What’s the point? Balancing purpose and play in rule-based compositions

This paper was presented at the Performing Indeterminacy conference, University of Leeds, on 1 July 2017.

In September 2000 Anton Lukoszevieze asked me to play in a concert with Apartment House. They were playing one of my pieces, but also needed some additional people to play in a composition by Gerhard Stäbler, Hart auf Hart. I received the score, and did not know what to do. It explained a wide range of possible interpretations of the notation, discussing the interaction between two groups, but in advance of the first rehearsal I was not sure what my role would be. When I arrived I was directed to a balcony and given an airhorn to play at particular moments, cued by Stäbler. What I had to do was very clear, and I simply followed the instructions.

Looking back, this piece is unusual: my first encounter as a performer with an indeterminate score was one where the specification of actions required to perform the piece was quite open, but where there was a relatively clear explanation of why I was to do this.  Stäbler notes that there might be ‘an attempt to eliminate individual players’ and later that the piece develops ‘the means to listening closely and working and communicating with acoustical material’. There was a purpose here, hidden among the practical description of actions, and a sense of play that emerges from this aim. But in practical terms, I just had to play the airhorn at specified points. I followed the instructions for actions.

I have played and looked at a lot of indeterminate scores since then, and I find it striking how few refer to an explicit purpose for players. Of course there is an implicit purpose: following the instructions in order to realise the piece and achieve an appropriate aesthetic result as intended by the composer, in broad terms. But outside of this, what is it that performers are trying to do? Is there any benefit in presenting an explicit purpose in a piece in order to inflect the way performers carry out otherwise objectively described actions? This paper considers what some of the potential benefits of presenting an explicit purpose might be.

Looking through a wide range of indeterminate compositions reveals the lack of purpose located in many scores. Read through any score, consider the actions that are required to be undertaken, and ask why? Aside from following the instructions in appropriate ways, which is in itself a purpose, what is a performer being asked to try to do? Most scores present instructions for what to do; very few scores give any rationale as to why the actions must be undertaken. For example, in Michael Pisaro’s only (2006), the performer is asked

In a large, open space (possibly outdoors).

For a long time.

Sitting quietly.

Listening.

A few times, playing an extremely long, very quiet tone.

The location and nature of the activity is clearly specified, and what a performer must do is relatively straightforward. There is however no indication of why they should sit in a large open space and listen, occasionally playing a long quiet tone. A common justification might be that the composer deems it an illuminating or transformative activity for those realising the score or observing the realisation. I have realised this piece a number of times, and would agree that this is the case. But I am not sure what I am trying to do past completing the defined actions. Here the nature of the listening is intriguing. Listening to what? Listening for what? This is an example of an activity which might be in need of a purpose, but who determines this, or what it is, is not stated.

Some pieces move closer to expressing a purpose by specifying an end-condition. Normally such pieces include a clause containing the word ‘until’, giving players a search algorithm to internalise that triggers the end of the piece upon its arrival. For example Pauline Oliveros’s The New Sound Meditation (1989) focuses on task-based breathing, sound-making and listening, ending with the instruction to ‘Continue this cycle until there are no more new sounds’. Here there is a purpose of exploring the available sounds until the condition is met.

Pieces such as this point towards the kind of attitude found in the relatively few scores that do seem to express a purpose for the performers. These pieces tend to focus on searching for something.  In Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room (1970) there are four statements that are relevant to establishing a purpose. Lucier states that you should ‘Choose a room the musical qualities of which you would like to evoke’. The aim here is to evoke the musical qualities of a room. This is tied to an additional purpose which is more closely linked to an end condition. He says, in the text to be recited which also forms part of the score, ‘I regard this activity not so much as a demonstration of a physical fact, but more as a way to smooth out any irregularities my speech might have.’ This is then emphasised by the end condition which requires that the piece continues ‘until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of my speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed’. So the overall purpose here might be defined as a composite of these three statements: choose a room, the musical qualities of which you would like to evoke, and complete the task until the resonant frequencies of the room reinforce themselves so that any semblance of [your] speech, with perhaps the exception of rhythm, is destroyed, in order to smooth out any irregularities [your] speech might have. He also describes the result of this activity as ‘the natural resonant frequencies of the room articulated by speech.’

