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Pondering Value in the Performance Ecosystem

1. Introduction
2. Audible Ecosystems and Performance Ecologies
3. The Performance Ecosystem
4. Technology as Practice
5. Music as Practice
6. Conclusion
Notes | Bibliography | Author Biography

1. Introduction

In electroacoustic musicking — in common with all musicking — whilst we might feel we know when we have witnessed something good, it is considerably more difficult to express the reasons for our preferences verbally. Part of this undoubtedly rests in the general problems of using language to describe the considerably more ephemeral yet multi-dimensional experience of music (Small 1996[1977]). Yet, electroacoustic musicking, particularly at the experimental peripheries, appears to muddy the waters still further with its engagements with modern technologies and sonic forms.

Some practices, in particular, are resistant to definitive analyses. Performances where it’s not altogether clear who might be performing what, and compositions that resist any stable formal structure between realisations have been part of the musical landscape for some while. However, whilst these practices have proliferated, there remains a dearth of approaches for discussing value beyond those that take as a given that electroacoustic musicking per se is best explored in terms of its novelty and separateness from wider musical culture. Of particular difficulty is discussing the roles of technology in electroacoustic musicks; the idea that our means may only be neutral enablers of abstract intentions doesn’t seem to conform with experience, or certain discourses, but the received wisdom is that the only alternative position is a technologically determinist one.

Simon Waters recently suggested that the idea of a performance ecosystem as a “fruitful tool for the understanding and analysis of current musical activity” in that it affords an approach to normally categorical distinctions in musical discourse that recognises their contingency in history and mutability in practice (Waters 2007, 2). Waters, in particular, interrogates the distinctions between performers, instruments and environments, and provides a series of case studies to illustrate the ideas.

I’m going to start by discussing two of the practitioners that Waters covered, Agostino Di Scipio and John Bowers, in slightly more detail. Specifically, I’m going to discuss some commonalities in what might appear on the surface to be very different ways of working. I shall argue that these commonalities, as well as features of Waters’ own argument, suggest a attitude towards technologies that replaces a notion of separable devices with stable functions with a sense of technology-as-practice, complementary to music-as-practice. I flesh this idea out, and argue that technology and music both have similar roles in our being, in practice and in discourse. Both music and technology are ways in which we come to know our selves and our worlds, and both are subjected to the same kinds of effects from the particular species of rationalisation that is dominant under industrial capitalism. On this basis, I conclude by discussing the possibilities that this approach may have for discussing our experiences and opinions of diverse electroacoustic musics.

2. Audible Ecosystems and Performance Ecologies

Agostino Di Scipio and John Bowers both work in ways that are particularly resistant to traditional analyses. Di Scipio’s set of compositions under the banner of his Audible Ecosystemic Interface operate as an unfolding set of reactions between software, transducers and the wider acoustic environment, making music whose form is intimately tied to its sounding materials, yet contingent upon the performance environment. There are, to date, five Audible Ecosystemic studies. No. 1 Impulse Response Study uses pre-composed impulsive material as its basis. This is played into a room, and the software reconfigures itself, and the way in which the material is transformed in relation to the environment’s response. No. 2a Feedback Study and No. 2b Feedback Study with Performer both uses audible feedback as their sounding material, which is subject to constant disruption and disturbance in relation to environmental responses. In No. 3a Background Noise Study and No. 3b Background Noise Study with Mouth Performer, the ambient noise in the performance environment is both source material and system driver; in 3b, a performer generates small noises and vowel with a miniature microphone, which drives the behaviour of the software (Anderson 2005; Di Scipio 2003 and 2005).

Bowers’ focus is on electroacoustic improvisation. He is notable for an approach that employs many varied forms of technologies over the course of a performance, and has suggested a number of provocative ideas and approaches around music technology. For instance, he and Phil Archer suggested the idea of the infra-instrument, as a purposively simple and limited means of interaction to be used within a wider array (Bowers and Archer 2005). In this respect, Bowers is representative, in some ways, of the current practices around hardware hacking (Nicolas Collins 2006) and other “dirty” approaches to music technology (Richards 2008). He situates his practice around exploring the ways that varied interaction, sociality, musical materials and contingencies go into informing an electroacoustic improvisation, and proposes that rather than building instruments or systems, he is in engaged in constructing and interacting within a performance ecology (Bowers 2003).

