Towards Aleatory Composition: John Cage, Sonic Landscapes and Habits of Listening

This piece was originally written for FMST 214, ‘On Touching’ a graduate seminar at UCSC. I’m posting it here just because. Apologies for the length, it’s a bit long and unruly.

“Here we want to prick up the philosophical ear: to tug the philosopher’s ear in order to draw it toward what has always solicited or represented philosophical knowledge less than what presents itself to view—form, idea, painting, representation, aspect, phenomenon, composition—but arises instead in accent, tone, timbre, resonance and sound,” Jean-Luc Nancy, Listening

In the early 1950’s, John Cage, an American composer, began experimenting with what he called ‘chance composition,’ (Cage, 1961), a method and style of composition that aimed to introduce indeterminacy into musical performances/ compositions. Cage did this in a number of ways, but two of them are particularly pertinent for my purposes. One of his techniques for introducing indeterminacy into a given piece was to incorporate moments of silence into the composition. This allowed, in his view, “the sounds that happen to be in the environment,” (Cage, 6) to become a part of the composition. Silence, that is, never exists as such. The fantasy of a perfectly contained ‘musical’ performance in which every aspect of a composition is controlled by the composer is revealed as a normative boundary drawing practice that defines music through the act of securing the border between what is internal (music) and external (noise.) Such a practice of silence, he argued, criticized the boundary commonly drawn between ‘noise’ (non-musical, accidental sounds) and ‘music’ (an ordered, internally coherent rhythmic and melodic complex), allowing the listener to reflect upon the taken-for-granted sounds and timbres of everyday soundscapes, or what Cage called “the total field of sound,” (Cage, 120). Allowing the contingent ‘accidents’ of the sounds of the environment decenters the human mind as the sole creator of music by pointing to the co-constitutive role of the external auditory conditions within which a given piece takes places. ‘Music,’ in this view, moves from questions of “dissonance and consonance” to questions of “noise and so-called musical sounds,” (Cage, 8). Chance composition, then, becomes an artistic practice through which one could a) critique the normative distinction between noise and music b) render the sounds of everyday life objects of critical inquiry through the use of silence in musical compositions and c) decenter the human as the locus of musical creativity.

The second way in which Cage would introduce indeterminacy into a given work is through the lack of a traditional notated score. The traditional score to Cage rendered the musical performer “comparable to someone filling in color where outlines are given,” (Cage, 35) making every performance of a piece essentially the same; or rather, a score functions as the essence of a piece. Replacing the rigidity of a notated score with vague and contradictory instructionals, however, allowed the performer to provide the “morphology of the continuity,” (Cage, 35) for a given piece. Musical performances become less about an expression of an essence so much as a contingent process of passage and movement rendered musically. Each performance is irreducibly singular. Performance precedes (musical) essence. Indeed, the possibility of essence for Cage is precisely what needed criticism in the 1950’s. Such a strategy made it impossible to predict in advance the form or content a given work would express; indeterminacy and chance for Cage, then, become the heart of a piece in its performance.

We have assembled in a jumbled sort of way most of the parts with which this essay will attempt to improvise with: criticizing the normative distinction between ‘noise’ and ‘music,’ decentering the human in musical composition, ‘music’ as occurring within a ‘total field of sound,’ a performative, anti-essentialist account of musical composition, passage, movement, process, and the looming question of indeterminacy.

Cage’s work became enormously influential in 20th century music and philosophy. His thought gives us a language to discuss the process of musical composition, a language that is still highly influential and popular in experimental music circles. His schematic however, still contains within it essentialist and humanist overtones, even as it works to criticize and free itself of those timbres. My aim is to creatively read his valuable insights within a process philosophy framework in order to develop and push his work into previously unheard territories. I will attempt to a) historicize the ‘total field of sound,’ by thinking through it as a dynamic, relational process involving the entangled agencies of humans, plants, technoscientific objects such as buses and recording devices, and bacteria, through which sonic landscapes and objects/subjects are constituted and b) think through the ethics and politics of our habits of listening. I will conclude with how this re-conceptualization of sound, habits of listening and sonic landscapes helps us move towards what could be considered ‘aleatory composition.’