Such examples are relatively rare. Other pieces by Lucier, such as The Duke of York (1971), also take this approach, giving the performer a purpose as well as explaining the activity they must undertake. It is perhaps not surprising to find this in Lucier’s work, given the close analogy with scientific experimentation.

So why is this significant? Why might it be beneficial for composers to suggest a purpose in their work? I will return to this question at the end, but in order to investigate this, I want to turn to some recent discussion of purpose in games, especially the growing field of persuasive games.

When playing games, we are used to the notion of a goal. In games, goals direct players in particular ways, such that if you ‘add a goal to informal play…you will usually have a game’ (Tekinba? and Zimmerman 2003: 258).

A goal in a game, in its simplest form, is ‘a specific achievable state of affairs’ (Suits 2005: 50). It needs a quantifiable outcome, such that it is ‘designed to be beyond discussion, meaning that the goal of Pac Man is to get many points, rather than to “move in a pretty way”.’ (Juul 2003) While a player’s actions might exhibit structure or direction when playing in an open-ended way (Crawford 2003: 7), a goal is something that can be measured or tracked. Goals also imply the presence of conflict (Crawford 2003), whether this is between players attempting to reach a mutually exclusive goal, goals which themselves are conflicting, or where there is the possibility of not reaching a specified goal (Juul 2003).

Goals vary in quality. In addition to the scope of a goal, from ‘quick, low-level goals’ to ‘long-term, higher-level goals’ (Church 2006: 373), and its permanence (Juul 2010), the compulsoriness of a goal shapes the ensuing game play. Jesper Juul suggests that there are three approaches to goal specification in games: obligatory goals, optional goals, and no goals (Juul 2007).

Obligatory goals are ‘explicitly communicated’ and the sole arbiter of success. Obligatory goals might measure progress or a final win state, although may not necessarily be achievable, such as in a game which generates increasingly difficult levels each time one is completed and where success is measured against a high score table.

Optional goals are found in games that ‘let players decide for themselves what goals they wish to pursue’ and can ‘vary from player to player’ (Bjork and Holopainen 2005). In such games the player is ‘is free to deviate from the official goal of the game and make up personal goals’ (Juul 2007). Typically role-playing games do this, allowing for ‘a diversity of goals, allowing players to pick and choose among them, to find one that appeals.’ (Costikyan 2002: 14)

Optional goals, together with Juul’s final category, no goals, are perhaps the most significant for music. Although classic game definitions suggest the need for goals, Juul notes that this model is changed by removing goals or by ‘not describing some possible outcomes as better than others.’ (Juul 2003) He notes elsewhere that ‘Games without goals or with optional goals can accommodate more playing styles and player types, in effect letting players choose what kind of game they want to play.’ (Juul 2007) By making goals optional, or removing them completely, it presents a space for players who may ‘care more about the aesthetic or sentimental value of game choices than about the optimal way of playing the game.’ (Juul 2007) But a goal does not necessarily equate with purpose or values. By weakening the obligatory goals in a game, the resultant greater agency created for players through requiring them to decide their own goals and how to achieve them suggests more autonomy.

