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Experimentum, Notes on Trials, Tests, Experiments

Franois J. Bonnet & Grard Pel


Franois J. Bonnet
Member of the GRM [musical research group in France], the INA [French
national audiovisual institute] and a part-time lecturer at the Universit de
Paris 1.
Grard Pel
University Professor at the Louis-Lumire ENS [national college in France]
and Director of the Technology in the Arts Research Team of the ACTE
[Acts, Creations, Theories, sthetics] Institute, Universit de Paris 1 /
CNRS [French national center for scientific research].

Summary
In scientific experimentation, the experiment is not invested as a purpose,
because its aim is to provethrough obtained resultsthe theory that
motivated the experiments setup. Artistic experimentation, particularly in
music, was sometimes inspired by this laboratory initiative, either by
rejecting those results that did not reflect the initial theory and, therefore,
modifying its program, or by rejecting the theory itself, which leads, each
time, to the design of new experiments. In the former case, there is a
certain indifference toward the tangible realization of the experiment, and,
in the latter case, toward the virtual, the interchangeable, the theory.
Nevertheless, both courses of action preserve the reality of the work of art.
Now, other strategies can be explored through a music of experiments
that would forge a specific function of the musical aspect where
experimentation would be conducted not so much within poiesis but more
in aesthetics. Thus, it would be a matter of experiencing and, possibly,
making people experience, the experiment for itself, and experiencing
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what it radically engenders otherwise, crashing into our sensibilities and


our

knowledgewithout

suppressing aesthetic

pleasure,

as in

the

Duchampian traditionand exceeding all notions of laboratory as well as


any institutional definition, on behalf of an idea that this text proposes,
indeed, to explore.
Keywords: Alchemy | test | poiesis | aesthetics | listening

Question: Then what is the purpose of this experimental music?


Answer: No purposes. Sounds. (Cage, 2001: 17)

In passage entitled Experimental Music: Doctrine from the work Silence


(Cage, 2001: 13-17), one infers, in a way, that John Cage perhaps does not
limit himself to attacking the inflation of the speech on, but possibly also
the extension of the field of experimental music. Since the historic label,
utilized fleetingly in France by Pierre Schaeffer, but especially popularized
in the U.S. at the end of the 1950s (Nyman, 2009) until today, it is a whole
constellation of worlds of sound that was snatched up in the toils of the
notion of sound experimentation. It would not be a matter of seeking to
circumscribe the territory around it, a territory which, like any territory,
must be subjected to cartographers analyses, must be sacrificed at the
altar of the power struggles of language, and must perform its initial
function as a power center. Here, it is a matter of discerning some of the
realities preserved within these same toils.
Indeed, it appears that the adjective experimental can modify different
modes of action. Etymologically, experimentum designates not only test
through experimentation but also trial or, again, test. It is with the
help of this etymological illumination that one attempts to orient oneself
on the fundamental question that one cannot help but wonder about when
broaching the subject of experimental music: What does this music
contain that is actually experimental? And, consequently, it is by using
the yardstick of multiple voices within the term experimental, and
based solely on this, that we propose to proceed, by rethinking the
hypothetical-deductive method, by mobilizing the notion of test as
being inseparable from listening, to criticize poiesis as the sole criterion
for aesthetic experimentation, and to return, finally, to listening as a
separate entity and a center for individuation of the work of art.
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This text is the crossroads of two authors initiatives, the opportune


moment when there is a rubbing together of the authors necessarily
heteronomous concepts that are accepted as such. This text must also
be considered as an essay on aesthetics, i.e. as an authentic and
exploratory undertaking that has absolutely no intention of demonstrating
anything
Alchemy
Experimentation, in its scientific sense, in which it is more appropriate
within music to characterize as alchemy, finds its most conclusive
example in the American experimental music of the 1950s and 1960s.
Such music perfectly illustrates the first facet of musics experimental
reality, a reality where experimentation resides in the creative process
and, more precisely, in the labor of composition. What appears within this
music is the fact that composition establishes itself upon a process, for
example with the works of Steve Reich, or based on devices, for example
with the works of John Cage (Kostelanetz, 2003). It is these processes
whose outcome is the fruit of experiments.
This is understood. Experimentation, in this music, occurs prior to
musicality, in its conceptualization and development phase. In other
words, the experimental aspect resides in the poiesis of the musical work,
in

musics

musical

work-making

nature.

