Dan Brophy


Failure:  Towards a New Expression of Shared Ownership

In 1863, The Parisian Salon des Refusés presented an exhibition of works that the academics of the time felt “challenged the criteria and authority of the Academy of Fine Arts.”[1] The Salon featured ‘failed’ works such as Édouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, and James Whistler’s Symphony in White no. 1:  The White Girl who since then have become important works.[2] This alternate exhibition not only presented the failings of the artists’ ability to live up to the criteria of the Academy, but in contradictory form, became a validation of their progression beyond the accepted criteria of the time, moving towards a new aesthetic.

From this example we can begin to see how growth and renewal is born from failure, how it raises important questions about what is deemed acceptable, and opens new avenues for ideas that do not need the validation of authority. Through wallowing in failure and working with incomprehension, malfunction and messiness, artists are able to develop a core of techniques that inform a new aesthetic and push art past invisible boundaries of acceptability. In this paper I have chosen to explore several of these techniques that reflect failure, being: risk and experimentation, focusing on error, and sampling or secondary sound sources as compositional materials. With these in mind, I will investigate the music of Brian Ferneyhough, Otomo Yoshihide, Christian Marclay, and Nicholas Collins, and how failure as an aesthetic does not simply strive to remove the ego and eradicate expression, but looks to create a new artistic expression of shared ownership and constructs a new paradigm and aesthetic of contemporary art music.

The literature that focuses on failure is varied in its approach, but the theme of negating what is deemed acceptable to an authority is a consistent undercurrent running through each of them. In Paul Hegarty’s Noise/a History, the term failure is used as an alternate form of noise, where it becomes a disruption in the message, carrying new information that enables growth. He outlines several methods that allow an artist to utilize failure including the improper use of instruments, focusing on error, and sampling or ‘cut-up’[3] technique. In Kim Cascone’s article, The Aesthetics of Failure:  ‘Post Digital’ tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music, like Hegarty, he focuses on highlighting error and background sounds as an important source of material, but also speaks in length about the use of tools as a means of creation, replacing the medium. A differentiation between the two is that Cascone focuses mainly on computer music and the style known as ‘glitch,’[4], where as Hegarty seeks to be inclusive of all mediums such as vinyl, magnetic tape, CDs, etc. Failure, a book on contemporary art by Lisa Le Feuvre, and A Sprawling Mess:  The Poetics of Musica Residua by composer Eldritch Priest, deal with many of the same issues as Hegarty and Cascone, but in addition, write in length about the benefits of experimentation, negating the need for a finalized product, and allowing in its place an art work that can never be perfect or fixed. The common link I have found between the four writings is how techniques embedded in the aesthetic of failure can become generative material that pushes the boundaries of the accepted style of an artist’s time, in this instance being defined by the extreme expressivity and subjectivity that encompassed art in the early 20th century known as Expressionism.[5]

The removal of the ego in Western art music is most easily exemplified in the works of American composer John Cage. Cage, who became greatly influential on the Neo Dada and Fluxus movements and still resounds heavily today in contemporary art,[6] was strongly influenced by South Asian philosophies of art. In particular, he was taken by Ananda Coomaraswarmy’s The Transformation of Nature in Art,[7] in which ‘impersonality’ is referred to as “the proper manner in which one is to execute tasks artistically.”[8] This impersonality is to be taken as a removal of the artist’s expression in the act of creating art, in this view “the appearance of the artist’s person in any work is intrusive; at worst; it is a glaring indication of defective workmanship.”[9] Through the removal of the artist as genius or authority figure, there is a transfer of power in which “the artist is not a special kind of man, but every man is a special kind of artist.”[10] Through the removal of the artist as the romantic genius and sole creator of all things artistic, authorship and expressivity not only become questioned, they are opened up to allow newer and more relevant searching questions such as:  Is it possible to eradicate expression? Does the responsibility of expression and ownership become shared with the tools/performers/mediums that are used to realize the work? The first tool that I will investigate is the use of experimentation and risk.

When working within the aesthetic of failure, the experiment is a useful tool for opening doors and “becomes intrinsic to creating open systems and raising searching questions:  without the doubt that failure invites, any situation becomes closed and in danger of becoming dogmatic.”[11] In Brian Ferneyough’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram, the notation of the score is designed to be purposely open through its impossibilities, forcing the performer to utilize what James Bunch calls ‘meaningful inexactitude.’

