Logo du site de la Revue d'informatique musicale - RFIM - MSH Paris Nord

Toward a Much Tensor Music Theory
Music and the “Postulates of Linguistics”

Peter Shelley
janvier 2012

DOI : https://dx.doi.org/10.56698/filigrane.435



The age-old question of whether music is a language—universal or otherwise—is surely tired enough that it can now be put to rest. Nevertheless, the structural similarities between language and music persist: both exist as an acoustical transmission from one party to another, and both can also exist in a written state. Through their radical re-theorizing of language, both in terms of its function and its component parts, Deleuze and Guattari open new possibilities for understanding how far this similarity between music and language reaches. At the core of language lies the order-word, the compulsion both to obey and to act in an orderly fashion. But like most Deleuzian concepts, the order-word has multiple functions. At its most sinister, it is the death threat; at its most positive, it sets one in flight. This paper will explore the implications of this conception of language for music, taking as examples the American composers John Cage and Steve Reich. Deleuze and Guattari’s theory of language is an analysis of the tensor, an analysis that does not rely on a centered systematicity, but instead expects and opens lines of flight. Examining the tensor in music will provide a Deleuzian mode of analysis that resists both representation and idealization, that attends not to what music is or means, but what it does.

I am grateful to Brad Osborn for his input on an earlier draft of this paper.


Texte intégral   

1En Brian Massumi, in the “Translator’s Forward” to A Thousand Plateaus, aptly characterizes Deleuze and Guattari’s project as “a positive exercise in… affirmative ‘nomad’ thought,” and as a project subversive of “state philosophy,” that magisterial politico-philosophic tradition spanning from Plato to present, covering most everyone in between1. Along with their poststructuralist compatriots such as Derrida and Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari work to erode a mode of thought grounded in representation and meaning, that, as Massumi says, “reposes on a double identity: of the thinking subject, and of the concepts it creates and to which it lends its own presumed attributes of sameness and constancy”2. Massumi quite rightly identifies in state philosophy what feminist poststructuralists (and Derrida as well) have called “phallogocentrism,” or, borrowing Gayatri Spivak’s succinct definition, “a structure of argument centered on the sovereignty of the engendering self and the determinacy of meaning”3.

2The ease with which the word phallogocentrism is partitioned into pallocentrism and logocentrism is misleading, not because there is no value in thinking these two systems of privilege separately, but because in practical terms they remain imbricated. When we try to think one, the other inevitably appears at its side. This is the case in A Thousand Plateaus no less than elsewhere. Though most of Deleuze and Guattari’s concepts are aimed first at eroding phallocentrism—the rhizome evades the central(izing) trunk of the tree (as well as the binarity of sex)4, faciality locates domination in the engendered self, becomings focus on the mutability of the self—a critique of logocentrism is never far away, inevitably linked to the line of flight, the free flow of action liberated from determinate meaning: faciality is the clearest example of this, where within the formalization of the face we find both subjectification (the black hole) and signifiance (the white wall); the face very neatly encapsulates the necessary but not necessarily symmetrical co-dependence of the logos and the phallus. The imbalance toward the critique of phallocentric in A Thousand Plateaus likely results from Deleuze and Guattari’s conviction that modern capitalism entails a shift from “the imperial ‘signifier’” to “processes of subjectification5.

3If there is one place in A Thousand Plateaus where Deleuze and Guattari shift their emphasis away from phallocentrism and toward the logos it is in the plateau entitled “November 20, 1923: Postulates of Linguistics”. The focus on logocentrism is expected when discussing language, since in language meaning lies closer to the foreground than does the coherence of the self. And since music shares several important characteristics with language—both rely for their existence on the emission and reception of enunciations, and both can exist in an audible and a textual form—“Postulates of Linguistics” is valuable terrain for the musician. It is the position of this paper that the work done on language by Deleuze and Guattari has valuable implications for the study of music, especially for music of the 20th and 21st centuries.

4This investigation will be undertaken while bearing in mind a concept little-developed in Deleuze and Guattari’s output: the tensor. Deleuze and Guattari borrow this term from mathematics—where they borrow the more famous “multiplicity,” which English-speaking mathematicians more commonly render as “manifold”—to theorize a groundless variability akin to rhizomatics. The infinite variability of the tensor also helps assuage the initial trepidation one might feel about renewing the age-old discussion of music and language:

“[T]he objection will be raised that music is not a language, that the components of a sounds are not pertinent features of language, that there is no correspondence between the two. We are not suggesting any correspondence. We keep asking that the issue be left open, that any presupposed distinction be rejected”6.

5With Deleuze and Guattari—and with the tensor in mind—we must reject the dualistic an inevitably negative objections to the music/language debate. Here we are neither equating one with the other, nor insisting on a metaphoric transferal, nor sublating linguistic theory into music theory. Instead, we insist on an inclusive disjunction that refuses to block or predict lines of flight.

