When is a drone not a drone?

by Dave Maier

In the Third Essay of On the Genealogy of Morality, Nietzsche levels a powerful attack on the modern Platonistic conception of mind and nature, urging us to reject such “contradictory concepts” as “knowledge in itself,” or the idea of “an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking.” More recently, Donald Davidson’s attack on the dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content, and thus of belief and meaning, requires us to see inquiry into how things are as essentially interpretative.

This idea can seem to conflict with our natural conception of the world as objective, fundamentally independent of what we say or think. In a similar context, Wittgenstein has his imaginary interlocutor challenge him (Philosophical Investigations §241): “So you are saying that human agreement decides what is true or false?” The implication is clear: if your position requires that what we say makes things true, rather than simply mirrors it, then that is an unacceptably irrealist result; how the world is cannot depend on what we say about it.

The suspicion can also arise – especially when the relevant reflections about language come from those steeped in literary theory – that “interpretivists” have mistakenly extrapolated from what may very well be true in the specific case of artistic interpretation and its objects to any discourse about the world at all. Similarly, defenders of the traditional view of objectivity such as John Searle (following John Austin here) have suggested that it is the specific cases of “illocutionary acts” such as “I hereby pronounce you man and wife,” which do indeed cause their objects to be thus truly described, that have unwittingly led to the interpretivist heresy.

One way realists try to use these (“merely social”) phenomena to protect the idea of the world-in-itself is to say that while what we say about something can indeed constitute the social rules for talking about it “properly,” underneath all the interpretive activity there remains the object with its essential nature. For example, while what we say about particular green pieces of paper indeed makes it the case that the one with the picture of Abe on it is “worth five dollars” (by law! you must accept it for all debts public and private!), underneath all that, beyond the reach of interpretation, we have a collection of atoms pushed around by the impersonal forces of nature (from this perspective, even that the thing is “green” is dependent on our senses in some way). This too is a target of the interpretivist view, but let’s put that to one side for today.

Instead, let’s get back to the case of artistic objects and their nature. What we say about such things does indeed have the sort of direct effect on what they are which is surely lacking in our talk about, say, the moon. Still, we might be able to learn something even about the latter sort of case from looking closely at the former. In any case, that the “active and interpreting forces” affect their objects so directly in the one case cannot entail that they don’t do so at all in the other.

Also, they’re pretty interesting in their own right. Take for example the files on my computer. On my hard drive right now I have a file called “sonusdrone1fx.aiff.” Our question is: what is this thing? Well, first, from its format we can see that (unlike “Kyma 7.app”) it is a soundfile, something that a program such as iTunes will be able to interpret as audio information, so as to drive my speakers. So is it a piece of music then? Of course not all soundfiles are pieces of music. Maybe it’s a recording of a lecture or something. Hmmm.

Here we have a couple of ways we could go. As the latter suggestion indicates, we might learn something about what a thing is by investigating its causal history: how did it come to be, or to be the way it is? This is surely true; but if we were hoping to avoid interpretive decisions this way, then that’s not going to happen – we simply push them farther along, or at best make certain interpretations more (sometimes much more) plausible and others not worth considering. 

The other thing we could do is listen to it. (This is after all what it is for; or so we assume.) Here too, that might not help that much. We don’t know, for example, whether it is a finished work, or if so, what sort of work it is. Here is where we see the characteristic constitutive power of the will in such cases. For as its creator I can, if I so desire, make it a finished work (or deny it that status) simply by declaring it so. Maybe I do so not with a formal ceremony (which would be weird), but instead implicitly, say by releasing it for sale along with other such things on a CD, or even simply giving it a title (as opposed to a filename, not like you can tell the difference by looking).

Nothing I do can make that file into a good or successful work (that is, if it isn’t already), but it would be crazy to deny that it is (now, after my declaration) a full-fledged artwork. That I have this power is, I take it, is the point of the “institutional theory of art,” deployed to help us see how things like Duchampian readymades can be artworks, and which can seem controversial only if something can’t be an artwork if, pardon my French, it sucks. If something is an artwork “in the classificatory sense,” (as George Dickie, the theory’s founder, put it), then if it sucks, then it is as an artwork that it sucks – unlike, say, the Grand Canyon, which, while breathtaking, is not an artwork at all.

But what if you’re going through my files when I’m not around? Or – perhaps more to the point – if I haven’t yet decided whether that file is a finished work? Even here it can seem odd that a thing’s nature changes all at once when I snap my fingers. After all, it sounds just the same afterwards as it did before; or at least it sounds the same to you, who don’t know my intent. Maybe you’re my executor, looking through my files to see if there’s anything worth releasing. Now it seems that maybe that power has devolved to you, regardless of what I did –whether I said “no, that’s not done yet” or “yes, that’s done, but I don’t want to release it yet.”

Here is one place where the holism of interpretation can be the salient issue. The very same soundfile can be a plausible finished work if found on the hard drive (say) of an artist who produces instrumental (that is, wordless) synthesizer drones, but equally plausibly only an unfinished backing track on the hard drive of a singer/songwriter. Even so, it does seem that we have the option of saying “wow, who knew [this singer/songwriter] was an accomplished drone artist?” — and again, if we go ahead and put that track on a compilation of drone artists, are we necessarily right or wrong to do so? Here it seems that our thought that interpretations can be constitutive is in tension with our equally intuitive thought that they can be definitive – that we can know which to trust.

