Improvising Otherwise: Sound, Nature, and Coloniality in Early Modern England

Change log
Lahham, Fatima 

Improvisation can be a mode of imagining otherwise: a practice that allows us to re-consider and question ways of writing, sounding, and being in the world. In this thesis I use improvisation as a lens through which we can listen to alternative stories of early modern English music history, situating my musical research within histories of the body, sounds of nature, Anglo-Ottoman relations, and the coloniality of the travelogue. Through reading theological texts, travelogues, literature about the natural world, plays, poetry, and music theory treatises, I develop deeply contextual understandings of historical improvisation practices that have the potential to transform historical performance practice today.

My work unfolds over four main areas. First, I focus on improvisation and the body in contexts of ‘extemporary’ prayer, listening to ways in which improvised prayer practice was described as an embodied (and sometimes transgressive) practice. I demonstrate that extemporary practices were premised on notions of classical memory arts, and the idea that sensory experiences left imprints on the body. These imprints could then be ‘read’ in the process of improvisation. Critiques of improvisations that were considered transgressive thus often created boundaries around the body and its improvisations, implicating notions of otherness.

Second, I turn to two English travelogues and one work of speculative fiction, reading them as performative and improvisatory scripts of reciprocal encounter. I consider depictions of improvising Ottoman subjects in the Levant, as well as reconceptualising the travelogue itself as a series of scripted improvisations enacted by the travellers. I suggest that these texts also became a means for readers back home to enact ‘vicarious’ travel and participate in processes of world-making.

Third, I explore sounds of the natural world that were theorised as improvised/extemporary and heard in ways that draw on boundaries of ‘the human’ and religious/racial ‘other’. I focus on texts about the nightingale and the bee, exploring how the bee’s genders and the nightingale’s tongues affected the ways in which they were constructed as improvising queens. I examine how histories of natural sound add to historical associations of improvisation with ‘otherness’, and how these associations are intimately entwined with histories of gender and coloniality.

Finally, I explore how my contextual research into improvisation can allow us to rethink our relationships to early modern musical texts and the role of historical imagination in music-making today. Through readings of early modern music theory treatises and discussions of my own practice as heard on the accompanying album, I argue that historical improvisation could become a space for historical re-conceptualisation and political reimagination, enabling the ‘historically-informed’ musician/music historian to experiment with practices of improvising ‘otherwise’.

Varwig, Bettina
music, improvisation, decoloniality, feminist theory, islam, early modern, nature
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge
AHRC (2118755)
AHRC DTP studentship