Instrument de/reconstruction as a feministing practice

This article discusses the impact of instrumental and intellectual virtuosity on British Free Improvisation (BFI) from a feminist perspective. I argue that its pursuit may have contributed to the development of this genre as a masculine stronghold in which it has been difficult for women to gain agency or visibility.

I propose a feminist practice of instrument de/reconstruction within contemporary BFI and present three new instruments; my gliss anglais, a de/reconstruction of the cor anglais, together with the skin and bomb ‘cellos, devised by Khabat Abas. I offer insight into how our developing relationship with the materiality and possibility of these instruments frees us as improvisers from existing power structures in BFI and gives increased agency and sonic potential to us as performers.

Collaboration is vital to my practice as an instrumentalist, and I present a case study of the gliss anglais as an example of how collaboration can influence the development of new instruments. I introduce the concept of "feministing" (after Reardon-Smith 2020) free improvisation, which involves adopting a feminist practice, inclusive of male feminists, that prioritises the knowledge of women, investigates the social context of its subjects, and fosters non-hierarchical relationships.

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‘…in today’s world the realm of musical instruments remains clearly male-dominated. ….right across the span of instrumental performers, women are starkly in the minority.’

(Doubleday 2008,14)

This article, in response to this statement by Doubleday, asks what role the pursuit of instrumental (or technical) virtuosity has had in the development and sustenance of BFI as a patriarchal stronghold, paradoxically, a music imagined to be free from any constraint (Prévost 1995,9). Are the instruments themselves contributing to this? And if this is so, might we wish to de/reconstruct these instruments to better suit our female sonic imaginings. Might this help to unhierarch and feminist BFI, its musical output and the interactions of its community?

To begin, I set out the way in which the BFI canon both performative and academic is masculine and cites a small number of men, (among them Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, John Butcher and Eddie Prévost,) and very few women, as worthy of citation.

The oboe, cello and cor anglais are then introduced together with their de/reconstructed counterparts; the gliss anglais, skin and bomb ‘cellos. This de/reconstruction is seen to be an approach to the feministing of improvisation shared by Khabat Abas and I.

Notions of virtuosity, the technical, intellectual and social, are examined in the context of my performance and improvisation on and with my instrument. The development of the gliss anglais is presented as an illustrative case study together with an analysis of two performances on these new instruments by Khabat and I.

I then situate this article within such writings on feminism and feminist music theory as have been published since the late twentieth century, among them works by Sara Ahmed, Judith Butler and Hannah Reardon-Smith as well as music practitioners Suzanne Cusick and Pauline Oliveros.

This is all explored through the writings of theorists, the ideas of contemporary free improvisers, and collaboration with instrument commissioners and makers. I prioritise the output of women throughout. This is not a criticism of male theorists and improvisers. It is to give voice to women’s perspective and highlight their absence (Libin 2016,4) from the academic and performance canons relating to the music and its practitioners.

‘Relatively few European or American women are recorded among professional instrument makers before the mid-20th century, partly due to the gender bias of archival sources.’ (Libin 2016, 4).

BFI as a patriarchal practice

British free improvisation initially had a confused identity (Bailey 1992,3). With roots dating back to the early twentieth century, its character may be seen to have been formed in the 1960s with the work of jazz improvisers like saxophonist Evan Parker, experimental composer Cornelius Cardew, and free jazz guitarist Derek Bailey. Drawing from their own repertoire and the work of groups like Fluxus in New York, their intention was to do without existing musical practices and sound hierarchies, replacing them with ‘…the creation of, and engagement with, a soundworld in which there was not even a formal beginning or ending.’ (Prévost 1995, 9). The jazz and art music traditions from whence it came were dominated by men (Wehr 2016,472). For women to play, they had to adapt their bodies, voices, and behaviours to a male world. The instruments it utilised were made for and by men (Libin 2016,3-4), with whom the power in the community was situated (Willis 2008, 294).

‘… in order to play jazz women have had to pass as men, perform as men, pass as white, and pass as black.’

(Willis 2008, 294)

Ironically, given the aim at the heart of BFI to remove all existing rules and hierarchies, finding opportunities to improvise as a woman has been difficult (Raine 2020). This male power acted like a patriarchal and exclusionary garrison for women who were intent upon pursuing free improvisation. As a result, few, if any, women participated in these initial BFI formations (Oliveros in Fischlin, Heble and Monson 2004, 54).