Meaningful inexactitude, in this sense, is the rediscovery of the learning process in that the “tactics provide the performer with a broad and deep field of practical decision-making, in the sphere of realization/interpretation. They encourage fidelity to the work [rather] than its literal reproduction.”[12] Ferneyhough’s instructions for Lemma-Icon-Epigram reinforce the idea of meaningful inexactitude in that it asks the performer, in a step-by-step process, to learn, unlearn and re-evaluate both the notation and practice routines:

 1) An overview of the (deliberately relatively direct gestural patterning without regard to exactitude of detail in respect to rhythm); 2) a de-learning in which the global structures are abandoned in favored of a concentration upon the rhythmic and expressive import of each individual note; 3) the progressive reconstruction of the various gestural units established at the onset on the basis of experience gained during the above two stages of preparation.[13]

These three stages of learning invite the performer to share in both the ownership and expressivity with the composer. A good example of this is the overtly complicated time signatures imposed on the performer. As the work progresses, unconventional time signatures are used such as 2/10, 3/12, in which the performer is expected to subdivide a breve into a fraction. For example “2/10 signifies two beats to a bar, each equal to one-tenth of a breve.”[14] This near impossibility of execution, or meaningful inexactitude, coupled with the rejection of rubato put forward in the performer’s notes,[15] puts extra pressure on the performer to inject more of their authority than is usually expected. The composer is forced to share ownership with the performer, making the music a shared expressivity, with results dependent upon chance, an experiment for both the composer and the performer.

Composers who utilize risk and chance engage in “the poetics of this way of making music [which] is a study of tactile mobility, of making due and accepting ‘the chance offerings of the moment,’ offerings that include the chance of risk and failure.”[16] The outcome of each performance varies in its predictability, remaining unfixed and plastic while undermining the authority of the score as a fixed object. For Ferneyhough, failure is utilized as a means to disrupt the message and purposely create differentiation of interpretation between composer and performer, one performer and another, and between separate performances of a single performer. This use of failure through experimentation exposes inconsistencies between the ‘unreal’ fixed score and the ‘real’ performance. In the next section, I will discuss how Otomo Yoshihide and Christian Marclay highlight error through the disruption of an instrument’s and medium’s functionality, resulting in new paradigm of contemporary art.

Otomo Yoshihide, guitar player and turntablist, brings uniqueness to his sound through the extension and improper use of his instruments and mediums. He is known in many circles as the ‘Godfather of House Music’ in Japan, and for collaborating with many prevalent artists in the Off-Site music of Japan.[17] Commonly seen in ‘off-site’ concerts of music in Japan are performances “on prepared turntable[s], objects such as clips or bent-up cards, …often attached to the needle as well as placed directly on the empty turntable as it spun.”[18]  By augmenting the instrument with outside objects, the machine or medium is forced to fail in its intended use. The failure, in turn, creates a new instrument without the possibility of a perfect technique, but where the exposition of its flaws has the ability to create new sonic possibilities in real-time. In a performance on February 28th, 2002, Otomo played a 20-minute work using turntables without records, (and most likely with overdriven or distortion added)[19] to create a wall of feedback and harsh sounds with no melodic, harmonic or rhythmic elements. The flaws showcased in this work were the extreme volumes and lack of intended medium (the record) being utilized. The ensuing sound is an aggressive malfunction of machinery, medium, and function being transmitted to the listener. The ownership of sound materials then becomes deferred to the failing of the instrument, and the choice to discover and present these findings instead of creating them from scratch is the artist’s expression.

In Christian Marclay’s Record Without a Cover (1985), error is brought to the forefront through designed chance.  The record, which is a recording of a performance of Marclay, is sold without a cover, allowing the damage that is incurred through the shipping and storing process to become the center of attention. In this sense, the errors that are naturally a part of the frailty of vinyl “end up revealing disruptions, cuts and interferences that are always already present in the ‘proper’ functioning of those media.”[20] The exposition of the vinyl’s error in this case, allows us to shift our focus to normally unwanted sounds, giving artists and listeners alike the opportunity to enjoy the “data hidden in our perceptual ‘blindspot’,”[21] and to further explore the unknown.

In both of the examples of Yoshihide and Marclay, the goal of eradicating expression is provided through permitting the inherent failed qualities of the medium and machinery to shine, but the composer’s expressivity or authority in the work is not completely removed, it is merely transformed. The choice to augment the instrument, to force damage onto the medium, is still in the hands of the artist. These choices directly affect the outcome of the sound and how it will be perceived which are to a certain degree predictable and controllable.

As we saw in Record without a Cover, Marclay’s choice of using vinyl is not arbitrary; in fact, many of his projects center themselves around this medium. The mediums of vinyl and magnetic tape are attractive not only for their inherent frailty, but also in their ability to carry history. In turntablism, “these media contain completed music, and act as a type of storage that fixes performances, making the recording a reference point.”[22] The expression of the artist is not within the original sounds themselves, but in the choosing and organizing of said media, which becomes a new ‘score’ of sorts.