Concrete

music,

then

electroacoustic music, respond quite satisfactorily to this notion of


alchemic experimentation, and they do this in a way that is perhaps even
more direct than in music that is instrumental or a combination of
instrumental and electronic. In fact, the center, the pivot point of the
concrete music initiative, most often, the transmutation, the sublimation of
raw sound materials, and its driving focus, is actually to make something
with the collected sounds. Also, sound materials are modified, transformed
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into musical elements suitable for incorporation and fusion into an


identically musical speech (Schaeffer, 1966).
Therefore, such alchemic experimentation conjures up the solitary person
in the laboratory who, experiment after experiment, failure after failure, is
finally able to obtain a musical substrate, something that is purely a
product of his mind, the fruit of his labor and, why not?, of his genius.
Here, one can evoke the image of the bricoleur, either in the concept of
Theodor Adorno as the most complete [] of all fetishistic listeners
(Adorno, 2002: 310), or in the character of Claude Lvi-Strauss as being
halfway between scientific knowledge and mythical or magical thought
(Lvi-Strauss, 1966 : 22).
One

must

note

that

experimental music

conceived

in

this

way

reproduces the Hegelian scheme for Romantic art: If music can no longer
be achieved, as in its classic diagram, in the external worlds forms, it can
still find within the internal world of the conscience a new unity by seeking
refuge therein. In this sense, experimental initiatives in the arts would be,
fundamentally, instituted as soon as a creator begins to explore the
territory of the human mind To begin with its own conscience that,
necessarily, finds itself involved there, at the same time as responding to
the other consciences and, above all, as its most immediate purpose. The
progress of the arts, in the Hegelian conception, leads well, in this regard,
to the self-invention of which Giovanni Lista had made the emblem of
modernity (1999). And the avant-garde artists, mainly, would not have
overturned the figure of the artistic genius, rather, would be content
with opposing the figure of an anti-hero against that of the hero of the
Romantic scene while, by the way, blurring the reassuring periodization
which sometimes considers that ethics was superior to art until modern
times, that modernism was the unfinished project of an autonomous art,

and that the contemporary period promotes an art in which values are
transgressed.
Consequently, when the alchemists position is suggested to characterize
this form of musical experimentation, it is not for the purpose of making
reference to a prescientific period that is by definition obscurantist,
rather to that which may remain from scientism, as a principle according
to which science would bring knowledge of things while solving, by itself
alone, the philosophical problems that concern their essential being, in
certain contemporary experimental practices. Because alchemy is, in
effect, a laboratory. Alchemy is instruments whose conformation and
assembly do not immediately reveal their use. Alchemy is poorly identified
substances, illegible operations and, above all, the inventors solitude,
which is broken only when, sensing that his end is coming, he agrees to
transmit his knowledge, in its esoteric form that is its true essence, to
some disciple. Designed in this way, the experimental music studio
resembles the alchemists laboratory: It is laid out exclusively for the
purpose of improving the person who has the key thereto, and the work of
this gently schizophrenic creator, excised out of the mass of idolatrous
spectators from the shadows projected onto the rear of the Platonic cave,
must remain an enigma.
Test
Therefore, the experimentation of procedures or devices covers only a
partial reality of sound experimentation. And yet, completely different
musical modes may subscribe to the experimental characterization. Let
us consider the example of French composer liane Radigue. For her (but
one could also mention such people as Phill Niblock or even Charlemagne
Palestine), the experiment occurs less in the creation of a device or of a

compositional process than in the act of listening to the works sound


output; the experiment takes place within the musics test itself.
To express it another way, experimentation resides no longer in the works
poietic stage but rather in the works sthetic stage. This means, quite
logically, that all in all, the agent of the experiment, i.e. the experimenter,
is no longer the composer but is, instead, the listener himself, and the
composer may almost be his own listener. Like one of Des Esseintes, the
central character in the novel Against the Grain by Joris-Karl Huysmans,
the listener of experimental works, such as those by liane Radigue, will
extract the fluctuations as well as the perceptive and affective alterations
from the works, from the listener and from his act of listening, and these
will overprint themselves onto the musical flow, the true receptacle or
sound vehicle.
Thus, listening is truly the locus of an experiment where a metamorphosis
of the listener himself takes place, or at least attempts to occur, and it is
here that the profound matter of this experimental mode of music exists
(Bonnet, 2012). The listener is therefore subjected to the test of the music.
And that may be a veritable test, in its most literal sense. Noise music is
perhaps the most immediate example for evoking this notion of test
music.
Here, the experiment is conducted because there occurs a derivation of
musics traditional purposes, i.e. to produce satisfaction, pleasure,
sometimes even relief through listening. Indeed, auditory experimentation
is at the core of the noise musics artistic objective. It would be an illusion
to hope to expose all of the experimental modes associated with noise
music, going from the political manifesto based on a negative sthetic all
the way to the sadomasochistic search for pleasure through pain. At the
very most, one could suggest that every time a sort of sound ordeal is
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played. Again, what must be disclosed is that the expression of noise


music, fundamentally its very existence, assumes the proposal or
imposition of a listening test, and it is in its resolution, in its outcome, that
the work-making aspect of this music reveals itself, as takes place in the
judgement recommended by the proof through the test.
It is still not a matter of subjecting musics experimental field to the game
of categorization, and to the arbitrariness that such a game implies. In
fact, it is not through the search for acceptable boundaries to define
experimental musics territory that one reveals what constitutes the reality
of musics experimental future, but rather it is through the establishment
of that which is absolutely other in such a future and, equally, what makes
itself other in the body that is listening. So it is by observing what is taking
shape in the listener himself that one can bring to the surface what is
specified in such music.
This other is no longer the God who was, in the ordeal of the Middle Ages,
the author of the judgement And it is no longer a matter of testing with
water or with fire. The preservation of a notion of judgement through a
test

would

instead

relate

back

to

the

irreducibility

of

musical

experimentation: because avoiding not only the analysis but also the
synthesis of its production, and to its reception, and, as such, being the
only experiment that is truly shared by the creator and the listener. Gods
judgement would not be a test imposed by the experimental musician
upon a listener who is incapable of telling what is real unless he is under
torment, but, in the first place, it would be that which imposes itself upon
him out of transcendence. In other words, this absolutely other, as a
shared future, is never a figure of otherness that would adequately share
the spheres of creation and reception.

From Poiesis to sthetics


Moreover, the notion of experimental music reveals an extensive
aesthetic, almost sociological, component that creeps into the person and
resonates within the listener in a very particular manner. Here, we can
consider the example of the American group Sunn 0))), an entity that is
symbolic of the drone metal movement. The performances of Sunn 0))) are
notorious for being extremely intense, with low-register chords emanating
from supersaturated guitars echoing slowly and powerfully in the concert
venue. But it is not only in this aspect that the experimental component of
their music is manifested. Sunn 0))) draws a significant part of its musical
referents from black metal, by collaborating especially with Attila Csihar,
the current vocalist of Mayhem, the prime example of black metal music.
Now, if black metal is an extreme, super-violent musical movement, it is
therefore inappropriate to classify it as experimental.
Indeed, the experimental horizon of the music of Sunn 0))) resides
precisely in the erosion of both the good and the bad of what black metal
had preserved, i.e. rhythmic and harmonic structuration. By abandoning
these foundational elements of rock and metal music, and despite a
community of loyal followers that tags along in its wake, Sunn 0))) leaves
at the side of the road a large number of mainstream listeners, keeping
in their sonic odyssey only those who wish to, or can, put their listening to
the test and also, immediately, submit themselves to testing their listening
and their listening body, as long as the experience of this music exceeds
the simple context of auricular listening.
Thus, a significant portion of experimental music henceforth reveals itself
more in the exposition, proposal or activation of aesthetic tests than in the
establishment of experimental composition protocols and processes.
Therefore, what affirms itself here is definitely the folded and cloudy
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reality of experimental music or of what one associates with the term


