Paulo de Assis. (2018). Logic of Experimentation: Rethinking Music Performance through Artistic Research. Orpheus Institute Series. Leuven: Leuven University Press. [OA] <https://www.oapen.org/search?identifier=1001749>
In Logic of Experimentation, Paulo de Assis’s purpose is to consider music performance as artistic research, but in the pursuit of this goal he achieves much more than that, articulating an approach to music and the arts that situates them within an ontological and epistemological framework of far-reaching consequence. Replete with discussions of a wide range of theoretical issues, this outstanding study deserves the attention of scholars in a number of disciplines.
Assis calls his pursuit a logic of experimentation, insisting that this logic is not a theory, for its coherence emerges only after experimentation, “through problematic conjunctures, bifurcations, hybridisations, contradictions, and paradoxes that, despite everything, still ‘make sense’” (23). He situates this logic of experimentation between “a logic of sense and a logic of sensation” (23), here referring to Deleuze’s Logic of Sense (1969) and his Francis Bacon: Logic of Sensation (1981). The experimentation of artistic research produces sense but only by generating sensation, “the immediate encounter of a force with a body exterior to it,” which “concerns a vital movement of matter upon matter taking place before the brain captures it” (23). Hence, experimentation generates coherence only through its own operation, and only via sensations that precede comprehension. Experimentation, then, is a process of creating embodied knowledge.
To specify the nature of experimentation in music performance, Assis first determines the ontological status of the musical work, which he approaches through the Deleuzian concepts of the actual and the virtual (Chapter One) and assemblages, strata, and diagrams (Chapter Two). In these opening chapters, Assis offers a tour de force in Deleuzian exposition, elaborating on the actual/virtual opposition through a cogent treatment of the concepts of intensity, singularities, topological unfoldings and multiplicities in the first chapter, while establishing assemblages, strata and diagrams as replacements for the concept of structure in the second chapter. The musical work is at once actual and virtual, actual in that any performance of the work is a singular instantiation of the work as an event, and virtual in that immanent within the work as process are potentialities and possibilities that exceed any given instantiation. The musical work is always a part of assemblages, which are heterogeneous interacting elements, both virtual and actual, that function to produce sense and sensation. These assemblages in their more stable form may be seen as strata, and it is via diverse strata that the virtual dimension of the musical work may be delineated. In Assis’s analysis, its substrata are elements preceding the work’s creation, such as “other musical pieces, instruments, instrumental and compositional manuals, spoken and unspoken rules, codes of behaviour and practice, lists of personnel, payment sheets, and so on” (65). Its parastrata are documents generated during composition and performance, such as “sketches, drafts, first editions, letters, and writings or annotations by composers and performers.” Its epistrata consist of subsequent elaborations on the work, such as new editions, technical analyses, commentaries and recordings. These epistrata may be further expanded in metastrata, which include “performances, recordings, transcriptions, expositions, or any other mode of critical reflection on the available sources.” The work’s interstrata are singularities that connect strata in unexpected ways, and its allotstrata are “materials that have apparently nothing to do with a given piece” (66), but under certain circumstances open it to new modes of development. These various strata constitute a store of virtual possibilities for music performance, which any performance-experimentation may engage for the production of new sense and sensation.
Assis clarifies his understanding of performance as a form of research in chapters three and four. Scientific experiments, he notes, do more than confirm hypotheses. They also “function as the actual generators of knowledge, adding knowledge that the system had no knowledge of before” (108). In Hans-Jörg Rheinberger’s terms, “technical objects” denote the known entities within a scientific system, whereas “epistemic things” refer to the as-yet-unknown entities that the experimental enterprise seeks to disclose. It is toward epistemic things that Assis’s artistic research is aimed. “The crucial questions of artistic research,” he asserts, involve “the epistemic power of art and its transformation from an object of aesthetic appreciation to an object of and for thought” (116).
Assis agrees with Rheinberger that experiments necessarily reduce complexity, but he insists that such reduction involves systemic complexity—the number of pertinent interacting elements of a system—not “epistemic complexity,” a concept Assis borrows from the cognitive biologist Ladislav Kováč and the philosopher of technology Subrata Dasgupta. From the vantage of cognitive biology, the evolution of life forms may be viewed as the unfolding of ever more complex organisms (with no sense of progress in this evolution). “The simplest teleonomic system (a self-copying molecule, for example) is already a subject facing the world as an object” (124), and each system’s capabilities represent its embodied knowledge, or epistemic complexity. From the perspective of technology, tools also evolve through increasing complexity, not simply in terms of the number of their working parts, but more importantly, in terms of the knowledge embedded in the artifact (think here of the epistemic complexity of a computer versus that of a hammer). As the biological and technical models of epistemic complexity make clear, Assis construes “knowledge” in a broad sense as the embodied capacity for expanded perception, feeling, action and thought, and it is in this regard that experimentation in music performance may be seen as research that produces knowledge.
