Dec 2022

Music Scores #2, Fantasia is published.

Dec 2022

The revised edition of Thomas is published.

Nov 2022

The second print of Post-Texture is now available.

Oct 2022

Workroom Specter’s new series Music Scores #1, Prélude Non Mesuré is published.

Sept 2022

Post-Texture is published.

On Constitutive Dissociations and Transcendental Aesthetics

Conversation with J.-P. Caron

Min Oh, J.-P. Caron

2022

Question by Min Oh

While reading On Constitutive Dissociations as a Means of World-Unmaking: Henry Flynt and Generative Aesthetics Redefined1, I was intrigued by the idea of sensibility without corporeal sensation. Perhaps I am going too far since Flynt's constitutive disassociation is close to cognitive nihilism, but still, his idea recalled to me a particular technique required for making and listening to a musical composition.

Appreciation of music is perceiving material sensations that change over time, storing them in memory, and then synthesizing them in one's thoughts. In reality, composing seems to be similar. I have learned that composers can finally hear the sounds of their newly written pieces for the first time in the rehearsal that usually begins three days before the premiere. One might think that it is possible to listen in advance using a computer nowadays. But if the music piece comprises unconventional instruments like glasses or rubber gloves, or extended techniques inspired by Lachenmann, or if it contains indeterminacy that requires the musicians to make autonomous decisions, the help provided by the computer is not very useful yet. At least, that was the case with the music2 I made with the composer, Seokmin Mun. Just ordinary composers, who don't have the privilege of freely adjusting the number and length of rehearsals, have to complete the composition by imagining the sounds that did not occur. In Amadeus (1984), there is a scene where Mozart was leaning on a pool table and writing a musical composition as if writing a letter. This scene presupposes that he hears sounds that are not physically generated. The scene is designed to portray Mozart's genius, but to me, it feels like a parody on the realities of common contemporary composers who deal with the unheard sounds.

Concept art without physical stimuli sounds magnetic; however, I do not want to give up the actual sensations. Both the abstract and the concrete are crucial in my work. I assume that you work on both philosophy and music for a similar reason. In my work, I posit an environment constructed by an abstract structure to generate concrete sensations, hoping after being perceived, those sensations will eventually re-construct the same or completely different abstract structural sensibility by the viewer.

Whether it is composed of a very rigid structure, such as a work made by a “structure artist,” which Flynt would criticize, or the least structure that can just make up a recital, such as 4’ 33,” structure is essential in a time-based artwork. If there is no structure at all, there is no way to hold on to time that disappears as soon as seen. Structure, at least for me, functions as a bridge between the senses and thoughts, helping traverse between these two realms.

I make compositions by setting up complex rules on which Flynt might problematize. While reading your above-mentioned writing, I guessed that you were a post-Cagean. However, you told me that you are also a “structure artist” in the previous conversation, which gave me a sense of camaraderie. Unfortunately, nowadays, talking about forms or structure makes the impression of being boring and outdated in the visual art world. However, I do not employ 100% fixed scores as I do not believe that there is such a score that extracts the fixed result. Instead, I assume a situation and create a score as a device that actualize the assumption; No matter how elaborately pre-determined, no performance seems to work without embracing new decisions at the moment. A score – especially one that has been carefully determined in advance in order to eliminate risk factors under the conditions of low-budget production – is necessarily “altered without declaring so” by many instigators. I am planning a film shoot for a new work in which complex rules and variables are intentionally imposed to make it difficult to predict the sensory results. I am thrilled to wait for an explosion of the assumptions by an unexpected instigator such as machine, person, space, and time on the day of filming.

In another writing, On the Transcendental Aesthetics of Time-Stretching3, you said that the word transcendental “seems to refer to a procedure that would somehow reveal something to be a conditioning element of experience itself.” You also wrote that “a musical composition is to some extent a particular topology which produces a certain image of time for us.” In these two passages, I recalled the structure of time-based art. In the context of visual art, I also call a time structure an ‘invisible image.’ Perhaps an appreciation of time-based art is eventually to experience the invisible. What is a topology in time in a time-based work? What is an image of time? What does it mean to experience the terrain created as such? What is the gap between the abstract structure and experiencing it? How do we experience time structure, and what does it mean?