“Language Is Informational and Communicational”7

6The theses held by many linguists—that language is fundamentally a transmission of information or that it is fundamentally intersubjectively communicative—replicate the biases of phallogocentrism, blocking lines of flight and controlling multiplicity. These two theses fall short of explaining how the collective assemblages of utterances in language “delimit the role and range of subjective morphemes”8. Instead of positing signifiance or subjectification as primary, Deleuze and Guattari turn to an alternative concept, the order-word:

“[Language] is not the communication of information but something quite different: the transmission of order-words, either from one statement to another or within each statement, insofar as each statement accomplishes an act and the act is accomplished in the statement”9.

7The initial example of the order-word is the schoolmistress directing her students, whose function is not the transmission of information, Deleuze and Guattari argue, but the issuing of order-words10.(“A rule of grammar is a power marker before it is a syntactical marker”11). This is more easily understood when we bear in mind the dual meaning of “order”; order-words are not only commands, but also calls to order, normative statements. Language in this sense is immanently political: “Every order-word, even a father’s to his son, carries a little death sentence—a Judgment, as Kafka put it”12. Order-words, in effect, regulate the maintenance and transformation of bodies, both in the literal sense (“It’s a boy!”) and the figurative sense of bodies. “Representations are bodies too!”13

8Formally the order-word is a redundancy between the statement and an act, an interior redundancy. The doctor’s statement, “It’s a boy!” coincides with the act of the sexless newborn transforming into a boy. This act is what Deleuze and Guattari term an incorporeal transformation. Biologically, the infant may always have been a boy, but it is the (in this case performative) statement that carries the act of transforming the genderless into the gendered, the sexless into the sexed. The resonant, interior redundancy of the statement and the act is enabled by a second redundancy, an exterior redundancy of frequency. Without a history of “boys,” as well as doctors for that matter, the statement would not carry out the same act. This type of redundancy is what Judith Butler, borrowing from Derrida’s critique of Austen, refers to as “citationality”: the reiterative citation of all previous similar statements which renders the statement comprehensible14. For Deleuze and Guattari, the signifiant information content of language and the subjectifying communicational content are necessarily subordinate to redundancies of frequency and resonance, respectively.

 “There Is an Abstract Machine of Language That Does Not Appeal to Any ‘Extrinsic’ Factor”15

9There are, of course, changes that take place that are not incorporeal transformations and have nothing to do with order-words. These changes are termed corporeal modifications. Acknowledging the difference between these two treatments of bodies leads Deleuze and Guattari to the following formalization:

“If in the social field we distinguish the set of corporeal modifications and the set of incorporeal transformations, we are presented, despite the variety in each of the sets, with two formalizations, one of content, the other of expression. For content is not opposed to form but has its own formalization”16.

10Statements containing order-words express incorporeal changes. Crucial to this formalization is the form of both content and expression: “Precisely because content, like expression, has a form of its own, one can never assign the form of expression the function of simply representing, describing, or averring a corresponding content: there is neither correspondence nor conformity”17. Similarly,

“It would be an error to believe that content determines expression by causal action, even if expression is accorded the power not only to “reflect” content but to react upon it in an active way […]. Although it may be possible to conceive of a causal action moving from content to expression, the same cannot be said of the respective forms, the form of content and the form of expression”18.

11We can remark then that every utterance has both expression—the order-word—and content, but the form of one and the form of the other do not exist in a causal relation. This recalls Deleuze’s earlier formalization of “the symphony of the discordant Idea,” which in its virtual, differentiated state bore no representative similarity to any of its actualizations19. The similarity though derives not from an Idealism of form—even in Deleuze’s sense of “Idea,” which is quite the opposite of Plato’s—but rather from Deleuze’s thematic distrust for representation: the form of content does not represent the form of expression, nor does the latter represent the former. Instead, expression and content can intervene with one another.

12Though Deleuze and Guattari restrict their discussion of order-words to language, it is not difficult to imagine examples that are non-linguistic. The football referee’s flag or card (depending on which continent you’re on) serves the same purpose as the judge’s sentence, my whistle orders my dogs to come, and my applause transforms the orchestra into a respected and appreciated performing body. In fact, given the flexibility of order-words in language, it is really rather easy to identify in nearly every action some incorporeal transformation, some order-word, that goes unspoken. Music is no exception, whether we are considering Wagner’s seductive expression or the “emblems of ethnicity” which are bestowed upon us when we participate in a given musical community20. Other musical acts are subtler, such as the act that Beethoven’s use of fugue performs on the body of Bach’s music, transforming it into the masterwork’s masterwork. (Music too is a body.) What is important here is that these acts do not mean anything, they do something—many things. We learn explicitly in Anti-Oedipus, and by example everywhere else in Deleuze’s writings, that the important question is not “What does it mean?” but “What does it do?”21 The “competence” of the listener is no longer a question; if Wagner does not move me, it is not a failure to transmit or receive meaning, it is Wagner’s music doing something else, something new. In this respect Adorno’s famous complaint that we no longer know how to listen to Beethoven would have to be revised: the regret must be not that we currently listen incorrectly, but that the encroachment of capital on Beethoven has blocked these earlier lines of flight.

