Bennett Hogg

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Sound Objects, Found Objects – Free Improvisation and Electroacoustics

Sound Objects, Found Objects

(paper given, in different formats, in research seminars at Newcastle, Keele, and Aberdeen Universities, and EMS Stockholm, May 2007- January 2009)

What I am proposing to do is to  speculate on ways we might use cultural theory to ground some form of meaningful dialogue between the two creative practices which I am most committed to, but which have been sometimes theorized as mutually incompatible, even if the incompatibility is more theoretical than practical.  I think that most of us would agree that, at the practical level, free improvisation and electroacoustic composition share a number of procedures.  Many electroacoustic composers are also improvisers, like myself, or use improvisatory techniques to generate electroacoustic material for compositions – Denis Smalley, for example.  To be honest, I am not really worried whether there is a theoretical incompatibility between improv and elctroacoustics, but I am very interested to think about how someone could have arrived at the idea that there is an incompatibility in the first place.  In thinking about this I will touch on some of the reasons why some improvisers might be ambivalent about musics determined by recording, what underlies this bias, and whether that is all there is to it.  In doing this, my aim has been to enrich my own creative practice – to understand it better, to root around in the cultural undergrowth that informs it, structures it, and limits it.  It is also worth underlining at the start that I am going to be talking about the hermeneutics of practice rather than analyzing any particular products of those practices as though they were pieces of music, though I will play some recordings of some of my current projects that exemplify what I am trying to talk about today – for me if for no one else.

I know, and know of, a number of composers working exclusively with notation who have claimed there is a rift between what is sometimes seen as the “artificiality” of pre-recorded electroacoustic music, especially that which exists entirely in a recorded medium – “the tape piece” – and the so-called “naturalness” of live musicians playing scores – as though trombones and violins were simply unusual growths that some people developed and others didn’t, like ingrowing toenails, perhaps.  Other musicians – free improvisers who are good friends of mine, as well as more distant acquaintances – have railed at me for my electroacoustic “tendencies”, citing the (supposed) fixity of electroacoustic sounds in opposition to the spontaneity – and naturalness (that dodgy word, again) – of free improvisation.  By fixing sounds in advance, plotting and planning a composition, and changing my mind as the piece develops, I am of course oppressing mine and everyone else’s spontaneous creativity.  It seems strange that so much negative weight is given to whether something is “recorded” – on occasion even quite vitriolic denunciation of an entire creative practice – in a world where, in actual fact, not only is almost all of the music we encounter recorded, but where, as a culture, we find as much meaning in the act of reception as in that of production – well, at least since Roland Barthes “Death of the Author”.  We might construct a different meanings from hearing a recording and seeing a live performance, but it is entirely spurious to use this to try to the establish an ethical difference between recorded and live musics; they are simply different things, not inferior or superior versions of one another.

For many composers today – though not all of them – the idea that there is a dichotomy between improv and recording has been long closed downas a spurious argument – on the level of pragmatics most of us use improvisation and recording in one form or another as integral aspects of our work, whether in live electroacoustic or electronic performance, as an element in the generation of source sounds, or in the assembly of sounds into a larger structure.  What our pragmatics do not engage with, however – in fact what they precisely sweep under the carpet – is the persistent issue that recordings – and musics that exist only because of recording – stand in a position of inferiority with respect to live performances.  This forms a conceptual ground for allegations of inauthenticity and artificiality coming from several directions – though I am today focussing pretty much exclusively on those coming from the direction of free improv.  We can identify here something very close, for musicians, to the phonocentrism identified by Derrida initially in relation to literature and philosophy.  Writing, in Derrida’s account, has been put into an inferior position in relation to speech, a binarism that underlies the metaphysical condition of Western civilization.  Speech, which is present to, and immediately heard/understood by the speaker themselves, is closer to an ideal “truth” than writing – to rather drastically reduce the scope of a whole slab of Western metaphysics.  Writing is mediated and at one stage removed from the experience of authentic self-presence that is speech.  We can find something like this same epistemological position repeated in the belittling of musics that depend on technological mediation.  Writing and recording seem to follow after speech and live performance, they are, as Derrida puts it, merely “supplements” to what might be thought of as “the real thing”.    Bands and singers that are “created” by commercial production companies sound great in over-produced studio recordings but are “terrible” live, suggesting that the products of the studio are fake, and are moreover revealed to be fake in live performance, the site of truth and “real” music.  Particularly worrisome for me are the criticism levelled at Hip-hop and other musics reliant on sampling and DJ-ing that they are either “lazy” (can’t be bothered to learn to play or sing, not talented enough, should get a proper job like me) or “criminal” (they steal other people’s work, they violate copyright, don’s ask for permission).  This has been a persistent criticism that conveniently, and not coincidentally, maps onto racist and orientalist ideologies directed at the cultural groups most conspicuously involved in the production and consumption of these musics; young, urban black men are “lazy” and “criminal”.

negative associations of recording
It is worth putting forward a few instances where negative associations with sound recording come close to the surface of our cultural imagination, and suggest ways that we might think about why, in some quarters, there seems to be a need to establish a radical differentiation, in some quarteres, between music having a determinate reliance on recordings and music which is “live”.

