Composed Instruments, Failing Circuits

This talk explores musicians’ interest in electronic technologies behaving unpredictably. Where much of the musical and academic interest in malfunction has focused on artifacts (prepared technologies of recording and playback, glitch music), embodied performance with disobedient systems brings the human-machine relationship into focus.

Composer-performers Laetitia Sonami, Pamela Z, Michel Waisvisz, Alexis Langevin-Tétrault, Jaime Oliver, and others have at different times welcomed technological disobedience, latency, and even malfunction. Their “composed instruments” – systems that simultaneously occupy the place of controller, instrument, and score – are difficult to perform with, at times technically unreliable, and always entangled with the performer’s body. Their performances challenge the idea that technology needs to be controlled, the fetishization of zero latency in digital performance, and the need for seamless, transparent performer-instrument relationships. When composed instruments behave unpredictably, human-machine interaction becomes a negotiation of agency rather than an exercise of control, deconstructing our experience of perception. These musical practices, I argue, build on indeterminacy and improvisation as mainstays of experimental aesthetics but also augur new instrument-building and professional practices alongside new musical poetics.

Lucie Vágnerová is a Core Lecturer in Music Humanities at Columbia University, where she completed a Ph.D. in Historical Musicology in 2016. Her dissertation titled “Sirens/Cyborgs” explores the work of Joan La Barbara, Laurie Anderson, Laetitia Sonami, and Pamela Z to argue that electronic music, which is often labeled disembodied, actually speaks volumes about the body. Her other research spans women’s labor in the transnational electronics industry and topics in J-pop and hip-hop. She has presented her work at a number of cross-disciplinary conferences and served on the editorial board of Current Musicology and as Assistant Editor of Women & Music. Aside from Music Humanities, she has taught courses on sound art, technology, and non-Western music.