Obertura

On August 17, 2016, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

The carrier source is a sample from a bell recorded in the lost country of J….  In this dead language Obertura is the border between two warring states, an incident of rank or hierarchy, an overture or prologue to a  solar spectacle, the frame of a painting, the dull laminate under a reflective surface, the triangular part surmounting a temple frontage, fruit, weapons or accessories belonging to statues, a broken chord or portent, a chthonic emissary (masked, otherwise indistinct), a misprision or feint, something indeterminable without recourse to allusions, ellipses or empty signs.

Here failure is a goal, or at issue. Something isn’t broken when it survives us and leads its own career. Can we grasp its amorphous specificity? For the Promethean Mystery, matter is imbued by spectral machines that only speak and do. The double door at the top of the stairs was ajar; a slit of artificial light dividing it from the warm glow of the scented candles below. A tinny machinic sound came from this first of many rooms, masking a faintly audible male voice whose owner seemed to be repeating some verbal formula or prayer.

He hurls into a puddle and studies the patterns of phlegm, blood and blotched tissue.  Deprived of its onset, the bell expresses under his skin like the protein engines. The digital audio system exploits bone conductance, growing around, substituting for it. Pharmakon – as, equivocally, remedy or poison – alludes to the same ‘logic’ of parasitic intrication as this hacked, enigmatic body.

Rosa lives in what came to replace J…. We are trying to come to terms with these dispersive effects. You have seen the footage of the cities neighboring the Spike. Their inhabitants waver in a sepia futurity. They cannot see themselves as anachronisms. There is no dignity in this.

Alone in an ugly room, with only a chair, a chamber pot, a few modest devices – some whips of variable length, butt plugs, nipple clamps and an ovoid thing: the metamachine. For large parts of the day and night she has only a peeled dancer for company; its flayed and striated muscle wet as Daddy’s purple kiss.

Does she talk with the fourth wall people? Is she answered or rebuffed? He needs to know this.

Bear Daddy’s bulblike pallor accentuated out of decaying film stock. Rosa’s is nuanced. Unlike the dancers, her skin is mottled with ferrous contusions. She wanted Daddy to make her scream through the layers of signification that hide us. A pure aim.

He removes the mid-range filters. Any voice is written. Iterable, expressible as a vector or list “can be interfaced with any other if the proper standard, the proper code can be constructed”

This operator distorts as its amplitude ramps up, producing dense inharmonic spectra in the carrier. This is can be implemented with simple waveforms –  sine or triangle – but she glitches out, tearing Obertura into slivers of noise and cast metal. She, in turn, hears the Sound Artist in his bunker tracking her like a bird in a radar dome.

Rosa’s scream has all the clean insistence of an antique mirror. We hear her painslut moan after granulated silence, again.

In the morning there is a message from Cuba regarding the forthcoming trip. His oncologist, said that the tumors are neither benign nor malignant in the strict sense. The new leukocyte count not so much improved as irrelevant.

The Adventure

Cuba returned to the mainland, chartering the fishing vessel they had seen beyond the bar on the first evening, the tiny boat weaving among the ungainly modules of the Bucky Barges. Perhaps she knew the search would be fruitless or was too discomforted by the moment in the Grain Temple to stay. The rest narrowed expectations while the police dredged beneath towering Martian cliffs. She had told S something in the dark of the shepherd’s hut earlier that night. But he was too impatient to sleep and dream of skinless wonders from the Fourth Wall.

The Passage

He found her later at her father’s villa, a large rambling abode in dog country, overlooking a bay slick with oil and detritus.

Exascale

As they drove back to the hotel, she watched the behemoths flounder in the darkening bay. She whispered something S could not hear. Traffic became fitful, no doubt discouraged as much by Promethean roadblocks as ontic weather. S couldn’t understand why she pleaded with him to go there; although she kept hinting that there would be something that might resolve the disappearance. It didn’t matter – he had his own reasons for meeting the Executrix.

Cuba removed S’s garments, folding them neatly for the cupboard and bound him to the four corners of the bed. The whip is an artifact from a prehistoric gender war. S wondered whether she somehow resented him handing it to her, so unrestrained was her use. She leaves him like a fly moistened with blood and urine.

Executrix

The conference center is on a stony elevation a short walk from the Hotel’s weathered concrete accommodation blocs. S is refreshed yet also light headed, perhaps from the anti-biotic salve he applied following his shower.

 

 

 

 

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This is the full text of my presentation at the improvisation panel at The Society of European Philosophy-Forum of European Philosophy joint conference in Dundee, 2015.

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1) Introduction: Improvisation and the Politics of Technology

 

Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 collaboration with Basque noise artist Mattin at Glasgow’s Tramway) 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, arguing that we should view freedom not as the determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination by action within the causal order.

According to Brassier, self-determination is reflexive and rule-governed. A self-determining system acts in conformity to rules but is capable of representing and modifying these rules with implications for its future behaviour. This is only possible if we make the rules explicit in language (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226).

Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of language and meaning (1954.) Sellars analytic pragmatism buys into the Kantian claim that concepts are rules for unifying or linking claims to cognitive significance rather than representations of something outside thought – concepts are “cooks rather than hooks”.[1]

Sellars distinguishes a more or less automatic and unconscious rule following from a metalinguistic level with the logical resources for reflection and self-awareness. Indeed for Brassier’s Sellars, thought and intentional action emerge only with the metalinguistic capacity to make reasons explicit in “candid public speech” (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226-8).[2] Or as he puts it: “Autonomy understood as a self-determining act is the destitution of selfhood and the subjectivation of the rule. The ‘oneself’ that subjects itself to the rule is the anonymous agent of the act.”

For Brassier, an avowed naturalist, it is important that this capacity for agency is non-miraculous, and that a mere assemblage of pattern governed mechanisms can be “gripped by concepts” (Brassier 2011). As he continues:

The act …. 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 2013a)

Now, there are criticisms that one can make of this account. For example, Brassier struggles to articulate the relationship between linguistic rules or norms and the natural regularities and behaviours on which they depend. For this reason, I’ve argued that the normative functionalism associated with Sellars and, latterly, Robert Brandom bottoms out in Davidson-style claims about how idealized interpreters (privy to all the facts) might construe a given stretch of behaviour (Roden 2015).

