playing air

Deterritorialization as a means for indeterminate practice

“Where psychoanalysts says. “Stop, find your self again”, we should say instead, “Let’s go further still, we haven’t found our Body without Organs yet, we haven’t sufficiently dismantled our self1

Throughout this research I have searched for more sounds made with more tools which enable more possibilities for interplay with a more diverse range of musics. I have been driven by the excitement of discovering new possible versions of what this instrument can be, and the connections it can make. From my practice’s viewpoint, the saxophone itself and its connectivity have multiplied. The expanded instrument has become a foundation on which I experiment. I have gathered different persons, ensembles and projects, things, and sounds, and this territory has been my playing field. I have approached these situations in different ways, always oriented outwards from myself with the instrument in front of me, as a translator between me and my surroundings. I have considered the saxophone with its various tools to be the thing that channels my ideas and enables me to connect with others.

A connection that I in the initial stages of the research did not devote enough attention to is the one which all of this extrovert action rests on: the relationship between the instrument and myself. I have practiced the instrument continually, but the reason for doing so has been to prepare for the meetings ahead of me. The primary purpose has been to explore what artistic potential the different technologies and performances with other artists has to offer, while the very near-field between me and the instrument has been maintained and trained, but not explored with new perspectives. Throughout the research period, I have been repeatedly reminded that when one element in an ecology changes, it affects the whole cluster. This also extends to the relationship between me and the saxophone, and I believe this is what sparked a sudden need to look closer at it. Rather than the saxophone being a tool that I utilize to do things: can I invert the causal relationship between us and think of the instrument as the creative part that use me to play? If the roles between us are inverted, the consequence will be that I am being played by the saxophone to execute its ideas. I want to make our relation dialogic rather than unidirectional. I want to transform the instrument, but I also want to be transformed by it. How can the instrument play me as much as I play it?

The saxophone consists of a range of elements in combination. The breathing technique is a vast field in itself, as it is the engine and source of energy that brings the saxophone to life. A range of inner organs are operating that engine: the diaphragm inhales before numerous muscles in the thorax force the air out again. The blown air is then shaped by the throat and oral cavity before it hits the mouthpiece and sets the reed in motion, which is controlled by the lips. The reed’s rapid fluctuations create disturbances in the airflow which is turned into audible frequencies being amplified as they simultaneously resonate in the oral cavities of the performer, and out through the conic metal tube in chaotic and unpredictable ways. The result is the sound of a saxophone. Tone holes are placed with a relative distance to control the pitch by closing and opening leather coated keypads, tuned according to the western tonal system. Alternative fingerings, and blowing- and articulation techniques, can facilitate other tonal concepts like quarter tones and just intonation, and a vast range of texturally complex, non-tonal sounds and multiphonics.

This clinical description of playing the saxophone shows two types of machinery at work, the player and the instrument, where one is the origin and life source, and the other is a thing that effectuates the initial efforts. My own experiences from a lifelong development of this reciprocally dependent relationship can be described as a transformation from living with the instrument to living through it. Initially, the instrument was something external that I had to move towards and learn to operate, but years of practice diminished the distance. I presume this is something many instrumentalists can recognize. Proportional with the time, effort, and personal and emotional involvement invested into the instrument emerges a notion of sensing with, thinking with, and communicating with the instrument to such an extent that the instrument eventually becomes an organ.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty illustrates the same relation when he describes how “the blind man’s stick has ceased to be an object for him and is no longer perceived for itself; its point has become an area of sensitivity, extending the scope and active radius of touch, and providing a parallel to sight”2 The blind man needs to orientate, so he takes a stick and lets it grow into his sensory system, and it becomes his eyes. To make music, I take a saxophone and make sound with it, express with it, communicate with it, and sense with it. Since I started playing saxophone at the age of eleven, the instrument has had an increasing role in affecting how my life has developed. This may seem like a result of deliberate choices, and I am open to admitting that it is, but from my personal point of view, the development appears as if there were no other options. The saxophone has continuously pointed me further in the direction of where I am right now. I would claim, slightly hyperbolic, that the instrument has shown me almost everything I know. It has taken me into the minds and practices of other artists through collaborations, which has given me insights that would have been inaccessible had I not been taken there by the instrument, because I would probably not have been there in the first place, and if I happened to be I would not understand the subject matters without conferring with my saxophonistic knowledge. Sensing with the instrument has taught me about many of the building blocks that music consists of e.g., rhythm, timbre, tensions, and energies. Everything I know about the physics of sound I have sensed through playing the saxophone. Performing at concerts has shown me a multitude of responses in audiences, teaching me about differences and similarities in how people from big parts of the world relate to the same kind of music. In my reality, the instrument shapes me and my life just as much as I shape the instrument. Much of what musicians know of the world has been learned from the responses we get from playing music into the world.