After establishing the ontological status of the musical work and the epistemological nature of artistic research, Assis examines performance itself as a phenomenon of “bodies-in-action” (132). Assis’s guide in this inquiry is Gilbert Simondon, whose philosophy approaches inorganic entities (such as crystals), organisms, societies, psyches and technical objects through the overarching principle of what Simondon calls “transduction.” Assis defines transduction as “a dynamic operation by which energy is actualised, moving from one state to the next, in a process that individuates new materialities” (137). As Assis shows, transduction is a “thick concept,” with multiple layers of significance, but its basic sense may be gleaned from the example of an incandescent light bulb, whose modulable resistance—“the complete set of filaments, materials, sustainers, and gases inside the bulb” (142)—converts electric current into light. “All those materials are not ‘electric current,’ nor are they ‘light,’ they are just the transducers, mediating between electricity and luminosity” (142). Analogously, Assis argues, the music performer is a transducer, converting the virtual potentialities of the work into a sonic event.
Assis expands on the nature of the performer’s body-in-action through a meditation on Roland Barthes’s obscure notion of the “somatheme,” a minimal unit of the body conceived along the lines of the linguistic morpheme or Lévi-Strauss’s mytheme. Somathemes are figures of “the body in a state of music” (159), “musical figures that do not simply relate to the metaphorical musical gesture but that fundamentally include the physical gesture as well” (168). These figures of the body “convey corporeal meanings which … relate to a body ‘which is about to speak’ (quasi parlando) without saying anything” (168). They are also figures of desire, producing “new agencies of musical signifying (forces, energy) that are situated beyond linguistically determinable signification (analysis, harmony, themes, cells, phrases)” (169). As figures of desire, somathemes lend themselves to psychological analysis, which Assis conducts by positioning the somatheme within Lacan’s graphs of desire.
In the book’s final section, Assis turns to the political dimension of artistic research in music performance. Playing on Jacques Rancière’s notion of the “emancipated spectator” in cinema, Assis envisions an “emancipated performer” in music, one who “exposes the materials of his or her practice in their inconsistencies and in their potential to overcome good and common sense, by means of fostering a profound sense of dissensus” (198). Assis examines the complex power relations that govern orthodox performance practices and shows how their implementation conforms to the dynamics of what Deleuze calls “societies of control.” Emancipated performers, he hopes, will engage the political force of art, which “doesn’t reside in its explicit content … but rather in its active redistribution of the sensible, in the suggestion that things can be arranged differently, that our senses can be stimulated differently” (198).
Emancipated performers will produce contemporary art, by which Assis means untimely art that engages present forces of metamorphosis in their opening toward an unknown future. Hence, “artistic research asks how we can create in the midst of complex arrangements of different temporalities, how we can artistically and creatively operate inside the furious inner eye of the multiple hurricanes we are living in—how we can live at the border of time that surrounds our presence and find the courage to jump into the core of the hurricane” (212).
It is important to note that Assis is no mere theoretician of artistic research, but an active performer working collaboratively with other musicians, artists and researchers. As he explains at the book’s outset, his text must be situated within the practice of the research group MusicExperimentation21, hosted by the Orpheus Institute in Ghent, Belgium. In this regard, Logic of Experimentation must be seen as one further contribution to the collaborative efforts of MusicExperimentation21, enriching the group’s various research efforts, performances, “diverse media and multimedia formats, such as CD, DVD, LP and on the web” (11). This point is reiterated throughout the text, with periodic discussions of the group’s projects, including, most notably, that of Rasch, a complex series of performance events centered on Schumann’s Kreisleriana and Roland Barthes’s 1975 essay “Rasch.” These discussions offer invaluable insight into the practical implications of Assis’s theoretical meditations while suggesting ways in which other collaborative projects in artistic research might be engendered in the future.
Assis has a gift for explicating complex concepts, which is evident throughout this book. Especially noteworthy are his expositions of Deleuze’s notions of the assemblage, strata and the diagram and Simondon’s concept of transduction (perhaps one of the most cogent expositions of Simondon’s thought now available). But by no means are the book’s explications mere summaries. Whether dealing with Deleuze, Simondon, Nietzsche, Foucault, Agamben, Rheinberger or Barthes, Assis brings original insights to his expositions that advance the scholarship of the various figures he discusses.
This is a remarkable work, rich in ideas and provocative in its conclusions. Assis offers a transformative approach to music performance, which serves as a paradigmatic instance of artistic research. But he also provides the conceptual framework for a general ontology and epistemology of art, one that has implications well beyond the domain of music. This is a book that deserves the attention of researchers throughout the disciplines of the arts, humanities and social sciences.
Ronald Bogue is Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at the University of Georgia. He is the author of Deleuze and Guattari (1989), Deleuze on Literature (2003), Deleuze on Cinema (2003), Deleuze on Music, Painting, and the Arts (2003) Deleuze’s Wake: Tributes and Tributaries (2004), Deleuze’s Way: Essays in Transverse Ethics and Aesthetics (2007), Deleuzian Fabulation: The Scars of History (2010) and Thinking With Deleuze (2019).