Sounding Collectivities beyond Nature and Culture: an Introduction to the Music of David Dunn

Colin Tucker
Ethan Hayden

Starting Points

David Dunn came of age as a composer during a generative moment in musical history, and embraced that era’s possibilities with astonishing creativity. Since the early 1970s, he has built on mid-20th century experimental music in startling ways, approaching music as a way to reorient nature/culture distinctions. Through a speculative, inquiry-led process informed by biology, systems theory, semiotics, philosophy, and more, Dunn has created an extensive body of work involving a considerable variety of animal species, media, and locations.

Institutions are only recently beginning to catch up to his ambitious, unorthodox ways of making music: in fact, the present volume is the first comprehensive study of Dunn’s music as a whole. The recent shift in the composer’s profile can be understood not simply as the contingencies of his individual career, but as evidence of how broader cultural histories unfold. This line of interrogation may provide productive ways forward for cultural producers in a volatile present historical moment.

Where did Dunn’s unusual work come from? Immediate predecessors such as John Cage, Charlie Parker, Fluxus, and Group Ongaku had carried critiques of humanist aesthetics to extremes, questioning essentialized constructions of Author, Work, and Meaning. For the aforementioned artists, the urgent task was to move away from humanism, seen by then as socially exclusionary, historically obsolete, or simply creatively limiting. For later composers like Dunn, the possibility emerged that their predecessors’ disengagement of music from humanism provided an opportunity for it to better engage with a variety of “worldly” contexts, resulting in a music at once publicly engaged and radically experimental. This historical moment could be framed as a momentous shift in perspective: modernist negations of humanist aesthetics were no longer ends in themselves, but became the initial steps of a more extensive process of rebuilding music’s social and ecological support systems. Dunn notes that closing off the privatizing constructions of humanist aesthetics could open music to other, entirely different, potentials: “our most cherished uses for music and our assumptions about values of authorship, communicative intention, emotional expression and musical genius may be, in evolutionary terms, short-term aberrations…they may even be distractions from a more profound significance for music” (Dunn 2001).

Pauline Oliveros's Tuning Meditation at The Met Cloisters. Courtesy WQXR.

This line of investigation flourished in experimental music of the late 1960s and early ’70s: Pauline Oliveros synthesized experimental music strategies with queer feminism and meditation to create Deep Listening1;  Max Neuhaus relocated specialized audio technologies from the studio to the public spaces of the city and radio2; Annea Lockwood situated recording technologies as an impetus for collective discourse around intersections between geology and culture3; collectives like the AACM and Scratch Orchestra approached collective music-making as an opportunity for investigating broader questions about democratic collective organization.4 Parallel to these efforts, David Dunn explored how sound might facilitate creative interactions between humans, animals, and plants. Dunn is not per se concerned with the sounds of non-human organisms in and of themselves, but rather with how sound functions in ecosystems, and in turn, how sonic composition might open opportunities for collective creativity that might not exist otherwise. The composer writes that “the issue then is not how can one bring out latent musical qualities in nature but rather, can one generate a musical structure intrinsic to specific interaction with non-human systems?” (Dunn 1984b).

Informed by a speculative reading of science, composition for Dunn means setting in motion highly targeted, context-sensitive strategies for sonic engagement with existing ecosystems. As Madison Heying and David Kant explore in more depth in their article in this volume, the composer’s methods of engagement increased in complexity over time: networked interactions between human musicians and the sonic and physical environment of a site (PLACE, 1975); use of human-built audio technologies as stimuli for mockingbirds (Mimus Polyglottos, created with Ric Cupples, 1976), for “canines such as wolves or coyotes,” and for plants (Oracles, 1974-75); webs of connection between human-built audio technologies, human language, and the sonic environment of a place (Entrainments 2, 1984); and interchanges between human-built “self-organizing autonomous machine-based structures” and outdoor environments (Sonic Mirror, 1984–87, and Autonomous Dynamical Systems, 2003–05). These works are open invitations to the organisms (“untrained musicians”) of a particular environment to engage in creative sonic improvisation. Dunn refigures human-built audio technologies (instrument, microphone, speaker, computer, score) by moving them from the exclusionary spaces of high culture into outdoor public spaces, where they function to impel the formation of grassroots post-anthropocentric communities.

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David Dunn

In reimagining the task of composition, Dunn also radically redefines the musical Work. Whereas the high modernist work approached its context of realization as a blank slate–a problematically colonialist, anthropocentric gesture–Dunn’s works instead encounter their context of realization by acknowledging its complex existing ecologies and, in turn, creating strategies targeted to facilitate advantageous creative encounters within these particular environments. If the high modernist work acts on context as a passive, featureless void which, in proto-Trumpist terms, “the artist alone can fix,” for Dunn and like-minded contemporaries, the ideal work embraces context as an integral component of work’s identity, welcoming its inflections if not outright appropriations of sound-making techniques the piece sets in motion.

