Experimental Audio Praxis and the Tuning of the World

Musical and political practice must be considered as part of a continuous movement of thought and work; that is, as experimental audio praxis[1]. Experimental audio praxis is the name we give to the process through which we participate in and listen to the sounds of communities in struggle. We then, through the critical-poetic practice of field recording these sites of political engagement, organize compositions structurally, harmonically and conceptually around the sounds of communities in resistance.

We do not play music, we organize sound. To organize is to arrange, to assemble en masse, the becoming-collective of bodies in auditory revolt; organizing must be practiced in its doubled sense, as composition and as politics.

More accurately, we record and listen to the sound of organized revolt, to the difficult and tricky work of composing political collectives.

Our compositions are a result of this process, of our participation in nascent political collectivities forming in support of a democratic, anti-racist and truly public UC.[2] That is, the sonic content of our compositions result from these social and historical processes of exploitation and resistance.

Experimental, as John Cage was fond of noting, means instantiating a process whose outcome cannot be foreseen in advance. To engage in resistance is to participate in struggles whose outcomes are uncertain. Resistance is thus experimental in a Cagean sense. It is in the uncertainty of success and the alternative forms of belonging within the sphere of the social opened up by resistance where an unsteady, uneven emergence of another world begins to coalesce.[3]

An experimental audio praxis, then, works to listen to the echoes of these potential worlds, of desires and demands for social justice articulated and not yet articulated, to intervene within the realm of the social through resistance, and to compose through and with the sounds of this process.

This practice entails thinking through the ‘aesthetic autonomy of social movements,’ as political processes are cultural processes that possess their own unique aesthetic sensibilities. [4] Utilizing field recordings from social struggles highlights the aesthetic, sensory and bodily dimensions of politics. One can hear, for example, the ways in which chants become a political technology for producing collectivities in these recordings from the April 2-3 strike at UCSC.[5] The sound of politics is a crucial dimension of social life that must be interrogated and transformed through creative appropriation. Politics aestheticized, aesthetics politicized.

This practice destabilizes the distinction drawn between music and non-music, between signal and noise, between politics and aesthetics. Traditionally, music was and continues to be conceptualized as harmony, melody and rhythm.[6] Composers wrote music for instrumentalists and singers that focused primarily on the relations between notes (their harmony) and developing a melody (the leading instrument or voice) whose duration was subdivided according to a predetermined grid of dividing up time (rhythm). Music, in other words, was concerned with and drew a boundary around itself.

The 20th century, however, saw a veritable explosion of artists who argued that this distinction was normative, historically and culturally contingent.[7] There is no inherent or natural distinction between what is musical and what is noise-y, what is aesthetically pleasant and what is not; it is entirely culturally produced. Thus, one could imagine and organize sound along different vectors.

Further, these critics argued that ‘music’ always takes place within an already busy and vibrant sonic environment. The ‘musical’ event is always already enveloped within the disorganized and chaotic mesh of the soundscape. The category of ‘music’ attempts to draw a border between itself and the world, to distance itself from that which it resides within. Against the notion of an internalized musical essence, one must attend and pay attention to the ‘music’ of everyday life, a la Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète.[8] The normative term ‘music’ is thus replaced with what Cage called the ‘total field of sound,’ whereby the border between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ dissolves and all sounds can enter into the terrain of composition.[9]

All well and good. Cage and his contemporaries escaped from the confines of classical Western musical theory, revolutionizing the practice and concept of music. Their revolutions are, without doubt, aesthetically and conceptually sublime.

This is precisely the issue we take with our much-heralded revolutionary vanguard, and it is here where we locate our problematic. The 20th century musical avant-garde failed to consider ‘music’ in its sociohistorical, political and environmental context, and thus fell into a deeply depoliticized aesthetic radicalism. Music, in other words, was considered solely as an aesthetic phenomenon. One can gesture towards listening to the sounds of the world all one wants; one can create music out of the concrete objects of everyday experience; one can deconstruct classical Western harmony, but as long as one fails to historicize the political and economic forces that structure everyday sonic experience, as long as one fails to analyze the ways in which access to the tools of composition is largely dependent upon class position, as long as one, in short, fails to contextualize musical production in its social milieu, one fails to open up the form of music onto the world. Music, in other words, was considered solely as an aesthetic phenomenon. They thus ended up re-inscribing the boundary between music and the world that they so ardently criticized and sought to overthrow.

In this sense, this revolutionary vanguard failed to escape from the confines of classical musical aesthetics. Our task, as it were, is to complete the Copernican revolution within the musical sphere, to chart out and continue the trajectory that Cage, Boulez, and Schaeffer began, to practice a responsiveness to the tuning of the world.[10]

Thus, thinking of the sounds of struggle as aesthetic productions themselves dissolves the distinctions commonly drawn between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ ‘music’ and ‘world,’ politics and aesthetics. It draws our ears towards the often-marginalized sounds of communities struggling for social justice.[11]

Moreover, experimental audio praxis demands participation and involvement in struggle, as this participation is the process through which recordings and thus compositions are generated. Changing the way we think and listen is a part of an experimental audio praxis, but a part that must not be mistaken for the whole; it is that mistake which leads one into the paralytic navel-gazing of the avant-garde. The point of a field recording praxis, as the international sound art and activist collective Ultra-red notes, is not to merely listen to the world, but to change it.[12]