13An understanding of music informed by the concept of the order-word suggests a hearing of music quite different from Michael Gallope’s commentary on Whitney Houston’s “One Moment in Time”22. Gallope too is interested in the effect of music on bodies, although in a different sense; Gallope is interested only in the bodies of listeners, or more precisely, in the body of all possible listeners. For him, the salient feature of Houston’s performance is the interaction between the music and the audience at the point of an unprepared key-change:

“Let us say, for [the aggregate of all audiences] there is a moment where the intensity is and was the greatest. Maybe this moment is the one when the song majestically modulates from B major up a half step to C major and the audience bursts into spontaneous applause. This is when chills went down the spines of the audience, bringing them into a self-organizing applause machine… This is the moment, we might say, when the audience is not receiving meaning from a musical object or even perceiving a musical object as such”23.

14For Gallope, the spontaneous audience reaction is evidence of the virtual and of absolute sensation. Under the theory of order-words, we must argue quite the opposite. Gallope is perfectly correct when he points out that this is not an instance of received meaning: the music is not a code. On the contrary, the seeming spontaneity of the audience reaction is a result of experiencing a radically decoded flow. But it is a mistake to align this flow with pure sensation, or with an absolute deterritorialization. On the contrary, this is the radical decoding of capitalism, which unravels all the codes in order to control the flows of intensities.

“[C]apitalism is the only social machine that is constructed on the basis of decoded flows, substituting for intrinsic codes an axiomatic of abstract quantities […] Capitalism therefore liberates the flows of desire, but under the social conditions that define its limit”24.

15Capitalism’s decoding is a relative deterritorialization that controls decoded flows to prevent the collapse of the socius that would come with absolute deterritorialization. The control of the flow in this case takes the form of the order-word, which effects an instantaneous incorporeal transformation of the audience, lifting them in applause. Gallope’s own choice of words, “self-organizing,” indicates the transformation of the audience into a particular molar body.

“There Are Constants or Universals of Language That Enable Us to Define It as a Homogeneous System”25

16When Deleuze and Guattari look to dismantle linguistic constants, they take aim not only at a simple notion of determinate meaning, but also at the very concept of fixed structure. Thus when they argue for the fairly obvious semantic variability of a phrase such as “I swear,” which clearly does different things in different situations, they are also arguing for a larger-scale linguistic variability, not simply of the phrase “I swear” when uttered to a judge rather than a lover, but of the language apparatus to which these two distinct utterances connect. Variability, the concept on which Deleuze and Guattari focus here, is then not simply a matter of opening lines of flight around each order-word (effectively proliferating and therefore disintegrating “meaning”), but a concept that includes in it the pragmatic mutability of language, and its incommensurability with fixed structures.

17In this section more often than any other part of this chapter the authors elaborate their concept through the use of musical examples. While one is often tempted to consider form as the governing concept of tonal music, the history of Western music, especially from Beethoven on, abounds with examples of the subordination of form to variability, not in a dialectical negation of the former, but in an inclusive disjunction. And although this variability eventually led to a sort of a break with tonality, the ostensible death of the tonal system is not what is at stake here. The revolution is not located in a historical moment, but is immanent to every variation.

“By placing all its components in continuous variation, music itself becomes a superlinear system, a rhizome instead of a tree […] Thus the important thing is certainly not to establish a pseudobreak between the tonal system and atonal music; the latter, on the contrary, in breaking away from the tonal system, only carried temperament to its ultimate conclusion (although no Viennese stopped there)”26.

18In recapitulating Schönberg’s narrative of the history of tonality, Deleuze and Guattari emphasize the non-negative nature of variability. Atonality does not negate tonality, it puts component parts of tonality in continuous variation. In fact, as musicians we ought to take care not to assimilate “tonal” into “constant” and “atonal” into variable. First, it is with the notion of the minor mode that Deleuze and Guattari begin their musical excursus, arguing (for better or worse) that it “gives tonal music a decentered, runaway, fugitive character”27. Whether or not this claim is universally true of the minor mode—it would be against the spirit of A Thousand Plateaus to suggest this is the case—it offers an example of fugitive tonality. Second, while there is a concept of the variable, the same cannot be said about the constant. “Constant is not opposed to variable; it is a treatment of the variable opposed to the other kind of treatment, or continuous variation”28.

