Instruments as (complex) landscapes

Today, I attended a very interesting seminar by Dr Scott McLaughlin at the Sonic Arts Research Centre, titled ‘Material Cartographies as Composition’. Scott discussed his approach to musical composition, which involves using multi-stable/chaotic properties of instruments or sound-producing materials (e.g. mics and speaker feedback) as the basis of his compositions. The complex interactions between performers and such chaotic or multi-stable systems forms the topology/cartography/landscape* over which each piece unfolds. A key idea is that once a landscape of interaction is set-up, e.g. by bringing a skilled musician to an ‘instrument’ that responds in a determinate-but-chaotic way, unpredicted sonic things can happen within a reasonably constrained set of conditions. A nice example presented was of a guitar player controlling feedback by moving the guitar around in front of an amplifier. This has the effect of changing the pitches of the feedback in ways that are constrained by the laws of physics, but which are not straightforward to control, given all the complex parameters involved (guitar string tension, resonant frequencies, millimetre distance between guitar and speaker, etc.).

I liked Scott’s approach, particularly the fact that he seemed to have a genuine interest and respect for the ideas he imports from complex systems theory, rather than merely applying the terminology in its colloquial use. However, one question which I had was the degree to which these instruments or landscapes are learn-able to a performer. That is, are the compositions simply the accidents of imparting energy into a complex responding system, or could a user acquire some degree of mastery of the systems? This is an important question for me, coming at this from the perspective of a psychologist interested in skill acquisition. Understanding if and how musicians can learn to perceive and manipulate the regularities (invariant patterns) in complex systems may help in understanding skilful adaptability in lots of areas of life, not just in experimental music.

Part of Scott’s answer to this question, which I think is a useful starting point, is to think of games. Take card games. Even though the rules of a game of poker might be constant, no two poker matches are identical**. Hence, individual poker matches are deterministic but chaotic systems (in some description). When people first start to learn the game, play often faltering, clumsy, and unsatisfying. Over practice, as the patterns and outcomes become perceivable and players learn to detect and act on these, more fluid and satisfying play ensues. In a sense, skilled poker players are experts in managing chaotic, complex systems. While this is a useful analogy, card games generally do have a number of explicit rules which can anchor the learner in discovering the more complex patterns that emerge during different iterations of game-play. With highly indeterminate, complex systems – like some of the instruments Scott described – it is not quite as clear what would anchor a musician’s behaviour in order to get the process of learning off the ground.

Another point Scott made would be that the cultural context of practice in which the musician is skilled, and in which the performance occurs, may also constrain this process. This is a very interesting idea, one that I have become increasingly interested in. However, my challenge, as a psychologist, is going to be figuring out how to scientifically research such a multifaceted problem. This issue is something I will probably devote quite some space to on this blog towards, in the hope of get this research question off the ground.

A final point from today’s seminar that I want to mention here is Scott’s response to a question from Paul Stapleton. As Scott was talking, Paul and I were sat next to each other, and a number of times we spotted ideas that resonated with our own discussions around musical improvisation and skilful adaptability. Paul asked why Scott had not mentioned ‘improvisation’, given how relevant it seemed to the ideas in the seminar. Scott replied that he had found that when he tried to explicitly instruct musicians to improvise in his topology/landscape compositions, the results had generally been ‘shit’. This creates a very interesting question about improvisation as something that interaction within a complex system requires (to manage all the unpredictable fluctuations and chaotic behaviours) versus improvisation as intentional variation within a relatively stable, predictable set of constraints. I cannot yet decide if these are two separate senses of ‘improvisation’ or two flavours of a common concept. Hmmm….


*these terms were used semi-interchangeably, with acknowledgment of important conceptual distinctions

**this is true, at least in part, because the likelihood of two shuffles of a deck of cards producing the same ordered deck is astronomically small.