Electroacoustic music has been dominated by recording, is, in fact, unthinkable without it – whether as “the tape piece” that only exisits in a pre-recorded state, or through the dependence on “source sounds”, the creative practices and aesthetic values of electroacoustic music are inextricably tied to sound recording.   The legendary improviser Derek Bailey expressed, on more than one occasion, an ambivalence towards recordings as a whole – despite running his own label for thirty years or more – suggesting to his biographer Ben Watson that they should be listened to once and then thrown away.  Though it is debateable how consistently he fully subscribed to this position, Bailey contributes to an essentialization of the once and only moment – an essentialization such a position shares with the fictional opera singer Cynthia Hawkins in Jean-Jacques Beinex’s Diva, who refuses to record her singing because “music, it comes and goes… don’t try to chain it”.  Another negative strand winds its way into the argument – as Walter J. Ong has noted, writing has always had associations with death, a perspective that several more contemporary theorists such as Friedrich Kittler, Allen S. Weiss and Steven Connor have investigated.  Sound recording – phonography – is in itself a form of writing, even if this dimension of recording is not as transparent to us now as it was to the Victorians (Lisa Gitelman, for example, has shown in some detail how the earliest reception of sound recording was in terms of a form of writing).  There are a great number of connections of sound recording with the dead – we can hear the voices of the dead as though they were still with us, leading to imaginative connections between the phonograph and spiritualist mediums.  Like the photograph that Roland Barthes characterizes by the grammatical tense of the “future anterior” – this will have been – the recording will be here after we are gone.  He takes a photograph of the condemned murderer Lewis Payne from 1865 to illustrate photography’s associations with the dead, [show image] writing that Payne “is dead and he is going to die” – dead from the perspective of our present, yet in the photograph he is still alive and going to die, though in “reality” he is dead.  Numerous stories and novels from the late nineteenth century onwards contain episodes where sound recording is brought vividly into association with death – Maurice Renard’s “Death and the Shell”, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Rainer-Maria Rilke’s tenth “Duino Elegy”, James Joyce’s Ulysses where Leopold Bloom suggests putting “a gramophone in every grave” to keep the memories of the dead alive in the living.  There is a strand in our cultural imagination of recorded sound that has associations with something “dead”.  It is instructive to remember that the opposite of recorded is live, and that the etymology of the word “recording” is in recordare – to remember, which is also the title of a discreet section of the Mass for the Dead, the Requiem.

There are, then, identifiable and concrete factors that would contribute to an idea that a recording is a dead thing, something over and done with, or something tied down and kept captive.  This sits ill with an ideology of music that than valorises “the moment”, and those present and human interactions that frame and define that moment – such as pertains to free improvisation .  Having prepared the ground – very, very sketchily because of time constrictions – I should now like to focus down onto the real matter of my paper, that is, an interrogation of the claim that electroacoustic music and free improvisation are epistemologically oppositional to one another (even if, as I already said, most of us have sidestepped what may seem to us an irrelevance in pursuit of pragmatic solutions to our specific creative issues).

origins – non-dichotomous encounters with the world
Luis Fernandez-Galiano is an architectural theorist who speculates on how, in mythologies of the origins of architecture, be they religious or archaoelogical, the notion that matter and energy are opposites is an unsustainable one.  Wood, for instance can provide a defence against the elements as a construction material (matter), or as fuel for a fire (energy).  Either option brings people together, and either scenario can be imagined as an origin of architecture – the space defined by the heat and light of the fire includes those within its reach and excludes the night and wild animals, and can be taken as the prototypical conditions of possibility for humans to imagine building a shelter.  By offering up a critique of the binaristic logic that pits matter against energy, Fernandez-Galiano gives us an opportunity to think of things as related to one another through a common point of origin – something like a conceptual common ancestor.

The matter/energy dichotomy that Fernandez-Galiano has proposed as lying at the origin of architecture, and the critique of binary oppositions implied in his insistence on the co-existence of appartent opposites, have resonance with the archae-anthropological idea of “the missing link” on which so much of the speculations on our relatioship to other species is founded – it is something like this point of divergence from the common ancestor that I am dealing with in the notion of “origins” – dissociation and divergence as origin, origin as a separating out from, rather than an instantiating of something – the divergence from  an existent, as originary, rather than unitary and unique origin in the creationist sense.

