Agamben: undergone not experienced

As Agamben indicates in the 1989 preface to the English translation of Infancy and History, the key question that unites his disparate explorations is that of what it means for language to exist, what it means that “I speak.” In taking up this question throughout his work, and most explicitly in texts such as Infancy and History, Language and Death, and most recently, The Open, Agamben reinvigorates consideration of philosophical anthropology through a critical questioning of the metaphysical presuppositions that inform it, and in particular, the claim that the defining essence of man is that of having language. In taking up this question, Agamben proposes the necessity of an “experimentum linguae” in which what is experienced is language itself, and the limits of language become apparent not in the relation of language to a referent outside of it, but in the experience of language as pure self-reference.Infancy and History … attempts to grasp and articulate the implications of such an experience of language as such. Consisting of a series on interconnected essays on concepts such as history, temporality, play, and gesture, Infancy and History provides an importance entrance to Agamben’s later work on politics and ethics, particularly in the eponymous essay of the edition on the concept of infancy understood as an experiment of language as such. In this, Agamben argues that the contemporary age is marked by the destruction or loss of experience, in which the banality of everyday life cannot be experienced per se but only undergone, a condition which is in part brought about by the rise of modern science and the split between the subject of experience and of knowledge that it entails. Against this destruction of experience, which is also extended in modern philosophies of the subject such as Kant and Husserl, Agamben argues that the recuperation of experience entails a radical rethinking of experience as a question of language rather than of consciousness, since it is only in language that the subject has its site and origin. Infancy, then, conceptualizes an experience of being without language, not in a temporal or developmental sense of preceding the acquisition of language in childhood, but rather, as a condition of experience that precedes and continues to reside in any appropriation of language. (Mills; emphasis mine)

  • Mills, Catherine (2005) Agamben, Giorgio [The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy]. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 March 2010].

Hands-on v. Hands-off

The distinction Rex Lawson made in the previous post between Pianolas and Recording Pianos is an interesting one, in terms of how they fit (or don’t fit) into the project which been hinting at recently.

This project is provisionally organised along a division between what I am characterising as hand-crafted or hands-on and hands-off material. I’ve been explaining it as follows:

Hands-on: those people producing material using primarily hands-on methods. I’m thinking here of things like live-coding, circuit-bending, etc.

Hands-off: those producing material with self-running systems with only minimal human intervention beyond the initial setting up of the system.

I see this as the work being split into two types, one for “knob twiddlers,” and the other for the more minimally-inclined worker. In both cases a particular focus could be generative software like Supercollider, which allows for both types of activity.

Hands-on/hands-off is obviously something of an artificial distinction – people don’t really restrict themselves to one or the other, but this event is designed to investigate the various options around these different types of work, and to see what kind of productive exchanges you can get when you focus on and contrast these particular aspects of production.

I’m also trying to avoid any forcing of the material into categories like music, noise, sound, visual art, architecture, etc. The principles being dealt with here cross over many disciplines and forms, so I want to leave this as open as possible and let the artists create the distinction with their work.

Returning to the Player Pianos, and Rex’s distinction that the rolls for Pianolas are edited versions of the original musical scores, while rolls for Recording Pianos are created by a machine translating the key presses of a particular pianist into slots on the paper. So, in former case, you have this abstraction which is the musical score, being translated into a new medium of the roll, but essentially they are unchanged in their content. From thence the Pianolist (the player of the Pianola) interprets the playing of the roll using the various means available on the Pianola (speed, tone, strength, etc.). In the latter case, you have the reality of the player’s movements being the players’ realisation of the abstraction of the score, translated into slots on the roll, the idea being that these rolls are then played as-is, without intervention on the part of a Pianolist. In this case at the time of performance you have what aims to be a reproduction, whereas in the former you have an entirely original performance.

In terms of my project, I want to pay attention to this interesting slippage through the roll of the human hand in the process, and more importantly at what stage in the process the hand enters and leaves. For the hands-on work the hand is ever-present to a greater extent, by definition; for the hands-off work, the hand has done it’s work beforehand (as it were) in the preparation, which then almost has a life of its own once it is performed (or performs itself, you could say I suppose).

Player Pianos: Pianolas & Reproducing Pianos

The subject of Player Pianos, originally triggered by the discussion of Conlon Nancarrow’s music in the previous post, has led me to be in contact with Rex Lawson at the Pianola Institute in the UK, an organisation dedicated to the preservation and performance of these fascinating machines.

