Live improvisation by clarinettist Pete Furniss using C-C-Combine – a concatenative synthesis patch built by Rodrigo Constanzo in Max MSP. On his website, Rodrigo explains that concatenative synthesis is a form of granular synthesis employing modulation via sound sources rather than prescribed parameters (grain density, jitter, wave form, etc.) to determine how the sound grains (short samples) are played back.
Pete will be a keynote performer at the Philosophy of human+computer music 2 Workshop at Sheffield University on May 27th (Where I will also be chairing a discussion session). In last year’s workshop, some extremely stimulating discussions of computer music aesthetics were informed by input from performers and experts on the electroacoustic coalface. The second iteration is not to be missed!
Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 event at Glasgow’s Tramway Freedom is a Constant Struggle) is a terse but insightful discussion of the notion of freedom in improvisation.
It begins with a polemic against the voluntarist conception of freedom. The voluntarist understands free action as the uncaused expression of a “sovereign self”. Brassier rejects this supernaturalist understanding of freedom. He argues that we should view freedom not as determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination of action within the causal order.
According to Brassier, this structure is reflexive. It requires, first of all, a system that acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour. Insofar as there is a “subject” of freedom, then, it is not a “self” but depersonalized acts generated by systems capable of representing and intervening in the patterns that govern them.
The act is the only subject. It remains faceless. But it can only be triggered under very specific circumstances. Acknowledgement of the rule generates the condition for deviating from or failing to act in accordance with the rule that constitutes subjectivity. This acknowledgement is triggered by the relevant recognitional mechanism; it requires no appeal to the awareness of a conscious self….
Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954) and the psychological nominalism in which it is embedded. This distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to examine the virtues of claims, inferences or the referential scope of terms by semantic ascent: “Intentionality is primarily a property of candid public speech established via the development of metalinguistic resources that allows a community of speakers to talk about talk” (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226).
So, for Brassier, the capacity to explore the space of possibilities opened up by rules presupposes a capacity to acknowledge these sources of agency.
There are some difficult foundational questions that could be raised here. Is thought really instituted by linguistic rules or is language an expression of pre-linguistic intentional contents? Are these rules idiomatic (in the manner of Davidson’s passing theories) or communal? What is the relationship between the normative dimension of speech and thought and facts about what thinkers do or are disposed to do?
I’ve addressed these elsewhere, so I won’t belabor them here. My immediate interest, rather, is the extent to which Brassier’s account of act-reflexivity is applicable to musical improvisation.
Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. What he does write, though, is highly suggestive: implying that the act of free improvisation requires some kind of encounter between rule governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes:
The ideal of “free improvisation” is paradoxical: in order for improvisation to be free in the requisite sense, it must be a self-determining act, but this requires the involution of a series of mechanisms. It is this involutive process that is the agent of the act—one that is not necessarily human. It should not be confused for the improviser’s self, which is rather the greatest obstacle to the emergence of the act.
In (genuinely) free improvisation, it seems, determinants of action become “for themselves” They enter into the performance situation as explicit possibilities for action.
This seems to demand that “neurobiological or socioeconomic” determinants of musical or non-musical action can become musical material, to be manipulated or altered by performers. How is this possible?
Moreover, is there something about improvisation (as opposed to conventional composition) that is peculiarly apt for generating the compulsive freedom of which Brassier speaks?
After all, his description of the determinants of action in the context of improvisation might apply to the situation of the composer as well. The composer of notated “art music” or the studio musician editing files in a digital-audio workstation seems better placed than the improviser to reflect on and develop her musical rule-conforming behaviour (e.g. exploratory improvisations) than the improviser. She has the ambit to explore the permutations of a melodic or rhythmic fragment or to eliminate sonic or gestural nuances that are, in hindsight, unproductive. The composed gesture is always open to reversal or editing and thus to further refinement.
Thus the improviser seems committed to what Andy Hamilton calls an “aesthetic of imperfection” – in contrast to the musical perfectionism that privileges the realized work. Hamilton claims that the aesthetics of perfection implies and is implied by a Platonic account for which the work is only contingently associated with particular times, places or musical performers (Hamilton 2000: 172). The aesthetics of imperfection, by contrast, celebrates the genesis of a performance and the embodying of the performer in a specific time and space:
Improvisation makes the performer alive in the moment; it brings one to a state of alertness, even what Ian Carr in his biography of Keith Jarrett has called the ‘state of grace’. This state is enhanced in a group situation of interactive empathy. But all players, except those in a large orchestra, have choices inviting spontaneity at the point of performance. These begin with the room in which they are playing, its humidity and temperature, who they are playing with, and so on. (183)
An improvisation consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten in time. It takes place in a time window limited by the memory and attention of the improviser, responding to her own playing, to the other players, or (as Brassier recognises) to the real-time behaviour of machines such as effects processors or midi-filters. Thus the aesthetic importance of the improvising situation seems to depend on a temporality and spatiality that distinguishes it from the score-bound composition or studio bound music production.