3 A.M rustling wind slaps pavement my shoes on cracks while a great horned owl howls all pulsating vibrato and my tongue clacks along the back of my throat in a lopsided hip-hop kind of way. The moon sets, its back bending into the hollow cavity of a starry cradle, sending occasional garbage trucks pale-faced scrambling the brakes gurgling and screeching meets two hands touching “the stranger within,” (Barad, 2012) and a Tascam DR-03 Linear PCM/MP3 field recorder. Most things are asleep at this hour. My recorder picks up a buzzing hum, a mottled timbre of gasoline’s movement and my quickened breath. It is quiet enough to hear my footsteps on Bay Street echo, pinging from my shoe/pavement to the still-sleeping faux-Victorian houses while I walk towards a dying bay laurel.

This essay is about everyday sounds, commonplace noises, mundane timbres, and thus the taken-for-granted resonations of the worlds we are making together. Thinking about everyday and mundane sounds is to immediately ask about habits of listening: how and why do we listen to the things that we do, in the way that we do? Why do certain sounds, like a cello playing a Bach concerto, grab our attention and come to count as ‘music’, while others, like the sound of a bus wheezing and coughing its way up hill, register, if they register at all, as ‘background noise?’ Focusing on the taken-for-granted aspects of everyday sound allows us to historicize our listening practices, to show their historical development, not in order to simply give a descriptive account, but to develop different habits of listening that might be more attentive to the timbres of shared suffering and response ability. To listen, after all, is to attend, to pay attention to.

To listen, however, is no simple matter. The prediscursive ‘subject’ who innocently listens to the sounds of the external auditory environment is, following Butler, a “regulatory fiction,” (Butler, 1990) whose subsequent naturalization works to uphold discourses of ‘human exceptionalism’ that position humans as those beings that have the gift of perception (Haraway 2008). Sound becomes a static entity of human reflection. This particular story has been very convincing to certain phenomenologists and physicists who cling to an individualistic metaphysics of substance.

My aim, however, is to illuminate the practices and relations through which particular soundscapes disseminate and die off. Emphasizing the process through which sounds are made allows us to compose different sorts of songs, ones attuned to questions of relations, ethics, and practices.   Listening to the seemingly dull timbres of everyday life is to ask about different modes of tactile engagement, a term I use to denote the heterogeneous, historically contingent material-discursive practices through which particular sonic patches emerge and not others.

It aims to understand how, why and for whom our sonic landscapes are in the process of being made and heard by. It is a question, fundamentally, about the act of listening, and thus also of responding to those whom you are listening to. The slapping of shoe soles mingling with the creaks and rumbles of a coastal bus is rarely the stuff of critical inquiry, but its my wager that tuning our theoretical instruments to the key of timbre helps us think through questions about sound, movement, and habit.

Sonic Landscapes in the Making

“To hear is to hear difference—“ Aden Evans, Sound Ideas

“If incorporeal materialism is an empiricism, it is a radical one, summed up by the formula: the felt reality of relation—“ Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual

            A black crow caws, perched on an oak tree, its screech cutting through the ambiance of student chatter, motorcycle kick stands Frisbee golf machismo and reaching my sleeping ears. I walk over, feet crunching on non-native grass lawns, sopping and slurping, field recorder in hand. We make what I think is eye contact. The crow hops off the tree and flies at me, wings flapping in a light spring breeze, circles around me a couple of times and returns to their branch perch. I am obstinate and don’t want to believe the crow actually minds my presence, so I inch closer, field recorder in hand, hoping to capture the crow’s movement at a loud enough volume to ensure ‘high fidelity.’ We exchange what I might call glances or dances and the crow hops off the branch and flies directly at me, forcing me to jump back. They circle around a few times and return to their perch. I get the hint and walk away.