Answer by J.-P. Caron

I think the question has multiple dimensions:
1. The separation of the physical sensation and the intellectual structure
2. The distance between imagining a stimulus and actually having it
3. The role of the transcendental

I feel I can wrap the three questions around an aspect you mention in passing: that I am a structure artist.

As you know, but maybe not the audience for your book, structure art is the category that Henry Flynt criticizes in his seminal essay concept art (1961). In there, he offers a definition of what is to be called concept art as “a form of art the materials of which is concepts, or language.” This is thought of in distinction to structure art, wherein Flynt sees a coincidence between the intellectual, or conceptual, and the sensible. For instance, in Bach fugues, one can see an embodiment of a certain logic that can be abstracted from the sensible unfolding of the music, or in serial music, for instance. Flynt’s critique of structural art is twofold: first, he sees in it a form of cognitive pretension of producing knowledge claims – an aspect that he will criticize both more thoroughly and globally within his cognitive nihilist position; and secondly, he sees in it a tethering of the conceptual function to sensible supports, which end up limiting the possible development of each pole. Therefore, concept art would be a form of art that not only has language and/or concepts as materials, but which develops conceptual functions to a point that it isn’t possible in the context of structure art: the production of paradoxes, of real abstractions, of real contradictions, etc…

Of course, one can question the very possibility of this separation of the conceptual from the sensual supports, since even in the context of a formal system, one has to devise symbolic forms that are correlated to sensible signs in order to make the rational unfolding visible. And this was even a real problem in the foundations of mathematics at some point – one that Flynt refers to – in for instance the attempt by Hilbert at formulating a perspicuous notation for numerals. Flynt’s concept art reinterpretation of that is given as an example in my paper I invite your readers to visit.4

But one can have a charitable reading of this attempt at a separation in terms of the emphasis put either on the sensible or on the conceptual pole. So, concept art would be in this reading an attempt at having logic as a material for elaboration in artworks that integrate sensible elements as long as these elements are only used to convey the logical ideas.

This brings us to the second part of the answer, in the necessity of the real experience your question touches upon, in contradistinction to the imagining of the experience. I take it that you mean that this necessity - illustrated by the difficulty in anticipating for instance specific sounding results for musical compositions previously to the rehearsals - is supposed to be a demonstration of the necessity of the sensible element itself. I think a demonstration is already provided in the sense of having to have material-sensible supports even for very abstract instances of logical thought, as discussed above. But I would like to develop the answer in a different direction: if one can’t really separate the logical and the sensible, one can acknowledge the different levels at which the actual sensible, the imaginary sensible, and the logical might operate. One of Flynt’s works deal with just that. “Work such that no one knows what’s going on” is a concept artwork which consists of its title. As such, it is a string of words, precisely the one I just offered. But at the same time, it conveys something. Once one reads such a sentence, one is almost compulsorily led to try to imagine such a work. But at the same time, it is part of the definition of the work, as portrayed by the title, that it is such that no one knows what’s going on. Which means, any kind of candidate one might imagine is not the work, because to actually imagine it is to violate the condition of existence of the work as declared in the title. This is interesting in the sense that it also illustrates the power of words as aesthetic material. While in a Bach fugue the structure is necessarily tethered to the actual (and not the possible, or the imaginary) structure that is listened to, in WSTNOKWGO the actual process of experiencing the work goes on in one’s imagination, propelled by the title. If the work does not exist without a sensible element – the string of letter that convey its definition – its experience happens in one’s mind. While interpreting a Bach Fugue as a performer entails having such experiences of imagining how one will play the music without the music sounding, and also entertaining several possible pathways in terms of modes of interpretation, which means, entertaining contrafactual performing situations, what is given to be listened to is a final result of such process, embodied in a sensible performance, and not the process of entertaining itself, as in Flynt´s piece.

