Systems Aesthetics in Contemporary Sound Art: Two Netlabels

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By Daniel Barbiero


Nel 1968 un autorevole saggio del critico d’arte Jack Burnham suggerì che l’arte avanzata del tempo potrebbe essere intesa come l’espressione di un’estetica dei sistemi. 
L’estetica dei sistemi, ossia quell’estetica in cui l’opera è concepita come un organizzazione di elementi correlati che interagiscono tra loro e che partendo da specifiche condizioni iniziali producono combinazioni non prevedibili, è un importante e fiorente parte del suono contemporaneo.
Treetrunk e Vuzh, due etichette specializzate in musica elettronica e sound art contemporaneo, sono esempi notevoli di pubblicazione di opere basate su sistemi di composizione con diversi approcci.


Looking at new work in the visual arts in the late 1960s, art critic Jack Burnham suggested in an influential essay that advanced artworks of the time could be understood as embodying an aesthetic based on the emulation or representation of systems. Although  Burnham’s essay is a product of its time—it makes, among other things, a case against Greenbergian formalism, vestiges of which were still of some importance then to critical thought—it remains useful for suggesting some of the essential characteristics of an aesthetics drawing on the properties and behaviors of systems. And while it’s no longer obvious that some of the Minimalist and early Conceptualist work he described as examples of the systems aesthetic were in fact systemic in any rigorous sense, it’s also true that the systems aesthetic is important and flourishing—albeit in a form appropriate to our own time and technologies—in contemporary sound art.

As Burnham outlined it, the systems aesthetic rejected the principled separation of art from non-art; was not predicated on restricting the artwork to a fixed, autonomous object; understood the artwork to be a totality in which individual components have value only to the extent that they are part of the whole; and deemed the processes involved as being of equal importance to the resulting work or situation. More generally, a systems aesthetic can be defined as:
An aesthetic in which a work is conceived of as a set of regularly interacting or related elements in which the initial conditions or inputs and the combinatorial rules or operations performed on them are defined, but the final output is not. Additionally, a minimal amount of discretion is left to the composer or performer once inputs are chosen and the process is put into motion.
The systems aesthetic is thus a variety of process aesthetic in which the process is deliberately made as autonomous as possible in regard to moment-by-moment decision-making or activity on the part of the artist.
Art embodying systems thinking has a long history—think of tiling patterns and other geometrical ornamentation on early pottery, for instance—and was of particular importance to the avant garde of the last century. The postwar period alone saw the use of serial organization of geometric figures in painting, iterative modular structures in sculpture, and the emergence of graphic art produced by computer algorithms. Music was if anything at the forefront of integrating a systems aesthetic into its procedures. The integral serialism of postwar composers such as Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbit, Luigi Nono and Karlheinz Stockhausen subjected not only pitches, but dynamics, rhythms and other parameters to regular combinatorial operations. Taking an apparently opposite view of the desirability of having the composer exert control over musical materials, Cage systematically used chance operations to produce work. Developments in electronic music also were amenable to systems approaches, as shown by the algorithmic computer compositions of Lejaren Hiller and Iannis Xenakis.
Of most immediate relevance to the music discussed here is Brian Eno’s use of generative systems in work such as Discreet Music and Music for Airports, the processes for which were inspired by Steve Reich’s incommensurably phased loop piece It’s Gonna Rain. Eno refers to Music for Airports and similar work as “generative”—in his words, “a system or a set of rules which once set in motion will create music for you.” (Use of the term “generative” to describe autonomous systems art goes back to the 1960s. But Eno has certainly done much to bring the idea to a broader public.) Like the algorithmic computer music that preceded it, much ambient music—both Eno’s and others’–is generative, that is, music generated from dynamic, autonomous systems.
Eno’s example was inspiring to subsequent generations of electronic music and sound art experimentalists, much of whose work is readily accessible from the web. Of particular interest are two netlabels specializing, through design or circumstance, in sound art informed by a systems aesthetic. Both labels—Treetrunk and Vuzh—release work embodying diverse approaches to systems-organized sound.
Treetrunk, which issued its first release in 2005, was founded by Thomas Park. The label’s original focus was on ambient and generative music. Around the time of the label’s founding Park, who puts out electronic work under the name Mystified, was creating generative music from the quasi-fractal composition program QMuse and the fractal Gingerbread, as well as from mathematical tables and formulae. Both systems take numerical inputs, or seeds, and feed them in to recursive or other operations. Park’s compositional concept was grounded in the intuition that nature is fractally structured and that its mathematically described raw data could be converted into music via generative compositional systems.
Treetrunk’s first release was Park’s Music for Infants, an hour-long set of ten connected, quasi-fractal pieces—sounding much like notes picked out on a marimba or prepared piano–generated with the QMuse program. There soon followed a series of Fractal Diners, compilations of tracks by various artists using fractal and other generative methods and programs. Other Treetrunk releases demonstrate the diversity of results to be had from generative processes. Generative Themes by ambient musician Tange (Gordon MacMillan) is a suite-like work over the course of which the underlying thematic material is set out in short, overlapping phrases moving slowly in superimposed planes of sound. At the other end of the spectrum from Tange’s mellifluous soundscapes is Dmitriy Krotevich’s Codebusters, a harsh noise work generated from machine code.
Over the years, Treetrunk has embraced experimental music of many kinds and has sponsored the well-regarded Complex Silence series of ambient music releases curated by Phil Wilkerson. Park himself has recently moved away from fractal work, although Fractal Techno, his EP-length release from summer 2013, finds him turning once again to mathematical tables as seed material—this time for danceable, beat-driven electronica. 
Like Treetrunk, Vuzh is a label dedicated to offering gratis downloads of challenging music. Vuzh is run by C. Reider, a sound artist based in Colorado in the western US. Reider was drawn to sound experimentation after having read Michael Nyman’s book on experimental music while still in high school. At about the same time, he became acquainted with Eno’s music through Eric Tamm’s Brian Eno: His Music and The Vertical Colour of Sound—although he hadn’t yet heard any of it. As embodied in his releases on Vuzh and elsewhere, his work uses a systems-based process that he describes as “reduction,” which he likens to Robert Rauschenberg’s “Erased De Kooning.” Reduction starts with a sound or set of sounds and then runs it through a series of iterative noise filtering operations in Amadeus Pro.  As with “Erased De Kooning,” the end result isn’t completely empty but instead contains traces of the source material.

