Get Your Groove Gone: Social connectedness and shared attention in ametric musical improvisation


with Joshua Bergamin


It is well-established that rhythm generates embodied senses of belonging in musical and non-musical contexts (Born 2011, Mater. Cult.; Gatt 2018, Routledge; Iyer 2018, OUP; Hamilton 2019, Midwest Stud. Philos.). Recent studies on entrainment (Cross 2009, Empir. Musicol. Rev.; Clayton 2012, Mus. Sc.), in musical performance particularly, support the view that rhythm forms a powerful medium of social connection. Rhythm also offers examples of ‘participatory sense making’ (Schiavo and De Jaegher 2021, Routledge) where – as an emergent phenomenon that recursively structures and influences performers’ decisions – it contributes to collective performance while retaining a sense of autonomy beyond the actions of any individual producers. These phenomena converge in the culturally-specific yet widely recognizable virtue of groove (Keil and Feld 2005, Fenestra; Doffman 2009, Open Uni.).

However, in experimental improvised music, where performative social connection is not only highly valued but often topicalised, groove is often optional, and is at times even actively circumvented. The practices of experimental musicians therefore raise questions about the specific function of groove in relation to other intersubjective musical structures, and the varieties of musicians’ experiences of music as an autonomous object.

In this paper, we discuss these questions via a case study of a large contemporary improvising ensemble. Drawing on in-depth interviews and musical analysis of live performances, we explore what constrains and structures musical choices in the absence of groove. We contrast the practice of ‘deep listening’ against the ‘flow’ of groove-based improvisation, and suggest that the bandwidth of individual choice is perhaps wider in experimental music. Nevertheless, other emergent rhythms and structures do arise spontaneously in ways that aren’t attributable to any one performer, and help reframe how we might understand the intersubjectivity and joint attention of musical performance.

We close by examining the correlation of these emergent structures with reported feelings of connection and togetherness, and discuss the implications for our understanding of autonomy, choice, and personhood during acts of musical co-creation.