing (512–3). He sits in a boat with the whale in the water underneath, no more than one hundred meters away, playing his clarinet into a microphone, which is fed into an underwater speaker. A hydrophone transmits the whale song back up into a pair of headphones that Rothenberg wears.9 He provides sonogram transcriptions of both the whale song and his clarinet playing, which often features “high, held-out notes, more constant in pitch” (514). The purpose of my examination in this essay is not to validate or undermine Rothenberg’s creative practice or philosophical discussion. Rather, I am interested in the evidence that he provides for his “proof.” 

Rothenberg’s analysis focuses on two kinds of musical interaction : turn-taking and pitch matching. He states that “the clearest sign of communication comes when I stop, and [the whale] begins with a direct sense of response, in some cases continuing the very same note I just finished, and in other cases trying to join in, and overlap me with a complementary sound” (514, emphasis mine). In this passage Rothenberg invokes two relations between his and the whale’s sounds in support of “communication.” First, the whale inaugurates the kind of question and answer dialogue that one normally associates with exclusively human-made music. Second, the whale often closely follows Rothenberg’s pitch. These observations are also borne out in the recording he provides.10

At the outset of the recording, Rothenberg plays a series of detached notes, leaving space for potential response, much the same way that one would with another human improviser. The whale “echoes” the clarinet with a series of whoops. Importantly, the whale’s sounds here proceed at a faster tempo than its usual song, which suggests that it temporally adapts in real time to Rothenberg’s playing. Approximately 20 seconds later, Rothenberg plays an ascending glissando, settling on an Ab5 (around 831 Hertz), which the whale almost immediately matches. Rothenberg suggests that this convergence on pitch demonstrates that the whale is “clearly” responding to his playing (517). As the analysis progresses, the frequency of both question-and-answer phrasing and pitch similarity provides compelling evidence that the two are interacting. Incidentally, these are very similar kinds of evidence that analysts of jazz and improvised music utilize in their work. Ethnomusicologists Ingrid Monson and Paul Berliner both foreground turn-taking as an important aspect of interaction in jazz (Berliner 1994 ; Monson 1996), and music theorist Robert Hodson analyzes interaction between pianists and horn players in terms of the congruous harmonic implications in their respective improvisations (Hodson 2007). 

I would thus argue that in instances of alien music encounters such as Rothenberg’s, we tend to search analytically for relatively conventional markers of interaction such as turn-taking and mimicry. In contrast to Slotmachine, in which the prevalence of humans arguably allows one to hear interaction despite the absence of intentional turn-taking or pitch-matching, interspecies improvisation suggests that these conventions represent fundamental aspects of musical exchange beyond the human domain.

Temporal Windows

Finally, I argue for a more expansive view of interactive improvisation in light of recent work in disability studies. This section is partly inspired by ethnomusicologist and jazz studies scholar Sherrie Tucker’s essay “When Did Jazz Go Straight ? : A Queer Question for Jazz Studies” (Tucker 2008). In that essay, Tucker excavates some of the manifestations of “straightness” in jazz and jazz scholarship, and redirects our attention towards “queerness” as rubric for dissections of history, social interaction, performance, and analysis. I pivot from Tucker’s notions of straightness and queerness, which largely centers on gender, sexuality, and race, to problematize the ableism that often undergirds theorizations of improvised interaction. 

I situate this discussion in terms of what Pauline Oliveros and Tucker, in a different essay, refer to as “stretched boundaries” (Tucker et al. 2016). Referring largely to a series of concerts that Oliveros organized under the same name, which brought together improvisers of diverse bodily and/or cognitive abilities, Tucker asks, “What if experimental musical communities committed to explorations of difference in realms such as harmonics, time, timbre, and form, were equally avid about the differential variables in musicians’ and audience members’ modes of sensory and perceptual relationships to sound waves, as well as differences in mobility, range of motion, ratios of voluntary/involuntary mobility, multiple modes of cognitive processing and language ?” (Tucker et al. 2016, 183). I argue that this question contains serious implications for the terms on which we perform, hear, and analyze interaction. 

