Problematizing common organological taxonomies by way of the AACM and the heterogeneous sound ideal
by Jessie Cox
The term Organology is defined as “the science of musical instruments including their classification and development throughout history and cultures as well as the technical study of how they produce sound”. The difficulty of taxonomizing instruments becomes evident when one considers the cultural aspects of any form of grouping as Kartomi suggests in regards to instrument classification by using the idea of “culture-emerging” and “observer-imposed” taxonomical systems. Work by Georgina Born on IRCAM for example, has shown how the organization’s aesthetic values imbued their technology and vice versa. Or, Kassler who alludes to the fact that new research in acoustics should change our system of instrument classification, which shows organology’s socio-historical and epistemological situatedness.
Different apparatuses (or instruments) will give rise to different concepts and vice-versa – grouping things in a certain fashion will also create certain intra-actions (concepts, apparatuses, interactions, subjects, objects, etc.). Intra-action, a term used by Barad, is a term describing the interdependence and co-emergence of material, tools, concepts, subjects and objects (etc.); and can be used to describe the intrinsic relationship between instrument, player and conceptualization of the aural/physical experience. The affordances, and “idiomaticities” of instruments consequentially “reflect both the interface’s possibilities and the player’s motor habits.” as well as an (onto-) epistemology.
By way of Olly Wilson’s theorizing of African/African-diasporic musical aesthetics, the multi-instrumental practice of the AACM can be read as a problematizing of the more common western taxonomies of organology. In theorizing the importance of “the heterogeneous sound ideal” for African and African-diasporic art, he critically challenges organological taxonomies, such as the Hornbostel-Sachs system, and emphasizes the possibility of a different listening, music making, instrumental taxonomizing – musical structuring. The heterogeneous sound ideal manifests itself in two main ways. Firstly, by use of many “different” timbres as part of the same sonic texture (as opposed to homogenous textures such as a string quartet); and secondly, by utilizing “…a wide range of timbres within a single line”.
Theorists and critics have referenced this practice as a focus on “sounds as such”, “percussion instruments”, “small percussion instruments”, multi instrumentalism, etc. These readings of the practice re-sound/resonate an aesthetical understanding imbued with a certain 18th/19th century “European” (founded on the Praetorious’ work De Organographia) organological intra-action (For example a certain understanding of sound (“sound as such”), which has been described by Thompson as being “a racialized perceptual standpoint” that seems to have possible relations with discussions of “culture-emerging” versus “observer-imposed” organological systems, where observer-imposed seems to be a similarly universalized position based on a theorizing of musical spectra as a fundamental taxonomizer.) and its connotations - including aesthetic values; whereas Braxton also uses another term to describe the “little instruments”: “sound tools”, or George Lewis who calls them “individual sound stations”, both avoiding the term instrument altogether . If we consider this performance practice from the perspective of “the heterogeneous sound ideal” then we also have to change our conception of the musical instrument(s); since a grouping of instruments that focuses on, for example, the instrument’s material or its spectral component will favor a grouping (non-musical as well as musical) of “same-sounding” instruments (“instrumental families” – e.g string instruments sound “harmonious” together). This type of organological taxonomy will facilitate mainly (what is seen in western musical aesthetics as) homogeneous sound ideals. In light of this type of intra-action (structuring of instruments, music and even performer/listener) African aesthetic values are seen as having “unusual timbral combinations”. If a different type of instrumental grouping principle is at work then the notion of homogeneity/heterogeneity changes its meaning and (“aural”) manifestation. The AACM, in particular the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s work, seems more in line with the heterogeneous sound ideal, and their use of many little instruments/multi-instrumentalism has to be seen in view of a different organological system. When it comes to the AACM, instruments might lend themselves better to an instrument classification based on the performers themselves and their respective instrumental practices – a grouping based around individuals (also posing questions concerning instrumental and human bodies). George Lewis thinks of the instrumental stations as assemblages, which would support the idea of a grouping of instruments (performers, musical material, and more) based around “closed systems” interacting with each other  – completely circumventing any of the “traditional” instrumental taxonomies. As Roscoe Mitchell mentions while discussing his two compositions “The Maze” and “L-R-G”: “…putting together the piece according to the instruments that each person was dealing with.”. Thinking about instruments in this way changes the resultant instrumental combinations as well as the musical material and so creates another type of aesthetic than thinking of instruments as, for instance, instrumental-families.
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