‘By the end of the sixties my experience of improvisation was almost exclusively solo or with groups of men……Even though I was included in the groups I worked with I felt an invisible barrier.’

(Oliveros in Fischlin, Heble and Monson 2004, 54)

In 1977 British women, The Feminist Improvising Group (FIG) gave their first performance. They actively and vocally rejected the prioritising of technical and intellectual virtuosity valued by men ( more on this in due course), embracing social virtuosity and its enactment alongside these. Much has been written about their legacy (Smith, J.D. in Fischlin and Heble, 2004, 236-241).

The masculinity of improvisation and the ways in which this has worked to exclude women is also well documented (Raine and Strong, 2019). Contemporary BFI now has a distinct character (Bailey 1992,133) rooted in this masculine world, a world in which the creativeness of women is still often overlooked (Maslow 1963,6, Peters, 2009: only two of the 102 references are to work by women).

Photo 1


My focus as an improviser is the oboe and its development as a medium for the composer rather than the performer. I present my gliss anglais, a reimagining of the cor anglais (a tenor oboe). Cellist Khabat Abas explains that she imagined the skin and bomb ‘cellos she introduces to generate sounds which the traditional instrument is incapable of producing nor invited by performers to suggest. The development of these instruments is presented as a way for us to both subvert and feminist the oboe and ‘cello and open up new gestural and sonic possibilities for collaborative improvisation by and for free improvisers.

We share our insights into how such instrument reimagining can empower and feminist collaborative free improvisations. Khabat explains this in her own words. I describe the network of what Haraway (2016,1) calls tentacular (or interconnected) relationships which contributed to the imagining of the gliss anglais. I also offer two recordings of performances by Khabat Abas, Chilean cellist Isidora Edwards and I in a normal performative situation.

The oboe and the gliss anglais

The contemporary oboe and cor anglais, developed by men for male nineteenth and twentieth century composers, are little used in such free improvisation (Libin 2016, 3). The oboe and cor anglais differ only in size and pitch range; oboists generally ‘double’ on cor anglais in the way flautists also play piccolo. My development of the gliss anglais, an instrument which put simply, is a cor anglais with all the keywork removed and replaced by a magnetic ‘string’, is for all oboists, therefore. This instrument de/reconstruction offers a technological mediation of performance that is more suited to my improvising voice.

It is well documented that in professional and amateur music making in western society generally, wind instruments have been a male domain. The norm, subject, and figure embodied in these wind instruments was, and has come to be, male (Libin 2016, 3).

‘… the great majority of professional musicians have been men, music- making in the home has been a largely female pastime in higher social strata for at least the past several centuries… instruments capable only of playing one note at a time (mostly winds) have in the past been mainly taken up by male amateurs….’

(Libin 2016, 3)

The oboe, in comparison to instruments such as the clarinet or flute, is a surprisingly rare presence in BFI. Partly a result of technical challenge, there has been a perception of improvisation as an inappropriate practice for oboists to pursue (Bogiages and Silveira Campos 2014, 176). Given the freedom inherent in improvisation, this reluctance among oboists to undertake it may stem from the culture and circumstance in which their practice is learnt. The oboist Kyle Bruckmann (Everett Ganong 2016, 21-25) argues that this message focuses the interests of young practitioners on striving for technical precision rather than developing an improvising voice. The oboist must adapt the internal voice in response, not to the masculinity of the genre as with BFI, but to the demand of uniform technical perfection.

‘Extended techniques have been accepted within the world of Free Improvisation from its inception. However, the oboe is not an instrument commonly found within this setting. …. For oboists interested in integrating extended techniques into their musical vocabulary, the Free Improvisation setting seems to be the perfect place to experiment creatively. ‘

(Bogiages and Silveira Campos 2014, 176)

Extended techniques for the oboe were introduced in the late twentieth century in response to requests from composers to extend its sonic capability (Bogiages and da Silveira Campos 2014,174).

