Encountering Metal and Wood. The Double Bass as Collaborative and Resistive Actor in Musical Improvisation Vincent Meelberg

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Vincent Meelberg

Department of Cultural Studies, Radboud University Nijmegen


Traditionally, music is considered a form of human expression. Through music human subjects may express emotions and affect other people. Often, objects are used to create music, and although much has been written about musical performance, musical emotion, and musical embodiment, the notion of a musical instrument as an actor in performance is highly undertheorised. In this essay I intend to fill this gap.

I will begin by addressing a common misconception about musical improvisation and argue that improvisation does not necessarily involve prehearing. Moreover, I will assert that prehearing interferes with improvisation, because it may impede new possibilities that an improviser was not aware of beforehand. Objects such as musical instruments are co-responsible for the creation of these new, unforeseen possibilities. By incorporating Gilles Deleuze’s conception of ethics – considered as the study of the capacities for affecting and being affected that characterises not only human beings, but also objects and even ideas – and Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory – in which agency is extended to non-human actors – I will analyse my embodied engagement with the double bass in a musical improvisation. The double bass, like all musical instruments, is not just an instrument that passively mediates the musical ideas of musicians. Instead, it actively codetermines the way a musical performance will turn out. In free improvisation, in particular, the agency of musical instruments may become explicit.

Free improvisation, in this sense, truly is a point of encounter, the result of a collaborative, and sometimes also resistive, relation between an object (the double bass), sonic phenomena, and me, as an embodied, cognitive subject. The double bass has the potentiality to affect the player and the sounds, just as the sounds can affect the player and the bass in return. In my analysis I will explicate these affective relations and argue that it is not so much the player that is constantly in control, but that any actor in an improvisation can at some point guide the way in which the improvisation will develop.

Playing What You Hear?

“Don’t play what you know. Play what you hear.” This statement, attributed to Miles Davis, has lead to a conception of musical improvisation that stresses the importance of being able to play what you hear in your head. If you don’t pre-hear in your head what you are about to play, your playing won’t be profound, sincere. Instead, such playing is supposed to be mere meaningless “finger wiggling,” without any depth and intention.

I believe this assertion to be false. I am convinced that playing without any intention can lead to superficial, even boring, music, but I don’t think this intention should manifest itself in the form of some kind of prehearing. Playing with intention is not the same as hearing in advance what the result of your playing will be. Often, the proponents of playing what you hear compare musical playing with talking, with having a conversation, either with yourself, or with others. Musical improvisation should be as natural as talking to a person. Apparently, in this view a conversation is also always preheard before uttering the sentences that make up the conversation.

But is this really how we talk? Do we prehear what we are about to say? Do we hear the exact sentences in the way we intend to express them verbally? Or are we aware of the message we intend to express, but figure out the exact wording of this message during the actual talking? I believe it is the latter, and that the same holds for musical improvisation.

But what does it actually mean to “hear something in your head”? Philosophers such as Edmund Husserl pondered these questions. He asserts that listening, unlike seeing, which is directed outwards from the seeing subject, includes a dual discourse: listening to oneself and listening to others, hearing one’s inner voice and the voice of another. (Husserl 1991) Playing music is a similar experience: it consists of mentally conceptualizing something that is simultaneously expressed sonically.

If improvising indeed followed this trajectory of mental conception – prehearing – execution, the playing would always be too late. The moment you hear them in your mind, provided you can find the time during your playing to actually listen to your inner sounds, you are already behind. Consequently, playing like this would prevent the improviser to actually be “in the moment.” Instead, the player is either always lagging behind or mentally too far ahead. Both stances interfere with the improvisation, blocking new possibilities that the improviser was not aware of beforehand. The dual discourse Husserl refers to impedes an improvisation to grow into an event that Stephen Nachmanovitch calls playful: an event in which innovation, flexibility, and unpredictability are foregrounded. (Nachmanovitch 1990)

In the double bass improvisation that I recorded on May 8, 2015, in Amsterdam, several of such playful events can be noticed. Take Fragment 1, for instance. At 0:57, my bow slipped and hit the string under the tailpiece. This was definitely unintended, and my first reaction was to stop the recording and start over. Instead, however, I continued and integrated this “mistake” into my improvisation by repeatedly striking that part of the string again. This resulted in a phrase that I would not have been able to conceive beforehand, to prehear, but it fitted in the improvisation where it became one of the more interesting moments of the performance. If I insisted on only allowing those phrases in my improvisation that I preheard, I would not have arrived at this interesting moment. Prehearing interferes with improvisation, impeding new possibilities that improvisers may not have been aware of beforehand.

It could even be argued that an accomplished improviser is not characterized by the original ideas he or she comes up with by prehearing them. In Fragment 2 of my improvisation I tried to only play what I preheard, but the result is predictable and uninteresting, at least to me. In a sense, I was waiting for a happy accident to happen, one that would help me in coming up with more interesting and unexpected ideas. I believe that accomplished improvisers intentionally play with mistakes and unexpected events, and do not block themselves from serendipity and the unexpected by primarily focusing on their inner hearing. And the object called “musical instrument” is one of the factors that is responsible for the serendipity and mistakes that might happen in an improvisation.

Playing with Objects

A musical improvisation can be considered as a network, a set of relations between human and non-human entities such as performers, sounds, movements, and musical instruments. Actor-Network Theory, which was originally developed by Bruno Latour, focuses on the dynamics of the making and remaking of networks.(16) According to Actor-Network Theory, networks consist of actors, with an actor being that which accomplishes or undergoes an act. An actor can be human, but also an animal, an object or even a concept, as long as it accomplishes or undergoes an act within a network. Furthermore, these actors have agency, i.e. the power to change other actors. Consequently, the acts that actors may undergo are always caused by other actors. As soon as an object, person, idea, or phenomenon has the power to change other objects, people, ideas, or phenomena, they become part of a network.

