Introduction by Roger Reynolds to the SEARCH Project.

The Noise of a Present Future

Paul Koonce

Copyright © 2002 Paul Koonce and the Composition Area, Department of Music
University of California, San Diego
Published by Permission

Online publishing and editing by Karen Reynolds
All Rights Reserved.

SEARCH EVENT IV, 2 March 2002, University of California, San Diego

The following TEXT was commissioned by the Composition Area, Department of Music, University of California, San Diego for its SEARCH initiative. The TEXT / TALK is copyrighted and appears in its original presentation here. While links TO this TEXT or recording from other sites are welcome, no part of this TEXT may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic storage or retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holders [Please contact Roger Reynolds: to facilitate this.].

Remembering a Future

A good friend once told me of his visit to the late composer and cyberneticist Herbert Brün. I am sure their conversation was like many of my own with Herbert—memorable for its gamut of exchanges and asides on everything from music to politics to just plain life. But my friend spoke of just one comment of Herbert’s, one that, as he dramatically retold it with a Brünian clarity of statement, had then as it has still, the ring of news. It was not actually a statement but a question. Brün had asked him, he said, "What will music be like in 50 years? I will not be here, but you will. So, please tell me; I want to know." 1

At first blush Brün’s question could be dismissed as just a bit of a comedy. He seems to ask his visitor to play the role of the mystic and predict the future. Few of us would claim such knowledge for we know that not only does a future knowledge belong to a future life, but also that our humility keeps it there. Yet such resignations to the idea of our future as beyond our responsibility not only belie the origin of the future in the present, they ignore the intertwined if not entangled relationship of past and future. They ignore the crucial role that our present plays in linking and defining past and future. Faulkner’s words remind us of the mistake of separating past from present: “The past is never dead. It's not even past.” 2; The logical corollary is that the future is not yet-to-be-born, but already alive, and thus already our responsibility.

When Brün invites himself into our future with the rhetorical question, “What will music be like in 50 years?”, his goal is to remind us of these facts. Like many of the statements and aphorisms Brün was fond of composing to make his friends and students investigate some distinction that our unexamined language usually prevents us from seeing, his question about the music of the future asks us to examine our near-sighted assumptions about the present, and to consider the effect and consequence to ourselves and to our society of not finding a future in it. While his concern is not an original one, I am nonetheless drawn to the way he made the point, to the fact that it was, simply and plainly, performed—moreover, before an audience of one! While the past has given us many a text concerned with inspiring our inquisitive, future-looking eye, so many texts suffer the effect of being “not past”, but unfortunately not of the present either—the present in which our future is born. Brün seeks this present of the future not by writing a text, but by asking his question as though it had never been asked before. He knows that for his question to remain fresh it must be asked again and again. Because the future (our future) is made present in the asking of the question.

While fondness for what I learned from Brün makes me recall this story—I am sure anyone who knew him as a teacher or friend will recognize him in it—I think that it would be hard to find a better way to remind all of us of the responsibility we have to preserve the invaluable function of a new music. Morton Feldman once commented that while we can do without music, we can not do without its mythology.3 His comment was on the mark, for the mythology of which he speaks is no less than the tradition of the new, a tradition the dialectic of which offers us the opportunity for rebirth and rejuvenation as it invites us to make the idea of music a new one. Those who have made the present have continued this important tradition the gift of which we ultimately receive and celebrate by recognizing the responsibility we have to think and then, yet again, make a future. When Brün asks his question, this is what he is asking us to do—to look to the present and remember a future. I will always remember Herbert Brün for teaching me this lesson. For me, he will always be my ideal future listener, one poised in a time-to-come waiting for a music still to be heard.

A Child’s Mind

But how do we remember a future? What are we remembering, and who among us remembers it?

It is easy to speak solemnly about the cause of the future, but difficult to imagine it. For the future brings with it new perspectives that change the way we think. Getting from old ways of thinking, listening, and seeing, to new ways—to these new perspectives—is challenging. It is challenging not just for the maker of an art but also for that art’s audience. However, it is the challenge of a new art that draws us to it, because a new art holds the potential to reinvent our experience. Very young children know of this potential not of art, which is a distinction they have not yet learned, but of new things in general. New things for young children carry the promise of new experience through which they build the patterns of perception upon which they will live a future life.

A Child’s Exploration

The observations of psychologist Jean Piaget make this point abundantly clear. Piaget found that children spend the least time with toys they dislike, more time with toys they like, and the most time with toys they do not yet know whether to like or dislike—in essence, with the unknown.4 For young children, an unfamiliar object can become a serious tool of play. It can capture their attention as it toys with their knowledge and induces new patterns of perception.

I will never forget watching a friend’s two-year old son spend two spellbound hours with a small, zippered bag.5 Repeatedly working its mechanism in a slow and careful back-and-forth motion, he searched for the secret behind its interlocking teeth—teeth that mysteriously closed, then opened, the bag’s compartment in a magical transformation from two open seams, smooth to the touch, to one impenetrable surface. This young mind had learned how to close things by swinging doors, snapping locks, or clicking latches. The zipper was an enigma; its mechanism closed and opened not with a single stroke but continuously with the pulling of its tab. Worse yet, it did so secretly, hiding the way it worked inside the mechanism beneath the tab. A zipper’s secret, of course, is the series of small locking gestures elegantly set into place by the funneling grooves housed inside the mechanism. But no matter how hard he looked, from all possible angles, these remained invisible to the young child who could not see inside. Again and again he watched the rows of teeth pass through the zipper’s mechanism, becoming magically separated when pulling in one direction, or joined in the other.

