Contents

Common is a very quiet performance by three players on one concert bass drum. The players explore fragments of material which changes as they traverse the skin with their fingertips. Feeling and hearing how individual actions are affected by those of the other players, the group seeks out moments of resonance: a phrase emerging between multiple parts, a texture, a groove, some other quality. Sustaining these through inventive repetition, the ensemble navigates a shifting and plural commons. Movement becomes vibration through touch feeling interference and harmony modulated by hearing skin mixed with skin projected through drum walls and mingling with other machines and motions on either side of the venue walls to further affect or effect tensions of muscle and skin and skin.

Background

After quite some time away from live music due to the pandemic, and even longer away from writing ensemble music, I had the opportunity to work with Tsilumos Ensemble for the 2022 edition of the SALT festival. I had been working with quiet electro-acoustic feedback for a number of months and initially hoped to mount something interactive-ish using that work, but the results didn’t come together. This was probably for the best, since the festival became livestream-only due to the Omicron outbreak. Either way I decided to work more in the spirit of the festival and write a piece for performance, which became Common. Ajtony Csaba, Michael Dias, and Nolan Krell gave Common a very good premiere on Jan 7, 2022.

The performance process

A performance of Common involves three players quietly manipulating the skin of a concert bass drum, which is turned face-up like a table. The players tap, pluck, and draw out sustained sounds from the skin using their fingertips. The score is given in four fragments which the players move through independently, making decisions about points of entry, repetition, and tempo change in real-time during the performance. As they work their way through the quiet performance, the players try to draw out moments of coherence by repeating or sustaining gestures when they discover them. What they decide is coherent is a matter of interpretation which leads to a high degree of difference between performances and ensembles as they gravitate toward their own stylistic musical worlds, but these might orient toward texture, phrase, counterpoint, or structure.

Common and uncommon

Common was designed to express my interest in multi-milieux entanglement and present an opportunity to engage in it aesthetically: as an experience for its own sake.1 Several entanglements are themselves entangled in the performance. First, the musical performing of the three players is entangled via the drumskin: each player’s sounds are modified by each other player’s actions as they all manipulate the skin. In addition to the resulting sound, this contingency affects the players’ tactile feel for the instrument (gestures produce different sounds depending on what the other players are doing; as a player becomes disconnected from musical control they might become more connected with the actions of the ensemble), entangling body movement, drumskin, other players, and sound. Similarly, the resulting group-sound is continually interpreted by the players as they search for moments of cohesion to sustain. Improvising with the material is in itself a complex process of relating gesture, sound, scored material, personal musical tastes, interpersonal relationships with ensemble members, mood, and so on. These relationships are folded in on themselves and complexified by the contingent nature of the performers’ sounding output on the movements of each other player: the problem of being disconnected from control over one’s performed sounds is given meaning by the group’s musical intention to try to do something with those sounds. That something is, as it turns out, a relating of the coincidental intersection of the players’ locations in the score at any given moment with what they determine (through whatever means) is a coherence they want to sustain (and their ability to recognize and sustain it).

The low volume level of the performance creates a few further tangles. As in some of my other composition work, I decided on it because it can enable a powerful experience of the relationships between listener, ensemble, space, and audience.2 In the performance of Common, quiet further challenges the problems navigated by the ensemble: hearing gestures of other players is impeded by their low volume and the sound of the “music itself” is intruded upon by incidental sounds of performers shifting weight, the HVAC rumbling overhead, and other people living in the venue.3 While I had hoped for the performance to play on in-person sharing of space through a greatly anticipated return to live performance, a rapid spike of the most recent COVID-19 variant omicron forced the whole festival to become livestreamed. This configuration in combination with the work’s dynamic level further complexified the relationships in the piece, conspicuously drawing in the multimedia technicians and equipment, internet infrastructure (both hardware and software), and the various situations of the listener / user (technological, acoustic, social, etc.).

In other words, what these various entanglements and entanglements of entanglements reveal are common arenas or milieux shared by various actors or agents (performers, listeners, composer; but also non-human actors drawn into the fold such as the drum, the venue, the electromechanical infrastructure of the livestream, the cat aggressively cleaning itself next to us as we listen on the couch). Think about it for too long and the boundaries between the actors and the tangles start to blur as they come to inter-act and inter-depend upon each other.4 But of course there are differences; we can point to something and say, “that is a bass drum and not my partner’s cat”; we can assign a boundary and identity to things and concepts. Thinkers have shed some ink on how and what it means that things can be isolated from their environment (things like Gestalt theory, Bergson’s abstraction-process distinction, Michel Serre’s hard and soft, Brian Massumi and Erin Manning’s theory of perception all come to mind), but for me the interesting aspect is how they interact.5 Michel Serres writes about how the body takes on the form of its environment in the process of moving through it, for instance in the way that a climber shapes their body to the mountainside in the process of climbing, while in resisting the contour of the earth creates newness.6 I find this notion similar to the way that Sarah Ahmed’s tables and rooms move through history: shaped by assumptions of previous makers, shaping the behaviours of contemporaries, further shaped by deviations of those users.7 It’s a fortunate coincidence that the players of Common relate via a skin, the metaphorical boundary between the internals of a body and the external environment, a boundary which becomes more fluid and easily transgressed the closer one examines it.8