2.1 Indeterminacy

The most obvious similarity between the Audible Ecosystemic Interface and Bowers’ notion of a performance ecology is that they deal with musicking that is explicitly indeterminate. Bowers, on the one hand, positions his work in the context of an improvisational practice, meaning that to some extent the point of the exercise lies in the very notion that nobody knows in advance what will happen. However, he also has a fondness for extending this, visibly and audibly, to his musical means. This is captured by his usage of “ecology”, implying a set of relations and interactions liable to constant flux, and is made more explicit by his interest in “ad-hoc instrumentation” (Bowers and Villar 2006). The recent “infra-instrument” (Bowers and Archer, 2005) Ohm-My-God, uses a bowl of random electronic components, explored with a kitchen utensil to construct arbitrary circuits on the fly (Bowers and Yaremchuk, 2007).

John Bowers
John Bowers, Ohm-My-God. Photo by John Bowers 2007. Some rights reserved.

In Di Scipio’s case, indeterminacy is also built-in: the Audible Ecosystemic Interface’s changes of state are propelled unpredictably by the circular-causality of its input-output cycle, its starting conditions and its various interconnections in software (Di Scipio 2003). There is no teleos or pre-given ending, and its sonic behaviour at any given moment is not reducible to a analysis of its components in isolation.

2.2 Emergence

In both cases, the experience of form is taken to be an emergent property of the interactions that make up the experience. “Improvised forms”, Bowers notes, are “ad hoc-ed moment-by-moment on the basis of what has gone before and projecting opportunities for what might come following” (Bowers 2003, 50) so that the formations of meaning around any the diverse musical materials brought to bear are on-going “social-interactional and practical affairs” (Bowers 2003, 49).

Similarly Di Scipio has previously argued that form is an emergent property of timbre changes: “in micro-time sonic design, especially, the musical form is experienced in terms of processes of timbre formation through time” (Di Scipio 1994, 146, emphasis in original), and is explicit as this applies to Audible Ecosystemic Interface in that “the sound we hear at any given time is the outcome of the whole history of the system’s process” (Anderson 2005, 17). That is, “interactions between computer and ambience appear as emergent properties of a self-organisational dynamics” (Di Scipio 2003, 275).

2.3 Contingency

A central theme of Di Scipio’s Audible Ecosystemic Interface is that all components of the system are structurally coupled, that is, the emergent characteristics of the resulting music are contributed to by all the various elements that make up the system in a given performance. So, it is not just a property of the mapping of control signals to processing routines and the ways in which those control signals are generated that give rise to the emerging sonority, but also on the characteristics of “the particular sound materials introduced into the system loop” and “specific room acoustics” (Di Scipio 2003, 275). Furthermore, microphones and loudspeakers are not neutral to proceedings, as both their characteristics and placement within the space are of significant importance to the outcome (Anderson 2005, 17). As such, any given experience of the Audible Ecosystemic Interface can be seen to depend on a host of contingencies, more or less stable between performances: the nature of the space, the situation of the equipment within it, the number of people in the space and even the environmental conditions (humidity, temperature etc.) will contribute to different behaviours.

Bowers likewise notes that the various contingencies encountered in his improvising practice are not cleanly separable from the nature of the music that emerges. He details various instances in which the particularities of space, technological failure or limitation, concert programming, social matters (within and beyond the performers) and the types of sonic material brought bear all contributed in various manners to the way in which musicking took place and to the sonorities that resulted. Bowers points out that

the music has arisen from these contingencies in such a way that, from an ethnographic point of view, it should not be analytically separated from them … the image of improvised electroacoustic music that I want to experiment with is one where these contingencies (of place, structure, technology and the rest) are not seen as problematic obstructions to an idealised performance, but are topicalised in performance itself. (Bowers 2003, 43–44)

2.4 Contestable Technique

Bowers and Di Scipio both experiment with uses of technology that resist orthodox notions of what constitutes proper usage.

Bowers, for instance, has proposed “infra-instruments” as components in his performance ecology as contrasted to highly sophisticated live electroacoustic technologies, which rely on traditional notions of virtuosity and complexity. Instead “infra-instruments come from beneath and are below the standards we would want of well-constructed instruments” (Bowers and Archer 2005, 10) — they feature restricted scope for interaction and may be made by trammelling an existing instrument, making incomplete or obviously mistaken configurations, or by using various found objects. The point being that assemblies of such restricted devices afford the kinds of “emergent interactions between components and devices” that Bowers is interested in (see section 2.2 above). The idea is given an almost polemic edge in Ohm-My-God (Bowers and Yaremchuk 2007, see section 2.1 above), where the unpredictable creation of circuits from “raw” componentry celebrates an approach decidedly different to the meticulous design of stable devices. Similarly, in the notes for an on-line release, Edison’s Residue, Bowers describes how instead of de-noising his starting materials, he instead kept only the noise and furthermore