‘In the “extended” form of playing, oboists ….must be able to push their embouchures to the extreme – controlling lip pressure by tightening or loosening their lips exaggeratedly around the reed; controlling reed placement in the mouth by playing on the very tip of the reed or bringing the entire reed into their mouth; even using teeth on the reed in some cases – all with much more speed and agility than in traditional playing.‘

(Bogiages and Silveira Campos 2014, 176-7)

Exceptional oboists like Paul McCandless (Everett Ganong 2016,18), Christopher Redgate and Melinda Maxwell have been exploring this catalogue of techniques (Van Cleve 2014) as performers, improvisers and composers throughout this time. Free improvisation is an excellent way to investigate these to the full, yet still, the majority of oboists do not undertake it, preferring to subsume creativity in favour of the rigour of technical precision. Thanks largely to the work of Libby van Cleve (2014), progress is being made. In female contemporary free improvising circles in this country however, only classically trained oboists Catherine Plugyers, Georgina Brett and I appear to be venturing into the realm of deconstructing these techniques. If readers know of anyone else, I would be most grateful if they could put me in touch with them.

Christopher Redgate’s recently imagined and created ‘Howarth-Redgate oboe’ (Redgate 2012) is a stunning new instrument which enables even more precision in extended technique. Devised in response to the demands being made by the composer on the performer, this oboist feels that, though a fabulous development, it is yet another embodiment of male sonic imaginings and striving for technical virtuosity. Rather than de/reconstructing to better sound the voice of the performer, this instrument is further refining the key system on the instrument in response to the demand of composed repertoire. It extends the current 833 available multiphonics (an impressive number in itself) to 2,548. Rather than strive for the microcosmic detail inherent in the capacity to play so many precise multiphonics, I find myself imagining the gliss anglais as the place Bogiages and Silveira Campos feel oboists need.

‘Oboists … need a place where the definition of what constitutes a beautiful sound is openly challenged and constantly reinvented, and where the only pre-requisites for entrance are an open mind, and a desire to learn and try new things….’

(Bogiages and Silveira Campos 2014, 179).

Kurdish-Iraqi ‘cellist Khabat Abas received a European style classical training in her hometown of Sulaymaniah and was a member of the Iraqi symphony orchestra before moving to Europe. She now points to the material agency of the skin and bomb ‘cellos she has created placing her as performer in a position of negotiation with the new performative procedures they require. This, she tells us, broadens the sonic possibilities open to her. Both the instruments and her body carry a story and history. This, with regard to the body, is female, and the de/reconstruction of the ‘cello in this way serves to feminist her free improvisation.

Photo 7

The skin and bomb ‘cellos; written by Khabat Abas

The skin ‘cello and the bombshell ‘cello are a de/reconstruction of the ‘cello, an instrument of the western classical tradition increasingly used in BFI. Both ‘cellos provide a freedom of the mind from existing power structures inherent in the instrument and its canon and describe these from a different perspective as the power of control of the instrument and the sound.

In both ‘cellos, I want to show how the power of control and structure can limit us from thinking creatively; when we break the rules and think outside the box, creativity emerges, undiscovered techniques emerge, and unheard sounds emerge.

The skin ‘cello was made from a drum skin and a wooden ‘cello body in September 2016. It expands the sound possibilities of the ‘cello and deals directly with the materiality of the skin and environment or room temperature. Heat and cold have a direct impact on the sound of the ‘cello, which makes tuning change constantly. Therefore, this instrument invites the performer to negotiate and act responsibly with the material to explore new techniques and sounds.

Bombshell ‘cello is a new ‘cello crafted from a bombshell I found in the Bazaar of Sulaymaniyah city (Iraq) in December 2019, the results of which gave rise to an experimental musical practice. I am interested in generating sounds that a western classical instrument is neither capable of producing nor invited to suggest.

From this point of view, materiality has a considerable role to play in the “dance” between material and performer. Both have agency in their capacity to respond to and agree with or resist one another. I deal directly with the materiality of the bombshell ‘cello which has led me to other ways of employing instrumental techniques. My intention is to bring forth sounds that are not expected from an ordinary ‘cello. This is heard clearly in what follows; a solo improvisation with the skin 'cello.

The material agency of these instruments places me as the performer in a position of negotiation with new performative procedures redirected by the material. In this context, the technique offered by the material world broadens the sonic possibilities. These sounds may be described as providing a soft power. Through listening and perceiving these sounds, they help to shape both society and individuals: they are created in part by my body which carries a certain story, a history. Sound and technique emerge in the moment of the transformation when the clash between us occurs; the material (bombshell or skin ‘cello) and me.

