The interplay of technical objects, epistemic things and improvisation
A well-known Congolese drummer, TaTitos, was asked how new compositions are created in that culture. TaTitos replied that there are three methods. In the first, a new piece of music is presented to someone in their dreams; in the second, musicians notice and build on mistakes they make while they are playing and generate new variations from those errors; in the third, someone consciously constructs a new composition. However, TaTitos added, there are no known examples of successful composition using the third method. (Tosey 2006, pp. 29–30)
This amusing anecdote has great resonance for me. The first scenario has sometimes occurred in the past, where I wake up with fresh ideas, rush to the instrument or studio, but in reality am often slowed down, distracted or taken in a completely different direction by the tools of the trade, for better or for worse. The second method describes what I have commonly worked with all of my life, and no doubt will return to again and again – what Patti Lather describes as ‘subversive repetition’ (1996), so apt for my musicking. For the third description, many musicians would take this as a jab at the contemporary environment, consumable ‘art-on-demand’ as it were. I tend to agree, but there is also additional meaning here: as a music professional, in many projects I have simply 'pushed through' obstacles given timeline constraints, commercial expectations or impacting academic responsibilities. My capacity to do this and the quality or suitability of the results are largely dependant on the automatic application of pre-existing skills – one of the core attributes of improvisation.
For me, these approaches resonate strongly with the literature exploring the interplay between so-called ‘artistic practices’ and ‘epistemic things' (Borgdorff, 2012, pp. 188–190). This was not something I could clearly articulate at first, but the tacit confirmation of the validity of these ideas was compelling. The subsequent investigation of my creative processes in Jamming revealed much detail as to how this worked in my practice, and confirmed or ‘made real’ these matters for me. Technologies and ‘technical objects’ are often just that – invisible in the background like the foundations of a house, or my computer that I turn on and off. Other elements stay very much in the foreground of the deliberate artistic processes as ‘epistemic things’, and for me, here I have come to more deeply value and understand this idea of AR as making explicit the connections between artistic decision-making and epistemic things.
As a consequence I believe this project has extended both my capacity for and understanding of improvisation. Increased abilities and confidence in using the instruments under certain immersive conditions may result in extended flow states, a space where one does not consciously make ‘technical’ decisions – be they literally involved with technologies, or through to consideration of melody, harmony and the deliberate application of musical devices. One ‘improvises’ to create music by interacting with the tools available in apparently seamless ways, but in fact subconsciously draws on much personal musical library, skills and experience to do so. This also vitally draws on a keen capacity to recognise and variously reject or incorporate serendipity along the way.
While this may partially respond to the contemporary ‘time-poor’ considerations outlined earlier – simply, be better prepared and more aware, perhaps? – there remain reservations about the recording studio ‘network’ itself. As I have referred to earlier in this exposition, in consideration of the powerful effects that many recording studios can have on the direction and form of the music created within, here and elsewhere I have been drawn to Theodore Adorno’s arguments (1973) in that the ‘materials’ of contemporary technologies have their own, often forceful “kinetic laws” (Ibid, p. 3) given previous subjectivity, that is, as the ‘crystallization’ of the earlier creative impulses of others in their design. At an earlier time, I would have thought this far more restrictive in terms of creativity, originality and improvisation in particular. However, in The Philosophy of Improvisation, Gary Peters goes on to explicate some of this in a re-working of Adorno’s material. He writes:
… while everything is there for the artist as brute matter, it is the “crystallization’ of “previous subjectivity” that transforms matter into aesthetic material, thus allowing specific and delimited patterns or structures of human endeavour to be given at any one time … the there and the given are not identical but, rather, a shifting dialectical or differential relation … precisely because of its interminable mobility, demands both obedience and disobedience to ensure one never collapses into the other (the there into the given): the death of improvisation. (Peters, 2009, p. 11) (underline, mine)
Put in another way, I see this as relating to a clarification of my thinking following experiences in the third piece of music presented in this exposition, Over the Reef (Transfuser remix). Here I spent time with learning and using a new ‘virtual instrument’, a piece of software named Transfuser and clearly designed for the dance music market in its manipulation of beats and audio loops, but used in my own problem-solving for a slightly different purpose, or at least, different artistic outcome. While there is no doubt it has forceful operational assumptions and that many young musicians will continue to work very much inside these parameters, I have come to value it terms of the fact that indeed, it does a very fine job of ‘tansform[ing] matter [sound recordings of musical performances] into aesthetic material [musical arrangements as songs or compositions]’ (Ibid). Now more confident, I relish and thoroughly enjoy both ‘obedience and disobedience’ (Ibid). Transfuser (and its brethren) may well be given to write more clearly under certain conditions, yet as no more than a pencil sharpener to be thrown there on the desk when no longer required.
In truth perhaps, even my most treasured guitars and their embodied histories are yet more artificial constructs to be emotionally discarded according to the above philosophy. However, as a musician from an earlier era I draw the line here and believe I will always continue to regard my guitars as epistemic things and beautiful artworks in their own right – and as such, a constant and rewarding source of pleasure and inspiration. It may well be that other much younger researchers who grew up with technologies may not carry such baggage, or may think about software tools or electronic devices similarly to how I understand the guitar. I leave this for them to consider and explore further.