Musical pleasure »is« sexual pleasure

»In a sense, TDs are absolutely anti-social. Yes, in presentation situations I often demonstrate them with groups, and yes that can be amusing. But at their core, they’re most effective when used on your own, in your own space, with your own sound system, and most importantly with your own source material. There, you’re relating to something you take pleasure in (your favorite song, for instance) in a different way, a way which (because of your personal investment) cannot be shared. Which is a strange thought – like having suggested a new method to masturbate.« – Martin Beck in conversation with Bill Dietz about his book 8 TUTORIAL DIVERSIONS, 2009-2014, published by Edition Solitude.

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Martin Beck:

How would you explain TUTORIAL DIVERSIONS (TDs) to someone who isn’t familiar with them? How would you place them in the history of music? Perhaps you could give a few examples.

Bill Dietz:

TDs are ways of listening. They’re particular ways of relating to what you already listen to, where ever you listen to it. The pieces in the book (which are for individual listeners in domestic settings) are formats to be mapped onto any music whatsoever. They facilitate ways of moving in time (proximities) to a sound as it has been reformatted. A kind of dance music? They insist on remaining a form of reception (even on the passivity of reception), and that receptivity can be as significant as a work itself. Like a few of John Cage’s pieces after 4’33” (Music Walk [1958], Variations I-IV [1958-1963]), they have no sound material of their own and consist instead of algorithms which set up an indeterminate relationship between structure and materials. Unlike Cage, TDs’ materials are not notes, actions, or events (i.e., materials which may be organized as expanded material components of a musical work), but rather relations of audibility. TDs do not change music or produce new (new) music, they physically change your »relationship« to music. How you hear it.

A bunch of the pieces ask you, for example, to listen to your music at the threshold of its audibility. With headphones, this might mean holding the headphones away from your ears while listening. With speakers, this might mean listening from outside your apartment. Other pieces play with the virtuality of stereo, of the »space« opened up in two-channels moving in and out of audibility. Here, you might be asked to walk from left to right between your speakers, or to run in circles around a boombox.

Thiago Granto performs Stereo Pacing (Torn Curtain) (2006-1010)
Annemarie Ní Churreáin performs 3-Part Dances (2009-2010)
Clara Herrmann performs Britney Spears' »Everytime«
Neto Machado performs Lo soffia il cielo...così (2006-2010)
Sophie Ehrmanntraut performs Nuvole Detail (2013-2014)

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MB:

Let me make things a bit more complicated: What would be the difference between listening to – let’s say – Beethoven at the Philharmonie and listening to Beyoncé while doing a TD; or the other way round: the difference between going to a Beyoncé concert in O2-World-Arena and dancing in the first row, and listening to Beethoven at home while doing a TD?

BD:

Well, first of all, the swap of terms makes no difference whatsoever from the standpoint of the TD softwares (programmed by Scott Cazan). Any and all audio inputs are treated absolutely equally. In a certain sense, it makes more sense to address the comparison extremely generally: the difference between something experienced via a TD and that same thing in its own context. The difference has to do with the place of your knowledge of what you are relating to. You already know how to receive what you input into a TD software. You who choose Beethoven know how to hear Beethoven in the Philharmonie, you who choose Beyoncé know how to hear (dancing) Beyoncé in an arena. That knowledge is internalized, implicit, and as such, couched in and likely confused with all manner of other implicit ways of perceiving and relating. For example: the supposed class implications and identifications buzzing around our Beethoven and Beyoncé listeners. Such implicitness is exactly what you don’t have with a TD. TDs can and, if you’re really into them, should be learned, rehearsed even. But what you’re learning are various sets of parameters for a highly contingent form of experience, parameters (e.g., the specific timing of a TD) which themselves are products of an associative, contingent thought process.

Katarina Burin performs Rhythms Around the Chair (2008-2010)
Samir Harb performs DAS LIED VOM WEIN (2005/2011)
Claudia Gehre performs Home Jetty (2013)
Sophie Ehrmanntraut performs Nuvole Detail (2013-2014)

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MB:

Your reference to algorithms a moment ago reminds me of the following: A great part of twentieth century composition, starting with dodecaphonic composition, was based on the idea that the habits of tonal thinking had ingrained themselves so much into composers’ imaginations that the best way to overcome them was to use quasi-mathematic functions to produce new, dissonant sonic relations. The algorithmic exercises you propose for listeners seem to follow a similar structure: subordinating spontaneous subjective behavior with particular rules (the »tutorial« aspect) to break the habits of everyday listening, thus producing a »diversion.« Is this a valid comparison for you?