Yet, if this is right, it might appear to commit Brassier to a vitalist or phenomenological conception of the lived musical experience foreign to the anti-vitalist, anti-phenomenological tenor of his wider philosophical oeuvre. For this open, processual time must be counter-posed to the Platonic or structuralist ideal of the perfectionist. The imperfection and open indeterminacy of performance time must have ontological weight and insistence if Brassier’s programmatic remarks are to have any pertinence to improvisation as opposed to traditional composition.
This is not intended to be a criticism of Brassier’s position but an attempt at clarification. This commitment to an embodied, historical, machinic and physical temporality seems implicit in the continuation of the earlier passage cited from his text:
The improviser must be prepared to act as an agent—in the sense in which one acts as a covert operative—on behalf of whatever mechanisms are capable of effecting the acceleration or confrontation required for releasing the act. The latter arises at the point of intrication between rules and patterns, reasons and causes. It is the key that unlocks the mystery of how objectivity generates subjectivity. The subject as agent of the act is the point of involution at which objectivity determines its own determination: agency is a second-order process whereby neurobiological or socioeconomic determinants (for example) generate their own determination. In this sense, recognizing the un-freedom of voluntary activity is the gateway to compulsive freedom.
The improvising subject, then, is a process in which diverse processes are translated into a musical event or text that retains an expressive trace of its historical antecedents. As Brassier emphasizes, this process need not be understood in terms of human phenomenological time constrained by the “reverbations” of our working memory (Metzinger 2004: 129) – although this may continue to be the case in practice.
The Derridean connotations of the conjunction “event”/”text”/”trace” are deliberate, since the time of the improvising event is singular and productive – open to multiple repetitions that determine it in different ways. Improvisation is usually constrained (if not musically, by time or technical skill or means) but these rarely constitute rules or norms in the conventional sense. There is no single way in which to develop a simple Lydian phase on a saxophone, a rhythmic cell, or sample (an audio sample could be filtered, reversed or mangled by reading its entries out of order with a non-standard function, rather than the usual ramp). So the time of improvisation is a peculiarly naked exposure to “things”. Not to a sensory or categorical given, but precisely to an absence of a given that can be technologically remade.
Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, http://www.mattin.org/essays/unfree_improvisation-compulsive_freedom.html (Accessed March 2015)
Brassier, Ray. 2013b. “Nominalism, Naturalism, and Materialism: Sellars’ Critical Ontology”. In Bana Bashour & Hans D. Muller (eds.), Contemporary Philosophical Naturalism and its Implications. Routledge. 101-114.
Davidon, Donald. 1986. “A Nice Derangement of Epitaphs”. In Truth and Interpretation,
E. LePore (ed.), 433–46. Oxford: Blackwell.
Hamilton, A. (2000). “The art of Improvisation and the Aesthetics of Imperfection”. British Journal of Aesthetics 40 (1):168-185.
Metzinger, T. 2004. Being No One: The Self-Model Theory of Subjectivity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Sellars, W. 1954. “Some Reflections on Language Games”. Philosophy of Science 21 (3):204-228.
Haven’t done this in a long while. I fired up my antique version of MAX MSP and Reaper and used my java based probabilistic sequencer jDelta (code here) to belt out this short improvisation. The sound is a marimba-like tuned percussion designed on the Native Instruments FM8 synthesizer. jDelta allows you to take a short seed sequence (here a repeated cluster chord) and graphically determine the probability of individual notes playing in the sequence, transpositions, velocity or tempo changes in real time using multislider objects. I then improvised a few ornaments over algorithmic variations induced on the seed phrase.
Relevance to posthuman performance practice: JDelta is just a sequencer that allows a certain global control over event probabilities. It assigns played note values to some arrays, then determines the probability of some output related to those values by imposing conditions on a random number output. A smarter program might (for example) use Bayesian statistics or neural networks rather than random numbers to fix the probabilities of an event relative to a given musical context (a little beyond my programming ability at the moment). While the program is not remotely smart, it mediates performance by allowing one to conceive the distribution of events in a graphical way, delegating how the events fall to the machine.
