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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Phenomenologies of Egalitarianism in Free Improvisation: A Virtual Performer Meets its Critics

  • Author(s): Banerji, Ritwik
  • Advisor(s): Brinner, Benjamin E.
  • et al.

This dissertation offers a descriptive, anthropological account of diverse phenomenologies of egalitarian ethics through an experimental ethnography of music and social interaction among performers of free improvisation. Based on several years of ethnographic fieldwork with improvisers in Berlin, Chicago, and San Francisco as a saxophonist and participant in these scenes, I show how performers of free improvisation refrain from instructing or criticizing their peers out of respect for their creative liberty and to maintain their experience of equal status. Consequently, I argue that canonical modes of musical ethnography tend to confirm the utopian conception of free improvisation, widely promoted in discourses on this form of musicking over the past half century, as a practice in which performers are liberated from aesthetic constraints and interpersonal hierarchies.

This project highlights the shortcomings of typical modes of musical and anthropological fieldwork through an experimental fusion of ethnography and arts-technology research in which I have asked improvisers to critique the interactive and performance capabilities of a virtual performer, known as “Maxine.” Designed based on my experiences improvising with, watching, and listening to others, Maxine is simultaneously a virtual performer but also a form of interactive, algorithmic ethnography. By asking improvisers to play with this system and compare it to human performers, the fieldwork presented in this dissertation illustrates how improvisers espouse a wide variety of notions of how egalitarian experience is realized in how each player listens and responds to others in the course of performance. Crucially, it demonstrates that what is revealed in an encounter with a nonhuman social interactant like Maxine is precisely what often escapes canonical approaches to ethnographic fieldwork. Broadly speaking, while some improvisers regard continual displays of attentiveness from their partners as essential to the experience and performance of an egalitarian ethos in musical interaction, others regard these behaviors as injurious to the ideal of a nonhierarchical sociality in sound.

In the process of offering this experiential account of egalitarianism, this dissertation illustrates the many ways in which the design of artificial social interactants implicitly poses a variety of provocative hypotheses about the nature of listening and musical cognition as it takes place between improvisers, many of which are yet to be tested through methodologies such as the one practiced in this project as well as analysis of recorded performances of free improvisation. Furthermore, I also argue that the methodology developed in this project suggests productive new avenues for phenomenologically-oriented ethnography in that encounters with an artificial social interactant like Maxine elicit commentary on real-time sociality as an experience which participants normally refrain from discussing, both within and far beyond free improvisation. By eliciting explicit articulations of ethical normativities, as conceived of by improvisers interacting with Maxine, this project also responds to recent work in the anthropology of ethics by suggesting that much of human moral experience may take the form of latent moral critiques, in which subjects experience an unfulfilled desire to express criticism of the behavior of their interlocutors but nonetheless refrain from doing so for a variety of reasons. Lastly, I argue that subjecting artificial social interactants to the evaluation of the human beings they are modeled upon constitutes a radically new, vibrant form of critical ethnography, one which is implicitly performed throughout the field of human computer interaction even if its practitioners hardly theorize it as such.

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