Here, Khabat plays the bomb 'cello for the first time. In her improvisation on this new instrument we see the technique and the 'dance' she describes between her body and this 'cello emerge. Her soundings are derived in part from the story within its materiality and the bodily contact she makes with it.

Technique and virtuosities

While the exploration of electronics and sounding objects became popular in experimental composition and BFI, my focus and reference is on the utilisation and development of traditional western jazz and orchestral instruments. I argue that the pursuit of technical and intellectual virtuosity and expansion of sonic capacity on these instruments, which were largely designed for and by male bodies (Libin 2016, 3-4), was a preoccupation of twentieth century experimental classical composition (Bogiages and Silveira Campos 2014, 176), and from it, the British Free Improvisation movement (BFI).

For the purpose of this article, instrumental technique and its virtuosic practice is what Wilson and MacDonald (2012,7), in their research with members of the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra, (a British free improvising ensemble) call ‘mastery.’ This mastery is not essential to the ‘mystery repertoire’ they discuss, which can utilise other virtuosities; the intellectual or social for example. Both technical and intellectual virtuosity are identified as masculine priorities in improvisation and are discussed separately.

The first sound imaginings of predominantly male BFI practitioners were mediated via technological instrument refinement to extend the sound world available to them. I refer to this as extended technique (Lipsitz in Fischlin, Heble and Lipsitz 2013,38-9).

The female approach I argue for here may be less concerned with technical and intellectual virtuosity and more interested in the establishment of an intimate and personal dialogue with the material of the instrument itself (Dyson 2006,3). For Khabat and I this also includes an enjoyment of and interaction with the unexpected in the response of the instrument to our touch.

‘… the mastery repertoire implies that high quality improvisations must be underpinned by technical proficiency in established areas, and may be important in validating oneself or others as professional practitioners.’

(Wilson and MacDonald 2012,7)

The technical ‘mastery’ of an instrument for BFI practitioners was deemed essential from the outset (Wilson and MacDonald 2012,7). It was also necessary for the intellectually spontaneous composition of an improvisation to be clearly articulated. This intellectual prowess in improvisation falls within what Wilson and MacDonald (2012,7) call the ‘mystery repertoire.’ Instrumental technique is not essential for this, other virtuosities could be called into play. In particular, the ability to foster and utilise mutually supportive interpersonal connections in rehearsal and performance (what Maggie Nicols, founder member of the FIG, coined ‘social virtuosity’) (Fischlin, Heble and Monson 2004, 240).

Technical virtuosity (mastery)

It would be difficult to find a musician in any genre who did not agree that technique was an essential tool in their practice. What that technique is and how well it is honed is increasingly questioned by feminist improvisers. Evan Parker’s succinct definition of technique as ‘…being able to do what you wanted to do,’ is helpful (Fischlin, Heble and Monson 2004, 240).

The instruments used by BFI practitioners can be seen to embody the sonic imaginings of their male creators. To fully realise their burgeoning potential, the pursuit of an ever more virtuosic technique was and is valued and respected by improviser and listener alike (Burwell in Toop and Beresford 2016, 19:7).

‘Jazz music has always been to do with instrumental technique and developing it on specific instruments, whereas in other areas of music it doesn’t seems so important…’

(Burwell in Toop and Beresford 2016, 19:7)

For the improviser this can be both a restriction (the instruments require a reiteration of the sounds they were designed to make) and an opportunity (they have the potential for new soundings unintended by the maker).

A woman seeking to be heard as a free improviser would probably have to conform her female body and improvising voice to a technique and an instrument devised for a male form, however. This, I argue, may act as a significant barrier to the ability to articulate one’s improvisational style as a woman. It also, probably unintentionally, serves to unite and empower the male exponents of the genre. Butler’s (2004,28) norm in this context is male, and the instrument an embodiment of it.

‘…embodiment denotes a contested set of norms governing who will count as a viable subject within the sphere of politics….[it] not thinkable without a relation to a norm, or a set of norms.’

(Butler 2004,28)

Intellectual Virtuosity

Alongside this pursuit of ever more sophisticated technique sat a relish for the intellectually virtuosic development of an idea to its logical conclusion along with a rational verbalization of such intent.