[A slightly edited extract from my paper “Nature’s Dark Domain: an Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute Of Philosophy Supplement [serial online]. July 2013;72:169-188 with audio!]
Most listeners will readily distinguish an eight second sequence from Xenakis’ pioneering ‘granular’ composition Concret Ph.
and a loop that repeats the first one-second slice of it for eight seconds.
This is discernible because of the obvious repetition in pitch and dynamics.
Telling the looped sequence from the non-looped sequence is not the same as acquiring subjective identity conditions that would allow us to recognise the extra structure distinguishing the non-looped from the looped sequence in a different context (e.g. within the entirety of Concret Ph). What is discerned here is arguably a fact about the shortfall between type-identifiable phenomenology and non type-identifiable phenomenology (“unintuitable” or “dark” phenomenology).
As an illustration of this, the mere awareness that there is missing structure in the loop does not help settle the issue between virtualist and occurentist construals of that structure. It is plausible to suppose that the perceptual awareness of the missing structure in the Xenakis loop consists of virtual contents – a representation of tendencies in the developing sound rather than something like a constantly updated encoding of discrete sonic facts . Indeed the virtual model would be consistent with the widely held assumption that our representation of temporal structure is accomplished via recurrent neural architecture that modulates each current input by feeding back earlier input. But whether the contents of representations of temporal structure are virtual or occurrent in nature has no direct bearing on their conceptual or intuitive accessibility.
The Posthuman: Differences, Embodiments, Performativity
Call For Papers
September 11th – 14th 2013, University of Roma 3, Rome, Italy
The University of Roma 3, the University Erlangen-Nürnberg,
the University of the Aegean and Dublin City University
are pleased to announce:
The 5th Conference of the Beyond Humanism Conference Series
The specific focus of the Conference “The Posthuman: Differences, Embodiments, and Performativity” will be the posthuman, in its genealogies, as well as its theoretical, artistic and materialistic differences and possibilities. In order to guarantee a systematic treatment of the topic, we will particularly focus on the following themes:
1 What is the posthuman? Have humans always been posthuman? If so, in which sense? Is the posthuman a further evolutionary development of the human being? What are the implications of gender, sex and race, among other differential categories, for the embodied constitution of the posthuman? Do posthumans already exist? What is the difference between the posthuman, the transhuman, the antihuman and the cyborg?
2 Philosophical issues concerning the genealogies of the posthuman: Which traditions of thoughts are significant to the posthuman theoretical attempt to postulate a post-dualistic and post-essentialist standpoint? What are the differences between the genealogies of the posthuman and of the transhuman? What points do they hold in common? Is the posthuman a Western-centric notion? Could non-dualistic practices such as shamanism be accounted as posthuman?
3 Bioarts, Body Art, Performance Art and the Posthuman: Which kind of art can be seen as leading towards the posthuman? Is the notion of the posthuman traceable in artistic traditions which precede the coining of the term “posthuman”? Can the posthuman be detected in cultures which have not been canonized by Western aesthetics?
4 Ethics, Bioethics, and the Moral Status of the Posthuman: Does the posthuman lead to a new, non-universalist, non-dualist understanding of ethics? Will posthumans have the moral status of a post-person, or will it be possible for them to have human dignity and personhood? Are human rights necessarily humanistic, or can they be re-enacted within a posthuman frame?
5 Emerging Technologies and the Posthuman: Which technologies represent the most significant challenge concerning the concept of the human/posthuman? Are restrictive national regulations concerning emerging technologies helpful in a globalized world? Do mind-uploading, plastic surgery, and cyborgian practices dissolve the border between human beings and machines? Human enhancement is already happening: should morphological freedom be regulated by social norms, or should it stand on individual choices?
6 Materialism and Posthuman Existence: The notion of matter as an active agent has been reinforced through Quantum Physics, on a scientific level, as well as by New Materialisms and Speculative Realism, on a philosophical level. Is the posthuman grounded in a materialist understanding of existence? What are the ontological, as well as the existential implications of the relationality of matter? Can it be related to a Posthuman Agency? What would a Posthuman Existentialism imply?
7. Posthuman Education: The notion of education in a posthumanist world; the transformation of the roles of teachers and learners in a posthuman social environment; what is the concept of a post- and transhumanist school? Which learning activities are central in a posthumanist educational system? Epistemological considerations about knowledge construction in the posthumanist era need to be considered further.
Papers will be selected and arranged according to related topics. Equal voice will be given, if possible, to presentations from the arts, humanities, sciences, and technological fields.