A good example of Reider’s process can be found in 2008’s Inconstant, a recursive noise-filtering work released on Treetrunk. For Inconstant, the input material Reider chose was made up of twelve drones taken from the Constant series, a set of minimal/ambient works by different artists which had been released on various netlabels. Reider took each drone as an input in a system of serial noise reduction, wherein each drone in the series supplied the noise profile to be reduced from the drone preceding it. Through an iterative process of sound erasure, Reider, in his own words, “filtered as much of the drone out of [each drone] as possible.” Buddha Reduction, released on Vuzh, applied a similar reductive process to samples of the Buddha Machine and Buddha Machine 2.

Other Vuzh artists have composed systems works using different types of processes. On RIM, Caroline Park takes simple inputs—on the first track, a brief sample of a viola, on the other track several pitch sets produced by sine wave oscillators—and puts them through Max/MSP for recursive processing with delay feedback loops or other combinatorial operations. The outputs are complex, multilayered accumulations of sound that are notable for their sensuous surfaces, emergent harmonies, and fluctuating dynamics. MiquelParera’s MUME Selections release contains four pieces taken from hi participation in the June 2013 Music Metacreation Weekend, an international workshop at the University of Sydney’s Design Lab for artists working with music generating computer programs. The tracks were created by the software neix_2013a, which takes random selections from algorithmic sound generators and processes them into relatively short compositions.

On the evidence of this music—which is just a small sample of contemporary systems-derived sound art—the systems aesthetic is thriving. Interestingly, some of the antinomies Burnham thought were salient at the time of his essay appear to have been resolved by these and other artists, largely by virtue of their no longer being perceived as mutually exclusive in principle or as incompatible in practice. On the contrary, these works and others like them seem content to be processes and objects simultaneously; seem comfortable being artworks made of raw materials drawn from mathematics or other extra-artistic domains; and find no contradiction in being formed of intellect and imagination in equal measure. Beyond this, they demonstrate that constrained inputs and specified operations are capable of producing aesthetically valid formal structures—and indeed, that the underlying systems are interesting from a formal point of view in and of themselves.