In short, the work becomes a catalyst for the formation of communities beyond nature and culture. Anticipating aspects of what is now often called social practice art, music of this nature not only accommodates creative input from diverse lifeforms, but explicitly centers the bottom-up construction of a public through open-ended creative encounters. In actively fostering relationship-building between creatures who might not otherwise be able to meaningfully interact, this music attempts to imagine community beyond normative identity inscriptions, such as modern Western constructs like the nature/culture and animal/human distinctions. Whereas the Second Viennese School’s serialism, or Helmut Lachenmann’s musique concrete instrumentale organize sounds in ways that deliberately cut across their usual tonal inscriptions, Dunn’s projects aim to organize creatures themselves in ways that cut across normative socio-ecological inscriptions, redrawing the fundamental fabrics of socio-ecological existence. This is not a liberal project of surface-level tokenistic inclusion of historically marginalized organisms, but a more radical practice of inclusion where the very categories of historical marginalization are emphasized and challenged. For radical experimental musicians of Dunn’s generation, music is a process, not a product, and it is a process designed to engage ever-more diverse collective sonic creativities.

Traces and Trajectories

In this volume, we aim to activate discourse about a long-overlooked figure of experimental music. By featuring essays by David Dunn himself together with perspectives from musicologists, curators, and performers, we hope to provide a diverse variety of avenues for exploring and building on this ambitious musician’s work. The volume’s first part includes three articles that survey Dunn’s oeuvre as a whole, while its second part includes essays and interviews about his early work PLACE, in addition to the work’s score.

The first part opens with "The Emergent Magician: Metaphors of Mind in the Works of David Dunn," a detailed survey of Dunn's creative output from his early interactive environmental works to more recent musical interventions such as The Sound of Light in Trees (2006). Written by Madison Heying and David Kant—graduate students in the music department at UC Santa Cruz where Dunn teaches—the article draws together academic writings, first-person conversations with the composer, and correspondence collected from the Kenneth Gaburo Papers archive at the University of Illinois. This survey divides Dunn's work into three periods of activity:

An early period of environmental pieces, which engage with particular outdoor sites, emphasizing music as a possible tool for interspecies communication (e.g., Nexus 1Mimus Polyglottos)

A transitional period focused on sympathetic magic and linguistic studies, attempting to merge art and science into a phenomenological discipline that allows access to a wider consciousness (e.g., SkydriftEntrainments 1 and 2)

A later period moving toward a generative music based in modeling of chaotic systems with nonlinear circuits (e.g., WildflowersRed Rocks).

Through each of these periods, the authors find a common thread in the metaphor of "mind" which for Dunn refers to biological systems’ densely interwoven fabric, from which awareness of ecological interdependences can emerge. By providing scholarship on these three periods—especially the third, on which little has been written—as well as on Dunn's peripheral, listening-based compositions (e.g., Purposeful Listening in Complex States of TimeListening to What I Cannot Hear), Heying and Kant provide a wide-ranging introduction for newcomers to Dunn's work and a comprehensive resource for those already familiar with portions of his oeuvre.

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David Dunn

Following this wide-ranging survey are two articles which trace more specific themes through Dunn's work. Ethan Hayden's "Ring Theory: Techno-alchemical Integration in the Works of David Dunn" explores the signal process of ring modulation—used to a very specific end in PLACE Part 5—as both a metaphor for and a way of understanding Dunn's use of technology in his creative work more broadly, exploring in particular the composer's aesthetic goals, approaches to space and time, and his perspective on the possibilities of renewed relationships between humans and ecology.

Concluding this part is D. Edward Davis's "Environmental Dialogues: Conversations with Nature in the Music of David Dunn," a brief meditation on processes of interchange in the composer's work. Here the author investigates the interactions that Dunn's music cultivates between humans and other species. Davis notes a trajectory in the composer's output from early works that foster collaboration between the human and non-human toward later works that envision a music where humans’ role is minimized: humans set a self-organizing sound-making system in motion, and then turn it over to the non-human organisms and processes of an outdoor site.

The volume’s second part explores in depth Dunn’s early work, PLACE, a day-long sequence of ten performative installations for voices, bodies, instruments, electronics, and environmental materials. Written in 1975, the piece’s belated world premiere performance was given in the summer of 2017 by Null Point—an experimental music initiative co-directed by the authors of this article, Colin Tucker and Ethan Hayden—at two contrasting sites in Western New York. The premiere occurred on the grounds of Silo City, a massive complex of vacant concrete grain elevators near downtown Buffalo, and was followed by a second performance at Artpark, an arts presenting organization sited in an expansive park overlooking the Niagara River gorge.