Brassier’s position thus depends on the conception of an interpreting subject it is not in a position to satisfactorily explain. Despite pretensions to naturalistic virtue, his world is bifurcated between a natural real and an order of thought that depends on it without really belonging to it (Brassier 2013: 104).

These issues lurk in the background in Brassier’s short text on improvisation. This claims that the act of improvisation involves an encounter between rule governed reason and pattern governed mechanisms. However, Brassier does not specify how such rules operate in music, or how the encounter between rules and mechanism is mediated.

In what follows I will argue that one reason he does not do this is that such rules do not operate in improvisation or in contemporary compositional practice. Claims about what is permissible or implied in music index context sensitive perceptual responses to musical events. These exhibit tensions between the expectations sedimented in musical culture and actual musical events or acts.

However, I will argue that this perceptual account of musical succession provides an alternate way of expressing Brassier’s remarks on the relationship between music and history in “Unfree Improvisation” – one that eschews normative discourse in favour of a descriptive account of the processes, capacities and potentialities operating in the improvising situation.

This metaphysical adjustment is of interest outside musical aesthetics and ontology, however.

Brassier’s text suggests that the temporality of the improvising act is a model for understanding a wider relationship with time: in particular the remorseless temporality explored in his writings on Prometheanism, Accelerationist Marxism and Radical Enlightenment (See Brassier 2014). I hope to use this suggestion as a clue for refining an ethics that can address the radically open horizons of being I discuss in my book Posthuman Life (Roden 2014).

This paper can, then, be thought of as a staged encounter between Prometheanism and my own Speculative Posthumanism. Brassier’s Prometheanism, like Reza Negarestani’s “inhumanism”, proposes that all reasons and purposes are “artificial”: implicit or explicit moves within language games. (See Negarestani 2014b). Thus the Promethean rejects all quasi-theological limits on artificialisation and enjoins the wholesale “reengineering of ourselves and our world on a more rational basis” and (2014: 487).

Speculative Posthumanism (SP) does not propose any theological limits to artificialisation. Far from it! However, it holds that the space of possible agents is not bound (a priori) by conditions of human agency or society. Since we lack future-proof knowledge of possible agents this “anthropologically unbounded posthumanism” (AUP) allows that the results of techno-political interventions could be weird in ways that we are not in a position to imagine (Roden 2014: Ch.3-4; Roden 2015b).

The ethical predicament of the Speculative Posthumanist is thus more complex than the Promethean. Given AUP there need be no structure constitutive of all subjectivity or agency. Thus she cannot appeal to a theory of rational subjectivity to support an ethics of becoming posthuman. So what – for example – might autonomy or freedom involve from the purview of unbounded posthumanism? What counts as emancipatory as opposed to oppressive violence?

I will argue that the idea of freedom embedded in Brassier’s text on improvisation can be elucidated by comparing the obscure genesis of improvisation to the predicament of agents in rapidly changing technical systems. Thus Brassier’s treatment of improvisation retains its resonance on this posthumanist reading even if it militates against his wider ontological and political commitments.

2. Harmonic Structure and Succession

I will begin by making use of some analyses of performance practices in post-war jazz and Julian Johnson’s analysis of the disruption of the rhetoric of harmonic accompaniment in the work of Anton Webern to support this model of affective subjectivity in improvisation.

Novice jazz improvisers must internalize a large body of musical theory: e.g. they learn modal variations on the Ionian and harmonic minor scale or “rules” for chord substitution in cadences based on shared tritones. This learning enables musical performance by sculpting possibilities for action during improvisation. For example, ambiguous voicings involving tritones or fourths decouple chords from the root, allowing modulations into what otherwise distant keys to slide easily over a tonal center.

This harmonic know-how consists recipes for honing expectations and sensations, not the acknowledgement of norms. The statement that a tritone (augmented fourth) belonging to a dominant seventh chord should resolve to a tonic reflects listener expectations in diatonic environments where a tonal center is defined in practice. This is not an intrinsic feature of the tritone, though, since each tritone occurs in two dominant chords. For example, the B-F tritone occurs in both G7 (resolving to C) and Dflat7.

This provides a recipe for substituting a dominant chord at a tritone remove in perfect cadences.

However, it also allows harmonic series to modulate into unrelated keys.

As jazz theorist Martin Rosenberg notes, the use of augmented dominants with two tritones by Bebop players such as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk produce multiple lines of harmonic consequence and thus an ambiguous context that is not conventionally diatonic, even if (in contrast to free jazz) some adherence to a tonal center is preserved.

 

Symmetrical chords built of fourths (as used by pianists such as McCoy Tyer and Bill Evans) or major thirds have a similar effect, whether in diatonic contexts (where they can render the tonic ambiguous by stripping it to the 3rd, sixth and ninth) or in modal contexts where a tonal center is still implied by a pedal pass.

In consequence, the home key in the modal jazz developed by Miles Davis and Coltrane never prescribes a series of actions but furnishes expectations that can make an improvisation aesthetically intelligible after the fact. As Rosenberg explains, when Coltrane improvises in modal compositions such as “A Love Supreme” he deploys pentatonic or digital patterns modulated well away from the implied tonal center suggested by a bass line or by the “head” (the tune that traditionally opens or closes a jazz improvisation):

During his solos, Coltrane performs constant modulations through a series of harmonic targets or, what avant-garde architects Arakawa and Gins would call tentative “landing sites” (2002: 10) that become deployed sonically over a simple harmonic ‘home’ through the use of centered and then increasingly distant pentatonic scales from that home. In doing so, Coltrane seeks to widen what I call “the bandwidth” of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic relationships possible. He does so as he maintains the coherence of the melodic line (or narrative) through the aurally comfortable shapes (from the perspective of the audience especially) enabled by those very pentatonic scales, despite the juxtaposition of distant and dissonant tonal centers implied by this method. (Rosenberg 2010: 211-12).

This differential/transformative structure is, not surprisingly, characteristic of scored Western art music. In his analysis of Anton Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Piano and Cello, Op 11, Julian Johnson argues that the opening two bars of the first piece allude to the framing and introduction of melody in traditional song and opera. For example, in baroque recitative the onset of a lyrical melody is frequently indicated by an arpeggiated chord. However, the high register chord that occurs in the first bar of the piece follows a single muted cello note and is followed, in turn, by a descending piano passage, bathetically marking the absence of the expressive melody portended by the chord (Johnson 1998: 277, 272.).