19Variability, in fact, shares commonalities with Deleuze’s earlier concept of difference. Both are concepts that traditionally find themselves subordinated to what we have periodically, obliquely been referring to as the phallus: that construct of identity and coherence, of sameness and authenticity. Here Deleuze and Guattari are arguing that there is no fundamental, foundational constant to which we can relate the variable—in fact, constants are so dependant on variability that the latter conceptually evaporates the former—just as in Difference and Repetition. Deleuze argued that difference is something immanent to the thing itself, not a relation or representation involving sameness or identity. The interior redundancy of the statement-act shares variability’s resistance to subordination. Like interior redundancy, variation is a feature of differentiation; variability is virtual rather than actual29. However, while variability and redundancy are both linked to the virtual, and both share some clear similarities with difference and repetition (respectively), we cannot go so far as to presume that the “Postulates of Linguistics” is merely a mapping of Deleuze’s earlier work onto language. The principle difference lies in the ontology of the object of study. In Difference and Repetition the virtual is the domain of the undifferenciated but fully differentiated Idea—that is, it is different in itself, but has not been fixed in any of its actual manifestations. The process of differnciation brings the virtual into the actual. If language were an Idea, it stands to reason its quality of variability would evaporate with actualization; this is not the case. Indeed it is spoken—or written, or thought—language that possesses the vital quality of virtuality and therefore variability, and it is only through a particular treatment of the statement, what we might call its representation, that variability is fixed as a constant30. And while the clarity of the Appolonian representation of the Idea may be opposed to the distinction-obscurity of the Dionysian Idea31, the constant and the variable are not opposed at all. Variability is the differential quality of language itself, but it is a quality under threat from speakers and from listeners (or linguists), both of whom have the capacity to fix variables into constants. In every case, it is a pragmatic question of treatment, not of structure.

“Language Can Be Scientifically Studied Only under the Conditions of a Standard or Major Language”32

20The concept of variability leads naturally into a discussion of major and minor languages, largely because variability destabilizes any would-be “homogenized, centralized, standardized […] language of power”33. In many respects, the theory that language can be studied only in a standardized or major form is a sub-theory of the previous postulate, that language must be studied in terms of constants. And just as the existence of constants is denied in favor of a treatment of variables as constants, the structural existence of a major language too is denied:

“There are not, therefore, two kinds of languages [major and minor] but two possible treatments of the same language. Either the variables are treated in such a way as to extract from them constants and constant relations or in such a way as to place them in continuous variation”34.

21From this we can see that the notion of a major language is akin to the notion of a constant, which at first seems to suggest that while a theory of linguistics might not be viable without understanding the relationship between major and minor languages, the major language itself does exist, after a fashion (even if only as a treatment of language), and it must have its own particular qualities—the qualities of the constant.

22This is both true and not, and it stems from Deleuze and Guattari’s particular us of “majority.”

“Majority implies a constant, of expression or content, serving as a standard measure by which to evaluate it […]. It is obvious that ‘[adult-white-heterosexual-European-male-speaking] man’ holds the majority, even if he is less numerous than mosquitoes, children, women, blacks, peasants, homosexuals, etc. That is because he appears twice, once in the constant and again in the variable from which the constant is extracted”35.

23The major is the grammatical, the official, the object of sameness against which all representational differences are measured. Linguistic theories that fix the major/minor opposition as one between a structure and its constitutive exterior, or as one between a major structure and a minor structure, ground their conception of language in a politics of the same, which for Deleuze and Guattari is necessarily a politics in the interest of the state, in the interest of repression and representation. By conceptualizing variability as an immanent property, and as a primary property, Deleuze and Guattari attempt to circumvent the primacy of the determinate and determining structure of the state—continuous variation is meant to destabilize phallogocentrism.

24In this respect the model Deleuze and Guattari employ for major and minor languages is essentially that of becoming36. Becoming is a process of subversion, a placing in variation those elements of the major language that are considered constant. The point is to make language stammer:

“It’s easy to stammer, but making language itself stammer is a different affair, it involves placing all linguistic, and even nonlinguistic, elements in variation, both variables of expression and variables of content. A new form of redundancy, AND… AND… AND…”37

25This “and… and… and” is the rhizomatic extension of the “both/and” that many feminists prefer to the dualistic—and therefore often misogynist—“either/or.” In Anti-Oedipus, the authors contrast “either/or” with “either… or… or…” in an elaboration on their model of schizophrenia. In the context of Anti-Oedipus, this serves the same purpose that “and… and… and” serves in A Thousand Plateaus38. One need only remember the treatment of the word “or” in Anti-Oedipus, as an inclusive operator. “Or” is in some ways better suited to our current discussion of language, since it provides for the proliferation of lines of flight without implying any sort of exhaustion of modes of becoming. Becomings, in A Thousand Plateaus, are, perhaps regrettably, aligned in a spectrum from becoming-woman to becoming-molecular, likely because of a combination of Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement that “one is not born a woman, but rather one becomes one”39, and the fact that “woman” is the most visible proximate subject in relation to a “man” that has been majoritarian for all of recorded memory. Presumably in a gynocratic society the first step in this progression would be a becoming-man; similarly, in a tonal system dominated by the minor mode, the major mode would occupy a position of relative variability—there would be a becoming-major that is minoritarian, if only due to linguistic accident.

