The left-hand side is the notation with the annotations identifying each pitch-class (numbers 0 to 11); the boxed labels such as P-0 (prime series at the root position) and RI-5 (retrograde inversion of the prime series at the fifth degree) denotes one type of variation made on the ‘prime series’ P-0. The right-hand side is a graphic representation of how these two series combine to constitute the musical form and fabric. Serialism conceives musical structure as a generative process: the technique is a means to both create and articulate a musical drama.
Karlheinz Essl, in his essay on algorithmic composition, positions serialism as an important contributor to algorithmic composition in the twentieth century. The influence of serialism is in fact not only in algorithmic composition but also in modern and contemporary music composition. Serialism’s procedural rigour for material generation has been made into an aesthetic criterion by many twentieth-century composers, contributing to today’s composition as a highly organized discipline in classical music.
There is a wide-spread view that algorithms are mechanical. This goes against the grain of the Romatic idea of music being humanistic and anti-technical. Theodor Adorno’s suspicion on the processes of serialism, that the formal processes may be interpreted as intervening against the true expression of the musical material, may well to do with this view. However, I argue that there is nothing inherently mechanical about algorithmic processes. The structure of an algorithmic process may be formalized to the extent that it appears mechanical, but that is not the same as the process itself being mechanical.
For example, making sense of the process as performance in the Schoenberg piece heavily relies on the articulation of the shapes as phrases with tonal characteristics on the piano. The same principle of characterization as observed in the performance of Haydn’s canon, applies: each ‘series’ has its own property and character. Out of thousands of possible series, which series are combined with which others, how their combinations are set in the temporal space, and how the mapping of the series constitutes the overall structure of the piece as a whole, are critical questions to the composition as well as to the performance.
I have discussed what musical performance can do to the sequential nature of select composed music. My next point is that musical performance can create a sequential process from compositions that have no algorithmic import in the compositional process. I have discussed the issue elsewhere, and it suffices to mention that, in such cases, algorithmic thinking offers a strategy for practicing as well as - more relevantly to this explosition - for the performer's listening in the act of performance. And the result is qualitatively distinct.
Now I want to ask a further question from the opposite direction: what does sequential, time-based nature of music-making (both performance and composition) do to musical performance as an event?
Every musician has a design for performance. Musicians of classical music spend more time on the design (that is to say they ‘practice’), due to the presence of notation, the concept of musical work, and other factors. Institutionally speaking, we also invest a considerable amount of time into rehearsals to work on details of a design.
But the communication of a musical design is a world of its own. The audience don’t necessarily know if what they hear is instantaneously created material, or instantaneously performed pre-existing material, unless they are familiar with the piece. For musicians working in contemporary music, this is a standard conundrum. We can also add to the list a pre-recorded playback of sound files, and real-time generation of material too.
The ‘liveness’ of musical performance as well as the ‘liveness’ of real-time algorithmic composition have attracted much discussion over the last three decades, particularly in electroacoustic music. Here the music can be composed in live. The liveness of a performance occasion that includes elements of real-time processing of musical material has posed interesting challenges. Attempts at creating perceptually meaningful instances of real-time processing as live events include Alvin Lucier’s I’m Sitting in a Room (1981), which is one of the older examples, where the live cumulative effect of the room acoustics of the performance venue features as the main musical content. More recent attempts are often in the form of sound installation, where the listener’s actions and movements determine the selection and developmental course of musical material.
Superseding and doing without the performer is one very viable approach to making sense of the ‘liveness’ in electronic music. Curiously, this can be seen as a way of bringing the listener into the position of the performer, at least to me, because the listener, in this new situation, experiences something very similar to what the musician experiences in performing music. It is the experience of enacting a design. For example, in Salomé Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence, where she discusses the listening experience of sound art, there is a striking resemblance to the performance experience.
In such a climate where the function of a live performer is becoming questioned, what characterizes the performer’s thought process during a performance? I think it is the sense of navigating through the present moment, grasping it within a real timeline, as if making a thread through it. This is a widely discussed point. Pierre Bourdieu (1977) positions speech above language to emphasize the power of practice as a reality in formulating thought; Bruce Ellis Benson (2003) argues that composing and performing are two facets of improvisation, which is not a self-contained world but a world of activity; Tim Ingold (2010) uses the image of weaving to illustrate this action-packed world. My point is that musical performance is a sequential process of making one decision after another in time. Mind you, I don’t imply that every decision is made on the spot. On the contrary, most musical decisions are made in advance. But enacting decisions is a real-time process. It gives the performance a quality that often divides good and less good performers.
Then it follows that the arresting power of musical performance can be understood as an evidence of efficient and elegant sequential processing taking place in the moment. My argument is that algorithmic thinking and musical performance have an affinity in that both are action-based processes. Adrian MacKenzie calls this common ground as ‘ontogenesis’, meaning that it is about how something comes to be, in contrast to ‘ontology’, which is about how something is. MacKenzie is citing Gilbert Simondon whose On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects (1958) has had a profound influence on the philosophy of technologies in France and beyond. MacKenzie argues that ‘technicity’, which gives technical objects (in this case algorithms) a technical character, needs to be understood in its own constant re-structuring in changing context. He calls this re-structuring operation ‘transduction’. Transduction is a practical concept (coming from the word ‘transduce’, best known in the form of a ‘transducer’, a device that converts energy from one form to another), with capacities to develop and adapt, as well as to remember and anticipate, in a constantly new situation.
We musicians are Protean, precisely because of the live information-processing expertise in the act of performing. In everyday language, this expertise amounts to juggling as you go. (This is not entirely a positive factor, as this is also at the root of performance anxiety.) Juggling may not sound attractive in the parlance of Western classical music. But they shed light on something real and humane about every musician and every performing endeavour.