Friday, May 20, 2022

Composition as Critical Technical Practice

In the UK, the Research Excellence Framework results have been released 

A simple internet search shows only those institutions eager to display pride in their ranking (e.g. University of Bristol, Royal Holloway, Guildhall School and Cambridge). Via (social) media, a more troubling picture can be found, with arts departments under some type of threat despite seemingly encouraging results. Wolverhampton University seems to have done well, but intends to slash a significant number of jobs, reminding us (cynically?) of the many it had added before submitting its REF report. Similarly, De Montfort University boasts positive ranking yet its employees cry for help. 

With the financial implications of the results as yet unknown, it is difficult to assess to what extent this negativity is related to the REF. Anyway, some have stated that practice-based subjects are not negatively impacted. Indeed, whereas for the previous REF in 2014, university-employed composers lamented having to seek approval for their creative work by adding academic output, sparking a debate about composition-"as"-reserarch (cf. here, here, and here), this time around, such composers’ sighs seem largely to have dissipated. This may mean that composition itself is (more) acknowledged as research output than before, at least in the UK.

Surely less coincidental is the 2021 Leuven University Press publication of the 373-page multi-authored volume, Sound Work: Composition as Critical Technical Practice, edited by Jonathan Impett, whose roles as composer, director of research at the Orpheus Instituut, and associate professor at Middlesex University, makes his voice(s) especially noteworthy. The book can be acquired for 62,5€ here, where the table of contents can be viewed. Since the publication represents a constructive addition to the debate about composition and research, Jonathan’s introduction, including summaries of the chapters, is reproduced underneath.


Music-Making and Storytelling

Jonathan Impett


This volume is concerned with storytelling: the stories composers tell about composition, to themselves and to others. In the past, the self-reporting of composition has tended to consider the areas in which it aspires to be innovative, or the theories—musical, aesthetic, social, scientific, technological—that have informed the work, rather than the activity of composition itself. The knowledge presented in such cases often lies outside composition. There is no lack of accounts by composers demonstrating how their work embodies this theory or that principle, or introduces a new technical concept. There is no shortage of investigation of the ontology and epistemology of the “work” as a persisting historical cultural phenomenon, but the technologies and context of composition have undergone a paradigm shift. The present, to repurpose a phrase, is another country.

In contemporary science, the role of storytelling is increasingly recognised not only in science communication but also in its self-image and hence in scientific practice (Davies et al. 2019). In the discussion of music creation, several factors contribute to the urgent need for new discourse, new voices, and new kinds of story. The cultural landscape is transformed, and with it the perceived role of “art” music and the nature of public critical discourse. In a prevailing atmosphere of individualism, the commonality of creative experience is all the more important—both among artists themselves and with their audience. And composition is largely supported as an activity of knowledge-production, as research, rather than as creative development per se. We need, therefore, to tell more material, honest, and useful stories—to seed discourse, to find resonances, to encourage critical engagement.

To paraphrase Brian Ferneyhough ([1982] 1995), composition walks a tightrope between formalism and the arbitrary, a process informed by theory and intuition, constraint and contingency, expectation and experience. It is a continuous, situated, iterative process of inscription and reflection in which its models, metaphors, aspirations, obligations, tools, and technologies all play a part; it has a narrative, or rather multiple narratives (Impett 2016). This process and its products embody assumptions, choices, and intentions that have significant implications for the position, role, and impact of artist and artwork alike—critical implications, whether the artist chooses to regard them as such or not. The artefacts of composition—however notated, improvised, virtual, embodied, or technologically implemented—are hybrid technical objects and require a technicity of engagement on the part of artist and listener.

The hypothesis of this volume is that we might rather consider composition as a design process, and that we might usefully study its dynamics and decisions in the spirit of what Philip Agre described as critical technical practice. Agre developed his ideas in the context of his work in artificial intelligence (AI), at a moment of deep transformation in that field, of moving from “mentalist” to “interactionist” models. His fundamental insight is that individual practice— what he described as “the practical logic of computer work” (Agre 2002)—is indivisible from the social context and implications of its products; they constitute a single critical activity:


The word “critical” here does not call for pessimism and destruction but rather for an expanded understanding of the conditions and goals of technical work.... Instead of seeking foundations it would embrace the impossibility of foundations, guiding itself by a continually unfolding awareness of its own workings as a historically specific practice.... It would accept that this reflexive inquiry places all of its concepts and methods at risk. And it would regard this risk positively, not as a threat to rationality but as the promise of a better way of doing things. (Agre 1997a, 22–23)