‘Values often emphasised by male musicians and their critics include technique, intelligence, structure, precision, concept, drive and so forth..’

(Oliveros in Fischlin, Heble and Monson 2004, 54)

With its roots in the complex harmonic progressions over which jazz soloists would improvise long, often rapid, and well-crafted improvisations, this intellectual mastery was seen as an articulation of the ‘logos’ by those practitioners and fans of the music. This logos was male. These improvisations were spontaneous conversations, intellectual debates in a harmonic, rhythmic and melodic language which required its virtuosic mastery if one was to participate.

‘By performing aspects of identities that are generally naturalized, according to hegemonic white male discourse, women have had to be largely written out of jazz, in order to prevent them from rewriting the power structure of discourse itself.’

(Willis 2008, 294)

The birth of BFI and the acknowledgement of the need to be free of such rule bound virtuosity did not remove the value of such intellectual debate. So much so in fact, that in 1975 Musics magazine was launched to provide a journalistic space for such debate, because, editor David Toop (2016,5) tells us in the introduction to this volume, ‘Music needs the air of discourse flowing through it..’

While such articulate and dogged riffing on a theme is of interest and value, argument and dominance in debate may also be seen to be masculine behaviours undertaken by a close knit and largely male BFI community, whose audience was also male. The magazine published 23 editions between 1975 and 1979. The vast majority of the voices in this publication were male. A brief analysis of total article contributions found 309 male and only 37 female contributors, of whom, Annabel Nicholson is cited 8 times.

The Wire magazine, first published in London in July 1982, took up the journalistic mantle Musics left behind, acting as the largely male voice of the improvising community in Britain at the time. A similar analysis tells us that between the summer of 1982 and January 2000, there were 187 editions of The Wirepublished. By the end of 1983, with the exception of an article about Annette Peacock in the final edition of the year, not one significant mention is given to the work of a female instrumentalist. Front covers in these 187 editions all featured eminent musicians of the day. Of these editions, 11 women in total appear (two appear twice; Billie Holliday and Bjork).

To be a woman was to be an unusual and unfamiliar presence on any stage for improvised music in the UK, not just BFI. This presented yet another unconscious male garrison acting as an unintentional barrier to women seeking agency and visibility in the music.

Though emphasis on technical and intellectual virtuosity in performance is favoured by many male performers and listeners (Oliveros 2004, 54), most women appear to prioritise and value timbral quality, emotion, and an embodied connection with their instrument (Dyson 2006,3). Rosenberg and Reardon-Smith (2020, 68) define this as ‘sound use of body, of emotion,’ which we must investigate and emphasise in our own practice. To do so may be aided by the re-imagining of the tools (our instruments) best fitted to this purpose, and the valuing of other virtuosities.

‘We [.]suggest that, if sound use of intellect relies on the rejection and erasure of heterogeny, embodiment and emotionality, it is precisely those elements that we must explore and incorporate within our personal, relational, creative and political practices (which we refer to as sound use of body, of emotion).’

(Rosenberg and Reardon-Smith 2020, 68)

The need for Instrument de/reconstruction

While it is the case that in the latter half of the twentieth century, ‘…. women have significantly advanced the study of instrument acoustics, haptics, and design,’ (Libin 2016, 5) power and control is still largely situated with men. Given the power in improvisational interplay and relationships, though improving, also appears to rest with men, to correct this, Doubleday (2008,14) argues, requires a shift in behaviour. This may alter the power imbalance that exists and has always existed in the music and the community from whence it comes. Doubleday points to the perpetuation of this power imbalance where no shift in role and behaviour is made.

De/reconstructing our instruments can be seen as a shift in a behaviour pattern–a move away from doing what has always been done before. If the instrument is the tool we use to improvise, and free improvisation is the articulation of personal imaginings, the intimate relationship with this tool is akin to one’s relationship with a prosthetic limb. Without it we simply cannot undertake such functions as the limb provides. As female free improvisers, removing the masculine limitations and inspirations such instruments provide has a transformative impact on the exchanges that occur between the instrument and ourselves. In Ahmed’s words (2017,40), ‘……We need to ruin what ruins.’ to better articulate our own sonic imaginings.