A Zipper is Like a Door

We adults should know the zipper well, but large numbers of us take it for granted. A simple and robust mechanism in use for almost 100 years, it has transformed the way pliable materials are attached together. Before the zipper, the principal way to join fabrics together into one continuous sheet was by sowing a seam. But a seam, once made, is difficult to undo. Unlike seams, zippered fabric joins are made and unmade quickly. The zipper transforms the joining of fabric from a fixed boundary into something closer to the locking of a clasp or the closing or opening of a door.

The Space Inside

Doors and lids, and mechanisms like them, change our sense of space by creating containment—by creating the space inside. Our conception of this space—of its size and shape—is typically fixed given the materials and structures that rigidly enclose it. With the zipper’s ability to join flexible materials, inside spaces become malleable and scaleable. The effect is profound. My friend’s son knew spaces defined by the rigidity of fixed, enclosing walls. But here was a space defined instead by what is put into it, for as the materials that enclose the space become flexible and even expandable, they pass on their plasticity to the space they enclose. The enclosing materials can become irrelevant and even invisible as the task of defining the shape and size of the space inside shifts from being a function of the properties of the walls to the properties of those things placed inside, things which themselves, in turn, may not be rigid.

New Art is Like a Zipper

Young children grappling with objects and space sense the potential of the zipper to create this paradigm shift—we see it in their rapt attention. However, in their first encounters with a zipper, the zipper does not yet do this work; it is only a strange thing, challenging their patterns of thought about enclosed space, and how that surrounded, isolated space comes to be enclosed, and how it can be entered. Our experience of new art is not unlike a child’s first encounter with a zipper, for a new art is, at first sight or sound, a strange concatenation of materials and mechanisms challenging what we know art to be, and the work we know it to do.

Coming upon Kandinsky

I encountered one such example of a strange mind-changing art recently on a visit to the Guggenheim Museum in NYC with a friend.6 A variety of 20th century art was arrayed along the building’s famous spiral ramp the effect of which was that of a giant brain of images representing someone’s view of art’s collective, convoluted memory. Having walked slowly apart, up the ramp, we returned together back down in a flashback rewind of the works we had seen. As we walked, we talked about which pieces we liked most. It wasn’t long before we both recalled a painting by Kandinsky. We had both paused much longer before it than the 15 seconds typically given works of its kind by museum tourists—a signal that we both considered it a standout. There was something remarkable about it, a quality that as it immersed us in the clarity of simple forms—circles, lines, grids, and triangles—also showed a resistance to the idea that its shapes were in fact simple. A major factor was Kandinsky’s use of color cast in, on, and around the shapes, color that softened the inside or outside of their black edges, or made solid in one that which was in others the void inside the ring. Color mediated our perception of its shapes, modulating their connection to the flat surface plane by suggesting the shadow or luminescence of distant objects. Yet color was not the work’s only foil, for across the surface plane that collected shapes and marks like a sketchbook repository logging the wandering, haphazard thoughts of the visual mind was a wealth of draughtsman’s allusions to three-dimensional perspective built out of converging lines or changes of scale. Footnotes to the history of representational painting and its increasingly vestigial presence in the art of the time, these allusions to depth, modulating the scratchpad surface, seemed discursive, as though the artist, with eyes front, lost in the welter of floating shapes, were making smalltalk about the changing face of painting and its tradition of finding pleasure in the ascetic practice of staring at a wall.

Kandinsy’s Zippered Bag

Galleries and museums offer the rich opportunity to not only see history, but to visit with the artists, to look over their shoulders, and see how they grappled with materials. When we look in on this Kandinsky, entitled Composition VIII, we see exactly this, not simply a painting, but an artist intent on making it in front of us. With cunning and humor, he shows us what it means to face a surface that talks back, asking the second and third questions about how and why we see. It is an infectious experience that seduces our gaze. For as we explore the surface we become caught up in objects, objects that at first sight appear segregated on the canvas surface but which with time and a roaming eye become threaded into the contradictory overlays of three-dimensional space that turn the work into a hall of mirrors. This painting is Kandinsky’s zippered bag, for as we join with him in scanning its elegantly clear surface in a back and forth motion, it reveals a plastic and contradictory space beneath, one that is transparently and deliciously complex.


I am continually struck by the different orders of organization in this painting—orders of shape, perspective, color, size, luminescence, transparency, opacity, complementarity, and even orders of variation—and how no one of them dominates—they somehow coexist. It is a testament to the elegance of its complexity—to what complexity is—that the painting can simultaneously present these different orders, superimposed and intersected, and prevent any one of them from assuming an overarching role. It is what keeps us coming back to it, for we return looking for how to simplify our gaze only to find our eye still tossed between nascent orders as the objects on its surface link, and pivot us between, different and contradictory ways of seeing. The links have their way with us.