 


Culturally transmitted musical structures consist of exquisitely context-sensitive patterns of expectation– like the chord/recitative framing relation discussed by Johnson. These exist in tension with the musical act and are transformed in exemplary works.[3] Their linguistic formulations do not prescribe but indirectly describe how musical transitions are perceived and felt. Thus in the context of improvisation and composition, we are not free in virtue of acknowledging or declining musical norms since these are not in place.

Brassier’s conception of autonomy seems ill adapted to musical contexts, then, even we if buy into his naturalist dismissal of the sovereign self. Thus if we are to tease out the implications of his text for posthuman agency, we need to formulate an alternative account of autonomy in improvisational contexts that is not predicated on the acknowledgement of musical norms.

3. The Time of Improvisation

An improvisation 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 audio processors or midi-filters. It thus consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten by subsequent acts.

Improvisation is thus committed to what Andy Hamilton calls “an aesthetics of imperfection” as opposed to a Platonism for which the musical work is only contingently associated with performances or performers (Hamilton 2000: 172). The aesthetics of imperfection celebrates the genesis of a performance and the embodying of the performer in a specific time and space.[4]

If improvisation is a genesis, it implies an irreversible temporality. Composition or digital editing is always reversible. One develops notational variants of an idea before winnowing them down or rejecting them. One hits Ctl/Cmd + Z in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) when a mix goes bad.

An improvisation, by contrast, is always a unique and irreversible event on the cusp of another. An omniscient being would be incapable of improvising because its options would be fully known in advance. Unlike the improviser, it could never surprise itself. Its act would be fully represented before it took place and thus reversible.

It follows that an improvisation must exceed the improviser’s power of representation. The improvising agent must work with things or processes that it cannot entirely control or fully know. Paraphrasing Amy Ireland’s discussion of H P Lovecraft and Michel Serres in her excellent paper “Noise: An Ontology of the Avant-garde” improvisation requires a “para-site” – an alien interloper capable of disrupting or perverting the prescribed order of events. In Serres’ retelling of La Fontaine’s tale of the country rat and the city rat, this might be the Master who interrupts the rats’ nocturnal feast and sends the country rat scurrying home. Yet from the human position, it is the rodent feast that interrupts the Master’s sleep. The take home moral of this – for Ireland – is that the context in which a disturbance counts as noise requires a subjectively imposed norm that distorts the radical otherness of an inhuman reality to make it comprehensible for a human subject (Ireland 2014; Roden Forthcoming).[5]

With improvising subjectivity, however, parasitism is the rule – the noise that actualizes an always-tentative decision in real time performance.[6] This sensitive, yet tenuous agency implies a complex disunified subject in the dark about its complexity. As the tagline to Scott Bakker’s ultra-dark near-future thriller Neuropath has it: we are not what we think we are (2010, 2014).

Brassier veers towards such a model at the end of his article. It is, in any case, implied by his naturalistic proposal for explaining the evolution of reasons in terms of the organization of pattern governed physical systems. The freedom of improvisation requires, as he puts it, “an involution of [or reciprocal interaction between] mechanisms” to compose the (“not necessarily human”) agent of the act.

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. 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 (My emphasis)

The claim that there is a potential act needing to be “released” in a given music setting might appear to impute rule-like structure or normativity to the improvising situation: something that ought to be. However, this claim does not cohere well with context sensitivity and underdetermination of musical expectation described in the previous section.

So what, then, is the nature of the paradoxically compelling, selfless freedom that falls out of this interaction between pattern recognizers, pattern generators and effectors? If we exorcise the specters of transcendental thought –Brassier’s own normative functionalism included – how, if at all, do we conceptualise he calls “the subjectivity of the act” or its “self-determination”?

I think clues about this selfless self-determination can be gleaned from improvising situations we know about. The real of the improvising situation might be all protean complexity, but as with other aspects of the world, we have techniques for coping with that complexity. And these work (more or less).

For example, in a field study of post-hardcore rock musicians, Alec McGuiness provides a vivid example of musicians using a procedural learning technique to prime a series of musical riffs over which their intentional control is fairly limited. Songs are built by associating riffs with riffs, but, as one informant explains, are varied in performance when it “feels right” to do so:

[S]ometimes there’ll be moments when we’re not looking at each other but all four will either hit that heavy thing, or really bring it down […] And yeah, those moments […].. it’s priceless, when everyone just hits the same thing at the same time. […] That’s when you know that that song’s definitely going to work. ‘Cause it’s obviously sort of pressing the same buttons on each of us at the same time. (McGuiness 2009: 19)

So, here, releasing the act involves a distributed response to a “felicitous performance”. This is a collective judgement expressed though performance act itself rather than by application of formal musical rules (of which the performers are largely innocent in any case).

The phenomenology of this act is also dark. All experience is, I have argued elsewhere, striated with “darkness” (Roden 2013; Roden 2014 Ch. 4). Having it only affords a very partial insight into its nature.   We are not normally aware of it because, as Bakker writes, consciousness “provides no information about the absence of information.” Experience seems like a gift because we are unmindful of the heavy lifting required to produce it. We are in the dark about the dark.

The “state of grace” felt in felicitous improvisation is, then, an artifact of our technical underdevelopment. A technics like chaining riffs enables a groove but not groove control. It allows us, in Brassier words, to do “something with time” even as time “does something with us” (2014: 469).

However, if this is self-determination but not rule-governed rationality, what is it? I think we can understand this better by utilizing a conception of autonomy that is not exclusive to discursive creatures (as is the case with Kantian or Sellarsian self-determination).

In Posthuman Life, I call this “functional autonomy”. This idea helps articulate an unbounded speculative posthumanism because it applies to any self-maintaining system capable of enlisting values for its functionings or of becoming a value for some wider assemblage. A functionally autonomous system might be discursive and social; it might be a superintelligent but asocial singleton that only wants to produce paperclips. It might be something whose existence is utterly inconceivable to us, like a computational megastructure leeching the energy output of an entire star.

A diminution of functional autonomy is a reduction in power. Arthritis of the limbs painfully reduces freedom of movement and thus the ability to cultivate agency in other ways. Acquiring new skills increases “one’s capacities to affect and be affected, or to put it differently, increase one’s capacities to enter into novel assemblages” (DeLanda 2006: 50).

To be sure, success at improvising is not like acquiring a new skill. However, it requires that the agent embraces and is embraced a reality and time that interrupts any settled structure of values and ends.

This embrace might seem atavistic, divorced from the Promethean prospectus for engineering nature in compliance to reason. But this assumes that the means for engineering nature are compliant. In Posthuman Life I argue, to the contrary, that the systemic complexity of modern technique precludes binding technologies to norms. Modern self-augmenting technical systems are so complex as to be both out of control and characterised by massive functional indeterminacy – rendering them independent of any rules of use.

As the world is re-made by this vast planetary substance any agent located in the system needs to maximize its own ability to acquire new ends and purposes or bet (against the odds) on stable environments or ontological quiescence. Any technology liable to increase our ability to accrue new values and couplings in anomalous environments, then, is of local ecological value (Roden 2014: Ch. 7).[7] This is not because such technologies make us better or happier, but because the only viable response to this deracinative modernity is more of the same.

In this “posthuman predicament” agency must be febrile, even masochistic. The agent must tolerate and practice a systemic violence against itself and its world. Thus improvisation – because it necessarily embraces and is embraced by the involuted mechanisms of performance – rehearses our tryst with the ontological violence of the hypermodern.

 

References

Bakker, Scott. 2010. Neuropath. New York: Tor.

Bakker, Scott. 2014. The Blind Mechanic II: Reza Negarestani and the Labor of Ghosts | Three Pound Brain. Retrieved April 30, 2014, from https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/04/13/the-blind-mechanic-ii-reza-negarestani-and-the-labour-of-ghosts

Beaty, R. E. (2015). The neuroscience of musical improvisation. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 51, 108-117

Brandom, R. 1994. Making it Explicit: Reasoning, representing, and discursive commitment. Harvard university press.

Brandom, R. 2001. Articulating Reasons: An Introduction to Inferentialism. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Brassier, Ray & Rychter, Marcin (2011).” I Am a Nihilist Because I Still Believe in Truth”. Kronos (March). http://www.kronos.org.pl/index.php?23151,896 (Accessed 9 May 2015).

Brassier, R. 2011b. “The View from Nowhere”. Identities: Journal for Politics,

Gender and Culture 17: 7–23.

Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, http://www.mattin.org/essays/unfree_improvisation-compulsive_freedom.htm (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.

Brassier, Ray (2014). “Prometheanism and its Critics”. In R. Mackaey and Avenessian (eds.) #Accelerate: the Accelerationist Reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic), 467-488.

Budd, M. (2001). The Pure Judgement of Taste as an Aesthetic Reflective Judgement. The British Journal of Aesthetics, 41(3), 247-260.

Hickey-Moody, A. 2009. “Little War Machines: Posthuman Pedagogy and Its Media”. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 3(3): 273–80.

Huron, D. B. 2006. Sweet anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation. (MIT press).

Ireland, Amy. 2014. “Noise: An Ontology of the Avant-garde” https://www.academia.edu/3690573/Noise_An_Ontology_of_the_Avant-Garde (retrieved 30th April 2015)

Johnson, Julian, 1998. “The Nature of Abstraction: Analysis and the Webern Myth”, Music Analysis, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 267-280.

Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One, 3(2), e1679.

McGuiness, A. 2009. Mental and motor representation for music performance (Doctoral dissertation, The Open University).

Proulx, Jeremy (forthcoming). “Nature, Judgment and Art: Kant and the Problem of Genius”. Kant Studies Online.

Roden, David 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Roden Forthcoming. “On Reason and Spectral Machines: an anti-normativist response to bounded posthumanism” Forthcoming in Rosi Braidotti Rick Dolphijn (ed.), Philosophy After Nature.

Rosenberg, Martin E. 2010. “Jazz and Emergence (Part One).” Inflexions 4, “Transversal Fields of Experience”: 183-277. www.inflexions.org

Shaviro, Steven. 2015. Allie X, “Catch”. http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1287 (accessed 6 May 2015)

[1] These determine how one ought to move from one position in the game to another (language-transition rules), assumes an “initial position” in the game – say, by observing some state of the world (language-entry rules) or exits the game by intentionally altering a bit of the world (Sellars 1954, 1974). In the case of assertions, the language-transition rules correspond to principles of material inference such as that allowing us to move to x is coloured from x is red. Language-entry rules, on the other hand, are non-inferential since they are made on the basis of reliable dispositions to discriminate the world (Sellars 1954: 209-10). As Robert Brandom puts it, statements like “This is red” (uttered in response to red things) are “noninferentially elicited but inferentially articulated” (Brandom 1994: 235, 258).

[2] For example, Robert Brandom cites the conditional (if… then…_statement as “the paradigm of a locution that permits one to make inferential commitments explicit as the content of judgements” (Brandom 29914: 109)

[3] Compositional prescriptions are regularly honored in the breach: “For hundreds of years musicians have been taught that it is good to resolve a large leap with a step in the other direction. Surely at least some composers followed this advice? The statistical results from von Hippel and Huron imply that for each passage where a composer had intentionally written according to post-skip reversal, then they must have intentionally transgressed this principle in an equivalent number of passages. Otherwise the statistics would not work out.” (David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation, p. 84-6). However, the post-skip reversal heuristic is, it seems, applied by musician listeners, which makes sense given that it is easier to apply than a more accurate regression to the mean heuristic – which would require the listener to constantly infer the range (tessitura) of the melody (Ibid.).

 

[4] “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)

[5] As she writes: “Looking from the inside out, the transcendental conditioning of experience establishes clarity by admitting certain contents of an unknowable site of primary production; yet from the outside in, the transcendental conditioning of experience is itself a degenerative noise that degrades the clarity of its external input, rendering it unintelligible and ultimately inaccessible to internal modes of apprehension. What, for the observer-as-subject is clarity, for the observer-as-object is noise. As Niklaus Luhman once remarked: ‘Reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it’ “ (Ireland 2014)

 

[6] For example, while improvising in the first eight bars of Miles Davis’ “So What” I might decide (more or less consciously) to play some digital patterns in the home key then transpose these up a minor third. I might have a conception of how I’ll land in the home key of Dm: say by transposing down a tone to Eflatm, resolving to Dm with in a semi-tone descent. This will leave much to be resolved on the fly as my body engages the keys. What patterns will I employ? Will they be varied melodically or rhythmically during the root movement from D to F to E flat? Will they employ chromatic elements (outside the related modes) that further muddy the sense of tonality; will I (at the last) refrain from taking that timid semi-tone resolution, instead repeating or varying the modulation into more harmonically ambiguous terrain?