To think of architecture as having an origin in energy (fire) as much as in matter (wood, for example) lets Fernandez-Galiano come out with such suggestive statements as “[T]he incursion of energy into that still, crystaline picture defrosts architecture, blurring its hermetic profile and giving it a place in the world of processes and life.” (p. xii) – and while the distinction between matter and energy at the “sublunary” level has validity, “[I]n all beginnings or origins, in myth and rituals as well as in the preconscious or unconscious mind, construction and fire [order and chaos, matter and energy] are intermingled and intertwined.” (p. 9)  For me this amounts to an encounter – wood and fire are essentially found objects, the architectural possibilities of fire are something found, not made.  To generalize for a moment, I propose that the origins of cultural phenomena always arise out of an encounter of human consciousness – as a map of potentials – with something found.

The encounter with the found object can be conceived as a general process underlying cultural origins.  In the example of architecture, fire is, initially, a found object (or, in many mythologies – Prometheus, Hephaestus – something given, which amounts to the same thing for my argument).  Found objects, such as caves and overhanging rocks, feature in alternative theories as to the origin of architecture, but what is key is that something is made out of the encounter that is more than the encounter itself.  Without the encounter, though, nothing is made.

improv is imagined to be “close” to origins, electroacoustics strives to hide origins: this connects them together as practices.
There are notions of “origin” featuring prominently behind free improv and electroacoustic music, though at first sight, like matter and energy, they seem to be configured as opposites.  Improv foregrounds the idea of origins when it imagines itself as “closer” to human fundamentals (and thus origins – see Derek Bailey, among others, who talks extensively on this theme).  Some improvisers make claims that the “free” in free improvisation is manifest in a liberation from the constraints of cultural norms and expectations.  Theirs is a pristine state of “pure” musical sound, their practice an almost biological process unmediated by the oppressive norms of pitch, harmony, cultural expectation or oppressive aesthetic ideologies.  The term “non-stylistic” is often applied to such forms of improvisation, to distinguish the approach from jazz or classically derived forms of improvisation.  There is a strong sense, often, that such musics attain a kind of transcendental status, reminiscent of a return to an ideal state, prelapsarian music, a state of origins.

Schaefferian electroacoustic practice is generally understood to also be a practice that seeks to conceal sources (through the concept of l’ecoute reduite) though it is, of course, dependent on what we symptomatically call “source sounds”.  If improv seems – in some conceptualizations of it, at least – to valorize a proximity to sources it would seem to be at odds with another practice – electroacoustic music – that seems to strive to hide them.  However, just as energy and matter are not neccesarily in opposition to one another in the encounter between consciousness and the world that stands at the imaginary origins of architecture, so the differences in relations to the idea of origin found between improv and electroacoustics need not to be viewed as oppositions.  Instead we can conceive of them as being connected through their common ancestry as forms of an encounter with the idea of origins.

improvising with the violin – screen, seismograph, culturally invested object.
My own experience as an improviser is that I feel myself reacting physically, emotionally and physiologically to the group improvisation, an experience which I then externalise through playing the violin.  It seems to me, at first sight, that the violin is a kind of blank screen onto which I project my reactions to incoming sounds in directly felt physical gestures.  I used to enjoy thinking of the violin in these terms – more like a scientific measuring device than a musical instrument, like a seismograph of my inner state, a weather station tracing the tiny fluctuations in my body system, though more recently I have come to think of it more in terms of a lie detector – it registers physiological changes that are caused by what I hear, or what is said to me, but it also embarrasses me when it shows that I didn’t really mean what I said . . . . .

However, one thing is certain; the violin is not – and cannot be – a neutral screen.

Man Ray Le Violin d'Ingres

Man Ray Le Violin d'Ingres

It is saturated with cultural meanings, as an object as much as for its sounds.  Though I am nothing like a classically trained violinist, having mostly played Scottish folk and in some student and amateur orchestras, I have learned to play the violin, and this shapes what it is possible for me to do with it.  No matter how extended or extreme my playing techniques become, the meanings they generate come as much from the fact that it is a violin that I am interacting with, as from the sheer physicality of the bodily gestures that the resultant sounds encode.  So, however much some of us might hope that we can use improv to tap into something closer to our “true natures”, our own cultural situatedness, and that of the tools, objects and instruments we use, means that whatever we do is always-already culturally mediated, always-already less (and more) than natural.

The same process applies in another direction.  When we listen we do not hear sounds only in terms of themselves.  The networks of associations that allow someone like Schaeffer to come up with a solfege of sound objects, or Denis Smalley to propose spectromorphology as a systematised way of categorising sound behaviours are deeply cultural.

