Being-Sound

From Wandelweiser to Onkyô

I. To Itself

Composer Manfred Werder began working on his ambitious, ongoing compositional project stück 1998 in the autumn of 1997, and he performed its first three pages that winter.¹ Its monumental score is comprised of 4,000 pages (of which the last were completed in 2001; see Figure 1), each of which uses the same format: a 5 x 8 grid of pitches given in Helmholtz pitch notation — that is, using a combination of upper and lower case alphabetic characters to indicate pitch class, and numbers to indicate register; for example, “c1” is the equivalent of middle C. In performance, each notated pitch — or “frequency” as Werder terms it — corresponds to a “time unit” having a total duration of twelve seconds. Each unit is comprised of a pitch sustained for six seconds, followed by a silence of equal duration. In total, over 160,000 time units appear in the score, therefore producing a total duration of 533 hours 20 minutes. Pitches are selected from a six-octave range (in twelve-tone equal temperament) and distributed among the units by the use of a chance procedure. Given the dimensions of the grid used and the duration of each time unit, each page has a total duration of eight minutes.

The score for stück 1998 may be actualized — Werder differentiates between the actualization of the score and a performance of the piece — by any number and combination of pitched instruments. Regardless of the approach taken, performers follow the grid, reading across each row from left to right, and down the page from top to bottom. Where a given pitch falls within the range of an instrument, it is played; where it falls outside, it is omitted, resulting in a twelve-second silence. Where multiple performers are given a pitch that overlaps within the ranges of their respective instruments, the pitch is sounded tutti. Consequently, if the pages used do not provide the performer(s) with any performable pitches, the result would entail silence for the entire duration of a given performance.

Remarkably, the only indication with regard to the dynamics and articulation to be used within the actualization of stück 1998 is found in a phrase included in its instructions: “für sich, klar und sachlich. einfach.”² This statement — translated by the composer as “to itself, clear and objective. simple” — provides a performance indication, but it also articulates an aesthetic position that guides both a compositional methodology and performance practice.³ Werder has noted that the phrase “replaced all further indications on dynamics, sound qualities, etc. since 1997.”⁴ Moreover, it serves to explicate the meaning of “actualization” as the composer uses it. With regard to how this phrase operates within his general theoretical framework, he refers to the performers, their instruments, and the site of actualization as constituting the context-specific “accidental qualities” of the piece, and it is in this sense that he claims that “every sound bears its precise dynamic and quality through its context.”⁵ Perhaps most importantly, the phrase begins with the proposition “to itself,” and it consequently initiates the development of a radical exploration of sound-itself that, owing much to the canonical experimentalism of composers John Cage and Alvin Lucier, divorces affect from the necessity of its external affirmation and aims thought toward an understanding of being-sound.

II. Being-Sound

Percepts are no longer perceptions; they are independent of a state of those who experience them. Affects are no longer feelings or affections; they go beyond the strength of those who undergo them. Sensations, percepts, and affects are beings whose validity lies in themselves and exceeds any lived. […] The work of art is a being of sensation and nothing else: it exists in itself.⁶

The above statement outlines a notion of affect contrary to the commonplace idea of its being bound to feeling. Instead, Deleuze and Guattari theorize that affect exists separately from any individual experience of it. In stück 1998, Werder engages with this scission, although with specific regard to sonic affects, thus echoing the Deleuze-Guattarian ontological formulation of affect as existing “independent of the viewer or hearer.”⁷ This notion of affect offers insight into Werder’s terminology, and particularly his use of the term “actualization.” Commenting on his work, Werder uses the term “quality” in reference to the contextual elements of the piece — again, its performers, their instruments, and the site of its actualization.⁸ Like Alvin Lucier, he posits an equivalence between sound and affect, operating from a conceptualization of sound-itself as being comprised solely of intensive quantities — of duration, frequency, and amplitude — and distinct from a definition of sound in terms of qualitative extension. Sound is understood as being constitutive of the affective (and inaudible) matter from which the work of Lucier is composed: “I think of sound in terms of wavelengths.”⁹ This focus renders his work irreducible to the affirmation of subjective interiority (of either composer or listener); instead, what is encountered is sound expressing itself: the being-sound of sound. The visual artist James Turrell once commented on his work, stating, “My art deals with light itself, not as the bearer of revelation, but as revelation itself.”¹⁰ The replacement of “light” with “sound” creates an equally evocative statement regarding the work of Lucier.

