Wednesday, October 18, 2006

the instrument: of cyborgs and performance

I’ve already written about the question of whether instruments were finite or bound. All I might add to that would be to say, somewhat whimsically, that it reminds me of the cosmologist imagining the universe to be finite, but boundless.

Off the bat, I reject the notion of heroic mastery of the instrument. As George E. Lewis argues, this view of the instrument mirrors certain political values.

…the hierarchical, highly moralistic model of ‘playing’ an instrument characteristic of Western musical pedagogy, where, in an eerie echo of a colonial “pioneer” experience, the achievement of “mastery” of an instrument is often presented as the the result of hard work, privation and striving for self-control.…
Lewis, 1999, p. 103.
The instrument is not a tool to be overcome or mastered. Nor is the instrument neutral or flavorless; something that it can be affected, but it itself cannot affect the music. In the case of the piano, for example, Stephen Travis Pope points out that:
…it has very concrete musical knowledge implicit in its tuning and user interface, and its unique but very limited timbre and envelope have a strong effect on the kind of music one makes with it. The role of the tool in the form result should be well established by now, and the myth of the “generic” of “uncoloring” tools must once and for all be laid to rest.
Stephen Travis Pope in Desain and Honing, 1993, p. 6.
So, where does that leave me…. If I was required to choose between the pro-instrument and the anti-instrument factions as posited by Derek Bailey (1992, pp. 98–102), I might tentatively align myself with the pro-instrument wing. I may, perhaps, be assuming that the pro-instrument wing would be more sympathetic towards the notion of virtuosity….
Let me put my cards on the table at this point and say, that for me, virtuosity is a significant element in how I relate to the instrument, how I relate to performance, and how I approach improvisation. Leave aside that vision of a raw, competitive, athletics concept, and I might argue for virtuosity as an interface between the instrument and the instrumentalist. If performance in general, and improvisation in particular, is the (re)enactment and (re)negotiation of identities, boundaries and relationships, then the space between actors (humyn and non-humyn) must be a site of (re)construction and (trans)formation.
I suppose what I might be arguing for is, taking my hat off to Donna Haraway, a cyborg improviser—the (un)natural, contradictory, partial identity that is techno-organism (Haraway, 1991). Should I insist on the stable category of humyn (me), or the stable category of the artifact (guitar), or the hard-edged boundary that separates us, no music can be made. It is in the re-negotiations, and the fluid motions, of the boundaries, the (temporary) creation of hybrids and networks that music (as side-effect) can be improvised.
Virtuosity, to me, means the confusion and connectedness of the (blurry) categories of the musical, the social, the cultural and the technological. On a good day I’m not sure where the cultural ends and the technological starts. Sometimes I wonder if my body stops at my fingertips, or whether it continues through to the fingerboard….

A final note: In someways, the guitar forms the interface (both the surface boundary and communication channel) between the guitarist and techno-cultural narratives. Narratives that enroll trans-corporeal characters such as tastes, sensibilities and tradition, and corporeal characters such as luthiers, audience members and other guitarists. The guitar is the terminal in that it is the communications channel between these actors and the guitarist; it is terminal in the sense that it is the momentarily frozen end point of these techno-cultural narratives; and it is the terminal which the guitarist can hold with two hands to complete the techno-cultural circuit.


Bailey, Derek (1992), Improvisation: Its Nature and Practice in Music (London: British Library National Sound Archive).
Desain, Peter, and Henkjan Honing (eds.) (1993), ‘Putting Max in Perspective’, Editor’s Notes, Computer Music Journal (vol. 17 no. 2).
Haraway, Donna J. (1991), ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge).
Lewis, George E. (1999), ‘Interacting with Latter-Day Musical Automata’, Contemporary Music Review (vol. 18, pt. 3).

No comments: