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Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age

Continuum $29.95

It will certainly come as no surprise to readers of STN that a considerable number

of thorny issues have long swirled around many of the types of music discussed within
these pages. Are there critical canons available for judging freely improvised music or
music in the area of sound or silence formerly called “EAI”? Are there political
implications of any of the various contemporary methods of making music (or noise)?
Does anybody deserve “creative credit” for the sounds produced at an installation or by a
field recording? Is there anything discernible from scientific analyses of
performances/recordings that we can use to help us discuss the relative values of the
music we most enjoy?
In his Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age, ethnomusicologist
and saxophonist David Borgo attempts to shed light on these and a large number of
related questions by considering recent developments in a wide variety of apparently
diverse fields, including chaos theory, non-linear dynamics, embodied cognition,
spontaneous order, evolutionary biology, artificial intelligence, Husserlian
phenomenology, cultural studies, and even some marginal disciplines that don’t seem to
have names yet. There’s a surfeit of thought-provoking material here, arguably enough
for several, unrelated books, but I believe that, in the end, Borgo’s attempts to address
these questions will leave most of the readers who manage to burrow through the almost
endless quotations involving transgressivity, emergence, fractal correlograms,
indirectedness, symbiogenesis, polysemic natures, entrainment, iterative dynamics,
participatory discrepancies, etc., largely dissatisfied.
Obviously, filling pages with sundry quotations from books and journal articles is
unlikely to help readers answer any of the above listed questions unless one also provides
advice regarding the filtering and assessment of this multitudinous material.
Unfortunately, Borgo provides precious little of such direction. (On the other hand, his
apparent quest to excerpt every journal article and discussion with a jazz musician that
he’s ever encountered does provide us with a couple of citations worthy of a classic
Woody Allen humor piece— e.g., “Feminist Theory, Music Theory and the Mind Body
Problem;” and Borgo complements his references to Margulian microbiology with
citations for such seemingly banal assertions as “venues for this music can run the gamut
from small local coffeehouses to...national festivals” and “jazz and improvised music
have offered cultural, moral and intellectual guidance to people all over the world,” so
perhaps it is unfair to complain about Borgo’s excessive scholarship.)
In any case, the real problems here involve not only a failure to thoroughly digest
too much only marginally related source material, but also, I believe, a certain amount of
confusion regarding what is being attempted and whether and how any such attempts can
be realized. It is important to recognize that Borgo is not engaging in strict scientific
research. He is, for example, quite content to distinguish certain improvising musicians
on the basis of their artistic talents. Various works or parts of works are praised as
“salient,” “ravishing,” or “dramatic,” and several musicians, particularly saxophonists
Evan Parker and Sam Rivers, are singled out for their “extreme skills.” (Performances by
both men as well as by Borgo himself are included in an enjoyable accompanying CD.)
Again, leaderless or “decentralized” improvised music is regularly compared favorably
with notated work as well as with other more centralized, but still unnotated work
remaining within the sway of “lead or seed”—the push of a cause or the pull of a goal.
So far so good. Although it’s unlikely that this sort of discrimination can ever be made
entirely “scientific,” I suppose even West Coast ethnomusicologists ought to be entitled
to their musical preferences, and a number of acute thinkers (particularly Judy Lochhead,
and musicians Derek Bailey, George Lewis, and Parker himself) are quoted interestingly
and at length, sometimes in opposition to any proposal that classical notation or other
roadmaps can direct us to what is really new territory. Borgo is doubtless not alone
among STN readers in his distaste for “musicking” that is “autocratic” or at least as
“mystically romantic” as that of Elliott Carter or Anthony Braxton. Certainly, recent
writing by Eddie Prevost is also firmly in the “Get those notating puppeteer bastards!”
camp. But it should be clear that it is quite difficult to support any such preferences by
reference to “fractal analysis” or swarming behavior. How can the fact (if it is one) that
an Evan Parker solo more closely resembles a Cape Cod coastline, a hive of bees, or a
Jackson Pollack painting than does a Bach or Ellington cantata, provide Parker’s music
with any additional creds? Maybe the sole of my shoe is also more similar than the Bach
to the coastline or the hive: what can that possibly prove about the artistic merits of my
footwear? For Borgo, but, I fear not for many of those not sharing his predilection for the
cusp between cultural studies and the newest in systems sciences, it is simply taken as
axiomatic that (i) being analogous to something like “near chaos” or swarming behavior;
or (ii) explicitly referring to any such natural processes; or even (iii) being a reproduction
of some—say a recording of brainwaves, frog chants, or plant behavior—will necessarily
garner for any “musicking” the much sought-after property of “emergence.”
Furthermore, when Borgo commissioned his colleague Rolf Bader to subject
several musical performances to “fractal analysis,” he seems to have neglected to provide
a sampling that would have confirmed or disconfirmed any sort of interesting correlations
between the computer-assessed properties and the felt aesthetic values. Borgo simply
seems to have sent over a handful of pieces that he enjoys—all of which are entirely
improvised. According to Bader, the “mean fractal dimension” of the twelve pieces he
analyzed for Borgo ranges from 2.886 (AEC’s “People in Sorrow”) to 8.797
(Brotzmann’s “Machine Gun”). Obviously, whether these numbers have the slightest
significance will require, at the very least, some sort of reference to the ranges of D-
values we might find in other sorts of music as well as in other sounds. Unfortunately,
