playing parasitic

The whole question of the system now is to analyze what a point, a being, and a station are. They are crossed by a network of relations; they are crossroads, interchanges, sorters. But is that not analysis itself: saying that this thing is at the intersection of several series. From then on, the thing is nothing else but a center of relations, crossroads, or passages. It is nothing but a position or situation. And the parasite has won.1

I discuss my relation to the instrument in the text Playing Air. It examines our conditions for coexistence and possible strategies to assess and potentially recreate or widen the connection between us by exploring various contact points. Dismantling the instrument disrupted our relation, and the process of de-territorialization made a change to the way I perceived it. I made a change to the instrument, which made the instrument change me. This reciprocal affect can be transferred to all kinds of entities that have become so closely connected that they are taken for granted. The action I took had the purpose of reinvestigating relationality, and the simple act of playing the saxophone without a mouthpiece expanded my relationship with the instrument and with sound as such. My presupposition that the saxophone and I had made up a musical self as a fixed organism was proven wrong, as there is no ultimate self2 to be found, only navigating and balancing on a scale fluctuating between fixation and dismantling, between force and information, between resistance and flow. 


A flow of blown air is the primary energy that connects me to the saxophone and creates the relation between us. On each side of that relation sits the actants3, the things that effectuate the energy: I, being the producer of the airflow, and the saxophone, which disrupts the energy and translates it into frictions that become air sounds. Hence, the relation is constituted by the tensions and energies that connect the actants. In the interdependency between the actants and the tensions and energies emerge a balance point, a field in which I explore and make music through improvisation. 


Exciting parasites


Michel Serres’ philosophic fables of the parasite and the way it illustrates how relations often play out resonate well with my understanding of the relations and roles that the electrophonic saxophone entails. Initially, the parasite and the host body complement each other in a seemingly balanced interdependent relationship. Serres depicts this as an allegory of a blind man who carries a cripple. The cripple who cannot walk becomes the eyes of the blind man, and the force of the blind man’s legs gives mobility to the cripple. The cripple is hence a parasite living off the strength of the blind man’s feet. Still, the parasite’s eyes have a strength that dominates the force of the blind man: the parasite can calculate, orientate, and see potential hazards emerge, thus have the overview and the advantageous ability to conduct and orchestrate the host. So, even though their relation is mutually dependent, the parasite, the eyes, the one that can calculate and distribute forces, has the governing power.


The saxophone can be seen as a parasite on my host body. It lives off my airflow energy, but it also gives that same energy meaning and purpose. It grows on to and shapes my body according to its preferences as it makes the body develop specific muscles and physical abilities. It even hurts my body as it demands unnaturally hard pressure on the spine (resulting in mild scoliosis), the jaw (causing a tight, clicking temporomandibular joint), and slightly damaged hearing. In the role of a producer of air energy, I am correspondingly dependent on the sax-parasite to be able to make sax music by letting it shape the airflows into saxophonistic utterings. The saxophone has no mind of its own, but it does have the ability to excite my human mind as it shapes my breathing into sounds. So, my mind is a parasite living off the energies that the saxophone-parasite generate; thus, we constitute a two-leveled chain of parasitic interests in which my mind is a hyperparasite4: The saxophone lives off my breath and flesh, and subsequently, my parasitic mind lives off the saxophone, which is what motivates my body to produce more air energy. If this circular causality starts self-oscillating the self-consciousness in a flow without interference, it may turn into a feedback loop that drains the source of energy. The strategy presented in Playing Air to make compensations to this cycle was to alter my perceptive state of mind to focus beyond mere performative skills and transmission of force, and entrain my awareness to include what surrounds the cycle in order to distort it; e.g., the energy of the room acoustics; the tactile percepts of the body; the physics of the saxophonistic utterings. All such things included becomes actants affecting the interplay between us.


