Idioms of the Experimental

A Collection of Tropes in Contemporary Music

Experimental music avoids traditional idioms of music-making, hence it is conceived as nonidiomatic music. Performers and composers working in this field, however, know exactly what a “well-made” piece sounds like: they are fluent in the language of the experimental. Even if they might not have an explicit conception of the norms of their practice, they most certainly possess implicit knowledge of the idioms, i.e. the commonplace figures, textures and phrases that structure the sonic surface of the experimental music repertoire. In other words: musicians know how to construct and articulate a meaningful musical discourse beyond traditional languages and styles.
The contemporary situation of musical thought is odd: There are highly developed artistic idioms of experimental music, and, at the same time, there is an almost complete absence of theoretical descriptions of its constitutive parts and elements. The project Idioms of the Experimental addresses this odd situation: It aims at rendering explicit the practitioner’s implicit knowledge in order to enable listeners to better understand this repertoire and to critically investigate its idiomatic structures in their formal functions and semantical qualities. It proposes a radically collaborative approach between scientists from musicology and the philosophy of music on the one hand, and practitioners from composition, electronic music, improvisation, and performance on the other hand, that will allow to identify, collect, conceptualize and contextualize a collection of examples of idiomatic features in experimental music.

The result of this project will be threefold: Scientific publications, a website presenting the findings with embedded audio files, and – following up the research project – a series of lectureconcerts where the research results are shown to a broader public and critically appropriated in musical performances. The project will thereby have an impact on the scientific understanding of contemporary music, but it will equally intervene in the artistic production and art-critical debates, and, on the long run, help to open new accesses to experimental art for a larger public.

Musical Fictions

The philosophy of fiction has been a domain of intense controversy during the last decades: What do we refer to when talking about fictions? How can our thoughts and feelings concerning fictional entities be valid? What are fiction's social functions and contribution to practical life? These debates, however, are generally focused on literature as the paradigm of fictional utterances: fictions created by the means of propositions. In the project Musical Fictions, I would like to broaden this reflection and consider forms of fiction-making that are not linguistic: Sonic forms and scenic display. I would like to argue that musical forms – such as tension, movement in musical space, voices and layers – are best understood as fictional constructions. This idea is already implicit in many accounts of musical meanings, from the persona theory to accounts of virtual agency in music. The potential of this thought remains, however, largely undevelopped. It most importantly opens the possibility of reconceiving the relation between musical and literary, filmic, theatrical and architectural forms of fiction that are central for the contemporary musical production.

Materialism and Art

In contemporary discourses of art theory and culture studies, new accounts of materialisms abound. They are in general opposed to the historical materialism of the Marxist tradition: they try to understand cultural production within a naturalist framework. The critical impulse of this naturalisation of culture goes against the so-called anthropocentrism of Western thought. How this criticism is related to artistic productions and techniques, however, remains mostly underdetermined. The history of Marx-inspired art theory, in contrast, was highly prolific in articulating sophisticated connections between artistic forms and their material conditions – their social, political and economic contexts. The aim of the project Materialism and Art is to draw on these underestimated ressources in order to develop an account of art's position within the struggles and contradictions of contemporary capitalism. It follows the Marxist intuition that the contradictions of bourgeois society, the ecological crisis included, originate in its tendency to treat human beings as means for the production of surplus value. The problem of contemporary society is not that it is too human-centered, but that profit does not care about human lifes at all. Materialist art theory, from Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukacs, Max Raphael, the Frankfurt School to Raymond Williams, Terry Eagleton, T.J. Clark, Pierre Macherey, Jacques Rancière and beyond, have suggested in many different ways that artistic and cultural production, despite its ideological functions, can be read as point of contention within the coercions of contemporary capitalism.