The Silo City premiere featured six performers, who realized the piece over six and a half hours, ending around sundown on a sunny day that reached a high temperature of 90°F. In this realization, PLACE’s instrumental sections—Parts 9 and 10—featured an ensemble of trombone, electric guitar, tom-tom, two violins, and cello. Audience members were welcome to come and go as they wished; their numbers increased steadily over the course of the performance, with many of them joining the performers during Part 10, utilizing everyday objects in contact with environmental materials as sound sources. Audio and video documentation of this performance is available here.

The Artpark performance featured ten performers, who realized the piece over five and a half hours—the final section ending earlier than scheduled after the onset of heavy rain. Otherwise, the performance proceeded as scheduled through the cloudy, temperate day, although intermittent light rain necessitated covering electronics with umbrellas and paper towels during Parts 5 and 6. The instrumental Parts 9 and 10 featured an ensemble of clarinet, trombone, electric guitar, three percussionists (I: bass drum, II: tam-tam and cymbal, III: bongos and field drum), two violins, viola, and cello. As with the Silo City performance, audience members were invited to come and go freely. As Artpark is a public park, a number of unsuspecting people carried on their visit to the park in close proximity to the piece, perhaps most audibly in the form of children playing on Artpark’s “Percussion Garden,” a permanent installation of percussion instruments built into the landscape. Audience participation did not occur in Part 10 due to rain. Audio and video documentation of this performance is available here.

This volume includes the score of PLACE together with examinations of the piece from the standpoint of listener, performer, curator, and composer. Each of these parties has a distinct relationship to the piece, as per John Cage’s statement that “composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third (1961, 15).” In “A Listener’s Guide to David Dunn’s PLACE,” Colin Tucker demonstrates how the piece opens phenomenological ambiguities regarding sound’s production and dissemination. Each of the piece’s ten parts explores a unique scenario: certain sections of the piece blur distinctions between live ambient sounds and their reproduction by electronics, instruments, voices, and bodies, while other parts obscure differences between the sounds of instruments and voices and their resonances with the environment. The article discusses how, by conjoining “natural” and “cultural” technologies of sound production and dissemination, PLACE creates a variety of sonic situations that disorient attempts to categorize sounds into tidy binary boxes like “nature” and “culture.”

David Dunn, PLACE, part 10, excerpt 1

Nine of the performers and curators involved in Null Point's realizations of PLACE interviewed for this project. Taking a cue from the range of creative approaches to documentation in post-studio gallery arts of the past few decades, as well as from David Dunn’s own publication of interviews with performers of his slightly later site-specific work Skydrift (Dunn 1979), we saw these interviews as an essential part of the piece’s documentation. PLACE is a drastically different entity from the standpoint of performer and listener: in certain parts of the piece (particularly the second and ninth), to listeners, there might be minimal aural suggestions that “a piece of music is happening” even while performers are highly focused upon the act of listening and (extremely quiet) sound-making. In our broader approach to documentation, we hope to cultivate strategies that make manifest the particularities of specific works, rather than shoehorning works into conventional media formats; radical works demand correspondingly radical approaches to documentation.

In her interview, "Narratives and Cycles," Megan Kyle discusses how the piece activated her awareness of extended time scales. She begins by considering her own efforts to resist the temptation to find or construct a narrative trajectory through the piece, as well as her own self-consciousness as to whether such an instinct should be resisted in the first place.  She then attends to the unexpected orientations the performance led her to experience, noting that PLACE, unfolding over the course of a full day, increases the performers' awareness of their own circadian rhythms—rhythms that are connected to related cycles occurring in the environment (the sun's rotation around the earth, the appearance/disappearance of diurnal/nocturnal species, etc.) but are often experienced in isolation from that very network. In effect, Kyle's experience of reintegration into an outdoor environment is one that is a prime motivator for Dunn's work.

Julia Cordani further emphasizes this sense of connection in "Embodying PLACE." Here, the vocalist describes the process of embedding herself into the environment in order to best find its points of resonance. For Cordani, it is not so much integration into the environment but an embodying of the space itself—much like the way one embodies a character in a dramatic performance—that provided the most generative entrance into the work. By unifying her self, her instrument, her sound, and the performance location, Cordani was able to be "aware and purposeful" in a way she feels the piece demands.