Khabat Abas points to the dance that occurs between instrument and performer. The skin and bomb ‘cellos demand a new technique from her which expands the sonic possibilities for her in improvisation. I have the same experience with the gliss anglais. This provides a more intimate and personal dialogue with their material (Libin 2016, 3). We experience a connection with the materiality of our reconstructed instruments, giving us a soft power, which better embodies our female imaginings. These instruments could be seen to be the feminist dwellings Ahmed (Ahmed 2017,2) discusses. In de/reconstructing them we are drawing attention to our feminist position and challenging, and in time disrupting and altering, accepted practice. All this by ‘making with’ (Reardon-Smith 2020, 11) our instruments.

‘To build feminist dwellings …. we need to ask what it is that we are against, what it is we are for, knowing full well that this we is not a foundation but what we are working toward.’

(Ahmed 2017,2)

‘… when playing a solo improvisation, we are in dialogue with place, space, the environment, the listeners, the instrument, the body, as well as our own multiple histories. By ‘feministing’ free improvisation we seek to extend the boundaries and challenge the assumptions that frame the discussion around this musical practice.’

(Reardon-Smith 2020, 11)

To be a feminist free improviser who is able to articulate and make heard my voice in this way is to act to ‘dismantle what has already been assembled’ (Ahmed 2017,2). This is experienced by me as ‘… being out of tune with others’ (Ahmed 2017,40). To deconstruct my cor anglais and to suggest in this article that those theorists and musicians whose work constitutes our record of BFI in this country have unintentionally excluded women, is to be ‘out of tune’ with a message communicated by and about a male practice.

It is definitely not my intention to ‘ruin the whole tune’ (Ahmed 2017,40) however. Rather, I am simply opposing and refusing structures and instruments which do not allow me to give voice to my own sonic imaginings. Rosenberg and Reardon-Smith (2020) affirm the need for this. To rebalance the power dynamic in the music is to seek to collaborate on an equal footing with male improvisers. It is not a rejection of their practice, rather a claiming of agency and visibility for mine. It is also an invitation to them to join in with this re-imagining. Some men may find this to be a liberating experience.

‘We are not satisfied with simply opposing structures of intellect, sonic or otherwise, but strive to use embodiment and emotionality as tools of refusal, what Hirschmann and Di Stefano define as ‘tak[ing] the risk of going beyond declarations of what is not, to the affirmation of what might be.’

(Rosenberg and Reardon-Smith 2020, 69)

Feministing free improvisation

This need to feminist free improvisation was articulated by Hannah Reardon-Smith in 2020. Her argument is a natural development of the voices of several eminent feminist authors over the previous 30 years. In 1991 McClary identified fear of women and the female body to be situated at the heart of music.

‘.….I have always detected in music much more than I was given licence to mention …it [.] frequently betrays fear–fear of women, fear of the body.’

(McClary 1991,4)

In 1994 Cusick developed this, identifying the need to investigate embodied behaviours. She suggested that a feminist music theory might interrogate the social and symbolic meanings embedded in the bodily techniques used to produce sounds.’(Cusick 1994,17).

In 2006 Dyson pointed to a simple illustration of the effect of the female body in music.

It is well known that when orchestras introduced screens to hide the sex of a person auditioning, women began to be hired in equal numbers, suggesting that the visual presence of a woman affects how people hear the music.’

(Dyson 2006,3)

Most recently, Reardon-Smith, Denson and Tomlinson (2020,10) point both to the masculine subject in free improvisation and the absence of women’s writing in the limited academic canon which interrogates this. Following on from Ahmed (2017), they point to the need to search out and give voice to writings by women, seeing feminism as central to who we are and how we became so. It is this position that I assume when writing this article. 

‘To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable........Asking how we became improvisers is almost the same as asking how we became feminists. It is the story of how we became who we are today.’

(Reardon-Smith, Denson and Tomlinson 2020, 13)

As a female, classically trained, free-improvising oboist who has always felt the lack of freedom inherent in and for my practice, my gender, and the performance of classical repertoire keenly, I align myself with these voices.

In devising the gliss anglais I am questioning and challenging this lack of freedom and de/reconstructing my instrument to better voice my own sonic imaginings, feministing my free improvisation. I seek a more embodied and somatic connection to this instrument which does not prioritise technical mastery. Rather it extends my practice with and exploration of the materiality of the instrument.