Sonic landscapes, as the above story illustrates, are entangled multispecies, technoscientific patches that are actively in the process of being made through specific material-discursive practices of humans and nonhumans. I am not a passive observer listening to the crow who caws in an auditory environment extrinsic to my transcendental ego, but an active participant whose actions help to actualize certain kinds of auditory responses and not others. My field recorder does not capture the ‘pure’ sounds of the external environment; rather it becomes, in this particular situation, one particular actor among many who help to materialize the ever-changing sonic landscape.

Sonic landscapes are in a permanent process of on-going qualitative transformation. They are a doing, an enactment, an actualization that never permanently resolves or remains in stasis. The virtuality of sonic landscapes must be taken into account. Brian Massumi defines the ‘virtual’ in a variety of ways. The definition he gives that is most salient to this particular discussion is the virtual as a body in motion in “an immediate, unfolding relation to its own nonpresent potential to vary,” (Massumi, 4). This dimension of potentiality is inexhaustible (I think) and continuously transformative. The qualities of the caw the crow made, for example, do not express an unchanging essence of the sounds the crow could make; the sounds they made is a particular, historically contingent actualization of their own potentiality to change in response and within the dynamic sonic landscape of which they are a part and help to create.

That is, sonic landscapes are the result of particular modes of tactile engagement. Karen Barad’s notion of “posthumanist performativity,” (Barad, 2007) is a particularly useful concept for describing these different modes of engagement. A posthumanist performative account shifts our focus from “questions of correspondence between descriptions and reality…to matters of practices, doings, and actions,” (Barad, 135). Such an account challenges dominant accounts that place the human (culture) as ontologically distinct and prior to the environment (nature) and argues instead that the worlds in which we live are a dynamic unfolding resulting from specific “material-discursive practices,” (Barad, 146) that are in a constant state of becoming, rather than stasis. These enactments are not carried out by fully formed entities who then come to inter-act; rather, particular entities emerge as a result of specific “intra-actions,” (Barad, 33). Entities do not pre-exist their relation, but are instead given their particular form through their relations. I use the phrase ‘modes of tactile engagement’ in this key to describe the kinds of historically contingent practices through which particular sonic landscapes and not others come into being.

            John Cage’s concept of chance composition rests on collapsing the distinction between ‘noise’ and ‘music’ in favor of what he calls the ‘total field of sound,’ a notion that is supposed to describe the inseparability of a piece of music from its ‘external’ auditory environment. His most (in)famous piece, 4’33’’, where the performer sits silently for four minutes and thirty-three seconds in front of a piano, is a particularly vivid demonstration of this aspect of his philosophy. Cage, however, seems to think of this total field of sound as simply given. The textures, timbres, audiences, musical apparatuses, concert halls and government funding all seem to have fallen from the void into whatever moment a given musical performance is occurring. Cage goes so far as describing the elements with which a given piece is made up as “being chosen like one would choose shells on a beach,” (Cage, 1961), seemingly lying in wait for the composer to choose at will.

Re-framing this notion within a concept of dynamic sonic landscapes highlights the indeterminacy Cage attempted to notice/create through his work and gives his deeply ahistorical avant-garde-ism a political valence that is not purely aesthetic. Conceptualizing the auditory ‘environment’ as being in a continuous process of stabilization and destabilization, expansion and contraction, highlights the contingency of any and every ‘musical’ performance. It is not a matter of intentionally creating indeterminacy within a given performance by allowing non-programmed, accidental sounds space within the composition. Indeterminacy is not something one ‘chooses’ to have or not have; the on-going qualitative transformation of the sonic landscape, of which a musical performance is a part places indeterminacy at the very heart of the materialization of particular sounds.

Musical performance, in this account, becomes an expanded category that includes the modes of tactile engagement of cicadas, fire hydrants, and computer keys in a way that further decenters the human as the sole locus of musical creativity. Sonic landscapes are multispecies, technoscientific patches in dynamic process, on-going and inventive. Recognizing this is an important step towards tuning our habits of listening to questions of ethics, response ability and shared suffering entailed by the co-constitutive relations that create and bind the ‘us’ who is listening and becoming with the sonic landscapes.