Agre criticises conventional accounts that present work and theory as a mutually justifying pair—one as the natural embodiment of the other—as insufficient. Such accounts hide narrative, decisions, and parameters, avoid critical context. Instead, he outlines a practice that is reflective in two directions: in terms of what it actually involves—intentions, conditions, means, theory, actions, constraints, events—and in terms of its context—cultural, social, technological, and, in our case, artistic and even personal. He describes a single disciplinary field: “one foot planted in the craft work of design and the other foot planted in the reflexive work of critique” (Agre 1997b, 155). This is not the place to hazard a reductive summary of Agre’s concept, but we must point to a recent resurgence of interest in areas such as software studies (Kitchin and Dodge 2014), intelligent design (Somerson and Hermano 2013), architecture (Parisi 2013), and artificial intelligence itself, which has been massively re-energised with recent advances in machine learning. Like the artefacts of these fields, music inhabits a liminal material state, is heavily dependent on the means of its realisation, retains its identity across manifold instantiations, is adaptive to the context of its embodiment, and is the product of deep concept, abstract imagination, and painstaking technique and experiment.

In critical technical practice, reflection and its articulation are integral and essential to the process; there is no single model any more than there is a single model of composition. This volume explores the potential of critical technical practice (CTP) as an ethos and discourse for the articulation and sharing of knowledge production through composition across styles, practices, and contexts. The technological context, materials, and practices of composition have always been closely coupled. The wider cultural role and understanding of composition as an activity has been transformed with each technological paradigm shift. This volume considers the new cultural, professional, epistemic, and institutional situation of composition in the particular contexts of the wide range of current technologically enabled practices: music information retrieval, live coding, live notation, intelligent instrument-building and hacking, interactive, autonomous, and algorithmic approaches, distributed creativity, sound art, and computer-assisted composition. As an inherently reflexive approach, CTP brings implications for the development of these same contemporary practices.

The opening chapters consider the relevance and potential of critical technical practice in music from wide perspectives. Alan Blackwell’s “Too Cool to Boogie” sets the scene by locating Agre’s thought in the field of artificial intelligence, its issues and subsequent developments. Critical technical practice presents a critical response to the impasse of AI in the 1980s; technical and philosophical views are inseparable if the field is to realise its potential for good, and this relationship is reflected in the stories practitioners tell about their own work. The author explores Agre’s thought by situating it in a specific instance of his own practice: studying funk bass. The interaction of technical methods with the embodied, situated, complexly motivated narrative of human practice emerges as the object of critical reflection.

David Rosenboom’s magisterial “Illusions of Form” presents a body of creative thought that has evolved in parallel and kept pace with the developments that have produced the concept of CTP, the current 4E view of cognition (embodied, embedded, enacted, extended), and recent advances in biotechnology. Rosenboom invokes Agre’s ideas to construct a critical reflection on the development and implications of his own radical concept of propositional music. Received boundaries of genre or discipline are abandoned, not to indifference but to a new mode of artistic-technical-scientific endeavour—an artscience, its methodology informed by the current concept of emergent engineering. Composition becomes an activity of world-model building, an imaginative process that engages with the cognitive processes of performers and listeners alike, using means and models derived from and developed with advances in science and technology. Through examples of neuromusical propositions, musical configuration spaces and emergent collaborative projects, Rosenboom lays the ground for a new artscience discourse. In his vision, critical technicity is in operation throughout the acts of composition, performance, and listening.

The software-hardware binary central to current technology-based practice is examined in Nicolas Collins’s “What to Ware?” He suggests a taxonomy, a series of axes along which their different affordances and constraints might be understood. This illuminates the artist’s selection of tools as a series of conscious choices, all informed by a fundamental critical question in art, that of truth to materials—in this case, whether music made with electronics should sound like electronic music.

Collins’s fine-grained analysis of craft is complemented by Ann Warde’s broad recontextualising of the very activity of composition. She pursues a process of substitution to explore the prospect of a “critical musical practice,” such that composition becomes a way of imagining and modelling “a world we’d like to perceive and experience—an environment: a social, physical, tactile environment.” Warde performs a further inversion: by seeing music as a technology, she presents it as having a wider function in its own present. These substitutions shed new light both on the wide relevance of Agre’s ideas beyond their apparent subject area, and on the potential role of music as a critical instrument.

The intimate dance of the technical and the critical is explored in Nicholas Brown’s “The Composer’s Domain.” The essentially transdisciplinary nature of the work of composing with computers emerges from two case studies. Such work becomes a way of interrogating both assumptions about music-making and the world-views embodied in technology; it proposes alternative ontologies for music and poses new questions concerning our relationship with the natural, cultural, and engineered world we inhabit. At the heart of this music is the fulcrum between the digital and the mechanical, developing the thesis of the chapter by Nicolas Collins. The abstraction, conditionality, and absolute nature of the digital are balanced by the situated and responsive materiality of the ways in which the work is shared.