26Scholars of music have often struggled with a model for the division between high and low music, especially since the waning popularity of what we often consider art music. Though it is tempting to presume that high art music holds a majoritarian position—tempting for its adherents, but often for its detractors as well—this is by no means obvious from Deleuze and Guattari’s argument. On the contrary, since majoritarianism is a question of treatment rather than structure, the designation itself must be left variable. There is no doubt, for example, that the Whitney Houston song cited above is music of the majority, but at the same time Gallope offers a treatment of it that seeks to emphasize its variability. Every center can be decentered, and in every margin we can find a center. The problem for musicologists and music theorists—no less than for linguists—is not to isolate the major and minor languages, but to explore the becoming-minortarian of music. From this position it is not worth our time to argue that there is no divide between art music and pop music, or between the modern and the classic, or the modern and the avant-garde—these differences clearly exist. What is important, where we find the lines of flight, is the continuous variation of the becoming in music.


27Conceiving of music in terms of order-words and their variability and redundancy provides a new method for listening to the American avant-garde of the third quarter of the last century. Though this is a period riddled with exemplary moments, there are two in particular that draw our attention now, and they are John Cage’s radical indeterminacy and Steve Reich’s radical determinacy. These cases are marked by an opposite obsession, one that might be characterized by the question of control and the status of the composer as “author”; but in spite of this opposition both composers are typically considered to be of the “death-of-the-author” class of postmodernists. In Cage’s case the reason for this claim is apparent: indeterminacy would seem to minimize as much as possible the author’s influence over the end-product; composition as such can hardly even be said to have taken place. In Reich’s case—and here we are talking about the early Reich of the 1960s—the role of the author is ostensibly taken up by the process itself; the music, like the minimalist sculpture with which it is contemporaneous, is not so much composed as arranged or situated. The veracity of each of these composers’ postmodernity will not be taken up here, and nor will the question of authorship—I am inclined to side with Spivak, who suggests that the death of the author as postmodernists conceive it is a proposition both impossible and problematic, particularly with respect to understanding privilege40—but the similarity that arises from this difference is worth noting.

28Like Deleuze’s philosophy, Cage’s music is concerned with fascism, and with the possibility of fully freeing oneself from the imposition—exterior or interior—of order or organization41. Cage has fresh in his mind the memory of World War II and those events which for so many spelled the death of rational humanism and the ultimate failure of the enlightenment. For Cage, the taste of authority—and therefore authorship—became repugnant. When we seek to understand music either simply in terms of intensities, or complexly as signs—in both cases isolating music from its political and social context—Cage’s aesthetic might appear vexing. Why concern yourself with the rigor of the compositional process or with the freedom of the performers when political power is not at stake, when no one is at risk to be subjugated? The order-word in music—the fact that in every musical enunciation there is a compulsion to obey, to organize—provides a more reasonable context for Cage’s indeterminacy. We learn here not of Cage’s struggle against fascism in music—Cage himself tells us of this—but that his struggle was legitimate, that music does lead to compulsory organization (recall again the spontaneous organization of Whitney Houston’s crowd).

29In spite of Cage’s efforts, his music does not escape the order-word—whether his use of chance and indeterminacy relieves him of culpability is beside our interest here, and is likely an uninteresting and unfair question. There are, for example, modes of listening suitable to Cage’s music, indicating that his music performs an instantaneous transformation upon the listener, albeit one remarkably different than most other music. Too, Cage’s liberation of sound as music, or his liberation of music into all sound, universalizes continuous variation not only from the perspective of musical material but from the perspective of pragmatics: just as Deleuze and Guattari argue that language cannot be theorized successfully independent from its pragmatic use, and therefore cannot be separated from the non-linguistic, Cage erodes the formalized distinction between sound and noise, exposing the imposition of order upon music by musicians themselves. Cage’s pan-acoustic inclusiveness cannot be separated from his anti-fascism: both are a reaction against the realization that the primary component of music, as in language, is the order-word.

