Distant Musicking
by Michel Roth

„To music is to take part, in any capacity, in a musical performance, whether by performing, by listening, by rehearsing or practicing, by providing material for performance (what is called composing), or by dancing.“ (Small 1998).

Christopher Small uses the rare verb “to music” (noun: “musicking”) quite deliberately: as a performance art, music requires active participation; as a transitory and interactive art, it requires the collaboration of various participants. Music is thus an observable manifestation of human relationships and social behaviour, a medium of communicative action (Watzlawick 2017).

June Paik and Charlotte Moorman: Action Music In Berlin (1965)

Classical communication theory (Shannon/Weaver 1963) distinguishes between information and medium: information is transmitted from a transmitter to a receiver via a circuit, whereby the process is basically subject to interference from “noise”. This is not only a matter of transmission problems, but also of whether the participants have a common semantic precondition system (“repertoire”) and whether the intended effect is actually triggered in the receiver. The meaning of information is thus not an absolute, but is constantly updated by both communication participants from a field of connection possibilities (Luhmann 2012). Art operates precisely in this playground of meanings and ambiguities; it can therefore be understood as a game of interaction between the participants (Krieg 2015), in which transmitter and receiver participate equally actively.


However, artistic innovation does not only take place in the repertoire, but also in the medium by an aesthetic questioning and refraction of conventionalized musical actions. The material of art is not autonomous, it is embedded in social practice (Grossmann 1991). To put for once the reception aside, the interpretation process of composed music is characterized by a two-dimensional communication process: A composer or conceptual artist interacts with his performers via a script (Cook 2013), the performers interact with each other during a performance (Schütz 1951). The decisive question is to what contingency, i.e. what actual openness and freedom of interaction this process is subject (Jones 1967).

Crystal Baxley and Stefan Ransom: Songs On Conceptual Art – Sol Lewitt – Art & Music (2012)

Performances of composed music are meta-stable (de Assis, 2018), but not contingent: in the concert, primarily meta-communicative actions occur (Bateson 2006), which coordinate a regulated reproduction along the common script. Beyond that, however, real and spontaneous actions are hardly ever intended. Theodor W. Adorno therefore speaks of the ensemble as a “social cavity” (Adorno 1968), the collective energy undoubtedly perceptible in the concert is well-rehearsed “pseudo contingency”.

On the other side, with genuine contingencies, one can basically distinguish three forms:

1. Reactive Contingency: the participants react to each other without following any own script.

Musical example: George E. Lewis playing with his interactive computer system “Voyager”.

George E. Lewis: Voyager (1986-88)

2. Asymmetric Contingency: at least one participant follows a certain script or personal plan while the others largely react to it.

Musical example: John Zorn’s game piece Cobra where the flow of the musical improvisation is conducted by a “prompter”.

John Zorn: Cobra (1984)

3. Mutual Contingency: the participants each follow their own script, but have to adapt it when reacting to each other.

Musical example: In Christian Wolff’s Music for 1, 2 or 3 people, the individual players have to integrate their tasks into the unpredictable course of the common performance.

Christian Wolff: Music for 1, 2 or 3 people (1964)

To be added is deliberate “Acontingency”, such as developed by the artist Dieter Roth and his colleagues in the 1970s as the group “Selten gehörte Musik” (rarely heard music). They were looking for an “Auseinanderspielen” (“playing apart”) without any communicating and reacting (see: The following video shows an exploration of this practice in an exhibition about Dieter Roth, played by students of the Master in Improvisation of the Musikhochschule Basel, coached by Alfred Zimmerlin (2014):

John Cage already foresaw that communication would be one of the focal points of the musical post-serial era (Cage 2011). For instance, the Swiss composer and linguist Hans Wüthrich has analysed communicative situations and processes and recreated them compositionally. Together with young apprentices and other lay people he developed Kommunikationsspiele (1973/74) where he playfully staged everyday speech acts and thus made conscious their latent mechanics and hierarchies. In his works, by means of phonetics and articulation, he succeeds in making entire social conditions and processes musically and dramatically perceptible.

Hans Wüthrich: Das Glashaus (1974/75).

At the same time the trombonist, improviser and composer Vinko Globokar wants to find new codes for communication in his music, which may already exist in other social contexts (Globokar 1998). This includes making music under unusual communicative and instrumental interaction conditions: Playing together without hearing anything from each other, chain dependencies and feedback loops, a dilemma between composed text and reacting to each other, technical emergences through newly connected and collectively operated instruments.

Vinko Globokar: Laboratorium (1973/85)

With The Great Learning (1969-1972), Cornelius Cardew created a work where personal involvement is written into the score (Dennis 1971): asynchronicity (each reacting in his own way) and interaction under individually different conditions (each learning in his own way) are combined to form a common musical space of action that is connected via an acoustic network. The musical piece functions here as an institution that establishes a temporary community of practice, a collective laboratory, a coworking space (Jank 2012).

Cornelius Cardew: The Great Learning (1969-1972)

Since the 1990s, there has been created social compositions (Liegl 2010) and relational art, taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space (Bourriaud 2002). Works of art are both experimental sites for the renegotiation of provisions of human practices (Bertram 2014), as well as media of their critical reflection (McLuhan 2005). As Dieter Schnebel has already noted, it is no longer instrumental processes that are composed, but rather performative fields of action, or more precisely: the nuclei of crystallization at which these actions can happen (Schnebel 1970).

Nicolas Bourriaud: Relational Art (documentary)

Such participation generates emergent outcomes: Collective interaction creates new characteristics, superordinate structures, innovations. Some of the above examples show a Creative Emergence, they allow the individual contribution of new means, the discovery of new paths and material. Their processes are continuous, evolutionary, not reproducible. This is contrasted with Combinatoric Emergence, which was often used in the early days of indeterminate music (1950s), where already existing parts can be recombined, i.e. there is only freedom of choice. Such a process is less evolutionary, more modular, can be divided into individual decisions and reproduced accordingly (Cariani 2008).

Karlheinz Stockhausen: Klavierstück XI (excerpt).

In this context, media of art and communication are not only means, but also actors and thus part of this emergence: they bring in their own prerequisites and structure social networks and processes or are structured by them in turn (Latour 2010). Being part of this network, we experience the world as modulatable and modifiable (Rosa 2019); at the same time, we become entangled, being modulated and manipulated ourselves.

Peter Weibel: The endless sandwich (1972)

For the aesthetic work this means keeping an experimental distance, a critical play (Flanagan 2009), testing and challenging these media and structures up to disobedience and “hacktivism”. This critical stance gains quality when – in the creative process itself – it includes the possibility to examine what has been produced, to rework and to reject it (Oswald Wiener, in: Morgenroth 2014). Thus John Cage’s indeterminacy of form must be enhanced to an indeterminacy of participation (Nyman 1999).

James Saunders: sometimes we do what you say, but occasionally we don’t (2017)

When musicians in the Corona Virus Crisis play “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” via conference circuit and post it as a video on Facebook, this is more a slogan of perseverance, a desperate attempt to overcome the uncommon individual distance by synchronizing oneself medially within the common repertoire. In return, there would now be the chance to creatively test alternative cooperation and music making models, a distant musicking with asynchronous forms of interaction, rebuilding a community of practice with unexpected contingencies and emergences, in the media, upon the media.

Create a method to surprise yourself!

Roman Signer: Punkt (2006)


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