[7] For example, space technology, nanotechnology, or the use of brain computer interfaces –

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What follows is a reworking of material in my earlier post on Ray Brassier and Improvisation. It’s part of a longer work in progress exploring whether aesthetic creativity can function as a model for decision-making in a posthuman (or Promethean) world. All comments and criticisms will be gratefully received.

John_Coltrane_1963

 

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1) Introduction: Improvisation and Agency

Ray Brassier’s “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom” (written for the 2013 collaboration with Basque noise artist Mattin at Glasgow’s Tramway) 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 the determination of an act from outside the causal order, but as the self-determination by 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.

Brassier’s proximate inspiration for this model of freedom is Wilfred Sellars’ account of linguistic action in “Some Reflections on Language Games” (1954.) Sellars distinguishes a basic rule-conforming level from a metalinguistic level in which it is possible to reflect on concepts using articulate speech. Following Kant, Sellars regards concepts as a kind of rule for connecting judgements. Genuine agency involves capacity to follow or deviate from a rule. An agent must be able to hold herself and others accountable to a rule and this is only possible – for Brassier – if we make concepts explicit as moves within a language game (Brassier 2013b: 105; Sellars 1954: 226). Selves or subjects are not sources of agency. Instead, rules and their articulation constitute the subjectivity of acts:

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 2013a)

Brassier does not provide a detailed account of its musical application in “Unfree Improvisation”. His text implies that the act of improvisation requires an encounter between rule governed rationality and more idiomatic patterns or causes. However, Brassier does not specify how such rules operate in music, what their nature is or how the encounter between rules and more rudimentary pattern-governed behaviour occurs.

In what follows I will argue that the reason he does not do this is that there are no such rules to be had. Musical rules in the sense that he requires them do not apply in improvising contexts, or in contemporary compositional practice. Brassier understands rules as impersonal “applying indiscriminately to everyone”, but claims about what is permissible or implied in musical processes index highly-context sensitive perceptual and affective responses to musical events. These responses exhibit variable degrees of tension within “the musical matter” between the sedimented expectations of a musical culture and open fields of action potentiated by musical event or act.

I will argue that this perceptual account of musical succession provides an alternate way of expressing Brassier’s remarks on the relationship between music and history in “Unfree Improvisation” – one that eschews normative discourse of “rules” in favour of a descriptive account of the processes, capacities and potentialities operating in the improvising situation.

This adjustment is of more than aesthetic interest. Brassier’s text suggests that the temporality of the improvising act provides a model for understanding a wider relationship with time: in particular the remorseless temporality explored in his writings on Prometheanism and Radical Enlightenment (See Brassier 2014). In later discussions, I hope to use this model as a clue for developing an ethics or politics that can address the radically open horizons I explore in Posthuman Life (Roden 2014).

2. Harmonic Structure and Succession

I will begin by making use of some analyses of performance practices in post-war jazz and Julian Johnson’s analysis of the disruption of the rhetoric of harmonic accompaniment in the work of Anton Webern to support this model of affective subjectivity in improvisation.

Novice jazz improvisers must internalize a large body of musical theory: e.g. learning modal variations on the Ionian and harmonic minor scale or “rules” for chord substitution in cadences based on shared tritones. This learning and habituation sculpts the musical performance by sculpting possibilities for action that are continuously re-sculpted in the course of improvisations. For example, ambiguous voicings involving tritones or fourths decouple chords from the root, allowing modulations into what otherwise might be distant keys to slide easily over a tonal center.

This harmonic know-how consists recipes for honing expectations and sensations, not the acknowledgement of of norms. The statement that tritone (augmented fourth internal) belonging to a dominant seventh chord should resolve to a tonic reflects listener expectations in diatonic environments where a tonal center is defined in practice. This is not an intrinsic feature of the tritone, however, since each tritone occurs in two dominant chords. For example, the B-F tritone occurs in both G7 (resolving to C) and Dflat7 – permitting a resolution to the unrelated key of Gflat. This provides a recipe for substituting a dominant chord at a tritone remove in perfect cadences.

However, it also allows harmonic series to modulate into unrelated keys. As jazz theorist Martin Rosenberg notes, the use of augmented dominants with two tritones by Bebop players such as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk produce multiple lines of harmonic consequence and thus an ambiguous context that is not conventionally diatonic, even if (in contrast to free jazz) some adherence to a tonal center is preserved.

Symmetrical chords built of fourths (as used by pianists such as McCoy Tyer and Bill Evans) or major thirds have a similar effect, whether in diatonic contexts (where they can render the tonic ambiguous by stripping it to the 3rd, sixth and ninth) or in modal contexts where a tonal center is still implied by a pedal pass.

In consequence, the home key in the modal jazz developed by Miles Davis and Coltrane never prescribes a series of actions but furnishes expectations that can make an improvisation aesthetically intelligible after the fact. As Rosenberg explains, when Coltrane improvises in modal compositions such as “A Love Supreme” he deploys pentatonic or digital patterns modulated well away from the implied tonal center suggested by a bass line or by the “head” (the tune that traditionally opens or closes a jazz improvisation):

During his solos, Coltrane performs constant modulations through a series of harmonic targets or, what avant-garde architects Arakawa and Gins would call tentative “landing sites” (2002: 10) that become deployed sonically over a simple harmonic ‘home’ through the use of centered and then increasingly distant pentatonic scales from that home. In doing so, Coltrane seeks to widen what I call “the bandwidth” of melodic, harmonic and rhythmic relationships possible. He does so as he maintains the coherence of the melodic line (or narrative) through the aurally comfortable shapes (from the perspective of the audience especially) enabled by those very pentatonic scales, despite the juxtaposition of distant and dissonant tonal centers implied by this method. (Rosenberg 2010: 211-12).