30One of the notable things about Cage’s output from this perspective is not only that we can think of it as an output, but that we can hear it that way too. That Cage’s musical output has a proper name complicates its potential variability since it would seem, by virtue of its proper name, necessarily to be linked or even subordinated to a constant. There are two things going on here, and in part because of the extreme diversity of listeners it is important not to resolve one into the other. In “Postulates of Linguistics” Deleuze and Guattari discuss the proper name in terms of the derivation or extraction of the Self from the collective assemblage of order-words: “the collective assemblage is always like the murmur from which I take my proper name… I is an order-word”42. Earlier in the text, this proper name is linked to a taming of multiplicity: “The proper name can be nothing more than an extreme case of the common noun, containing its already domesticated multiplicity within itself and linking it to a being or object posited as unique”43. Taken in this sense, the proper name molarizes (“domesticates”) the multiplicity, it arborifies the rhizome, and it discontinues variation. The blockages put in place by the proper name are reminiscent of the axiomatic, which “blocks all lines, subordinates them to punctual systems”44. The axiomatic, it will be recalled, is the legislative means by which capitalism controls the flows that it itself decodes. The axiomatic, and the proper name in this case, treat the variable as a constant.

31But Deleuze and Guattari analyze the proper name in a second way, which will offer a second reading of Cage’s name. The proper name as a container for the domesticated multiplicity “jeopardizes, on the side of words and things both, the relation of the proper name as an intensity to the multiplicity it instantaneously apprehends”45. This alternative proper name is the proper name of the abstract machine46. It designates an intensity. For Deleuze and Guattari this is the usual sense in which we use an artist’s or scientist’s name, to refer to the abstract machine that plays the “piloting roll” in the objects that the proper name includes47. In this case the name “John Cage” does not indicate the encroachment of the axiomatic and a blockage of lines of flight, but the continuous variation itself that is integral to Cage’s music. Again we must insist that both of these proper names be left in play, reflecting the different treatments and usages of the music itself.


32In 1975 Clytus Gottwald characterized Steve Reich’s music, especially Drumming, as essentially industrial, as mimicking, and therefore being complicit in, the industrial mechanization and oppression of labor48. Gottwald’s critique is not terribly radical—Tom Johnson, a year later, said of the performers of Music for 18 Musicians, “that they look even more machine-like than the players in traditional orchestras do”49. Gottwald saw and heard features that Cage would likely have termed fascist. Reich, who suggests that Gottwald’s reaction is principally rooted in Germany’s national “guilt complex” resulting from the second world war, points out that the crucial difference between victims of fascism and industrial labor on the one hand, and performing musicians on the other, is the matter of choice50. Reich is quite right to point out the importance of choice, and of the pragmatics of the performance itself, when discussing morphological similarities between two objects (music and the factory, in this case). Indeed from this perspective Reich’s innovation is not a return to determinacy but, as we shall see, the use of determinacy as a critique of itself.

33This does two things. First, his music, and repetitive music generally, demonstrates a sort of exaustibility of the avant-garde’s negative view of citationality. External redundancy operates on a variety of levels, but in almost every case it is distrusted by the avant-garde; from a certain point of view—a view too simple by far, but nonetheless instructive—this distrust, this taboo against citationality, culminates in John Cage’s radical indeterminacy. On the large scale, we can understand the eschewal of citationality as a means of putting in variation those musical elements that have become too constant; this is essentially the story of the emancipation of dissonance; the refusal to replicate the past led to music more and more distant from tonality. More locally, but also concurrently with this larger scale movement, we can witness citationality abjected from the individual piece itself: material is not repeated, especially not literally, but thematic development too is dismissed in favor of “moment form”51. Repetitive minimalism, in Reich’s music as elsewhere, heralds the moment when the refusal to cite has itself become unbearably citational, when avoiding exterior redundancy merely makes one redundant with most of the rest of the avant-garde. Reich’s embrace not only of repetition, but of a repetition that is unavoidably clear even to those unfamiliar with the avant-garde, transforms the anti-redundancy of the avant-garde into a redundancy itself. As in language, redundancy is primary; music cannot avoid redundancy without becoming redundant for having done so.

34Reich’s second act upon the avant-garde involves the other form of redundancy, the redundancy of the act to the statement, the redundancy of the order-word. We have seen with Cage that the inclusion of the order-word in music is necessary, unavoidable. What Gottwald might be inclined to call Reich’s industrial minimalism does not merely confirm this discovery, it centers it. One cannot but notice that the performs are doing exactly what they have been instructed to do52, and the music’s aggressive repetition and amplification are much more direct in addressing the audience qua audience than, for example, Cage’s music. Indeed in some respects we could say that the hypnotic seduction of Wagner has returned, but in a form that points inward, toward itself, mocking itself for not being able to be otherwise. In this respect Reich’s music up until 1975 or so is postmodern in the specifically Deleuzian sense employed by Martin Scherzinger53. Like Ligeti’s Continuum, which establishes and then flies through its own limit, Reich’s minimalism locates the inevitability of redundancy—both interior and exterior—and establishes this as its own limit, a limit which it exceeds. How does it exceed this limit? Through continuous variation. When redundancy is unavoidable, turn it upon itself, and when one is compelled to order, do so loudly, and order nothing.