The field of disability studies seeks to interrogate and undermine implicit normative modes of embodiment and cognition through various historical, analytical, and critical theoretical methodologies. Music scholars such as Blake Howe, Jennifer Iverson, Marianne Kielian-Gilbert, Jonathan De Souza, and Joseph Straus have recently engaged with disability studies to critically examine how so-called normal, “abled” bodies latently undergird listening, performance, and music theory and analysis (De Souza 2017 ; Howe 2010, 2015 ; Iverson 2015 ; Kielian-Gilbert 2015 ; Straus 2011, 2018). A crucial insight from this work is that the category of disability—what counts as a “normal” body—is a fungible social, cultural, and political designation. Thus, like other categories of identity such as ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, denominations of disability interweave with complex questions regarding who is granted personhood, who is not, and how those in the latter category are treated, both medically and socially. The central point is that disability is not a rigid boundary that clearly categorizes abilities. Rather, it is a liminal threshold that shifts according to convention, which our creative practice may help reposition (or even erase).

I suggest that conventional theorizations of interaction—question-and-answer phrasing and imitation on a relatively small temporal scale—might be helpfully “stretched” by improvisational encounters with people with diverse sets of cognitive and bodily abilities. Furthermore, following the implication in Tucker’s above quote that stretching boundaries in regards to ability/disability follows logically from musical experimentation (i.e. in relation to “harmonics, time, timbre, and form”), we might develop more inclusive experimental practices by interrogating and crossing these boundaries and thresholds. How might our scholarly and creative understanding of interaction change if we incorporate diverse bodily and cognitive abilities ?

One line of inquiry might interrogate assumptions regarding the temporal restrictions of question-and-answer phrasing in light of improvisers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). One common manifestation of ASD is a wider than normal window of temporal coordination with others (Noel et al. 2018 ; Rieth et al. 2014), meaning that the rapid back-and-forth demanded by idiomatic conceptions of interaction in jazz and experimental music automatically precludes those with ASD from participating. 

Perhaps we could develop improvised practices that incorporate wider temporal windows for response so that we can both remove barriers to participation and stretch the boundaries of improvised practice and interaction. What, I wonder, does interaction sound like when such salient moments are separated by five minutes, or by an hour, or by five hours, rather than the fractions of seconds contained in the performance by Voyager, Moran, and Lewis, for example ? At the very least, I suggest, we stand to develop a more inclusive and diverse community of improvisers in addition to a deeper understanding of improvised interaction. 


In this essay I deployed a wide conception of the “alien” to include machines, animals, and diverse abilities. Improvisation arguably represents an ideal means for experimenting and stretching the boundaries of our understanding of interaction and collaborative improvisation. A larger point to be discussed further in future work concerns how these discussions influence our understanding of how we exist and behave in the world. I think that exploring these questions, which pull at the edges of the human/alien binary, might lead toward a more inclusive, empathetic, and symbiotic understanding of what it means to exist, coexist, and interact in and with the world.

1 Marsalis states in the opening credits to Ken Burns’s famous documentary Jazz that “the real power of jazz and the innovation of jazz is that a group of people can come together and create art, improvised art, and can negotiate their agendas with each other and that negotiation is the art . . . In jazz . . . I could go to Milwaukee tomorrow and there’d be three musicians . . . I’d walk into a bar at two-thirty in the morning and say ‘what do you want to play ?’ . . . ‘Man let’s play some blues’ . . . and all four of us are going to start playing” (Burns 2001).
2 Luhmann is a German philosopher and sociologist known largely for his contributions to systems theory (2013). In addition to Landgraf, David Borgo has also connivingly adopted principles from systems theory into theorizations of improvisation (2007, 2016a, 2016b). Gerhard Richter (b. 1932) is largely recognized as one of the most important German painters of his generation.
3 ?v=i4bS-0tsVEg
4 Lewis and Voyager with Geri Allen, Amina Claudine Myers , Vijay Iyer , and Jason Moran.
6 Future work would also consider other performances, such as those including Myers, Allen, and Iyer outlined above, as each performance offers further nuance to our understanding of Voyager and its implications for improvisation studies.
7 Listeners and viewers of this performance trust that Voyager is interacting with Moran and Lewis, and the conversation between the two performers that precedes this performance establishes some of these ideas. Nonetheless, it is important to consider the ways in which this conviction is reinforced by the way the musicians perform together.
8 More information on Zepezauer can be found on his website,
9 See Rothenberg’s Figure 28.9 for a full representation of his technical apparatus (Rothenberg 2016, 514).
10 This recording can be heard at, and Rothenberg’s analysis appears in the same essay from the Oxford Handbook (Rothenberg 2016, 517).


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