mixed ensemble // 2017


Commissioned by Sound and Music UK, in partnership with the Lithuanian Composers’ Union and AIR KREMS.
Written for Contemporary Music Ensemble Synaesthesis.




On breath-image and the terminality of sound

One of the main questions running through my recent work is that of emptiness and the radically unrepresentable, and how these categories can be mobilized through an experiential praxis in the field of aesthetics. Allow me a very brief primer now.

We are living under a tyranny of representation, and a severe limiting of imagination and utopian thought. We are all of us, at bottom, utopians. We all have dreams for the future, and we all would like to see a world different from the one we have now. A better world, regardless of one’s particular political inclinations. However, to conceive of utopia means to conceive of something that is, by definition, radically unconceivable. Consider this: if we could imagine utopia, would it not instantly become a mere conceptualization, a representation of what we think utopia would look like? Would this representation not arise strictly from within the confines of what is, at present, imaginable? If this is so, such a conception of utopia would conform to what our current ideological or discursive moment defines as the limits of possibility, inherently negating its radical nature.

This tyranny is effected on us not from without—not from some unseen “above” from which the “powers that be” control what can be thought. No, this tyranny arises from the very structure of logical thought itself. It is marked by a rupture at the very beginning of thought that permeates every subsequent thing with its primordial broken-ness. Consider the traditional rules of logic, as condensed by Bertrand Russell: the law of identity, or “whatever is, is”; the law of non-contradiction, or “nothing can both be and not be”; and the law of the excluded middle, or “everything must either be or not be.” Now consider the process of perception as it occurs in real time. Whenever an object—a sensation, a sound, an image—is perceived, it is first perceived just as it is. In that first moment of apprehension, there is no conceptualization, no naming, no categorizing, and no difference. The laws of logic have not arisen yet and what is apprehended both is and isn’t, at least in that very first moment. It is only later that the logical mind intervenes to counterpose the perception of the object against previous sense perceptions stored in the memory in order to identify it—this is, after all, the way in which we come to know that the color we are seeing is blue and not red. But, most crucially, it is at this moment that the distinction first arises between subject and object, between the seer and what is being seen.

Why is this important? Allow me to be crude for the sake of brevity. It is entirely in the first moments of this operation of deliberative discrimination that the foundations are laid for all the suffering, injustice, and oppression that afflict us. Or rather, it is only in the moment that precedes conceptualization—what Japanese philosopher Kitarō Nishida calls “pure experience”—that true liberation can arise. Simply stated, the first decision—the decision to differentiate—solidifies and reifies conceptions of difference that are, in the deepest sense, mere mental constructs. Taking it, again quite crudely, into the realm of the everyday and the sociopolitical, isn’t it true that it becomes easier to oppress someone, to silence their voice, if one regards oneself as separate or different from them? True compassion can arise when this difference is pierced and seen as the illusion that it is.

It is at this juncture that the work of critical thought is revealed, particularly as it relates to philosophy and art. Even at the surface level of specificity, we know that the role of critique is to prod at ideas and constructs that appear in everyday thought to be solid and unchangeable. As Marx famously wrote, “all that is solid melts into air.” Indeed, the rich tradition of critical theory inaugurated by Marx’s own thought is built on the idea that the first step towards emancipatory thought is to reveal the houses of cards upon which we build seemingly stable systems of ideas, from the philosophical to the interpersonal. This is where the most crucial work of philosophy can begin: to reveal the fluidity and ephemerality at the base of the gargantuan superstructure (to borrow Marx’s own terms) in order to more clearly see through the veils of ideology. To more clearly see things as they are.

But the most radical of Marxist thinkers are not content with simply showing the illusory nature of most of our widely-held assumptions. For those who are willing to go ever further (I think here of people like Lefebvre, Rancière, Deleuze…) to open the door to true emancipation means opening the door to a complete deconstruction of even the most basic operations of thought—ultimately, to open the door to the unthinkable, that which resists conceptualization and representation, both verbal and aesthetic. This leads us back to that first ontological decision to constitute a subject that is separate from what it observes. Here is the true power of philosophy and critique: to follow the operations and lines of questioning that critical thought lays out in a thoroughly engaged, honest, and self-reflexive way means problematizing one’s position at every turn, and it must inevitably lead to the collapsing of the idea of a separate, fully constituted self in the name of radical liberation.