This differential/transformative structure is, unsurprisingly, characteristic of scored Western art music. In his analysis of Anton Webern’s Three Little Pieces for Piano and Cello, Op 11, Julian Johnson argues that the opening two bars of the first piece allude to the framing and introduction of melody in traditional song and opera. For example, in baroque recitative the onset of a lyrical melody is frequently indicated by an arpeggiated chord. However, the high register chord that occurs in the first bar of the piece follows a single muted cello note and is followed by a descending piano passage that marks the absence of an expressive melody indicated by the chord (Johnson 1998: 277, 272.).

Culturally transmitted musical structures consist of exquisitely context-sensitive schemata – like the chord/recitative framing relation discussed by Johnson. The emergence of non-diatonic harmony, polychromaticism and atonality in modern music practice demonstrate that these are subordinate to improvisational and compositional practices. These schema exist in tension with the musical act and are transformed in exemplary performances such Coltrane’s use of distantly modulated pentatonic figures in “A Love Supreme”. Their linguistic formulations do not prescribe what a musician ought to do but describe how musical transitions are perceived and felt. The musical agent cannot be the impersonal subject of binding rules if these bend to context in this way.
It follows that if there is an equivalent of Brassier’s subject in the improvising situation, it cannot the tension between rule and application.

Brassier is arguably correct to insist on anti-voluntarism (We are not free in consequence of some acausal causal power unique to selves). But in the context of improvisation and composition, we are not free in virtue of acknowledging rules either since these are not in place.

Brassier’s impersonal conception of autonomy seems, then, ill adapted to musical contexts, even we if buy into his naturalist dismissal of agent causation (which I am happy to do). It follows that we need to formulate an alternative account of autonomy in improvisational contexts that is not predicated on the acknowledgement of musical norms.

3. The Time of Improvisation

An improvisation consists of irreversible acts that cannot be compositionally refined. They can only be repeated, developed or overwritten by 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.
Improvisation is thus committed to what Andy Hamilton calls “an aesthetics of imperfection”. Hamilton claims that an opposing aesthetics of perfection implies and is implied by a Platonic account for which the musical 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)

The aesthetic importance of the improvising situation seems to depend on a real, irreversible temporality that distinguishes it from the score-bound composition or studio bound music production. This ontology is required to make sense of the aesthetic distinction between the situation of the improviser and composer in traditional art music (or the producer of digital audio work). Composition or digital editing is always reversible. One develops notational variants of an idea before winnowing them down or rejecting them. One hits Ctl + Z in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) when a mix goes bad.

This is never the case with improvisation. An improvisation is a unique event on the cusp of another. It thus exposes the improviser to a future outside the “living present” and to a reality exceeding her power to experience or represent it. An omniscient being would thus be incapable of improvising because its choices would be fully known prior to the event. The event would be fully represented and reversible. For improvisation to occur the agent must act alongside and in concert with things or processes that it cannot control; other agents, other things that it does and cannot fully know. Or, to cite from Amy Ireland’s discussion of Lovecraft and Michel Serres, improvisation always requires a “para-site” – a site that exists alongside the site of the notional improviser (Ireland 2014). Even the act cannot just be attributed to a single agent, because there must be something in the act that is not grasped by the agent at all, even implicitly or unconsciously.

This comports with Brassier’s claim that freedom in improvisation is impersonal since the improvising agent must be rethought as a network of things and effects, none of which corresponds exactly to a self or a deliberative agent. Improvisation occurs in networks of patterns, pattern generators, pattern detectors and pattern processors whose cumulative effect is never the will of a single agent within the network (even where the network consists of one musician and an instrument). Moreover, the patterns constituting the inputs to the detectors are always incomplete.

No single node of the network exercises decisive influence on its evolution or has complete knowledge of what is occurring in the remainder of the system. This evolution, in turn, is incomplete until the end of the final pattern.

Accordingly, the player/detector must register emerging “potentials for transformation” – open-ended evolutions – rather than static facts. For reasons discussed above, these are also rhythmically and harmonically undetermined at any point in the performance (Roden 2014: 187).

It follows that the time of improvisation is an impersonal time consisting of multiple processes interacting at different scales, distributed over many locations.

Brassier applies essentially the same model at the end of his article:

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. 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.

Importantly, Brassier rejects the claim that the agents participating in the improvising situation need be human. We can unpack this “posthumanism” in three ways:

1. While humans are agents, not all agents are human. Thus it is perfectly conceivable that there be improvisers that are not biologically human – e.g. artificial intelligences.

2. In order to understand the processes involved in improvisation it may be necessary to resolve sub-personal processes or systems within biological humans – e.g. distinguishing between fast sensory pathways in the brain that bypass the sensory cortex en route to the limbic system, generating fast affect, and slower pathways that produce considered sensory appraisals (Huron 2006: 20).

3. The sense of agency involved in improvisation does not require a sovereign subject vested with the power of creating from nothing. Improvisation, for Brassier, involves “releasing” a kind of potential that is already present in the situation.

The claim that there is a potential act needing to be “released” in a given music setting might seem to impute rule-like structure or normativity to the improvising context (something that ought to be). However, this claim does not cohere well with context sensitivity of musical material and the underdetermination of musical expectation described above. So regardless of whether agency is elsewhere constituted by the acknowledgement of rules in the domain of language, there are no grounds for positing analogous rules for music. It follows that if Brassier’s insights into improvising subjectivity are to be retained, they will need to be reframed in a non-normative idiom.

We can do this, I think, by interpreting them as a thesis about the selection of patterns from a range of possible (underdetermined) patterns whose basis lies in affect rather than rules. An affect is an alteration in an agent that makes a difference to its power to act (Hickey-Moody 2009: 273). A pain is obviously an affect; so is a mood. As Steven Shaviro points, out some affects are personal: they are more or less stable tendencies in persons that can be publicly identified within our folk psychological vocabulary. Boredom is a personal affect, as is an emotion such as fear. But more pertinent here are so-called “micro-affects” which may be fleeting, hard to categorize and barely accessible to experience, while still having implications for individual or group behaviour. An experience of a twitchy camera in a music video or the extremely short grains of sound in Xenakis composition Concret Ph are affective in this way (Shaviro 2015).