I also challenge the patterns and clichés that my practice has developed by applying external elements and tools. Habits are unaffected feedback loops, and they need to be distorted frequently. By placing myself in unfamiliar constellations of musicians and things, my practice is disturbed so that its modus operandi becomes searching rather than executing. This cuts the solid ground from under my feet and forces me to relate to the situations real-time, intuitively, using improvisation to navigate and explore the things I do not know. These improvisational enquiries are risky and fail as often as they succeed. But their potential energy is addictive and incomparable. Improvisation is continuously evolving relationality. Exploring actants this way is an efficient method to take part in their knowledge and energies parasitically. It is a way to deliberately give agency to any factor in the network, agencies that trigger difference and transformation. If the act of improvising together can be seen as an enquiry into a performance situation and the co-improvisers are informants; “Is not being moved, or rather, put into motion by the informants exactly what we should mean by an enquiry?”5 



Double trouble burst the bubble


The conflation of different energies – especially air energy and electricity - is at the essence of what this research has been dealing with. 


Electric energy was initially added to boost the air energy. My sax and I had until then been wandering around in familiar sonic territories for years, since I first became interested in acoustic jazz during high school, throughout conservatory studies in Trondheim, and a few years into my life as a professional musician. In 2005 I was invited to join the band Ultralyd, a group of Stavanger-based musicians who had arrived at their sound from different origins than myself. Their influences were manifold, which I appreciated, but many of those influences led them to play so loud that my acoustic sax had limited chances of being heard through the walls of sound. Drummer Morten Joh suggested the solution to the problem: to attach a piezo contact microphone to a strip of gaffa tape stretched over the bell opening of the saxophone. This way, I could plug the sax directly into a guitar- or bass amplifier and play with the same volume as the rest of the band. The contact microphone responds to mechanical vibrations in the instrument, and this delimits the possibilities of unwanted acoustic feedback, a problem that would quickly emerge already at low volumes when connecting a traditional microphone to a guitar amplifier. Also, when the sax is played acoustically as loud as I would need to compete with the volume of Ultralyd, the acoustic sound changes to be dominated by unvarying spikey, harsh timbres. This acoustic phenomenon happens to almost all acoustic instruments: When the vibrator (the drumhead, the guitar string, the saxophone reed) is excited (hit, plucked, blown) with more energy, the frequency spectrum of the sound becomes sharper. So, the band’s volume forced me to play acoustically loud, which alienated my sound from the warmer timbres of their tube-amplified electric bass and -guitar. With the piezo microphone and an amplifier, I could play softer and still be heard, in dynamic balance with the rest of the band.


Since electricity was a kind of force that the saxophone had not played with before, it destabilized my practice at the time, not in the sense that the practice was damaged by it, but the inclusion of electricity created ruptures to the stratum that I was lodged on to6, ruptures that still continue to offer movement and instability. If we understand a relation as a flow of a type of energy and that the actants positioned at the poles of that energy can materialize in multiple roles affecting each other and the energy itself: then the adding of an entirely new kind of energy – in this case electricity –makes the potential roles proliferate. It also makes the whole ecology of actants and relations challenging to navigate.


The relation of relations, the intermingling of different energies, has become a vitalizing part of my practice. In this case; a doubling of the producer-parasite constellation where air and electricity are the producers of forces and the saxophone and electronic sound processing tools are the parasites. Or, as Serres puts it: “One furnishes energy; the other, information. One gives force to the work; the other, the directions”7. A complicating consequence was that when electric energy was introduced, it adjoined and crossed with the air energy and multiplied the actant’s potential roles. The intersection of these two beams of energy of air and electricity offers rich challenges and artistic potentials as the two streams are of fundamentally different nature. Breathing is a fluctuating and unstable product of a human body, relying on the physical conditions of the producer with all the individual variances that imply. Every puff of breath has to be generated at free will by the person playing with it. It is directly and intuitively operational as it is embedded in me, making the sound follow the breath as a shadow follows your body in the sun. Every impulse I have while playing with breath can be executed immediately. Electricity is, on the other hand, a constant stream always ready to pour out of the socket. It needs not to be provoked; it floods out as soon as we open its gates. In its original state, it is either on or off. The task of its parasites - any apparatus living off its energy - is to shape the constant electric current into useful formats. Working with two such different energy-logics in parallel has, on an instrumental level, been the most challenging area that this research has dealt with.