This situation is particularly apparent in games that consider purpose and values more centrally. The rise of persuasive games as a genre demonstrates both the will of games designers and their clients to think of games as systems for generating change. Persuasive games use what Ian Bogost defines as procedural rhetoric. Procedural rhetoric is different to verbal rhetoric, which uses words to persuade, and visual rhetoric, which uses images to persuade. Procedural rhetoric is the ‘practice of using processes persuasively’ (Bogost 2010: 3). Persuasive games seek to make connections with the world. They refocus the abstract safety of the ‘temporary world within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart’ (Huizinga 1955: 10) through presenting a wider purpose and considering the values a game embodies as part of the design process. In video games in particular, they reference how computers ‘run processes that invoke interpretations of processes in the material world’ (Bogost 2010: 5). In contrast, non-digital games present ‘human-enacted processes’ such that ‘the people playing the game execute its rules.’ (Bogost 2010: 10)

For example, the persuasive game Nova Alea (2016) models ‘the forces that shape our cities’, specifically as a ‘matrix of financial abstractions’ that drive cycles of gentrification. Players buy and sell property, balancing their liquid capital and physical resources against the societal concerns of citizens. There are three possible endings: you become bankrupt by overspending as the property market crashes; you become rich and powerful at the expense of local communities; or you find a homeostatic state somewhere between where the system finds an equitable balance. The game is short and relatively intuitive, and through playing it the game system becomes intelligible as a translation of the basic economic model that underpins the real property market. But it goes beyond simply mirroring real world systemic transactions by referencing the human impact of in-game decisions: artists move into vacant spaces, rent control systems are established, and people are displaced from their homes. As Bogost notes, such procedural representation ‘depicts how something does, could, or should work: the way we understand a social or material practice to function.’ (Bogost 2010: 58)

This approach is also encapsulated within, Mary Flanagan and Helen Nissenbaum’s Values at Play (2014) framework, which suggests an approach to game design that might communicate values to a game’s players and audiences. They consider values as the

properties of things and states of affairs that we care about and strive to attain. They are similar to goals, purposes, and ends, but usually they possess a higher degree of gravitas and permanence, and they tend to be more abstract and general. (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014: 5)

For example the values in football might be violence, antagonism, territoriality, cooperation, and teamwork. These values are encoded in the rules and architecture of the game, such that any change to rules results in changes in values and behaviours. For example, how would having four smaller teams alter the sense of territoriality and cooperation? Or if there was a penalty for any physical contact how would it impact on violence and antagonism? Game rules and the conventions of their practice encode these values.

In Flanagan’s board game POX: Save the People (2011) the aim is to show the value of herd immunity through sufficient vaccination levels within populations. Commissioned by a New Hampshire public health authority, the game uses player collaboration to ‘reflect the ways in which members of a community stricken by a health crisis would work together’ through embodying ‘the values of collaboration, cooperation, community and health’ (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014: 131). Their pre- and post-play questionnaires showed that players increased their understanding of disease prevention and the limitation of public health resources by playing and discussing the game, demonstrating that while ‘information alone does not change behavior, interacting with the information may indeed change attitudes, beliefs and behavior’ (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014: 133).

Persuasive games, such as Nova Alea and POX, can communicate values by modelling real world processes. As Bogost notes, ‘procedural representation explains processes with other processes’ (Bogost 2010: 9). By presenting simulations, games can help players determine the impact of their decisions in real-world situations. This approach presents a possible model for process-based music. As Karen Schrier notes

Games, and other designed experiences, may provide a necessary window into how other systems, such as cultural or political systems, can also affect how we interact with other people and institutions, or value certain objects, roles, or behaviours differently from others. (Karen Schrier in Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014: 160)

‘Other designed experiences’ such as music might prove equally effective in translating everyday situations, concerns and attitudes as the subject of the work. This has the potential to provide a purpose in rule-based compositions. By presenting players with choices and the need to make decisions, purpose can be created if framed as part of a wider ethical consideration of the impact of such decisions.

This is something that I am beginning to explore in my own work. For example in my piece all voices are heard I tried to embody the consensus decision-making process in the work with the purpose of exposing how the players move towards agreement through non-verbal negotiation. The values I wanted to communicate here were negotiating, sharing, disrupting and agreeing. The players are each given a set of identical materials (words, objects, pitches) and asked individually to create a short sequence in parallel with the other players. The sequence is continually repeated, with the players altering their ordering of the materials each time either by changing something to match another player, doing something new, simply repeating their sequence, or dropping out. Over time, the group achieves consensus by gradually rationalising their choices. In performance, the individual characteristics of players become apparent, as does the way they exert control over others.

In other work, I have taken an approach where the purpose and values emerge from player choices while they work within the constraints provided by the composition, such as in the pieces in my things to do series (2014- ). Each of the constituent pieces uses a set of spoken instructions in different categories (such as noises, pitches, devices and processes) which govern the actions to be made. Players respond to instructions they can hear by realizing the defined actions as soon as possible after they are spoken. The differences in each piece, and the relationships between the players, are determined by constraints which govern who each player responds to and who gives instructions. It creates modes of interaction between individuals, allows group behaviours to emerge, and reveals the personal characteristics of each performer in an immediate way. Here the values and motivations of individuals are made apparent. Some participants use the system to take control and exert their will on others, while others may blend in with the group, or be subversive. But there is no purpose specified: the piece creates a situation through which individuals have to determine their own purpose by being presented with choices.

These two examples demonstrate two strategies for creating purpose: either to explicitly state the purpose, or to present a situation where players must determine a purpose. Flanagan and Nissenbaum frame these decision spaces in games as either coercive or cooperative (Flanagan and Nissenbaum 2014: 105-6). In coercive spaces designers ‘may achieve certain behaviours through force (or tight constraints)’ by channeling very specific interactions with the game environment or other players. In cooperative spaces they ‘may encourage certain behaviours while still allowing players to exercise choice’ by ‘drawing on known motivators or rewards (such as points, penalties, and levels), feedback (sensory cues with direct pleasant or unpleasant associations), and cues with certain meanings (such as a doorway, green or red light, the sound of an explosion, and so on).’ They characterize these two approaches as obstacles or facilitators.

Although many classic games are coercive through presenting a clear purpose for their players and providing a limited range of behaviours with which to achieve it, increasingly others are rejecting this position. This is common in roleplaying games, which are by definition cooperative, but board and video games also do this. As Greg Costikyan notes, ‘The job of the game isn’t to provide explicit goals; it is instead to allow for a diversity of goals, allowing players to pick and choose among them, to find one that appeals.’ (Costikyan 2002: 14)

There is a link here to indeterminate music. There may be some autonomy, with players exercising choice about how they might realize a piece based on internal preferences, or possibly a self-determined aim or purpose. Although many pieces do not present a purpose or goal, the activity that is defined may offer a chance for decision-making by the performer, as in the Pisaro piece mentioned earlier. We bring our own experiences to such work, and they are transformative through the intersection between our personal perspectives and the activities defined in the work. Michael Pisaro’s Only implicitly encourages us to think about our relation between the sounding environment in both active and passive ways. This could be thought of as a purpose linked to wider environmental values, for example.

The analogy here is with games that do offer modes of playing that are primarily expressive. As Jesper Juul suggests, ‘Goals may also run counter to what the player wants to do: Players may care more about the aesthetic or sentimental value of game choices than about the optimal way of playing the game.’ (Juul 2007) So we might view indeterminate music as either purposeless, as in my initial characterisation, or potentially flexible and open in purpose, encouraging those realising it to ‘pick and choose’ the way they might approach the work. But the latter possibility is not always apparent or possible, and grafting a personal agenda onto a realisation of an otherwise purposeless score may produce inappropriate results.

Earlier I asked why might it be beneficial for composers to suggest a purpose in their work. My hope is that through applying procedural rhetoric to rule-based compositions in order to explain ‘processes with other processes’ (Bogost 2010: 9), the possibility of translating real-world values through the work in a more explicit way becomes realistic. How might a piece that models electoral systems allow us to understand and reflect on their topology? How does a piece of music allow us to experience and empathise with very specific kinds of social inequality? Given the importance of processes in much indeterminate music, procedural rhetoric could provide us with a way to inflect action-based pieces with a purpose which goes beyond simply carrying out the instructions.

 

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