Within the context of stück 1998, an instance of notation does not represent a particular sound quality — that is, the particular timbre that would allow a pitch played at a certain dynamic level and articulated in some way to be identified as belonging to an oboe, trumpet, or violin. Sonic affect therefore refers to those characteristics — quantities of intensity — that distinguish sound from its being felt; experience — feeling sound — is a matter of qualitative extension — that is, affect once it has been contextualized and consequently internalized by a human listener, affirming their subjective interiority. To be clear, affect is undoubtedly involved in the process of qualitative extension, but it nonetheless remains an autonomous agent. As in the work of Lucier, affect is severed from affirmation, and sound is separated from the necessity of its being heard.

Actualization is commonly equated with realization; that is, to actualize is to make real or to give the appearance of reality.¹¹ However, given the notion of affect as posited by Deleuze and Guattari, sound-itself may be understood as being always already real. Thus, sonic actualization — contrary to its common meaning — entails the contextual, qualitative exteriorization of sonic interiority. Performance, then, may be understood as the site-specific fulfillment of the process of actualization. This is affirmed by Werder’s acknowledgement of there being a “fundamental disparity between the score and a performance [of stück 1998].”¹² His compositional methodology of abstraction yields a presentation of sonic affects, and, in this sense, the score mobilizes quantities of intensity independently of qualitative extension; it presents a grid that maps various inaudible intensities of sound-itself: the being-sound of sound. A performance of the piece is comprised of the actualization of its score, which engenders the extension of sonorous qualities. The contextual elements of the piece make sound audible, and as a result of this process of actualizing being-sound, both sound-itself and its human listeners become oriented toward contingency. Actualization necessarily implicates the performer as an agent who negotiates between, on the one hand, the navigation of organized intensities, and, on the other hand, harnessing the force of being-sound, an instrumental mechanism, and the site-specificity of its context. As such, this contingent process might result in a 12-hour outdoor performance during which the performer never plays a single sound, yet environmental sound is heard throughout.

III. Wandelweiser

The name “Wandelweiser” refers to an international music collective co-founded in 1992 by composer-flautist Antoine Beuger and German composer- violinist Burkhard Schlothauer.¹³ In addition to a collective of active composers and musicians, including Manfred Werder, it encompasses a publishing company and record label, both based in Haan, Germany, and the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble, a chamber ensemble dedicated almost entirely to the performance of works by members of the collective.¹⁴

In his formative essay “Etwas über Wandelweiser,” Schlothauer characterizes the music of Wandelweiser as generally being very quiet, and states that silence occupies considerable portions of its members’ pieces. Moreover, he claims that no dramatic elements exist within the content of the music itself, and that the selection of sound material remains typically clear and unambiguous; harmony, rhythm, and melody play either a minor role or none at all.¹⁵ Many pieces within the Wandelweiser repertoire unfold over extended durations, from hours to days, or even over the course of a decade.¹⁶ In the case of stück 1998, the piece might dematerialize for some time, occasionally re-emerging into the sounding environment. Member Michael Pisaro writes that “the time between the performances is also worthy of thought: these are silences, of a kind — times when the work goes underground but does not disappear.”¹⁷ Throughout their work, and across various and often strikingly different compositional approaches and modes of presentation, the members of Wandelweiser engage both conceptually and practically with the being-sound of sound-itself — namely, the conditions from which its actualization might emerge and unfold over time.