I can give my piece “Stones II” as a different example. When encountered in performance, it looks like a performance noise piece of sorts: a bunch of people works themselves into a frenzy, destroying a set of different objects- from simple stones and bricks to musical instruments like cymbals.5 When encountered in the form of its score, it looks like a verbal score in the post-Cagean tradition, that deals with questions of authorship. In fact, the score is mostly plagiarized from a different score, Christian Wolff’s piece, “Stones”. Let us compare them:

Christian Wolff: Stones (1968–1971)
Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colours); for the most part discretely; sometimes in rapid sequences. For the most part striking stones with stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not break anything.
My version:
Stones II (Noisecomposition III)
Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colours); for the most part noisily, with occasional pauses. For the most part striking stones with stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified).
Try to break every stone or object you use.

J.-P. Caron, 2013

As one can see, my text is almost identical to Wolff’s text, with an important distinction: the phrase “Do not break anything” in the original is replaced with “Try to break every stone or object you use” in mine.

From here one can see already a separation between score and performance, in the sense that while encountering the performance in concert, one doesn’t have the means to see that as conveying the fact that the score is an almost exact copy of a historical score by another composer. So, not all the relevant information about my work is conveyed in performance.
A further interesting problem is proposed, if one actually looks how the performances are brought about. Usually it is the audience that ends up performing. I act as an instigator, in the sense that I start performing usually alone, but through certain gestures, try to engage the audience in the same kind of behavior. Sometimes this works, sometimes not. When it works, the audience feels invited to break the objects that were offered by me. But a crucial thing is that the audience not necessarily knows the score. Which means, the situation produced is an exemplification of a performance of the score, without being mostly intended as a performance of the score, since the majority of the performers don’t even know the score they are playing from.
And more: they don’t even now they are instantiating a score. This is an example of what Flynt calls a constitutive dissociation. Here’s Flynt’s definition:

“Constitutive dissociation presupposes a genre with a standard protocol. In the genre, situations are established by ordainments. (A reality exists because of somebody’s rule.) Moreover, it is customary in the genre for situations to have certain aims. A constitutively dissociated situation comes about because the instigator of the situation alters the aims of the genre from the customary aims, without declaring so. Since the traditional aims are foregone, the instigator can evade or replace standard protocol with an inscrutable protocol (a contrived enigma).”6

Flynt likes to put it in terms of the aims of a certain situation. I propose to read the concept of constitutive dissociation more broadly as the rewiring of the inferential links that form a practice. In the relevant example here: the links between score, result, performance, concert situation, are dislocated.
So, on one side, the performing sensible side, we have a visceral performance noise piece. On the other side, the conceptual side, we have the construction of a real paradox - but one that is not immediately legible from the performance itself. This modulates a bit the relationship between the sensible and the conceptual, in the sense that the logical aspect has a relative autonomy from the sensible results of the performance. I would say Stones II is a kind of structure art as long as it conveys an intense sensible experience while proposing a certain logical articulation, but it also proposes a non-identity between the sensible experience and the logical articulation, being in a certain sense also an example of concept art.

A further operation was composed that was called “Stones III”, the text of which I give below:

Stones III (failure = success)
Stones II is a performance that is made up of gestures that result from trying to break objects against each other. It is also a plagiarism of Christian Wolff's Stones, in which stones are gently thrown against each other and against the ground. Stones II reverses the characteristic smoothness of C. Wolff’s Stones: one should aim to destroy all thrown objects.
Sometimes I assemble stones, tiles and bricks for a performance of Stones II. Sometimes the performance is cancelled.
Stones III is the sound of material disposal from cancelled performance of Stones II. You should try to break down all discarded materials.
Stones III repeats the canceled performance of Stones II.

This piece is performed privately, whenever a performance of Stones II is cancelled. The sound of the materials being discarded is like the sound of an actual performance of Stones II. There is an identity there between a successful performance and the failure of enacting a performance.

