Improvisation, listening and distributed agency in human-machine musical ecosystems
Ambiguous Device Concert, RENEW2013, Copenhagen

Beyond Control

Improvisation, listening and distributed agency in human-machine musical ecosystems

By Paul Stapleton

I am first and foremost an improvising musician and instrument maker. I have a particular interested in exploring ways of developing and nurturing networks of human and non-human musical interactions, while also exploring how improvisation might be more broadly conceived as a skilled practice that transcends the disciplinary boundaries of music, promoting new approaches to creative decision-making, critical dialogue, risk-taking, and collaboration across diverse domains and levels of expertise.

So what does this have to do with Humanising Algorithmic Listening?

For me, this project is an opportunity to bring different disciplinary perspectives together to discuss how we might imagine the future of machine listening, where our possibly contradictory disciplinary understandings of the act of listening are allowed to occupy a tense but productive coexistence. The aim here is to better understanding the cultural, technical and ethical implications and possibilities of listening with machines in our research practices, as well as in our daily lives.

I would hazard to claim that some musicians might have a different practical understanding of working with technology, one which challenges the commonplace idea that devices (from a smart phone to a bespoke digital musical instrument) are merely transparent tools for achieving the goals of a user/performer. I’m aware that I and some of the other musicians in this network value the resistances of technologies while celebrating instability and chaos as resources that allow for the widening of possible interpretations and the emergence of unexpected behaviour, forcing us to adapt and providing new challenges that sometimes lead to new discoveries or new social relationships.

And while I suspect that researchers in computer science and the digital humanities might be challenged in interesting ways by coming into contact with the views and practices of improvising musicians, I equally suspect we musicians have at least as much to learn from engaging with these topics from the perspectives of other disciplines. My hopes for this network are that we will engage in what Judith Butler has described as a process of “cultural translation” footnote1, whereby the seeming stability of our own understandings of human and machine listening will be reworked through a translational dialogue that might reveal what we have previously excluded from consideration, and which now might be reshaped through being faced with our own alterity.

For me, the challenge of our network is not only how to listen with machines that have been tuned by our own disciplinary motivations, but to learn how to listen together as human and machines across disciplines, as the challenges and opportunities we will face will continue to become more ubiquitous.

Practicing human-machine artistic collaboration

In a previous blog post, Alice suggests that: “Humanising Algorithmic Listening might mean experientially probing human-machine agency through speculative, experimental and performative investigations.” Likewise, David Kant stressed the need to artistically engage with existing machine perception systems with the aim of expanding rather than reifying our expectations. Together David and Alice’s posts have helped me reflect on my primary motivations for this network:

  • Humanising Algorithmic Listening might mean offering an alternative to the view that machine listening technologies are merely tools to help us achieve our predefined ends

  • Humanising Algorithmic Listening might mean speculative exploration of our human-machine relationships, while prioritising emergence and dialogue over control

  • Humanising Algorithmic Listening might mean learning anew what it means to listen together as humans.

And I believe strongly in the key role that artistic practices can play in our attempts to better understand these possibilities. My own attempts to artistically explore the collaborative potential of computer music technologies includes my ongoing Ambiguous Devices project with Tom Davis. Ambiguous Devices is a distributed musical ecosystem (Bowers 2, Waters 3), a network of interconnected music-making machines, people and ideas. The project began in 2011 out of a mutual desire to explore non-linear and resistive forms of networked musical interactions in an attempt to challenge and extend our existing practices as improvisers and instrument makers. As the title suggests, we value “ambiguity as a resource” 4 which allows for the possibility to (re)constitute the dynamics of our musical ecosystem, a process I have described elsewhere as co-tuning 5 & forthcoming - see for updates.

Coda: why do I celebrate instability and adaptability over control?

While writing this blog post I found it interesting to revisit some notes I made in 2012, which were in part generated by reflecting on my early work with Ambiguous Devices.

For myself, falling is an inescapable part of performing improvised music: falling away from my own expectations; falling in love with the unknown; falling towards the other; free falling and then catching myself from falling.

In her performance of Walking & Falling 6, Laurie Anderson describes the continuous danger of losing one’s balance while walking, while embodying both the social address of the other and the risk of self-transformation in movement:

“I wanted you. And I was looking for you.

But I couldn’t find you.

I wanted you. And I was looking for you.

But I couldn’t find you. I couldn’t find you.
You’re walking.
And you don’t always realize it, but you’re always falling.
With each step, you fall forward slightly 
and then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you’re falling. 
And then catching yourself from falling.

And this is how you can be walking and falling at the same time.”

The prosaic fact that falling is a necessary part of bipedal locomotion is hardly what is communicated. As media theorist Sibylle Moser 7 has claimed: “By turning language into a sound gesture, the piece explores the interdependence of movement, perception and conceptual interpretation.” Anderson’s patiently timed voice marks the form of her motion across a cyclical electronic soundscape, bringing into sharp relief what musicologist Ainhoa Claver 8 has described as ‘the simultaneous presence and absence of ourselves in the course of our events.’

It is through this looking, or listening, while falling that the improvising musician shapes her discipline and her self. It is a response, in gender theorist Judith Butler’s 9 words: “to be addressed, claimed, bound to what is not me, but also to be moved, to be prompted to act, to address myself elsewhere, and so to vacate the self-sufficient ‘I’ as a kind of possession.” This is not a poetic metaphor but a real risk that is demanded in performance, be it the performance of gender or music.

In this network, I would like to further explore how improvising with machine perception systems can offer the possibility to transgress established personal and cultural identities; how our stories remain the same and how they change; how we reinvent ourselves in new listening situations, walking and falling at the same time.

  1. Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek, 2000. Contingency, hegemony, universality: Contemporary dialogues on the left. 

  2. John Bowers, 2002. Improvising Machines: Ethnographically Informed Design for Improvised Electro-acoustic Music. Masters in Music Dissertation, University of East Anglia, Norwich. 

  3. Simon Waters, 2007. “Performance Ecosystems: Ecological approaches to musical interaction.” EMS: Electroacoustic Music Studies Network, pp1-20. 

  4. William Gaver, Jacob Beaver & Steve Benford, 2003. Ambiguity as a resource for design. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems, pp233-240. 

  5. Paul Stapleton, Simon Waters, Nick Ward, and Owen Green, 2016. “Distributed Agency in Performance” in Proceedings of the International Conference on Live Interfaces, University of Sussex, pp329-330. 

  6. Laurie Anderson, United States, 1981 and Big Science, 1982. 

  7. Sibylle Moser, 2008. “Walking and Falling” Language as Media Embodied, in Constructivist Foundations 3:3, p262. 

  8. Ainhoa Kaiero Claver, 2010. Technological fiction, recorded time and ‘replicants’ in the concerts of Laurie Anderson, in Trans. Revista Transcultural de Música 14, p10. 

  9. Judith Butler, 2005. Giving an Acount of Oneself, p.136. 

Dialogue & Discussion