How Jennifer Walshe is Reinventing the Music of the Past and Reclaiming the Music of the Future
By Paul March-Russell
One of the highlights of the 2022 Proms season was the London premiere of The Site of an Investigation (2018) by the Irish avant-garde composer Jennifer Walshe. This thirty-three minute piece in twenty-six sections offered a synopsis of Walshe’s preoccupations. Walshe herself, sounding like a cross between Laurie Anderson and Diamanda Galas, took the role of soloist, offering an elegiac commentary upon such topics as the race to Mars, the threat to the oceans and the prospect of digital immortality. The orchestra, largely acting as the symphonic backdrop to Walshe’s fragmented monologue, were further inveigled into the proceedings by waving party streamers, building and demolishing a tower of bricks, and wrapping a four-foot high giraffe in crinkly paper. Both the absurdity and incoherence of the piece, culled from an array of internet sources, recalled ‘the blip culture bombardment’ of the mediascape in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985).
Exactly a hundred years since the first composition of Kurt Schwitters’s sound poem Ursonate (1922-32), a text that Walshe cites as an inspiration, such anti-art performances can still drive audiences either to delight or despair. In Walshe’s case, however, The Site of an Investigation is only an adjunct to her two main projects in recent years. The first, Aisteach, archives an alternate history of an Irish musical avant-garde that never existed, presenting original sound recordings and learned academic discussion. The second, The Text Score Dataset 1.0, involves the compilation of over 3000 text scores with which to retrain machine learning algorithms so that new scores can be generated by AI. This article offers an introduction to these two projects from the perspective of Walshe’s acknowledged debts to science fiction. The final section presents a speculative synthesis since, at the time of writing, Walshe has not linked the two projects together. But what if Aisteach was included as part of the dataset? What kind of future music emerges from an invented set of past sounds? How might we reclaim the future as well as the past? Could we obviate that ‘slow cancellation of the future’ as described by Mark Fisher and others?
The Past That Never Was
Aisteach, from the Irish meaning ‘peculiar’, ‘queer’ or ‘strange’ but also ‘wonderful’ and ‘droll’, was formerly launched by Walshe as an online archive – with funding from the Arts Council of Ireland – in 2014. The idea, though, emerged from a long gestation, beginning with the project, Grúpat (2007-9), in which Walshe curated the work of nine avant-garde artists, all of whom were fictitious and were instead her own alter egos. As Walshe has acknowledged, she not only uses fake identities ‘because they are so liberating’ but because they also reflect back upon her own persona as ‘a social construct’. The malleability of identity has been a key element of Walshe’s oeuvre since such early pieces as her opera for Barbie dolls, XXX_Live_Nude_Girls!!! (2003). Walshe’s self-positioning in her work evokes comparisons with a long tradition of experimental female artists, perhaps most notably, the American photographer Cindy Sherman and Walshe’s near-contemporary, the video artist Rachel Maclean. Although the playfulness of Walshe’s multiple identities stems from such avant-garde sources as Dada and the Irish author Flann O’Brien (the pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan, also known as Myles na Gopaleen), ideas of estrangement and constructability can be retraced to Walshe’s love of the fantastical, including science fiction. As Walshe herself comments: ‘You have folk horror in the UK, with films such as Penda’s Fen and The Wicker Man, but in Ireland, it’s not necessarily horror – it’s Other and magickal and superstitious… And you have this weird hybrid in the rural areas: Catholicism grafted onto paganism.’
The clearest example of this love for weird and speculative fiction that occurs in Grúpat is The Parks Service’s Legend of the Fornar Resistance, a role-playing game set in a post-apocalyptic Ireland renamed Emeraldia and populated by abcanny creatures known as ‘chimeric mutants’. As Walshe emphasises in her 2018 talk for the Sonic Acts Academy, this posthuman vision of the future has nothing to do with Celtic revivalist folk art – the myths and legends espoused by such varied writers as W.B. Yeats, Lady Gregory and Lord Dunsany – and much more to do with the early Irish science fiction reclaimed by such scholars as Jack Fennell. Fennell’s work, documenting a hidden history of ‘different, alternative futures’, aided Walshe in thinking through a dilemma: ‘how do we dream forward into the future in Ireland’ because ‘if we’re completely trapped in the past, we’re completely screwed’?