… included other sounds which are normally peripheral or banished from good recording practice and exaggerated them: microphone handling noise, feedback, not very sensible gain-structure along a chain of three DJ mixers so that background noise accumulated alarmingly, contact microphones which were touched directly and loosely fitted to the surface they were to pick-up, switching things on and off with faders up. That sort of thing. (Edison’s Residue webpage)

Di Scipio takes a complementary approach in the Audible Ecosystemic Interface. The later studies for feedback and background noise are quite explicit in foregrounding “attention to that which is normally considered marginal and hence discarded” (Anderson 2005, 13). Noise is taken as enabling — “the medium itself where a sound generating system is situated, strictly speaking, its ambience…a necessary element” (Di Scipio 2003, 271–72). In the Background Noise Study, with Mouth Performer the focus is on oral gestures that are normally taken to be inimical to good vocal recording — lip smacks, glottal pulses and the like (Di Scipio 2005). More generally, Di Scipio proposes a “heretical” approach to technology, less as “a source of solutions to given problems than as a way to challenge previously established solutions and previously recognised problems” (Di Scipio 1998, 32).

Agostino Di Scipio, <em>Untitled 2008</em> (ecosystemic sound installation in abandoned or dismantled rooms)
Agostino Di Scipio, Untitled 2008 (ecosystemic sound installation in abandoned or dismantled rooms). In Room 1, the acoustic signal resulting from a feedback loop created by one mic and two subwoofers is altered by the presence of visitors. Vibrations on various surfaces in the room — window, walls, doors — are captured by contact mics and are sent back into the system “as is” but delayed, and a transformed version is sent to loudspeakers in Room 2. The signal captured from mics in Room 2 is low-pass filtered and sent to the subwoofers, altering the feedback loop more. Commissioned by and premièred at the 2008 Inventionen festival (Berlin, July–August 2008). Photo © Roman Maerz.

2.5 Interactivity

An interrogation of interactivity is at the heart of both the Audible Ecosystemic Interface and Bowers’ approach to electroacoustic improvisation. Di Scipio describes the majority of self-described interactive systems as having a “linear design ontology” in which “agent acts, computer re-acts”, so that the performer is the “only source of dynamical behaviour”. This, he proposes, is decidedly unlike the kind of interaction living organisms normally have with their environment, which he characterises as “a by-product of lower-level interdependencies”. As such, Di Scipio describes the Audible Ecosystemic Interface as “a shift from creating wanted sounds via interactive means, towards creating wanted interactions having audible traces”, so that interactions become the very subject of composition (Di Scipio 2003).

Bowers’ proposed æsthetic for electroacoustic improvisation is one that “highlights the public display of the variable interactivity, materiality and sociality which are at play as we collectively engage with musical machines” (Bowers 2003, 57). He argues that these issues are not to be taken as beside the musical point at all, but constitutive of it in that it is from variations in each of these (which will affect the others) that the music arises. Different forms of interaction with technology are interpretable by differing sonic results connected to visual activities (Bowers 2003, 47). Bowers, like Di Scipio, is concerned that interactivity should be “an area for æsthetic enquiry” rather than “a technical problem” (Bowers 2003, 57).

3. The Performance Ecosystem

As noted in the introduction, I am preceded by Simon Waters in discussing a similarity of concerns between Di Scipio’s and Bowers’ work (Waters 2007).Discussing the distinctions between performers, instruments and environment he notes that

The terms reify the corporeality (bodilyness) of the first, the goal-orientedness of the second, the otherness of the third. What is lost in this set of distinctions? What is masked, covered, generalised away in the mute acceptance of these separations [?]. (Waters 2007, 2, emphasis in original)

Waters’ interrogation of these questions focuses on the kinds of mutability that contemporary practices, such as Di Scipio’s and Bowers’, exhibit and explore. He throws up two points in particular that frame the issues I want to present over the remainder of this paper. The first functions as a generalisation of the points above in that

… the constraints and constructs upon which music depends are not only, not even mostly, to be found in the physical object of the instrument, but in the physiology of this particular body, in the algorithms which operate in the particular piece of warm wet meat, and in the many relationships between all of these and a particular acoustic and social environment. (Waters 2007, 3)

So, we move away from a sense of instruments — or musical technologies in general — as discrete units of function describable in the abstract, to an interest in the way function arises as a result of specific encounters, as part of a larger network of relationships and relationships between relationships (and so on), as Christopher Small puts it (Small 1998) — a sense of technology-as-practice.

Secondly, Waters notes that the peculiarities of performance with modern technologies not only accentuate our awareness of these contingencies between people, machines and places, but reveal a sense of contiguity with history:

… faced with the conundrum of adding the virtuality of the digital domain to the physical reality of the performer/instrument/environment triumvirate, we become peculiarly aware that there are virtualities to take account of even within more historically-situated versions of these concepts. (Waters 2007, 5)

and that

Musicking human beings have always explained and understood the relationship between body, instrument and environment as dynamic and mutable. Our digital present is no different. It is not fundamentally distinguished from other eras by the problems and opportunities presented by its ubiquitous technologies, because the biggest variable in the act of musicking has always been what we want to do / what we can imagine doing, and this in turn has always … been afforded by our sense of ourselves as organisms with a history (even organisms inside a history). [Waters 2007, 14]

This resonates with Simon Frith’s assertion that “what is most startling about the history of twentieth-century sounds is not how much recording technology has changed music, but how little it has” (Frith 1996, 245), yet runs counter to a more orthodox position within scholarship on electroacoustic music that has tended to emphasise the music’s exceptional, even revolutionary nature.

There are, to generalise, two related bases for this assertion. One is rooted in what Waters describes as a tendency “to consider the acoustic fact at the expense of social and cultural context” (Waters 2007, 2), that is, to celebrate the liberation of all sound as potential musical material without much reference to the relatively stable nature of musical rituals, divisions of labour and so forth. The other focuses on the technologies involved, proposing that there has been, for instance, a “digital revolution” (Cascone 2000), and a sense of what Frith calls “technological fertility”, that anything is now possible (Frith 1996, 245). I will flesh out this idea of technology-as-practice, and go on to elaborate on how it might relate to an idea of music-as-practice.

4. Technology as Practice

The significance, or otherwise, of the technological means that afford electroacoustic musicking is a controversial issue, particularly within the context of practices that mostly focus on an aural discourse. There is suspicion from some of those who make some degree of technicity evident in their work, be it in sound or interaction, that the latter are engaging in fetishism at expense of æsthetics. There is suspicion in reverse of what Simon Waters termed the “smooth surface” (Waters 2000) and the banishing of any trace of making itself represents a contrivance that shuts down an area of æsthetic interest and pertinence. There are also disputes around instrumentality and performance — particularly as regards the authenticity of performances that appear effortless or uninvolved that invoke distinctions between machines versus instruments — that themselves have been a long standing feature of musical culture (Pinch and Bijsterveld 2003).

These disputes mirror debates around technology in everyday life, and reveal the same discursive challenges. As technologies of various sorts become more and more apparent in every aspect of our lives, and particularly conspicuous in industrial capitalism’s most obvious ill-effects the idea, in general, that technologies might be simple value-free means to our ends seems less and less credible. On the other hand, it has always been hard to argue that the ways in which technologies are designed and deployed may have some effect upon the ends we set out to pursue without attracting charges of determinism — that we may, somehow, be in thrall to our machines.

4.1 Determinism

When technological determinism is raised in the musical literature it is often characterised along the lines of “machines making meaning” (Frith 1996, 275), or technology “transform[ing] its users directly” (Taylor 2001, 21). Whilst these are indeed deterministic positions — which it’s worth noting that Frith and Taylor were resisting — they are caricatures of a particular species of determinism, discussed further below. We would be better served by a more nuanced account in order to explore how machines can participate in making meanings or affecting ends whilst avoiding determinism.

Andrew Feenberg argues that determinism stems from nineteenth-century progressivism, in that “technical progress was believed to ground humanity’s advance toward freedom and happiness.” (Feenberg 1999, 2) This was a consequence of universalising assumptions by progressive thinkers who

… assumed that the ends which technology serves are permanent features of our biological constitution. Technology was thought to be neutral since it did not alter these natural ends but merely shortened the path to them …. If technology merely fulfils nature’s mandate, then the value it realises must be generic in scope. In fact this is the story that is so often told: technology’s advance is the advance of the human species. The editorial ‘we’ intervenes often in this story: ‘we’ as human beings went to the moon. (Feenberg 1999, 2)

This universalising idea carries with it two ideas that under-pin determinism: that technologies follow a fixed path, without deviation, from more basic to more sophisticated configurations that are dictated solely by (universal) technical necessity articulated through the pursuit of efficiency; and that society has constantly to adapt to the advance of technology, over which it has no sway. Technology is seen by determinism as being autonomous from its social contexts. Therefore

determinism…implies that our technology and its corresponding institutional structures are universal, indeed, planetary in scope. There may be many forms of tribal society, many feudalisms, even many forms of early capitalism, but there is only one modernity and it is exemplified in our society for good or ill. (Feenberg 1999, 78).

We will return to this notion with reference to music below (section 5.1). Meanwhile, what of machines making meaning? By Feenberg’s account, critics of the thesis of progress rejected the idea of technology’s neutrality, asserting that means and ends were linked, and that technologies embody ideology that exerts social and cultural effects. However, these thinkers didn’t also abandon the idea of technology’s autonomy, leading to a inescapably gloomy vision of humanity being deleteriously affected by something over which it has no control. Feenberg distinguishes this brand of deterministic thinking as substantivism (Feenberg 2002, 6–7).

