The prompted to write about “Crossing New Terrain”, immediately my mind set off. If an idea or practice is terrain, what is its shape? Is it mountainous, are there rivers flowing through it? Is there new undergrowth, shielding the leafy remains of ruins? When I cross this terrain, do I walk quickly through it, or am I meandering about? Am I getting lost, or do I know where I’m going (and what’s there when I get there?) Is it an exhausting hike? What does it even mean to take a single step forwards when a terrain is an idea? And what is the result if that idea or practice is musical? Thinking topographically about something that has no actual geography to it is a way of opening up the world into something newly analogous to our own embodied experience, and gives it a power beyond abstraction.
Even if we acknowledge Walter Pater’s famous dictum “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”1, music finds itself frequently referencing the non-absolute in order to reorient itself. Physically, pitch is the product of frequency, vibration. It does not actually move ‘higher’ or ‘lower’. because it is merely vibration. Still a “high” seems a handier description than a “fast” note, which would reorient us in an entirely different framework. Thus, for all the points of departure that these metaphors provide us, we could depart further. Taking these metaphors to a point of almost literal absurdity actually results in bringing about novelly productive states. The topographical approach to concepts came to fruition for me through reading Reza Negarestani’s Cyclonopedia, a fiction in the form of philosophy where concepts have the shape and malevolent intelligence of biblical gods, delivering plagues and riddled with holes through which creeps the truth of voided existence. His explosive fanciful writing is itself a descendent of the spiraling writings of Deleuze and Guattari, which frequently invoke vectors, borders, layers, and territories as the foundations of operating on thought, where far more slippery terms came before.
Lest this all seem too willfully obscure, there are plenty of musical examples that demonstrate the physicality of musical abstractions. Adam Harper, in the recent book Infinite Music, demonstrates a “music-space” where every conceivable musical attribute becomes a movable point in inconceivably vast spectrums. David Wessel used similar 3-D spaces to realize electronic timbre manipulations in the 1980s. And the writers of Die Reihe, the journalistic birthplace of total serialism, spoke of music in such parametric terms. One can suppose it goes as far back to Pierre Schaffer’s objet sonore and Edgard Varese’s definition of music as “organized sound” (or perhaps even as far as the Greek conception of music as the smaller movements of the cosmos). To organize sound is to push it around, stack it up, break it into small pieces or turn it onto its side. To organize music, to organize the organization, is no different. A musical object has as rich tactility as a sonorous object, as rich as a material object. Why else would Morton Feldman spend all his time with painters?
So what does this mean for a practice, in practice? For me, it has lead to a highly spatial and visual concept of music-making, of directions and territories not only for the sounds themselves, but forof their organizing axioms. Music becomes more than just different sounds, but indeed music becomes also the difference of differences. It is a field of corn or a parking garage, or even corn in a parking garage. It opens up architectural possibilities for structures unconfined by any physical laws of reality and, and forces us to see every side of everything like a sprawling Picasso. Thus, any absolutes once had about music, art, or the world become building blocks, or new stones on an artistic pathway. These pathways allowing seemingly disparate practices to come together in my work. Droning static textures and freewheeling improvisation become different sides of the same coin; any two pieces in like ensembles or even genres or mediums become the same side of different coins.
Any given act of musicking is, for me, flipping these coins over while travelling a creative path, inevitably getting lost in the landscape–soundscape–thoughtscape. The getting lost itself becomes an intrinsic part of the proceeding step; the road keeps branching forward, as real as anything in front of the eyes. Music’s special place between abstraction and tangible world leaves it and its practitioners especially apt for moving around all the objects of the world, and making objects of anything. Especially now, in the flourishing of interdisciplinary and performative gestures, music exists less alongside world than as it. Now there is work which, rather than building on difference of forms, plays with it (including the very stability of its own concept) – the music without or beyond sound that seems to be erupting in certain corners of the world, from the Chicago-based Mocrep’s performativity to the materiality of Japanese onkyo to the parametrically omnivorous systems of Anthony Braxton to the current preponderance of object-based free improvisations (to name but a few corners of my own world). What is important now is for artists to take these next steps, literally where they can, and especially literally where they can’t.
Image: Max Ernst’s Solitary & Conjugal Trees.