/modern archeological practice — part 1

On December 5, wasteLAnd presents clarinetists Samuel Dunscombe and Curt Miller, who will perform Pierluigi Billone’s 1+1=1 at 356 Mission in Los Angeles. The event begins at 8pm and is free and open to the public.

//modern-dig site
Composers of late enjoy the illusion of excavation — the “dug-up,” the “revealed,” the hidden items delicately exhumed from the terrain beneath our feet. Composers carefully pluck sonic ruins hidden from the chaos of noise and nothingness. Composers lovingly dust these ruins with a brush and polish them with a cloth. Composers cultivate the weighty mystique that surrounds these ruins; we acknowledge the ingenuity of that composer wielding the shovel.

These ruins are placed on the pedestal. They are angled properly to hide the nicks and fractures. They are made into an object of reverence. They are made into objects of thought.

From rational digging comes rational thought.

As Billone asserts: an archeologist must first learn to dig. A composer must learn to dig not just in the context of style, but also within the confines of each dig “site” — each work. Within each work, the composer has roped off some zone and must familiarize him- or herself with the topography: is that a rock or a vase?…how deep do we choose to dig?

The composer-as-archeologist is a convenient identity for Billone to cast — a way to preserve the grander historical illusion that justifies the rationality of closed systems. Of “limits” imposed upon these systems. Of territorialization, analysis, and exhibition using these systems. Isn’t this “history?”…a curated collection of closed narratives, of seemingly self-evident lineages?

In the closed system, in the line of history, all things are considered as one. All components of the system — all of those vases and urns dusted and polished — add up to one. One site. One locale of many things that inhabits a space and a time. A history: one history continually mutating as one component folds into the next…as single drops fall and pool into another larger drop.

The idea as one, where one plus one equals one.


Pierlugi Billone: misfit-du-jour; the latest descendent in a lineage of European composers seemingly compelled to re-territorialize art music in the post-Cage-ian fracture. A composer whose intellectual bravado is evident upon entry. A composer whose task-at-hand is that of a historian’s:

…I am looking for possible points of contact and connections between dimensions that nonetheless retain their autonomy. With the help of this vigilance (and an almost archeological sensitivity) I enter instrumental spaces yet unknown to me. Here, any detail can constitute an illuminating difference, a remarkable connection, the foundation for a construction, the identification of an earlier experience, a missing piece of a puzzle, a notable particularity, or an unrepeatable state that crosses the boundaries of notation; in this sense none of its aspects are unimportant. [previously linked above]

Billone is a composer preoccupied with puzzles, with enigmas of ancestry, with systems of interconnection, with crafting coherent modes of reason through an otherwise chaotic worldview.

And in the zones roped-off by Billone in his 70-minute antiphonal epic, the bass clarinet duo 1+1=1, we witness the unfolding of his systematic excavation — the composer introduces us to his ruins. Billone unearths these ruins, first by spade, then by brush, with an increasingly finer and finer eye for detail. We hear a cogent gradation of sound, between tone and air, mayhem and stasis, instrument and speech: these are the stakes in the earth, connected by rope, that demarcate Billone’s dig-site.

Whatever ruins (or, in the composer’s terminology, “missing piece[s] of the puzzle”) are uncovered throughout 1+1=1 are subordinate to Billone’s urge to territorialize the instrumental “space” in which he digs. This creates a closed system — a purity of “place” — that preemptively justifies any findings. Billone even goes as far as to include “space” itself as an instrument at his disposal, a “pure ideal” that he dictates as a compulsory distance between each identical instrument (at least 15 meters), a reification of his own archeological dig in the physical space of the performance. Ultimately, the closed system is the true object of affection of the European tendency: a reduction of virgin terrain not just to its simplest components, but its simplest rational components, its simplest meaningful components.

Who decides what is rational, you ask? Why, the composer of course…

This purity-obsessed rationale obviously warrants European ascendency. It has allowed European composers to continue a dynastic line that has its roots decades before in an existential crisis following World War II (not to mention the upheaval caused by one American idealist’s attempted coup: redefining “purity” as chaotic oblivion). But in any dynasty one witnesses a weakening of the breed, an incestuous accretion of mutative peculiarities that doesn’t threaten so much as handicaps the pedigree. Music is no different.

And with Billone, and in 1+1=1, we see this mutation manifest as fetishism…fetishism of sound, fetishism of the desire to control (even those elements outside of control), fetishism of an idealized system, fetishism of an idealized history. The sheer magnitude and scale of his duo, alone, is a by-product of fetishism: a desire to nullify temporality by distending time itself. All efforts to demarcate zones of “archeological study” (to define the limits of his closed system) have led Billone to hyper-rationalize almost to the brink of mania, just the same as Domenico — Tarkowsky’s own “nutcase” referenced in the duo’s title.

This is history in the making, but not as we were expecting — not in real time. This is history as an inside joke, available only to those who are culturally-steeped or “properly” educated. This is history as a manufactured, though impossible, ideal.

What happens, then, when we choose not to approach this music on its own terms? What happens when we are culturally disconnected from the same ideas of history, of the same ideas of lineage? What happens when we open our ears to the panorama of sound, where no form, no style, no effort to frame or territorialize is ascendant?

Some might fear that this would nullify all things; that to declare all systems of organization equally viable thereby renders all styles equally decrepit (one might, in fact, see this as the anarchy following Cage’s own previously-mentioned coup, and which seemingly plagues discussion of new music to this day). But this nihilism appears only when considered in the shadow of “history:” a desire to look behind to justify the path ahead. Instead, a freedom from history paradoxically mirrors Billone’s own desire to discover “a remarkable connection;” the only difference is that this time we are outside of a closed system. We are out of bounds. We are outside of history.

One may still dig — and, surely, we should keep digging — but the ruins we uncover are just as alien as the histories that others erect around them. We cannot listen to history; one can only listen “historically.” History is as malleable as plastic, shaped to conform to any defined standards of manufacture. Ruins are only a trace of something outside of our understanding, something strange upon which we may dictate meaning or purpose, or simply appreciate as they stand: snapshots of a moment not in the past, but in the now. Let us, instead, recognize these artifacts, these ruins, as the objects of our affection — not the objects of a fabricated rationale or process.

Gone, then, is fetishization: of technique, of material, of ego. Eschewing this fixation frees our ears to the variegated garden of sound before us. Gone, too, is the lineage that has sought to shape both Europe and America since World War II. That fracture has led us down an increasingly-reasoned path that eventually anointed our current composer-vanguard, amongst them Billone himself — a figure of nearly pure fetish, pure dogma, and (ironically) pure enigma.


Whereas so much of the contemporary music world is plagued with intellectualism and careerism, wasteLAnd is positioning itself at an incongruous nexus point of styles in a city seemingly bereft of history, but thirsty for sound. The series seeks to discover its own “remarkable connections” without precepts of any source’s ancestry. Understanding Billone’s place in Los Angeles means understanding this intersection’s driving force in defining a new musical landscape. Any need or desire to unravel Billone’s territorial web of cryptic sentiments and dogmatic rationalizations is secondary to the inclusion of this music in a world outside of its own that disentangles its territorial impulse — as if the wasteLAnd-ers are, themselves, proclaiming: “this music is us, but it is not ours.”

Kurt Isaacson is a Los Angeles-based composer. His piece the way of all flesh for bassist Scott Worthington was featured on wasteLAnd’s inaugural season. For more information on his music, please visit his website or his SoundCloud.