Thinking of sonic landscapes as in the making also highlights the inheritances and histories that haunt and inform our contemporary sonic juncture, an aspect of sound that Cage could never properly deal with outside of the realm of the history of Western music. The sound of European grasses crackling under my foot is a fairly recent phenomenon arising with the colonization of California by the Spanish and their subsequent introduction of their raising of large herds of cattle. Colonization is an on-going process that deeply informs the qualities and structure of our auditory landscapes. To think in terms of the movement and becoming of sonic landscapes allows us to think of sound in a deeply historical, and therefore political, sort of way.

Habits of Listening

 

“The vast majority of the world’s perceptions are certainly nonconscious—“ Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual

            On the bus at 7 in the morning with my head throbbing from a lack of sleep the person next to me blasting music in their iPod ear-buds and I can’t focus on anything. I want to be off the bus. Most mornings I try to stay attentive to what is happening around me, but I feel like shit and so I drift off into bitterness and cynicism. The sound of the bus moving does not register. Idle conversations about the weather and fraternity life weave in and out of cell phone vibrations and laughter while the sun drifts towards an impossibly blue oceanic horizon.

Why do we consistently listen to certain sounds, timbres, resonations and not others? Why do certain voices consistently register consciously, grabbing our attention, while others are relegated to nonconscious non-recognition, felt, perhaps, but never reflected upon? This is fundamentally a question about habit, history and the ability to change our listening habits in order to be more ethically attuned to on-going colonization, environmental and worker exploitation and transphobia, items intimately and inextricably intertwined on a list too long to name in full. Thinking through our habits of listening means, then, asking about the “regulatory norms,” (Butler, 1990) that govern our modes of tactile engagement and asking how they might be otherwise.

Brian Massumi defines habit as “an acquired automatic self-regulation [that] resides in the flesh,” (Massumi, 11), a useful definition for our purposes. This definition points to three aspects of habit that I want to highlight:

  1. habits are acquired, not inherent, characteristics of an organism’s performative practices, and are thus historical and able to be changed
  2. once acquired, these habits work to produce particular kinds of subjects through their material-discursive practices
  3. habit resides within and helps to shape particular kinds of bodies.

Habits, I would also add, are repetitive, on-going enactments that must be continually re-iterated in order to take form. They are, in Massumi’s language, a consistent actualization of certain potentialities, over and against that which might disrupt the logic of their actualization that work through force to contract the sphere of potentiality into ever-more minute forms. Any account of habit must take into account the regulatory norms through which particular kinds of habits and thus subjects are produced.

There are certain habits of listening and modes of tactile engagement that are governed by the regulatory norms of human exceptionalism. Suppose that Juniper, a life-long resident of a mid-size suburban town in Arizona, decides to walk to work. On their walk, they encounter sounds common to suburban city landscapes: police sirens wailing, traffic signals beeping, hot dog carts rickety-ing, pigeons cooing, sewers groaning. They click a button to change signal, who then lets out a piercing yelp, but Juniper is busy thinking about the work they have ahead of them. Heels of shoes tapping slick concrete meets a raccoon skittering towards a nearby planter with a rank banana peel grinning in its mouth. These sounds, however, are not consciously registered by Juniper; they are so commonplace, so mundane and ordinary, that they have become taken-for-granted. This taken-for-granted-ness, I argue, is a by-product of the regulatory norms governing what it means to live and act as a ‘human’ that position non-humans as inert, inessential, mechanical and unimportant. Juniper’s interactions with the great majority of nonhumans in urban environments reduced those actors to their functionality, and only one particular function at that: a metal railing becomes only a risk-management tool, a stop-sign only a member of a network of traffic technologies, a plastic cup only a receptacle for water. These habits of listening that position nonhumans solely in terms of their instrumental value are so commonplace, so much a part of everyday life, that they have become ingrained into our flesh and largely escape notice.