Toward A Much Tensor Music Theory

35Scherzinger’s Deleuzian postmodernism is a postmodernism of the death threat. As will be recalled from above, the death threat, for Deleuze and Guattari, is the inevitable result of the order-word. “[T]he order-word is a death sentence; it always implies a death sentence, even if it has been considerably softened, becoming symbolic, initiatory, temporary, etc.”54 The rigidity, the grimness, of this proposition is daunting, especially given the inevitability and primacy of the order-word. The death threat seems here like the grounding constant of language—and therefore of music. But ever suspicious of the ground, Deleuze and Guattari present the expected alternative:

But the order-word is also something else, inseparably connected: it is like a warning cry or a message to flee […]. [Flight] is included in [the order-word], as its other face in a complex assemblage, its other component. Canetti is right to invoke the lion’s roar, which enunciates flight and death simultaneously”55.

36This is in effect to say that it is only the constant—the mistreated variable—that limits or orders our reception or enunciation of the order-word. Order-words can be overcoded or axiomatic on the one hand, or in continuous variation on the other hand. In the case for Reich outlined above, minimalism is the lion’s roar in the first sense: flight.

37If there is a music theory to be derived from Deleuze and Guattari’s work, it would be a theory of this lion’s roar, a theory that tracks the treatment of variables in music and that understands the variability of the order-word. This would also be a music theory of the tensor, that element that

“causes language [or music] to tend toward the limit of its elements, forms, or notions, toward a near side or a beyond of language. The tensor effects a kind of transitivization of the phrase, causing the last term to react upon the preceding term, back through the entire chain”56.

38The preceding term might be chronologically prior, but it also might not be; the tensor’s capacity to illuminate variation should follow the temporal and spatial flexibility that permeates A Thousand Plateaus. Essentially, a music theory of the tensor is a theory that studies variation, not by excluding the constant, but by understanding it in relation to variability: “The tensor, therefore, is not reducible either to a constant or a variable, but assures the variation of the variable by subtracting in each instance the value of the constant (n – 1)”57.

39In differential geometry, a tensor field allows one to make statements about a manifold (multiplicité) without reference to a coordinate system. A tensor music theory does not order the analyst to order the music, or to make tracings—music isn’t necessarily Cartesian, it need not have coordinates. In some respects, this fulfills what Milton Babbitt was looking for when he dismissed hemeneuticians and turned instead toward the rigors of mathematics and science—though Babbitt did not go far enough, perhaps58. When John Rahn formalizes the “A Thousand Plateaus machine” in terms of abstract algebraic categories he is advocating for a tensor music theory (tensors can be generalized as a monoid)59. Mathematics, of course, is not necessary (the examples of Cage and Reich show this); tensor analysis might make use of advanced mathematics, traditional music-analytical tools, philosophy, or anything else to hand. Tensor music theory is pragmatic: do what works.

40The trap to avoid is not excessive abstraction, whether it be mathematical or philosophical, or excessive historicization, but Idealism (in every sense but Deleuze’s). It is only too tempting to set out on a quest for the Deleuzian concept—the BwO is the characteristic example—and lose sight entirely of the ethic that permeates A Thousand Plateaus and the rest of Deleuze and Guattari’s writings. The search for the BwO is finally the search for a representative of the theory, and as such it is a quest for representation, grounded in the expected sublimity of the transcendent object. Deleuze cautions us: “To ground is to determine”60. Variability—and the tensor which studies it—is orthogonal to the axis of stable territoriality and absolute deterritorialization61. It is the condition of possibility for the non-determining, a-representational study of music. The quest for the BwO, on the other hand, borders on the quest for art-for-art’s-sake, about which Deleuze and Guattari have this to say:


1  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Captialism and Schizophrenia, translated by Brian Massumi, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1987, p. xi.

2 Idem.

3  Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Displacement and the Discourse of Women”, in Nancy J. Holland ed., Feminist Interpretations of Jacques Derrida, University Park, Pennsylvania University Press, 1997, p. 44. Though “phallogocentrism” is Derridian in origin, it has come into fairly common usage amongst American feminist scholars generally; its use here reflects a political sympathy between Derrida and Deleuze, not a reading of the latter in terms of the former.

4  See Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, translated Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, Helen R. Lane, New York, Viking Press, pp. 283-296.

5  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 451. Emphasis in original.

6 Ibid., p. 96.

7 Ibid., p. 75.

8 Ibid., p. 78.

9  Ibid., p. 79.

10 Ibid., p. 75.

11 Ibid., p. 76.

12 Idem.

13 Ibid., p. 86.

14  Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, New York, Routledge, 1993, pp. 12-16.

15  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 85.

16 Idem. Emphasis in original. This and several of the concepts discussed below find their genesis in Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari,Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, translated by Dana Polan, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

17 Ibid., p. 86.

18 Ibid., p. 89. Emphasis in original.

19  Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton, New York, Columbia University Press, 1994, p. 146.