The work of John Cage, above all his notorious silent piece, 4’33’’ (1952), is of central importance to the theoretical underpinnings and compositional output of the collective. Beuger admits that he considers 4'33'’ as “the beginning — not an end — of a serious involvement with silence as an autonomous musical phenomenon.”¹⁸ Moreover, he has argued that encountering a performance of the piece marks the occasion upon which “music is experienced for the first time.”¹⁹ Pisaro has elaborated upon the importance of the work of Cage within the context of Wandelweiser:

4’33” was seen not as a joke or a Zen koan or a philosophical statement: it was heard as music. It was also viewed as unfinished work in the best sense: it created new possibilities for the combination (and understanding) of sound and silence. Put simply, silence was a material and a disturbance of material at the same time.²⁰

Beyond the undeniable prominence of 4’33’’, it is worth noting that the Wandelweiser Composers Ensemble has performed various selections from the Number Pieces series (1988–1992) by Cage, a distinctly ontological exploration of the numerical character (or numericality) of instrumental combinations. These pieces have often been included on concert programs featuring works by Wandelweiser composers, in addition to works by Lucier and James Tenney, among others. Each piece in the series is named after the number of performers for which it is composed, and each constitutes a kind of study or articulation of its particular numericality. For instance, One (1987) is written for piano solo, Two⁵ (1991) is for piano and tenor trombone (and is the fifth duo piece in the series), Four⁶ (1992) is for a quartet of unspecified instrumentation (and is the sixth quartet piece in the series), and 103 (1991) is written for orchestra. The series has had enormous influence on the compositional practices of Wandelweiser members and associates: the decision to focus mostly on either clear, softly-sustained tones or entirely unspecified sound, the use of chanced-determined time-bracket notation, the simplification of form, and the possibility for extended periods of non-playing — for instance, the time-bracket structure for One⁵ (1990) includes a rest of over five minutes in duration. Moreover, the Number Pieces demonstrate a remarkable reconsideration of musical harmony as a consequence of a novel focus on both indeterminacy — that is, the contingent overlapping of performers’ parts, often treated as discrete streams of sounding (and non-sounding) activity — and the numericality of a given musical work through its composition and performance.

In the mid-to-late 1990s there existed a period in the development of Wandelweiser wherein considerable theoretical and compositional attention was given to the Number Pieces, mainly with regard to the series’ ontological implications for thinking multiplicity through musical practice, and consequently defining the numerical identity of a musical work.²¹ Beuger in particular admitted to having developed an interest in number at this time, stating, “The number of performers is a very essential issue to me. I am strongly convinced that there is something to say ontologically different about a solo, duo etc. situation: it has to do with being alone, being ‘zu zweit’ [‘being two’]. Three again is a very different situation.”²² This creative investment in the ontological implications of musical situations has found theoretical rapport in the work of French philosopher Alain Badiou, whose project of thinking subjective truth beyond post-structuralism and postmodernism has entailed a formulation of ontology as being fundamentally set-theoretical:

To think the infinity of the pure multiples I took tools from Cantor’s set theory. To think the generic character of truths I turned to Gödel and Cohen’s profound thinking of what a ‘part’ of a multiple is. And I supported this intervention of mathematical formalism with a radical thesis: insofar as being, qua being, is nothing other than pure multiplicity, it is legitimate to say that ontology, the science of being qua being, is nothing other than mathematics itself.²³

Set theory, as an absolute mathematical thinking of the multiple, formalizes any situation — or presentation — of being.²⁴ A set-theoretical formalization of structured presentation, its quantitative emphasis being placed upon multiplicity, requires a theoretical framework that addresses the thinking of number, and for this Badiou turned primarily to the work of Georg Cantor (and notably his conception of ordinal number).²⁵ A performance of a “number piece” (Cage, Beuger, or otherwise) therefore constitutes a performance of a form of subjective truth — that is, the spatio-temporal realization of its respective numerical character.

