This is the text of a presentation I gave for scholar.social’s #SummerSchool informal online conference. I’ve made it available here as a reference and for accessibility reasons, but it’s meant to be taken in as a presentation. I’ve included most of the slide material here where it makes sense. The pieces discussed are Common, Ripples, and Haptic Box. Documentation, scores, and more writing are available on their respective pages.

Abstract

In her increasingly popular 2016 book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna Haraway invites readers to adopt an orientation to ongoing becoming-with in response to crises of degrading environmental and social conditions. I understand the text’s titular trouble to be neither the soft environmental chaos of the earth’s unfolding nor the hard ideas of a world one might try to bring about upon it, but rather their eternal co-composition in what Haraway calls a “thick present.” I try to intimate a sense of this feedback in my recent sounding work. Common is a composition played by three performers on one concert bass drum performed as part of this year’s SALT festival in Victoria, BC, Canada (traditional territories of the lək̓ʷəŋən peoples). Ripples is a description of a performance by a solo performer on a drum topped with an inverted cymbal, and the name of a performance Brian Archinal gave of that score in Leeds, England. Haptic Box is a self-constructed sound sculpture and instrument. By teasing out and weaving together flyaway threads of these entangled endeavours, I fold the resulting fabric back into my practice. In doing so, I find a technique for getting on with analysis and intuition that we know as speculation: a technique which can’t predict its outcomes and seems to be more interested in what else happens.

What’s the Trouble

Hi everyone! My name is Dave Riedstra, I go by @dried online, including on the Fediverse at sonomu.club and scholar.social. I’m a practice-led PhD researcher in music composition at the University of Leeds, and I’m happy to be presenting here today. The structure I’m going to use is a little experimental, so thank you for coming along for the ride and I’m looking forward to your comments afterwards to see what happened. The reason I shaped it this way is partially because orienting my research project toward intermingled becoming-with unsurprisingly hasn’t really helped delineate a well-defined target for me to drill into, but thankfully a few salient currents have swept to the foreground during my reflections on some recent and ongoing work while trying to imagine what’s next. In fact, that very unfolding of process and analysis underscores and underwrites those currents in my work: not so much that I have any interest in further defining their identity or difference, but rather that they co-constitute a feedback loop which drives not only my artistic practice, but as I see it, a way of keeping up with the world and others in it.

The pieces I’ve been thinking through are Common, a trio for bass drum performed in Victoria, BC (traditional territories of the lək̓ʷəŋən Songhees and Esquimalt nations and also the W̱SÁNEĆ peoples) early this year; Ripples, a solo percussion piece which Brian Archinal performed here in Leeds, UK in March; and this self-constructed / self-performed sound sculpture / instrument / disaster I’ve been referring to as a haptic box. Thinking about these gave me a sense (which I’ll try to pass on to you) that the Trouble Donna Haraway implores readers to Stay with is neither the soft environmental chaos of the earth nor the hard ideas or intentions about a world one might try to bring about, but rather the way in which these eternally co-compose. Haraway writes,

Staying with the trouble requires learning to be truly present, not as a vanishing pivot between awful or edenic pasts and apocalyptic or salvific futures, but as mortal critters entwined in myriad unfinished configurations of places, times, matters, meanings.1

So what’s the trouble. These myriad configurations are so densely tangled that it’s only possible to do anything with a degree of uncertainty about goals and how they might be accomplished. Engaging with the tangle requires putting forward imagined goals and a guess at how to bring them about based on past work: a speculation. Like Dom Cobb’s image of Mal in the film Inception, speculated realities are impossible to achieve, but their impossibility drives a feedback loop in which the messy results of trying to bring them about are taken up by the speculation in the very process of its continued actualization. Though the necessary unpredictability of outcome can be daunting, speculation liberates thought from the confines of the current situation, allowing it to move towards potential futures as inconceivable as the end of the divine rights of kings.2

As a means of continuing, I’m going to make points of contact or communication between a few threads of my work and the thought it draws on. Communication is the flashing of some idea (or affliction) across a boundary between multiple terms. Deleuze describes communication among the faculties as a transduction: what it is that’s communicated substantially changes when it crosses the border because it becomes so extreme that it cannot be expressed by one faculty and needs another to continue its becoming, but what makes it across to the other no longer has its original modality, becoming instead difference or intensity.