Merleau-Ponty continues: “To get used to a hat, a car or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of your own body”3 The saxophone, along with other single-reed instruments, has a design that generously facilitates this sort of transplantation or incorporation. The saxophone is inside my body through my mouth while hanging outside my body from a strap around my neck. It is operated from the inside of my body and, simultaneously, externally via my arms. Its vibrations resonate directly through my teeth and scull to my eardrums, which adjoins the sound waves it produces in the air around me. All this concurrent inside-outside action blurs the limits between player and instrument and eases the intuitive growing together. But as long as I regard the instrument to be only an instrument that is applied to me as an extension of my body, all creative responsibility lies on my shoulders and on my mind. If the saxophone has become an organ, then we together constitute a saxophone-organism which is still run by me. Unfortunately, from my experience, my sole mind is only capable of imagining a fraction of the artistic possibilities in any given situation, but when the involved actor’s singularities are allowed to act out freely in a synergetic process, the potentials and outcomes proliferate. The attitude with which collaborations are approached has huge consequences for what kinds of fruits it bears. In his book Making, Tim Ingold speaks of humans interacting with things as "a confluence of forces and materials"4 . The notion of confluence is more apt for the relational affect I aim to elucidate, because influence opens for a kind of hierarchy that employs one dominant entity to dictate the other. There is a certain flowing fluence together with the instrument-material that musicians experience that can congest when rigid predetermined ideas try to influence it. When I try to force the instrument, the result is often frustration and discontent due to not being able to fulfil an intention. What if I let the saxophone itself lead the way?

Maybe focusing less on my musical identity can open up for a more attentive relation to the instrument and expand the mindset that I perform with? The presumption that I express my self through the saxophone, and that the instrument is only a medium that conveys my musical personality, my ideas, and my bodily knowledge of how to play, often drives me into destructive spirals of self-consciousness. It reduces the act of playing to quantifiable instrumental and stylistic concepts. It drains me when playing is exclusively dependent on intellectually constructed creative energy. But when I experiment with playing in a state of mind where I try to leave out conscious intentions, purposes, and desires, and instead follow the continuously communicating relations of reciprocal affection between me and the instrument, the focus changes from instrumental – how well an idea is executed compared to the intentions – to processual – how the processes of actions are maneuvered together. The process itself starts to produce. The instrument then appears as it takes on a will of its own and starts to surprise and entertain me as I am in a mode of listening that involves the whole field at play - the whole swarm of activities within the saxophone-organism and the air around it. Pauline Oliveros talks about deep listening as a state of being where the focus of the listening gives meaning to and changes what is listened to: “…when one is listening to the whole field of sound without focusing on any one sound but expanding to include all sounds that can be heard – sounds seem to become interrelated rather than chaotic and meaningless – the field convey forces (energy) from one sound to another”5. I can relate this to the experience I sometimes have when playing the saxophone, of being immersed in the collectivity of the elements at play - the totality of the field - rather than identifying and focusing on its individual parts. It feels like a conscious indeterminacy that simply follows along with the interrelatedness of the elements at play. Relating to the present moment like this gives meaning to what surrounds me. It is a way of letting the situation self-explain, instead of projecting intentions on it. My role is diminished to almost nothing, as I am only one in a maze of numerous processes. This is highly inspirational to me. The sum of sounds becomes the motor that runs the body-engine, because they nurture the ear which again instructs the body to do what it does. My mind perceiving the sounds create new associations that spark new motile impulses that move with the instrument. I find this state of being close to nothing liberating and productive.

I recently saw an online lecture by Laurie Anderson where she introduced herself by saying that “in these lectures I am not going to be explaining my work or describing who I am as an artist. In fact, I don’t care if you don’t know who I am. I’ve never really tried to express myself through my work. It’s more about curiosity about how things are, what they are. Plus, I have really made an effort for most of my life to just get rid of the idea of being anyone at all.”6 This resonates with how I relate to my instrument and my role playing it. What attracts me to the act of playing the saxophone is the excitement of hearing what comes out of the instrument, without those sounds being classified by my identity. The lesser a portion I, my self, and my intentions are of the processes, the freer can the swarms flow, and I am only part of what affects their directions.

Another similar perspective on instrumental practice emerges when Norwegian hardanger fiddle player Benedicte Maurseth interviews her mentor Knut Hamre:

I have often heard you say that you are “a nothing”. What do you mean by that?
“What I mean is that it isn’t me playing, even though I am the one physically making music. Something else is playing through me. The actual individual, in this case the person Knut Hamre, is unimportant. It is never about me, but an art that is much greater than myself.”
So it is like being a medium?
“Sadly, the word ‘medium’ has a lot of different connotations and carries with it a certain prejudice. That’s why I use it as little as possible, and replace it with the term ‘a nothing’. My theory of an artist being a medium for something other than himself or herself can be difficult to understand if you only believe in individualism. But if you imagine yourself being a part of a greater web, then it can provide you with a lot of meaning and comfort to think this way.”7

I share Hamre’s concern about possible interpretations of the word medium, a term easily understood as the player being a channel through which some sort of higher conscious power plays. This is not how I see it. I interpret Hamre as accepting the fact that the player is one single part of an incomprehensibly vast network, a web, as he calls it, of processes, experiences, histories, and factors. I am an improvising musician leaning on and lending from different musical traditions and genres aurally, meaning that I listen to them in order to let elements from them become part of the amalgam that is me and my music. It is helpful to think of myself more as a juncture point of musical flows than a producer of them. The process of playing and improvising then becomes a way of maneuvering those flows.

