On experimentation and truth in music

Over the last few weeks I’ve had a number of very interesting artistic experiences, including the Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music, the ELISION concert ‘An ocean beyond earth’, and reading Jordan Lacey’s Sonic Ruptures as well as Rebecca Solnitt’s A Book of Migrations. These together have provoked some reflections on musical creation that I’ll try to sketch out here. These is only some early thoughts and make no claim to coherence.

I think the main thing that came out of the BIFEM weekend was that I have something of a renewed interest in the concept of ‘truth’ or ‘truths’, in particular ‘experiential truths’. Being a pretty big fan of the work of Alain Badiou, I’ve for a long time been keen on his idea of truths as creative processes that construct a new order by following a kind of logical progression from an axiomatic point of rupture with the status quo. Musically, however, for a while I have been kind of avoiding this category of truth in favour of novelty and experimentation. In the latter idea, experimentation becomes an end in itself, and the act of experimenting becomes liberating in and of itself. The argument runs something like this: the status quo imposes fairly strict ideas about what music is and could be, stultifying the development of our aural sense and the emotional and intellectual content that goes with it. But by exploring aspects of music that are hidden from or by this status quo, we expand and diversify our experiential world, and that makes us better as human beings, richer, more fulfilled, more open. The benefit of this idea is that it doesn’t require any stark dualism between a false music and a true one: all musics are good, but the greater the diversity of musics experienced, the better for the human individual and their community. ‘New Music’ – in the sense of music that is self-consciously exploratory – simply is a particularly useful vehicle for this diversity of experiences. I recently read Jordan Lacey’s book Sonic Ruptures, and I think his emphasis on the ‘diversification of affect’ is a good expression of this basic idea.

What I began to think though, while at BIFEM, and in particular in the discussion session ‘What’s Your Fetish?’, was that perhaps the idea of ‘truth’ should not be abandoned in favour of this diversity/novelty hypothesis. I began to feel that something was lost if we drop this aspect. Without this idea of truth we can very easily get lost in a ‘fetishisation of materials’ (someone brought up this idea of the fetishisation of materials during the BIFEM discussion, but seemingly only to suggest that we should inject direct political or social content into our music, which I think is a somewhat simplistic solution). Because in essence, the diversification-novelty idea is a purely formal question, and does not deal with the issue of content. Forms are explored as ends in themselves, with the overall horizon being that of human development, which is in any case a purely formal conception by this stage.

This is all quite fine as a defence of new music and diverse music practices (and certainly as a defence of arts funding, since it is acceptable to a liberal discourse), but the thing I began to realise over the BIFEM weekend and the following week is that I feel experimentation should have a telos or aim. Experimentation (as in the sciences) is experimentation for something. You experiment to try to achieve a result. That this result is not fully understood or conceived before the experiment does not change the fact that something is aimed for beyond the experiment itself. Some experimentalists may be so committed to the diversity-novelty idea that there is or should no criteria for judgement of an experiment’s success (which is an admirable perspective, and useful at times, but I think insufficient), but mosts artists will form a judgement about whether something ‘worked’ or not. It is here that the concept of truth needs to be raised, in order that the criteria for judgement of an experiment’s success does not just rest with the order of things as they are.

The concept of truth that I’m toying with here therefore shares something in common with Badiou’s formulation in Logics of Worlds that “there are only bodies and languages, except that there are truths.” There are only criteria of judgement for music based on physiological-psychoacoustic research or based on stylistic norms (and their institutional support), except that there are experiential truths that are not sanctioned or guaranteed by these criteria. As with Badiou, obviously these truths are exceptional and not very frequent.

On the other hand I’m not using the idea of truths quite like Badiou, insofar as I’m currently not considering the truth-procedure aspect, including the evental rupture, trace, fidelity, construction of a subjective body, points, etc. On the other hand, I’m hesitant to say that the idea of truth here is one of representation or revelation, whereby an experiential truth represents in an immediate way a pre-existing, but somehow inexpressible experience, which is of course a common idea of the arts and something like a theory of catharsis. Or, shall I say for now that I think there is this aspect, where a truth is revealed, but at the same time, a truth is constructed and always something new and adds to our experience. It doesn’t just represent or reveal experience, it also creates experience. It changes us as much as it reveals us to ourselves.

I guess what I’m trying to avoid here is thinking a stark division between content and form. Content in this view is not something that pre-exists form, but form viewed from the standpoint of its web of relations (resonances, metaphors) to our experiential lifeworld. (Perhaps this is what Adorno means when he speaks of ‘mimetic comportment’.) Which is also to suggest that this web of relations 1) always already exists, and 2) that it is sufficiently socially stable to have something more than just ‘personal truths’.