For Khabat, the development of the skin and bomb ‘cellos was a singular imagining. It was the physical creation of them that required collaboration with a number of different craftspeople in Iraq, some of whom are not musicians or instrument makers.

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Case study; Feminist tentacular practices (Haraway 2016,1) in instrument imagining

What follows is a description of the contribution made by members of my local community to the collaborative imagining and subsequent creation of the gliss anglais. The way in which our informal conversations and connections acted together to develop the idea of the gliss anglais to its conclusion is offered as an example of Haraway’s (2016,1) notion of ‘tentacular practice’. She tells us that the contemporary world is ‘…one in which human and non-human are inextricably linked in tentacular practices…’. My gliss anglais can be seen, in part, as a product of such practice. The ‘non-human’ she references. The action of this community in discussing, and in so doing contributing to the imagining of the gliss anglais, can also be described as ‘string figuring’ (Haraway 2016,3). ‘…..passing on and receiving, making and unmaking, picking up threads and dropping them. … it is becoming-with each other in surprising relays; it is a figure for ongoingness…’ As such, it is an example of how the feminist practice of ‘making with’ (Reardon-Smith 2020, 11, Haraway 2016,1) rather than self-making, offers the additional benefit of enriching and sustain the community of which one is a part.

I live in Faversham in Kent and the gliss anglais was imagined here with the help of my friend, neighbour, musician, inventor and instrument maker Henry Dagg. It was another neighbour and friend, eminent BFI saxophonist Evan Parker who, when I explained to him in a chance encounter on one of my regular visits to our local market, what I was looking for, suggested I talk to Henry.

'Our daily habits are repetitive, but they are also open-ended, responding to opportunity and encounter…..Such indeterminacy expands our concept of human life, showing us how we are transformed by encounter.’

(Tsing 2015, 47)

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It is beyond the remit of this article to explain how touched I was when, after a different chance meeting and conversation, Evan gifted to me an old oboe he had been holding on to for over 20 years. I share this to illustrate the recent kinship that exists between us and how that transforms my own improvising.

Henry took up the challenge enthusiastically and the personal and regular dialogue between us, (I often visit Henry when he has a progress update for me) and others in our community (the record shop owner, the woman who runs our local music venue, the book shop owner, and the guitar repairer among them) has contributed to the refinement and development of the instrument.

‘We seek to think improvisation from a collective, inclusive origin. We posit that improvising is always, as Donna Haraway has suggested, ‘making-with’: creating, moment-to-moment, requiring interaction with the environment and its inhabitants.’ (Reardon-Smith, Denson and Tomlinson 2020, 10)

The gliss-anglais is in part a ‘making-with’ these people. This can be seen to be a feministing of the professional relationship (I have commissioned the gliss anglais from him) between Henry and I at the heart of this endeavour. It has helped me to establish a more intimate connection with the material of the instrument by adapting it to my own taste and requirements. These have been clarified and refined in discussion with others, which Henry sees and hears through this kinship rather than a set of two-dimensional directives sent through email or some other communication medium.

An early prototype of the instrument was presented in improvisations with Khabat Abas on skin ‘cello and Isidora Edwards on ‘cello at WIntersound Festival an annual event at Canterbury Christchurch University and co-hosted with The Orpheus Instituut. It was cumbersome and inaccurate but the spirit it is imbued with can be heard here.

The timbral variations available on this instrument allow it to blend with those of the ‘cellos. The interplay between the three instruments here is democratic. There is no trace of self-prioritisation (a feature of many free improvisations) in the improvised lines which occur. Instead, the three lines are entwined. Upward arm gestures are echoed between the three performers. A tremolo hand movement is then shared between Khabat and I. The gestural breadth available to the cellist means she can respond in similar fashion. These gestures create different sonic outputs on the instruments to which we respond with a shift in arm position or timbre. They are also a response to the shared precarity and instability of our performative situation. Khabat and I are not certain how our instruments will respond to our touch and gesture. In working with precarity in this way we are performing with rather than on our new instruments. Their response to our touch guides the direction the improvisation will take.

