What would you do when the technical gear you use takes on a life of its own—on top of that, a thoroughly compelling one? The artist Keith Fullerton Whitman found himself confronted with this question during a performance at the Chicago venue Constellation on 29 February 2020. He witnessed how his set-up of synthesizers and effects units started running on their own and ended up producing something that could not be said to “belong” to him but only to the machines. In the following essay, which was first published in the third issue of Spectres, a joint publication by the Paris-based research institution Ina GRM and the label Shelter Press, Whitman describes how he chose not to interfere with this creation to re-gain his authorship and how he stepped back to let it run on its own. The artist, who primarily works as a composer and performer, considers this experience as one of the happiest and most fulfilling moments in his career as a musician.
As soon as I had completed the elaborate setup (seemingly endless pieces of machinery aligned in four native channels: pedals, three cases of discrete modules, portable recording mechanisms—a sum total of roughly 45 lbs of consumer-grade electronics conveyed at my own risk through coach class flights in the days prior) in the classic, bespoke black-box multimedia cube, I began to sweat. It had been some time since the last occasion I had attempted such a gamble—travelling with boxes quite worn and familiar strewn out amidst several that were new to the flock, ones that perhaps hadn’t made their true selves known as of yet—and I started to contemplate the ways in which they would misbehave, both physically on stage (well, there was no stage: the setup was in quad, the “performer” in this case equidistant from all four points, a move that was tactically economical—no monitoring was necessary—but also conceptually so, in that the hard, systemic lines between what constituted musician and audience member could be bent and bled) and in the minds of both the audience and the person corralling such an array. The performance itself started as it had hundreds of times before: with the familiar, with the tried and true layerings of varying degrees of contextually discrete elements ranging from the collected/pilfered to the neatly groomed and catalogued, sent reeling through a tapestry of sentient, auto-sensing gates that simply did what they were instructed to do: determine transients in each incoming stream, open an envelope, and then close it, based on the negation of the settings of the adjacent channel, in a reciprocal side-chained feedback-loop.
Twenty or so minutes in, something wonderful began to happen: I (and, presumably, everyone present, the audience, production and bar staff, onlookers, and passers-by) started to hear something unexpected. At first a lone detail buried deep within the orchestration of meticulously collated events that quickly rose into an unqualifiable amalgam of tonality and even melodicism that I could not—and still cannot—fully explain. I took this as an omen to step back and revel in the idea that, despite the clear and meticulous intent and the informed design of so many of the building blocks that make up the instrument, I could not (and would never be able to) deduce how or why this sound continued to bloom, eventually enveloping the stream of pointillist transients beneath it. I physically removed myself from the equation, and listened.
As a basic tenet of this music, I have long held on to the concept of “laminar flows”—computationally speaking, a denial of the tendency of the rivers and tributaries of form and function to break their banks and seek alternate lanes of dispersion. Elements are instructed to “stay the course” until explicitly given directions to do otherwise, and it is often my sole role, within the nested loop of performer-listener of a given equation, to “police” or “corral” these tendencies so as to maintain the semblance that I am “composing” music rather than being an un/willing participant in its algorithmic efficacy. The moment in question was a crossroads at which, consciously, the urge to stem the tide fell away, and it was infinitely more appealing to flood the nearby lanes and arteries until something unquantifiable could again begin to take form. The resultant moments were among the happiest and most fulfilling I’ve experienced in some time when playing music; this overarching set of tonalities, largely seeded by a combination of resonances programmed deep within the topologies of the reverb and granular synthesis engines, hazarded upon by chance, were in no way “my own”. They belonged to the sounds themselves; they had found a way to procreate and mesh until a new sound emerged, one that I instantly recognized as a significant confluence of timbres and which I let ride for a good ten minutes before snapping back into the right-brain “why” of how it came to be.
This parable isn’t indicative of a certain “ghost in the machine” or magical thinking property, so much as a way to demonstrate how the endless combinations of easily explicable phenomena within complex musical structures can pass as such phenomena. As someone who tends to not so much want but need to map how every stray tic is being generated and executed, I found this sudden embrace of the raw probabilistic excesses of pure chance instantly problematic on an internal level. Was this a betrayal of a long-since massaged sensibility? Was the embrace of a laissez-faire attitude towards the formal matrices of a tightly manicured aesthetic a lapse in judgement? Was this a moment of cognitive dissonance or a conscious siding within the romanticisms of these given topologies?
I often like to think of David Tudor’s circuits (or Arthur Ganson’s pitiful machines, or Rube Goldberg machines in general), outside of the Norbert Wiener-esque connotations that often precede them, as sentient and purposeful (this is an artefact of a happy childhood-long thought experiment in perception and empathy). Voltage starving an oscillator does alter the pitch and shape of the waveforms it produces in ways that are mathematically predictable and repeatable, but for every dip in homogeneity is there not a related force desiring a consistency of output, forcing a less scientifically accountable result? An entire orchestra of bad actors can create an event-level discord (I love the blueprint of Kagel’s Exotica as a means to destabilize and weaponize this tendency to idealize proficiency on an ensemble scale, and in many ways the anarcho-tactility of this piece is always on my mind when performing), but a couple of these evenly distributed and strewn about the work only serves to add a layer of animation and “character” to an otherwise rigid form. It is within these careful delineations of probability that much of what I’m interested in musically lies. A total embrace of chaos is chaos; a partial one is simply a hedging of bets that allows for the humanistic elements within a given system to flower.
I’m less inclined to catalogue and atomize the building blocks of a given system, mainly because I don’t want to create an oxygen-free vacuum in which they are merely circuits—while each computational element in a given electronic music setup serves a purpose, most of these can be inverted, perverted, or deformed toward ulterior functionalities that break intent and land squarely on an unintentional, diagonally-adjacent panel. It’s this fluidity of function that continues to drive much of my exploration, and the responsibility and authorship of the resulting output is comfortably shared amongst the circuits and algorithms themselves while I’m perfectly content being more of a conductor (or a stylist; a manicurist) in these settings; partially to stem the overwhelming crush of responsibility in a live setting, but also as a way to retain the desire to spark a complex alchemical reaction, then to revel in its outcomes in the ways a given audience would.