Etching & sketching semiotic materialization and improvisation in the creative process

Etching & sketching
semiotic materialization and improvisation in the creative process
Peter Cudmore
School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures
University of Edinburgh
[This is in two parts: transcribed Powerpoint slides, followed by plain text]
… I mentioned in passing that the fundamental purpose of brains is to produce future, and this claim deserves a bit
more attention. In order to cope, an organism must either armour itself (like a tree or a clam) and ‘hope for the
best,’ or else develop methods of getting out of harm’s way and into the better neighbourhoods in its vicinity. If
you follow this latter course, you are confronted with the primordial problem that every agent must continually
Now what do I do? (Dennett 1991, 177)
It depends…
What I hope the examples I’m about to discuss will show is two distinct approaches to the business
of making music.
1. In media res
I was asked to make some ‘classical’ music for a short film. Called Roofrack, it had no dialogue, just
the musical tastes of the two protagonists: a car driver and a hitchhiker.
Some years later, prompted by a conversation about Bergson and intuition, I found myself recalling
a particular episode in that process—specifically, the relationship between the finished product and
the starting point.
I had already composed a parodied classical symphony first movement. I intended, in this episode,
to improvise a Mozartian piano sonata middle movement.
I started by improvising at the keyboard. [audio clip 1]
Aside from the technical infelicity, two things are obvious: first, there is metrical instability. The first
half is more or less in fours, and the second half in threes. Second, there is a rhetorical mismatch
Etching & Sketching (Music & Consciousness, Sheffield 2006) Peter Cudmore
between the first and second parts; the second half not just more intense than the first, but really out
of balance with it.
At some point, I decided instead to do a symphonic second movement to go with the first I already
had, and used the piano material like this. [audio clip 2]
I think, in terms of the sketch and etch relationship, the interesting thing here is that the etch is
actually simpler than the sketch. Maybe it is just me, but I kind of expect the etch to be more
complex than the sketch.
However, what really interests me is that this is just not what I thought composition should be!
Noodling at the piano is, in some sense, cheating! More to the point, one’s imagination is
constrained by one’s instrumental technique.
2. Pre-compositional sketching
What I learned, as a student and then apprentice composer, was a modernist ideology in which the
idea of ‘producing future’ may be a mystery temporarily withheld from the audience, but not from
the composer.
Etching & Sketching (Music & Consciousness, Sheffield 2006) Peter Cudmore
One would be sketching an overall plan—a picture like this being the outcome of that sketching
process, and not part of it
These two slides are a work sort-of-in-progress, an attempt to recreate the pencil & paper process
on the PC, and therein lies the rub.
Etching & Sketching (Music & Consciousness, Sheffield 2006) Peter Cudmore
For years I dreamt of being able to work straight to computer, and cut out the pencil and paper, but
I found that using the computer was a very different experience, and this is just where Bergsonian
intuition comes in.
3. Etching
How might we account for what is going on?
Musical literacy of some sort, in both cases, but that term seems to beg the question. It also, though,
implicitly raises the problem of ‘what is orality’, and ‘what is improvisation’?
Intersubjective technologies
Anaphoric intuition
Semiotic materialization
Representational Redescription
If you’ll forgive the snowstorm of neologisms, I call the general area of focus ‘intersubjective
I use the term ‘anaphoric intuition’ for the somatic performance, and ‘semiotic materialization’ for
the pencil-and-paper sketching.
Both of them, I think, depend on a capability that Annette Karmiloff-Smith calls ‘Representational
[Powerpoint section ends]
Intersubjectivity is a term used in the context of studying communication between pre-linguistic
infants and their care-givers where, in the absence of language, there is distinctive evidence of shared
control of meaning. Vocal exchanges in this period can be characterized in terms of the
development of the prosodic substrate on which oral language is founded—something that I call
‘Somatic Metre’. It sounds singular but is radically polyphonic, using Dennett’s multiple drafts model
to turn the Protagorean man, who is ‘the measure of all things’ into a performative.
As language—the first intersubjective technology—emerges, a process of integration yields a
progression to a point where information in the system becomes knowledge to the system. Semiotic
materialization capacities are subsequently accumulated by the developing mind—at least, within
modernity this is so.
I think this idea of shared control of meaning is very important, and I find it particularly resonant that
this regime precedes language acquisition. I feel that the stress on language in the philosophy of
mind may be obstructing our view of something that has been in front of our noses all along:
I argue that art—in the conventionally restricted sense—should be understood as a class of
technologies whose shared property is intersubjectivity, and whose shared function is to support the
oral performance of society. In that respect alone art differs from other creative activity—notably
discovery and invention. In other respects the cognitive processes engaged by the making of art,
discovery and invention share substantial theoretical common ground. The differential between the
art experienced in modernity and the art experienced in primarily or exclusively oral culture is not a
by-product of the processes of modernization, and not merely a reflection of these processes or a
commentary on them but a crucial and indispensable component of these processes in consequence
of that shared theoretical common ground.