Making Strange Links

I find Kandinsky useful here; his methodology of construction and representation resonates with what composers do. The title of this painting, Composition VIII, does but wink at the idea. Although what is interesting is not that it arranges objects, but that it composes links between different ways of seeing. I have always enjoyed Brün’s phrase, “drawing distinctions links contradictions”,7 for it encapsulates, with the glue of a craggy melody, what happens in this compositional process; namely, that distinctions are invented by finding common ground between systems in contradiction.

I remember a story John Cage told about his father in response to an oblique question about process and intent. Cage’s father was an inventor who created, among other things, those communication devices that use the electrical power lines in a house to communicate between different rooms. His invention simply plugs into an electrical outlet; with one in each room, a house is instantly wired for communication using the unlikely link of power lines.8 A kind of poor person’s makeshift intercom, it is a wonderful example spun from a practical context of how a resourceful mind invents by finding common ground between contradictory things; in this case the ground is electrical. To compose a new music is to invent new and strange connections or links, as Cage’s father did, and as Kandinsky does in this painting. Before saying anything about the future of music, or any art, what needs to be said, I think, is that new things come from finding links in the most unlikely places and between the most unlikely materials.

Webern’s Links

While a near century of graphic arts has almost desensitized us to it, we can with interest see links in Kandinsky’s painting. We can just as easily hear them in the music of Webern, who has his own way of composing contradictions. Kandinsky’s Composition VIII, in fact, reminds me of Webern’s music, for there is a sense of multiple, burgeoning orders in it that resonates with Webern’s music; the fourth movement of the opus 10 pieces for chamber orchestra, for example. Webern’s abbreviated events are the auditory equivalent of Kandinsky’s pristine but unsettling objects that link to both abstract and pictorial orders. Webern forms orders in different parameters: duration, brightness, articulation, number of notes, speed of event, noise/pitch, etc., with each instrumental event adding a unique element to each parameter’s accumulating scale of values. The short movement has a memorable shape and design. Yet its parametric orders suggest other temporal sequences that move us back and forth through time and our memory of its events. Its time is shifted and folded.


What I find fascinating about both Webern and Kandinsky is how they use complexity in combination with silence or space, respectively, to induce a contemplative state-of-mind, one that suspends time. That is, while the Kandinsky is nominally about visual space, and the Webern about sounds in time, both move away from these simpler experiences. Webern creates an experience less temporal, more spatial as we construct the complex of links in our mind. Kandinsky creates an experience less spatial, more temporal as our eye moves about the complex of links. Both move to trap us in the labyrinth of a contemplative experience.

Milton Babbitt

Contemplation has always been a part of musical experience, but the 20th century has taken the idea to new plateaus. Webern’s lead is played out in the music of Milton Babbitt who takes his ideas about structural design, self-similarity, and fragmentation, to new extremes of arcane, machine-like order and variation. The severity and complexity of Babbitt’s compositional order (or any music like it) makes its presentation in time, in some ways, incidental. For as it stretches our ability to sort and link together patterns, it draws us into questions. What does it means to listen to a complexly-ordered universe of sound? And how do we engage and interact with that order and the intelligence behind it? With Babbitt, we are increasingly left searching for the code that explains how to interface with the music’s complex design. It is a puzzling, zipper-like experience, purged of drama, that makes me think about the future of machines in music, and our interaction with them.

John Cage

John Cage’s role in extending our contemplative experience is the equal of Webern and Babbitt’s, although his chance-driven methodologies are of a different order. We can link Cage back to Satie through their common interest in disorder, non-intention, and non-sequity. Satie’s music is famous for its clerically dispassionate, tongue-in-cheek demeanor that references the continuity of a familiar musical language by ever-so-casually breaking that continuity at every joint. Cage takes Satie’s ideas about disjunction and disorder to new extremes, challenging the idea of music as a time-based art defining a time-based experience. With Cage’s music, the listener has difficulty connecting sound to human action, causality, cultural practice, and temporal sequence—the connection to familiar objects is lost. The Freeman Etudes, or Etudes Australes are perfect examples, two large collections of pieces that present material and change without ever suggesting how to navigate the difference. Listening to these works is a strange experience. As we submit to them, a unique kind of contemplative state-of-mind emerges, one that neutralizes the function of time, development, and our inner clocks, as it absorbs us in a free-form examination of thought, memory, and perception, and the links that come and go in their midst. The works become, as Cage noted, “etudes for the listener”, immersing us in a continually changing installation of sound. Cage’s future is one in which musical time feels very different.

A Future in Machines

As I contemplate the music of Cage and Babbitt, and the innovative way they have changed our experience of order and time, I wonder what becomes of each of their challenges. Their music has clearly set a different course, one by which they have, in a sense, walked away from the drama of the concert stage to create a kind of other practice the implications of which continue to unfold. I can only imagine what this new practice will be like, how it will be made, and where we will experience it.