Anyway, I don’t know how defensible or interesting all this is philosophically. The point is that, for an artist, experimentation is an activity whose purpose is to try to reveal-create an experience or experiential mode that neither our mere bodily tendencies nor our stylistic constructs can reveal or create. There is therefore something mystical about experiential truths, something beyond what can be rationally conceived or articulated, even if rationality plays a large part in constructing or revealing them. I guess this is the sublime aspect of art. It reminds me of that Rimbaud quote: “I say that one must be a seer, make oneself a seer.” Which is not to say that I think we need to see ‘beyond’ a false reality into a ‘true’ one, perhaps some kind of aesthetic state allows us to experience fully the reality that is already here. “One must be as radical as reality itself”; “the Kingdom of God is the present moment”.

Something like the idea I’m trying to get at is found in David Metzer’s book Musical Modernism at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, where he talks about ‘compositional modes’. For Metzer, 20th century music is characterised by a number of different ‘lines of enquiry’ into some essential compositional states: purity, the fragment, modern silence, lament, etc. I take these to be experiential truths. Of course the truths are not reducible to these concepts, but the concepts provide the best method to group them and talk about them. I increasingly like this way of looking at things (as long as it plunges into the technical-formal dimension and gets past the merely impressionistic) because it avoids suggesting that there is a ‘stylistic’ element to truth, or talking about musical truth in the singular, or talking about it as entirely negative (truth as that absolute ‘beyond’ of reason). For instance, Liza Lim’s music tends to reveal something about the experiential truth of tangledness, of obscurity of relations, and the occasional burst into clarity, where the clarity becomes conversely just as obscure, even more so, as the dense moments. This is some essential experience of the subject, individual or collective. This was particularly obvious in her recent How Forests Think, premiered by ELISION a few weekends ago at BIFEM. Aaron Cassidy’s The Wreck of Former Boundaries, as with much of his music, was an attempt to get at some kind of truth about experiential intensity, though I’m not quite sure it succeeded.

What’s clear here is that the musical structures reveal-construct truths of broader human experience by way of some formal mimesis. What exactly the dynamic is here is something to think about some more, but increasingly I don’t agree that music only has ‘musical truths’, but that it can only partake of experiential truths – great music somehow links into, as a kind of synecdoche, our whole experiential or affective world.

At the same time, music is not capable of delivering economic or political (or scientific) truths. Music is not a means for ‘consciousness raising’ or agitation, but connecting with the total experiential world conditioned by these economic and political processes. This is always an obscure, irreducible relation.

It is not that music has no role in social change, though. It’s just that its role is through the liberation of human affect through the construction of experiential truths. This is allied, at the horizon, with the attempt to decommodify human relations, and to build a new world. And my argument today is that, since we human beings are ‘amphibious’ (always both universal and particular), no fundamental social transformation will be possible on the back of reason and political struggle alone, but will need a cultural dimension that is true to its own nature.

I guess the last thing to make clear is the experimentation-liberation nexus I raised earlier. My thinking at the moment is to suggest that there is a link between experimentation, liberation, and experiential truths. Experiential truths cannot be constructed without experimentation on materials from a starting point subtracted from, or exterior to, the demands of style and what ‘suits’ our perceptive capacities. Likewise the inverse is the case, without an attempt to manifest some experiential truth, experimentation and material innovation lose their ontological ground.

The main consequence of this shift from the diversity-novelty idea of music to that of the revelation-construction of experiential truths is a switching of ends and means. Whereas in my research over the last year or so I have conceived of counterpoint as a means for exploring new realms of sound and performance (insofar as it allows the ‘thinkability of a world’), now I think that exploring new realms of sound and performance are themselves different means to understanding the experience of simultaneity. I’m trying to find the best way to express what the experiential core of this is. I think it has something to do with the experience of the presence of heterogeneity, where one is forced to ask themselves (not necessarily consciously), “how do both of these things belong?” Obviously it isn’t as simple as just putting two heterogeneous sounds together; one must have an ear for the conflicting experiential resonances of materials and also the understanding of how to explore what the identity of these differences in fact is.

One final point is that music would be one of the few artforms (along with dance, I suppose) that would be capable of presenting this experiential truth. Obviously literature and poetry can describe a state in which there is heterogeneity, but the form itself is diachronic and unilinear (one concept at a time). Painting can present simultaneous heterogeneity, but can’t handle simultaneous motion. Film has a slightly greater capacity, but it is also limited to what action can be on the frame or field of vision at once.

That turned into a very large rant, and perhaps no one has made it this far. But it’s been useful for me in clarifying a few thoughts, so too bad. Hopefully I’ll come back an clarify this a bit more and talk about practical implications soon.