Importantly, Pisaro has stressed the shared understanding among members of Wandelweiser that, far from an absence of sound, many kinds of musical silence exist, and the use of silence as music compositional material drives the collective activity of its members. Referring back to the Number Pieces, one might posit that a work such as Four⁶ explores the entanglement of four distinctly contingent silences. The score explains that freely-determined and numerically-assigned sounds are to be performed, all of which occur within specified windows of time; that is, “time-brackets” that provide a range of possible starting and ending times.²⁶ Given this approach to the placement of sounding activity, it is not always clear to the performers (or to the audience) exactly how their sounds will fit together, how many rests will occur within a performance (and for how long), or, in the case of Four⁶, what sounds (or instruments) will even be used. Conceivable as a description of a performance of Four⁶, Nicholas Melia and James Saunders have written that the Wandelweiser collective itself persists as “multi-dimensional, operational, allusive and ultimately elusive: less a thing than a collection of shifting functions, assertions, contentions, ideas, concerns and practices.”²⁷

Increasingly for Pisaro and Werder, among others, the idea of silence has become synonymous with contingency, as evidenced not only in stück 1998 and other pieces (such as 2005¹) by Werder, but also in works such as Anabasis (2014) by Pisaro, who suggests that “part of the instability of silence is also that fact that the non-action of a performer opens us to contingency […] that apparently just about anything can happen at any time.”²⁸ Beuger understands silence as being constitutive of an “encounter with reality, which means contingency, singularity, emptiness […] enforced by the event of a situation being disrupted without any reason.”²⁹ This notion of silence — understood as contingency — echoes the concept of “hyperchaos” — basically, the idea that anything is possible from one moment to the next — developed by French philosopher Quentin Meillassoux. Arguing for the necessity of absolute contingency, Meillassoux describes hyperchaos as follows: “[Hyperchaos] is not an extreme form of chaos; it is not more disorder than chaos, it is order or disorder. Hyperchaos can mean order and stability, as well as a complete destruction of what is.”³⁰ Furthermore, the contingency of hyperchaos is “so radical that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity.”³¹ Thinking in terms of music composition, hyperchaos — as a critique of laws of randomness — offers a valuable way to distinguish between the silences of Cage and Wandelweiser. The notion of hyperchaos reaches beyond any individual random, stochastic, or aleatory compositional approach. If randomness (Cage) is ultimately governed by a set of laws, then hyperchaos (Wandelweiser) suggests that these laws may change at any time; randomness remains as only one particular mode of presentation among others. Pisaro’s Anabasis, a 72-minute piece written for quintet, demonstrates this difference: throughout the piece there are moments of unexpected change and other moments of stasis; and at times its sounding material is clearly perceived, and at other times sonic strata suddenly break down or reconfigure. Pisaro has commented that the piece “attempts to hear how the apparent continuum of the sounding world is actually a series of states that are as fragile and discontinuous as they are solid and connected. (Discrete continuity is one of the ways we have of understanding contingency.)”³² As a kind of analogy of hyperchaos, the compositional rules themselves that define and govern the sounding activity of Anabasis occasionally appear to abruptly break down and diverge, or they vanish completely or later reemerge.

IV. Onkyô

In an attempt to describe the music belonging to what came to be known as the Onkyô scene in Tokyo, Japan, the phrase used by Werder in his score for stück 1998 — “to itself, clear and objective. simple” — is as efficient as a description of their orientation toward sound as a performance indication. Interestingly, it is impossible to expound upon the artistic practices of the musicians that comprised Onkyô — the term itself is most commonly translated into English as “sound” — without accounting for the conditions from which the scene emerged.

Off Site began in 2000 as a tiny café located in downtown Tokyo, which also operated as a bookstore and record shop. In addition, it functioned as a performance space — one that only accommodated about 15 audience members. The walls of Off Site were thin, and due to the venue’s noise-sensitive neighbors, they prevented musicians from making loud sounds. Consequently, the venue became home to a group of musicians strongly associated in their pursuit of quiet, electro-acoustic improvisation as part of the concert series Meeting at Off Site.³³ In addition to electronic musician Toshimaru Nakamura, the core membership of Onkyô included guitarists Tetuzi Akiyama and Taku Sugimoto, electronic musician Sachiko M, and guitarist/turntablist Otomo Yoshihide.