Major areas of interest include (in alphabetic order):
Animal Studies, Antihumanism, Heritage and the Arts, Postmodernism, and Conceptual Art, Bioarts and Performance Art, Bioethics, Cosmology, Critical Race Studies, Cultural Studies, Cyborg Studies, Deconstructionism, Disability Studies, Ecology, Informatics, Emerging Technologies and Ethics, Enhancement, Evolution, Existentialism, Gender Studies, Intersectionality, New Materialisms, Philosophy, Physics, Posthumanism, Quantum Physics, Science and Technology Studies, Singularity, Spirituality, Speculative Realism, Transhumanism
Other possible topics include, but are not limited to:
· Bioethics, bioconservatism, bioliberalism, enhancement
· Posthumanist anthropology, aesthetics, ecology, feminism, critical theory
· Representation of human performance in technology and the arts
· Enhancement and political discourse, regulation, and human rights
· Humanism, posthumanism, transhumanism and antihumanism in philosophy
· Poststructuralism, postmodernism, and posthumanism
· New Materialisms, speculative realism and quantum physics
· Existentialism, relational ontology, posthuman agency
· Transhuman and posthuman impact on ethics and/or value formation
· Phenomenology and postphenomenology
· Embodiments and identity
· Transhumanism and/or posthumanism in science fiction and utopian/dystopian literature
· Non-dualism in spiritual practices, mysticism and shamanism
· Globalization and the spread of biomedicine and transhumanism/br> · Economic implications of transhumanist projects
· Popular culture and posthumanist representations
· Theology, enhancement, and the place of the posthuman
· Technology, robotics, and ethics
· Cybernetics, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality
· Cyborgs and democracy
· Humanity, human nature, biotechnology
SUBMISSIONS & DEADLINES
We invite abstracts of up to 500 words, to be sent in MS Word and Pdf format to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Files should be named and submitted in the following manner:
Submission: First Name Last name.docx (or .doc) / .pdf
Example: “Submission: MaryAndy.docx”
Abstracts should be received by May 15th 2013.
Acceptance notifications will be sent out by June 15th.
All those accepted will receive information on the venue(s), local attractions, accommodations, restaurants, and planned receptions and events for participants.
*Presentations should be no longer than 20 minutes. Each presentation will be given 10 additional minutes for questions and discussions with the audience, for a total of 30 minutes.
FEES & REGISTRATION
A reduced registration fee of €50 (65USD) will apply to all participants.
SERIES “BEYOND HUMANISM”(site)
The Conference is part of the Series “Beyond Humanism”. The 1st Conference took place in April 2009 at the University of Belgrade (Humanism and Posthumanism), the 2nd Conference in September 2010 at the University of the Aegean (Audiovisual Posthumanism), the 3rd Conference in October 2011 at Dublin City University (Transforming Human Nature) and the 4th Conference in September 2012 at the IUC in Dubrovnik (Enhancement, Emerging Technologies and Social Challenges). This year, the conference “The Posthuman: Differences, Embodiments, and Performativity” will be held at the University of Roma 3, Department of Philosophy, Rome, Italy, from the 11th until the 14th of September 2013.
Milan Kundera perfectly encapsulates what is great about Xenakis:
Even being a “prophet of unfeelingness,” Joyce was able to remain a novelist; Xenakis, on the other hand, had to leave music. His innovation was different in nature from that of Debussy or of Schoenberg. Those two never lost their ties to the history of music, they could always “go back” (and they often did). For Xenakis, the bridges had been burned. Olivier Mesian said as much: Xenakis’s music is “not radically new but radically other.” Xenakis does not stand against some earlier phase of music; he turns away from all European music, from the whole of its legacy. He locates his starting point somewhere else: not in the artificial sound of note separated from nature in order to express human subjectivity, but in the noise of the world, in a “mass of sound” that does not rise from inside the heart but instead comes to us from the outside, like the fall of the rain, the racket of a factory, or the shouts of a mob.
His experiments on sounds and noises that lie beyond notes and scales – can they become the basis of a new period in music history? Will his music live for long in music lovers’ memory? Not very likely. What will remain is the act of enormous rejection: for the first time someone dared to tell European music that it can all be abandoned. Forgotten. (Is it only chance that in his youth, Xenakis saw human nature as no other composer ever did? Living through the massacres of a civil war, being sentenced to death, having his handsome face forever scared by a wound…) And I think of the necessity, of the deep meaning of this necessity, that led Xenakis to side with the objective sound of the world against the sound of a soul’s subjectivity.