In Marclay’s Recycled Records, both visual and audio attributes become important to the project. Marclay takes records of various artists, cuts them into interesting visual pieces, and glues them back together in a jig-saw puzzle type manner, which creates visually, and when played, sonically stunning results. The original material is brought to the forefront, carrying with it its own history and narrative. Through these choices, the form of the work is created and “[f]orm is sought through destruction of the previously inscribed form, but…, it matters what the sound source is, so destruction is not complete.”[23] The narrative of the old form is altered, while being juxtaposed with the other splices of records, creates new contexts and relational histories to draw upon. Expressivity is not eradicated here, it is presented in a fragmentation and failure of narrative, altered, but still carrying new information.

While the cutting, re-arranging and pasting of records alters the narrative of the material, the creator is still somewhat in control of the linear playing out of these records. In the electronic instruments of Nicholas Collins, the process of choosing sonic materials and constructing instruments from them is the end of the creative process. After completing the instruments, they are thrown into the world, a relinquishing of control, where, like that of turntabilism, the original source still matters, but finds new growth in the performance and presentation of these sounds. Collins, in this instance, chooses to eradicate his own voice, negating any authority over the originating sounds, calling to mind the “Cagean edict that ‘any sound can be a music sound’.”[24] This then becomes a creative solution for the artist who feels that they “have no great instinct for originating sounds” and “prefer[s] recycling existing ones.”[25]

Collin’s electronic instruments for improvised performances are “difficult to control precisely – the sounds the audience heard were more the byproduct of the performer getting to know an instrument, rather than articulating a predefined result.”[26]  Failure in this sense is reflected in the difficulty of control of the instruments, sharing expression with the performer who is learning the limitations of the instrument in real time. Collin’s electronics for installations are often greatly affected by their environment, as in Pea Soup, where an acoustic feedback circuit is created that is affected by not only the shape of the room, but the bodily movements of the performer within the room.[27] The goal of eradicating expression and the deferral of authority over the original sound sources becomes in this case the expression of the artist. The materials, the mode of interaction, the degree of predictability, have all been pre-determined by the artist. The outcome will vary with each presentation, but only within degrees that are designed by the artist.

The goal of eradicating expression is present in all the above-discussed techniques, but the complete loss of expression and ownership of the end result can never be fully achieved. The artist creates the opportunity for experimentation, risk, and error, through limitations and augmentations.  The decision to create music that is impossible to replicate, to play turntables without a record, to purposely inflict damage on a medium, to create instruments with pre-fabricated sounds; is still an informed choice. All of the outcomes of the above-described works are, within a degree of variability, predictable, and this variable predictability becomes the expression of the artist. Expression has not become eradicated, but shared with an outside performer, a record, a circuit, etc. Therefore, even though it is impossible to completely eradicate expression from a work, the goal of doing so, constructs a new paradigm and aesthetic of contemporary art music.







Austin, Larry and Douglas Kahn, editors. Source:  Music of the Avante-Garde.    Berkeley and Los Angeles, California:  The University of California Press, 2011.

Bunch, James. A Brief Comparison of Independent Elements of the music of Brian           Ferneyhough and Christian Wolff. Submitted to Dr Erik Lund, University of Illinois, 2006-2010.

Cascone, Kim. “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in   Contemporary Computer Music.”  Computer Music Journal 4, no. 24             (2002):  392-8.

Collins, Nicolas. Composing Inside Electronics:  Published research in the field of experimental music, 1998-2007. Ph.D. diss., University of East Anglica, 2007.

Dempsy, Amy. Styles, Schools and Movements:  An Encyclopedic Guide to Modern Art.    New York, NY:  Thames and Hudson Inc., 2005.

Ferneyhough, Brian. Collected Writings. Edited by James Boros and Richard Toop.      Abingdon, London:  Routeledge Taylor and Francis Group, 1998.

________. Lemma-Icon-Epigram for solo piano. London:  Peters Edition      Ltd., 1982.

González, Jennifer. “Survey.” In Christian Marclay. London:  Phaidon Press Ltd., 2005.

Hegarty, Paul.  Noise/Music:  A History. New York:  The Continuum International       Publishing Group Inc, 2007.

Le Feuvre, Lisa, editor, Failure:  Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge,    Massachusetts:  Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2010

Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ectasy of Influence:  A Plagarism Mosaic.” In Sound    Unbound:  Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Edited by Paul D Miller, 25-52.             Cambridge, Massachusetts:  The MIT Press, 2008.