How can we develop different habits of listening that disrupt the narrative logic of human exceptionalism and are more attuned to questions of ethics and social justice? What modes of tactile engagement could allow, finally, for the possibility of listening and responding? One way I have been engaging these questions is through the critical-poetic practice of field recording. Moving through spaces with a Tascam DR-03 field recorder makes me an active and attentive listener. It becomes a prosthetic extension of myself that helps me to notice certain things, like the wheezing of a bus in motion, and not others. Further, it helps us to think through nonhuman agencies’ sonic potentiality, the potential sounds that particular kinds of material-discursive practices might produce. Thinking of this kind of sound as music through the practice of field recording does three things:

  1. it makes the listener consciously perceive and pay attention to that which is normally registered unconsciously and taken for granted
  2. rendering what we normally think of (if we think it at all) as background noise music makes the listener engage with these sounds in a different mode; it changes the quality of their relation with the sound
  3. moving through environments thinking about potentially recordable sounds changes the ways in which we engage nonhuman actors in a way that subverts the ideological organization of human-nonhuman relations that relegates and defines nonhumans in purely functional terms, thereby interrupting the regulatory norms of human exceptionalism. Thinking of these actors sonic potentiality makes us move through spaces in a completely different way, changing both who we interact with, why we interact with them, and how we interact with them

The notion of sonic potentiality is particularly important because it helps us to conceptualize non-human’s agency, vitality, and potential for qualitative transformation. Intra-acting with, say, a light-pole, engaging with it through the embodied habits of auditory engagement means recognizing their ability to qualitatively transform the sonic landscape through our relation. Their essence is not fixed in time and space; they are performative, working to co-constitute the sonic landscape in a way that cannot be understood in the terms of human exceptionalism. Sonic potentiality means the impossibility of ever knowing in advance what the result of our intra-action will be. This is simultaneously an ethics of engagement (refusing to foreclose in advance who or what the other is essentially, that is, response ability) and an ethics of epistemology (refusing the possibility of definitive knowledge that lays claim to an objective, independent, given knowledge of the other’s essence). Field recording, in this account, becomes one mode of tactile engagement that could help us listen more attentively to the ways in which nonhumans are agentially involved in the construction of sonic landscapes .

Towards Aleatory Composition

I have argued that replacing Cage’s ‘total field of sound’ with ‘sonic landscapes in the making’ allows us to think through a) the history and politics of sound b) sound as a multispecies, technoscientific patch and c) sound as a dynamic process of becoming produced through historically contingent modes of tactile engagement. I then attempted to think through our habits of listening, paying particular attention to the ways in which narratives of human exceptionalism structure and back-form our listening practices. I proposed field recording as a critical-poetic practice that could help us be more attentive to questions of ethics and social justice and of the ways in which nonhumans are agentially involved in the creation of sonic landscapes.

All of this fancy theoretical footwork has been in the service of developing a truly aleatory style of musical composition, a project John Cage was involved in throughout his life but failed, in the final instance, to actualize. I have, to that end, striven to develop an account of sound that thinks through its aleatory character, its deep historical contingency, its dynamism, impermanence and transience. Sound is disturbance, passage, movement, all of which Cage recognized in his attempt to ‘write’ chance compositions. His analysis, however, did not account for the historicity and contingency of the ‘total field of sound,’ and thus lost any of its potential political valences. He unintentionally placed the human at the center of composition, even as he distances himself from that notion by assuming that the ‘natural’ sonic environment was static and given.

Aleatory composition comes to be about developing new habits of listening and different modes of tactile engagement that are attentive to the shared suffering of all whom we are becoming-with. Thinking through sonic landscapes as dynamic, multispecies, technoscientific patches in the making allows us to hum tunes that undermine the austere abstraction of human exceptionalism. Making compositions is a historically contingent process that involves multiple, differently situated actors; it is decidedly not a human-centered affair (although humans are clearly a part of it as well). Aleatory composition becomes a practice of refusing to claim in advance the nature of the parties involved or what the end result will be. It is an experiment, “the outcome of which is not foreseen,” (Cage, 39) an experiment that works to hold open spaces where different modes and habits of listening become possible. To listen, after all, is to attend, to pay attention to.

Works Cited

Barad, Karen Michelle. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke UP, 2007. Print.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. Print.

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

Evens, Aden. Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005. Print.

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2008. Print.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

Nancy, Jean-Luc, and Charlotte Mandell. Listening. New York: Fordham UP, 2007. Print.

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