sound experiments, simultaneously designating the place, the center of
a poietic experiment and of an sthetic test.
The sociological, i.e. ultimately political, dimension of this experimental
form, soaring out of the laboratory which, by the way, is nothing more
than another name for the cave, in fact meets sthetics. Expressed
differently, it casts doubt upon the principle of a distribution of roles
resulting from the transformation of aesthetics as a science of
sensations into poiesis as a science of creative behaviors. Perhaps the
only science of sensations is the science of creative behaviors but
aesthetics, at least, in its original sense, does not imply any specialization
or apprenticeship that would distribute men across the various circles
comprising the ideal city, Utopia, into slaves, into warriors and other
incarnations of a power that perpetuates itself only through violence
inflicted upon women and children. This demonstrates that, just as
experimental music can be envisaged from the poietic point of view as a
contemporary form of Aristotles poetics, the test that it proposes
sometimes and, so to speak, using forced entry, can be seen as the
realization of the philosophies that took sthetics seriously.
Both orientations grow in the same way out of the roots of our civilization,
and only the Cynics or, later, the Gnostics, dared to bring Gods
judgement to its point of incandescence, including to finish up, as
Antonin Artaud involved us therein through his eponymous broadcast radio
program. According to Jacques Lacarrire, in fact only the Gnostics were
bold enough to put a match to the hypothetical gunpowder and postulate
tat all rebellion, all protest against the world, all claim to spiritual or social
liberation must, in order to be effective, begin with a liberation of sex
(Lacarrire, 1989: 94), in the same way as Plato, who believed that the
philosophical condition implied a perpetually intoxicated, amorous and
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artistic state. Cynicism, therefore, would be only the initial and savage
state of Gnosticism, deemed by Jacques Lacarrire to be in the name of
the serpent, as a ritual repetition of his first act, a way of opening up the
passages of knowledge and thereby unsealing the blind eyes of the
flesh. (Ibid.: 82) Whereby one may conclude by saying that the Gnostic
can equally engage in asceticism or orgies, which are two ways of
exhausting and consuming the flesh, and that the Cynic does the same
thing, but without end, or, what turns out to be the same thing, without
purpose.
Listen
Therefore, today, sound experimentation cannot think by neglecting to
engage in prior thought, given the fact that the experimental aspect does
not reside only in procedural refinement but reveals itself also within and
through listening tests. Consequently, one must consider experimental
music as a vast field, as music arising out of experiments and tests. This is
what John Cage ultimately felt, some 50 years ago, in Silence, by
wondering about the very term experimental, in a sort of landslide
where compositional experiments would yield to listening experiments:
Formerly, whenever anyone said the music I presented was experimental,
I objected. It seemed to me that composers knew what they were doing,
and that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the
finished works (). But, giving the matter further thought, I realized that
there is ordinarily an essential difference between making a piece of music
and hearing one. A composer knows his work as a woodsman knows a
path he has traced and retraced, while a listener is confronted by the
same work as one is in the woods by a plant he has never seen before.
Now, on the other hand, times have changed; music has changed; and I no
longer object to the word experimental. I use it in fact to describe all the
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music that especially interests me and to which I am devoted, whether


someone else wrote it or I myself did. What has happened is that I have
become a listener and the music has become something to hear. (Cage,
2001: 7)
But if music really and uniquely became something to hear, if listening
was the true willin a Schopenhauerian senseof music, would there
still be music in the conventional acceptation of artifact? This future of
music, as the pure contemplation of that which emits sound, was foreseen
by John Cage, with the iconic 433 and with some of his thoughts written
in Silence; and it was also anticipated by Yves Klein in an extended field of
art: What I am trying to achieve, my future development, my egress in
the solution of my problem, is to do nothing further at all, as quickly as
possible, but consciously, with circumspection and caution. (these
comments were reported in 1981 by his widow, Rotraut Klein-Moquay, in
reference to an unpublished book: Laventure monochrome). (Morineau,
2006: 6) Yet, on every occasion it is a matter of individuals who blazed a
certain trail, somewhat akin to the Platonic philosopher being required to
follow the road of love without omitting any stage in order to arrive at its
finish, which is contemplation, precisely, of the Divine.
It

would

be

tempting

to

build

upon

this

model

scheme

of

experimentation in which one of the stages would be the laboratory and


the next one would be the test. And the final one, a hypothetical
contemplative ecstasy. However, in addition to the fact that each form of
experiment, both alchemical and Gnostic initiatives, claims a complete
course, from initiation to revelation, the notion of the work of art, as that
which transmits itself, would find itself at that point to be so disintegrated
that there would no longer be any possible artifact, neither for he who
conceives it, nor for he who receives it. Notwithstanding, since these
artifacts persist, even if they are the distinctive sign of a cultivated
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humanity and if they cannot be categorized with criteria other than those
of their contexts of creation and reception, the can still be evaluated
according to their analogies with other fields of knowledge and existence,
made up of equivalent initiatives: on the one hand, servitude engendered
by the illusion of a homogeneous, harmonic, protective, influenceable
nature, indeed, to erase all the singularities, all the contradictions, all the
hostilities of the experiment; on the other hand, submission to the will
that expresses itself in the free play of a child according to the words
used by Iannis Xenakis when attempting to define music (1971).
But perhaps it would indeed be preferable that we speak about this no
longer, and that experimentation and listening should still evade scientific
discussion, akin to a prisoner on death row asking his executioner for a
little time; that, at least, this discussion should bring to full light its
powerlessness, like Gilles Deleuze commenting on Samuel Beckett : At
the end of Malone Dies, Lady Pedal takes the schizophrenics out for a ride
in a van and a rowboat, and on a picnic in the midst of nature: an infernal
machine is being assembled. (Deleuze & Guattari, 2004: 3)

Translated from French by Doug Foran

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