Interactivity and Machines

sThis future music will undoubtedly involve machines as machines now permeate our lives. The machine has over the last century come to play an increasingly important role in music, as it has shifted from metaphor for the mechanical in art, shaping a music’s style, to automata with the use of computers. We now make and perform music with machines the consequence of which has brought the issues of our control of and communication with cybernetic systems to the foreground. The machine has become more than a metaphor for the mechanical in art; it has become a means by which composers and performers create surrogates of themselves. With the increased role of interaction and feedback, cybernetic systems have become increasingly viable extensions of the inventor’s mind, although they take inventors into dangerous territory. Inventors risk becoming unexpectedly shaped if not defined by the system with which they interface. They can become mere reflections of the machine. Marshall McLuhan captured this idea in his ingenuous recasting of the Narcissus myth. McLuhan identifies Narcissus not as a figure turned into a flower by the lake as a consequence of love for his reflection, but as a figure caught-up in the thought, both amazing and horrifying, that his body extends beyond his skin, and that the world around him is an extension of his central nervous system. 9

Interactive Listening

Interactive cybernetic systems will no doubt play an important role in music’s future, taking us into McLuhan’s metaphor. What remains to be seen is how listeners interface with these systems. For, in its purist form, music listening remains a contemplative experience. Listeners receive sound and think about what it represents. They think about how sound, as the trace left by composers and performers, is an agent for what composers and performers think and do, and how they, the listeners, by tracking the traces left, project into the mind and behavior of composers and performers. The process is far from simple or direct. In its most complex and curious manifestation, the process of listening presents listeners with conundrums built out of the mismatch between their minds and the seeming evidence-of-mind they encounter in the work. The experience tells them as much about their own limitations of mind and perception as about the composers and performers whose work they experience. How interaction becomes a part of this contemplative process is delicate, for it is a process that hinges upon the challenge and seduction of things that are not communicated; the process depends upon what Brün identified as the anti-communication10 of a musical system—that is, its resistance to becoming nothing more than a vehicle for a known behavior.

Many interactive entertainment systems in use today have taken the form of games, games that teach us how to behave, interact, and play. It is conceivable that new, listener-interactive, musical systems could take this form. Such systems would use interactive circuits to engage us at some level of Pavlovian stimulus and response in a new kind of biofeedback dance. While it is an intriguing idea, I am inclined to doubt that listener-interactive musical systems will take such a form—or at least doubt that we will call them music—for such systems interact not with the mind but with the body, communicating with it all too well; the systems seduce us with bodily communications rather than the intrigue of cognitive anti-communications. It is not surprising that they do, for while they are meaning-impoverished, as interactive systems, they are rich with communication. The question of how to develop meaningful anti-communications in communication-enriched systems is not a trivial one. Composers would do well to address it, keeping in mind McLuhan’s Narcissus, for it is not his delight but shock that makes him retreat from the world, and turn towards contemplation.

The CD Redefined

As I ponder what such a music might be like, I come upon this dream I have. It is a dream in which I find myself, once again, in that modern, media staging-area: the home. In the dream I turn to my shelves of CDs, take one out, and play it. Much to my surprise it sounds not as I expect it to sound but is curiously different. Sometimes it is changed the way familiar pieces are by new performances. Other times it is changed the way indeterminate or open-form works are changed by different realizations (something most of us have never heard through recordings). And at yet other times, it sounds like a composer’s next piece, recognizable through style while changed by new material or ideas. The experience is a curious one, for the re-auditioned work is in name and conception the same, yet has somehow grown and evolved in response to my interest in it and my return to it. The recording has ceased being a record of a past moment in the creation or performance of the work, automatically aged like a photograph. Instead, it has become a kind of self-contained, cybernetically-defined, system representing both the current state of the composition, and the ways it can change. It has become, in a sense, an artificial life with a past and future inviting me to imagine, think, and be surprised by the strangeness of mind that made it. It has become something I live and grow with, something that immerses me in its complex and plastic space of mind, something like a painting by Kandinsky, or a zippered bag.


Any discussion of the future of music, or any art, would not be complete without a look at materials. When we look at art or listen to music, we are observing how the artist has approached materials. This is especially true of new materials, for their strangeness draws us into the way the artist has made material, material to their art.

Renegade Chair

In the painting Cruelty of the Fathers by David Salle, we see an example.11 Salle contrasts different images: a woman swimming in a pool, collected views of the human body, a map of a coastline, and oblong blobs and crescents. It is a scene of colliding spaces and shapes made curious by the attachment of a red, biomorphic-looking chair—the chair is positioned as though the wall were its floor. The chair is the first thing we see in our off-axis approach. It is truly strange as its wings jut precariously into the gallery space. However, as we move to the front, our perspective projects the chair back into the canvas where it becomes a crescent. It is a moment of epiphany as our eye is directed into the surface and the other crescents we find there, some the result of similar projection: the bather’s cap, eyebrows, eyes, lips and cheeks; the curve of a foot, arm, or back. Others, like the coastlines and blobs, originate in the surface. The flat surface becomes common ground for contradictory materials and images. But there are other forms resonating with each other such as the torsos with their arms up and the winged shape of the chair. Be it in two or three dimensions, Salle’s painting is a scene of projection and abstraction much like Kandinsky’s work. Where it differs is the twist of the chair that, like a zipper to a child, first puzzles then informs as it becomes the key to the code for reading and linking the work’s contradictory spaces and objects.

