Carpenter et al.: Principals / Principles (2009)

August 2009

1. The root idea of the work is non-discipline specific. It describes a phenomenon which is observable in daily life, most notably in the media, where the soundbyte (positing a relationship between duration and information) rules. As such, the idea can glom onto or infiltrate any kind of situation involving time (music/sound/performance/language) and perform its distorting operations. The idea as such is never really visible until it becomes incarnate in a time-based structure.

2. The instructions are straightforward – flattening out a series of randomly-generated fragments into a smooth, placid whole – but its enactment is amazingly complex. It brings into play the abilities to replicate music by ear (mind-body connection), to memorize the fragments as they are learned, to struggle with defining the manner in which the fragments are to be grafted onto each other and distorted. As such, even the most trained musician will stumble and tentatively flail. The process itself unveils each individual’s ideas about melody, harmony, convention, complicity. They emerge whether you like it or not.

3. Technology is used for its capacity to disrupt a conventional performance situation, to disrupt the relationship the musicians have with their own skills and comfort levels, decentering them from their intention. This phenomenon radiates outwards, disrupting the position of the listener, now caught unawares in an uncomfortable, provisional situation, in which coping mechanisms are starkly foregrounded. A strange exchange results. The musicians withdraw while the listener is drawn into the role of co-creator, constructing his/her own patchwork from the available materials.

4. The process of constructing which is at the basis of the work IS the work. There is no final result to be obtained, or destination to reach.

5. Consequently, the minutiae, feints and slips which occur are part of the work. The discussions which occur between attempts, which mostly revolve around finding a suitable modus operandi for transforming the fragments (a provisional agreement on process), are also part of the work. The idea is simple, but techniques are not implied, they must be discovered and negotiated ad hoc. The constructs which create the work are rendered permeable to discussion and change.

6. One could see the process as part of a larger obsession with splitting form and content (and recoupling them at another conceptual level). I think of Godard’s comment about the distinction between “political art” and “art made politically”. The experimental filmmaker Barbara Hammer’s comment about Ken Burns that “if a film is about baseball, why isn’t it shaped like a baseball instead of sounding like the Civil War?”, applies here. The form here gives evidence to the manner in which a fragmented, incomplete, excerpted material comes to stand for the whole, the external context being progressively evacuated, replaced by an internally generated context.

7. The intensity with which the performers must attend to this task underlines the fundamental perversity of the project. One is in effect learning how to “spin”, to reduce, to summarize, to reject the discontinuous. The politics of the work are depressing, cautionary. That the result is frequently beautiful and easy to listen to only compounds the problem. Form and content again caught in flagrante delicto. One is made painfully aware of one’s resistance to betraying the complexity of the original materials, but one continues the task nevertheless.

8. The collective nature of the process becomes evident over time. Since there is little or no indication of a tried and true modus operandi, performers cope in whichever way they know how. This state of affairs tends to foreground the “escape mechanisms” of performers, afraid of being on the edge for too long. (Improvisation, not strictly proscribed, but not prescribed either, begins to enter into the work.) Improvisation here, as in the performance of difficult or impossible music (Ferneyhough, Xenakis), emerges when the inside-time capabilities of the performer reach their present limit. What escapes beyond the tensile membrane of legislation has something to do with improvisation and therefore exposes techniques often close to the performer’s personality/personalness. This sedimented mode could be termed “back door improvisation”.

9. Nevertheless, Carpenter et al. is not about improvisation per se, but about the crisscrossing, mutually interpenetrating faultlines on which each individual musician hinges/traverses, exposing for a fleeting moment a very personal relationship, honed over a lengthy period, between the physical body, the ears, mind and memory and culturally received notions of music and sound. (What constitutes a proper gesture/sound, for instance? What about wrong notes?) By its very provisionality (musicians confronted with strange new rules living in a temporary gap of ability – looking for the right tools to get the job done is not straightforward), the music’s overall structure, though highly contingent (depending on / generated by a set of more or less opaque rules) is also highly unpredictable, depending on what valences get revealed/unmasked in the performance of difficult tasks.

10. One could say that the work enacts a provisional, alternative form of “ethnography”, in which the personalities of the musicians are unwittingly exposed.

11. Because of the nature of the process, a performance of Carpenter et al. necessarily overlays three (at minimum) types of time, and three modus operandi, for each of the three groups. Since each group has a series of tasks to accomplish, there is little or no effort to bring all performers together into one unifying time. The resulting overlay is accidental, a product of various contingencies, group or individually enacted.

12.  The resultant sound of the work resembles a gradually trawling filter/sieve mechanism, in which the materials confronted with the rules passing through each individual musician force a differentiation of melody/harmony/timbre/physical disposition, in which the ever-appearing aporias are filled in according to a complex superimposition of learning habits, culturally-determined musical aesthetics/ideologies (or even tastes). What emerges is a field of overlapping contingencies, where strategies of replication are overlaid with failed versions of the same, where improvisations jump in to fill gaps and then provide their own continuing rationale (nourishment) – an accumulation of personalities brought to the foreground.

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