S Y S T E M S
Most definitions you will find of what systems are will be awfully similar to: "a system is a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts that form a unified whole". According to it, depending on spatial and temporal work-frames, anything and everything can be a system! Give it a proper thought and you will find that it rings true every time. But how can it be relevant to us? Why is it useful to think of systems?
Our brains are particularly good at noticing and recognising patterns. We assimilate, accommodate and interpret them, which makes us adaptive systems ourselves. We react multidimensionally to our environment and change as it changes in order to survive. Basically, many complex systems such as biological life tend to be resilient towards external factors, thus maintaining key characteristics. That is why many things tend to remain being what they are, rather than volatilely becoming something else.
In trying to survive at the lowest cost possible, humans have developed ways to not only understand but also control the surrounding environment as systematically as possible. By imagining and representing portions of reality in the forms of conceptual models, recurring dilemmas could be singled out or relationally better understood. Cause-consequence chains became more examinable, and dominance and manoeuvrability over the principles, rules and laws underlying all sort of things became possible, so problems started being solved with the development of ever-evolving technology, ever so more efficient than previously believed possible. Efficiency became the main aim in enabling the processes which perform the transformation of our reality, taking inputs and producing outputs, considering outcomes and impact, thinking of change, thinking of profit, thinking of efficiency, thinking of power. That's how organisational management of innovation and change became an imposing sociocultural paradigm of contemporary societies.
But not all systematic thinking is an act of instinctive economical pursuit. Much of the type of power coming from systematically understanding the world comes from the sociopolitical dispositions of those who do it. Scientific, artistic and philosophical disciplines, activities, endeavours and accomplishments can be all understood as cultural subsystems themselves, which function within society as a whole, and openly interact with other systems such as markets, governments and organisations in a gigantic complex system of millions of interconnected actors.
E M E R G E N C E
Dichotomies apart, the whole world can be understood and conceptually articulated from the point of view of emergence. Emergence is the process whereby larger entities arise through interactions amongst smaller or simpler parts. To simply start from the parts we actually know, at a subatomic level, we have energetic dynamics happening between neutrons, protons and electrons, which, in different conditions, recognisably behave in different but consistent ways. That's why we call them names, the names of atoms; emergent entities, which in certain combinations, end up being quite commonly found in planets like earth (think of hydrogen or oxygen in the gas form). But more complex molecules can happen. Some organic molecules become systematically organised in the shape of many different types of components and substances depending on how other organic molecular chains (like RNA and DNA) set them up to perform specific tasks. The several different tissues composing cells, which, on a wider scale compose larger organic tissues (like muscles, fat or grey-mass) underlay the functioning of organs, which, together in larger systems, constitute organisms. Living individuals and their living organisms, organise themselves in homologous groups of other individuals. The complex interrelations of all (more or less organised) groups and individuals emerge in the shape of societies, where all ideas, languages and cultures, along with all other higher order concepts are thence still dependent on the very energy that makes electrons navigate their way through space. Concepts such as the mind are hence dependent on the existence of a body of some sort. The concept of politics is dependent on the actors involved in doing politics, and so on…
The time frame is also something to keep in mind. You can almost chronologically organise most of the complexity levels, so that higher orders (sociocultural) are more recent that lower and older (physical and chemical) orders. For instance, we know billions of years passed until all the big-bang-born disperse particulates and energy started conglomerating into the shape of the first complex objects like stars. More billions of years were needed until the first dying starts produced slightly more complex chemical elements inside them, which then formed chemically complex planets, such as the Earth. If you bypass a long geological and chemical stabilisation process (much to do with a steady decrease in the system’s energy levels), the emergence of life on earth started about 3.8 billion years ago and the development of our species, about 250,000 years ago. The appearance of agriculture came about 11,000 years ago (in the Neolithic era), allowing for larger, more complex societies to emerge and suddenly, you have us living right now and dying tomorrow. Yet, we oddly still exist within a chemical and physical universe whilst simultaneously being dependent on both biological and sociocultural systems.
