Wednesday, 24 April 2013

observations on the first two days


First of all thanks very much to Sean and Jules for welcoming me as an observer, and also thanks to those who took the time to discuss their individual work with me in between sessions. There was of course only so much we could cover in so little time, and it was inevitable that  conversations were cut off by other activities or I had to miss speaking with someone, but I suppose it's a good sign that I was left in the end with the feeling that I wanted to hear more from everyone. It was clear, both as an ethnographer and as a listener, that everyone had brought a really thoughtful and inquisitive attitude to the workshop.

As an outsider to the research group it's somewhat difficult to know what kind of observations are going to be seen as useful to you, but after having a quick look through the previous blog posts from this year's workshop, I've decided to focus on stimulating reflection and hopefully starting new conversations. Before I begin, however, I want to note that my position in relation to the project as a whole is not quite as 'outside' as might be expected of an anthropological observer. I started experimenting with electronics in music well over a decade ago when I was an undergraduate at McGill, and I did my master's degree in electronic music at the Institute of Sonology. There I chose to do a thesis project which was musicological rather than performance or composition oriented, and for my doctoral studies at Oxford I've remained in a position somewhere between the ethnographic and historical branches of the music disciplines. As an ethnographer I've also done a fair amount of participant-observation in the form of live performance. So in fact I could almost be writing as an insider, except that I've deliberately chosen not to work in a practice-led paradigm. This decision is motivated by my research interest in the ways that the technical and aesthetic aspects of electronic music practice are distinguished and framed by musicians, as well as the ways connections are made between the technical and the aesthetic in different historical and institutional situations. Writing as a kind of half-breed puts me in a good position to translate these aspects of electronic music discourse and practice for a cross-disciplinary audience of scholars interested in music more broadly. It also often forces me to confront the transformative aspect of the act of translation itself, and often this means highlighting issues that musicians might not otherwise have recognized as central. All this is just to emphasise, then, that I acknowledge that my contribution is not made as an objective outsider, but as someone with an equally vested interest in making (potentially different) sense of what went on. Missing the last day probably also biases my observations, but Lauren suggested that I might get to see the video of the final performance, and I'm curious to see if it might lead me to alter my interpretations. In any case what follows is fleshed out from notes taken during the workshop and further reflections I wrote down after reading my notes on the train ride back to Oxford on the morning of the 18th.

All of the musicians seemed to me to be remarkably well tuned and practiced with respect to their setups and/or instruments. A sense of instrumental mastery was foregrounded. On one hand I wonder how much of this impression was an effect of my unfamiliarity with each person's practice outside of the immediate context of the workshop. For that matter, would I really have been able to tell who was taking risks or being virtuosic, and who was playing it safe? On the other hand it didn't seem to take me long as a listener to be able to perceive differences in each musician's sonic repertoire. Each seemed to maintain a consistent identity at the level of timbre and/or timing. This was probably enhanced by gestural correspondence at a visual level, but it seemed like each person also chose to stick to a fairly stable range of material over the course of the time I spent in the workshop. Having sat through a number of similar rehearsal situations I was also surprised by the small amount of time spent troubleshooting or re-patching. I mentioned this to a few people, and it was suggested to me that this has not always been the case, and that there had been a significant effort this year to avoid getting bogged down in tinkering. Certainly the introduction of Jan as 'musical director' played a central part in this effort, but to me even the inclusion of 'non-electronic' musicians (Emma and Frauke, although I would say that making a technical distinction between what they did and what the rest of the group did was actually quite difficult in this context) contributed to the sense that this was meant to be about performance more than technology. I'm left with the impression, then, that there must have been a direct relation between the level of individuality I perceived and the deliberate effort to focus on the 'human' aspects of ensemble performance. I wonder if the sense of identity in previous years felt more nebulous. To what extent is a sense of individual 'voicing' a necessary or even deliberate aspect of LLEAPP's take on performance practice? This observation about individuality connects with several areas of concern which appeared to become central to the explorations and negotiations that took place during the workshop.

The first was the generation of some form of coherent group organisation out of the individual contributions. Having a single director for the rehearsals seemed like quite an effective way to maintain a shared focus. The fact that Jan didn't also attempt to become the group's 'conductor', however, forced individual musicians to adopt a more personal level of responsibility for maintaining that focus. One effect of this seems to have been to generate discussion around notions of freedom and democracy whenever rules or compromises cropped up unannounced or unexpected. I remember finding it particularly striking when, at the end of the day of rehearsals I attended, the show of hands on whether to move setups the following morning was split almost evenly, only to be resolved afterwards without reference to the vote. Did this belie a foregone conclusion?