In musical improvisation musicians, instruments, sounds, and ideas are actors, and all of these actors have agency in the network called improvisation. This does not mean that an improvisational network only consists of these actors, though. In Fragment 3 of my improvisation, for instance, an unexpected actor enters the network at 0:33. At that moment the sleeve of my shirt inadvertently rubbed against the top of the bass. Since I chose not to ignore this and integrate it in my performance, the sleeve thus changed another actor: my musical ideas, and became an actor itself. The actor called musical idea, in turn, changed my playing style, because I now periodically and intentionally rubbed with my hand over the top of my bass in order to repeat the sound my sleeve originally caused.

In order to establish connections, actors have to be displaced and transformed in order to make them fit into a network, a process that is called translation. It is a process of changing actors through physical actions, violence, or persuasion by the actors within the same network as a result of their agency. And while an improvisation can be considered a network, the practice of improvising can be regarded a process of constant translation, both by and of musicians, instruments, sounds, and ideas, that can collaborate and resist.

An example of this kind of translation can be heard in Fragment 4, between 0:24 and 0:36. During that moment I was trying to figure out how to play a particular ostinato figure. Several instants of translation were at play here. At first, the sound of the notes I had just played inspired me to come up with a repeating figure. These sounds thus resulted in a translation of my musical ideas. These ideas, in turn led to a translation of my physical movements, as I had to adapt my playing in such a way that I would be able to physically execute this musical figure.

The above example shows that translation is affective for all actors involved, for it changes them, voluntarily or involuntarily. Moreover, translation has an ethical aspect, at least according the manner in which Gilles Deleuze conceptualises ethics. He suggests that encounters between bodies, both animate and inanimate, and sensations such as sounds can be conceptualised in ethical terms. Here, ethics is not considered in terms of morality, but conceived as ethology instead. It is “[…] the study of the relations of speed and slowness, of the capacities for affecting and being affected that characterises each thing.” (Deleuze 1988, 125) These things can be anything, Deleuze explains: “[…] an animal, a body of sounds, a mind or an idea.” (Deleuze 1988, 127) Bodies and thoughts can be defined as capacities for affecting and being affected. Or, to put it differently: bodies and thoughts have agency and the potentiality for translation.

Referring to Baruch de Spinoza, Deleuze asserts that everything that increases or enhances the subject’s power to act is good, whereas everything that diminishes it is bad. As Deleuze explains, the power to act is a positive expansion of affective capacity and therefore a “good” thing, one that enables the body to be affected in a greater number of ways. (Deleuze 1988, 71) A bad thing, on the other hand, results in a decrease of the power of acting, and is therefore a negative stagnation of feeling. (Deleuze 1988, 72) Anything that inhibits a body’s ability to be affected is bad. This amounts to what can be called an ethics of joy, with joy understood as a maximisation both of the capacities for being affected and of the possibilities for establishing any kind of connection between the affecting and affected bodies. Consequently, the practice of improvising, regarded as a process of translation, has an ethical dimension, for it is an act that infringes the autonomy of the performer’s, the instrument’s, and the sonic bodies and ideas, and influences the capacity of these bodies to undergo joy.

Joy was something I felt during 0:12 and 0:22 in Fragment 5 of my improvisation. The notes of the figure that I played during that moment simply sounded pleasurable to me, motivating me to continue playing that figure. Again, this is an example of translation: the actor called sound resulted in a change of my musical ideas, as I wanted to continue hearing these sounds. Moreover, playing that figure felt good on a physical level as well. Consequently, I was seduced by this musical figure to keep on repeating it. It seemed as if I had no choice but to continue to play that figure. I was persuaded, or seduced – translated – by this musical actor to sustain its presence in the network called improvisation that we were all actors in.


Who or what controls a musical improvisation? Is there an actor, animate or inanimate, that has a dominating voice in improvisational performances? Our first reaction to that question might be that the performers are in control. What the above discussion shows, however, is that improvisation is not a purely human activity. Human subjects may be the initiators of an improvisation (although the mere presence of an instrument may initiate an improvisation as well, because of its affective and seductive potentiality), but non-human actors have a crucial input in how an improvisation will unfold, by collaborating with and resisting the musical ideas improvisers may develop during the performance, as well as by introducing new, unexpected ideas.

It is because of the affective relations between human and non-human actors that are established during an improvisation that an improvisational network is created. Affects incite agency and agency evokes affects with all actors, human and otherwise. Agency, in turn, enables translation, i.e. the transformation of actors in order to fit into the network, a process that is affective, too. In short, the practice of improvisation is a constant process of translation, in which all actors have the potentiality to transform, and thus affect, other actors. As a result, improvisation has an ethical dimension, for it concerns the potentiality of affection of all actors, human and non-human. No single actor has ultimate control over the improvisation. Any actor in an improvisation can at some point guide the way in which the improvisation will develop, regardless whether this actor is human or otherwise. I guess that is exactly why improvisation remains such a challenging and fascinating endeavour.


16) For a comprehensive discussion of Actor-Network Theory, see Latour 2005.


Deleuze, Gilles 1988. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. Translated by Robert Hurley. San Francisco: City Lights.

Husserl, Edmund 1991. On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time (1893–1917). Translated by John Barnett Brough. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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

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


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