wait a moment

Imploding Signs 2

Reflections on Luis Fernando Amaya’s Objeto/Espacio no.2:

Variaciones y Bagatelas

by Eli Namay

“…the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance… They both felt compelled to go out and make new discoveries. And, they both hoped the new knowledge thus acquired would make them masters of the world.”
-Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p. 284

In the last quarter of the book Sapiens, Yuval Harari discusses the development of the sciences, imperialism, and capitalism as three inseparable components of one historical movement. This set of revolutions, along with every other major historical development since the cognitive revolution, was made possible due to our unique capacity to share collective myths.[1] This ability not only gives us the capacity to do science or to set up and govern complex colonial economies, but the myths themselves shape how we engage with society. So, when we fight systems of exploitation we do our struggles a disservice to only look at physical manifestations of domination. We must challenge the myths that create the psychological foundations for these systems. In this way, an artistic practice that is not overtly didactic, but instead reveals and challenges the myths that permeate the society that it works within, can be useful for critique and struggle.

What I appreciate about Luis’ concept of the sonic other (colonialism manifested in music and sound), and his artistic response that he calls an aesthetics of flaw, is that it addresses and challenges the more subtle psychological characteristics of colonialism. The experimental music that I am drawn to challenges these notions of value in many different ways, but could all be linked in that they deal with the deconstruction of dominant modes of musical signification and communication, challenging value systems created and perpetuated by both the spectacle-based entertainment industry and conservative institutions alike. Luis’ notion of an aesthetics of flaw that he uses to describe his recent work is a type of deconstructive practice and mode of analysis that uses certain Latin American traditional musics as a reference point (an aspect that I will leave up to Luis to describe). In his piece that we worked on together, Objeto/Espacio, Luis accomplishes this deconstruction in two ways. The instrument is prepared by weaving paper between the strings both at the end of the fingerboard as well as at the nut which, in Luis’ words, adds “flaw” to “perfection.” This is a clear critique of Eurocentric aesthetic values, that I will also leave up to Luis to describe. What I am more interested in talking about here is the deconstruction that happens through the use of a type of notation that signifies physical motions, as opposed to directly signifying a desired sound. Due to the non-stratified nature of the notation, and the omission of certain parameters, each performance will inevitably yield different results. By opening up the space between what’s on the page and the sound that it instigates, we are forced to see a truth about all signification that is often obscured in our society: the gap between sound and notation, sign and signifier can never be eliminated.

score excerpt of Luis Fernando Amaya’s Objeto/Espacio no.2: Variaciones y Bagatelas for solo bass. 2016.

The notation signifies five aspects of physical motion: bow pressure, bowing (bow speed is implied), left hand placement, left hand pressure, and the way in which to set up the paper preparations at each end of the fingerboard. Bow placement, and to a degree bow speed, were left open for experimentation. On my own time I would experiment with different ways of playing the same passage, which mostly consisted of trying out different configurations of bow placements, but also consisted of experimenting with more subtle things such as phrasing and rhythmic interpretation. During rehearsals I showed Luis what I came up with, which would often lead him to suggest possibilities that I hadn’t come to on my own. What we ended up with would be a synthesis of our two perspectives. We would run things together and then go back and forth about what we liked, sometimes debating the merits of one path or another. We spent a significant amount time experimenting with how these different decisions would affect the sound of a given passage. Along with these open ended parameters, there was also certain material that I was to improvise with. Some of these bits of material were to be suspended, while other materials were to be repeated with heavy variation and/or reordering. Which movements of the piece to play, and their ordering was also left open for the performer to decide. Again, we were able to discuss this and ultimately decided that it would be best to do Bagatela 1, two variations of Bagatela 2, and Variation 3.

