Report by Tyran Grillo (between sound and space)
Photos by Evan Cortens
Music: Cognition, Technology, Society set a formidable intellectual task before participants of the selfsame conference at semester’s end on the quieting campus of Cornell University. Under the attentive care of organizers Caroline Waight, Evan Cortens, Taylan Cihan, and Eric Nathan, what might have been an overwhelming conceptual storm proved smooth sailing through a series of back-to-back panels. The lack of overlap meant that everyone in attendance could take in the full thematic breadth and draw connections that might otherwise have been missed in the three-ring circus of a larger conference, thereby allowing interaction, a building of new relationships while strengthening the old, and dialogue conducive to the intellectual goals at hand.
I had the privilege and the honor of presenting first in the opening Friday morning panel, entitled Patterns, Schemata and Systems, for which I was joined by Bryn Hughes (Ithaca College) and Joshua Mailman (Columbia). I did my best to set a tone in my discussion of Modell 5, a museum installation piece by Vienna-based duo Granular Synthesis, whose eponymous approach to motion capture and digital manipulation of synchronous sound and image activated, I hope, our shared interest in the intersection of technology and sonic arts. Hughes was interested in more mainstream sonic outlets. In problematizing expectation in rock music through harmonic progression as both a function of context and of socialization, he asked: Does harmony behave in a universal way? Why do some chord progressions sound “wrong” and how do we gain knowledge of these rules?
Hughes plotted a matrix of influences on such choices, discovering through controlled testing that expectations are genre-specific (diatonic successions, for instance, are preferred by classical over blues listeners) and that the impact of voice leading, lyrical (a)synchronicity, and other variables must also be taken into account. Mailman took a more phenomenological approach to music as a site lacking in expectation, advocating a cybernetic model of listening and feedback practices. In positing retrospection as an active shaping force of musical experience, Mailman privileged context over convention in musical structure. By looking at otherwise undeterminable aspects of musical form and development—what Boulez might group under the term “listening angles”—as a means of analysis, Mailman made a provocative case for cybernetic phenomenology as a viable site for sonic inquiry.
Qualities emerge through change and exist by virtue of being measured as such. Hence the assertions of David Borgo (UC San Diego), who in the second session on Improvisation challenged the dominant paradigm of musical spontaneity as an individual act, seeking rather to enlarge the notion of agency to its extra-corporeal aspects. Because action of response happens more quickly than consciousness can grasp, our interpretations of the very same can only come a posteriori, subject to the same misinterpretations as any and all memory. Consciousness, argued Borgo, is autopoetic and under constant perturbation. Improvisers must therefore negotiate contingencies in all directions. To locate them at the center of webs as amorphous as their melodic constitutions is as difficult as it is to locate the true center of a universe that is forever expanding.
Neither are improvisational gestures simply plucked from the ether, as Jeremy Grall (University of Alabama at Birmingham) showed in his exploration of the hierarchies at work in seemingly indeterminate music-making. Grall’s interest was the divide (or lack thereof) between composition and improvisation and whether or not the two can be subject to the same analytical vocabularies. For him, improvisation is an already problematic term, one that may be absorbed into composition insofar as improvisation abides by underlying schemata. In order to negotiate the ambiguities of perception and the phases of concrescence therein, he looked to 16th-century improvisational models and their inherent blend of immediacy and indeterminacy.
A fascinating Demonstration Session kicked off the conference’s first evening. William Brent (American University) gave us a visual and aural tour through his Gesturally Extended Piano and Open Shaper, while Mailman returned with Columbia colleague Sofia Paraskeva for a demonstration of their “comprovisational” interface. Both of these technologies take advantage of the primacy of the body in communicating information at once inter- and intra-musical. Read the rest of this entry »