Resonance

The way in which the environment and the actor / individual / agent relate is a process of feedback: both continually change the other and are changed by the other. In an audio context, feedback has a particular significance: if you’ve heard a microphone or a guitar suddenly squeal, you’ve heard feedback between the speaker and the input. But feedback isn’t necessarily an ear-splitting squeal. In the context of electronic audio, feedback is closely related to the idea of resonance: a sound resonates because part of it returns a moment later.9 Both electronic and acoustic resonance are complex processes by which the sound is continually shaped both by the environment and the process. A room or an instrument resonates at a particular set of pitches because those are the frequencies resulting from the size, shape, and material of the object.

The process performed by the players of Common can be understood as searching for resonance. One player’s performed output is taken up by another player, whose following actions are modified to suit and taken up again by the first player. They form a “standing wave” when they lock into a coherence, when two or three players sustain each other in a particular quality. To use Bergson’s language, this is a resonance between process and abstraction, since both are feeding through each other.

(I should clarify that I don’t think there is anything uncommon about this process. Concepts are related to the world all the time, the world is changed according to concepts, and hopefully concepts are changed according to the world. But I think there’s something special about it and that Deleuze might have been on to something when he described this continual transduction between concept and world as none other than life itself: “Life is the unity of the soul as the idea of the body and of the body as the extension of the soul.”10)

Language and world-building

A consequence of thinking through resonance can be seen in the language used in the score, which uses a descriptive mode unlike the prescriptive language I used in my previous scores. I first decided to try the descriptive mode because the prescriptive was stifling: the feeling of needing to account for every possible way someone might encounter a work jarred me out of a creative mode and into a claustrophobic process of fending off undesirable outcomes as they closed in upon the experience I was trying to bring into being. Writing the score as a description of an imagined performance allowed me to think more freely and acknowledge that I couldn’t control how one might encounter the work (listeners or performers).

The mode of working that follows from a descriptive score better fits the image of resonance I described above. Whereas a prescriptive mode implies a compromise between the work and reality (“More like this” / “I can’t physically do that” / “Okay, we’ll settle”; or worse, “More like this” / “I’ll injure myself if I do” / “Do it anyway, it’ll be worth it”), a descriptive mode sidesteps compromise by acknowledging that the imagined work isn’t a mathematical limit-goal. Instead, what is described is like a sense of something which guides a process of actualization that changes part of the world to have the same sense.11 The sense can’t exist on its own, it needs to be produced by something in the world which then contributes entanglements with other things and their senses. The aspects of world which produce the work also shape it, creating a system of feedback which eventually stabilizes (or meta-stabilizes) into a resonance as the work is performed.

The score describes a possible world in which its performance is taking place. The performers, technicians, festival admin, and I worked together to make our world something like that one, which could never exist in its ideal form because it lacks the grit and take of something embroiled in the world, the stuff that makes discovery, exploration, and novelty enjoyable and possible. Instead of compromising at one or the other end, we worked productively from the world we were given. I’m inspired here by Donna Haraway’s “SF: science fiction, speculative fabulation, string figures, speculative feminism, science fact, so far.”12 SF is a process of following and weaving entangled threads, producing in the string figure not a diagram or shadow “but rather the actual thing, the pattern and assembly that solicits response, the thing that is not oneself but with which one must go on.”13 Going-on requires acting toward an imagined reality, all the while taking the ongoing one (including the effects of these actions) into account in continual re-imaginings.

Dave Riedstra, 11 Jan 2022
revised 15 Feb 2022


  1. What makes an experience aesthetic? It doesn’t make sense to me to describe it as a “sensible” experience, I don’t think there should be a line between experiences of the senses and other types of experiences (partly because that line would be difficult to locate, partly because it would imply a value judgement on either side). This might be coming to me from a formulation Brian Massumi makes about radical empiricism: “The basic tenet of radical empiricism is that everything that is experienced is real in some way and that everything real is in some way experienced.” Instead of trying to segment experience, the aesthetic might be better described in the attitude or orientation toward an experience: as one had for its own sake, as opposed to in the service of a goal. This orientation relates to the entertainment-entrainment distinction Massumi and Erin Manning make in Thought in the Act, which might tie in to the idea of resonance later in this post (if you accept that one can engage both entertainment and entrainment in degrees). Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts, ed. Erin Manning (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011), 4; Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014).↩︎

  2. For earlier writing on quiet in my music, see Dave Riedstra, “Mathesis and Technicity in ❙■▲▬●,” March 2015, https://www.academia.edu/12007070/Mathesis_and_Technicity_in_.↩︎