Walshe’s interest in the cultural and political potential of lost futures suggests an affinity with the claims of hauntology as reworked in the 2000s by pop culture commentators such as Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds. In her talk, ‘Ghosts of the Hidden Layer’ (2018), Walshe acknowledges the similarities but also proposes a crucial difference:
Aisteach is haunted by a past which suppressed, marginalised and erased many voices. Aisteach is not interested in fetishising this past. The crackle on the recordings is not there for cosy retro warmth or nostalgia for the rare oul times – it’s sand on the lens, grit between the tape heads, violently hacking history to urge us to create a better future. And a better future means being alert and responsible to the present.
By contrast, for Fisher and Reynolds, the retromania of the 2000s precludes any progression into the future; as Fisher puts it, the future dwindles into a spiral: ‘it winks out, unravels, gradually falls apart’. Although Fisher argued for the reclamation of those lost futures, the points at which the historical narrative could have proceeded differently, his overwhelming view of history tends to be rectilineal: the lost futures return only as ghosts. Not only was Fisher, like Walshe, a science fiction fan, but they both also experimented with science fiction as musical producers (Fisher’s musical career, however, did not progress beyond the single EP, Entropy in the UK , released by D-Generation). In taking inspiration from William Gibson’s mantra that ‘you need science fiction oven mitts to handle the hot casserole’ of contemporary times, Walshe adopts a science-fictional solution to the missing history of Ireland’s avant-garde musical past.
Walshe’s first foray came with one of the final exhibitions under Grúpat. ‘Irish Need Not Apply’ (2010), held at New York’s Chelsea Art Museum, featured recordings allegedly from 1952 and attributed to three Irish folk musicians, one of whom had been born in the US and had apparently been exposed to the post-war avant-garde of composers such as John Cage. The resultant minimalism, known as dordán (or ‘drone’), was explained by Walshe to The Quietus: ‘I think that’s the core, because you have the uilleann pipes and you have these drones, so it seems completely natural that you’d get rid of all the diddly-eye bit’. Once Walshe had had the idea of rooting ambient-style drones into Irish folk culture, and authenticating its existence through the use of circumstantial evidence, she had a template upon which she could build the Aisteach project.
Nonetheless, to create a convincing alternate history necessitated real research into what was known and unknown in the existing archives. Walshe scoured both the Encyclopaedia of Music in Ireland and the Contemporary Music Centre for traces of an Irish avant-garde but found nothing. She did not accept this absence though as non-existence but, as she later informed the composer and lecturer Rob Casey, as a sign of repression:
There is a lot missing from that archive. And there’s a lot missing, not just because it’s missing because it existed, but there’s a lot missing because it never existed, because there was never space for it to exist, probably outside of people’s heads.
Aisteach, then, should properly be conceived as the creation of space: an interstitial realm within the material confines of history, culture, economics and received wisdom. Walshe’s starting-point in 2012, volume one in what she termed the ‘Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-Garde’, was a group known as ‘the Guinness Dadaists’. As she notes in her biography for the group, the Guinness brewery ‘was a remarkably progressive employer’ for the early 1920s. With decent wages, good working conditions and sufficient leisure time, it is conceivable that a trio of workers, cognisant of both Celtic revivalism and Joycean modernism and caught up in the politics of the Irish civil war (1922-3), might just have had the opportunity to create sound poetry, Dadaist sculptures and private happenings. Despite a disclaimer at the top of the Aisteach website that all the artists archived are fictitious, each biography is meticulously detailed, richly illustrated with photographs and images of found documents from library archives, and augmented by Walshe’s own recordings of the music and spoken texts. In other words, much of the thought that underwrites Aisteach has gone not just into worldbuilding – that familiar criterion for effective speculative fiction – but into making this space both credible and viable, that is to say, so it can live and be generative.