This idea of affective selection can be illustrated with the help of a field study of post-hardcore rock bands at rehearsal carried out by Alec McGuiness. It provides a vivid example of musicians using procedural learning to prime a series of musical riffs over which their conscious or intentional control is fairly limited. Song structures are laid down by associating riffs with riffs, but, as one informant explains, are varied in performance when “feels right” to do so:

[S]ometimes there’ll be moments when we’re not looking at each other but all four will either hit that heavy thing, or really bring it down […] And yeah, those moments […].. it’s priceless, when everyone just hits the same thing at the same time. […] That’s when you know that that song’s definitely going to work. ‘Cause it’s obviously sort of pressing the same buttons on each of us at the same time. (McGuiness 2009: 19)

 

 

So, here, “releasing the act”, involves an awareness of a shared affective response to some “felicitous performance” which prompts a deviation from the regular pattern. The agency, here, is also distributed insofar as it depends on a contagion of affect between the players to drive the variation. However, note that this group decision implies a judgment with a purely affective basis that is expressed through performance itself rather than by application of received folk psychological concepts or formal musical rules (of which the performers are largely innocent in any case).

Kant referred to judgements of this nature – which do not apply concepts to things but express the way in which the subject is affected by things – as “reflective judgements”. These are distinguished from more familiar “determinate judgment” – where we apply some concept to one of its instances. For example, when we categorize a thing as a cat, we apply a given concept to organize the field of perception. Judgements of beauty, according to Kant, do not apply a predicate to the object but are based on a pleasurable feeling of accord between our perceptual capacities and a beautiful thing that enlivens them.

Likewise, in artistic creation reflective judgment occurs when the creators find a pattern that enlivens the intellect and imaginations of an audience (Proulx 2011: 21). The feeling of a riff or rhythm pattern gelling for an individual or group provides a kind of micro-example of this enlivening. It may not express transcendent emotions or ideas, but the felt accord affords an assessment of its value that need not be justified in terms of pre-specified rules or canons.
Thus micro-affects can imply micro-evaluations without conformity to rules. A moment in an improvisation might feel right but be completely novel and the only test of this is how it facilitates the response of a player or an audience – spawning further affects and development. Pattern selection in improvisation implies an evaluative response to potentials that are reinforced, then, by subsequent performance. For example, leaving space in an improvisation builds tension and thus an expectation that something is going to occur sometime.

There need be no rules operating in pattern selection, but there is a value judgment, even where what prompts it is so singular that it cannot be replicated or fully described. And where there is a judgment there is agency or, if you will, a subjectivity implicit in the selection. I have argued that this comports well with Brassier’s claim in the final paragraph of “Compulsive Freedom” that the freedom of improvisation requires “an involution of mechanisms” and that it is the relationship between these mechanisms that forms the (“not necessarily human”) agent of the act. The agent of improvisation, then, is not a person – if by that we mean, a subject exercising deliberation – but an affective-selective catalyst of events open to the disruptive onset of time.

References

Brassier, Ray & Rychter, Marcin (2011).” I Am a Nihilist Because I Still Believe in Truth”. Kronos (March). http://www.kronos.org.pl/index.php?23151,896 (Accessed 9 May 2015).

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.

Brassier, Ray (2014). “Prometheanism and its Critics”. In R. Mackaey and AVenessian (eds.) #Accelerate: the Accelerationist Reader (Falmouth: Urbanomic), 467-488.

Hickey-Moody, A. 2009. “Little War Machines: Posthuman Pedagogy and Its Media”. Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies 3(3): 273–80.

Huron, D. B. 2006. Sweet anticipation: Music and the psychology of expectation. (MIT press).

Ireland, Amy. 2014. “Noise: An Ontology of the Avant-garde” https://www.academia.edu/3690573/Noise_An_Ontology_of_the_Avant-Garde (retrieved 30th April 2015)

Johnson, Julian, 1998. “The Nature of Abstraction: Analysis and the Webern Myth”, Music Analysis, Vol. 17, No. 3, pp. 267-280.

Limb, C. J., & Braun, A. R. (2008). Neural substrates of spontaneous musical performance: An fMRI study of jazz improvisation. PLoS One, 3(2), e1679.

McGuiness, A. 2009. Mental and motor representation for music performance (Doctoral dissertation, The Open University).

Proulx, Jeremy (forthcoming). “Nature, Judgment and Art: Kant and the Problem of Genius”. Kant Studies Online.

Roden, David 2013. “Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalised Phenomenology”. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements 72: 169–88.

Roden, David. 2014. Posthuman Life: Philosophy at the Edge of the Human. London: Routledge.

Rosenberg, Martin E. 2010. “Jazz and Emergence (Part One).” Inflexions 4, “Transversal Fields of Experience”: 183-277. www.inflexions.org

Shaviro, Steven. 2015. Allie X, “Catch”. http://www.shaviro.com/Blog/?p=1287 (accessed 6 May 2015)

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Pete Furniss improvising with C-C-Combine

On March 24, 2015, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Ajkad Csupa Vér – Pete Furniss, clarinet & live electronics from furnerino on Vimeo.

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!

 

 

 

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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.

References:

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.

 

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Epistemic indeterminacy concerns our representations of things rather than things. Thus the location of a mobile phone with a nokia ring tone may be represented as indeterminate between your pocket and your neighbor’s handbag. This epistemic indeterminacy is resolvable through the acquisition of new information: here, by examining the two containers. By contrast metaphysical indeterminacy – if such there be – is brute. It cannot be cleared up by further investigations.

We can thus distinguish between being indeterminately represented and being indeterminately ?  in situations where it is possible to progressively reduce and eliminate the former indeterminacy (Roden 2010: 153).

Facts are metaphysically indeterminate if they involve indeterminate natures. The nature of a thing is indeterminate if it is impossible to determine it via some truth-generating procedure that will eliminate competing descriptions of it. Clearly, some will cavil with my use of “fact” and “nature” either because they see “facts” as ineluctably propositional or because they have nominalist quibbles about attributing any kind of nature or facticity to the non-conceptual sphere. However, like Marcus Arvan, I don’t see any conceptual affiliation as ineluctable. If the world is structured in ways that cannot be captured without remainder in propositions, it is not inappropriate to use the term “fact” to describe these structures – or so I will proceed to do here.

