Programme Essay for the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2016, commissioned by Radio SWR2

Music as a Public Art

The title of this short essay is inspired by Joanna Bailie’s work Music in Public Places to be premiered at the Donaueschinger Musiktage 2016. The title of Bailie’s piece brings into view the curatorial emphasis of the festival on location and community, and addresses the organiser’s clear aim to bring music out of the concert hall and into the public sphere: into libraries, sports halls, churches and the open spaces of the park. From this initial starting point and in response to the festival’s explicit curatorial concern, my writing aims to reflect on the nature of music’s ‘public’. However, rather than focusing on architectural and geographical places or placings, it tries to make room for a different understanding of publicness as a less visible socio-political dimension practised and framed through music and our listening together.

I aim to reflect on this other publicness, the publicness that the works in the programme demand rather than the context provides, and that creates from the visible composition of works as music the invisible sphere of listening together. Thus my engagement with the event and its particular artists is not focused on the actual publicness of the locations, their civico-architectural domain, but on the possible publicness that the works invite us into, and that our listening as a shared activity responds to and engenders.  Removed from the conventional infrastructure of music, its architectural institutions, and by extension removed from the infrastructure of recognition and canonisation that history provides us with, listening can activate as a radical historicity: as a present possibility of music rather than a more permanent actuality of historical reference and valuation.

Furthermore, as I contemplate the programme of music not yet played - all of the compositions in the festival are new works, which at this point of writing remain inaudible - not only do I not hear music as a historical actuality, but even the possibility of its present historicity is re-imagined from a future tense. And in this leap forward I create a ‘science fiction’ that avoids the disappearance of the works’ sounds into the historical structure and reference of music, and instead produces from the future a present music not bound to expectations formed in the past but generating presently the possibility of what does not yet exist.

This future-listening-imagination is inspired by Kodwo Eshun’s prognosis that ‘the future is a much better guide to the present than the past. Be prepared, be ready to trade everything you know about the history of music for a single glimpse of its future.’ (Eshun 1998, 00[-001]). In relation to the works commissioned and composed for the festival, it is a necessity to imagine them from the future rather than as a past composition or a present play, and at the same time this necessity undoes another, that of history, ‘the flood of the languages in which they once stood erect’ (Adorno 2005, 221). And so the absence of a present propels me into a future that frees me from history to hear from an unknown position what the sound, the rhythms and the material of the works might create in their own languages.

To listen from the future ruptures chronology and canon, and allows me to hear from inaudible sounds a music that makes sensible what remains invisible within the actuality of a presently visible music: its institution, discipline, the score, discourse, location and community. Trying to hear the commissioned composers’ works in their own languages, I manoeuvre between the visible, what I do know, and the invisible, what is as yet unknown, where works appear that connect the actual with its possibility and set the tone for a present audition through the glimpse of its future.

I have not heard Bailie’s particular work for four instrumentalists, choir and electronics, to be premiered in the Christus-Kirche. But its title, read in conjunction with other works by her that I listen to through the unknowing of the future, opens a space for the imagination and articulation of music as a practice that does not depend for its publicness on location, the place of our shared encounter, or on its identification within the discipline, but engages time, the invisible and mobile dimension of its material and of our listening, to create a public moment. This moment is, however, not a metric or a linear time, but a diffuse and practised time that creates the timespace of the work as the shared dimension of our listening: as the body of the work generated in the simultaneity of listening bodies. 

A glimpse of this time appears in the rhythm of many of the featured composers’ existing works, which hold us not to a beat but create a prolonged pulse and drawn-out movements that do not measure so much as create the time of my listening. Heard from the unknown place of music’s future, where rhythm does not merge with metre, but with a sense of being in time as the possibility of its plural breath, these rhythms do not confirm an old beat but expand into immeasurable gestures. And from this future, the present works develop strokes and expanded breaths that form not a beat but a surface of modulations which count their pulse not on the body of music but on the body of its performance and on the body of the listeners. One could, with Morton Feldman, understand that ‘a music that has a surface constructs with time. A music that does not have a surface submits to time and becomes a rhythmic progression’ (Brian O’Doherty in Feldman 2000, 85) and come to agree that on this surface the work appears as sound, while as music it disappears into the construction of history.

Listened to from an unkown future rather than through the logic of the past, the time of pulsing modulations does not lack a metre, the work is not arhythmic, its rhythm is not a bad count but a breath that compels us to hear through music each other’s non-metric beats and negotiate a shared time, not of chronology, of beginning, middle and end, but of being together in the volume of the work. This volume is not a measure of decibels but the space of the work’s temporal expansion. It is the contingent capacity of a musical architecture that has no rhythmic progression and instead makes audible its expanse; and it produces a music that is public not in its placing or its reference, but in its incommensurable beat that is the spatiality of the work in its shared audition heard from the future.