A W O R L D O F D I C H O T O M I E S
Since so much of our lives is indeed about systems, distinguishing between system's features, characteristics and behaviours is important, but this task is not always easy nor straightforward. For instance, in regards to matter and energy exchange, systems can be classified as open, closed or isolated. The universe was theoretically thought to be the only true isolated system since it presumably exchanges neither matter nor energy with its (inexistent) outerspace. Yet, if you think something may there be further than our dear one and only uni-verse, things get tricky. Furthermore, boundaries defining whether systems are open or closed can be somewhat fuzzy, in that something can be more open than it is closed, whilst effectively being both.
Conceptual or concrete systems have been traditionally opposed, in the sense that ideas and the realm of cognitive signs and representations are empirically different from physical concrete systems such as thermodynamics and biological life. But if you think of our brain (a concrete biological structure), it works chemically and physically with electricity in a tight collaboration with both the rest of our body and the environment surrounding us so that patterns emerge in the shape of sensorial experiences, instincts, emotions, sentiments and thoughts, behavioural and sociocultural dispositions etc. Could you tell where exactly the difference is between hardware and software?
Another dichotomy has been maintained in regards to natural and human-made systems, which in truth is more a question about how humans have started dissociating themselves from their environment, mainly in an attempt to understand and control it. The question thus reflects back to us as "when did we become unnatural?" and "why should the things we do be unnatural alike?". Computers today are altogether much more sophisticated than many other living beings out there, and they keep evolving on a daily basis, so when will they become as complex as to ethically challenge us in our own humanness and (un)naturalness?
L A S T W O R D S
Having gone through the theme "system", there are a few other things we would also like you to also think about. First, we don't want to put audiences in a situation where they have to believe that you just used this or that system (no matter how amazingly) to compose an abstract piece of music. We are interested in so much more than in just the utilitarian practicalities of composing with systems, and believe that discourse on the techniques and tools used quite often makes not much for the concept and reasons why one creates in the first place.
If you do use systems to generate and process material, or to produce and control structural features, that’s ok, but you should think about how much of the work is systematic, and about how much of it is kept subject to your freedom of choice. Also, what does your work say about the system you used? How does it say it? What are the communication means through which audiences can access those ideas and concepts? Is it in the aesthetics of the performance? Is it in a support text that accompanies the score and only performers will know it? Is it to be printed on sheets of paper as programme notes? We would prefer that the piece itself had the power to autonomously "tell" audiences what you want to say without the use of much para-textual materials. Decorating and obfuscating ideas with performance is not our thing.
On another note, your piece could intellectually be about systems, rather than a systematic representational model itself, or the product of its use. You could be working with text as material within the universe of the performance, which could be spoken, read, sung, or have its image being projected somewhere. Possibilities are countless but anyways, in sum, whether you will be working about, working on, working with or working through systems, you should seriously consider what are audience members going to be able to access.
Question yourself: How deep can you go? How much of that depth you want to be able to communicate? How specific or general is the approach? Does the understanding of the concept require specialised knowledge and skills? What is the temporal and spatial frame? What is your scope encompassing? Which orders of complexity will you be referring to? Will you be basing yourself on a system's underlining principles or will you be dealing with its general behaviours, the outcomes, the emergent contours? Upon performance, will the performers be building a system live? Or will be they testing a living-system? Is it going to be based on a representation of data (like a conceptual model or structure) or on the actual thing itself? Is the system unfolding during our live-times? Only during the concert? Is it inside the room?
In regards to concepts related to music and performance art, we also welcome pieces that remember performers have bodies, and generally have the ability to speak and move around. How much of performer’s gestures should be choreographed? How much of what they play and say or sing should be written, read, memorised, improvised? What’s the theatrical presence and expressiveness of performers and their positions in space through time? Thinking aesthetically about space the performance occupies: Is there any scenography and lighting work? Is there any special interaction between performers and audiences? Are audience members expected to participate in some specific way? How will they realise that?
Finally, keep in mind that all of the above are not meant as end but rather as entrance points, and that we welcome different approaches, which may not have been mentioned. Also, although innovation is not a priority, we do encourage divergent thinking and experimentation.