Paradoxically, it is through logical thought that philosophy arrives at and actualizes the experience of non-dual awareness. As such, it could be thought of as an indirect path to it. Through progressively more profound questioning, philosophy opens up the possibility of, ultimately, doing away with conceptualization itself. But there is also a direct path to pure experience. In contemplative traditions, it takes the form of meditation—observing mental processes and expanding one’s awareness to fully encompass experience and perception before they enter into duality. But art, and music in particular, can accomplish the same thing. In a very real sense, the way in which meditative practices and aesthetic expression reveal pure experience is infinitely more powerful than the intellectual approach, precisely because the knowledge is apprehended existentially at the ground of being. It arises experientially, devoid of verbal associations or concepts. Pure sound, more than any other artistic medium due to its fundamentally non-discursive nature, is particularly well suited for opening these non-discursive and non-conceptual fissures in thought. Where deep listening is allowed to occur, deliberative discrimination necessarily ceases.

breath-image is concerned with two primary questions. The title is taken from François Jullien’s book The Great Image Has No Form or, On the Nonobject through Painting. In his book, Jullien examines the idea of the nonobject, or the undifferentiated, through the lens of various classic treatises of Chinese painting, as well as the Tao Te Ching. He compares the dominant drive in Western art, that of individualization—the object that ‘reveals its essence as each motion of the brush specifies it […and] gradually eliminates all other possibilities of being until it makes the object appear as if that object could be nothing but itself’—with that of Chinese painting, which revels in the undifferentiated, the indistinct, and the evanescent. The concept of the breath-image, as Jullien writes, comes from the writings of Wang Wei. He writes:

“When you contemplate painting, you must look first at the breath-image. […] Apprehension [...] proceeds from the more general-evanescent to the more tangible and rigid. Landscapes are great things. When we look at them, we must place ourselves at a distance to contemplate them. Then only do we perceive, in a single sweep, the breath-image emanating from the tension-forms of the landscape. […] At the lowest level are forms, the most tangible level but the most limited in effect. Then come the tensions that permeate them, conferring dynamism and vitality on them. Finally there is the breath-image emanating from it overall. The breath-image breaks free from the mire of forms and unfurls figuration beyond figuration, or rather upstream from it, opening it to the undifferentiated and making it available as the "great image.”

The music follows the line of questioning arising from the idea of a breath-image. How and where does form emerge over time from the undifferentiated fount of pure sound? This question is asked not only in regard to large-scale form emerging over the span of the entire piece, but also of the smallest spaces within the sound itself—its “inbetween-ness”. Can forms emerge there? This is the spirit of the question asked in the final page of the piece: Where is the sound blooming? What about the locus of the unfolding of this sound? Where does it bloom from?

This inbetween-ness—not only the spaces between the sounds, but the spaces within the sounds—is at the heart of the second line of questioning. Sound is a unique representation of the physical world in all of its impermanence. Every single sound is at once permeated with the seed of its own cessation: silence. Sound arises and passes away at every moment, and as Christoph Cox writes, ‘it deserves special status insofar as it so elegantly and forcefully models and manifests the myriad fluxes that constitute the natural world.’ The fact that sound is constantly enveloped by silence constitutes its terminality, in the sense of a terminal disease. Eric Cazdyn describes terminality as a positioning  of the future as ‘that which is already included in the present, while maintaining it as that which is radically separate from the present.’

So indeed, while all sonic phenomena as they occur naturally present a fruitful opportunity to contemplate terminality and impermanence in their passage from audibility to silence, the provocation I wish to present is that we can contemplate the silence contained in sound already from its emergence. As such, breath-image revels in the idea of terminal sound—the fragile, the subtle, the barely audible—but also in the idea that terminality flashes through from within all sound, even—no, especially—that which seems at first most stable.

[EDIT, Nov. 2020: Up until now, this text had misattributed the wonderful Christoph Cox quote to a “Stewart” Cox, who doesn’t exist. Don’t ask me how this could have happened (or how it took me so long to notice) – my best guess is that it was a brain fart brought about by the fact that I was working through the Stuart Elden translation of Henri Lefebvre’s Metaphilosophy at the time. I was in the middle of writing a dissertation and really rather exhausted, so I probably mashed these two people together and threw a bit of Stewart Lee in there for good measure. Unfortunately, that is the version of the text that appears in the Score Follower/Incipitsify video of the piece.]