Material Dysfunction

Materials like Salle’s chair create cognitive dissonance through mutual—complementary—dysfunction. (Salle’s chair is as foreign to painting as is painting a foreign context for the setting of chairs.) The viewer sorts out this dissonance by finding links. The crescents and winged torso shapes are one form of linkage—a linkage made through form. However, links can also be made not through form but through function and the connotations that come with function. Consider Salle’s chair—while we know the chair as an object designed for sitting, here it has neither seat nor the security of the floor beneath it. This creates vertigo, vertigo that connects the chair to the watery environment of the pool upon which it seemingly sits, and in which the swimmer weightlessly floats. Chair and swimmer join together in their defiance of gravity, their common lack of ground becoming common ground for meaning. The thesis of lost ground gains credibility when we see the chair in terms of the island mapped in the other panel, for as we see the island, sitting securely on the terra firma of mapped ground, we find ourselves tumbling forward, suddenly disoriented from reading the map on the wall as the ground it represents. The incongruous marriage of chair and painting teach us much about the challenge of new materials.

Music, Pattern, and Noise

The cyberneticist Gregory Bateson would call the chair a noise. Bateson saw pattern to be at the center of any theory of mind, and noise acting against those patterns to be the only source of new patterns.12 Salle’s chair is just such a noise making us work to see painting through new patterns of perception. Music is often conceived in terms of pattern, and called abstract because of it. Worse yet, it is often conceived as the opposite of noise, even though what we find intriguing in musical sound rests in the perceptual allure of navigating its timbral surface, an experience that takes flight with the introduction of semantic and auditory noise.

Electro-acoustic Sound and Music

The 20th century saw an explosion in new musical materials—in what can be music’s noise. Some of the most far-reaching of these have come from recording technology: the sounds of birds, creaking doors, crying babies, barking dogs, phones, rain, water, fire, a match being struck, a doorbell ringing, kitchen equipment, etc.—that is, sounds drawn from objects and places foreign to the concert stage and its instruments. These sounds come to music disembodied, for recording leaves the objects and places that made them—their agents—behind. Rendered as sound alone, the objects provide material for music, challenging listeners with new and noisy metaphors drawn from the memory of other places and activities. They can even suggest the invention of a new art form based on real-world sounds, an art form liberating listeners and composers from musical conventions by taking them into places and events not previously seen as musical. Electroacoustic sounds can play a role something like Salle’s chair that not only challenges painting by referencing sculpture, but also suggests a transformational shift from the represented to the real. Eva Hesse captures the idea even better in her famous work, Hang Up, that takes us from painting into sculpture. Hesse uses a large empty frame, nearly human size, and a limp cable looping out and back from it, to show the difference between the confining effect of a pictorial gaze and the liquidity of sculptural reality. As she catches us staring foolishly at the wall, fantasizing about the looking-glass through which we might step, Hesse uses her lure to shift our deluded gaze out into the kinetic and corporeal experience of the space around us.

Materials as Technology

New and foreign materials definitely change things. While we do not often think of materials as technology, they very much are. Marshall McLuhan wrote at great length about how new technologies change us by changing what we do. One of his most illuminating examples is the mirror. According to McLuhan, the introduction of the mirror into western culture parallels the obsessive and dubious culture of fashion. The inventor of the mirror, in a sense, invented fashion as well, and even vanity, for with the reflections of the mirror humanity saw itself as something seen.13 Of course, fashion is not about keeping our body warm; it is about either covering its repulsive nakedness, or suggesting the eroticism of its hidden, nude form, two decorative pursuits that have the potential to sacrifice the body’s protection for appearances. By giving birth to fashion, the mirror corrupted the common sense by which we dress, creating a kind of pathogen. Recording technology has put a similar kind of mirror before music, a mirror that has inspired a new and fashionable engagement with sound while also threatening traditional ideas about composition and performance.

Materials, Design, Plastic, and Plasticity

Whatever the discipline, new materials can have a remarkable and even pathological effect. The modern material of plastic is a notable example. Plastic has not only given birth to and perpetuated contemporary mass production and consumption, but has also simplified the design and production of curved or biomorphic forms; with the use of low-temperature liquid plastics and injection-molding, designers are freed from the constraints imposed by more traditional, malleable materials of production, like wet clay or concrete, or high-temperature molten metal. Yet in spite of these substantial gains, plastic—one of our most modern materials of fabrication, present in so many contemporary products be they large or small, temporary or permanent, rigid or pliable—has many faults, faults that work to stigmatize plastic objects as inferior, as objects of less value. Plastic objects lack not only strength and permanence, but also the physical weight to give them significance in our physical surroundings and our subjective memory of those surroundings. Plastic objects lack a kind of commercial weight, as well, as a consequence of their status as omni-present, mass-produced objects.

Sylvia Lavin has studied the impact of plastic on culture, and its effect on the field of design, exploring the ambivalence designers have towards plastic. Lavin theorizes the existence of a philosophical split of the field of design into two practices: one, more traditional in origin, rooted in an ethos concerned with the transformation of rigid materials into the seemingly plastic—in the representation of plasticity, and another growing silently and subversively out of a culture taken over by the possibilities and consequences of plastic—out of a culture gone plastic.14 Her critique theorizes the more traditional designer’s view of their work with curved or biomorphic forms as rooted not simply in the creation of those forms, but in the art of visibly transforming rigid materials into them. While plastic is a truly modern material of fabrication, formable into anything, its origin as liquid makes it a poor material for use in this work. Plastic serves this more traditional ethos of design poorly by deflating the role designers play as masters over rigidity; plastic simply does not serve this ethos—plastic resists it through its lack of resistance. That many designers identify with this role is evident in their willingness to, not use, but represent plastic’s original, malleable form. With the representation of plasticity standing as one of design’s ultimate challenges, design using plastic becomes something else altogether.

