3. Reflections on Batroun


I started with a sonic thinking that was relatively unsaturated by presuppositions about what the piece would be, and what I might do in the encounter with Batroun. Attempting to reflect upon what then happened gave urgency to what I see as foundational problems with thinking sound as it is usually theorized in current authoritative discourses. What came out of Batroun was an attempt to jump over the shadow of the sovereign artist/composer ego and into a way of thinking sound that seeks to compositionally harness the fundamental biopsychosocial processes by which we might be said to be listeners and composers in a soundful world. Batroun Concrète 2.1 - 2.9 tried to demonstrate the possible utility of leveraging insights from the “scientific image” – more specifically, neuroscience and linguistics – to contribute to a sonic materialism. In contrast to the On the Admissibility of Sound as Music and Art triptych, references to sociocultural narratives were backgrounded in favor of the biopsychological body.


By returning to the concrete material world through assembling site-specific materials and interactions, Batroun Concrète 2.1 - 2.9 points towards a different “biopsychosocial sonic image” for composition, as a means to generate work concerned with what the historian of science Hans Rheinberger (1997) has called “new epistemic things.” The compliment of the not-knowing stance, these things arise experimentally and embody what one does not yet know (Rheinberger 1997: 28). 


The score encouraged a play with cognitive scripts – to speculate on the body-related schemata that organize gestural syntax and language – in order to structure the interaction of performing agents with the site. There is no compositional determination of the specific resulting sonic surface. Agents are given great interpretive latitude to foreground an experimental and not-knowing stance to listening as an exploratory and motoric behavior.


In a way it is a pity that the intended performance was never realized and never will be, as the space is no longer in operation. However, the general approach is eminently applicable to other contexts: the sonic outcomes of contingent coupling with a location and context; directed improvisation structured through classes of enactive schemata; the pairing of a live performance with an EA part to make audible, comparative RIA modelling by different agents responding to the same context and materials; and the idea of an “honest signal” that captures situatedness in its pragmatic provisionality rather than idealized form.


In order to try and get at some of the fundamental biopsychosocial processes that composition might target, Batroun Concrète 2.1 - 2.9 was largely a means to compositionally investigate the RIA-helix in a rather directly embodied fashion. It primarily investigated interaction: the entangled exchanges between animate and inanimate objects and acoustic spaces in a specific location according to fundamental schemata. It is relatively freed from the computer, although in my current live electronic work I am augmenting these investigations using machine listening and learning techniques.


While I might believe it has been successful in its aims of speculating upon the bodily-based nature of sonic thinking, I have no means to confirm that through actualization, as the intended event was disrupted by unforeseen circumstances. Nonetheless, in terms of techne, it has yielded a general model which is applicable to future work.


Realizing that I needed a tool to model the interrelatedness of art concepts, material mediations and the biopsychosocial conditions through which sonic events might be composed, the work led me to adopt assemblage as a working method. Composition then becomes concerned with networking disparate processes into coherences that produce a sonic surface trace, an experimental heterogeneous engineering.


The key questions that arose from the encounter at Batroun – such as the nature of a self interacting with a space, the issues of post-acousmatic musicking, and the development of the score – made me both clarify aspects of and attempt to operationalize my biopsychosocial approach to composition. This was chiefly achieved through a modelling of the RIA-helix, where the sonic surface is generated through an iterating re-entrant loop which abductively links perception, interpretation, and action into a single system, coupled with consequences that feedback both conceptually and enactively. I introduced an idea of the not-knowing stance where composition becomes an epistemic tool, dealing with uncertainty and contingency. Outcomes might be thus, but not of necessity. They can always be otherwise, as turned out to be the case with the ultimate failure of the assemblage.


I explored two fundamental distinctions that underpin listening stances: the reflective-reflexive and interiority-exteriority axes. While these map onto something fundamental about the experience of listening, crucially, they do not draw their authority from humanistic privileging of first-person perspectives.


In writing about the possibilities of an eliminativist, de-subjectified post-acousmatic compositional approach, falling back into habitual accounts that deploy phenomenal self-presence and voluntarist narratives seems almost unavoidable, but inadequate. We are somewhat imprisoned by natural language. Undeniably I was there and undertook certain things, experiencing them in certain ways, and I believe I had certain intentions at the time. However, given our limited capacities to introspect into the material conditions and mechanisms of things like improvisation, compositional intentions, and self-determination, I would urge the reader to be cautious in accepting my first-person account as authoritative. It may be a post-hoc rationalization, but hopefully an engaging one. Future works might dispense with this human agent altogether. A self-organizing cybernetic system, even an artificially intelligent one, might engage in interactions with a similar site. If it could generate something akin to an introspective self-report, I would be fascinated to hear its account, which no doubt would involve pattern extraction and organized responses that would be quite different to those given here.


By considering the material basis of musicking, I expect that the horizons of compositional action could be greatly enhanced. Although not made explicit through this piece, a biopsychosocial imaginal might compositionally target basilar membranes, brain stem second-order auditory representations, compose works for transcranial stimulation of auditory cortices, manipulate affective states, organize sounding processes for durations beyond the habitual human scale, exploit machine listening, learning, and artificial intelligences (the list goes on). It becomes a question of how materials contingently cohere through composing assemblages.


How successful is this assemblage, and how convincing is its application here? The key characteristics of a sonic assemblage is that it is a system of embedded systems through which a composer’s activity leaves traces, and I understand these systems to be locatable within the biopsychosocial framework. Composing a sonic assemblage aims at generating outcomes (such as art-objects) which are “traces which nothing else could have left” (Brün 2004 [1970]: 54). It might distill a new epistemic thing, an “irreducible vagueness” as Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (1997) might say. It is an agentive motivated activity, forming a coherence to generate something singular, a haecceity in Deleuzian terms. It is distinct from collage or montage because, rather than juxtaposing elements, it creates contingent relations between them.


I found that sonic assemblage suits conceptual approaches to composition and an experimental orientation to practice and created a speculative laboratory to see what it can do when it punctualizes to create an effect. It allows for very different material components to be brought into relation, covering a host of potential and actual actors – including everything from historical concepts, signal hardware, funding grants, and residency invitations to instrumental traditions, compositional intentions, and dynamics within a culture. It therefore structures a causal interaction space in which elements might be reacted together, in which techniques, processes, and concepts can be formed into mutual relations and temporary dependencies. 


The sonic end-state achieved can be evaluated by how effectively the assemblage exerts effects in its vicinity. This could be the force of a finished work. Alternatively, it could produce installation practices where it might operate contingently in its environment, with no fixed sonic surface, but producing one that adapts to context. It could produce different instantiations for specific live performances, as was intended with Batroun Concrète 2.1 - 2.9. In terms of techne, it is its effectiveness in harnessing materials-themselves to produce a sonic surface in its characteristic, irreducible vagueness that matters. In the case of the Batroun Concrète 2.1 - 2.9 assemblage, ultimately it failed. However, in terms of praxis, I think the assemblage did useful work in terms of the fundamental issues at stake and the conceptual design.


I think it is critical for us to exit the anthropomorphism that constructs environments (and nature) as outside of individual humans and which apprehends them, as the second-order cybernetician Gregory Bateson (1972) observed, as “gifts to exploit,” as resources for mastery. By thinking sound in terms of material conditions and contingencies, we have the possibility of a more symbiont relation between signaling biopsychosocial systems, more mutually determining, self-organizing, and poietic. Given the ongoing sorry state of affairs and geopolitical failure that humans have so far achieved, we might even imagine a more dynamically self-correcting world yet to come.