This last point is crucial for distinguishing Aisteach from an intellectual prank. The purpose of the archive is to inspire its visitors with what might have been and what might yet be. The artists that Walshe and her collaborators have created are all outliers – whether they are factory workers, itinerant folk musicians, homosexuals, paganists, nuns or wireless enthusiasts. Avant-garde art could not have formed in any other way in Ireland, Walshe claims, because the systems of patronage that existed elsewhere were absent; and what support did exist, as from such aristocratic figures as Lady Gregory, promoted the nostalgia of Celtic revivalism. Instead, avant-garde art could only exist in the fissures that, due to socio-economic opportunities, fleetingly opened up within the dominant culture of Ireland; voices from the margins denied by their own homeland. Despite her disdain for the sentimental myth-making of Irish culture, part of Walshe’s aesthetic attaches itself romantically to the vatic figure of the outsider. Her worldbuilding, however, situates such romantic tendencies within a carefully conceived alternate history drawn from speculations into real-world material conditions. The situatedness of Walshe’s inquiry, as opposed to its fantastical or even outrageous qualities, speaks directly to the visitor’s own embodied existence: what opportunities do you have, within your life, of creating art? And if you do, why delay? Why not turn the imaginary into the actual? The Guinness Dadaists, if they had existed, would have done so.
The Present That Could Be
Aisteach, then, is not only composed of fragments that claim to emerge from the cracks of Irish culture but is itself a fragment which, with its ‘acute singularity, steely point’, cracks open (as Walshe suggests) the case of history. In particular, she asks, who gets to curate history and who gets to be curated? Aisteach is an intervention that despite, or because of, its ‘drollness’ provokes ‘wonder’ in the visitor and ‘queers’ how history is both produced and consumed. Aisteach cracks, is cracked, but is also craic: a good time, full of conversation that roams between news and gossip, provokes laughter and music, and is enjoyed in company with friends (both old and new). Most of all, Aisteach is an invitation, or as Walshe declares, a portal to an alternate dimension.
In reclaiming this mythical history, Walshe also establishes her bearings as a contemporary artist. To be contemporary is, as Giorgio Agamben suggests, to recognise that you are ‘on the threshold’ of a time that is coming into being. As Agamben enumerates, the artist is not only aware of their anachronism but ‘more capable than others of perceiving and grasping their own time’; they embody ‘this fracture’, both impeding and suturing time as it emerges; they not only ‘gaze on the darkness of the epoch’, but also ‘perceive in this darkness a light’ that is both ‘already’ and ‘not yet’. Walshe has compared her feelings of liminality to that of Bruce Sterling’s ‘dark euphoria’: ‘it’s like anything is possible, but you never realized you’re going to have to dread it so much. It’s like a leap into the unknown. You’re falling toward earth at nine hundred kilometres an hour and then you realize there’s no earth there.’ However, whereas Sterling’s vertiginous description echoes the Conradian injunction to immerse oneself in the most destructive element, much quoted by J.G. Ballard, Walshe’s liminality stems as much from gender discrimination as it does from the coming storm of technological modernity. Walshe’s current project seeks not only to make sense of the contemporary moment but to also insert herself, and others like her, into the rapidly emerging future, just as she previously created fake histories for musical ancestors whom she needed ‘to exist’ to ‘justify my existence as an artist’. As Walshe has stated: ‘women composers have been disenfranchised or marginalised or overlooked and there’s no male composers being asked to comment on that or talk about the structural inequalities that would have resulted in that. They just get away with being composers.’
As an artist who came of age in the early 2000s, Walshe has grown up with both the Internet and social media. Pieces such as the four-minute sung composition, ‘G L O R I’ (2005), consisting of about a hundred samples from pop songs, replicated the early digital experience of surfing the Net, clicking on webpages and downloading from sites such as Spotify. Later works, such as the video opera The Total Mountain (2014) which sets Facebook posts to music, captures both the banality of social media content and the profound recognition that this is where millions of people now spend much of their lives. In her current project, The Text Score Dataset 1.0 (2021), Walshe takes this investigation one step further: instead of reproducing the experience of life online, Walshe actively intervenes in the algorithms that are blurring the boundaries between virtuality and actuality, human and non-human.
