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Naked Intimacy: Eroticism, Improvisation, and Gender

Ellen Waterman

Published: 2008-12-04

Critical studies in improvisation seek to understand the potential of certain forms of music to decentre, even transform, entrenched social hierarchies and power structures. Such an ambitious project requires the development of new tools for analysis that, among other things, maintain the ability to critique the utopian tendencies that attend upon all intellectual projects of social reform. Towards that end, in this paper I develop an analytical framework based on a feminist erotics of creative improvisation that is committed to analysing the power dynamics within musical communication, and to recognizing and honouring difference. Eroticism is ontological: it is the realm of our most urgent desires that lead to the transgression of boundaries, ecstatic identification with others, and ultimately a confrontation with the self. I argue that creative improvisation similarly operates at the boundary between discipline and desire: the incessant confrontation with now that is characteristic of both eroticism and improvisation. After first addressing articulations of feminine jouissance in music scholarship that make this work possible, I bring dissonant theories of eroticism by Georges Bataille and Audre Lorde into a productive tension in order to define a feminist erotics of improvisation. Finally, I employ this framework in analysing an instructive case study, the fascinating music and performance practice of violist Charlotte Hug.

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Listening itself, an improvisative act engaged in by everyone, announces a practice of active engagement with the world, where we sift, interpret, store and forget, in parallel with action and fundamentally articulated with it ("Mobilitas Animi" 113).

– George E. Lewis