The Plastic Nature of Electro-acoustic Sound

Lavin’s discourse is interesting, particularly as it parallels music, for composers manipulate inert materials as well—in their case, tones and sounds, which they code into scores to be interpreted by performers. Listeners understand this well; to listeners, the performer is an agent of sound who struggles with the dangerous business of making an instrument produce the intended sounds while depending upon the composer’s ability to use pattern, distraction, orchestration, and representation to hide the reality of what performers do. In the context of this tradition, electroacoustic sound is, in one sense, a plastic material, for it is free from the effects of score, instruments, and even the composer’s hand as electroacoustic sound seemingly represents things directly—without resistance. Electroacoustic sound is to music like plastic is to design, equally pathogenic, threatening to replace construction, representation, performance, and authorship with something we think of, however delusionally, as merely real.

Lavin’s critique leads me to ask similar questions: is electroacoustic music a kind of plastic music grounded in a different kind of ethos, one inscribed in the phenomenology of new materials? Is electroacoustic music a kind of plastic art standing outside music? Or have the instrumental traditions and practices of music expanded their ethos to include the materials and metaphors of electroacoustic music while avoiding being changed by them; that is, has tradition and practice avoided the pathogen that is electroacoustic music by simply accepting it—by becoming its carrier? Or finally, has electro-acoustic music brought about a new synthesis, changing what we know music to be, by inserting itself into, fusing with, our previous notions of music? In other words, are our acoustic traditions of music excluding electroacoustic music, including it, or meeting it in a newly discovered intersection? Is electro-acoustic music an outlaw, a new citizen, or the catalyst for the development of a new music—a new society?

The answers vary depending upon the social group with which you talk and the form of electro-acoustic music you talk about. The question is, in part, about politics and technology, politics because it raises question about the current attitudes performers, ensembles, and concert producers have about their mission, and technology because the process of forming connections between the acoustic and the electro-acoustic requires tools. At its heart, however, the question is one of aesthetics and composition, for composers may seek to compose connections between the two different worlds, forming the discovered intersection, or they may see the worlds as separate domains, each embracing a different, complementary ethos. It is all a matter of what the composer desires to represent, a desire that can follow from the embrace of new materials, from the invention of new technologies, or from unexpected developments in related areas.

New technologies and materials often inspire artistic disciplines to reexamine practice. Photography, for example, induced painting to see its materials anew, leading it into a new phenomenology of paint, one that has inspired some of painting’s greatest, and possibly last, frontiers. Sculpture too has been transformed by new materials, opening its discourse to a new dialectic about objects, matter, and presence. Junctures in music history are often distinguished by new ideas about representation born out of a desire to understand and include the material world around us, and our existence in it. With electro-acoustic sound, we are perhaps living through either music’s final representational challenge, or our entrance into a new phenomenology of musical sound.

A New Fashion of Sound

How these old and new traditions play out their drama of exclusion, inclusion, or synthesis is a fascinating subject, for they take us into a theater of objects made dysfunctional by collision, merger, contextual use, or misappropriation. It is a theater of semiotics that reintroduces us to the origins of pattern, abstraction and language by making us aware of the conditions under which signs carry meaning. We find things like Salle’s chair in this theater space, or Eva Hesse’s cable—things that either form new types of meaning through the reexamination of objects and their semiotic function, or suggest alternative experiences located in another space and mind. It is a theater whose space is like the space inside a zippered bag, a space defined by the objects put into it, and their interaction in it. We find both music and visual art acting-out in this theater. Music has at times, owing to its inclination towards abstraction, called upon the drama of this stage less than, perhaps, the visual arts, though, electro-acoustic music has raised its curtain and turned up the flood lights.

I often think of this theater in terms of the following simple map; it charts my view of the underlying dialectical materialism of art.

Theater of Representation

Theater of Repredentation

Theater of Representation: The Pathological Work

This map is a kind of circle, oriented along orthogonal axes, partitioned into different domains representing different ways we engage with works and their materials. The top domain represents tradition and convention. In it we find those art forms whose reception as structured give them the reputation of being pure—of being Pythagorean. I think of this domain as a frictionless place of form and communication in which abstraction and system remove us from the perils of a world where mind and body confront materials. Turning the tables on what I have cast as pathology, I humorously think of this place as the domain of the pathological work, for its works are not engaged with materiality and representation beyond their self-absorbed concern with representing themselves. New art is probably not found in this domain because the works in this domain either do not use semantically disruptive materials, or have lost their impact as explanatory theories, or perspectives have taken hold. In spite of the title, pathological works are not bad, per se, only less new.

The domain of the pathological work means several things to me. In one sense I think of it as a straw man, imagined in order to build other domains. In another sense I think of it as a kind of black hole that, while having no real form, in time absorbs all works originally conceived to lie outside it.

The Enharmonic Domain

I flank the harmonious domain of the pathological work with the enharmonic domain. Material dysfunction is at the heart of what enharmonic works do, as sign and signified come unglued. Enharmonic works link unrelated materials, and are distinguished by their unusual, if not bizarre, contextual shifts. I connect these shifts to music’s tradition of modulation and enharmonic change in which common elements are used to pivot between different systems.