Walshe admits to having been fascinated with text scores since her student days. For her, ‘text scores are like sci-fi or Borges stories or Heston Blumenthal cookbooks. These are texts that can be bonkers … but they’re also speculative pieces.’ They are also communal spaces: in 2013, Walshe began distributing text scores to whoever wanted to use them via Snapchat in a service she called THMOTES (an abbreviation of Thingmote, a former Viking mound in Ireland where public debates would have been staged). Walshe contends that text scores ‘are the most democratic, efficient, powerful form of notation’ since they can incorporate sources from the wider culture. As such, the text score is not unlike a Schwitters collage, a chance composition by Cage, or a Charles Olson open-field poem, in which the verse is both ‘a high-energy construct and, at all points, an energy-discharge’. Walshe takes the democracy of the text score further by submitting it to a recursive process of composition.
Beginning with her own notebooks, known collectively as Book is Book, Walshe submitted her writing to a machine learning project run by composers and AI specialists Bob Sturm and Oded Ben Tal. What she received was (depending upon the reader’s point of view) gobbledygook or a Dadaist text. Walshe, however, regarded it as ‘a document from the future, blueprints for a piece which I try to reverse engineer in the present.’ She then took the text, learnt it for her own voice, and resubmitted her recording to the AI. Such pieces are potentially never-ending since the back and forth between human and machine, the constant changes and modifications, are theoretically indefinite. But with each exchange the machine learns and Walshe deepens her own understanding of ‘new artistic vocabularies, systems of logic and syntax, completely fresh structures and dramaturgies.’
Since then, Walshe has expanded her compositional field. Collaborations with neural networks such as IS IT COOL TO TRY HARD NOW? (2017) and ULTRACHUNK (2018) derive, respectively, from a melange of Internet sources selected by Walshe or from hours of her own improvised singing recorded and uploaded to the AI. Alongside these pieces, Walshe and her collaborators compiled The Text Score Dataset 1.0, a four-year project that consisted of collecting, compiling and formatting over 3000 text scores which could then form the basis of new pieces generated by and with AI. The fruits of this first project, including the live performance Ireland: A Dataset and the recording A Late Anthology of Early Music, vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance (both 2020), are not so much products as waymarkers. The latter, for example, follows ULTRACHUNK by mapping the AI-generated music, derived from over 800 files of Walshe’s improvised singing, onto a repertoire of early western classical pieces. The former, clearly indebted to the parallel worlds of Aisteach, feeds a range of Irish music – from traditional sean-nós through to The Dubliners, Enya and Riverdance – into an AI; the music produced, however strange and garbled from the original sources, is sung with sincerity by the experimental vocal group Tonnta.
As Walshe acknowledges, such compositions resemble the AI-generated nonsense script of the short science fiction film, Sunspring (2016), but she argues that there are crucial differences. The first is that, unlike Sunspring, recordings such as A Late Anthology of Early Music have been produced from forty reiterations of the AI text; in other words, the text has been changed, modified and refined to become something that isn’t simply meaningless. Secondly, whereas Sunspring was little more than a well-conceived joke, Walshe’s projects involve serious research questions and methodologies. In particular, Walshe notes that the script of Sunspring was produced from a dataset of ‘run of the mill Hollywood’ films mostly ‘written and directed by men’. Consequently, the AI produced a series of male tropes and dramatic clichés, reiterating the biases that were already there in the dataset. Walshe’s aim has been to get beyond these limitations, to displace dominant (male) voices and to recentre marginal (female, queer, proletarian) ones. As Walshe acknowledges in the booklet that accompanies The Text Score Dataset 1.0, her attempt to decolonise the dataset of such biases is incomplete, limited by ‘what’s easily accessible’ and therefore mostly Eurocentric. Yet, this only acts as a spur to the next iteration of the dataset: Walshe ends her introduction by invoking the communal spirit of the text score and asking for people to submit their own contributions via her website.