It is worth being able to distinguish between original universalising-determinism and substantivism when we discuss the role of technology, and discourses about it, in musicking. The first remains largely invisible, by dint of remaining a dominant strain of thought both in Western polity and creative practice. The second makes a valid point in that technology is implicated in much of what is undesirable about modernity as is — environmental plunder, war, the apparent collapse of public life, rapacious corporate power, increasingly intrusive state power, and alienating, soulless labour, for example — and more generally, that means and ends are not truly independent. But it remains devoid of an account that admits for the experientially obvious agency of people in all this. Instead, let us turn to accounts that seek to explore the ways that technologies and actions can be mutually constitutive in practice.

4.2 Instrumentalisation Theory

Feenberg argues against technologies’ autonomy by pointing out that, in design, their form is underdetermined by technical principles alone. That is, for any given design problem, there will be a multitude of possible solutions (also noted by Bowers 2003, 54). In the end, design choices are selected from extra-technical criteria reflecting the priorities and contingencies of the design environment at hand. The resulting objects embody and reproduce these extra-technical assumptions, forming its horizon. This becomes apparent when these assumptions jar with the priorities and contingencies of the environment-in-use: “Reified forms embodied in devices and systems which reflect a narrow spectrum of interests encounter resistance from beyond their horizon as inefficiencies, irregularities” (Feenberg 1999, 222). See, for instance, Vaughn’s account of the resistances to his practice encountered in the digital studio (Vaughn 1994). More generally, Feenberg accounts for a formal bias in modern technology that is associated with a particular, rather than universal, conception of rationality held to be common sense under advanced capitalism (Feenberg 2002, pp.80–81).

The analytical solution proposed by Feenberg is to consider technologies in two levels. The first, called primary instrumentalisation, accounts for the functional conception of technologies — that is, as devices, free of context, designed for a given purpose. The second level, secondary instrumentalisation, accounts for devices inevitably existing and being encountered in an actual social, historical and material context (Feenberg 1999, 202–07).

Primary instrumentalisation consists of:

Secondary instrumentalisations, are the analytical level of concrete (rather than abstracted) devices in actual social and material circumstances. They act as a counter-balance to the reifying effects of the primary level, although under advanced capitalism Feenberg argues that these can be obscured or suppressed. They consist of:

Feenberg’s theory gives us a sense of how it is that function is subject to transformation by usage. The effects of secondary instrumentalisation can feed back into design, enlarging or changing the horizon of the object in question. This means that function, and what constitutes a member of a particular class of technologies (a sound-card, say) is socially constructed, contextually sensitive and, importantly, relational. What is understood, for instance, by the term sound-card will be a shorthand for a bundle of assumptions which will depend on, among other things, the relationship between the interlocutors, the larger topic of conversation, features of the class of devices’ history, and so on. Two electroacoustic musicians, in 2008, are unlikely to be referring to a card that is housed inside a computer, and will have expectations of word-length and sampling rate capabilities, not to mention the ways in which it can expect to be systematised with other devices.

Because the ability to participate in the formation of objects’ horizons is unequally distributed in society — heavily weighted in favour of those with the greatest means to disseminate devices and participate in professionalised design discourse — Feenberg identifies technology as a site of struggle in advanced capitalist culture whereby realised technologies’ embedded norms are resisted through successive re-appropriations that can be concerned with matters of preserving or establishing identity in a homogenised milieu. But how might this work at the level of interaction?

4.3 Interaction (again)and Identity

Interaction, argues Lucy Suchman

… is a name for the ongoing, contingent coproduction of a shared sociomaterial world. Interactivity as engaged participation with others cannot be stipulated in advance but requires an autobiography, a presence, and a projected future. In this strong sense, I would argue, we have yet to realize the creation of an interactive machine. (Suchman 2007, 23)

Nonetheless, she observes that as machines can be seen to be increasingly participant in our actions, questions of identity arise around agency as a defining attribute of human-ness and, by extension, around the nature of the human-machine interface or boundary. The idea of interface, Schuman argues, can not be fruitfully regarded as a static, singular entity as this would require a static, universal subject that simply does not exist. In this sense, she corresponds with Simon Waters’ account of “dyanamic and mutable” performer-instrument interfaces (Waters 2007, see section 3). However, Suchman notes that in designing interfaces that are, essentially static, designers encode a particular pre-conception of human-ness with which users (a term she identifies as problematic) have to struggle with or accept (see also Feenberg 2002, chapter 4).