One problem with approaching particular cases with a philosopher’s eye is that, as real things, their nature far outstrips what any philosophical theory would have us say about them – even if that’s what the theory itself says. For even if we decide, on theoretical grounds (plus some empirical facts) that “sonusdrone1fx.aiff” is indeed a finished artwork, and a work of music in the drone genre, we hardly thereby understand how things stand with it in the way in which we actually care about such things, which would require far more investigation (even when philosophically informed or motivated) than any purely philosophical inquiry can countenance. And while as its creator I know far more about this thing than does any other person, I can’t thereby claim to be in the best (let alone authoritative) position to make all possible relevant interpretations of it; that’s just not how interpretation works.

If we want to know more, the first thing we would need to do would be to learn more, as mentioned earlier, about how it came to be the way it is. (I can talk about that sort of thing some other time, when I gush about the cool new toys I have.) Another thing to do, again, would be to listen to it, especially in a context which helps to bring out (some of) its (possibly) relevant aspects – so I’ve put it in an ambient mix for us. Note that I can still reserve the judgement that it is a finished work, because there’s no reason you can’t put a mere draft into a mix if you want; that doesn’t make it a finished work in its own right. Anyway, I hope you like it, as well as the other fine artists here. Check out their other stuff!

[Direct link if widget does not appear]

1. Benge – Toneform Loop Series One: Buchla 100

Benge is Zack Dagoba, who is known just as much for his amazing collection of vintage and/or modular synthesizers as for the (mostly) techno music he makes with them. This release is more experimental than most, and is still available for free at Bandcamp. In the “Loop Series,” Benge limits himself to a single synthesizer or system. Here the sound source is “a Buchla 100 modular analog synthesiser dating from the 1960s. This instrument in itself allows for extremely complex multi-dimentional events to be set up, including elements relating to pitch, timbre, time, duration, rhythm, harmony, reverberation, stereo location and the like. Furthermore it can be manipulated very easily in real time, using the various potentiometers and touch plates. The looping techniques used here included multitrack digital recording (Electro Harmonix 2880), monophonic tape loops (Roland RE501) and various combinations of the two.” Also, here’s his blog.

2. Kinephilia – Sonus drone 1

I really like the way this sounds, now that I’ve added some reverb to the raw drone, which made me think that it might work just the way it is. Still, it might work better still if I add some more elements, or even put it into the background of something else. If I do that, does that change the status of this track? Or do we have two different works?

3. Alio Die & Lorenzo Montanà – Silent Rumon [Holographic Codex (Projekt)]

Alio Die we have met before, a.k.a Stefano Musso from Italy, and here we have another in his many, many collaborations. This time his collaborator is Lorenzo Montanà, who has a release or two under his own name at Projekt as well. This one “is awash in mystical drones and cosmic impulses surrounded by subtle hints towards the atmosphere of the Renaissance.” The track I’ve included here, they say, has an “early 70s Tangerine Dream-flavoring.” Hmmm — maybe. You be the judge.

4. Mathieu Ruhlmann – pushed by the wind v.a./homework – year 3

Mathieu Ruhlmann’s work tends toward the noisier side of things, but it’s often a spacy/ambient sort of noise (or is it noisy ambient?). His output seems to have slowed down recently, but here’s a nice track I found. homework – year 3 is the third (duh) collection of taâlem artists, this one with 60 (!) tracks, and like the others is available for any price (including free), so check it out here.

5. Edu Comelles – Lembrança [v.a./Rope to the Sky (Anniversary Collection)]

Edu Comelles is a new name for me. This track is from a collection of exclusive tracks from an impressive list of ambient musicians, curated by PvC of ambientblog.net (a fine resource in its own right). The release, another name-your-price deal, includes a mix by Pieter of sections of the various tracks (even so, that mix is plenty long!).

6. FernLodge – And all between [As far as these two arms can take you]

FernLodge is Joe from Canada, who uses Buchla, Serge, and Ciat-Lonbarde instruments in his music, if those names mean anything to you. Actually, though, soon he might not use the latter quite as much, for he has agreed to trade me his Cocoquantus for a number of Mutable Instruments Eurorack modules I haven’t been using much. I look forward to hearing what he does with them! 

This release, he tells us, “takes a detour into the fragile nature of the mediums we use to communicate electronically. With time just like memories it breaks up and distorts into its fundamental electric pulses becoming a pure form of analog electricity with only the hazy remnants of the original messages.” Download it for free here.

7. En – Blonde is Back [City of Brides]

En is Maxwell August Croy and James Devane from San Francisco. They don’t seem to me making music any more, which is a shame, as this record, which was recorded between 2011 and 2014, is very nice. Guitars are certainly involved, but it’s hard to tell if that’s all. Check out http://ennnnnnn.com (that’s seven “n”s) for more.

8. Hainbach – Voices from a future past [Bruderkrieg]

Hainbach is German composer Stefan Paul Goetsch, whom I discovered through his YouTube channel, where he posts very helpful and informative tutorial videos about all matters synth. He’s a firm believer in the lo-fi aesthetic, using such techniques as recording onto cassettes or dictaphones, or putting a bitcrusher after the reverb (!) to get that nice crunchy sound. This piece is from one of his many soundtrack works, a film by Julian and Felix Moser about the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, also called the War of Brothers. (Watch it at www.bruderkrieg.com, and check out more of Hainbach’s music here and here and here.)