What is most important, however, is that – between sensibility and imagination, between imagination and memory, between memory and thought – when each disjointed faculty communicates to another the violence which carries it to its own limit, every time it is a free form of difference which awakens the faculty, and awakens it as the different within that difference.3

Communication is also a communing: the communicating terms spend time with each other, visit. In this sense, what’s communicated is rather what the terms share than what they don’t: histories, meanings, propensities enable the transport of the sign, which takes up the additional residue of the moment’s various psychological, social, and material environments. Communication starts to seem quite a bit like touch. The toucher feels the touched, the quality of the touch in that moment, and also learns about themselves in the process. This is like the way that touch makes apparent the experience of both having and being a body in the thought of Merleau-Ponty, but these poles are not so fixed. Michel Serres figures touch as a transduction point with the world, and the skin the organ that enables the body’s mingling with the world as both take on elements of the other. (There is a direct point of contact here with Haraway’s description of sympoiesis as creatures eating and being eaten (“not posthuman but com-post”), and from there Alice Eldridge’s attention to the recycling of energy in organic systems.)4 Just as the body and the world mix, so do the various ways that the body learns about the world. Serres’s Five Senses could be described as a treatise on the mingling of the senses, and for Serres touch is a sort of lingua franca port of call for other senses (sight enables virtual touch – “veils pile up and veil only other veils” – hearing is vibratory touch, sometimes at a distance – “We hear through our skin and feet” – and taste and smell have a close relationship with touch as well).5 For Anahid Kassabian as well, hearing is a specialized form of touch (to paraphrase her quote of deaf percussionist Evelyn Glennie) that allows an understanding of mingling with the world in processes of “dynamic subjectivities”, ongoing provisional assemblages which are neither entirely undifferentiated nor rigidly subjective-objective.6

Touch affects what is touched in the very moment that the touch learns about the touched. When someone touches their skin to an object, as when the performers of Common play on the head of a shared concert bass drum, they join their history and body with its. In a way, the “object” learns about the toucher by taking on the effects of the touch. A bass drum skin has a degree of give which is easily changed by a touch. When three people play on it, sometimes with two hands each, their actions always affect the results of the actions of their co-performers, and in the same breath, their actions are always affected by the actions of their colleagues. Neither aspect of the outcome is easily predicted, especially when, as in Common, the pathway through the scored material is not fixed.

When an interested participant / maker / listener / garbage collector will make / perform / take in a haptic box, they assemble a similar relation of histories: their history meets mine, bundled in the form of the build documents describing the box, meets those of the materials they will gather, meets the spaces in which they will work, and meets itself again in the more protracted moments of planing, soldering, and flashing code, meets itself again in the tactile-listening to the feedback process play out on the surface of the box they built, meets itself again in every future encounter with the box as it takes up space on a shelf, piques the curiosity of a friend, gets in the way during a move, becomes disassembled for scraps or is passed on to someone else.

The box of this description of haptic box is both a container of tangled histories as well as something to orient towards. It holds previous orientations and uses them to shape future ones. Sarah Ahmed, in the first chapter of Queer Phenomenology, “Orientations towards Objects”, writes that “objects not only are shaped by work, but … they also take the shape of the work they do.”7 In a wonderful play of words characteristic of her writing in the book, she turns orientation to occupation, both in terms of a breadwinning job and in terms of taking up space. These are contingent and unlock contingencies, first because objects and bodies change through their sharing of space (“This body with this table is a different body than it would be without it”); second because the changes effected by their mingling carry forward to a/effect future orientations and occupations, their own and others.8 Ahmed’s examples include the occupations of philosophers, showing how the occupation of philosophy as a space changes to include feminist and queer orientations over time. I see a similar principle at work when I compare how the performers of Common and Ripples met the technique of plucking a drumskin. The trio, string players all, plucked as I, also a string player, expected: producing a soft, quiet attack that let the lower partials of the pitch ring. Brian, a percussion specialist, had honed a technique for plucking drum skins that produced a sharp ping and defined pitch. He told me that he had taught it to himself in order to quickly tune the skins and he had done it so many times that he couldn’t pluck them any other way: his occupation had changed him and the performance.

The box of haptic box is only a box because of shared histories and past orientations. It only exists because during the pandemic, my partner and I left Toronto to live in the much smaller city where we both did our undergrad, and that afforded some space for me to take up woodworking. Woodworking paired nicely with some previous work I’d done using transducers and Raspberry Pis, a bad coding habit, and a growing interest in feedback. As an object, you could say that the box is an artefact of a particular moment in time and crossing of material actors. As a thought, I would call it an abstraction or an analysis: a bundle of concepts provisionally excised from the flow of time by an imposed definition or identity. Brian Massumi describes things similarly, taking up the radical empiricist tenet that the real is synonymous with experience. In Semblance and Event he writes that objectivity is what separates off from the process of surrounding activity to become its own thing, which continues to contribute to the unfolding of other events.