Of course, being aware and purposeful requires not just a sense of embodiment, but a distinct level of concentration. In With Meditative Attention, Leanne Darling discusses the ways in which her experiences with Zen meditation practices prepared her for PLACE—not just for the level of focus required to attend to particular environmental sounds for extended durations, but also for the physical discomfort such extended periods of focus can induce. Likewise, in Adrenaline and Concentration, percussionist Bob Fullex contrasts PLACE with high-octane percussion performances, noting that in the latter, adrenaline can prevent the performers from being fully present and aware of the sounds they are creating. He observes that PLACE's openness and duration allows a different—and more engrossing—kind of concentration.

Despite the different modes of thinking the piece invites (embodiment, meditation, presentness), one cannot escape the often laborious nature of the demands placed on the performers in PLACE. In Task vs. Performance, vocalist Jessie Downs observes that the piece often opens up a tension between task and performance, between elements that are labor-intensive and produce unpredictable sonic results (recording and playing back sound files, dragging an instrument down a hill, even investigating resonances in an outdoor space), and broader considerations that connect those task-oriented objectives into a larger, more cohesive whole (narrative, theatricality, aesthetics).

The unpredictable nature of task-oriented performance leads Sarah Hennies to observe in Wandering: Blurring Boundaries that PLACE complicates distinctions between performer and audience. Since the performers are tasked with investigating the space during the performance, they are not privileged to any information that the audience is not. Both performer and audience are able to explore the space together—explicitly in Part 10, when, in Null Point's Silo City performance, the audience was invited to join in on the performance—but implicitly throughout the whole piece, as the results of the experiments are just as surprising to performers as they are to non-performers. “Performer” and “audience member” become merely two overlapping modes of experiencing the same phenomena.

While some such boundaries may be dissolved, PLACE has a way of emphasizing other distinctions. As Ethan Hayden notes in Biological and Machine Ears, PLACE allows listeners to perceive a space from a variety of perspectives: with their own biological hearing apparatuses, but also through technological tools such as microphones and loudspeakers. While norms of audio recording often fetishize clarity and authenticity, Dunn's work seems to belie those as myths—myths whose ideal is built on and necessitates a severance from outdoor environments. Instead, PLACE reveals audio recording to be merely a different way of hearing, a way to embody a new set of ears different than our own.

This utilization of machine ears is representative of a strange rethinking of the human at work in Dunn's music. In Hedonism & Zombification, Zane Merritt observes this in stark terms: noting both the dehumanization of certain performance elements (such as the reduction of the performers' agency in Part 2—what Merritt calls "zombification") as well as the enthusiastic hedonism of Part 10. Through these very divergent approaches—reducing performers to automata and encouraging them to embrace their musical ids—as well as other aforementioned observations (foregrounded bodily rhythms, necessity of meditative attention) it is clear that PLACE's demands on performers create a wide variety of subjective experiences. Despite this variety, these experiences all seem to share an emphasis on manners of thinking, moving, and hearing that are distinct from what is required in other musical traditions, including much experimental music.

Writer and composer Jennie Gottschalk’s interview with Colin Tucker provides a varied overview of the wide range of behind-the-scenes activities leading up to performances of PLACE. Ranging from issues of performance and curatorial practice to unexpected logistical contingencies, the interview gives a multifaceted account of the process of translating a two-page text score into a day-long ensemble performance. Relating the work to broader histories of experimental music, Tucker discusses the work’s place within marginalized histories of experimental music, and explores questions of interpretation in highly indeterminate scores. The interview also turns to curatorial matters, unpacking his process of site selection, reflecting on the role of unexpected contingency in the project, and noting the challenges of undertaking a large-scale radical project of this sort.

If Tucker’s interview traces a curator’s months leading up to PLACE’s premiere, David Dunn’s article 42 Years Later offers the composer’s reflections on the decades prior to the belated premiere of his early work. The text explores the piece’s dizzyingly interdisciplinary array of inspirations, ranging from experimental music to land art, electronic music to cybernetics, systems theory to ecology, science and high culture to popular counter-culture. Dunn also shares his ambivalent retrospections about what he calls the “naive and utopian” cultural environment of the 1970s. In addition to looking to the past, the text also reflects on the present, discussing the current resurgence of interest in verbal notation among younger musicians.

Dunn the Prophet

In bringing this volume into existence, we aim not to package Dunn’s work into “authoritative” interpretations ready for consumption, but rather to activate a multiplicity of interpretations of the work, encouraging engagement—including that of a constructively critical nature—on the part of future artists and writers. In light of the upsurge of interest in the composer’s work in recent years, we see this volume relating equally to past and present: by bringing marginalized radical histories to light, we hope to help make radical futures more viable and sustainable.

