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.


Brassier, Ray 2013a. “Unfree Improvisation/Compulsive Freedom”, (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.


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, 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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Microsound and Time

On November 7, 2011, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

In Splice, Freeze, Stretch and Mutate: Digital rhythm as harbinger of the event  Eleni Ikoniadou asks if the manipulation of microsound in granular synthesis reveals a “rhythmic time” below the level of our awareness of temporal succession. More microsound here!

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Laurie Anderson’s elegant proposal for a sound installation in which the audience’s own body is used simultaneously as conductive medium and speaker nicely illustrates a problem confronting the Located Event theory of sound (LET – See Roden 2010 – web published version here). LET comes in two flavors. The first, due to Robert Casati and Jerome Dokic holds that sounds are resonance events in objects. The other, due to Casey O’Callaghan, holds that sounds are disturbances in a medium caused by vibrating objects. On the first theory, space ships really make sounds in a vacuum since the sounds just are the vibrations induced in them by their propulsion systems. According to the second, they don’t, since there’s no medium in which auditory pressure waves can occur.

The fact that both theories cohere more or less equally with folk psychoacoustics is a nice case of epistemic underdetermination. While Casati and Dokic’s view implies that there is a sound located in a vibrating tuning fork contained in an evacuated jar; O’Callaghan’s implies that there is none. Thus most folk would likely judge that there is no sound in the evacuated jar. However, were the air in a jar containing a vibrating tuning fork to be alternately evacuated and replenished they would probably perceive this as an alteration in the conditions of audition of a continuous sound, rather than the alternation of discrete sound events.

However, the LET is also subject to metaphysical indeterminacy or ‘slack’. The causal influence that eventually produces an auditory experience propagates through various stages of processing and transduction. In a digital audio system the information which eventually determines the vibratory behaviour may be an array of sample values stored in an mp3 audio file. These need to converted into an AC/DC current by a digital analog converted which itself will control a speaker diaphragm generating pressure waves in the air. A speaker diaphragm doesn’t resonate on its own – it needs electrical input.

Thus it might seem that a sound produced by in such a setup is located in the whole system (computer-DAC-speaker) and not in the speaker diaphragm. On the other hand, the computer doesn’t vibrate so as to output the sound stored in the mp3: its activity simply consists in producing a stream of numerical values which tell the DAC what to do. So where is the sound event?   If you cut off the digital stream the sound will stop, so it is tempting to view the computer-dac-speaker system as a single resonating system since it is the whole shebang which produces and maintains the sound. On the other hand, the computer does not vibrate so as to distrub the air; only the speaker diaphragm does that. So there are reasons for locating the sound in the speaker if you are Casati and Dokic or on the interface between diaphragm and air if you are O’Callaghan.

In Anderson’s setup, however, the sound is produced by a tape source in the table (one candidate for event location) but what you hear is also due to resonance in your own cranial cavities. So have we one sound located in the system tape-table-screws-elbows-skull represented in the diagram or a series of sonic events (including the one under the table and the one in your head)? Need there be any metaphysical fact to the matter about where the sound is? I think the claim that there need not be is quite supportable. The sound event occurs, but certain facts about its extent and location are inherently vague.

Interestingly, this does not imply that the sound event is some weird noumenal pulsion welling up beyond our representational capacities. Clearly, we do (in some sense) locate sounds, run fourier transforms on them, record them, sample them, etc. Representing sounds is what our auditory systems are designed to do and what studio technicians are paid to do.

Roden, David 2010 ‘Sonic Art and the Nature of Sonic Events’, in Bullot, N.J. & Egré, P. (eds.) Objects and Sound Perception special issue, Review of Philosophy and Psychology 1(1), pp. 141-156

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Radical Computer Music

On February 9, 2011, in Uncategorized, by enemyin1

SYGNOK & The War For Radical Computer Music

Here’s intriguing extract from a film about Gæoudjiparl van den Dobbelsteen, originator of Radical Computer Music. RCM is not merely made with computers but designed for computers; or, more specifically, for prospective artificial intelligences/life forms that do not currently exist.

I need to research this further. RCM could  an exemplary aesthetic vector for the posthuman, an elaborate metafictional joke, or both.

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