Andy Clark argues that the mutability of the human-machine-world interfaces is also central to conceptions of human-ness. Clark’s interest is in the embodied and situated nature of cognition, (3) and he proposes that the boundaries of human cognition have always stretched far beyond the “skin bag” of our bodies to be intimately involved with our environments, artefacts and each other. This is in contrast to a more classical notion of the mind as an internal controller of the body as an actor upon the outside world. Clark argues that rather than the increasing connectedness of our technologies to our selves marking a new prosthetic culture, we are in fact “natural born cyborgs” for whom this has been a long running state of affairs (Clark 2003). However, instead of the traditional image of the cyborg, internally adorned with all manner of sensory enhancement,

… the use of such penetrative technologies is inessential. To focus on them is to concede far too much to the ancient biological skin-bag. What matters most is our obsessive, endless weaving of biotechnological webs: the constant two-way traffic between biological wetware and tools, media, props and technologies. The very best of these resources are not so much used as incorporated into the user herself. They have the power to transform our sense of self, of location, of embodiment, and of our own mental capacities. They impact who, what and where we are. (Clark 2003, 198)

4.4 World Building

Both Suchman and Clark note that design as an activity is not restricted to its professionalised practice, but an on-going feature of our situated acting. After all, when we work with recordings we are designing technologies, even if in a way that is diffused in time and space, and between different environments of action: assembling recording chains, setting up chains of transformations, arranging blocks of “sound” in a visual metaphor of time (a sequencer window) go to produce an artefact that will be systematised with other devices in a social setting where music will — eventually — happen. For Suchman, this requires a re-positioning of the role of the professional designer so that they recognise that their contribution is one stage of a on-going process.

Clark pursues the question of how humans construct for themselves “designer environments” in which the brain can offload cognitive tasks, but that also facilitate ways of thinking to which it, on its own, is poorly suited — “good at Frisbee, poor at logic” being Clark’s description of our unadorned capabilities. One particularly important implication of this is that when we make use of even a mundane prop to aid thought — say a pencil and paper to work on sums — cognition is seen as being as much in the acting-with-pencil-and-paper as in our brains, making the human-device boundary truly diffuse. The trick, he argues, is that human-kind has been prolific in its use of what he calls “external scaffolding”, in a way that stretches beyond cues for action in our immediate surroundings or the in use of devices-at-hand, but that

…advanced cognition depends crucially on our abilities to dissipate reasoning: to diffuse achieved knowledge and practical wisdom through complex social structures, and to reduce the loads on individual brains by locating those brains in complex webs of linguistic, social, political, and institutional constraints. (Clark 1997, 180, emphasis in original).

The idea of technology-as-practice presented, then, elaborates on Waters’ observations about dynamic mutability between performers and instruments — and indeed, composers and studios — and wider environments. (4) At the same time, I have tried to show that, whilst the social context of action, and the histories of actors account for a good deal of the outcome of these mutable interactions, this does not render designs neutral to proceedings. Indeed, where design choices embody purportedly universal ideas of what human-ness, or musicking may consist of, there is the potential for quite invidious consequences. Lastly, I have argued through the work of Feenberg, Suchman and Clark that this mutability and situatedness is, and has been, a more general state of affairs than solely performance.

There are further implications to Clark’s argument that “language, culture and institutions” (Clark 1997, 47) form part of our extended networks of being; The isolated and decontextualised æsthetic subject is re-constituted as part of a network of situated inter-subjects, and there is also the suggestion of a degree of symmetry between the way musicking (as a proxy for cultur-ing) and technology may be treated in practice and discourse. As such, it is to music-as-practice that I now turn.

5. Music as Practice

Feenberg has recently extended the scope of Instrumentalisation Theory to examining, in its terms, the effects of other systems of social rationality — the application of a particular type of (objectifying) rationality to social processes — under contemporary capitalism. In addition to technology, he identifies these as being the market, as a rationalised means of determining what constitutes “equal exchange”, and the institutions and corporations of the state and capital, that are able to construct classifications and apply rules where once cultural tradition did the job (Feenberg 2008).

In this section I want to outline a parallel discussion of music to the treatment of technology, above. I will present a rough application of the Instrumentalisation Theory to music in capitalist culture, highlighting the role of these other rationalising forces, as well as the equivalent way in which people are still able to go about making their own meanings in practice. To start with, though, I want to discuss briefly the role of a priori universalism as a feature of rationalised musical culture, as a parallel to determinism.