Both in concert and on recording, one encounters a performance situation that bears striking resemblance to both Wandelweiser and the Number Pieces series by Cage — namely, a predilection for a dynamic range that generally falls just above a whisper, and a tendency toward sounds (or “silences”) that unfold over long durations, an indeterminate overlapping of concomitant strata of activity (or non- activity). Ethnomusicologist David Novak has described the improvisational approach shared by Onkyô musicians as creating “a separate context of mutual silence. Onkyô performances do not operate as ‘conversations’ between musicians in an improvisational structure of communication.”³⁴ The musicians do not listen to each other; instead, they “hover independently in a collective mix of sound and silence.”³⁵ In listening to performances of the duo of Nakamura and Sachiko M, one does not encounter the endless musical conversations that prevail in other improvisational musics. Instead, one hears the combination of discrete layers of intensities captured and made audible, actualized within the context of the venue: two co-present “solos,” or, echoing Michael Pisaro, two silences.

Novak has noted that “Onkyô’s balance of sound and silence is highlighted in the use of electronic instruments. Onkyô became known overseas in part through the innovative use of consumer electronic equipment in live performance.”³⁶ Sachiko M, who does not consider herself a musician, performs using primarily the built-in test tone found within the low-cost Akai S20 sampler — she refers to her instrument as “empty sampler.”³⁷ Nakamura performs using the “no-input” mixing board — specifically, a Mackie 1202 VLZ mixer — as the foundation of his setup. This experimental use of the mixing board entails connecting its output to its own input — similarly to Sachiko M’s empty sampler, there is no external source material used. The output of this internal feedback loop is subsequently sampled, looped, and processed through two DOD DFX91 Digital Delay/Sampler guitar pedals and two budget-level Zoom RFX multi-effects processors: “I play the no-input mixing board which allows me to control internal feedback, produce loops, melodies, and so on.”³⁸ In addition to electric guitar, Otomo Yoshihide uses two Technics SL-1200 turntables and mixer, the latter a setup that has gained iconic status in both hip-hop and electronic dance music cultures. The turntables are often used without any vinyl records whatsoever. Instead, records are replaced by cymbals, cardboard, and aluminum foil; the cartridge is employed as a pickup, conjuring the seminal electro-acoustic work Cartridge Music (1960) by John Cage, and sometimes it is replaced with objects such as metal springs or toothpicks. Moreover, the signals from the turntables are routed through various guitar pedals.

Novak describes “no-input” and “empty” instruments as being non-idiomatic insofar as “they contain no sound sources of their own. Other than their own self-noise, the instruments create no sonic material, and so (unlike a saxophone, for example) [they] will not make sounds that refer back to any recognized musical vocabulary.”³⁹ Theorizing an instrument such as the no-input mixing board, unlike a flute or violin, undoubtedly attracts an application of the notion of an affective interiority — a continuously self-generated noise — that awaits externalization via amplification. The inaudible intensities of “self-noise” to which Novak refers evokes the concept of being-sound. An instrument such as the no-input mixer activates quantities of intensity independently of qualitative extension, and as in the actualization of stück 1998, it is the site-specificity of the contingent, contextual elements of an Onkyô performance — through which being-sound is harnessed and mobilized. In the music of Onkyô—and by way of instruments like the “empty sampler” and no-input mixer, and the contingent interaction of sonic agents and materials, including the performance environment itself—the causal role of the musician is transformed by an engagement with being-sound.

This essay was originally written in 2011; it was later revised in 2014. I would like to thank Manfred, Sam Sfirri, Mark So, Mustafa Walker, Antoine Beuger, and Michael Pisaro.

