The cover of Florian Hecker’s last major release, Acid in the Style of David Tudor, consisted of the first page of an academic essay that outlined the philosophical issues Hecker was attempting to elucidate through his highly conceptual recording. If you, like I did, first tried to consume that album casually and without access to the essay, the concept was pretty obscure to hear. The cover’s unreadability when squeezed into the tiny display on my iPod pretty well symbolized my initial incomprehension about how to understand the hail of ear-screeching tones that it tagged. Fortunately for my credibility as a reviewer of experimental music, my candyass first impression was not the final word on how I would relate to that piece. I am not of the opinion that music has to in some way “stand on its own” separate from process or content. The success of Lady Gaga alone proves that listeners are just as interested in concept as with the sound information presented to them in the form of music — how much interest would her singles sustain without her costumes, videos, and high-art aspirations? Hecker’s Speculative Solution is a conceptual tour de force worthy of the fame monster herself: a CD and 160-page booklet of philosophical essays that plunges the listener into a vivid, gut-wrenchingly experiential test of philosopher Quentin Meillassoux’s concept of hyperchaos.
Speculative Solution comes housed in an embossed box that contains five ball bearings, making the whole package a composition in its own right before the box is even opened. As the bearings rattle and slide, the sounds they generate are chaotic in that their exact sound output will always be governed by chance, but the broad parameters of their output are anything but. They follow the natural laws that we have induced from past experience — as solids, they are clearly inside the box and will remain inside the box unless an opening is made. They will never make noise from outside the box. Or will they? I suspect these bearings are meant to call to mind David Hume’s problem of induction, in which Hume uses the example of one billiard ball striking another to question whether we can trust that the laws which seemed to govern their collision can be certain to pertain in the future. Hume concluded we could never know with certainty what would happen the next time one ball hit another — whether it would break to one side or the other, or fly up off the table, or disappear altogether. Several decades later, Immanuel Kant disposed of this question for all of philosophy. If the universe was really random, he reasoned, if there really was no natural law, then the world as we know it could not exist, for nature would, according to the laws of probability, change at times with such rapidity that coherent human consciousness would be impossible. Meillassoux, in this project with Hecker, raises a “speculative solution” to this problem: Hyperchaos. In contrast to chaos, by which we usually mean “disorder, randomness, the eternal becoming of everything,” hyperchaos is so radically contingent “that even becoming, disorder, or randomness can be destroyed by it, and replaced by order, determinism, and fixity.”
If there is no natural law, as Hume challenged philosophy to consider, then there is no law of probability either: “A world that obeys no law,” Meillassoux asserts, “has no reason to obey a probabalistic or statistical law whatsoever.” A world that is truly chaotic would be indifferent to what we expect chaos to look or sound like — instead, there is nothing to stop it from looking perfectly ordered, with the regions of instability or what Meillassoux calls “chaotic details” relegated to unseen corners of time or space. As Robin Mackay, who also wrote the essay included with Hecker’s previous album, puts it, the chaos produced by chance is merely an “infinittesimal quotation” out of the infinity of hyperchaos. Hyperchaos is capable of sustaining “apparently endless and stable periods of constancy as much as infinite periods of furious change,” but nothing, least of all our science, natural laws, or rules of probability, can prevent it from, at any moment, turning itself inside out, like Hume’s billiard balls.
I assume, then, that Hecker’s contribution to this speculative solution was not produced according to anything like Cage’s chance operations. He actually gives no clue as to his process on this recording. Instead, Hecker leaves his logic a mystery as he spins out alien sound worlds with exactly this hyperchaotic indifference to how “random” they sound. Some of these sound patterns last for a matter of seconds, and others for 10 minutes, but each follows a strange, unfamiliar order all its own. This album affords a feeling of shifting ground, of impersonal, epochal transformations taking place as fast as you can take note of them. When a pattern is sustained for any length of time, it follows an alien physics, bumping along like a misshapen wheel, only to fall into the lake of minute-long silence in the middle of the recording.
The task of this recording is to allow us, the listeners, to really feel the radical contingency of Meillassoux’s concept of hyperchaos. Hecker has a longstanding interest in psychoacoustics, which seeks to unite sound perception, the workings of the brain, and the environment. He is trying to experience these ideas through listening. In an interview with The Wire, Hecker asserts that his music is not about sound, but the perception of sound: “It’s about the phenomenology of experiencing the piece.” The sounds are a merely a means to get to this, a certain physical, emotional, and mental state. Thus, the recording is itself a philosopical exercise, a way of testing out philosophical ideas in lived experience. This is the difference between logically knowing a proposition and really feeling it.
Indeed, hyperchaos, in Speculative Solution, is not a sound but a feeling. It is not, as Meillassoux insists, “a genre, style, state, or entity.” Instead, “it can only be an inhabiting of a moment neither quiet nor loud, harsh or gentle, chaotic or calm, organic or inorganic, ordered or disordered.” Mackay calls Hecker’s composition “a spiritual exercise that employs the mechanisms of the imagination in order to deliver them to their proper, imageless, element, which is also that of reason.” Meillassoux’s philosophy, not to mention the sounds of Hecker’s recording, is not complete until it has been experienced.
For years, Hecker focused exclusively on sound installations instead of releasing recordings, and the tones on this album have a physical brittle presence in the room when they are played out loud. Listening to this album at high volumes in my house, I felt a bit like a classic mad scientist experimenting on himself. Ear-splitting screeches erupt out of passages of barely audible glitches. I swear some tones swept across my room like circular saws. Others exploded into diamond-hard shards. The sounds on this recording are constantly threatening collapse, which is dramatized most vividly on “Octave Chronics.” Unbearable aggressive ear-ringing frequencies sustain themselves for a few minutes at a time before dissipating and being replaced by another set of nascent sounds, eventually stabilizing into a constellation of digital bleeps that manages to hold on for the final 10 minutes of the track. This is the album’s most sustained and continuous section, as well as the most baroque, a complex architecture of rising and falling digital coordinates. After so much uncertainty, this relative peace is welcome (if monotonous), but the experiences of the rest of the album also bring about a feeling of dread. You learn that this predictability is only a caprice of hyperchaos, with no underlying order to speak of. The CD doesn’t end so much as blink out of existence, with no regard for the tentative practice of listening that the listener has built up over the course of the composition. Hecker, in Speculative Solution, plunges the listener into that moment when Hume’s billiard strikes its target, in which philosophically, literally anything could happen, and in doing so helps us to learn what it is to be human in a universe that is not going to consult us before it ends.