Neuroaesthetics and Experimental Audio-Visual Performances

This paper first develops a contemporary (re)interpretation of Deleuze’s essay “Postscript on the Societies of Control” before using it as a lens through which to explore the psychosomatic affects of experimental audio-visual performances. Through a critical analysis of the 2014 performance “Zones of Influence,” I hope to establish a conversation between Deleuzian thinking, the emergent direction of a wide range of “underground” art, and recent neurophysiological research.

Although originally theorised and composed between 1984–85, due to its highly ambitious and innovative technological nature, “Zones of Influence” was not able to be completely realised until nearly thirty years later, when it premiered in Los Angeles as one of the first fully-mature examples of a new genre of experimental performance seeking to integrate audio and visual experience in completely unprecedented ways. In this instance, highly advanced software allows the three artists involved (two musicians and one visual artist) to organically grow an experience that adaptively mutates in response to their continual improvisation while intimately connecting the audience’s aural and visual perception in a way that almost never occurs during the rhythms of “normal” life.

Specifically, because they are able to facilitate very active and focused meditative experiences, experimental audio-visual performances gain significant political relevance when viewed in relation to the often reductive and limiting neurophysiological implications imposed by the repetitive, accelerating, and fragmentary semiotic structures that seem to dominate contemporary mass-media culture.

Nevertheless, the manner in which “Zones of Influence” simultaneously hyper-stimulates the mind in many ways effectively distinguishes it from other contemporaneous experimental performances that are also fully capable of inducing meditative perceptual states. This distinction is ultimately what makes it an excellent example of a nascent era of techno-psychedelic art quite literally capable of enhancing the transversal connective and creative capacities of the mind.

The Dark Precursor and the Musics of the World

In a musical context, Deleuze’s concept of the Dark Precursor stimulates us to consider a range of ways in which heterogeneous, intensive systems can be related, thereby enabling communication or, to use later Deleuze–Guattarian terminology, “consistency.” The words “fusion” and “crossover” are regularly used to cover that growing multiplicity of cases where previously independent musics encounter one another as forces, in ever-variable plays of give and take. Such is the case in the fusions of Indian and various Western musics pioneered by musicians such as Ali Akbar Khan, Ravi Shankar, John Coltrane, George Harrison, John Mayer, and Joe Harriott, and more recently Anoushka Shankar. An alternative example is the Mugham-based jazz of Azerbaijani musician Aziza Mustafah-Zadeh, but the examples could be multiplied ad infinitum. Alternatively, in the case of Western art music in France, the experience of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris was pivotal in expediting much more intimate engagements between Western composers and a range of other world musics, which went beyond the nineteenth-century interest in exotica. Exposure to the Javanese gamelan and the Annamite theatre was of great importance for Debussy. André Jolivet and Olivier Messiaen were seriously affected by the sound of the gamelan heard once again at the Exposition Coloniale in 1931. Messiaen’s music is marked by Greek and Hindu rhythms, a range of pitch modes, Eastern-sounding instrumental groups, and a sense of temporal stasis that he related to Japan. Pierre Boulez’s early ethnomusicological aspirations, his contact with Messiaen and ethnologist André Schaeffner, and his lifelong interest in aspects of Asian and African music are apparent in his own work. An interest in and inclusion of aspects of Asian and African musics is also found in the work of younger composers, such as Hugues Dufourt’s monumental Erewhon (1972–76) for percussion or Georges Aperghis’s opera Tristes Tropiques (1990–95).

Viewing this series of musical encounters and inseminations, the challenge then is to think the Deleuzian Dark Precursors that operate between global musical traditions. The range of music considered in the talk embodies varying degrees of fusion between forces. Given that every viable composition or improvisation can be viewed as the work of consistency, the question arises, is consistency absolute or are there degrees of consistency? Who can judge whether a musical experience achieves Deleuzian consistency? Is the fact of its existence sufficient guarantee? Does consistency imply molecularity? Are less molecular forces less consistently integrated within the work? Finally, to what degree do compositions/improvisations of varying consistency manifest different values and relations?