Etching & Sketching (Music & Consciousness, Sheffield 2006) Peter Cudmore
I use ‘technology’ as a conceptual rather than material term of path-dependent interrelatedness. Path
dependence emerges from the interaction of three conditions: technical interrelatedness; economies
of scale; and quasi-irreversibility. In the famous case of the qwerty typewriter keyboard, an arbitrary,
sub-optimal layout is locked in (apparently, the layout permitted salesmen to type the word
“typewriter” conveniently):
In addition to the corporations manufacturing the instrument, and the customers buying it, the
instrument required operators (who would not, on the whole, be the purchasing customer) and these
operators required training. As an investment, from the customer’s point of view, the value of the
instrument depended on the continuing availability of operators. From the operator’s perspective,
investing in the necessary training conferred a ‘pecuniary externality’, and in time a symmetrical
benefit accrued for an emerging market for instruction in touch-typing that reduced the per-unit
cost of undertaking training, and of providing it.
Representational Redescription
I believe that the same kind of lock-in underpins the cognitive achievements Karmiloff-Smith
captures in her term ‘Representational Redescription’.
‘Representations, along with mental states, especially beliefs and thoughts, are said to exhibit
INTENTIONALITY in that they refer to or stand for something else.’ (Schwartz) This statement makes
explicit the functional coupling between thoughts (the ‘structure of internal representational
elements, combined in a lawful way’ (Clark)) and the range of things we purposefully put there in the
environment to remind ourselves of these thoughts. Implicitly, a further link is made with what I call
‘the language layer’, the third order of intentionality that Dennett regards as distinctively human.
Representational Redescription, as Karmiloff-Smith applies the term, refers to a set of staged
learning outcomes broadly related to the childhood acquisition of language and literacy. At first, the
child simply has two unrelated representations that perform two different functions. The first step
beyond is for this knowledge to become available to the system so that the similarity can be
compared. At this second stage, however, the child cannot yet explain the difference between the
two different functions. The knowledge has become manifest in the system, but the system requires
further development before knowledge becomes fully available to introspection (Clark & KarmiloffSmith 1993, 496–8).
The example I like to use is the difference between wool on a sheep’s back, and wool in the clothes
we might be wearing on a cooler day than this. The first step is appropriation—at some point our
ancestors came to discover the warmth and shelter fleece affords, and made a practice of
appropriating that property systematically.
Now, carded and spun—re-presented—the fleece loses its real properties but gains imaginary
properties. It becomes useful for a variety of potential purposes, but is useful only insofar as such
purposes may be conceived. Woven or knitted into textile form—re-described—the original
insulating and water-repelling properties of the fleece are real once more, but the imaginary
dimension remains because the textile still retains the potential for further translation. To be sure, a
lot of that potential is already inscribed in the textile—tweed makes suits, plaid makes kilts and so
on—but the end is not ordained, and is not directly inferable from the beginning.
Anaphoric intuition
Representational Redescription is the process that operationalizes the next element I want to talk
about. Intuition is a term that has acquired a specialized meaning for philosophers, one that seems
to have a close relationship with geometry. Anaphoric intuition, then, has a developmental
dimension to it that links with representational redescription and the conceptual thinking that it
Etching & Sketching (Music & Consciousness, Sheffield 2006) Peter Cudmore
We find Bergson, in Creative Evolution as elsewhere, repeatedly talking about space. If he does not
state it explicitly, we may nevertheless assume that in Bergson’s mind when he talks about space it is
a reasoned, geometric account of space. If he does not feel obliged to state it explicitly, it is because
he assumes that those in his networld share the same training, the same tacit knowledge. Thus intuition
as he defines it depends critically on the conditioning input of others. Not in the banal sense in
which canonic thought is the progressive reflection of an ever richer polyphony of opinion, but in a
deeper sense in which abstractions—exemplified for instance by Euclid’s postulates—tend to
condition the terms in which these reflections are articulated.
At issue here is the structuralization and formalization of learning that cumulatively constitutes the
achievement of literacy in an individual. Literacy, it seems plain, means something more than just the
ability to read, write, and perform arithmetic. It appears to be the acquisition of a repertoire of
intuitions, which tend to tumble stochastically according to path-dependent predispositions.
I see a three-fold progression from recursion (the homeostatic, native appropriative state), via representation (the ability to detach instance from its temporal context) to re-description (the ability to
reuse these detached instances constructively and systematically). Intuition is now coming to seem to
be a confidence, or competence, in manipulating these abstractions at the same time as preserving
its more natural pattern-completing sense. This is something that does not arise in an individual
except through a long process of maturation, nor does it ordinarily reach such a pitch of perfection
that it is not amenable to tuning and refinement.
Because re-presentation depends critically upon registers and external storage, I am inclined to call
this mode ‘extuition’. While any particular register may be rigorously ordered and resistant to the
implicit laziness of intuition, the totality of register—the archive, to use Foucault’s term—is
amenable to pattern-forming navigation in the organic manner familiar to the term ‘intuition’. This
extuition lies between two intuitions, or pattern-completing modes. The first, familiar in oral
contexts, is ‘affective intuition’, since it operates with unmediated sensory data. The second is
‘anaphoric intuition’—anaphora being, in grammar, ‘The use of a word which refers to, or is a
substitute for, a preceding word or group of words’ (OED). This functions (or so I assume) in the
same way as affective intuition, but the crucial difference is that the principles of substitution must
be learned—and by learned I mean that someone other than the individual intended that the
individual should learn it. Thus anaphoric intuition correlates with the geometrical apprehension of
The point, in respect of the first example of music-making that I presented, is that mostly it just
made itself out of these pre-installed intuitions.