“The objectivity of an experience is that quantum of the surrounding activity that the coming occasion of experience selectively takes up into itself as it separates off to phase into the occasion of its own becoming.”9

“When an occasion of experience perishes into the world of bare-active potential from which it arose, it contributes its self-formative activity to the world, for potential uptake into a next occasion’s unfolding…. It makes a bequest to process continuing beyond itself…”10

Both objects and abstractions take up part of their tangle and immediately weave it back in by a/effecting ongoing change. I tried to exemplify this in the performance process of Common.11 The players work through the material quasi independently, choosing points of entry, repetition, jumps, and endings, as well as changes in tempo, in real time during the performance. They try to find moments of cohesion in the overall sounding result, and what they define as cohesion is a matter of interpretation. The players continually relate the movements, sounds, touch of the other players to their own, both past (asking “How did what I played fit in with what they played? How did it affect it?”) and future (asking “How will this fit in? What might happen?”), and weave their responses back into the performance for the other players to take up.

Feedbacks like these play out on different time scales and through various media: thought, objects, sound, histories. I also find feedback in binaries that pop up in theoretical / philosophical work. I’ve been working with a Deleuze-influenced reading of Henri Bergson’s analysis-intuition pairing, which in Deleuze’s writing becomes striated and smooth, and which I hear echoed in things like Serres’s hard-soft distinction, Martin Heidegger’s world-earth (from “Origin of the Work of Art”), as above so below, to an extent Merleau-Ponty’s being and having a body, subject-object, Massumi’s position-process from Parables of the Virtual, which Kassabian reads as identity-affect, and so on. Seen through the lens of feedback, these terms are not fully distinct; more than that, they necessitate each other and bleed into each other. Serres’s hard concepts don’t exist without first being “in” the entire body, which they then play out on.12 Common’s players can’t really have an idea of what the material they’re working with is until they participate in it by playing with the other players. Identity for Kassabian is continually formed by and a byproduct of affect, and that affect is shaped by machinations resulting from decisions made around identity.13 Taking in the tactile feedback of haptic box means you have to touch it and thereby modulate the feedback. Bergson’s analysis can only happen in conjunction with an intuitive movement through the process of the world, which analysis then shapes.

People here who have worked with live amplification probably know that feedback can run away on you. Those who work with feedback as a musical material also know that it can be slippery to manage. What’s needed is a technique for staying with it. Playing feedback like with a guitar and speaker or with instruments like the Halldorophone, the Fjarlett, or Alice Eldridge’s Feedback Cell means to be in the loop, modulating it gradually and carefully, because a slight change can stifle the whole thing or let it go off the rails. You have an idea of what you’re looking for (say, a change in nodes or increased texture) and a rough idea of what certain actions will do (this would mute it, that would probably make it louder), but there’s a high degree of uncertainty which is part of the point. Neither the idea of what effects your actions will have nor the image of what you’re trying to accomplish can fully be known ahead of time, and really the whole fun is finding out how the material process fills in the gaps.

I had a similar realization when I was working on the score to Common.14 I had an idea in my head of how the thing would go, and had written all the lines and dots and was working on the text part when I became really bogged down by the details of how to communicate it, particularly that it might be interpreted “correctly.” What helped was going through previous scores and seeing how I’d managed in the past. A phrase that stood out to me that I’d used in the preamble to a bass solo, Burl, was “This score describes a very quiet performance for X, Y, and Z…”. I initially copied it in nearly verbatim as a way to break the ice of the problem but soon realized that it was wrong. I was actually using prescriptive, not descriptive, language – all the verbs were imperatives. Switching to a descriptive mode not only unblocked the stifling effect of needing to supply every detail, but also provided a change in my thinking about making music with a score. Instead of approaching the performance as a predetermined shadow of the image I tried to prescribe in the score (as the map is never fully coextensive with the lie of the land), the score became an byproduct of the image, and the task became what to do with it.