Why is interest in Dunn’s (and his contemporaries’) work intensifying in 2018, particularly on the part of younger artists? Considering broader socio-ecological histories may aid in pondering this question. In the wake of intensifying economic precarities, ecological crises, and ethno-nationalisms, cracks in the post-Cold War ideological order are forming rapidly; the resulting ideological void has facilitated a variety of political and cultural re-alignments. While some of these re-alignments, such as the rise of global far-right movements, are intensely dangerous, this cultural void has also created unprecedented breathing space for progressive politics and culture alike, allowing the blossoming of ambitious, visionary projects previously thought to be extinct in light of Francis Fukuyama’s declaration that the late twentieth century decline of alternatives to neoliberal capitalism constitutes the “end of history.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, over the past decade new music has gone on to explore unprecedented possibilities, posing ambitious, challenging questions that would be been unthinkable only a few years ago. Significantly, there seems to be increasing desire to question existing institutional arrangements wherein musicians function as servile content providers to exclusionary and exploitive institutions. The recent activism on issues of inclusion, together with the emergence of numerous new artist-run music organizations and, more broadly, increased interest in institutional mechanics, all speaks to musicians’ desire for increased agency within institutions, for new roles where their labor might be directed towards producing communities rather than merely producing content tailored to institutional orders. A goal shared by many of these projects seems to be the creation of contexts where groundbreaking material and formal procedures are supported by equally radical institutional procedures. The aesthetic and political agency of the former perhaps is a direct function of the latter: a work may function as catalyst for the inclusive reformulation of community only when its institutional groundwork operates in a coordinated fashion.

Concurrent with interrogating their institutional positions, today’s musicians have also been excitedly discovering past works that had been swept under the rug for decades. This rediscovery has inevitably brought to light the dynamics of the works’ earlier marginalization, which took a variety of forms: social exclusion, including sexism, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia (Yoko Ono, Ben Patterson, Pauline Oliveros, Julius Eastman, Annea Lockwood, Mieko Shiomi, Stuart Marshall); genre exclusion, wherein work fell in the cracks between jazz and concert music (AACM, Black Artists’ Group, Asian American improvisors), or between music and installation (e.g., numerous works by Annea Lockwood, Richard Teitelbaum, Stuart Marshall, and David Dunn); and, perhaps most broadly, professional exclusion, wherein work not easily packaged into the customary presentational containers of concert, gallery installation, or album lost significant institutional traction. As the neo-conservative, professionalizing tendencies of the 1980s took hold, these ambitious proposals to reimagine the very nature of the artist, genre, and work, respectively, were seen as childishly naïve, with their long-term scope rendering them simply illegible within the era’s crassly careerist milieu. In other cases, the work’s challenge to normative institutional protocols was understood all too well, and was seen as a direct threat to exclusionary, exploitive institutional arrangements. In the present moment, as challenges to institutional business-as-usual mount, these earlier works are belatedly entering wider legibility, and indeed the attributes that contributed to their prior marginalization seem to be the precise features of interest to younger musicians.

The earlier works’ emphasis upon inclusive community building seems particularly relevant to the present, aesthetically as well as politically. As this essay’s first part explored, a range of radical experimental musics of the late 1960s and early 1970s prioritized fostering collective creativity across social differences, turning their backs on humanist aesthetic constructs like the Masterpiece to instead engage a broad public in open-ended sonic experimentation. What might this music offer in 2018? In order to avoid simplistic notions of causality endemic in discussions of music’s politics, it is worth stepping back momentarily to build a sufficiently nuanced model of interchange between these semi-autonomous realms of activity. The writings of James Currie on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra—a “workshop for Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians” founded by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim—may provide a model for how music’s capacity for facilitating interchange across social differences might be particularly pertinent when political institutions are in crisis.

Currie explores how the Orchestra’s intense technical discipline enables the orchestra’s members (both Arab and Israeli) to enter into beneficial modes of relationship with each other in a way that might not be possible in an explicitly political context. When, following the collapse of the peace process, “there was nowhere left for Israelis and Palestinians to go…a state of deadlock,” “[entering] into a movement for movement’s sake” provides respite from a metaphorical road rage, wherein “the intensity of the rage is inversionally proportional to the degree to which there is in fact nowhere significant to go” (154). Currie describes the orchestra’s intense discipline as a process of “forgetting,” where “we get caught up by means of excitations into something else, the mass and force of which, by means of a kind of physics of human attention, pushes our previous forms of inscription toward certain peripheries from which they can no longer so easily fully constitute our being as normally they do (149).” In music-making, the realm of epistȇmȇ, the world of knowledge and truth, i.e. racial or national identity, becomes displaced by that of technȇ, “participation in the activity and craft of forms of doing and making that are not, by necessity, instigated by either a priori metaphysical truths or a posteriori questions of ethics and politics (162).” In other words, this is not a liberal project of “getting to know the other,” but rather, a situation where collective intensities of concentration suspend the realm of knowledge as such, with its enculturated antagonisms and exclusions.

