Theory, Language and Aesthetics

Last week I wrapped up my three part series on live electronic performance for SoundingOut with “Theory and Practice”.  The word practice in the title has an intentional double meaning.  The writing itself has the surface appearance of being primarily fascinated with the practicality of using the variable language exposed within the series to discuss performance.  The underlying intent however is how having an understanding of the theoretical can lead to further exploration of what is possible in the practice of live electronic performance.

Language is itself objective. It is like the gun that doesn’t kill people – language isn’t subjective, people make it subjective.  One of my challenges in approaching a language (which isn’t just for electronic performance but usable for music across the board), has been establishing descriptors which do not get weighted down by subjective connotation, which is where the current language of music theory has difficulties when applied to electronic music and performance.  I didn’t attempt to hide my subjective bias (I’m a jazzist), but my hope was that through an analytic approach to the topic, the language for expressing my subjective opinion would be more founded in what could objectively be said from a theoretical perspective. If through this language I could close the gap which separates live electronic performance and live jazz (for many an unsurmountable task) then indeed the language itself could prove practical for other discussions as well.

The danger of taking this approach, which immediately put the language to work toward my jazzist slant, is that it gives that the appearance that the language is itself jazzist. I believe this is what Robin James latched on to in her evaluation of the work.

Luta’s project translates the values of modernist jazz aesthetics into terms that accurately describe the material and cultural conditions of electronic music performance and production. Or, more simply, he transposes jazz aesthetics into terms compatible with electronic instruments and genres.

While I can see how James arrived at this, it was not my intent in putting forth the language.  The crux of the dilemma for James is the value I place on agency in my analysis.  But this value isn’t because of the language but rather the standard perception of performance in which electronic music needs to be understood.  When someone says an electronic performer is just pressing play or checking their email, it is a denial of the artists agency in the performance. Through the language developed in the series however, it becomes clear that artistic agency can be found throughout the spectrum of electronic performance, it is just of different distinctions than what one expects from traditional instruments.

The power of this variable language is that it is designed almost like an open framework capable of interpreting most any aspects of sound manipulation, not just live electronic performance. It is the XML of music theory, the object oriented ontological approach to discussing music which James calls for:

But what about an analysis of electronic music that isn’t beholden to modernist aesthetics? What about an aesthetic that, say, de-centered human subjectivity (what philosophers would call an anti-correlationist perspective)? Such an OOO (object-oriented ontology) style analysis would treat human minds and bodies as objects among other objects, such as Max patches, sequencers, synth patches, and other “mechanical” musical objects.

It’s interesting that James presents this to counter a need for agency in analysis as I do not think that the objects she lists escape the need for agency.  We cannot arrive at musical objects which escape human agency until such a time as artificial intelligence has created its own artificial intelligence (and if we’ve made it that far surely those 2nd gen ai’s would be fighting for their own rights). Even if you go the radical computer music route, there is still very much a human agency in the process.

One of the things James notes is that through the use of the language in my piece no hierarchical value is placed on physical performance vs machine:

The distinction between direct physical manipulation and mechanical automation is aesthetically significant without being normative–that is, neither direct physical manipulation nor mechanical automation is aesthetically or ethically superior to the other.

Where there is no accepted machine performance in the jazz aesthetic, this recognition is an indication that what is being discussed is more than a linguistic “transposition of jazz aesthetics” to discuss electronic music.  Indeed this language is fluid enough to discuss both jazz and electronic performance.  By evaluating the objects of a musical performance as systems of variables for sound manipulation, all the various modes in which this can occur can be distinguished, analyzed and compared with other systems.

This series as presented on SoundingOut! is only a section of a larger work (Toward a Practical Language). When arranged in logical order, the evaluation of electronic performance lies in the middle of the evaluation of electronic instruments and musical objects, and the evaluation of electronic composition.  The choice of presenting performance first in this format was because it’s visceral perception. There is an immediacy which happens as a performance begins. It is the meeting of personal context for the listener and the musical context of the performance. For traditional instruments there is a history which immediately connects the contexts even if the performance which follows breaks free from that history (alternative, experimental, etc). The hurdle for electronic music is that, without the same history, an immediate connection of context is not made and the disconnect between the two becomes difficult to breech.

The objective of my work is to provide that context, not to validate electronic music (it’s rich history requires no external validation), but to be understood as equally connected to the human experience. Utilizing the variable language to provide a more practical context in which to understand the performances, I hope can lead to a greater appreciation for the fascinating work being done across the spectrum of possibilities for audiences, and further the exploration of those possibilities for performers.

Written by avanturb

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