we aren’t provided with analyses of Bach, Tatum, Miles, Otomo, a refrigerator hum or
anything else that we might use for comparison purposes. We are told only that “a pure
sine wave has a fractal dimension of one” and “the attractor of a chaotic system has a
fractal dimension typically exceeding D=2.” Bader was reportedly so excited by the fact
that Machine Gun reaches as high as D=18 at places that he was lead to enthuse “The
Brotzmann piece is noise! We never had such high fractal numbers...unbelievable!” But
why or whether Borgo’s readers ought to have any reason to share Bader’s excitement
over this newly discovered bit of Brotzianna is exceedingly unclear. If the Brotz is
getting high marks, is the Rivers almost failing? Perhaps some readers will also join me
in wondering why a coastline—but not a Mozart aria or Tatum solo—can seem smooth
from a distance but be found to be chock full of fractals on closer inspection and analysis.
It may be the fact that Borgo currently labors in a university Critical Studies
department that has produced an additional tang in Sync or Swarm that is distasteful to
this reviewer. That flavor emanates from a subtext involving an imagined worldwide
battle between good (nonlinearity, circular causality, embodiment, enculturation,
emergence, generativeness, Afrologicality) and evil (cognitivism, reductionism,
Eurocentrism, solipsism, dualism, transcendence, hegemonies, notated music). Even
such silliness as Ben Watson’s slam on the “totalitarian afflatus” of Evan Parker’s
technique is provided a platform, though, according to Borgo, the remark can be largely
attributed to the Parker/Bailey rift. Those not sharing what might be called Borgo’s
continental (though not Eurocentric!) bent, may also chafe at his lumping together of
reductionism, rationalism, objectivism, realism, and structuralism as all representing the
same “general orientation,” as well as his apparent belief that the most telling reasons for
dumping that entire evil hoard of isms were first developed at a Macy conference on
“systems thinking” in the early 1970s. He is. for example, quite taken by Gregory
Bateson’s musings regarding whether “...a blind man’s cane [is] a part of him,” in spite of
the fact that Samuel Butler made precisely the same points as Bateson with respect to the
difficulty, indeed, in Butler’s view, the impossibility, of distinguishing persons from the
tools they use, almost 100 years prior to Bateson’s “koan.”
Among the satanic isms in Borgo’s world, perhaps the worst is reductionism. For
him, the best things in life—music, consciousness, even life itself—are emergent
properties that can never be reduced to pre-existent constituents. One may wonder, then,
at his interest in breaking down Sam Rivers’ “Hues of Melanin” into little slices and
parsing them with respect to whether they are examples of “sudden/unexpected segues,”
“pseudo-cadential segues,” “fragmentation” or other “phenomenological parts.” As
indicated earlier, however, the way out of this dilemma may be that manifestations of the
elusive quality of emergence (“a very real yet notoriously hard to pin down aspect of all
good music”) are thought by Borgo to magically occur whenever there’s a “musicking”
that in any manner resembles, refers to, or copies a decentralized, non-linear, self-
actuating system we might find in nature. So, arguably, chopping up a free improv might
not constitute a dark-arts reduction. Opposed to this resemblance/analogy theme in Sync
or Swarm, however, is Borgo’s contention that it is as much a function of who’s listening
as to what they are listening to that causes “musicking” to convey emergence.
“Improvisation,” Borgo agrees with Mark Bradlyn, “succeeds as music only to the extent
that listening achieves equal status with playing.” Though “succeeds” and “conveys” are
surely trick words in this context, Burgo doesn’t depend on such legerdemain elsewhere.
He insists repeatedly that the reactions of an audience are in some way essential to the
music, and any view according to which the audience is not an equal partner in
“musicking” is regularly derided as Eurocentric, non-embodying, or worse.
Brown University philosopher Felicia Ackerman used to scornfully suggest that
Christian Scientists, who officially deny the reality of pain, should have thumb tacks
placed on their pews before every service. That may seem severe, but it’s quite difficult
to deny the existence of something when that very thing is staring you in the face...or
puncturing a hole in your bottom. The radical relativism sometimes (though not
consistently) espoused in Borgo’s book, according to which audiences are said to be
equal participants in the improvisatory process caused me to muse about whether Borgo
should be forced to spend several days locked up in consecutive 4th grade band rehearsals.
He could then decide to what extent it’s the case that whether there are “swing, eighth
notes, bluesy melody, or even a lydian dominant scale” present is really a function of his
own “perceptually graded actions operating within a more encompassing biological,
psychological, and cultural context.” It’s not simply that moving values away from
performers and onto audiences can’t but diminish the talents of masters like Parker and
Rivers that Borgo elsewhere wants to glorify. It’s also that moving certain types of
qualities from “out there” to “in here” has the paradoxical effect of taking contradictory
views (as those found among the bloggers commenting on a Guelph Festival performance
by Sainkho Namtchlak) out of the realm of opinion, and shoving them right smack into
the world, as if they were non-intentional entities. I suppose that for one opposed to
many of the allegedly too-Western notions of rationalism, losing the theory of non-
contradiction may be no big deal—even if such loss is a result of the dreaded
“reification” of listener judgments into non-intentional, real-world qualities. But in a
book in which so many observers are said to be “harshly divided,” or hold diverse views,
or “variously praise or denounce” this or that aspect of improvised music, someone who
truly believes in the beauty or other intrinsic merits of Conic Sections and the juggling
skills of its creator might be expected to be a little concerned about giving so much of the
credit for this art to its fans and allowing its total worthlessness to follow—as night does
day—from the uninformed scorn of its detractors.

Walter Horn