Out from the Egg of Silence: For a Topology of Song

The metaphorical example . . . of a fertilized egg which differentiates into a fully formed organism, can now be made quite literal: the progressive differentiation of the spherical egg is achieved through a complex cascade of symmetry-breaking phase transitions.
—Manuel DeLanda (2013, 11)


This paper will explore the ontology of song through the Deleuzian philosophies put forward by Manuel DeLanda and Elizabeth Grosz, with a focus on symmetry breaking and the fractal structure of (embodied) knowledge. Extending a notion I first put forward in What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research (2015), I argue that embodied research explores relatively reliable potentialities of human practice in a way that is closely analogous to laboratory research as understood by social and historical epistemologies. DeLanda’s rigorously analytical interpretation of Deleuze will form the basis of my proposal, while Grosz’s more impressionistic discussion in Chaos, Territory, Art (2008) will provide additional background for theorising the functionality of song as (topological) action.

While a typology of songs would aim to categorise and order songs as coherent units, a topology of song is concerned with the processual generation of song in time—that is, with defining the phase space of song into which individual songs, song fragments, and song-actions intervene. From this perspective, song is not an “object” in Graham Harman’s speculative sense but more like a Deleuzian “zone of intensity” or what Hans-Jörg Rheinberger calls an “epistemic thing.” While song as a cultivated organic resource may attain sufficient temporary individuality to be called upon at will, and thereby function as a relatively reliable bodily affordance, this individuality is nothing more than what DeLanda refers to as the virtual topological structure of a multiplicity. Hence, singing is an example of “the actualisation of the virtual in time” and the specific acts of symmetry breaking that we call “songs” are newly enacted each time we begin to sing—just as a natural symmetry returns in every moment of silence. In the case of song, silence is precisely analogous to DeLanda’s undifferentiated topological “egg.”

My presentation will include live vocal performance excerpts drawing on the ongoing embodied research project “Judaica,” which seeks to develop a technique of song-based practice grounded in the coordination of voice, movement, and association in the complete unit of human performance that twentieth-century theatre pioneers Konstantin Stanislavsky and Jerzy Grotowski called “action.” I will demonstrate how vocal actions may use rhythm, melody, timbre, and other embodied techniques to generate the symmetry-breaking events that we experience as song. I contend that the flexibility of song across these and other dimensions derives from its topological structure, a fact that is routinely concealed by the epistemological dominance of recorded audio tracks and written scores in the study of music. My analysis of song is intended to re-examine and foreground the centrality of embodied technique in human life and to support innovative analyses of embodied practice, which I see as fundamental to the future of artistic research.


DeLanda, Manuel. 2013. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. New York: Bloomsbury.

Grosz, Elizabeth. 2008. Chaos, Territory, Art: Deleuze and the Framing of the Earth. New York: Columbia University Press.

Spatz, Ben. 2015. What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research. London: Routledge.


For the installation Proto-Objects, Michael Schwab commissioned four independent collaborators to respond to his artistic analysis of his own brain activity. This was recorded as he was exposed to a succession of one hundred pictures, randomly chosen from the history of art (from 1420 to 1912). The initial EEG scan took place as part of the research project “Wissen im Selbstversuch/Knowledge through Self-Experimentation” (2009–10, PI: Yeboaa Ofosu, see http://www.hkb.bfh.ch/?id=2453) at the Hochschule der Künste Bern (CH) and was carried out by Dr. Thomas Koenig at the Universitätsklinik für Psychiatrie und Psychotherapie Bern (CH). The raw EEG data was statistically analysed and geometrically transformed with the help of Padraig Coogan, Leon Williams (both Royal College of Art, London, UK), Michael Klein (Universität Heidelberg, D), and David Pirrò (Kunstuniversität Graz, AT). This work resulted in the construction of one hundred three-dimensional “proto-objects,” each corresponding to what is deemed significant in Schwab’s cognitive response to each particular picture.

The name “proto-object” was first used by Schwab in a book chapter (Schwab 2012) that utilises Hans-Jörg Rheinberg’s research on “experimental systems” for possible epistemologies and methodologies of artistic research. Rheinberger makes a distinction between two spaces, the graphematic and the representational space (see Schwab 2013). Surprising events that lack explanation are produced in experimental settings and traced in the graphematic space as “epistemic things.” Epistemic things are gradually transposed into the representational space where they register as knowledge. According to Rheinberger (1997, 28) appropriating François Jacob, epistemic things announce future knowledge and, thus, drive history. However, in the context of techno-scientific experimental systems, and despite being rooted in the graphematic space, the future of an epistemic thing lies in the representational space—that is, research must feed into science.

The installation Proto-Objects speculates that this economy is reversible, following a two-step procedure. The material installation transfers an actualised technical object back to an epistemically underdetermined space, a virtuality suggested by a multiplicity of images from different disciplinary backgrounds. In this installation, Einar Torfi Einarsson transforms Schwab’s proto-objects into scores to be interpreted and played by the cellist Séverine Ballon; the contemporary artist Florian Dombois uses the one hundred objects to develop a “language of things,” in which he writes poetry; the architect Miguel Figueira modifies Van Gogh’s Pont de Langlois (1888) on the basis of the proto-object corresponding to that painting; and Taslim Martin uses one proto-object as the template for a creamer and sugar set.

Needless to say, there are no “real” proto-objects outside their presentation as manifold, “the real object is reflected in a mirror-image as in the virtual object which, from its side and simultaneously, envelops or reflects the real: there is ‘coalescence’ between the two . . . a double movement of liberation and capture” (Deleuze 1989, 68). Keeping what Deleuze says here in mind, the installation Proto-Objects may be seen to suggest alternative modes of signification within artistic experimental settings.

The book Proto-Objects published for this installation is available on issuu


Deleuze, Gilles. 1989. Cinema 2: The Time-Image. Translated by Hugh Tomlinson and Robert Galeta. London: Athlone Press.

Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg. 1997. Toward a History of Epistemic Things: Synthesizing Proteins in the Test Tube. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Schwab, Michael. 2012. “Between a Rock and a Hard Place.” In Intellectual Birdhouse: Artistic Practice as Research, edited by Florian Dombois, Ute Meta Bauer, Claudia Mareis, and Michael Schwab, 229–47. London: Koenig Books.

—, ed. 2013. Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research. Leuven: Leuven University Press.