It turns out Rex was a good friend on Nancarrow’s in the 1980’s and 90’s, and Nancarrow was in the midst of writing a concerto for him to perform, a task unfortunately interrupted by his death in 1997. Rex was kind enough to provide a lot of information and correct me on my descriptions of the capabilities of the various types of Player Piano.

What I call the pianola, the foot-operated player piano, generally used rolls that were not recorded by anyone, at least not in the sense we use the word “recorded” nowadays.… Normal pianola rolls were transcribed from the score by musical editors, at so many fractions of an inch per beat, and any reasonable pianolist will play them differently from anyone else.…

The pianos which use recorded rolls are generally known as “reproducing pianos”, and in those cases pianists sat down at recording pianos, and some means was used for transcribing their keystrokes on to roll. Rolls for the reproducing piano play at a preset speed, whereas those for the pianola were intended to be varied at every moment, otherwise the music sounds mechanical, which was never the intention.…

Regarding Conlon Nancarrow:

Conlon came along at a time when the player piano was already part of history, and he used secondhand Ampicos, which were designed for the subtle nuances of pianists like Rachmaninov, as a quick way of bringing his own music to life. I love his music, and I play it quite a lot in concerts, but his compositions are not at all subtle from the dynamic point of view, because his main concern was to contrast different contrapuntal voices, not to phrase melodic lines in a romantic way. They are certainly not at all difficult to play on a foot-pedalled pianola. One only needs to be able to create a few dynamic levels, and the rest looks after itself.

And, on the subject of the Nancarrow Concerto:

Conlon wrote most of a concerto for me to play as a result of our meeting. He never finished it, but a British composer, Paul Usher, took all the sketches and made them into “Nancarrow Concerto”, which I did with a group called Ensemble Modern in Germany a few years back. There are plans to perform it in the UK in a couple of years.

More information can be found on the website for the Pianola Institute.

thinking aloud: listening and making generative music

Why just listen to generative music when you can easily make your own…1

It strikes me that because Generative music is likely different every time it is listened to, the act of listening to it can be accorded the role of creating that particular piece every time, therefore putting listening on a par with making, or even demoting listening as a role for the audience – maybe listening becomes “active,” listening as part of the generative process.

Generative music is the the most adaptable of “live” music – in that it’s always new, always different, no matter if it is a public or private situation, and it’s dependence on mechanical reproduction allows it the portability that “traditional” live music lacks. In terms of community experience, that particular version of the piece could be a shared experienced, in a live performance with an audience, but on a one to one basis it never has the potential to be communal, or shared – every launch of the piece occasions a new version, and unless it is hard coded as a static file cannot be transferred. But hard coding as a static file destroys the nature of the piece as generative.

One might ask what meaning it has if it is always different – where is the piece? This seems an inappropriate clinging onto outmoded forms, given the nature of generative systems, a paradigm for music (and indeed art in general) that may be difficult to maintain. If one must reduce it to such a thing one can look at it from two sides (maybe more). The meaning, the piece, is the method by which the piece is generated, the system, the order, the algorithm. Or, as I suggested above, the meaning is in the reception, but in a very fugitive sense. Static recordings can only be examples, maybe representing practical methods of revenue generation or dissemination, as in the production of documentation for ephemeral works by artists.

UPDATE: Coincidentally, Robin Peckham just posted a link to a piece by Nick Seaver, at the Comparative Media Studies department of MIT, where “he is studying indeterminacy and control in sound transmission, the role of ‘skill’ in aesthetic judgments, and the history of automatic musical instruments.” Nick posted a piece yesterday on his blog, noise for airports, about his research into the Player Piano. He makes an interesting point about “live” music, and its interpretation where the player piano is involved. This definitely relates to my notes above trying to define the “piece” where generative music is concerned:

“Live” music as we think of it today didn’t exist before audio recording—it was impossible for a sound to not be live. The player piano makes things a bit more complicated: is it still live if the notes are all punched on a roll in advance but “interpreted” by a live pianolist? Advertisements showing the ghostly hands of famous pianists on the keys suggested perfect fidelity: the parts of your piano would move exactly how they did when Rachmaninoff or Paderewski played. Would this recording, played on an actual piano, count as “live?” 2

Player Pianos were also an important instrument for the American composer Conlon Nancarrow, who wrote extremely complex pieces using punched paper rolls, pushing the machines to their limits and beyond the limits of the human ear. Sound and performance artist Michael Yuen tells me that:

Nancarrow had to specially alter his player pianos. they were fitted with vacuums to suck air out quicker. There are times when his music calls for 25 notes per sec. That’s a note every 40 msec. The ear can only hear a difference at best at 20msec. Without the turbo charged pianolas, the mechanism pulling the air couldn’t move the hammers and notes go missing. 3

I’d be interested to find out if these machines were popular in China, and if musical production of this sort has influenced the current generations of artists and musicians?