20  For a brief discussion of emblems of ethnicity, see John Rahn, “What is Valuable in Art, and Can Music Still Achieve It?” in Perspectives on Musical Aesthetic, New York, W.W.Norton & Co., 1994, pp. 54-65.

21  Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, op. cit., p. 109. See also Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, op. cit., p. 45.

22  Michael Gallope, “Is There a Deleuzian Musical Work?” in Perspectives of New Music vol. 46, no 2, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2008, pp. 93-129. As Gallope indicates, the song in question, performed at the 1989 Grammy Awards, is easily available on Youtube.

23 Ibid., p. 106.

24  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, op. cit., p. 139.

25  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 92.

26 Ibid., p. 95.

27 Idem.

28  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 103. Emphasis in original.

29  See Ibid., p. 99, where we are reminded too that the virtual is not in opposition to the real, but to the actual. See also Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, op. cit., p. 279.

30  This is partially what is expressed in Anti-Oedipus when Difference and Repetition, argue that every representation is a repression. See, for example, Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, op. cit., p. 184.

31  Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, op. cit., p. 280.

32  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 100.

33 Ibid., p. 101.

34 Ibid., p. 103.

35 Ibid., p. 105.

36  This is elaborated first on pages 105-106, but then much more robustly in its separate plateau, “1730: Becoming-Intense, Becoming-Animal, Becoming-Imperceptible…” (Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., pp. 232-309. Ellipsis in original).

37 Ibid., p. 98. Ellipsis in original.

38  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, op. cit., p. 76. Ellipsis in original.

39  Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, translated by H. M. Parshley, New York, Vintage Books, 1973, p. 301.

40  See, for example, Gayatri Spivak, A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, 322, fn. 15.

41  Though Cage uses the word “fascism” on several occasions, I mean the term here primarily in Deleuze and Guattari’s admittedly fairly loose sense. Deleuze and Guattari indicate in their texts some specific affinities to Cage’s work; considering freedom and anarchy, I would point the reader towards Richard Kostelanetz’s interview: Kostelanetz (ed.), Cage: An Anthology, New York, Da Capo Press, 1968 (1991), pp. 6-35.

42  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 84. Emphasis in original.

43 Ibid., p. 27.

44 Ibid., p. 143.

45 Ibid., pp. 27-28. Emphasis in original.

46 Ibid., p. 142.

47 Idem.

48  Clytus Gottwald, “Signale zwischen Exotik und Industrie: Steve Reich auf der Suche nach einer neuen Identität von Klang und Struktur”, in Melos/NZ, Mainz, Schott, January-February 1975, 3-6.

49  Tom Johnson, “Steve Reich and 18 Other Musicians”, in The Voice of New Music: New York City 1972-1982, Eindhoven, Het Apollohuis, 1989, p. 226.

50  Steve Reich, “Steve Reich schreibt an Clytus Gottwald”, translated by Ken W. Bartlett, Melos/NZ, Mainz, Schott, May-June 1975, pp. 198-200.

51  Of course there are plenty of avant-garde composers who do not fit this trajectory: Berio, for example, who taught Reich for a period. “Moment form” comes from Stockhausen, but it is Kramer’s elaboration that we have in mind here (Jonathan D. Kramer, The Time of Music: New Meanings, New Temporalities, New Listening Strategies New York and London, Schirmer Books, 1988).

52  This is a crucial difference between Reich’s (and Glass’s) minimalism and Riley’s, but also between Reich’s and Young’s, though in a different direction.

53  Martin Scherzinger, “Musical Modernism in the Thought of Mille Plateaux, and Its Twofold Politic”, Perspectives of New Music vol. 46, no2, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2008, pp. 130-158.

54  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 107.

55 Idem. Emphasis in original.

56 Ibid., p. 99.

57 Idem.

58  There are numerous potential citations, but we will again content ourselves with one: Milton Babbitt, et al. “Brave New Worlds”, The Musical Times vol. 135, London, Orpheus, 1994, pp. 330-337.

59  John Rahn, “Mille Plateaux, You Tarzan: A Musicology of (an Anthropology of (an Anthropology of A Thousand Plateaus))”, Perspectives of New Music vol. 46, no 2, Seattle, University of Washington Press, 2008, pp. 81-92.

60  Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, op. cit., p. 272.

61  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, op. cit., p. 88.

62  Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus, op. cit., pp. 346-347.


Peter Shelley, «Toward a Much Tensor Music Theory», Filigrane. Musique, esthétique, sciences, société. [En ligne], Numéros de la revue, Deleuze et la musique, mis à  jour le : 23/01/2012, URL : https://revues.mshparisnord.fr:443/filigrane/index.php?id=435.


Quelques mots à propos de :  Peter Shelley

Peter Shelley is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, where he studies music theory under the advising of Jonathan Bernard. He is writing his dissertation on early minimalist music, specifically exploring the aesthetic and formal connections between minimalist music and minimalist sculpture.