Currie situates the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra not as a “quick fix” for the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but as a way to stave off the looming death spiral of escalating rage: not enacting Utopia but creating productive distance from the incapacitating shadow of increasingly dystopian futures. His text articulates a nuanced politics of art: art does political work as “grace” (149), and does so most successfully when overtly political matters are kept outside of music making. Noting the negative effects upon group dynamics of conductor Daniel Barenboim’s overt mentioning of political concerns at Orchestra concerts, Currie ponders that “maybe music is able to do something not because it is political per se, but precisely because it is not (174).”

If the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra appropriates performance practices of historical Western art music, refiguring them towards a project of forgetting, how might radical experimental musics of the 1960s and 70s relate to this project? Experimental musics resonate almost uncannily with the project of forgetting, and this work’s potential here has perhaps hardly been articulated to date. By emphasizing the materiality of collective listening and soundmaking, and often embracing organisms of diverse backgrounds as participants, this work at once prioritizes technȇ and makes it available to a wide range of creatures. Moreover, by accommodating participants’ particularities5, enabling their irreducible differences to enter into non-hierarchical, dynamic relationships, this music might be leveraged towards the creation of collectivities wherein normative social inscriptions might be suspended. In other words, for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, forgetting occurs only against the grain of the patriarchal, classist, colonialist discourses central to much historical Western art music, as well as the extensive training ostensibly required to perform—or even listen to—this music; what might be possible if a musical practice were expressly designed to facilitate processes of forgetting?

Within the present moment’s historically unprecedented political, economic, and ecological instabilities, forgetting might figure as a fruitful moment within broader processes of coalition building. By temporarily suspending the rage that otherwise endemically afflicts subjects of late neoliberal capitalism and in turn facilitating interactions across socio-ecological boundaries, forgetting may prove a pivotal avenue for collective activity when other avenues are blocked.

Numerous writers have emphasized the importance of grassroots affiliations across boundaries of race, class, nation, and more in addressing present day antagonisms like Islamophobia (Goodfriend 2017), immigration injustice (Bouattia 2017), and climate change (Klein 2015). Zones of forgetting like music may, by suspending the metaphorical road rages of late modernity, open up possibilities for collective interchange across socio-ecological differences and in turn make space for solidarities that otherwise would not be imaginable. While the ultimate efficacy of these kinds of diverse coalitions will likely depend upon the more properly political task of grassroots organizing, music’s interventions may make these alliances more imaginable in the first place. The inclusive public engagement characteristic of much radical experimental music ca. 1960-1985 may have significant unexplored potential here.

The writings of philosopher Donna Haraway discuss the possibility of a comparable process of creating solidarities between both human and non-human organisms. She proposes that humans “make kin, not babies!,” redirecting some energies otherwise devoted to reproduction toward entering into multi-species grassroots affiliations with animals and plants (Haraway 2016). These coalitions are fundamentally a long-term endeavor, wherein humans adopt particular animal and plant species for multiple generations, becoming not only deeply accountable for helping the organisms in question struggle for survival, but also entwining their lives with said creatures to effectively enter into quasi-familial relations with it.

David Dunn’s frameworks for multispecies sonic interchange might function as one moment of the longer-term process Haraway outlines. In fact, even while “making kin” might seem like a distant pipe dream, artists like Dunn have been refining concrete techniques to facilitate multispecies collective soundmaking activity for decades. For instance, the 1976 work Mimus Polyglottos (created collaboratively with Ric Cupples) centered on a months-long process of relationship-building between human composers and multiple Northern Mockingbirds, during which members of both species learned how to interact constructively with each other in sound.

SA19 David Dunn 3
David Dunn

Music, with its emphasis upon immersive intensities of collective concentration, may play a uniquely efficacious role in a multispecies project of forgetting. Dunn writes that music may carry special potential here into engaging post-anthropocentric collective activity:

I choose to utilize music as the archetype for [a complex system of self-referential consciousness]6 since it may operate on levels of the mental structure which are more integrated with the communication behavior of other life forms. It seems more than mere coincidence that many aspects of music as a neurophysiological activity can be located in a region of the brain whose general morphology is shared by other mammals (Dunn 1984a).

In thinking about music this way, the composer engages with well-known thematics of mid-20th century artistic modernism, such as Theodor Adorno’s Materialstand and Clement Greenberg’s emphasis on the materiality of medium7, but brings them into closer dialogue with science, refiguring music as a way beyond the nature/culture binary. A paradoxical, striking gesture occurs here: in engaging with organisms and disciplines far outside its usual purview, music becomes more radically itself, and more in touch with its intrinsic progressive potentials, both aesthetic and political.