The Future We Want
There is then something of the tech-utopian about Walshe, an overhang perhaps of her student days in the mid-1990s when the convergence of the World Wide Web and digital sampling appeared to be ushering in the musical epoch predicted by Cage when mechanical reproduction ‘will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard.’ In ‘Ghosts of the Hidden Layer’, though, Walshe sounds a cautionary note. Whilst predicting that ‘within 15 to 40 years, machines will be able to write music, in many genres, which is indistinguishable from that written by humans’, Walshe acknowledges a variety of consequences: unemployment for many musicians; aesthetic challenges to the nature of authorship and authenticity; and political threats since AIs will be the instruments of global corporations – and the creation of music will be the least of our worries. Although she admits to playing for now in ‘the Wild West section of the Uncanny Valley’, Walshe describes her own position as one of sublime excitement and dark horror at ‘what is coming’: the ‘psychological space’ from where her creativity emanates. She therefore ends her talk with a rallying cry to her audience: ‘We are all involved, we are all enmeshed, we are all implicated in the development of AI… Every second of every day, our behaviour provides the data for machine learning systems to train on.’ We may not be musical composers, but through how we interact with digital technology on a daily basis, we are composing the future that is beginning to emerge. And is this the future that we want?
In her current work, Walshe is actively seeking to retrain AI so that it can generate music that doesn’t replicate compositional history with all of the male, white, heterosexual biases intact. Instead, she is attempting to create AI that plays with that history, producing genuinely diverse and alien texts. As can be heard in Ireland: A Dataset, Walshe is still playing with what it means to be Irish, rejecting parochial and patriarchal definitions for a ludic and fantastical ‘Futurism of the fen and the bog’. However, what Walshe has not yet done to my knowledge is to draw these twin projects together. Since text and musical scores underwrite the Aisteach project, it would be conceivable to feed this alternate musical history into the next series of datasets for Walshe’s AIs to be trained upon. Furthermore, since Walshe felt that the creation of this parallel world was integral to her own musical identity, it would live on, merging with the historically real text scores and helping to generate new AI music: Walshe’s ‘document’ from a future time. In reclaiming a musical past that Walshe felt should have existed, potentially, she could also calibrate the future that is coming into existence. There is in this proposal, as Walshe herself touches upon in ‘Ghosts of the Hidden Layer’, a hyperstitional quality, that is to say, ‘ideas that, once “downloaded” into the cultural mainframe … act as catalysts, engendering further (and faster) change and subversion’. At the same time however, although the principle of retro-engineering characterises both hyperstition and Walshe’s recursive process of composing with AIs, I would not want to subsume her work under the broad category of Accelerationism. As Walshe indicates, she is both jubilant and fearful of what that ever more intense future may hold for us and the planet. Instead, as with so many other aspects of her writing, Walshe is ludically riffing upon such ideas – what she wants, most of all, is a future that is viable, vibrant and vital. Instead of an austere dance of the intellect, Walshe’s playful engagement with speculative fiction offers a rejigging of the algorithm.
 Scott Bukatman, Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham NC: Duke University Press, 1993), p. 41.
 See, for example, Jennifer Walshe’s BBC Radio 4 feature about the poem, Fümmsböwö (or What is the Word) (7 January 2022), https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0bf7zp7 (accessed 9 January 2023).
 Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (Winchester: Zero Books, 2014), pp. 6-9.
 The archive can be found at http://www.aisteach.org/. Walshe’s own website, The Milker Corporation, can be found at http://milker.org/, and is full of useful links and background information about all of Walshe’s major projects.
 Louise Gray, ‘Jennifer Walshe Spins a Fine Tale’, Musicworks 116 (2013), https://www.musicworks.ca/featured-article/profile/jennifer-walshe-spins-fine-tale (accessed 16 January 2023).
 Colm McAuliffe, ‘Composer Jennifer Walshe’s Imaginary Irish Avant-Garde’, Frieze 184 (2016), https://www.frieze.com/article/music-48 (accessed 16 January 2023).
