Non-time and Decolonizing Affordances of Failure
by Ken Ueno
“In the present characterized by an excess of openings and dissolving boundaries, we are losing the capacity for closure, and this means that life is becoming a purely additive process. For something to die, life must find its own closure. If life is deprived of any possibility of closure, it will end in non-time.” – Byung-Chul Han
About a year ago, my friend, the pianist, Kawai Chan, sent me a video of her performing violin sonatas by Mozart and Brahms with a student of hers in Hong Kong. A common enough gesture of sharing amongst colleagues, I might not otherwise have commented upon it, but being that I had been sheltering-in-place for eight weeks, what initially struck me as somehow odd was:”wow, they are in the same room, playing together.” That the most basic ontological condition that defines chamber music struck me as exotic speaks to how skewed my heuristic mechanism had become. As I watched further, the second thing that I noted as bizarre was how the reverb on the violin was inappropriate for the room – it made the violinist sound like he was in a cathedral, whereas the optics located them in a living room-sized studio. Noticing this heightened the quotient of digital artifice that I was experiencing with the totalizing effect that it served to enhance my detachment from their space. As much as I appreciated Kawai sharing her video with me and as much as I had enjoyed their performance, I felt somehow more alone. At that moment, I realized that I was inhabiting a new space, the space of the hermeneutics of isolation.
Many composers of the Romantic generation “composed” the material first (the notes and rhythms that they divined on the piano) and then, later, assigned those materials to specific instruments. This was what passed for traditional orchestration. Sometimes, the conceptualization of the “composition” from orchestration was so divorced that Brahms, after having finished composing a piece did not yet know if the finished piece would be a piano concerto or a piano trio. His clarinet sonatas and viola sonatas are the same pieces. The current, digitally mediated, space of performance is also an orchestration in this tradition, where the material is relegated to sound through a body for which it was not initially conceived to speak.
Some twenty years ago, in some early electronic works of mine, I punched holes and applied tape to CD surfaces to purposely make them misread and articulate artifacts (glitches and bleeps). What I discovered was that artifacts of different CD players sounded differently. It was then that I realized that it is when a machine or system fails, that we hear the true, intrinsic voice, of the machine or system. Most of the time, we filter out the intrinsic voice of the body. In the current social climate of the United States, we are bearing witness to the intrinsic voice of the broken system.
Rather than revivifying the music that triggers historically encoded emotional tropes from the Western canon, what if we task our creative energies to imagine new futures? First, let’s rebrand the streaming mediations, the miking, the latency that constitute the virtual concert halls. They are not spaces they are the current instrument. What if we pivot from the mentality of a nostalgia regime, which compels us to lament what we have lost, complain about the artifacts of the streaming mediations, while taking comfort in the music of the past; to a culture that creates new work that showcases the artistic potential of even the things that adherents of the nostalgia regime lament? The ability to pivot in such a way tests our capacity to adapt from perceiving the world through the lens of the culture of the past, our tethering attachment to it, to being able to imagine something more beautiful. It tests our capacity for hope.
The sector in music that had been most devastated during the pandemic was choral music. The very nature of the thing the makes choral singing so important to many communities is the thing that makes it dangerous during Covid times – that the contagion is airborne and spread through aerosols and that the radius of transmission is around 6 feet. Motivated by an urge to help my fellow musicians, I was inspired to rethink what a music composition class might be – to pivot from a space of transmitting artisanal historical mannerisms qua compositional technique, which it normally is, to a research laboratory to solve new challenges.
I applied for and received a grant to help retool my fall composition class. Aided by the grant we hired a chamber choir of Bay Area singers whose livelihoods had been impacted by the pandemic to perform my students’ work. We developed compositions and performance practices that foregrounded safety protocols. Some of my students composed pieces that took advantage of the affordances of Zoom failure, e.g. feedback and the weird gating algorithms designed to help privilege one voice at time, endemic of a commercial bias catering to board meetings and lectures.
Poetry can also be made from the affordances of failure. In converting an article by Roland Barthes from PDF to Word format for a lecture, I discovered the move created artifacts. I decided that the artifacts were more beautiful than the original. I had serendipitously discovered a new weapon, a technologically mediated revolutionary act against the neocolonizing legacy of continental philosophies. Drawing the bow of my new poetic practice, I collected/curated just the mistranslated fragments into an assemblage:
…_….., ..…. ,.,.~ .. , .. ... ‘ . ... . ·–· ..
Death: ~!:_ is_ the eid_q_L_2f_tll~LPhotograph.
is the sou~~– ~<?.f
but ~ .§i_!!·i~~te~
. t” ~–t?_i~. !s _~h_a_t_~~~~~~s _e~ery adventur~.
–~anted to e~lo_:~
it not as a question (a theme) but a~a––~~;. I .. S.~~. I
feel:henc~T;oti~~. –i ~b~~~~~:~~JI thi~k.
Ken Ueno is an ARC Spring 2021 Poetry and the Senses fellow. This poem was written while on fellowship.