Diagramming Intensities: Instrument, Score, and Code in Contemporary Music and Media Art

posted on 08 Apr 2014 19:24 by Hanna Hoelling
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by Lisa Adang


Participants in Hanna Hölling’s Beyond the Object Principle: Object - Event - Performance – Process class attended a fascinating presentation by Michael Century last week as part of the Bard Graduate Center’s informal Brown Bag Lunch series. As professor of New Media and Music at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Century describes his work as both “musical and scholarly,” borne out of a combination of composition, performance and media arts theory. Over coffee and tea, Century shared his talk entitled “Diagramming Intensities: Instrument, Score, and Code in Contemporary Music and Media Art," in which he outlined his recently developed schema for charting both the fixed and fluctuating aspects of artworks.

Like most Brown Bag Lunch speakers, Century used this forum as an opportunity to present his newly developed visual and conceptual system as a work-in-progress, open to feedback from attendees. He explained that the theoretical framework for this project draws from two main analytical traditions: Nelson Goodman’s Theory of Symbols and game design theory. Century uses Goodman’s analysis of authenticity to parse the defining elements and behaviors of various artworks. Goodman developed the terms autographic and allographic to describe aspects of artworks that are either defining and non-replaceable or non-defining and replaceable. Century adds duration to these concepts to account for the behaviors of media, performance and sound-based works over time with the terms allochonic and autochronic. Thus, he expands the theory to address aspects of artworks that may function as processes or durational events, instead of or in addition to their functions as objects. This duality is elaborated in game design theory through the analysis of software code. Century points to the importance of Chris Crawford’s idea of “process intensity” in particular in relation to his own ideas. According to Crawford, process intensity refers to the balance in a given piece of software between events triggered through user interaction (“number crunching”) and static assets like data tables, images, sounds and text (comprised of bytes). Within Century’s framework, process-based software functions would be called allochronic, while object or data-based functions would be autochronic.


In his talk, Century presented five case studies on which he tested his diagrammatic scheme. These include John Cage’s Inlets (Improvisation II) (1977), Pauline Oliveros’ I of IV (1966), Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Forty Part Motet (2001), David Rokeby’s n-Cha(n)t (2001) and finally, his own interpretation of a J.S. Bach composition entitled Interactive Goldberg Variations (2012). Each work incorporates elements of fix and flux, though Century emphasizes these are rarely discrete. Consequently, his diagrams use arrows to represent the flow between the categories of allochonic and autochronic, which he positions on the X-axis of his charts. On the Y-axis, Century positions the human and non-human agents that comprise each work. These elements, or “actors,” a la Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, include in various combinations score, code and instrumentation, depending on the specifications of the work. Century sometime collapses the agency of performer and instrument into a single category he calls “instrument apparatus.” As one student Hölling’s pointed out, he also notably omits the audience or listener as an agent.

One of the case studies, Pauline Oliveros’ I of IV, appears on Century’s diagram as a circle with arrows. This reflects the structure of the piece driven forward by the artist’s recursive interaction with a feedback loop on an eight second tape delay. In the piece, Oliveros triggers specified tones via a keyboard controller connected to a signal generatator and a reverberator. These tones are consistent, pre-defined and not subject to the subtleties of musical articulation, so the instrument in this case is autochronic.


As the tape player plays back the recording, Oliveros responds in real time by triggering more tones, which are re-recorded on top of the previously recorded sounds. The loop cycles repeatedly this way, building up layers of sound as it goes. Oliveros’ input in this case appears on Century’s chart as allochronic, yet the rapid interval of the eight second loop causes the temporality of the piece to oscillate rapidly between static and dynamic, as represented by Century’s circle with arrows. Interestingly, Oliveros did create a written score for this piece comprised not of musical notation, but instead of a schematic diagram. Century’s thinking defines scores by their specificity on a continuum of open/improvisational (allochronic) to closed/routine (autochronic). While Olivero’s diagram describes, as she says, the “performance architecture” of the arrangement, it still leaves room for improvisation. The score, in this case, taken as a set of instructions is represented on Century’s chart somewhere between allochronic and autochronic. Though if one is to look at the score as a physical object (pen on paper), it could been seen as fixed and autochronic, then again, reproduction could render it allochronic, untethered to a specific temporality…

As attendees observed at the lecture, the two temporal states that Century describes are complex and intertwined. His diagrams, like all visualizations, display a restricted scope of information from a particular perspective. Century’s viewpoint as a composer and performer of music comes across clearly in his approach, especially in contrast to the conservation standpoint of Hanna Hölling’s present class. There students are looking at long durations in the life of performance and media-based artworks from their cultural and artistic precursors to their “afterlives” as either “active” artworks animated by continued performance or installation, or more often as inoperative relics, dismantled in storage and/or replaced by documentation. In contrast, Century looks at time only in relation to the duration of the selected artworks’ original performance, notably omitting the longer history of the work, including subsequent performances and re-interpretations.

In “Beyond the Object Principle,” we are looking at the significance of these re-performances and the sometimes dramatic alterations that occur based on different interpretations of the essential or autographic aspects of a piece. Century’s identification as a musical performer and composer rather than a visual artist or art historian may naturalize him to the idea of repeated performance as unchallenging to a work’s identity: as Nelson Goodman pointed out, the authenticity of a musical composition is unaffected by its potentially limitless interpretations, and the composer maintains authorial integrity no matter how many times her score is reproduced and replayed. In the visual arts, the tendency to ascribe significance to objects may trigger a redefinition of elements of an artwork originally intended only as aides to an event. Through the preservation and exaltation of these props, they are somewhat falsely ascribed autographic importance where they may have been used originally in an interchangeable, allographic manner. Sometimes, important musical scores, instruments and recordings are ascribed the elevated status objecthood, as well.

Thus, the balance of autographic to allographic elements of a work is in no way fixed if one is to look beyond the isolated duration of performance, and by extension, a work’s relationship to time is also can also change. Once dynamic, allochronic elements may become static through preservation, museumification and narrowly focused documentation, and conversely, autochronic elements may be subject to change via forces like physical decay and cultural obsolescence. This makes Michael Century’s diagrammatic schema an interesting proposition for understanding a work’s relation to time in the context of its performance, but a less effective tool for looking at a an artwork’s longer-term “chronicity” from a conservation standpoint.

1. and 2. Michael Century demonstrating Interactive Goldberg Variations (2012) during the seminar and a closer view of his project
3. Pauline Oliveros Score for I of IV (1966)

Lisa Adang is M.A. student in the course Beyond the Object Principle