While making kin across species may be a distant possibility politically, it is already plausible both scientifically and musically. If neuro-physiology provides an incipient scientific framework for this project8, elementary music analysis offers a musical context for it. Jennie Gottschalk writes of the commercially available audio document of Mimus Polyglottos that “the bird deftly interacts with various aspects of the [electronically generated stimulus] recording, including pitch, rhythm, and timbre, but never settles either on a single aspect or on direct imitation. A great musical mind is at work, full of facility and flexibility and creativity (167).” Concrete techniques for making kin across species already exist; the pressing question at present is how to leverage existing musical and scientific knowledge to spur grassroots political imaginations.

How might multispecies forgetting (i.e., experimental music) contribute to the formation of grassroots multispecies coalitions? There are significant open questions about what it might mean to implement such a project. How might music and politics enter into a beneficial relationship, one that is both close and autonomous? How might political considerations meaningfully inform musical decisions without short-circuiting the unpredictable, circuitous, long-term nature of creativity? What kind of institutional arrangements might facilitate fruitful dialogue between music and political organizing? Between music and science? Even more daunting questions remain regarding how to negotiate the nature/culture binary in practice. Fraught issues of privilege and positionality that often emerge in social justice alliances between humans of different classes, genders, or races would likely be massively amplified within coalitions between species distinct in their ecological niches, behavior, sensorium, and communicative modalities; what strategies would assist in egalitarian, collaborative navigation of these dilemmas?

The project set in motion by Dunn and Haraway is an extraordinarily ambitious one: in its multi-generational time frame, as well as its challenge to the deeply entrenched nature/culture boundary. The project’s potential political effects might be correspondingly consequential—at least providing an important way to create distance from the vortex of rage engulfing late modern subjects, and at best playing a catalyzing role in the formation of strategic coalitions able to address present-day social, political, and ecological antagonisms. The make-or-break challenge is how to sustain a project on this scale in the midst of institutional marginalization. Such exclusion appears likely because the task seems—from the outside—to be humble, slow-moving, and seemingly aloof to norms of professionalism. Moreover, increasing economic precarity will make it doubly difficult for musicians to engage in long-term, institutionally-unsupported projects. Together, these circumstances suggest a strong need for musicians to think in qualitatively new terms, and to do so collectively: to develop sustainable independent institutional platforms, to organize for leverage within large-scale arts institutions, and to join broader workers’ movements in pressing for comprehensive policy responses to neoliberal economic instabilities (such as a universal basic income or comparable policies).

Despite these difficulties, musicians from a variety of backgrounds seem to sense the importance of advancing avenues of inquiry initiated by Dunn and his contemporaries. This feeling has likely intensified over the past decade, as neoliberal political arrangements have disintegrated further and, in turn, artistic senses of possibility have opened up. From this standpoint, we might productively understand Dunn’s work as a kind of prophecy: not strictly legible on its own terms, its illegibility is met with, on one hand, cursory dismissal, and, on the other, reflective head-scratching about the present moment’s impasses. In reconfiguring foundational binaries like music/noise, text/context, art/science, human/animal, and nature/culture, Dunn’s music tears off the façades of present-day cultural norms, making manifest the not entirely comfortable possibility of radically different futures. Now begins the daunting task of following up on these radical prophecies, aiding their legibility while improving their sustainability and inclusivity.


The completion of a large-scale publication of this nature depends upon the dedicated efforts of a multiplicity of contributors. We would especially like to thank David Dunn himself for supporting our efforts in a variety of ways by answering our numerous questions, giving permissions to reproduce scores and images, and—above all—contributing a new text specifically for this volume. Enormous gratitude is also due to Nate Wooley, Sound American’s editor, for his guidance, insight, and pragmatism throughout the publication process. We also greatly appreciate the efforts of featured authors and interviewees, whose enthusiasm contributed greatly to the vibrancy of this publication’s discursive ecosystem, and of individuals who offered editorial insight behind the scenes: Nomi Epstein, Brittany Hayden, Megan Kyle, Lena Nietfeld, Stephen Rush, and Gayle Young. Much of the audio/video and photographic documentation in this issue was created with assistance from Tanis Winslow, Megan Metté, Evan Courtin, and Jesse Miller. Last but certainly not least, we would like to thank Sonia Clark, executive director of Artpark, without whose rare combination of artistic vision and institutional acumen Dunn’s PLACE might have never been performed.

1See, for instance, Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations and a relevant issue of this publication.