Gesture, for example, is not something out there that we can perceive, but rather a culturally encoded phenomenon that affects listening.  David Borgo, among others, have suggested that, based on contemporary understandings of the relationship of hearing and motion, gestures can become meaningful because there are common neurological roots to listening and motion.  This does not exhaust the matter, though, for gestures always come with layers of culturally encoded information.  Just as the word “impact”, for example, has many different linguistic connotations, the physicality of the gesture described as an “impact” – strong in football, violent in fighting, destructive or creative in sculpture; initiatory, interruptive, closing off, shattering in spectromorphological terms – is not a once and for all, unitary thing.

Though improv lacks the time to consider and rethink characteristic of electroacoustic compositional practice (the repetition inherent in reduced listening, for example, or the careful sculpting of a sound with eq, filters, editing, etc.), both processes depend upon  gesture mediated through what we might call “cultural filtering”.  My physical reactions to the sounds arriving at my ears from the rest of the band (and of course, the sounds I may be myself producing at that instant) are filtered through the violin which, as an object but also as a “practice” (my interactions with the violin) is always-already a site of culture, not nature.

Similarly sounds and morphological structures do not carry meanings in and of themselves, but are a complex and mediated set of relationships between sounds and perceptual systems, personal associations, culturally significant gestures and listener expectation.  Though there are what we might call “residues” of physicality in sounds that are essentail to the process of reduced listening – where typologies, at least, are  determined by physical behaviours – it would be a mistake to invest too much in the notion that this physicality is in any sense biological or  natural.  The apparent objectivity of early Schaefferian solfege only thinly conceals the deeply encultured and subjective nature of his categorizations.  We should remember that Schaeffer was actively listening for connections and differences, and actively supressing indexical associations of the sounds he classified – this marks his listening as something that can never be neutral, just as a musical instrument such as the violin can never be “just” an object.

L’ecoute reduite, insofar as it is a shying away from the source, resembles an object trouvee, in that it is strange and maleable through a process of recontextualisation – on the one hand a willed de/recontextualisation that is nevertheless unable to fully suppress the associations a sound brings with it, on the other a finding that can never be completely new because of the cognitive and experiential information – consciousness – that is always-already forming a context however novel or unexpected the encounter.

Marcel Duchamp (R. Mutt) - Fountain

Marcel Duchamp (R. Mutt) - Fountain

Human consciousness encounters the found object and invests it with meaning – brings it to life – interprets it according to culturally embedded codes and actions.  Ramirez, for example, notes how calling the detached urinal “Fountain” Duchamp ironized and invested it with meanings that on the one hand aestheticized it as an object, and at the same time scandalously undermined the norms and values of the art world into which it was placed.  Duchamp’s readymades are “recognizable” and at the same time they are revealed as aestheteically valuable, having formerly not been valued for their aesthetic qualities, their inclusion in the realm of art questions the value system of art itself.

The sounds that hit my ears in improv feel like a continuous encounter with a stream of found objects that I must respond to, or remain silent, and in responding to them I make some sort of culturally meaningful action – improvisation is an encounter with the the cultural ready-mades of chords, pitches, sonorities, rhythms, reactive structures and gestures, that, like language, are thrust upon us.  As with fire and architecture, or the cave and architecture, culturally significant and originary phenomena arise from that encounter of the already knowing mind with some sort of found object.  The listening behaviours of improv and electroacoustic composition have differences in them, but share a common physio-cultural mediation of gesture.  We can go further and say that this is in some respects what both musics are grounded on – the origin (again) is in the encounter (through listening) with an object that is found not made – whether this is the “source sound” that is found through listening, or the sounds given to the improviser by other improvisers in a group, the effect can be thought of in identical terms for the individual listener.

Objects, though, can never be “just” found – according to many contemporary cognitive scientists, the act of perception constructs and structures what it is that is perceived.  The world is not simply “out there” for us to find, it is something we are also part of, and which we shape through our perceptual filterings.  Reduced listening, despite its reliance on sounds becoming fixed, repeated and modified, can only produce something useful and meaningful if it is tapping into the same sorts of cultural filters that generate meaning for a free improviser like myself.  By thinking of free improvisation and electroacoustics in terms of this common conceptual frame, not in terms of oppositions but in terms of related origins – of them sharing a common ancestor – I believe it possible that the epistemological grounds upon which it has been possible for some to propose a radical separation between the electroacoustic and the improvised can be opened-up to a broader-based, less mutually exclusionary analytical approach; nevertheless, this need not be at the expense of an awareness of, and  sensitivity to their distinctive differences.