Sympathetic and Antipathetic Works

There are two types of enharmonic works: the antipathetic, and the sympathetic. The two function as complementary forms, reversing the design of semiotic dysfunction. Sympathetic works marry the signs or features of different materials, in order to show conflict between their underlying meanings. I like to say they create a conjunction of signs but a disjunction of meanings. Antipathetic works do the opposite, bringing signs into conflict in order to connect meanings; that is, they create a disjunction of signs but a conjunction of meanings.

Pictures tell all.

Rauschenberg’s Odalisque

Rauschenberg’s Odalisque is a perfect example of an antipathetic work. One of his classic combines, it presents us with different materials: a stuffed rooster standing proudly on a bulbous box, mounted on a vertical shaft, sitting curiously on a pillow. A light flashes inside the box. It is an unlikely group of materials, crowing loudly about the antipathy its members have toward each other. At closer range, seduced perhaps by the flashing light, we see the paste-up image of an odalisque in the collage of newsprint on the box’s side. The image turned title frames the incongruous collection of materials, transforming the strange-bed-fellow collection into those images through which we come to read the work’s bawdy subject. As rooster is read as cock, flashing light as libidinal drive, and the entire work as phallic, a conjunction of meanings comments on the role of the male in prostitution if not also the sexual symbolism coded into sculpture’s use of the pedestal. The work challenges us to find meaning hidden beneath its disjunctive surface of signs.

Oppenheim’s Object

For an example of the sympathetic work we need only turn to surrealism. Andre Breton conceived of three types of surrealist experiences. The principal type is associated with the mimetic experience of doubling. In doubling, a similarity of form allows one element to join with or substitute for another—to double with it—in a sympathy of signs distorting our experience of objects.15 We see such sympathies in Meret Oppenheim’s, Object, in which the smooth porcelain surface of a teacup is covered with fur. The substitution of one form of smoothness for another makes us aware of the teacup as something touched by both hand and lips, and of how hand, lips and tongue sense surfaces differently, especially surfaces as different as porcelain and fur. With Oppenheim’s Object, the substitution of surfaces—a conjunction of signs—reveals our sense of touch to be different to different parts of the body.

Mind-Body Dualism

The heart of the enharmonic work rests in the psychological dualism of mind and body. Sympathetic works challenge our physical memory, by challenging our memory of those objects that have a relationship to our bodies. Antipathetic works challenge our mind by challenging our ability to read meaning and intent into works of art. By challenging if not confusing us, enharmonic works are, in a sense, closer to us because they engage us with the nature of mind and matter. Such confusion is taken to an extreme in the inharmonic domain.

The Inharmonic Domain

While the enharmonic work befuddles us with its mysterious, strange, or arbitrary combinations, its mix of materials nonetheless suggests an author doing some kind of work. With inharmonic works, evidence of authorship is more difficult to find or accept, for such works replace the interplay of materials with singular objects or experiences, confronting us with either meaningless found objects, or inexplicable psychedelic experience. The found object challenges our ideas about what art is; the psychedelic experience challenges our ability to identify the physical object from which our experience originates. With inharmonic works, mind or body becomes utterly confused by the phenomenology of art or perception.

The Apathetic Work

I call found objects turned artwork apathetic works, for they are made by little more than stipulation. With the apathetic work, the work the artist has done is minimal and at times difficult even to find at all, leading to doubt about the authorial credibility of the work. I like to say that the object is found, but the work lost. Apathetic works lead us either to accuse their creators of artistic negligence, or to reexamine our ideas about art and our role in its existence.

The Apperceptive Work

In psychedelic art we become aware of our senses as they fail to help in identifying the source of our experience. With our senses short-circuited, we become trapped, unable to analyze our experience, aware only of sense distortion. I call such works apperceptive. As the complement to the apathetic work, I like to say that the work is found (i.e. the perceptual work we are doing), but the object lost (i.e. the object or objects producing the experience). Apperceptive works can lead us to accuse their creators of replacing artistic expression with facile, technological manipulation. Their true function is as tools for reexamining our senses.

The Map

While the horizontal axis of this map identifies the role of perception and cognition (body and mind) in this experience, the vertical axis charts the concept of art as work done by either creator or receiver. Pathological works are identified with the work the creator does, inharmonic works with the work the receiver does in response to confusion. Enharmonic works sit in-between, uncommitted. The vertical work-axis functions as another kind of duality, one between the author we imagine, and the author or participant we become when confused.

While some works are identified with particular regions of this map, many works draw upon a number of regions in a dialectic of engagement. In this sense, the map is less a taxonomy than a tool for thinking. I find it useful for not only discriminating my experience of art and music but in clarifying what I am doing as a composer in my search for a new music. In a strange way, it is a kind of palliative to the pathological effect new art or ideas have on us, clarifying the complex interplay between body and mind, intent and absence of intent.

The Map and Music

But what does this simple map have to do with music’s future? I could detail what this map means to music, but that would put musical examples—musical objects—into it, objects that would lessen the map’s function as a tool by reifying it, by objectifying it’s dialectic of de-objectification. So I will not. Rather, I will simply ask that its questions be asked of music, particularly in the name of a future of music that each of us finds on our own.