Music as an institution, as a historical practice, offers a publicness that is consensual, that is tied to pre-existing ideas on meaning, value and reference, even in its refusal, and that can only confirm its lineage even in its very denial of it. The notion of the public, however, read not as a function of the state or the discipline of music, and not in opposition to the private, but as a shared contingency, can allow us to hear another music: one that comes from the future and is achronological, or rather postchronological, in that it does not deny chronology but acknowledges the possibility of multiple timelines and inverse directions, and communicates as an order of events that is not unavoidably progressing but moves sideways, backwards, upwards and down as well as forwards: spreading influence without obeying the rule of historical and geographical necessity.

Such a ‘public’ of music enables not order and recognition, but a practice of ever-provisional negotiations on how things sound and how they sound together. Sound’s organisation is not unidirectional but ambiguous and diffuse: it produces a fluid time-space environment and beckons us in to hear in its unreliable formlessness and postrhythmic shape a musical language of its own. Thus it does not offer an absolute but demands participation, which disrupts the appearance of consensus and makes us see the rationale and objective of totality while challenging its tolerance.

Rhythm is one measure of the public consensus on music. It presents music’s totality and offers an access into the time of the work as a chronological and regulated time in which the piece becomes one piece and we become one audience. Heidegger’s Dasein as the being of music and sound takes its possibility from time, but listening from the future rather than through the logic of the past, this temporality does not have to have a metred rhythm, a chronometric time, but can come from and engender the place of bodies listening together, even if they do not hear the same duration. This spatial volume is not homogeneous but diffuse, and it is shared through negotiation rather than by a priori agreement and a common beat.

We may sit or lie next to each other as we listen to the works in the festival, and our sounds merge with those of the compositions played, but we will not form one beat to submit to and march together. Instead, hearing the rhythm of your breath as a syncopation to mine reminds me of my solitary surface against yours, and how the social space is constructed with the invisible breath we draw from the extended gestures of a composition. Our togetherness is thus not bound to the place of a piece as a finished and finishable work, but is created with the time of our listening to it, which is potentially inexhaustible.

In this sense, the postrhythmic expanse of Bailie’s titled but unheard work does not determine a purpose or identity, but a dimension that we breathe in and out together as a social sphere that is contingent, mobile and without boundaries. This diffuse metre is not the rhythm of national belonging, an anthem of identity, inclusion and exclusion, but a more contingent breathing pulse that calls for a solidarity found on music’s invisible surface rather than in its visible territory and language.

Heard from the future, there is no objective totality. I cannot hear a finished work, but sense an engagement with its possibilities and even its impossibilities: that which might remain inaudible even once the piece is played. Similarly, in my imagination of the works by Patricia Alessandrini, Rebecca Saunders, and Jan W. Morthenson, for example, compositions appear from a future that does not reduce or control time, but opens it up to create an access to a temporality of bodies and sounds. This time is plural and postchronological in relation to discipline and history, and likewise, my listening is not determined by a certain temporality and purpose either but creates the possibility of the circumstance of my hearing, which does not meet yours in the same beat but as an impulse of our shared humanity.

The solidarity and togetherness that is imagined in this postrhythmic capacity of music is relevant particularly in relation to a current political situation where land, place, and territories are less and less the markers of belonging, where rhythms of language and communality are pluralised, and where welfare, the idea of the nation-state as a social state, is eroded by a movement of goods and people whose values and rights still depend on land, but whose livelihoods and survival depend on movement.

The appearance of a spatial volume in the work of these contemporary artists who are producing as yet unheard compositions for the Donaueschingen Festival makes thinkable and audible the dimensions of a public that is plural, temporal and without boundaries. The composition of expanded gestures without a certain beat and a clear musical structure gives a sound and articulation to how we can live in a space without topography, without borders and without a shared language, while not dividing us into those who belong and those who do not. Breathing together, hearing each other’s pulse in the expanded metre of future musical works, creates a public that articulates a different communality, one that does not eschew difference but does not measure it.

Music as a public art is thus an actuality formed from its formless future possibility. It is at once totally and visibly here, as a discipline, recognised within the structure of its articulation, and heard in the invisible sphere of the social whose blind mobility we share: the breath, the surface and the inarticulation, and rather than being ‘caught in a structure of the visible where everything is on show and where thus there is no longer a place for the appearance’ (Rancière 1999, 103), it makes apparent the incommensurable, the conflict, the visceral interaction of a public in the invisible expansion of a postrhythmic pulse. What we share in this post-rhythm, as in Rancière’s community, ‘is not the realization of a common essence or the essence of the common’; it is not the essence of music as the essence of a common music, its transcendental being and consensus, but ‘it is the sharing of what is not given as being in-common: between the visible and the invisible’ (ibid., 138), and it is this ‘not-givenness’ of a future music that engenders the public as a contingent solidarity, and constructs its dimension from the time of its plural pulse rather than the measure of its place.


Adorno, T.W. (2005) Minima Moralia, Reflections on a Damaged Life, London: Verso.

Eshun, K. (1998) More Brilliant than the Sun: Adventures in Sonic Fiction, London: Quartet Books.

Feldman, M. (2000) Give my Regards to Eighth Street, Collected writings of Morton Feldman, Cambridge: Exact Change.

Rancière, J. (1999) Disagreement, London, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.