2Refer, for example, to Neuhaus’s listening walks in public space, chronicled in his text Listen, or to his crowd-sourced transmission work (audio of which is available here).

3For instance, Lockwood’s River Archive project, for which the composer collected recordings of rivers, streams, and springs, and together with her colleagues recorded interviews with nearby residents, from which installations could be assembled.

4On the AACM, see AACM member George Lewis’s extended account of the Association’s history, as well as the issue of this publication on AACM member Anthony Braxton; on the Scratch Orchestra, listen to the group’s recordings and have a look at these web pages.

5Writers like Benjamin Piekut (2011) and Douglas Kahn (1999) note how Cage’s work often lapses into older composer/performer and composer/listener hierarchies, respectively, despite the composer’s rhetoric to the contrary. Adam Tinkle (2015a, 2015b) examines how later experimental music, such as that of Pauline Oliveros and George Brecht, not only better embraces idiosyncrasies of performer and listener but often collapses distinctions between composer, performer, and listener, eliminating the privileged positions held historically by composer and performer.

6(Our footnote). Dunn’s claims about music’s self-referentiality are probably not meant in the undialectical sense in which many post-Hanslickian theories of music use the term. Elsewhere, the composer wrote, “music is the same as mind, a distributed ecology of communal signification where meaning arises from the conditions of mutual conspiracy” (Dunn 2001), implying that this usage is more of a shorthand for asserting that musical signification is an open, dynamic, collective endeavor.

7Greenberg famously wrote that “the unique and proper area of competence of each art coincided with all that was unique to the nature of its medium” (194). Space here is not sufficient to adequately unpack the ideas of either thinker, particularly the more dialectical Adorno. Of significance in the present argument, both thinkers explore the premise that an artwork is not an autonomous statement conjured from a void, but is rather a fraught interaction between creator and material. The latter is always already overdetermined with volitions inherent in physical medium (Greenberg) and society (Adorno). As in a rushing river, material’s currents cannot be controlled, but must be harnessed in indirect ways. Both thinkers thus frame the artist not as an originator of content, but as a mediator of existing content (on this point, see Adorno, 31–34). Significantly, however, if Greenberg and Adorno both see a defensive, exclusionary retreat into high cultural spaces as the only way for art to have the opportunity to engage with artistic materiality, Dunn views research into the ecological-historical determinants of music’s materiality as a standpoint from which to critique human exceptionalism, opening possibilities of a public, multispecies, collectively-authored sonic experimentalism that moves beyond high/low culture binaries to suspend culture/nature distinctions altogether.

8Dunn reflects on this issue in a more extended fashion in Dunn 1983.

Works cited

Adorno, Theodor, translated by Hullot-Kentor, Robert. Philosophy of New Music. University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

Bouattia, Malia. “The power of networks: Resistance to international Islamophobia must also be global.” The New Arab, August 22, 2017, Accessed March 13, 2018.

Cage, John. “Experimental Music: Doctrine,” in Silence. Wesleyan University Press, 1961.

Currie, James. Music and the Politics of Negation. Indiana University Press, 2012.

Dunn, David. “SPECULATIONS: on the evolutionary continuity of music and animal communication behavior.” 1983. Accessed March 6, 2018.

---.  "Mappings and Entrainments." 1984a. Accessed March 6, 2018.

---.  “Music, Language, and Environment.” 1984b. Accessed March 6, 2018.

---.  “Sante Fe Institute Public Lecture, August 15, 2001.” 2001. Accessed March 6, 2018.

---. Skydrift. Lingua Press, 1979.

Hilary Goodfriend, “A Demand for Sanctuary.” Jacobin, January 17, 2017, Accessed March 13, 2018.

Gottschalk, Jennie. Experimental Music since 1970. Bloomsbury, 2016.

Greenberg, Clement. “Modernist Painting.” Art & Literature, no. 4, Spring 1965, pp. 193-201.

Haraway, Donna. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.”  Environmental Humanities, Vol. 6, 2015, 159-165.

---.  Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene.  Duke University Press, 2016.

Kahn, Douglas. Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts. MIT Press, 1999.

Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Piekut, Benjamin. Experimentalism Otherwise: The New York Avant-Garde and Its Limits. University of California Press, 2011.

Tinkle, Adam. “Sound Pedagogy: Teaching Listening since Cage.” Organised Sound, vol. 20, no. 2, August 2015, pp. 222-230.

Tinkle, Adam. “The Expanding Universal: Participation and Pedagogy in Experimental Music.” 2015. Accessed March 26, 2018.

West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. “[Untitled website].” ND. Accessed March 26, 2018.

Sounding Collectivities beyond Nature and Culture: an Introduction to the Music of David Dunn