Semiotic materialization
The second example reflects the continuation of representational redescription processes in
adulthood. Striking support (I believe) comes from an example Andy Clark discusses in Mindware
(2001, 147–50), following research conducted by Van Leeuwen, Verstijnen, and Hekkert into the
practices of visual artists. These subjects’ practices are ‘heavily dependent on “an interactive process
of imagining, sketching and evaluating”’ (147). That is how my second example seems to me. I’ve
taken to calling this ‘semiotic materialization’, because the process seems to me to be an active
search for appropriate, communicative forms of expression—a making gesture in which the
progression from immaterial to material needn’t necessarily be complete, and possibly needs not to
be complete.
The focus of van Leeuwen et al. is the function of sketch-making in the creative process. Why do
painters make preparatory sketches, rather than committing their conception directly and
immediately to the frame? What the team uncovers is a sharp distinction between the capacity for
manipulating abstract mental images—for thinking about images—and the way in which in which
perceptive faculties parse incoming sense data. In particular, synthesis is easier to perform in realtime than analysis—while it is fairly simple to look at the letters D and J, and imagine them
Etching & Sketching (Music & Consciousness, Sheffield 2006) Peter Cudmore
recombined to form the shape of an umbrella, decomposing complex forms into simpler
components on the fly is much more difficult.
Certain forms of abstract art … depend heavily on the deliberate creation of ‘multilayered
meanings’—cases in which a visual form, on continued inspection, supports multiple different
structural interpretations. Given the postulated constraints on mental imagery, it is likely that
the discovery of such multiply interpretable forms will depend heavily on the kind of trial-anderror process in which we first sketch and then perceptually (not imaginatively) reencounter the
forms, which we can then tweak and resketch so as to create an increasingly multilayered set of
structural interpretations. (149)
The relationship between iteration and environmental feedback, between externalizing and reassimilating is, Clark stresses, integral to artistic cognition. What usefully isolates creativity as a
performance, in these terms, is precisely the focused, iterative attention—the element of intentional
return. The defect in the convenient approximation of this procedure as ‘trial-and-error’ lies with the
second term. The term I would substitute is simply ‘feed’. Any ‘trial’ is subject to a range of feedback
possibilities, from negative to positive, passing through no-feedback-at-all. Negative versus positive
is a false opposition; what matters for a learning experience is that feedback occurs at all. More often
than not, null feedback response is the norm. Rather than an opposition between positive and
negative feedback, the appropriate modifier that fosters creativity is the idea of feedforward.
Technically speaking, feed-forward behaviour is predefined response to measured perturbation,
especially when the state after perturbation is stable in such environments as gene regulation of
growth. In this sense the sketch is a temporary eigenvector, enabling the experimental exploration of
a local space that can subsequently be re-sketched as stability is established, or etched in the sense in
which a product is finalized and presented for inspection. The product can be a work of art, and
equally it can be the reporting of experimental data in a scientific paper.
Rather than literacy, then, I prefer to think in terms of a set of three interrelated competences—oral,
symbolic and conceptual—mobilized by representational redescription. Symbolic here is more a
matter of semiotic knowhow, whether alphabetic script, math notation or music, whereas the
conceptual is more concerned with the personal cognitive management of the set of symbolic mindtools. Of the two examples, the first tends more to the oral: despite the symphonic artifice, the
process of capturing performance in media res and layering it is more like—for instance—studio work
with a band. The second tends more to the conceptual, though both are supported by the symbolic.
I guess it would be useful to say something about what I intended to communicate in each case, and
to whom. But that’ll have to wait until some other time.
Etching & Sketching (Music & Consciousness, Sheffield 2006) Peter Cudmore
Bergson, H. (1911). Creative Evolution. (A. Mitchell, Trans.) London: Macmillan.
Clark, A. (1993). Associative Engines: Connectionism, Concepts, and Representational Change. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.
Clark, A. (1994). Language of thought (2). In S. Guttenplan (Ed.), A Companion to the Philosopy of
Mind. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.
Clark, A. (2001). Mindware: an introduction to the philosophy of cognitive science. Oxford: Oxford University
Clark, A., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1993). The Cognizer’s Innards: A Psychological and Philosophical
Perspective on the Development of Thought. Mind and Language, 8 (4), 487–519.
Clark, A., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1993). What’s Special About the Development of the Human
Mind/Brain? Mind and Language, 8 (4), 569–81.
Dennett, D. C. (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York: Little, Brown & Co.
Karmiloff-Smith, A. (1992). Beyond Modularity: A developmental perspective on cognitive science. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.
Ong, W. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The technologizing of the word. London: Methuen.
Schwartz, R. (1994). Representation. In S. Guttenplan (Ed.), A Companion to the Philosopy of Mind.
Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.