Ripples

Spring 2022
Performed by Brian Archinal at the University of Leeds 16 March 2022.
score.

Ripples

The tiny movements of the cymbal sitting inverted on the drum transfer energy through the latter’s skin in both directions: in one propelled by the cymbal’s own inertia, at times periodic, and in the other taking up vibration from the drum head which carried the energy in the first place. The complex mélange of motion and its transfer might become self-reinforcing if it finds resonant nodes: efficiencies in the vibrational pattern which retain its energy. Otherwise energy transfers away from the quietly sounding surfaces through the frame of the drum, which is already tied into the system’s kinetic ecosystem by providing the resistance responsible for tensioning the skin, and dissipates into other energetic assemblages.

Energy enters the seemingly simple configuration of objects when the performer’s body mingles with the table-like surface of the drum.1 Placing skin to skin, the player rejoins their history with the instrument’s, and each take up a part of the other into their new path.2 Shorter events emerge from and merge with the broader processual flow: the sharp attacks of Archinal’s skillful plucks are the joining of the nearly still drum head, preparative muscular movements before the sudden sound (and rehearsal, emails, and training before that), and the sound’s ringing out through the instrument into the hall (through the microphone and broadcasting equipment and mp3 encoding and internet relays and who knows how many endpoints, possibly none, with local wireless networks and mp3 decoding and digital-to-analog converters and a 3-foot cable and a magnetic coil twitching with electricity and the short distance to someone’s ear, possibly none, where the sound might not have been distinguishable from the noise floor that had been there through the entire livestream).

Trying to imagine how one’s movements will affect these swirling inter-informing flows is as difficult as trying to imagine always having had been other. Even though the performance ended up looking like a three body problem scenario (already difficult to predict), accounting for the cascading totality of material forces and immaterial vectors that converge to influence an event would take an omniscient understanding. Drawing lines like the borders of objects or bodies or the beginnings or ends of events serves only to contingently point to a region of the thick mesh of the world.

What allows for the undertaking of actions in such an unpredictable stew is speculation, an image of what the world might be like if something were to transpire. The image is impossibly vague and somewhat removed from reality by virtue of not being able to account for every detail, and has as much to do with the material shape of its outcome and its ripple-out effects as it does with what it might feel like to the speculator. As much as speculation is detached, it is also mired in the process of the world, which both motivates it and gives it a surface to push off of, and has done so for prior suppositions and goals that have led to the present one.

Ripples itself is a speculative undertaking. Its text score prosaically describes a moment, providing some pragmatic and affective details while omitting others. Working to create a performance, Brian and I mingled this image with our personal histories and the contemporaneous conditions, finding that some elements of “the piece” needed shifting to be compatible with material and social conditions, just as we exercised movement in the “real world” to bring it closer to the score’s image. Contingency filled in the vaguenesses of the score just as the score guided our movements through the world. That the feedback between these poles fills in details of the other means both that the idea is impossible (in its vagueness) and that it doesn’t matter the degree to which it’s impossible. Just like the performer’s self-set task of trying to build a standing resonance between the drum head and the cymbal, it’s more important what does actually result.

Working speculatively like this is one way of Staying with the Trouble.3 Balancing the feedback between abstract intentions and material contingencies means attending to their ongoing interaction without looking to assert the dominance of either over the other. Rather than capitulating to unpredictability or attempting to clobber it away, speculation stays with its image and with the real, guiding its orientation by taking up the difference into a next occasion’s unfolding.4


  1. “The state of things becomes tangled, mingled like thread, a long cable, a skein…. The state of things seems to me to be an intersecting multiplicity of veils, the interlacing of which bodies forth a three-dimensional figure. The state of things is creased, crumpled, folded, with flounces and panels, fringes, stitches and lacing.” Serres, Michel. The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mingled Bodies (I). Translated by Margaret Sankey and Peter Cowley. London: Continuum, 2008, 82. I might like to tease out a common thread between the fabric of this passage and the string figuring of Donna Haraway’s S.F. in Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016.↩︎

  2. In Queer Phenomenology, Sarah Ahmed describes the lasting interactions bodies, objects, and spaces can have. Bodies and objects change in each other’s presence: “This body with this table is a different body than it would be without it…. Bodies are hence shaped by contact with objects and with others, with ‘what’ is near enough to be reached. Bodies may even take shape through such contact, or take the shape of that contact. What gets near is both shaped by what bodies do, which in turn affects what bodies can do.” (54) This change is carried forward to affect future actions: “What we ‘do do’ affects what we ‘can do.’” (59) And after a while, it catalyses further difference and newness. “Having arrived, such bodies in turn might acquire new shapes. And spaces in turn acquire new bodies. So, yes, we should celebrate such arrivals. The ‘new’ is what is possible when what is behind us, our background, does not simply ground us or keep us in place, but allows us to move and allows us to follow something other than the lines that we haw already taken.” (62-63) Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006.↩︎

  3. “In fact, 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.” Haraway, Staying with the Trouble.↩︎

  4. This phrasing and my understanding of abstractions and happenings more broadly comes from Brian Massumi, Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurrent Arts, ed. Erin Manning (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011).↩︎