  1. An account of the origination of the piece and its development may be found online. I have personally worked in collaboration with the composer on several actualizations of the piece.
  2. Manfred Werder, stück 1998 (Haan: Edition Wandelweiser, 1998–Present).
  3. It also appears in the ausführende series (1999–Present) and by way of variation in für eine(n) oder einige ausführende(n) (2001 –Present), both published by Edition Wandelweiser.
  4. Manfred Werder, “Manfred Werder,” interview by James Saunders, The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music, ed. James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 353.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?, trans. Graham Burchill and Hugh Tomlinson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), 164.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Manfred Werder, “stück 1998,” ed. Jason Brogan (2010).
  9. Alvin Lucier, Reflections: Interviews, Scores, Writings, 1965–1994 (Köln: MusikTexte, 1995), 44.
  10. Baile Oakes, “James Turrell,” Sculpting with the Environment: A Natural Dialogue (New York: Van Nostrant Reinhold, 1995), 63.
  11. Deleuze develops his own concepts of the virtual and the actual, noting a difference between actualization and realization. See Bergsonism (New York, Zone Books, 1988), Difference and Repetition (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), and “The Actual and the Virtual” inDialogues II (New York: Continuum, 2006).
  12. See note 4 above.
  13. For a detailed, personal history of the collective, see Michael Pisaro, “Wandelweiser,” Erstwords, September 23, 2009.
  14. Since the latter half of the 2000s I have been active as an informal member of Wandelweiser. The first performance of my work took place in December 2008 as part of the concert Wandelweiser at Goethe-Institut Amsterdam.
  15. Burkhard Schlothauer, “Etwas über Wandelweiser,” Edition Wandelweiser.
  16. I am referring specifically to the work of Werder. More generally, there are often multi-hour (or multi-day), marathon-style concerts of Wandelweiser music and sound installations for which the audience is invited to come and go as they please.
  17. Michael Pisaro “Writing, Music,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music, ed. James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 76.
  18. Dan Warburton, “The Sound of Silence: The music and aesthetics of the Wandelweiser Group.”Paris Transatlantic Magazine, July 2006.
  19. Antoine Beuger, “Grundsätzliche Entscheidungen,” Edition Wandelweiser, 1997.
  20. See note 13 above.
  21. Among other groupings, the ontological implications of the duo occupied the attention of Wandelweiser composers. For examples, see Michael Pisaro, zwischen (1998) for two violins, and Manfred Werder, 2 ausführende (1999) for two performers; both are published by Edition Wandelweiser.
  22. Antoine Beuger, “Antoine Beuger,” interview by James Saunders, The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music, ed. James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), 233.
  23. Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (London: Continuum, 2005), xiii.
  24. Ibid., 130.
  25. See Alain Badiou, Number and Numbers, trans. Robin Mackay (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2008).
  26. Two2 (1989), however, does not feature time brackets. Instead, its two pianists play their respective material at their own speed, one measure at a time, not advancing to the next until both have played through the current measure.
  27. Nicholas Melia and James Saunders, “Introduction: What is Wandelweiser?”, Contemporary Music Review 30, no. 6 (2011), 445.
  28. Michael Pisaro, “Michael Pisaro: A Conspiracy Against the Ordinary,” interview by Lucas Schleicher, Brainwashed, April 22, 2012.
  29. See note 18 above.
  30. Quentin Meillassoux, “Speculative Solution: Quentin Meillassoux and Florian Hecker Talk Hyperchaos,” Urbanomic, July 22, 2010.
  31. Quentin Meillassoux, “Time without Becoming” (unpublished), 2008.
  32. Michael Pisaro, “Continuum Unbound, Fall 2014,” Gravity Wave, May 26, 2014.
  33. Meeting at Off Site was formerly known as The Improvisation Meeting at Bar Aoyama (1998), and later as The Experimental Meeting at Bar Aoyama (1999), prior to moving to Off Site until the series ended in December 2003. Beyond the scope of the series, concerts continued at the venue until it closed in 2005. See the series description.
  34. David Novak, “Playing Off Site: The Untranslation of Onkyô,” Asian Music 41, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2010), 46.
  35. Ibid.
  36. Ibid., 45.
  37. Sachiko M later added two test tone oscillators to her live setup.
  38. Toshimaru Nakamura, Liner Notes, The Improvisation Meeting at Bar Aoyama, Reset, 1999, CD.
  39. See note 36 above.

design as generic science / creative sound for emerging media

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