Liberated territories

I have been thinking a bit lately about the relationship between the world and the subject in musical composition. I’ve always tried to compose a ‘subjective’ music in the sense of an allegorical form of development, etc. But this I think comes to an impasse: neither does it allow you to step back sufficiently to think about your actual materials, nor does it offer particularly radical structures. In fact, in the name of ‘subjectivity’, you end up writing music with often quite 19th century formal presuppositions.

I’ve been listening to and reading a lot about the development of post-war serialism lately, and despite what we’ve all been told about how awful this approach to music is, I’m finding it very stimulating in rethinking the subjective and objective dimension of music making.

Ultimately, I’m thinking now that the question of the subject needs to be displaced from the formal-allegorical level, to the level of the construction of the musical space itself (which is not the same as the individual composer and the act of composition). While I had already begun to make this move in my composing, I hadn’t really come to a viable alternative theory. This was largely because I was so wary of the idea of music conceived ‘spatially’.

Why am I now talking about musical space? Here’s a very useful definition of the serialist project from Richard Barrett that shows the significance of thinking in this spatial way:

I would encapsulate this way of thinking thus:

(a) identifying the parameters which are to be the focus of a composition, the “dimensions” in which it will exist;

(b) assigning minimum and maximum values to these parameters and in doing so establishing a “space” with those dimensions;

(c) making musically-significant movements across those parametric dimensions, or to put it another way, making a journey of discovery through the space they create.

It’s not a question of relating everything to a “series” but of relating everything to everything else. (

The-Bathing-PoolThis mirrors very closely the topological conception of a ‘world’ by Badiou in Logics of Worlds, and it makes me think of the example he gives of the painting The Bathing Pool that he analyses in Book III from this standpoint. In this way parameters are the ‘id-levels’ of the elements within the work. Things can things appear with maximal intensity or minimal intensity or somewhere in between, according to various dimensions. These dimensions could be the relative blue-ness of different blues or the degrees of eroticism of various figures in painting; they could be the degrees of rhythmic periodicity between figures in a work of music. This gives a space, and a certain type of time, a ‘time of the world’, which is made up of the various id-functions of the different dimensions.

This equation of serial parameters with Badiouian id relations would take some work demonstrating, but it could certainly be done (more or less).

But isn’t the whole problem there that you would be simply (re)presenting a world and not what changes the world? I.e. Aren’t you falling into the trap of being radically a-subjective as Nicolas (not unlike Adorno) accuses the serialist project of being? In creating a topological space and moving around in it, aren’t you simply rearranging the objects of this world, in a kind of nihilistic glass bead game? Would we not end up creating ‘official art’ in Badiou’s terms?

Official art describes the glory of what exists. It’s an art of victory. I think that is the most important point. An official art with an ideological determination is an art not of weakness but of strength. A militant art is the subjective expression, not of what exists, but of what becomes. It’s an art of the choice and not an art of victory. An official art is an art of affirmative certainty. A militant art is an art of contradiction, an art of the contradiction between the affirmative nature of principles and the dubious result of struggles. (

My answer would have to be that a great work of serialist thinking doesn’t create a world but a body, in the sense of that which “In the context of a becoming-subject … the world (which as such does not allow for any subject) is represented by a body.” (Badiou, LOW, p. 80).

What do I mean by this? I simply mean that if the work, through this (broadly conceived) serialist method, helps liberate the music from conventions and affirms something new, even (or especially) in its undecideability or its instability, it builds a space from a free starting point, a starting point that is not ‘of this world’ (or is, but in affirming something repressed within it). Or, shall we say that it retrospectively builds this starting point from its own structuration. In any case what you have is the process of defining of a liberated territory, in a sense.

A body, or a ‘liberated territory’, is still ‘worldly’ in that it can be objectively determined, but it manifests a kind of vector that points resolutely beyond this world, and in doing so, forces (in Badiou’s language from Being and Event) something new to be added to it.

(Whether this neatly fits Badiou’s category of the body or not doesn’t really worry me, it’s more a matter of thinking from this basic starting point).

I think that at this moment in the history of art music (and of politics), this liberated territory, this world-of-the-subject, should be expansive and should not be negatively defined and turned in on itself. It should be affirmative in the Badiouian sense. It should attempt to appropriate as much of the world as possible into itself, but transforming each element by the imaginative application of a rigorous dimensional structure, forcing something new out of it. Like James Connolly said: “For our demands most moderate are / we only want the earth.”

A work should, “think through [that is, demonstrate in time] the ‘worldly’ unity of all these differences which set forth the appearing of” this liberated space.” (Badiou, LOW, p. 200)

It’s not that the formal approach of serialism is objective and formal and it needs to be filled with subjective ‘inspiration’ and ‘content’. The point is that any inspiration would be already within the research that this serialist thought represents, and any ‘content’ or ‘material’ would just be the local structures thought through in this manner (no form-content distinction holds in this method). Am I saying, again in Badiou’s terminology, that the ‘serialist subject’ is still alive? Perhaps a different subject to the one he and Nicolas identify, one perhaps less linked to Boulez and more to Stockhausen, Xenakis, etc? Am I also suggesting that ‘material progress’ is also still possible contra Harry Lehman? I think Richard Barrett would essentially say this. At this stage I’m much more in agreement than I thought I’d be 12 months ago.

Regardless, the next step in this is to think through what this means for my idea of ‘counterpoint’, linked as it is to an idea of ‘multi-temporality’. It is not an entirely new point of departure. I have been thinking in terms of ‘identity levels’ for some time, but much more vaguely, and without the recognition of the inherently spatial aspect of this.