The editor’s “Dissociation and Interference” considers the relevance, implications, and enactment of critical technical practice in the current environment of art as knowledge production. Crucial differences emerge between CTP and actor–network theory: a CTP approach addresses the significant gap in current music discourse between material and social perspectives. Agre insists on the identification of moments of dissociation and interference as a key component, and this is discussed in the context of the practical business of composition.

McLaughlin, Di Scipio, and Romero examine particular aspects of contemporary composition, as they emerge from the writers’ own practices—aspects with broad common resonance. Scott McLaughlin pursues the question of material indeterminacy in “The Impossibility of Material Foundations.” The composer sets the conditions for the development of a relationship between performer and an unpredictable and unstable performance environment—a combination of technique and instrument. This essentialises and micro-examines the situation that effectively obtains in any “conventional” performance. A touchstone comes from Agre, in his description of such a process as “embrac[ing] the impossibility of foundations, guiding itself by a continually unfolding awareness of its own workings as a historically specific practice” (1997a, 23). Composition is thus acknowledged as a situated experimental process, the recursive exploration of the infinite possible networks conceived as a “phase space.”

Agostino Di Scipio puts forward a view of live electronic music as an inherently critical practice in “Thinking Liveness in Performance with Live Electronics.” His chapter begins with a comprehensive historical survey of practice and concepts. Di Scipio’s concept of liveness involves not simply human presence or “real-time” operation—itself a very plastic idea—but the real lived time and space of performance. He proposes the performance ecosystem as an operative unit, such that system and site are coupled in performance. Critical technicity runs through practice and performance into their social context: “By way of turning the hybrid constitution of techno-ecosystems into phenomenologically shared auditory events, these mediators audibly expose the human, all-too-human reality of our pervasive technological condition.”

In “Experiment and Experience,” Lula Romero resists the notion of mastery—of craft or materials. In the pursuit of openness of relationship between composer and work, she finds Cage’s apparent rejection of the subject insufficient as a response. Instead she sees a continuous intra-action between composer and materials; the resulting music is a product of their interference. Such openness becomes a process of continuous critique, evading commodification and offering alternative world models. This critique is confronted with each technical decision: the spatial distribution of multiple possible outcomes, the design of and negotiation with systems. Romero proposes a reformulation of the composer as a feminist subject.

The accounts of Magnusson, Fantechi, Haddad, and Zattra set out from very practical aspects of contemporary composition practice. Metacompositional thought in the design of a performance system is a theme developed in Thor Magnusson’s account of his development of the Threnoscope, a live coding environment. As a mode of compositional inscription, code has its own dynamics in terms of imagining and structuring work—or rather potential work—and in its dissemination and reuse. Here it becomes a context for experimentation as well as a creative tool; conventional categories of modes of practice and expertise dissolve as questions of music theory, cognition, technology, interface, and instrument design provoke and inform one another. Projects such as the Threnoscope invite us to dynamically re-evaluate notions of design, composition, performance, improvisation, and collaboration.

The activity of com-posing—the putting together of music—is predicated at some level on a conceptual model of the resources and materials to be used. The management of resources—their representation, their perceived or ascribed relationships, their disposition—is so fundamental an activity, so practical, that it may seem pre-technical and is certainly lost in most accounts of practice. Instead, the decisions it embodies reflect a critical stance that informs all its artefacts. Daniela Fantechi explores this topic in “A Few Reflections about Compositional Practice,” a refreshingly candid account of personal practice as revealed in a series of case studies. Awareness of choice—of taste, of the changing objects of attention and of provisional, variable parameters of categorisation— evolves from an autoethnographic discipline to a guiding critical stance. This generates a narrative of form emerging from levels of compositional memory and the inherent temporality of the material.

Karim Haddad’s “Temporal Poetics” presents a way of conceiving musical time and of manipulating the temporality of musical entities mentioned by Fantechi. This is contiguous with the roots of Western mensural notation in the ars nova, but also with Hölderlin’s assertion of rhythm as the essential property of art, of nature, and of knowledge. Computer-assisted composition restores the flow of time to the working environment; the temporalities of imagination, experimentation, composition, and performance modulate each other. Haddad’s approach recognises the particular temporality of materials while being situated in both the historical flow of musical culture and a critical exchange with contemporary technology.

Music research has recently focussed on collaborative work in contemporary music creation; we might more accurately observe that music research has recently come to take note of the extent to which collaborative or distributed processes are vital to music creation in general. As the technological possibilities available to musicians have proliferated, distributed technical expertise has become crucial at the stage of composition. A very particular mode of collaboration obtains in institutional studios where composers are invited to work with the assistance of technical experts. Laura Zattra examines the dynamics of such situations in “Collaborative Creation in Electroacoustic Music,” by exploring three cases in detail. Useful terms derive from design practices; workflow, communication, and the co-evolution of musical imagination with technical experimentation emerge as significant factors. The complicity, empathy, creativity, and openness of the assistant are crucial, and yet their professional status is not always resolved.