 Walshe, ‘Imaginary Histories’, Sonic Acts Academy, Amsterdam (25 February 2018), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TqbCcvuB21s (accessed 16 January 2023).
 Walshe, ‘Imaginary Histories’.
 Walshe, ‘Ghosts of the Hidden Layer’, section 2, talk given at the Darmstädter Ferienkurse (25 July 2018), http://milker.org/ghosts-of-the-hidden-layer (accessed 16 January 2023).
 Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? (Winchester, Zero Books, 2009), p. 2.
 Douglas Gorney, ‘William Gibson and the Future of the Future’, The Atlantic (14 September 2010), https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/09/william-gibson-and-the-future-of-the-future/62863/ (accessed 16 January 2023).
 Ian Maleney, ‘A Droning in the Eire: Jennifer Walshe on the Irish Avant-Garde’, The Quietus (29 April 2015), https://thequietus.com/articles/17777-jennifer-walshe-aisteach-foundation-irish-avant-garde-interview (accessed 19 January 2023).
 Rob Casey, ‘Aisteach: Jennifer Walshe, Heritage, and the Invention of the Irish Avant-Garde’, Transposition 8 (2019), para. 2.
 Walshe, ‘A Brief Introduction to the Guinness Dadaists’, Aisteach, http://www.aisteach.org/?p=164 (accessed 19 January 2023).
 Instead, Irish modernists such as Samuel Beckett and James Joyce emigrated and gained financial support from their respective patrons, Nancy Cunard and Sylvia Beach. See, especially, Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). The exception is again Flann O’Brien, whose precarious existence as modernist novelist, weekly satirist and jobbing hack chimes with the outsider art commemorated by Aisteach.
 Maurice Blanchot, The Writing of the Disaster, trans. Ann Smock (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), p. 46.
 Giorgio Agamben, ‘What is the Contemporary?’ (2008), in What is an Apparatus and Other Essays, trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 39.
 Agamben, pp. 40, 42 and 46-7.
 Sonja Schöpfel, ‘Transcript of Reboot 11 Speech by Bruce Sterling’, Wired (25 February 2011), https://www.wired.com/2011/02/transcript-of-reboot-11-speech-by-bruce-sterling-25-6-2009/ (accessed 20 January 2023).
 Gray, ‘Walshe Spins a Fine Tale’.
 Michael Dervan, “Men just get away with being composers. We have to do this activism and keep composing”: Irish-born opera composer Jennifer Walshe on scores, made-up history and globalisation’, The Irish Times (25 February 2019), https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/music/men-just-get-away-with-being-composers-we-have-to-do-this-activism-and-keep-composing-1.3801540 (accessed 20 January 2023).
 Gray, ‘Image Text Music’, WIRE (June 2013), p. 34.
 Walshe, ‘Ghosts of the Hidden Layer’, section 8.
 Charles Olson, ‘Projective Verse’ (1950), in Jahan Ramazani et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, vol. 2, 3rd edn (New York: Norton, 2003), p. 1054.
 Walshe, ‘Ghosts of the Hidden Layer’, section 7.
 Jennifer Lucy Allan, ‘Creased Up: Jennifer Walshe Interviewed’, The Quietus (4 November 2019), https://thequietus.com/articles/27385-jennifer-walshe-interview (accessed 21 January 2023).
 Walshe, The Text Score Dataset 1.0 (Hesse: Darmstädter Ferienkurse, 2021), p. 8.
 John Cage, ‘The Future of Music: Credo’ (1937), in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), p. 4.
 Walshe, ‘Ghosts of the Hidden Layer’, section 14.
 Walshe, ‘Zaftig Giolla’, Aisteach, http://www.aisteach.org/?p=68 (accessed 21 January 2023).
 Delphi Carstens, ‘Hyperstition’ (2010), O(rphan)d(rift>)archive, https://www.orphandriftarchive.com/articles/hyperstition/ (accessed 21 January 2023).