Our field recordings shape the structure, rhythm and tonality of our compositions. One composition to have come out of this process, ‘Chant Jam,’ for example, is structured around field recordings (in particular, two different chants) from UC workers’ struggles to improve their wages and working conditions.[13] The tempo, rhythmic phrasing and structure of each respective chant become the basis for the rest of the more conventional instruments semi-improvised playing. These field recordings are thus the primary building blocks of the composition.[14]

The chants work to deterritorialize[15] the more traditionally ‘musical’ aspects of the work and open up a kind of post-tonality we call the ‘tuning of the world.’[16] Composing with the chants is a refusal to think of ‘music’ as separate from its cultural, historical, ecological and auditory milieu, as the ‘music’ is itself these milieus. Milieu music. Milieu as music. Historical processes are auditory processes whose tonality and timbre are sites of critical and creative intervention: the world is a (sonic) knot in motion.[17] To turn our ears and tune our compositions to the sounds of resistance is to listen to and participate in possible worlds in the making.

These chants, being performed by multiple voices without a fixed pitch referent, destabilize and re-contextualize the dominant harmonic order found in the piano, bass and guitar parts that fits relations between notes into a pre-ordained grid of intelligibility. The fluctuations in timbre, the addition of warping through delay, the splitting and unquantized tremolo all further destabilize the relations between parts and pitches, producing a kind of continuous, dynamic variation that resists the violent foreclosure of conventional Western music.

It is not our intention to be rid of tonality altogether, as some of the avant-garde wished. The point, rather, is to ‘turn it loose’ and develop an ‘untempered, widened chromaticism’.[18] Part of developing this widened chromaticism, we argue, is refusing the boundary between ‘music’ and ‘world’ through organizing compositions around the world in its becoming, around field recordings from our engagement in political processes. Tying the practice of field recording to participating in and listening to communities in struggle is the revolutionary method of experimental audio praxis.

[1] This article was originally published in the inaugural issue of the transmedia publication ‘Region-Zero’ and can be found here: http://philome.la/regionzerozero/region-zero—issue-01-escape/play

[2] For a broad overview of some of the recent struggles around privatization, racial inequality, class sizes and workers’ rights within the UC system, please see Ikebe, Shannon. “Another Step for Grad Employees at UC.” Interview by Ty Carroll and Michael Billeaux. Socialist Worker. N.p., 23 Apr. 2014. Web. Additionally, the Field Recording Working Group did a series of field recordings at the April strikes, available for listening at https://soundcloud.com/field-recording-w-g

[3] Field Recording Working Group. Solidarity Forever. 2014. Web. <https://soundcloud.com/field-recording-w-g/solidarity-forever&gt;.

[4] Ultra-red. Andante Politics: Popular Education in the Organizing of Unión De Vecinos. Los Angeles: Ultra-red, 2011. Print.

[5] Listen here at Field Recording Working Group. Education for the Masses. 2014. Web. <https://soundcloud.com/field-recording-w-g/education-for-the-masses&gt;.

[6] Laitz, Steven G. The Complete Musician: An Integrated Approach to Tonal Theory, Analysis, and Listening. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Print.

[7] Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1961. Print. 23.

[8] See, for example, Pierre Schaeffer’s Etude aux chemins de fer, perhaps the most well-known and influential example of musique concrète.

[9] Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1961. Print.

[10] The ‘Copernican Revolution’ is a phrase coined by Freud to denote the decentering of the intentional, internal, liberal subject. For an in-depth discussion, see the ‘The Unfinished Copernican Revolution’ in Laplanche, Jean. Essays on Otherness. London: Routledge, 2003. Print.

[11] In this particular case, it draws our attention towards folks struggling against the privatization of the UC system.

[12] Ultra-red. Five Protocols for Organized Listening, with Variations. Los Angeles: Ultra-red, 2013. Print. 1.

[13] For an in-depth analysis and explanation of the strikes, please see, UAW Local 2865. “Graduate Students on Strike.” Jacobin 2 Apr. 2014: n. pag. Web. and Cavooris, Robert. “Privatization Through Repression: On the Role and Résumé of a New UC President.” Reclamations 7 (2014): n. pag. Web. For the recording of the ‘Chant Jam,’ please see https://soundcloud.com/bourgeois-speedball

[14] Too often, composition is thought of as the work of an artistic genius, replete with a singular vision and self-sufficient intentionality. This is an ideological phantasy born of the liberal notions of identity and personhood that work to conceal the historical and collective nature of art and life. Art is born of collective praxis and transformation, not auto-poeisis. We think about composition as an historical process without subjects, a la Althusser.

[15] To deterritorialize is to open up a previously static object into new sets of relations and contexts, such that it changes in kind. See Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1987. Print.

[16] R. Murray Schafer originally coined this phrase, but we use it here for very different if sympathetic ends. See Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Rochester, VT: Destiny, 1993. Print.

[17] Haraway, Donna Jeanne. The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm, 2003. Print. 6.

[18] Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota, 1987. Print. 350