Miller, Paul D. “In Through the Outdoor:  Sampling and the Creative Act.” In Sound   Unbound:  Sampling Digital Music and Culture. Edited by Paul D Miller, 5-20.            Cambridge, Massachusetts:  The MIT Press, 2008.

Microcosmos. Pilgrimage. Otomo Yoshihide, Tenko. TZADIK 7222, 1999.

Patterson, David W. “Cage and Asia:  history and sources.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Cage. Edited by David Nicholls, 41-62. Cambridge, United            Kingdom:  Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Peterson, Lloyd. Music and the Creative Spirit:  Innovators in Jazz, Improvisation and    the Avante-Garde. Edited by Edward Berger. Lanham, Maryland:  Scarecrow           Press Inc., 2006.

Plourde, Lorraine. “Listening in Tokyo:  Onkyo and Non-Intentional Sounds.” In         Ethnomusicology 52, no. 2 (2008):  270-295.

Priest, Eldritch. “A Sprawling Mess:  The Poetics of Musica Residue.” Radical   Musicology 4 (2009). http://www.radical-musicology.org.uk/2009.htm

Shapiro, Peter. “Deck Wreckers:  The Turntable as an Instrument.” In Undercurrents:                        The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music. Edited by Rob Young, 45-          58. London:    Continuum, 2002.

Yoshihide, Otomo/Voice Crack. Bitsbotsandsigns. Otomo Yoshihide, Norbert     Möslang, Andy Guhl. Erstwhile Records 011, 2000.

Young, Rob. “Worship the Glitch:  Digital Music, Electronic Disturbance.” In     Undercurrents:  The Hidden Wiring of Modern Music. Edited by Rob Young, 45-     58. London:  Continuum, 2002.

[1] Lisa Le Feuvre, editor, Failure:  Documents of Contemporary Art. (Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press, 2010), 13.

[2] Albert Boime, Art in an age of civil struggle, 1848-1871, (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2007), 676.

[3] Cut-Up:  taking samples from outside sources, cutting them up and re-arranging them to create a new whole.

[4] Paul Hegarty, Noise/Music:  A History, (New York:  The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc, 2007) 189. Glitch:  “music constructed from digital debris, errors, processing of normally extraneous sounds.”

[5] Amy Dempsy, Styles, Schools and Movements:  An Encyclopedic Guide to Modern Ar. (New York, NY:  Thames and Hudson Inc., 2005), 70. “These new art forms, which used colour and line symbolically and emotively, were in a sense a reversal of Impressionism:  instead of recording an impression of the world around him, the artist impressed his own temperament on his view of the world.”

[6] Ibid., 284

[7] David W. Patterson, “Cage and Asia:  history and sources.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Cage. Edited by David Nicholls, 41-62. (Cambridge, United Kingdom:  Cambridge University Press, 2002), 44.

[8] ibid. 45

[9] Ibid.

[10] Patterson, Cage and Asia, 46

[11] Le Feuvre, Failure, 17

[12] James Bunch, A Brief Comparison of Independent Elements of the music of Brian Ferneyhough and Christian Wolff, ( Submitted to Dr Erik Lund, University of Illinois, 2006-2010), 1.

[13] Brian Ferneyhough, Lemma-Icon-Epigram for solo piano, (London:  Peters Edition Ltd., 1982), iv.

[14] ibid.

[15] ibid.

[16] Eldritch Priest, “A Sprawling Mess:  The Poetics of Musica Residue.” Radical Musicology 4 (2009), par 1.  http://www.radical-musicology.org.uk/2009.htm

[17] Lloyd Peterson, Music and the Creative Spirit:  Innovators in Jazz, Improvisation and the Avant-Garde, edited by Edward Berger, (Lanham, Maryland:  Scarecrow Press Inc., 2006), 308

[18] Lorraine Plourde, “Listening in Tokyo:  Onkyo and Non-Intentional Sounds”, In Ethnomusicology 52, no. 2 (2008): 276.

[19] In my experience, this particular quality of sound is achieved with the help of overdrive or distortion. The following link is to a recording of the performance:  http://soundcloud.com/alcohol-label/otomo-yoshihide-turntable-solo

[20] Hegarty, Noise 181.

[21] Kim Cascone, “The Aesthetics of Failure: ‘Post-Digital’ Tendencies in Contemporary Computer Music”, Computer Music Journal 4, no. 24 (2002): 3.

[22] Hegarty, Noise, 181

[23] Ibid., 182

[24] Nicolas Collins, Composing Inside Electronics:  Published research in the field of experimental music, 1998-2007. (Ph.D. diss., University of East Anglica, 2007) 13.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 7.

[27] Collins, Composing Inside Electronics, 7.