What is a Musical Resource?

Institut für Elektronische Musik und Akustik, Kunstuniversität Graz

From “Composing with (Improvising) People: A Paramanifesto”

“Compose” is a fraught word. Despite its etymological innocence – “put together” – it too often carries the odor of its recent historical object: the Work. When expectations about the regulatory power of the Work in a given project are unclear and/or in conflict among collaborators, they can negatively affect the compositional process. As hinted above, there are other aspects and outcomes of composing that we may wish to foreground. To do so, we must more generously reflect the environments in which composition with (improvising) people takes place. Two concepts may help: resources and interventions.

Resources are anything with which we make music, the stuff with which we compose. They can be complex, like a technique or software; or simple, like a tune fragment or a piece of paper. They can be material, like an instrument or a room; or immaterial, like a movement or a mental image. They can belong to individuals or groups; they can have an outsized or incidental influence on the creative process. Everybody has resources, and they should be treated with respect and transparency. That means valuing what is always already there in a musical environment when beginning a new project. It also means avoiding extractive logics by which we presume to have unfettered access to everybody’s resources all the time.

(By “musical environment” I mean the meshwork of all individuals, groups, tools, spaces, technologies, concepts, histories, memories, expectations, and their mutual influence – known or otherwise – in which musical practice is situated.)

Interventions are a fugitive yet essential type of compositional output. Since (improvising) ensembles simultaneously inhabit and produce dynamic musical environments, composers who work with them do not “create” in a strict sense. Instead, they intervene in ongoing processes. This contingent work should be taken seriously. An intervention can take the form of a score, an exercise, a sound played, a conversation, a wink, or myriad other things. The intention to change something distinguishes interventions from resources or other types of action; what counts is what kind of impact an intervention has on which processes, not its magnitude or finality.

Resources and interventions are co-productive, both in the short term and the long term. They have the potential to generate each other in perpetuity.