BD:

Only in the broadest sense. There would seem to me to be a vast qualitative difference between a break in how one organizes notes (regardless of how those notes and/or their relationships have been anthropomorphized by theorists throughout the twentieth century), and a break in how one organizes one’s relation to music or listening (regardless of the »tutorial« aspect’s metaphoric dimension). When performing, say, 3-Part Dances (2009-2010) and you’re pushed away from your starting point, outside your apartment, down the road, further and further away, you’re put into a very peculiar and very indeterminate relation to others and your surroundings (what will the neighbors think?…). What you describe in twentieth century composition would be a bit like renovation, a syntagmatic move. I see TDs paradigmatically: not so much in opposition to musical modernity, but a modernity of listening, within which one might read an at least latent criticality. In so far as, for example, listening has been historically considered a denigrated, even »feminized,« activity in relation to the heroics of »complex« arrangements of pitches and rhythms. In the terms I was suggesting before, this could be another reaction to that which is also implicit in »spontaneity.«

Group performance of Rhythms Around the Chair as presented by Sant'Andrea degli amplificatori at Raum Bologna on February 12th, 2015. Photos by Luca Ghedini

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MB:

I completely agree with the differences you point out. Trying then to come up with other possible ways to approach your work: Would you agree that, instead of syntax, the dimension you are interested in is something like what Jacques Rancière calls »le partage du sensible?« That is, the ordering of bodies in time and space, certain historically specific social conditions of seeing and being seen, listening and being listened to (as in, e.g., the gendered implication of listening you pointed out). In Rancière’s sense, the disruption of this order – especially through art – is the only way to be »political.« Would you say this is the »very peculiar and very indeterminate relation to others and your surroundings« you are aiming for?

And a second question: one of Rancière’s examples is an artist group who took part in some kind of art project in a French banlieue by building a small, empty structure, which only one person could occupy at a time. This gave inhabitants of this very crowded area an opportunity they had never had before: the experience of solitude, which would then allow them to see their neighbors in a different way – as individuals who share a collective experience. Knowing that you have also done very interesting work on collective experience, e.g., with reference to the Shakers – how would you see the relation of individual experience and a possible collectivity in the TDs?

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BD:

In a sense, TDs are absolutely anti-social. Yes, in presentation situations, I often demonstrate them with groups, and yes that can be amusing. But at their core, they’re most effective when used on your own, in your own space, with your own sound system, and most importantly with your own source material. There, you’re relating to something you take pleasure in (your favorite song, for instance) in a different way, a way which (because of your personal investment) cannot be shared. Which is a strange thought – like having suggested a new method to masturbate.

That being said, the question of collectivity, or of group TDs, is behind pretty much all of my recent work (the Corbusier pieces in Berlin and Marseille with Janina Janke, our collaboration in Leipzig). How to facilitate a non-utilitarian, indeterminate form of belonging? All my research in the last few years into historical communitarian associations has somehow been along those lines. You mention the Shakers – one of the few human groups not organized around sexual reproduction. What becomes possible in a society without sex? Gender equality, economic equality, great furniture, ecstatic dance…
As a sort of indirect response to your reference to Rancière (yes, his form of »sensual politics« is absolutely my interest), a remark from the end of Étienne Balibar’s Politics and the Other Scene (a volume Gavin Steingo and I are leaning on heavily in our book-in-progress, Music and the Other Scene): »Whether a political society which is not a community can exist, and what form the ›play‹ of affects would take there, remains a very mysterious question.«

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MB:

If I may: I’m not entirely convinced that the »›play‹ of affects« you refer to is as much a »very mysterious question« as the quote by Balibar suggests. The way you mention masturbation and non-reproductiveness in general reminds me of Lacan’s ethics of psychoanalysis and the queer anti-futurist politics that people like Lee Edelman derive from it. A key concept here would of course be jouissance, that untranslatable word for pleasure which is not actually pleasure in that it has more to do with excess, heightened intensity, and is thus more related to death and disruption than pleasure as a reasonable and tempered enjoyment. Of course, I say all this also because you have mentioned your interest in psychoanalysis. Am I right in drawing this connection? And, something that would really interest me: Is there an inherent reason you approach the ideas you have mentioned as a musician rather than as, say, a choreographer or an artist doing »Soziale Plastik« in the sense of Beuys?

