Over on Sounding Out, Primus Luta has finished the third installment (which I’ll refer to as LEP) in a superb series of posts on live electronic music performance. The aim of the series is to develop a “usable aesthetic language” to describe live electronic performance. In this post I want to summarize some of Luta’s argument–which is fascinating–and then push his project past his stated philosophical limitations. Even though Luta’s aesthetic language is still strongly indebted to modernist values and ideas (like “agency” and “virtuosity”), can we push his analysis beyond the frame of modernist aesthetics? Can live electronic music performance help us think about what an object-oriented aesthetics or a compositionist aesthetics might entail? From these perspectives, which aren’t very interested in subject-centered values like agency and virtuosity, what values and ideals would we use to evaluate electronic music?
It is challenging to evaluate live electronic music performance because, as Luta argues, our conventional aesthetic categories, i.e., the concepts we use to analyze and assess live jazz (and, I think, by extension other blues-based genres like rock or R&B) don’t translate to the material conditions of electronic music composition and performance. For example, electronic musicians use an entirely different kind of instrument than classical, jazz, and blues/rock musicians do. Luta explains: “Where we typically think of an instrument as singular, within live electronic music, it is perhaps best to think of the individual components (eg turntables and drum machines) as the musical objects of the live rig as instrument” (LEP). So, the physical body of this rig is more like an assemblage (a modular collection) and less like an organ (an integrated whole). And a rig contains automated modules, whereas a trumpet cannot be automated (unless, that is, you have Asimo play it…but there Asimo is automated, not the trumpet itself). So because the rig has different material properties, it requires different techniques and methods to play it…techniques and methods that can’t adequately be assessed by concepts such as agency and virtuosity, at least as they are traditionally conceived. Traditional concepts focus on the artist’s direct physical manipulation of a passive, inert instrument. Electronic rigs, however, can play back, automatically. If your aesthetic language evaluates only direct physical manipulation, how do you judge the quality of a performance that relies, or could rely, in part or in whole, on automation? The reason we have difficulty evaluating electronic music performance is because, as Luta argues, “we cannot translate what we hear directly to his [the artist’s] agency” (LEP). Or, as he puts it in the first post in the series, “It is impossible to defend an artist who has been called a hack without the language through which to express their proficiency.” (TPL)
Well, to do that, Luta argues, you need to first distinguish the different ways that direct physical manipulation and automation are used to play an electronic rig. He identifies four such ways:
1. “the manipulation of fixed pre-recorded sound sources into variable performances”
2. “the physical manipulation of electronic instruments into variable performances”
3. “the manipulation of electronic instruments into variable performances by the programming of machines”
4. “an integrated category that can be expanded to include any and all combinations of the previous three”
One thing I find particularly valuable about Luta’s taxonomy is that it clearly demonstrates how the difference between physical manipulation and machine automation is aesthetically meaningful without being aesthetically (or ethically) normative. The different techniques can be used, compositionally and performatively, to say something musically, just as a trumpet player uses a mute or a plunger to say something musically. As Luta explains,
One can see a performer playing the drum machine with pads and correlate that physicality of it with the sound produced and then see them shift to playing the turntable and know that the drum machine has shifted to a machine performance. In this example the visual cues would be clear indicators, but if one is familiar with the distinctions the shifts can be noticed just from the audio.
The aesthetic significance of physical or automated manipulation isn’t indexed to some external standard; rather, it is internal to the composition itself. For example, the mode of manipulation can be used to mark different formal sections of the composition, or can be a method of varying a hook. 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 (it’s not a digital dualism).*
But these distinctions all still center the performer’s agency or virtuosity. “The variable possibilities of this type of set, even while not exploiting the breadth of variable possibilities presented by the gear, clearly points to the artist’s agency in performance.” (LEP). His taxonomy is a more nuanced ways of analyzing artist agency in performance, but it is still the underlying concept and value driving Luta’s project. “Artist agency in performance” (LEP) is still the foundation of his inquiry. But why? Why reduce aesthetics to agency? Or, why frame aesthetic judgment as an evaluation of artist’s agency, and not of other things?
His analysis prioritizes artist agency because jazz aesthetics do. Luta works from the perspective that “electronic music is the new jazz.” But arguing this tethers his analysis of electronic music to jazz’s Afro-modernist aesthetics: he’s evaluating electronic music in the same terms, concepts, and ideological perspective used to evaluate jazz. Take, for example, the way Luta’s project centers “artist agency in performance”. This idea of human subjectivity, agency and virtuosity is a modernist value. 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.
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. Or, if you prefer Bruno Latour, what would a compositionist approach to electronic music aesthetics look like?**
Luta’s project–which is important, interesting, and valuable–limits our evaluative language to terms that evaluate the artist or the performer. But could we develop another language to evaluate electronic music, one that wasn’t so artist/subject-centered, a more anti-correlationist or object-oriented language in which to evaluate electronic music and electronic music performance? Though any good OOO-er would argue that my oboe and my reeds are performing objects just as much as I am, electronic music, with its Max patches and sequencers, seems to offer distinct and productive opportunities to think about musical objects as performers.
* “The key difference between an unsynchronized and s synchronized performance rigs is the amount of control over the performance that can be left to the machines. The benefit of synchronized performance rigs is that they allow for greater complexity either in configuration or control. The value of unsynchronized performance rigs is they have a more natural and less mechanized feel, as the timing flows from the performer’s physical body. Neither could be understood as better than the other, but in general they do make for separate kinds of listening experiences, which the listener should be aware of in evaluating a performance. Expectations should shift depending upon whether or not a performance rig is synchronized” (LEP emphasis mine).
**In some senses, these questions are attempts to extend Adam Harper’s project in Infinite Music: it’s not just that everyone is part of the musical event/performance, everything is.
Robin is on twitter as @doctaj.