Unfortunately, relations tend to congeal, even if all parts involved act freely and on equal terms. When working with or relating to something for a long time (as I have with the saxophone) the boundaries between its parts can be overgrown. The same way that bodily organs and functions easily get taken for granted as long as they work sufficiently well, so can an ingrained instrument-organ risk developing into a closed entity that acts on its own, difficult to access or change. Too tightly knit knots are hard to loosen. I do believe that merging with what you relate to or work with is both necessary and inescapable. “Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments.”, continues Merleau-Ponty. But how do we assess those habits post-appropriation? Habits are crucial but also hazardous to artistic practice that uses (musical) instruments. Habits help the instrument slide into the semi-unconscious, automatized, so that the real-time creative performance energy can deal with other aspects than operational ones. But at the same time, habits’ self-affirmative nature makes them quickly fall into conformity. I interpret the author Aksel Sandemose’s words as a warning of the same relational development: “En kan bli villført av understrømmer og tro at de var det rette liv, og det kan fortsette inntil du en morgen finner ditt eget lik på stranden.”8 (“One can be led astray by undercurrents believing they were the ideal life, and this can perdure until the morning when you discover your own corpse on the beach” (my translation)).

The skills and bodily knowledges of instrument playing are built in layers upon layers into an assemblage of motile and perceptual habits through repetitive rehearsal. The “whole-field listening”9 is a way to set the assemblage in such a mode that it can act along with the energies that inhabit and surround it. But the unquestioned trust or belief in one’s assemblage can turn it into a static, rigid, and inert entity, which, when it happens to my instrument-organism, makes me apathetic and depressed. I might feel satisfied with having reached a “goal”, an ultimate rendition of an idea, but that quickly starts transforming into a feeling of being stuck at a final destination. This is when the need to take action towards the instrument-organ emerge. Something must destabilize it so that it can renew.

To do this, to deterritorialize the saxophone-organism, I have physically dismantled the saxophone. I have taken off the mouthpiece, which is what makes the saxophone a saxophone. I want to escape the automatized instrumental skills by obstructing the ability to play the instrument in a traditional way. The mouthpiece is a crucial part of the instrument in that respect, as it is the exciter that creates the saxophone sound as it is commonly known. A saxophone without a mouthpiece is in theory the same as a vocalist without vocal cords, a cello without strings played with a hairless bow, or a drum with no drumhead. Only my body, the breath, and the body of the instrument remains. I want to explore this limited version of my instrument to get in touch with some more primal elements. The experiment lasts for about two months, and during this time I only play the saxophone without the mouthpiece. The mouthpiece-less sax gives me an opportunity to re-examine the instrument unobscured by the historically signified connotations of the mouthpiece. The dismantling relieves me from the known and disrupts the learned, the territorialized, stratified, static, and inert. It creates a passage between me and the instrument that is open and direct, which feeds my practice as well as my thoughts with new perspectives on what the instrument is and what it can be. If I can make music with an incomplete instrument, why do I need a saxophone? What is a saxophone? What is an instrument?


The dismantled instrument played with air, breath, and speech organs is easier to connect to intuitively. The traditional way of playing sax favours the intellect and obscure the intuition because so many factors have accumulated during my thirty-three year-long relation with it, and they have to be continuously considered and negotiated. This reductive method is reminiscent of what started the modal jazz style in the late 1950's when function harmonics of the jazz standards were abandoned in order to improvise more freely on modal scales. Breaking historical and connotational bonds tied to the saxophone is liberating.

Air being blown at a certain pace becomes noise when the air stream hits the saxophone and gets agitated. The acoustic air sax noise can be articulated, split into parts, filtered and formed using the speech organs. Playing with these formants feels like going back to a stadium in life before speech developed when language consisted of sighs, grunts, and gurgles. I can devote the full attention to air, breath, sound, and articulation. Every physical effort of playing has different consequences without the mouthpiece. The sounds and the way the instrument respond to them are different. The primordial, guttural utterings that pop out of the mouthpiece-less sax relates to a universal sound of air and friction. The sax functions as a resonant chamber that amplifies the breath. “The reading of the word is a modulation of visible space, the performance of the movement is a modulation of manual space”10 says Merleau-Ponty. And so is the playing of air a modulation of the audible space, by means of breath and a metal tube exciter.