BD:

I’m so happy that you mention Edelman! I’m slightly hesitant to nerd out into arcane psychoanalytic territory and the vicissitudes of the »anti-social turn in queer studies…« but the position I’ve been developing (which is also a big part of the book with Gavin) diverges from the anti-futurist tendencies you mention in my reading of Freud. For me, as with Leo Bersani (who I’m still more interested in than Edelman), the status of »primary masochism« seems to be the crux of the matter. Bersani sees Freud’s linking of »primary masochism« to the »life drive« as a normativizing gesture, part of Freud’s perpetually failing scientistism – a characterization I would see as problematically conflating the life drive and the reality principle. As I understand the primariness of the drives, a so-called »life drive« (which would be the one Freud claims tends toward intensity, a desirable increase in tension, animation, generativity) would have just as little to do with oedipalized sexuality and paranoically »stable« paradigms of identity as a »death drive« (which would actually be the drive toward inactivity, stasis, immobility, »an inanimate state«). The two terms as such would instead describe something like an energetic spectrum for the dynamic regulation or distribution of jouissance. My hope in developing this reading would be to side-step what J. Jack Halberstam, among others, have pointed to as the persistently masculinist tendencies in some of this recent literature.
So, regarding music: yes! I would say there is an absolutely inherent alliance beyond my anecdotal personal relationship to composition. Musical pleasure is sexual pleasure – non-genital, non-reproductive pleasure. And already something almost everyone likes to do (a minor perversion?). Of course it remains »marked« by its makers (sexualized semiotics), and of course it’s not understood this way (or in any way which does much other than reinforce given forms of sociality), but maybe what the TDs are trying to do, at least in part, is to »out« this other dimension of musical pleasure. Or, if not »out« in the more and more homonormativizing sense of making visible, then at least to carve out a space within which »the musical,« as I’m trying to reposition us in relation to it, might be consciously inhabited.

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MB:

Before we end our conversation I would like to ask about the location of your work: The institutions of contemporary music tend still to be very confined to what you call the »classical« regime, which is based on the idea of composed sound and certain conditions of production and reproduction like scores and concert halls. Practices that go beyond this are often given asylum in the field of visual arts, which has of course made the negotiation and elimination of its traditional media one of its greatest endeavors. As far as I know, this is also – at least in part – true for your situation, as your work is often presented in a visual arts context. Something I find very interesting is how the present situation is shaped by the different histories of these fields. Especially as you imply (in a forthcoming essay in MusikTexte) that the potential for learning is not at all mono-directional, that indeed visual arts can learn from the history of music, for example in relation to the concept of immateriality. Yet in my last question, I want to go in a slightly different direction: In the introductory text to your TDs you state that, »[t]heir temporariness or exemplarity is strategic, in so far as that which they embody or imply is such that continual maintenance thereof would require fundamental intervention into daily life as such.« Here, you seem to appropriate the avant-garde idea of leaving institutional spaces altogether, immersing art into life. How do the TDs attempt to achieve that – and how is especially music (and maybe its history) important for that project?

BD:

Particularly in and after the TUTORIALS, flirtation with the historical avant-garde seems inseparable from the problem of my work’s »location,« as you put it. In following through with what became a personal psychological imperative to extricate myself from the miasma of the classical, I found myself, in various senses, left at home – outside the field as it has been consolidated. And of course, when »at home,« in the thick of everyday life, the question of a reflexive relation to music’s functions almost automatically conjures something dramatic. But in reaching out for means to think the sonic without the classical, the most significant lessons were not to be found in the historical or neo-avant-gardes, but rather in music’s myriad functions in contexts the world over – as much in Satie’s Musique d’Ameublement or Soviet amateur noise orchestras (see Andrey Smirnov’s recent work) as in mood-altering iPhone playlists, Koranic chant, ASMR. In that sense, regardless of »location,« the central question remained what a work or given artistic instance allowed me to be – who and what, in aesthetic experience, I might become. Which is also to acknowledge, perhaps, that my distance from »music proper« is only a distancing from a particular disciplinary confusion of raison d’être, from the conservatory as vocational school. As I try to suggest in the book’s introduction, TDs are a strategic redistribution of emphasis. TDs, at least as they’re »intended,« re-position the indeterminancy of artistic autonomy into the scene of the everyday instrumentalization of the musical. That, at least, would be an optimistic way of putting it.

Immediately after the bit you quote in your question, comes a quotation from Adorno reminding us that the promise of the avant-garde, »can hardly be realized from the perspective of music [or art] alone, but only in a changed relationship between it and society.« In that sense, the titular word »tutorial« contains (I hope) a reminder of that political ambivalence inherent in all avant-garde practice, regardless of location.