Finally, Alessandrini and Zhu, Field, and Ciciliani present visions for new ontologies of music, each taking a unique critical stance and exploring its ramifications for their technical practice. Patricia Alessandrini’s feminist multimedia monodrama Parlour Sounds is the case study at the heart of her chapter with Julie Zhu. In the spirit of Haraway-inspired cyberfeminism, the project challenges predominant practices of technology, confronting those of music with those of the domestic environment. Such displacement brings the work into new critical relationships with many aspects of its production and context: the collaborative processes of composition, of interface design and construction, the physical location of work with music technology, the relationship of art with daily life, and the power structures at play in the soliciting and production of music. Cyberfeminist principles inform the proposal of an alternative to dominant paradigms of electronic music, and a theoretical framework in which roles and distinctions between composition, design, improvisation, and performance are blurred.

Ambrose Field seeks to change the vocabulary of creative practice from another perspective. Much compositional activity now happens in an academic context, where it is supported and expected to explain itself as research. This transition has been extensively discussed: from the epistemological implications to the ways in which it reflects a new mode of supporting cultural and creative development. From the composer’s perspective, however, such discussion has largely been concerned with defending creative freedom or claiming epistemological relevance. Instead, Field addresses the question of the practice itself directly. When creative practice also becomes experimental practice, what are the ramifications for both the self-image and the practical behaviour of the practitioner? Field considers the formulation of questions and especially the development of new approaches to workflow, which he describes as “the creative envelope.”

If the practices of music creation are to enter a more dynamic phase of critical awareness, the relationship with the listener, audience, or co-participant becomes crucial. For whom is this work intended? How is it to be received, in what circumstances and with what expectations of attention or investment? Marko Ciciliani’s “Designing Audience–Work Relationships” explores this in detail through three of his audiovisual projects—performance/installation hybrids. They work with time, space, and multiplicity of phenomenon to experiment with modes of social and individual interaction. Hall’s “proxemics” provide a metric of intimacy. Patterns of temporality and attention emerge from the engagement of performers and listeners, not as an epiphenomenon but within the scope of compositional imagination, design, and critical reflection.

Through such processes of critical technical reflection, of detailed discussion of the practical narrative of composition, common themes emerge from this multiplicity of creative practices. Technology is present not for technology’s sake, but because our evolving relationship with technology is one of the defining paths of our current state. A systems view of practice and its artefacts appears often, just as the mid-century visions of cybernetics are informing recent work in the new AI—currently searching for ways to confront its own hidden assumptions, tastes, and prejudices. Above all we see references to building models of possible worlds; David Rosenboom’s propositional music stands as paradigm in this regard.

Composition is not the sudden, unitary embodiment of an idea but a situated, distributed, time-extensive activity. And the products of this activity, of these decisions, reflect world views and values; they propose new models. If we are to talk about music in material ways and music is to do its important work in the world, then composers must begin to have new kinds of conversation with each other and with the wider community. It is hoped that this volume will contribute to such a development.



 Agre, Philip E. 1997a. Computation and Human Experience. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 1997b. “Toward a Critical Technical Practice: Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI.” In Social Science, Technical Systems, and Cooperative Work: Beyond the Great Divide, edited by Geoffrey C. Bowker, Susan Leigh Star, William Turner, and Les Gasser, 131–57. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

———. 2002. “The Practical Logic of Computer Work.” In Computationalism: New Directions, edited by Matthias Scheutz, 129–42. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Davies, Sarah Rachel, Megan Halpern, Maja Horst, David Kirby, and Bruce Lewenstein. 2019. “Science Stories as Culture: Experience, Identity, Narrative and Emotion in Public Communication of Science.” JCOM: Journal of Science Communication. 18 (5): A01.

Ferneyhough, Brian. (1982) 1995. “Form—Figure—Style: An Intermediate Assessment.” In Brian Ferneyhough: Collected Writings, edited by James Boros and Richard Toop, 21–28. London: Routledge. Essay written 1982; first published 1984 in French translation (Labrys 10).

Impett, Jonathan. 2016. “Making a Mark: The Psychology of Composition.” In The Oxford Handbook of Music Psychology, edited by Susan Hallam, Ian Cross, and Michael Thaut, 2nd ed., 651–66. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kitchin, Rob, and Martin Dodge. 2014. Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Parisi, Luciana. 2013. Contagious Architecture: Computation, Aesthetics, and Space. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Somerson, Rosanne, and Mara L. Hermano, eds. 2013. The Art of Critical Making: Rhode Island School of Design on Creative  Practice. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley. 

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