All of this brings us to the third part of the answer: the role of the transcendental. In the paper “On Constitutive Dissociations” I conceptualized these operations as kinds of severing of inferential pathways that constitute conventional forms of practice. For instance, rehearsing a piece, performing in public as rehearsed, end of the process. Examples like “Work such that no one knows what’s going on” and “Stones II” change the ordinary sequence of events, and their respective functions. They are supposed not only to be examples of constitutive dissociations in art, but possible ways of rewiring the diagrams of action, producing forms of practice that are not necessarily art. Of course, this is highly speculative. My conclusion today is that constitutive dissociations are not able to construct new forms of practice, because any form of practice that abstains from immediate utility in our society is recast as being art - or entertainment, or some form of related activity. So long as there is a form of 1- disinterestedness in the action (constitutively dissociated situations almost necessarily entail this disinterestedness, since the changing of aims of the situation is the aims of the constitutively dissociated situation), and 2- a representational purport (the constitutively dissociated situation, as long as it doesn’t have a further aim beyond showing itself as dissociated, is a form of representation of itself), it ends up being conceptualized as Art. So, there’s a failure there if the objective was the production of non-art.

This illustrates the role of the transcendental, as constituting the categories under which we view the world. The word itself evokes Kant’s transcendental subject, but we don’t need to be tethered to Kant’s own view of what constitutes the transcendental. I mean here a broader view of the transcendental, as a social, and historicized transcendental, that constitutes our world(s) as long as what we are able to experience is constituted within certain structural, social, historical categories. This is what I meant when I mentioned in that paper, and in the other paper you mentioned “The transcendental aesthetics of time-stretching”7 to deal not necessarily with what appears under the given categories of a certain historical experience, but to deal with the categories themselves, which means, to try and attain and make visible the conditions that are conditioning what is visible. And this includes cognitive conditions, social conditions, material conditions under capitalism, etc.

In “Stones II” that is the social diagram of composing, rehearsing, performing. By offering a counterexample of the familiar diagram, the latter is shown to be historical and contingent up to a point.
In the pieces commented in “The Transcendental aesthetics” paper, it is not the social transcendental, but the cognitive transcendental conditions of experience of sequenced time that is the object of intervention. Those pieces are more traditional structure art electroacoustic pieces, dealing with time-stretching as a digital technique.8 My question at the time was whether it was possible to a human listening subject to retrace a certain structure, that appears with a specific duration, let us say, 8 minutes long, within an extended time proportion, for instance, 8 and half hours. What would be the modifications the transcendental composition of the listening subject would have to suffer in order for it to follow both discourses – the 8 minute long and the 8 hour long as the same discourse. This was articulating for me the question of the possibility of divergent forms of sensibility and intelligence through the thinking of musical form.

With that in mind, I can answer that, yes, I view myself as a structure artist, in the sense that I am very attached to the idea of proposing forms of sensible experience, but also that these forms deal in a certain way with the logical/transcendental composition of experience itself.

1 J.-P. Caron, On Constitutive Dissociations as a Means of World-Unmaking: Henry Flynt and Generative Aesthetics Redefined. Published by e-flux Journal, Issue #115. February 2021.

2 Min Oh: Attendee (2019) https://youtu.be/_MFL3ZWGIf4, Min Oh: 412356 (2020) https://youtu.be/-Iz9ffA8Z2Y. Music composed by Seokmin Mun and Min Oh. (The links are only for internal use)

3 J.-P. Caron, “On the Transcendental Aesthetics of Time-Stretching,” Sustain/Decay: A Philosophical Investigation of Drone Music and Mysticism. Edited by Owen Coggins and James Harris. Published by St Louis, MO: Void Front Press. 2017

5 A video extract can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0Q8XGWCkyI
It is also track 7 of the Breviário album: https://estranhasocupacoes.bandcamp.com/album/brevi-rio

6 Henry Flynt, “La Monte Young in New York,” in Sound and Light: La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela, ed. William Duckworth and Richard Fleming (Bucknell University Press, 2012), 85.

7 Published in Coggins, O. & Harris, J. (editors): Sustain//Decay: a philosophical investigation of mysticism and drone music. Void Front Press, 2017.

8 They can be listened here: https://jpcaron.bandcamp.com/album/st and here: https://jpcaron.bandcamp.com/album/8
The first record is also available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQYBgGUQ5S8