  1. Intermorphic (2010) Mixtikl 2: THE Generative Music & Loop Mixing System. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  2. Seaver, Nick (2010) OLD MEDIA: INTERACTIVITY AND MECHANICAL MUSIC. noise for airports. Weblog. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 5 March 2010].
  3. Yuen, Michael ( (10 February 2010) Re: generative v. hand-crafted. Email to: Sanderson, Edward (

the “auto-” in creativity

Following on from the last post, I wanted to try and clarify my use of the prefix “auto-” to describe the types of sound that came up in the Subjam concert at UCCA. At the same time this will help put some meat on the bones of a project that I’m working on right now, a project whose subjects, and the arguments that I’m touching on in this post, cross over from the sonic arts to the visual.

By using “auto-” I was trying to suggest that the sounds had some kind of automatic, or non-human activity in its formation (although it would be a mistake to think that’s all I was interested in, but I’ll get to that later). In this case I mentioned “Auto-Generative” and “Auto-Destructive” sound, and although I used these terms in the title, I didn’t make it explicit in the text what they were referring to other than a vague idea of additive versus subtractive compositions (where I was tentatively linking the former to Zhang Jian and Wu Na, and the latter to William Basinski).

My use of the term Auto-Destructive is inspired by the work of Gustav Metzger (born US, but now stateless) and the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely. Metzger popularised the term in 1959 with his First manifesto of auto-destructive art,1 as a general principle and a way to describe his performance works using nylon and acid, a lethal combination which resulted in the destruction and disappearance of the material of the works. In a similar vein, Jean Tinguely is well known for his elaborate machines which progressively destroy and undo themselves. Both artists were working towards a dematerialisation of the artwork, a throwing into question of assumptions of the object-status of the artwork at that time. This (non- or negative-)thing that results was also one of the focii of Conceptual art, Metzger and TInguely in this case having quite an influence on their thinking. In their work Metzger and Tinguely presented the process of dematerialisation as being an end in itself, literally performing the critique of the object in front of the audience.

From “Auto-Destructive” the antithesis I set up was “Auto-Generative.” In this case the word “generative” comes from its use as a form of musical composition, usually associated with computer music. I have been thinking recently in this regard specifically of the composers Conlan Nancarrow (US) and Edgard Varèse (France, US), whose work involved investigation of systems which, although of course “man-made” in their inspiration or initiation, in execution relied on the working through of a set of rules by mechanical means.

For generative work human intervention can simply be a starting point, from which systems can work themselves out, the “human touch” can be removed entirely from the actual act of music/noise making. The extent to which the human needs to be involved in the act of music/noise making is a very divisive issue. For some the human touch is pre-eminent, for others a hands-off approach is the interesting means and I think it is this subject that can be usefully pursued, an which my project is working from.

It’s an important part of the project, too, that there should be no restriction for this to sonic investigations, it can equally be applied to visual and other forms. Metzger’s words, for example, apply across the board:

Auto-destructive art is art which contains within itself an agent which automatically leads to its destruction… Other forms of auto-destructive art involve manual manipulation. There are forms of auto-destructive art where the artist has a tight control over the nature and timing of the disintegrative process, and there are other forms where the artist’s control is slight.2

I have to admit, setting up these polarities of “auto-generative” and “auto-destructive” is a deliberate straw-man tactic, to create a discursive environment for the project. They serve as ideals around which to drawing out the arguments involved in various artists’ methods. As such, I doubt any artist would commit themselves to one or the other exclusively, certainly not over their whole oeuvre (or even within a single piece of work). However what the use of these terms does do is to set up a field of argument, around which the various participants can set up their camps, like a set of Venn diagrams of creativity, covering more or less of each of the meanings in their practice and theory.

It’s early days yet, but as the project progresses, more information will get posted here.

  1. Metzger, Gustav (1959). Auto-Destructive Art [first manifesto of auto-destructive art; 4 November 1959]. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 3 March 2010].
  2. Metzger, Gustav (1960). Manifesto Auto-Destructive Art [second manifesto of auto-destructive art; 10 March 1960]. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 3 March 2010].