5.1 Universalism

If the assumption that the ends served by technology represent given human universals underpins technological determinism (see section 4.1), then we see an easy parallel in how music has been regarded within the dominant discourse in that western art music serves as a corollary for the thesis of progress: just as the technical achievements of industrial capitalism were / are seen to represent the advance of humanity in general, so were / are the cultural achievements and priorities of western art musicking taken as signifying the same kind of progress, universal ends, and consequent autonomy of meaning (Small 1996[1977], 1998). Of course, this situation has been mitigated somewhat by the growth of ethnomusicology and it may be, as Simon Emmerson suggests, that the hirearchy of musicking that went with this is no more (Emmerson 2007, 63). The point, here, however is to emphasise the equivalent roles that a priori universalisation have had in reifying both technology and music.

5.2 Instrumentalisation

With the above in mind, then, I present a sketch of Instrumentalisation Theory with respect to music. It it not, of course, comprehensive by any means and there is much scope for further development. Neither are any individual observations of particular novelty or controversy, but it represents an interesting way of putting them together that, I believe, is revealing.

At the level of primary instrumentalisation, we deal with music as a reified entity:

At the secondary level, we consider the effects of music-in-practice. As with technologies, there are affordances here both to compensate for and reinforce the reifying effects of the primary level:

5.3 Identity, again

Just as rationalised practices and discourses around technology differentiate strongly between those who design and those who use — associating expertise with authority — so rationalised practices and discourses around music imply categorical differentations between those who create and those who consume. But, as with technical artefacts, matters are considerably more socially diffuse and unstable than the distinctions tend to allow for (Waters 2007), as they are subject to ongoing constestation and revision in relation to practices.

It follows from this that musicking, like our interactions with artefacts, is a relational affair — that meanings, like interfaces or functions, arise within a complex network of social and material relationships that, as Small (1998) argues, throws up networks of higher-order relationships (relationships between relationships and so forth). Musicking — like Lucy Suchman’s description of interaction (see section 4.3) and as per Waters’ observation that for all our new technology things remain historically consistent (section 3) — is a situated coproduction between “organisms with a history” (Waters 2007, 14), presence (however mediated) and culture that plays a significant role in how we think (Clark 1997).

So, as with technology and its constant design-in-use, creativity turns out to be a diffuse affair, where the construction of meaning and the conditions under which meaning may be construed exceed the involvement of experts and professionals, and this relates to the role musicking has in forming and discussing identity.

One strand of this concerns identity as musicians — who gets to call or consider themselves a creative participant. Small has noted the invidious effects that dominant rationalisations have in this regard on self-confidence and the ability to participate, as both people with the wrong sort of talent may be marginalised and trained professionals strait-jacketed (Small 1996[1977], 1998). Furthermore, there tends to be an underlying assumption that musicking outside of professionalised contexts either doesn’t happen to any significant degree, or that if it does, is æsthetically unimportant. However, as Everitt (1997) discovered, there is a prodigious amount of non-professionalised musicking in the United Kingdom (5) — and that the categories of amateur and professional themselves conceal a considerably more dynamic and mutable set of relationships — that contributes significantly to the formation of wider musical culture(s).

This leads me to the other sense of identity I want to consider, which arises through our ‘everyday’ engagements with music. The kinds of work undertaken by Bull (2000) and DeNora (1999) suggests that music plays a role in the kind of “designer environments” of “external scaffolding” that Clark (1997, see section 4.3 above) proposes are part of our identity forming apparatus. Bull argues that personal-stereo use is not adequately accounted for by regarding it as an abdication from one’s surroundings, and rather listeners are actively affecting their environment to manage mood and their relation to the context-at-hand; DeNora identities a range of ways in which people experiment with identities and draw senses of self-hood from their deployment of and engagement with music, leading her to suggest that music is “technology of the self”.

Simon Frith argues that this identity forming is central to æsthetics — our value judgements about music. It is not merely a question of abstracted association with idealised types of identity represented by particular musical rituals, but as something experienced directly — what makes music we like special is that it “defies the mundane…[and] puts us somewhere else” so that it is “special not just with reference to other music but, more important, to the rest of life” (Frith 1996, 275). Furthermore, he observes that our tastes aren’t (deterministically) structured by socially constructed ideal identities, but reciprocally enact this social construction.

The object of this brief and limited account of music-as-practice has been two-fold. In the first instance, by exploring parallel accounts of both technology and music in practice, I want to argue that both technology and music constitute different ways in which we come to know our selves and our worlds, which seem both to be amenable to a method of analysis and discussion that recognises the socially diffuse nature of both but retains a critical thrust, and that Feenberg’s Instrumentalisation Theory may be revealing in this regard.

