The endless mobility of listening (for violin and live electronics) was written for Mira Benjamin in 2015: the title is taken from Salome Voegelin's Listening to Noise and Silence (2010). As an overview, with details expanded and exemplified below, the key research in this piece formalises performance technique around material indeterminacy and listening. It also uses the score as both a description of this technique and as an external structure that bounds the piece. Material indeterminacy is achieved through ‘drone-bowing’ which allows indeterminate harmonic partials to emerge prominently in the sound. Listening is vital here in ways that are different from the performer’s usual listening, to the extent that listening becomes a technique in itself. The piece is the entwining of player and instrument via material indeterminacy and listening, amplified by a structural process of repetition moving through iteratively altered materiality.
The ‘drone bowing’ technique is a method of generating indeterminacy in the harmonic spectrum of an open string through changes in bow pressure, angle, and position. The bowing technique causes the spectrum’s fundamental to collapse and other partials to become prominent, but it is not knowable in advance when the spectrum will change and which partial(s) will emerge. While the technique is not novel in itself — it is used by many improvisers to play their instrument timbrally — its use here is novel as a source of indeterminacy within a form of improvisation constrained by compositionally defined forces and listening behaviours.
While these bowing techniques are a primary technical focus for the violinist, the broader mechanism of the piece is to use them as part of a responsive listening strategy where the player must be in sympathy with the string. Rather than trying to ‘dig’ or ‘mine’ sounds from the string, the player is a facilitator who provides energy to the string, and a supporter who enables the string’s material agency to be foregrounded. By continuously playing on the edge of timbre like this, Benjamin invites material agency to the foreground as something she simultaneously supports and responds to, an embodied process of becoming. Tim Ingold describes similar processes in the flux of forces and materials:
[...] movement along these [paths of form-generation] is creative: this is to read creativity ‘forwards’, as an improvisatory joining in with formative processes, rather than ‘backwards’, as an abduction from a finished object to an intention in the mind of an agent. (2008: 3)
Ingold invokes the improvisatory, not so much as musical free improvisation specifically, but rather as the larger understanding of improvisation as a creative response to shifting circumstances. Improvisation here also implies an application of the knowledge and experience of those that live in that environment. Material agency in the unstable string is not simple randomness, rather the string exhibits a hierarchy of preferred partials in its spectrum. In any given performance, the string will tend towards certain partials, but always with the possibility that highly unlikely partials may also emerge – nothing is fixed. Agency is further entrenched by the fact that these preferences shift from day to day due to changes in environment (air temperature and humidity) and material (string tension and temperature). As the players listen and respond over time, they become better acquainted with the phase-space of the string’s behaviours. As such, the player’s listening and supportive approach are the core of the piece, curating the indeterminacy that affords a rich interaction.
Form / Procedural Elements
While material agency plays-out on a local, moment-to-moment level, the indeterminate harmonic partials that emerge from this process are captured electronically to be sustained indefinitely as an ever-growing ‘carpet’ of electronic harmony (see Fig. 5). This is a directed but knowable harmony contingent on the dance of agencies. The piece is structured as an iterative process to undermine the player’s knowledge of material agency, revealing further novelty as the player adapts in each cycle. The structure is a cycle of three procedural elements repeating throughout, determining the duration, pace, and form of each realisation. The cycle consists of: