Review: Dr Timothy O’Dwyer, ‘Folding Machines – Approaches to Improvising and Composing Inspired by the Philosophy of Gilles Deleuze’

The following is a review of a talk given by Dr Timothy O’Dwyer on 27th February at the University of Leeds, School of Music. I must mention that the following account is by no means exhaustive of Deleuzian thought, in fact it only touches on one aspect of it. However, I am writing about this talk because it seems to offer an accessible starting point to comprehending one of Deleuze’s concepts. It also demonstrates how applying aesthetics and philosophy to composition can offer a different perspective on a familiar act and therefore a potentially different outcome. This is something I am interested in in my own practice-led research: that is, re-thinking the familiar.

Below is an abstract which was distributed during the talk’s advertisement:

Inspired by Gilles Deleuze’s work, Timothy O’Dwyer introduces his approach to improvising, composition and collaboration across a diversity of musical styles and practices. He will perform work on saxophone with electronics and discuss his project that explores ways of negotiating issues of collective labour and creative ownership from body to machine to ensemble. Folding Machines is a renovation of models of music-making that bring together contemporary improvisation practices with forms of pre-Classical musical thinking.

Below is a summary of what I gathered from the talk:

O’Dwyer explains that he is appropriating the philosophy of Deleuze into creating his music: in the manner that Deleuze uses music as a metaphor for philosophy, O’Dwyer uses Deleuze’s philosophy as a metaphor for music. He explains that his talk only touches on Deleuzian thought, of which there is a lot more that can arise in the field of music. He begins by mentioning that Deleuze has an expressive abstract way of writing that should be allowed to ‘wash over’ the reader. Eventually, it affects the way one thinks.

Deleuze argues that art should be felt through the senses; it should affect us, and the governing question in O’Dwyer’s talk is ‘what makes music expressive?’ An initial solution might be that ‘expression’ is subjective; however, Deleuze tries to make it objective. For him, ‘expression’ is an act of territorialisation.

According to Deleuze, it involves a mechanism on an immanent process that goes on outside and inside the body, something which we are all part of. This ‘machine of creativity’ comprises multiple varied states, the first of which is that of the ‘milieu’.

Before I explain the ‘milieu’s’ part in this machine of creativity; it is important to acknowledge that Deleuze uses common words that have more than one meaning.  For instance, the typical definition of ‘milieu’ is that it is a segment of time and space – something which brings to my mind the notion of ‘epoch.’ However, Deleuze talks of ‘milieu’ in a different way. To Deleuze, the ‘milieu’ is a familiar entity: something we know – a ‘predictable’ entity. Examples include an artist’s colours; that placing three fingers down on a saxophone will sound the pitch ‘G’; a piece of paper.

The second ‘state’ (or ‘part’), of this ‘machine of creativity’, is ‘rhythm’. Again, ‘rhythm’ is a term with multiple definitions, and it is important to understand which one Deleuze is employing. Deleuze uses the term ‘rhythm’ to describe something altering the ‘milieu’. Unlike the ‘milieu’, it is unpredictable. An example is the folding (‘rhythm’) of a piece of paper (‘milieu’). Basically, whatever one does to the ‘milieu’ is ‘rhythmic’.

These two ‘parts’ (‘milieu’ and ‘rhythm’) form a ‘territory’ in their combination. In other words, by taking what we know (‘milieu’) and what we do to what we know (‘rhythm’), we territorialise.

The mechanics of territorialisation can be demonstrated with the following example: birds territorialise with their song. A specific song, which a certain bird sings, tells every other bird that that bird is in the vicinity. This bird has altered the familiar surroundings (‘milieu’) with ‘Deleuzian’ ‘rhythm’: in this instance the rhythm is the bird’s song.

In his talk, O’Dwyer utilises the mechanics of territorialisation in order to explain ‘the mechanics of expression’ in the act of improvisation. He does this by likening the ‘milieu’ to a ‘sound object’.

O’Dwyer explains that improvisers develop a lexicon of ‘sound objects’ based on sounds that they make. Examples of ‘sound objects’ include a single pitch; a multiphonic. He explains that people commonly misinterpret a ‘sound object’ with the improviser’s act of varying of that ‘sound object’. In other words, the varying of the ‘sound object’ is not the ‘sound object’ itself.  For instance, consider vibrato varying a single note where the single note is the ‘sound object’ and vibrato is the improviser’s act of varying this ‘sound object’.

According to O’Dwyer, Deleuze makes this distinction between ‘sound object’ and ‘variation’.  The ‘sound object’ is something we know: a predictable entity – a ‘milieu’. It is not what is ‘expressive’. ‘Variation’ is ‘rhythm’ (in a Deleuzian sense): it modifies what we know. It is the improviser’s variation in what is already known (the ‘sound object’) which forms the improviser’s territory and thus makes it expressive. For instance, we consider vibrato to be expressive – that variation to the single note which expresses the performer.

Therefore, through the Deleuzian mechanics of territorialisation we can comprehend the potential mechanics of ‘expression’ in performance: in defining their territory on a ‘sound object’, the performer makes said ‘sound object’ personal to them; they own it. In other words, they express themselves.

It can so far be summarised that ‘territory’ comprises something that is known (‘milieu’), such as a technique or ‘sound object’. It also comprises what we’re doing to that ‘sound object’ (Deleuzian ‘rhythm’) such as varying the techniques or sound object. O’Dwyer recommends that, when we are listening to an improviser, we should listen to the ‘sound object’ and how it is being varied (as opposed to just listening to the overall sound).

In the question and answers section of the talk, someone asked O’Dwyer how Deleuze’s notion of ‘lines of flight’ fits into this Deleuzian territorialisation in music. O’Dwyer explained that he interprets Deleuzian ‘lines of flight’ to be the outcome of more variation done to the ‘sound object’ so much so that it can form a ‘line of flight’ out into another ‘territory’ (another ‘sound object’ being varied). I personally interpret this explanation as referring to a transformation across time.

Below is a biography of Dr Timothy O’Dwyer which was distributed during the talk’s advertisement:

Dr Timothy O’Dwyer is a saxophonist, composer and researcher currently Head of the School of Contemporary Music at LASALLE College of the Arts in Singapore. With a background in punk-jazz and free improvisation, Timothy’s music constantly pushes the boundaries of style, technique and especially context stretching across borders of culture, performance practice and art forms. He has toured widely internationally, released many CDs of original compositions to critical acclaim and is a member of the Australian contemporary music group ELISION Ensemble. Timothy is currently an Academy Fellow at the Akademie der Kunste der Welt in Koln, Germany from August 2013 to August 2014.

More information can be found here.

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