Secondly, these parallel accounts represent a starting attempt to explore some of the linkages thrown up by Simon Waters’ suggestions as to how the performance ecosystem might be a fruitful position for considering contemporary practices. These include questions of interaction with each other, our artefacts, environments and minds as they relate both to how they relate to music as it emerges in situ and how the micro-social immediacies relate to macro-social stabilises (Born 2005). I started this paper by noting the difficulty in talking evaluatively about electroacoustic music, even though we generally feel that we know when we’ve witnessed something good or bad, and its with some thoughts around this that I want to conclude.

6. Conclusion

Whilst I’m not attempting to provide specific answers, I want to suggest that the kinds of elaboration that the performance ecosystem perspective makes possible may be of help in how we orientate ourselves around questions of value in electroacoustic musicking. At first blush, there may appear to be two distinct sites and sorts of discussion — within the institutions and practices that associate themselves with art-music, and those in popular culture. In the art institutions there continue to be reformations of continuing debates about performance and authenticity. As improvisation has been re-established as musically legitimate and technological experiments have proliferated, so there is a sense of multiple groups talking past each other as various different priorities and assumptions go unexplained or unregarded as regards the evaluation of things like form or machinic-agency (or audibility). Yet these assumptions stand for perhaps significant differences in what musicking may be held to be about.

Meanwhile, the idea of electroacoustic musicking has (in some circles) undergone a widening of brief, no longer just accounting for just art practice, but for any musicking for which “amplification changes…the experience of sound and is integral to the performance” (Emmerson 2007, xiii). This would imply that we need to be able to talk sensibly, and sensitively, about a huge range of musical practices, and about the vagaries at the porous edges of the category, particularly popular electroacoustic musics. In fact, this turns out not to be a separate site or sort of discussion to have about value.

The art-popualar distinction, as Simon Frith elegantly argues, has always enjoyed rather more certainty as a discursive construct than in practice (Frith 1996, chapters 1–2), as practitioners and audience alike have always intermingled and mixed. Whilst there are certainly differences in values, accounts that, for instance, contrast an irretrievably commercially compromised popular sphere with a transcendently independent artistic one are too schematic to conform to experience, and obscure the way in which the serious and popular have historically relied on each other for their self-definition. Frith suggests instead that three mutually-defining discourses — art, commercial and folk — have arisen in various mixtures in almost all musicking under industrial capitalism as a response to those conditions. This idea has considerably greater explanatory power as it enables us to discuss the ways in which all artists may be commercially involved (Thaemlitz 2002), how art values operate throughout popular culture, or how folk discourse may crop up in arts institutions.

Recognising, then, that “the superior” is not “the exclusive property of the ‘high’’’ (Frith 1996, 16) reduces the number of problems, but seems to replace them with a single, bigger one. I want to suggest that the notion of the performance ecosystem and the kinds of elaboration I’ve made on it in this paper provide a fruitful way for starting to investigate the different kinds of values at work in electroacoustic musicking.

I started by offering an account of similarities in practice between two artists’ work — Agostino Di Scipio’s Audible Ecosystemic Interface and John Bowers’ improvising practice — that would appear to be difficult to evaluate in either strictly performative-gestural or structural-auditory terms. Both concern themselves centrally with the nature of their interactions with artefacts, spaces, people and culture and how it is that the music emerges from these, and I gave an overview of Simon Waters’ notion of the performance ecosystem as a way of contextualising these commonalities. What was apparent was that, like musicking, music technology can be regarded as something that arises through practice, not prior definition.

By treating both technology and music as practices, through which identities are produced and contended, I hope to have provided a basis for according the things that various musicians do and say about technology some significance in understanding the ways they music and for the ways in which our historical situation affects us, whilst avoiding either determinism or an absence of critical potential.

My own axe to grind in this is in pursuing electroacoustic music in collective contexts and querying its relative scarcity as part of the kinds of every-day, socialised practice an instrumentalist might enjoy. Future work that builds on this paper will seek to explore what resistances and affordances are encountered along the way.


  1. This was originally mediation (Feenberg 1999, 2002), but was changed to try and avoid potential confusion between mediation in the sense of a subject’s experience, as used by Born (2005) and Chion (1994), and the idea here of mediations upon an object (Feenberg 2008)
  2. As above, this has been changed (Feenberg 2008) from a previous term — vocation (Feenberg 1999, 2002).
  3. Similar to the work in the ecological perception of music by Windsor (2000) and Clarke (2005)
  4. Studios, of course, are particular environments themselves, both spatially and socially. That this is obscured when, for instance, we speak of laptops as being studios is itself symptomatic of our functionalising discourse.
  5. And I shall make the perhaps unwarranted assumption, for now, that this applies to other industrial capitalist societies.


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Other Articles by the Author

“More Than ‘Just a Hammer’: Critical Techniques in Electroacoustic Music.” SoundAsArt Conference (University of Aberdeen, November 2006). Available here.

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