For Ripples, Common’s wistful younger sibling, I took that idea of the score as an artefact of some imagined performance and stripped away all the lines and dots.15 The image I described in the score was both earnest and infeasible. The thought of someone sitting intently trying to coax out a complex standing wave between these awkwardly stacked objects was influenced by idealistic phrases like Le Guin’s description of the end of the rights of kings and the title to Peter Marshall’s massive history of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible.16 Phrases like these give a sense that even having only a vague idea of some far-off goal is enough to work with. Thinking of this alongside Haraway’s staying with the trouble shows that such goal-orientation is complementary, not counter, to “living and dying well together in a thick present”: it’s hard to live well if living is just reacting, there has to be some idea of what it means to “live well.”

The intention’s taking up changes prompted by its unfolding became as critical to the outcome of Ripples as it had been in Common. Whereas in Common what started as a live in-person performance became online-only and a strategy had to be developed for telematically carrying its quiet materiality, the very performance techniques and staging described by the Ripples score we found to be incompatible with the materials available. Rather than letting it fall apart or attempting to bulldoze over the incompatibilities, we merged them and the intention of the score to create something like, not identical to, what it described. Though it would be easy to read this too as a failure, the score with its incomplete and probably impossible depiction actually requires this kind of creative negotiation.

Such a vague and impossible score might seem guaranteed to become overwhelmed by the forces of contingency, but the intention behind the score is what wove those particular forces together in the first place. Though the images of an intention’s goals and methods can never be complete and will always have details changed or filled in by circumstances, those images are no less deep or complex for it. Images have an “infinite quality” according to Gaston Bachelard, because they are “not subject to verification by reality.”17 As abstractions, images are selective in what they carry forward, but in mingling with other intentions and identities (also carried forward) they multiply possibilities. This is partly why Elizabeth Grosz writes that “art is the opening up of the universe to becoming-other…” and that “art engenders… material becomings, in which these imponderable universal forces touch and become enveloped in life.”18 Art is a flashpoint of contact between the striated and the smooth, hard and soft, world and earth, one and many, that changes both terms in unforeseeable ways. The experience of art is a creative tangling of various pasts and presents in speculative activity: ongoing, unfinished.


  1. Donna J. Haraway, “Introduction,” in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).↩︎

  2. “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable – but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art.” Ursula Le Guin, “Ursula K Le Guin’s Speech at National Book Awards: ‘Books Aren’t Just Commodities,’” The Guardian, November 20, 2014, sec. Books, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/20/ursula-k-le-guin-national-book-awards-speech; “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.” Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Ropley: Zero Books, 2009).↩︎

  3. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, 2nd ed. (London: Continuum, 1994), 145.↩︎

  4. “Critters interpenetrate one another, loop around and through one another, eat each another, get indigestion, and partially digest and partially assimilate one another, and thereby establish sympoietic arrangements that are otherwise known as cells, organisms, and ecological assemblages.” Donna J. Haraway, “Sympoiesis: Symbiogenesis and the Lively Arts of Staying with the Trouble,” in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016); Alice Eldridge and Alan Dorin, “Filterscape: Energy Recycling in a Creative Ecosystem,” in Applications of Evolutionary Computing, Lecture Notes in Computer Science (Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, n.d.), 508–17, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-01129-0_57.↩︎

  5. Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (I), trans. Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley (London: Continuum, 2008), 30, 141.↩︎

  6. Anahid Kassabian, Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), xv.↩︎

  7. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 44.↩︎

  8. Ahmed, 54.↩︎

  9. Emphasis added. Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts, ed. Erin Manning (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 9.↩︎

  10. Massumi, 22.↩︎

  11. At this point the presentation slides show excerpts from the score to Common, the entirety of which is available here.↩︎

  12. “To the process of subjectivization, which includes eating and drinking as well as learning and breathing, corresponds, as though by a symmetry of equilibrium, the process of objectification by which we sow our body throughout the world: we produce, in fact.” Michel Serres, Variations on the Body, trans. Randolph Burks (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2012), 123.↩︎

  13. “Identity is one of the formations that are left behind after affect does its work. But … identity only appears to be a static formation.” Kassabian, Ubiquitous Listening, xxvii.↩︎

  14. At this point the presentation slides show excerpts from the score to Common, the entirety of which is available here.↩︎

  15. At this point the presentation slides show excerpts from the score to Ripples, the entirety of which is available here.↩︎

  16. Peter H. Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (London: HarperCollins, 1992).↩︎

  17. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Second edition. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 86.↩︎

  18. “Art is the opening up of the universe to becoming-other, … the most direct intensification of the resonance, and dissonance, between bodies and the cosmos, between one milieu or rhythm and another.” Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 23.↩︎