Constructions of fragile connections 


Electricity was, as already mentioned, initially included in my practice with the purpose of amplifying the acoustic sound. An unforeseen but eventually more important consequence was that, as electricity was set in contact with the airflow by use of the piezo microphone, it also altered the saxophone sound to immediately become more sonically coherent with the rest of the band. With the piezo signal sent through a guitar amplifier, it compressed and filtered the sax sound to become more sonically related to that of bass and guitar. From there on, the diverse sonic textures of Ultralyd were something I could adjoin and blend in with. This connection point was, and still is, of great symbolic and artistic value to me. When I electrify the sax, it is primarily because of the communicative possibilities it facilitates. Linking sounds, things, and persons together is my fundamental motivation for making music. The musical experiences that stick with me and affect the way I develop are the ones where I explicitly sense that I play a part in an entirety in which all the involved elements are depending on and balancing each other in a collectively established musical construction. For me, the most intense performance experiences emerge when this construction builds on unpredictability, risk, and improvisation. These terms are closely related. They all contribute to the tension necessary to reach the level of intensity that I strive for in performance. What kinds of ingredients trigger these tension-generating uncertainties vary from project to project. My role within such constructed milieus is to notice what these ingredients are and play in response to them. Baltic German biologist Jakob von Uexküll’s thoughts on organisms’ behaviors in their milieus, here articulated by Elizabeth Grosz, transfers to how improvisation is a correlation between the player and the musical situation: “…its milieu is an ongoing provocation to the organism to utilize its randomly emergent qualities maximally. The organism is a provisional response to that provocation: it generates as many senses, organs, actions as it is capable of using to extract what its body needs and can harness from this highly stylized environment.”8 When using improvisation as a tool for music-making, the “highly stylized environment” (which would be the network of actants including musicians, instruments, room acoustics, and audience) develops in real-time in correspondence with the “randomly emergent qualities” of the musicians, who are equivalently provoked by the milieu it provides content for. The musicians subsequently “generates as many senses, organs, actions as it is capable of using”. The milieu and its organisms live as such in interdependence: the milieu triggers the organism to behave in ways from which the milieu benefits and the organism responds by exploiting the milieu according to its needs. I see a resemblance to this kind of relationality in American psychologist James J. Gibson’s Theory of Affordances, which merges ecologies’ provisions and needs. “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, for good or ill.(…) It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.”9 Gibson states that affordances are not just abstract physical properties of the environment, as they have to be measured relative to the animal. A thing is what it is according to the needs of the thing that needs it. The improviser network is constituted by its actants and their needs and potentials, regardless of which networks the actants originally derive from. Affordances are what constitutes a highly personalized relation between actants. Replace one part, and you will most likely have a different set of affordances. This is in line with Uexküll’s  “…extreme perspectivism in which objects are not autonomous or independent sets of qualities and quantities, but opportunities for engagement that offer themselves in particular ways to particular organs and remain otherwise indiscernible”.10 In collaborative creative musical processes in general, and in improvisation in particular, this perspective diffuses the hierarchical establishments that stratify characterizations and fixed identities, which can be excellent tools for systemizing knowledge, but potentially obstructive and delimiting to creativity. Affordances blur the mechanisms that differentiate between the subjects that dictate the actions and the objects that delimit them because the actants are in continuous correspondence with each other in the creation of the subject matter; the improvisation. The performance environment provokes its animal-players to play and as such extracts what the players furnish the environment, relating to Gibson: “…an affordance is neither an objective property nor a subjective property: or it is both if you like. An affordance cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inadequacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical and psychical, yet neither. An affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer”11.


A bug in the matrix


Playing with a combination of air and electricity offers vast possibilities of assembling ecologies of diverse actants. Through this research, I have explored some of them, mostly in ensemble projects, but also when I play solo sax with electronics. The chain of connections in my solo setup was initially linear, connected in a direct line of cause and effect originating in me: I produce sound, something disrupts the sound (sax, and now, electronic processing tools), the sound manifest in space and time, I hear the sound, and produce more sound. Relating to the discussion in Playing Air, the electronics extends the same self-affirming cycle, but with the significant difference that when electronics are applied, I can play with two sound signals; one acoustic saxophone sound originating directly from the instrument, and one electric sound sent through the piezo, processing tools, and amplifier. An interplay between the two sometimes occurs, but more often than not, this linear chain of command fails to trigger the tensions I seek and does not invoke the sense of risk that navigating on the brink of control can generate. The meeting point of air and electricity then feels more like a divergence point with a paralyzing element of predetermination.