I will say that, whenever I think about the future of music, I am drawn into this theater and the questions it raises about material and abstraction, perception and representation, mind and body, authorship and spectatorship. While visual art handily covers its field, music does so less well as it sits verily in its pathological traditions. This is because our view of the musical work is too often conceived as a carrier of abstract orders, and much less as an object, or as a thing collecting objects. Were music more like or about objects and our engagement with their natures, it would take us much more into this field and the fundamental way it launches new experience.

Music is often viewed as a refined art because of the way it uses ideas about order, measure, and proportion to transcend the mundanity of objects. This is fine. However, for every language of refinement there is an end suggested in the way that language uses abstraction, for as abstraction takes hold it erases the original dialectic from which objects became material for music. New materials or objects save us from this end by challenging how we make and perceive distinctions; new materials take us back to the drawing board in search of a better ruler.

Bateson tells a wonderful story about dogs. When two dogs first encounter each other they will often fight, and then suddenly stop, run off together, and play as though nothing had ever been wrong. Bateson tells us that they do this because they cannot say, “I am not a threat”; they do not have the language to do so. So, they act out threat, and then stop. That is how they say “not”, by doing something and then not doing it.16

While it is evident that humans use language, our use of it in new situations in which we explore new things with new people is always as though we are inventing language for the first time. Having no definitions, we begin by defining things by invoking what they are not, like dogs.

When we set out to make something new, like art, we are, again, like dogs, searching for a language that we may never find but which we can only begin to hope to find by declaring what the new is not. Saying what something is not is our first step toward saying what something is.

The process is a curious one born as much by accident and serendipity as by intention. A bird sings, for example, and we say, “What was that?” We invent a flute in order to discriminate the bird’s song by imitating it. Failing, we discover a world of song not sung by birds. In time, the flute becomes a ruler measuring more than songs, distinguishing imaginary things that become not so imaginary. We start as scientists but finish as artists as the failure to create a technology for distinguishing birdsong ends up distinguishing us. We find new life in a nature that now includes us. However, as we see the limitations of abstraction, we return to the world, seeking new experiences that again challenge our powers of observation and discrimination—experiences that train the ear inside our brain. The cycle begins again.

Postlude Prelude

I have said very little about what a future music will be. It is possible that I want simply to avoid forecasting it so as to avoid being proven wrong. In actuality, I am too respectful of the sea change I hope the future will bring, to actually engage in forecasting it.

To ask the question about the future of anything is to walk into a trap, for the question assumes the continuation of a practice. Why assume music will have a future? Every present marks an end that someone will celebrate for an eternity. Music is no different. It too is plagued by presents, each celebrated as music’s consummate flowering. What is important to the future are not these ends but the beginnings, beginnings that, for the moment, challenge the idea of the present as end, marking the beginning of a sea change without revealing its inevitable end. I am reminded that Brün’s question only asks, “What will music be like in 50 years?” Brün knows better than to assume too much as he prepares to be heartily surprised.

The Beginning

A truly new music will be new before it is music. It is a radical idea often forgotten. A sound effects CD once announced, “The future of music isn’t music”. I tend to agree. I assume the future of music will be an extension of its past. I am less interested in such a future of music, and more interested in a future, since my hope is that the future will surprise me by not being music at all.


1 I owe this story to Chris Granner, which I here paraphrase, especially since he does not remember telling it.
2 William Faulkner, “Requiem for a Nun,” William Falkner Novels: 1942-1954 (New York: Literary Classics of the United States: 1994), Act 1, Scene III.
3 Morton Feldman, “Conversations without Stravinsky,” in Essays, ed. Walter Zimmermann (Kerpen, Germany: Beginner Press, 1985), 62.
4 Jean Piaget, Cognitive Structures, trans. Arnold Rosin (New York: Viking Press, 1977).
5 Aubrey Granner, son of Chris Granner.
6 Ted Coffey.
7 Herbert Brün, “Drawing Distinctions Links Contradictions,” Perspectives of New Music (Fall-Winter 1973, Spring-Summer 1974), 29.
8 John Cage told this story in an undergraduate class at the University of San Diego, California in the Spring quarter of 1986; the class was linked with the Pacific Ring Festival which took place during the quarter; John Cage was a guest speaker during one class session along with Ed Harkins and Philip Larson, performers in the absurdist theater act The, with whom he collaborated on a piece for the festival. Cage said very little during the class. However, when a student asked him a question, now long forgotten, Cage told this story.
9 Marshall McLuhan, “Narcosis as Narcissus: The Gadget Lover” in Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994), 41-47.
10 Brün, Herbert, My Words and Where I Want Them (London and Zurich: Princelet Editions, 1986), 48.
11 I first encountered this painting in the La Jolla Museum of Art when I was a student at the University of California, San Diego. It has always stuck with me.
12 Gregory Bateson, “Cybernetic Explanation” in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press: 2000), 416.
13 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994), 127.
14 Sylvia Lavin, “Plasticity at Work”, School of Architecture, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey, 21 Feb. 2001.
15 Rosalind Krauss, “The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism,” The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1985), 112.
16 Gregory Bateson, “What is an Instinct,” Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago and London, University of Chicago Press: 2000), 52-56.