Although mitigated slightly by strategies and exercises apparently designed to distribute power more evenly, there were individuals who often seemed to take a more assertive approach than others, taking on a kind of conducting role in order to effect sonic changes. Without getting too theoretical about it, I wonder if this kind of intermittent assertiveness is something people see as an inherent aesthetic necessity (does this music need a sense of 'will', a 'focus' or a 'goal'?) or whether it might invite reflection into alternative ways of distributing power in 'emergent' or other ad hoc ensemble formations. Is there a way to make sure power isn't always concentrated among the same people? Is it possible to think of models of organisation that aren't so much orientated by the notion of subjective sovereignty, or where agency is distributed in such a way as to thwart the emergence of (even momentary) leaders, or give power to the 'wrong' people?

The question of right and wrong in music leads inevitably to aesthetics. Here, however, minor conflicts over the determination of actual sonic content were brushed aside in favour of discussions on the technicalities of structure and human interaction. This was explained to me a couple of times as being for democratic reasons: you couldn't hope to please everyone at an aesthetic level. But does presupposing the incommensurability of subjective aesthetics actually render the overall aesthetic less diverse? Does the foreclosure of discussion enforce unspoken conventions? I'd say that there was a fairly clear sense of a shared background in 'non-idiomatic' free improvisation, and I noted open conversations dealing with several shared aesthetic points of reference, predominantly in the free jazz and experimental traditions. Is it not the case that a certain resistance to 'influence' is, paradoxically, idiomatic in these traditions?

Another area of concern was the role of 'communication' between the individual members. A basic model of communication appeared to pass without explicit discussion. The (to me rather classical) notion that groups of musicians should coordinate their action through visual and gestural contact seemed to go without saying. If the more or less proscenium-style framing of the space and the panoramic/circular arrangement of musicians helped to foreground this approach and probably also to facilitate it, at least in the way it was used on the day of rehearsals I attended, it also rather spectacularized it. Interestingly, as musicians became more adept at communicating in this way the sense of virtuosic display was heightened, certainly in comparison with the first evening's concert. I found myself wondering at several points why it should be worth so much effort to master just this particular kind of communication.

This seems to me an interesting place to open for discussion in the future, especially considering that so many people's setups afford other kinds of communication that aren't so obviously 'musical', at least with respect to the classical tradition. Indeed, there is a sense in which some of the more screen-oriented setups worked against this type of visually-oriented communication (I am reminded of a moment in my video documentation when Marinos continues playing for about 30 seconds following a stop signal because he hasn't looked up from his Supercollider windows). Why not, for example, explore different kinds of aural-tactile communication, different sensory interfaces which might be more accessible to more screen-oriented players? Why not explore 'virtual' communication over a network (as Rob attempted to facilitate, apparently without acceptance from other group members)? What about finding 'analogue' ways of enabling the setups to communicate independently of individual musical intentions, through feedback for example?

This brings me back to my earlier remark about the relatively small amount of time I noticed being devoted to technical issues during the workshop. Since this was intentional to a certain extent I don't want to completely undermine it. Moreover, I think the emphasis on musicianship seemed to have a focusing effect at an aesthetic level, which is perhaps ironic considering the active resistance to discussing aesthetics. My point is that it led me to wonder how much of a challenge it would be to find a productive way of bringing the setup back into the foreground without getting into the kind of technocratic autism that people seem to want to avoid. Several things about the ways musicians assembled and operated their gear were genuinely interesting and inspiring to me. There might be productive things to say, for example, about the ways people combined custom-made and off-the-shelf technologies. The different roles accorded to automation in peoples' setups could bear further exploration as well. What do we miss when we box these setups into the 'tool' or 'prosthesis' concepts often used to frame and explain common-practice instruments? Are these really just objects that mediate human musical intentions? Bearing in mind the risk of drifting into anthropomorphizing platitudes, expanding the notion of 'performance' in the project title to include non-human 'performers' might open up new questions. What role can the gear's affordances play in these explorations? In what ways might the group involve the operation of instruments in a phenomenological inquiry into 'performance practice' that doesn't assume its essential humanness? Could this be done in a way that doesn't assume the received distinctions between 'electronic' and 'traditional' instruments? Like the group's current concern with human organisation and communication, the line of inquiry into the non-human can also be expanded into an ethical domain. What meaning is given to things like mastery, virtuosity, and control in relation to technology? When does technological agency become problematic and why?

To close what is already a much longer text than I had planned, I thought it might be interesting to invite some consideration into the social and institutional positioning of the LLEAPP project. Considering the overall demographics of the academic disciplines dealing with music technology in the UK, the research group is obviously delineated around a certain career cohort which straddles the cusp between late-doctoral studies and entry-level academic work. How does occupying the 'early-career researcher' role inform and frame the direction of the project ethically and aesthetically? Is LLEAPP conceived as something that will remain stable over time as the membership either becomes more established or possibly leaves academia altogether? Are there ways of resisting or complicating the institutional orientation of the project which might prove productive, for example opening to non-musician and/or student members, or addressing the gender imbalance?

Thanks again for a stimulating couple of days. Please feel free to comment upon and respond to what I've written in any way you see fit. I'll be sharing all of my documentation once the archiving provisions are sorted out, and I look forward to seeing and commenting more as I get to see and hear more about the parts of the workshop that I missed.

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