The tool that offered me with a way to bring these two different energies together was a relatively simple device, a 4 x 4 matrix mixer. I accidentally became familiar with it via fellow PhD researcher Tijs Ham, who develops a feedback-based effect pedal called States in collaboration with Knut Olai Mjøs Helle of Pladask Elektrisk12. Helle also designed and produces the active matrix audio mixer named Matrise. The matrix mixer has four inputs, four outputs, and 4 x 4 = 16 level adjustment knobs which can send each channel’s signal onto the other channels or feed it back into itself. This matrix allows for complex non-linear connectivity and unpredictability that goes beyond most other setups experimenting with signal routing and feedback loops in non-linear systems. When an effect pedal is connected to itself in a self-oscillating feedback loop, the sound of the pedal’s circuit becomes a voice in the system. The matrix allows for one, two, three, and four of these voices, the fourth now being the processed piezo sax signal with the possibility to be played onto the other feedback loops, affecting their signal flows. This way, I can play on par with the rest of the electricity, operating with saxophonistic utterings inside the matrix mixer in conjugation with an orchestra of other electric voices. To ride these flows of sounds is a process of affecting more than directing. Due to the unpredictability of the processes in the feedback system, the interactivity that the matrix mixer facilitates resembles the other projects in this research which include human improvisatory interplay and collaborative creative processes in ensemble playing. The matrix system makes up a system that allows me to get to know the processing tools by interacting with them because the effect pedals’ own voices are heard as they feed back into themselves.


Tijs Ham stated during one of our improvising sessions playing each of our feedback systems that “more often than not, before I actually execute the thing that I intend to do, something else happens that might be even more interesting, or less, or…”13. Improvising with complex systems complicates traditional musical performance parameters such as reproducibility and executing ideas and preconceived plans and forces you to relate continuously to the process as it unfolds. The performance becomes a process of affecting the connections in the network, similar to many other interplay processes, be it musical or social. Matrise hence symbolizes a profound ethical premise for my practice by way of its non-hierarchical and non-discriminating qualities. The matrix network is a node that actions pass through and is populated with streams of energies and intensities in a constantly reassembling blend. It accepts all kinds of signals to pass through as a sort of rhizomatic hub for diverse actants, and its only intention is to orchestrate these intensities. These sonic identities acquire slightly different flavors as the blend’s mixing ratio changes, sliding ambiguously along and between axes. Brian Eno discusses the concept of axial thinking elaborately: “Axial thinking doesn’t deny that it could be this or that – but suggests that it’s more likely to be somewhere between the two. As soon as that suggestion is in the air, it triggers an imaginative process, an attempt to locate and conceptualize the newly acknowledged greyscale positions.“14 The ambiguity of axis-sliding chisels the mind open. It makes the ear search, imagine, create, in a line of flight beyond the comfort zone where categorizations groom the known. “I am interested in these transitions – these moments when a stable duality dissolves into a proliferating and unstable sea of hybrids. What happens at such times is that all sorts of things become possible: there is a tremendous energy release, a great burst of experimentation. Not only do the emerging possible positions on this new-born axis have to be discovered and experienced and articulated; they have to be placed in context with other existing axes to see what new resonances appear”.15  


Any meeting with what is not given in advance makes us relate. There is a force that magnetizes, and there is a bounce when we meet. In that bounce lies the point I aim to explore. The bounce can last for a split second or twenty years, depending on its affordances. I have no strive to analyze its origins, predict its outcomes, or dictate its behaviors, but I am filled with excitement when I and my fellow actants let the bounce happen. Playing electrophonic saxophone entails many such bounces. Sometimes they splash like an egg to the ground, other times a rubber ball goes out of control. Sometimes there is no bounce at all due to restraining bonds. This research lives off forces that I set in motion and thus am responsible for navigating. Common to all of its included practices, projects, actants, and bounces, is that their bounds rest on an awareness in conducting the relations, in which, from my perspective, I am the hyperparasite.