In contrast, in the performance that follows, the oboe does not allow for great timbral variation. Its clarity draws attention away from the ‘cello lines giving the impression of an intention to lead which is entirely absent. The oboe does respond to a shift in timbre offered by the cello by introducing a multiphonic rasp. Towards the end of this extract, rapid, high pitched flutterings of notes are shared between oboe and ‘cello. However, the oboe does not accept gestural variation beyond those accepted as part of the oboist’s technique. Because of this, I can anticipate with accuracy what the sonic output of the instrument will be. As a result, precarity in this improvisation sits only with Khabat. In response to the technically traditional improvisations I and Isidora offer, her gestural palette here is reduced to those traditionally available to the cellist. Our co-performance is on rather than with our instruments, the very situation we are trying to move away from.

Photo 4

Evan, Henry, and many others in our community attended the event. The warmth of these supportive kinships is woven into the materiality of the instrument. My agency, soundings, and improvisations on gliss anglais are the culmination of an open-ended and inclusive imagining. The connectedness to community that such kin provide sits at the heart of collaborative improvisation for me.

Photo 6

At the time of writing, the gliss anglais is almost complete. Henry has crafted it beautifully. It retains the pleasing visual aesthetic of the cor anglais, and its apparent simplicity given the absence of key work, masks the technically virtuosic craft at the heart of its construction. It retains the timbral warmth and pitch range of the cor anglais but is much lighter so easier to manage. The absence of key work is where its potential lies. It offers the ability to manipulate pitch, sound and range with embouchure and glissando techniques, together with an unpredictability which I look forward to fully exploring and interacting with.


Clarinettist and BFI practitioner Tom Jackson (Jackson 2020,4) clearly explains this centrality of the instrument to improvisation for the performer. He makes no mention of the gendered nature of this. Why would he? The tools he discusses, and the world which he and they inhabit are designed by and for men.

'For improvisers then, instrumentality (what it is designed for) and materiality (the innate physical characteristics) are crucial considerations, which we can think of as different archives of the instrument to interrogate.

(Jackson 2020,4)

Jackson benefits from the simple fact that in BFI as with all other spheres of life in this country, while advances have been made by women (not least the designation by the Houses of Parliament recently as ‘menopause friendly’ after the campaigning of a number of prominent women) the world we navigate was designed for and by men (Criado Perez 2019). Our instruments and the technique required to play them are the male sonic archives Jackson references, which iterate the imaginings of men.

It is, one would imagine, obvious therefore that women wishing to improvise freely would do so on tools designed for this purpose. Men, existing in a world designed by and for them, have not needed to imagine this, let alone provide for it. It is encouraging to see this shifting. The support offered by saxophonist Evan Parker to the development of the gliss anglais is an example of this.

Since FIG gave their first performance in 1977 much progress has been made in this country by women and for women in the realm of free improvisation. In particular, the foregrounding of emotion, social virtuosity, and bodily experience as relevant and viable areas for exploration. Because of this, and ‘standing on the shoulders’ of women like Maggie Nicols, who first fought for a position of equity in BFI, it is possible for Khabat and I to reimagine and recreate the instruments which we have been adapting ourselves to. In so doing we are not criticising, excluding, or negating the male form and its requirements, we are simply creating better tools with which to express ourselves freely; a concept which lay at the heart of the BFI movement when it was first imagined.

The “dance” Khabat Abas describes between these instruments and ourselves brings forth new sounds which better represent our female sonic imaginings. Different techniques arise which challenge the accepted notions of technical and intellectual virtuosity which have contributed to the patriarchal nature of BFI. They offer more appropriate technological mediation for our improvisations. The use of different objects and actions to strike the strings and body of the ‘cello for Khabat, the use of glissando and increased embouchure interaction on the gliss anglais for me, among them. They give prominence to the intimate and personal dialogue between performer and instrument. My practice- led PhD seeks in part to identify and elaborate on what such techniques may be.

In choosing to enter into this negotiation with our instruments we are feministing them. We are not undermining or criticising men, their improvising practice, or the nature of traditional BFI and its instruments. Rather we are taking sonic agency and de/reconstructing these instruments to articulate our soundings more clearly. In this way, the improvisations we undertake can be truly representative of our authentic sonic imaginings.


30 June 2023
Review status
Editorial review
Cite as
Instrument de/reconstruction as a feministing practice

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