Unlike many who use a similar style of notation – the decoupling and individual signification of physical parameters such as bow pressure and placement, instead of the direct signification of an intended sound – Luis accomplishes a multiplicity of outcomes through the use of space and subtlety in change, more so than an overload of complexity. Although arrived at by different means, both the complex and spacious styles of this notation should not only challenge external value systems, but also disrupt traditional hierarchic  power relationships between the performer and composer. In the case of the hyper-complex there is a tying up: the composer ties up the performer in their asking of the physically impossible. But the composer is also tied, because if they are honest with themselves, the outcome of notation that asks the physically impossible is by its nature beyond complete prediction. This creates a situation where there should be a constant power exchange between the composer and performer. If the composer tries to match the sound to a preconceived ideal, the music will cease to be an act of discovery for both composer and performer, thus botching the experimental and radical nature of the music. This can be compared to a carefully worked out Dominant/submissive sexual relationship. I say this because, at its best, in a D/s situation sexual roles are clearly defined, and the physical and emotional preferences of all parties, as well as safety concerns is discussed thoroughly before the event takes place. After this program is set up, a radical exploratory space is opened in which social feedback loops present within the individuals can be disrupted and both strategically, yet fluidly redirected. [2] The theatrical playing out of power relations musically or sexually can be a framework through which both the top and the bottom can explore the unconscious aspects of their desire and the social relations which shape them. The question then becomes, how does the desire function in a broader context? Will it be used to disrupt dominant modes of power, or will it become an insular obsession with the self? [3] The same question could be asked of the experimental music community. Will we let the radical potential of our work flourish and intertwine with the work of other communities, or will we remain insular? The complexity of this question is outside the scope of this piece and will have to wait for another time.

Again, the spacious nature of this O/E made it quite different from its hyper-complex counterpart. The often subtle movements of lines existing in non-stratified boxes likened it more to an alien environment waiting for exploration, rather than a set of ropes to be tied up with. However, they both offer a visceral critique of the dominant modes of signification. Each performance is embraced in its uniqueness and inseparability from the moment in which it is presented, thus tearing apart the monolithic idea of the one-to-one ratio in favor of a more nuanced understanding of signification. While old ways of thinking are critiqued, the possibility of new, undiscovered modes of relationships are offered.

Although we come from quite different backgrounds, Luis and I are both interested in musical practices that value experimentation of the unknown and the destruction of superficial categorizations. I can’t help but reflect on the ideological struggle that experimental musicians in the last century carried out that helped enable a collaboration and immediate understanding to occur between musicians of such different cultural and musical backgrounds; an understanding that values spontaneity and sonic multiplicity. Works like O/E offer frameworks for the disruption of common musical roles so that each performance is an act of discovery. This type of communication in which each party is aware of, and actively engaging with the symbols that are being used to communicate is worth advocating for both artistically and politically, hopefully in a manner that will blur the line between the two. To put it another way, what I’m advocating is a program for non-ideological communication, where the symbols used and the desire that instigates their use is constantly examined. We must embrace non-ideological communication, and develop political organizing tactics which yield outcomes that are greater than the sum of their parts. This kind of cultural struggle is integral to political and economic struggle.

  1. Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, p. 27 “… How did homo sapien manage to cross this critical threshold eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions. The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.”
  2. Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, ch. 6 “How Do You Make Yourself a Body without Organs? p. 151 “This [the BD/SM contract] is not a phantasy, it is a program: There is an essential difference between the psychoanalytic interpretation of the phantasy and the anti-psychiatric experimentation of the program. Between the phantasy, an interpretation that must itself be interpreted, and the motor program of experimentation. The BwO is what remains when you take everything away. What you take away is precisely the phantasy, and significances and subjectifications as a whole. Psychoanalysis does the opposite: it translates everything into phantasies… It royally botches the real, because it botches the BwO.”
  3. Though not directly drawn from here, my ideas about the socially transformative potential of BD/SM and other forms of “sexual transgression” have been heavily influenced by this bell hooks panel discussion at the New School on transgressive sexual practice. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GpdJUGn0FHE

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