  3. The wariness with which Seth Kim-Cohen approaches the “in-itself” construction speaks to not only entanglement in a material sense (for example, of sound with its environment) but also in the metaphysical sense with which I conclude this post, that the ideal and the real are in a continual co-dependent process of feedback. Seth Kim-Cohen, In the Blink of an Ear: Toward a Non-Cochlear Sonic Art (New York: Continuum, 2009), 13–14.↩︎

  4. In a purely material sense, “we do not have a clear understanding of where a body stops. In the case of a human body, we could not possibly consider that the skin constitutes its absolute limit; this would be denying our ability to shiver, as well as to detect a silent presence behind us when close enough from our body.” Léopold Lambert, “# SPINOZA /// Spinozist Body/Terrain: We Ignore Where the Body Stops,” THE FUNAMBULIST MAGAZINE, November 11, 2014, https://thefunambulist.net/architectural-projects/spinoza-spinozist-bodyterrain-we-ignore-where-the-body-stops. In a broader biological scope, Donna Haraway illustrates the ongoing inter-constitutive making-with of sympoiesis: “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 [….] Critters do not precede their relatings; they make each other through semiotic material involution, out of the beings of previous such entanglements.” 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).↩︎

  5. Henri Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. T. E. Hulme (London: Macmillan, 1913); Manning and Massumi, Thought in the Act: Passages in the Ecology of Experience; Michel Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies, trans. Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley (London: Continuum, 2009).↩︎

  6. In The Five Senses Serres describes writing and plowing as similar processes of spreading oneself over a plane / plain. Later, in Variations on the Body, he states that while the angled posture of mountain climbing brings one closer to the earth (as a proxy for a state of being undifferentiated with the earth signalled by similarity to quadrupedal movement), standing upright contradicts this state. Paradoxically, the first thing to do after standing is to set about constructing shelter from the earth just departed. Serres, The Five Senses, 238; ibid., Variations on the Body, trans. Randolph Burks (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2012), 3–5, 11–13. Similarly, the recurring image of the student swimmer in Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition exemplifies the complicating interference in the chaotic feedback in the entanglement of body and world: “Learning to swim or learning a foreign language means composing the singular points of one’s own body or one’s own language with those of another shape or element, which tears us apart but also propels us into a hitherto unknown and unheard-of world of problems.” Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, 2nd ed. (London: Continuum, 1994), 192.↩︎

  7. Sara Ahmed, “Orientations Toward Objects,” in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006). See also Table.↩︎

  8. Though Serres emphasizes the role of skin as a veil or a membrane (as a veil, restricting sight while intimating virtual interactions like touch; as a membrane, a point of contact with the outside world which carries forward scars of previous encounters like tattoos), he ultimately expresses the joining rather than limiting nature of the membrane. It’s through the skin that bodies and environments mingle: “I mix with the world which mixes with me. Skin intervenes between several things in the world and makes them mingle.” Serres, The Five Senses, 80;↩︎

  9. Analog circuits, especially filters, are said to be resonant if there is a feedback portion in the audio loop; similarly, all digital audio filters comprise controlled feedback. Robin Donald Graham, A Foundation For Electronic Music, 2nd ed. (Osaka: Roland, 1978), 61; Miller Puckette, The Theory and Technique of Electronic Music (Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific Publishing Co, 2007), 229.↩︎

  10. Deleuze continues to describe how life only exists in its being acted out by the living, who in so doing expand the category of the one (by effecting what life is) and have their potential expanded by it (as members of the multiple described by that category). “Life, in the first instance, seems to exist only through and within the living being, within the individual organism that puts it in action. Life exists only through these fragmentary and closed assumptions, each of which realises it on its own account and nothing more, in solitude. That is to say that universality, the community of life, denies itself, gives itself to each living being as a simple outside, an exteriority that remains foreign to it, an Other: there is a plurality of men yet, precisely, each one must in the same way assume his life for himself…” Gilles Deleuze, “Mathesis, Science, and Philosophy,” Collapse 3 (2007): 140–55. There is room here for further reading in Simondon’s notions of transduction and transindividuation as well as the connections between Deleuze’s ideas and esoteric traditions. See for instance Christian Kerslake, “The Somnambulist and the Hermaphrodite: Deleuze and Johann de Montereggio and Occultism,” Culture Machine (blog), April 10, 2007, https://culturemachine.net/interzone/somnambulist-and-the-hermaphrodite-kerslake/; Joshua Ramey, The Hermetic Deleuze: Philosophy and Spiritual Ordeal (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), https://www.dukeupress.edu/The-Hermetic-Deleuze/; Muriel Combes, Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, Technologies of Lived Abstraction (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013).↩︎

  11. “Sense” here in the Deleuzian sense: “the nature of ideal sense is to point beyond itself towards the object designated.” Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, 154.↩︎

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

  13. In other words, not an icon but a simulacrum. Gilles Deleuze, “The Simulacrum and Ancient Philosophy,” in The Logic of Sense, ed. Constantin V. Boundas, trans. Mark Lester and Charles Stivale (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 1990), 263–89.↩︎