My favorite case of putative metaphysical indeterminacy are the two versions of the Located Events Theory of sound. LET1 (Bullot et al 2004; Casati and Dokic 2005) states that sounds are resonance events in objects; LET2 says that sounds are disturbances in a medium caused by vibrating objects (O’Callaghan 2009). According to LET1 there are sounds in vacuums so long as there are objects located in them. According to LET2 there are not. So the theories have different implications. There is also nothing to obviously favour the one over the other in the light of ordinary observations and inferences regarding sound.

As I put in in “Sonic Events” most people would probably judge that there is no sound produced when a turning fork resonates in an evacuated jar – “Yet were the air in a jar containing a vibrating tuning fork to be regularly evacuated and replenished we might perceive this as an alteration in the conditions of audition of a continuous sound, rather than the alternating presence and absence of successive sounds” ( Roden 2010: 156). You pays yer money, but it’s hard to believe that the world cares how we describe this state of affairs, or that persuasive grounds will settle the matter one bright day.

Anti-realists might say that this indeterminacy is practical rather than factive. It reflects discrepant uses of the same lexical item (“sound”) only. So (as in the case of metaphysical indeterminacy) there is no information gathering procedure that would settle the issue. But that is not because the nature of sound is indeterminate in this respect. Rather, there is no deeper (determinate or indeterminate) fact here at all.

However, this ignores the fact that LET1 and LET2 are responsive to an auditory reality that they both describe, albeit in incompatible ways. Sounds existed before there were ontologies of sound and thus have an independent reality to which LET1 and LET2 attest. If so there must be a deeper fact which accounts for the indeterminacy.

Now, either this fact is indeterminate or it is not.

If it is not, then there is some uniquely ideal account of sound: ITS. The ideal theory cannot be improved via the acquisition of further information because it already contains all the relevant information there is to be had and has no empirically equivalent competitors (there is no ITS2, etc.). ITS might or might not be an event theory – e.g. it could be a “medial theory” which represents sounds as the transmission of acoustic energy (Bullot et al. 2004). So ITS ought to replace both LET1 and LET2. We may not be aware of it, but we know that it exists somewhere in Philosophers Heaven (or the Space of Reasons).

If the fact in question is indeterminate, there is no ideal account which captures the nature of sound. Or rather, the best way to capture it is in the alternation between different accounts.

Given indeterminacy, then, there is an auditory reality which permits of description, but which cannot be completely described.

There is an interesting comparison to be made here between the indeterminacy of auditory metaphysics and the claims regarding the indeterminacy of semantic interpretation described in Davidson and others. Again, one can take indeterminacy in a deflationary anti-realist spirit – there are no semantic facts, just competing interpretations and explications recursively subject to competing interpretations ad infinitum (One popular way of glossing Derridean différance!).

Or there are semantic facts. In which case, these may be determinate or indeterminate. If there are determinate semantic facts, then the indeterminacy of radical interpretation is an artefact of our ignorance regarding semantic facts. If semantic facts are indeterminate, however, there is – again – a reality that is partially captured in competing interpretations that is never fully mirrored or reflected in them.

At this point it is interesting to consider why we might opt for factive or metaphysical indeterminacy rather than anti-realist indeterminacy. If we have reasons for believing in indeterminate facts – the ones for which there are irreducibly discrepant descriptions – this is presumably because we think there is some mind-independent reality outside our descriptions whose nature is indeterminate in some respects. If this thought is justified it is presumably not justified by any single description of the relevant domain. Nor by the underdetermination of descriptions (since this is equally consistent with anti-realism). So if we are justified in believing that there are indeterminate metaphysical facts, we must be justified by sources of non-propositional knowledge. For example, perhaps our perceptual experience of sound supports the claim that sounds occur in ways that can be captured by LET1 or LET2 without providing decisive grounds for one or the other.

This train of thought might suggest that some metaphysics bottoms out in “phenomenology” – which seems to commit the metaphysical indeterminist to the “mental eye” theory of pre-discursive concepts disparaged by Sellars and others. However, what is at issue, here, is non-propositional access to the world. One way of saying this is that such access “non-conceptual” – though this seems to presuppose that concepts (whatever they are) are components of or parasitic on propositions, and this may not be the case.

However, there is a further problem. If Scott Bakker and I are right, our grip on phenomenology is extremely tenuous (Roden 2013). So if metaphysical indeterminism is warranted, there are non-discursive reasons for believing there are metaphysically indeterminate facts. But the nature of these facts is obscure so long as our phenomenology is occluded. Now, there is no reason in principle why a subject can believe p on the basis of some evidence without being in a position to explain how the evidence supports p. This weakens their public warrant but does not vitiate it. So we may have weak grounds for metaphysical indeterminism but these are better than no grounds at all.

References

Bullot, Nicolas, Roberto Casati, Jérôme Dokic, and Maurizio Giri. 2004. Sounding objects. In Proceedings of Les journées du design sonore, p. 4. Paris. October 13–15.

Casati, Robert, and Dokic, Jérôme. 2005. la philosophie du son, http://jeannicod.ccsd.cnrs.fr. Accessed 3 June 2005, Chapter 3, p. 41.

O’Callaghan, Casey. 2009. Sounds and events. In Matthew Nudds & Casey O’Callaghan (eds.), Sounds and Perception: New Philosophical Essays. Oxford University Press. 26–49.

Roden, David. 2010. ‘Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events’, Objects and Sound Perception, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1(1): 141-156.

Roden, David. 2013, ‘Nature’s Dark Domain: An Argument for a Naturalized Phenomenology’, Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplement 72 (1): 169-88

 

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Graham Harman and Semiconductor at Cafe Oto

On September 29, 2012, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

Semiconductor (Ruth Jarman and Joe Gerhardt) will be presenting a sound art piece using aggregated seismic data from around the world at Cafe Oto in London, Thursday 15 November (A new venue to me, but after a look at their website I’m intending to be a habitué). Also on are computer music artist Valentina Vuksic and Graham Harman, who’ll be presenting a short piece on the philosophy of sound. Looks like a great event so I’m semi-certain to be there.

My own non-Object Oriented take on sound can be found here Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events

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Kundera on Xenakis

On April 10, 2012, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

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.

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