Composing’s one thing, performing’s another, listening’s a third. What can they have to do with one another? /John Cage
‘Nothing’, said Cage. Pity that a good question leads to nothing. Still, he made a valid point. Cage wanted to attack the naïve model of communication where the composer does a ‘thing’ that is mediated through the musician and passively received by the listener. These activities, and listening being one of them, have nothing to do with each other. Undoubtedly, Cage’s ‘nothing’ was necessary, but is it the only good answer?
This text discusses some issues related to practice, performance and presence, – issues that are also relevant for many of the contributions to Music + Practice. First and foremost is the term ‘performing presence’, which here refers to the way something – not necessarily a work – is deliberately actualized in a particular performance. Further we have the term ‘performative now’, which is used to define the lived experience of something being enacted ‘here and now’. In traditional theories on musical performance, however, these issues have a rather subordinate role.
Musical practice is exercise, exercise and exercise. But the technical mastery obtained after many years of education, and matured through professional life can result in a self-obsessed performance practice that provides a well-rehearsed set of (practical) solutions, regardless the particular musical challenges presented in the work. As an apparently translucent and versatile practice, its strength is professionalism; its weakness is standardization.
Yet, this practice depends on an idea – or rather, an excuse – of representation; it is premised on a model of communication that proffers a smooth continuity between the differing acts and temporalities of writing, performing and listening to music. In this context, particularity and ‘eventness’ are easily considered as noise that distorts the message. The presence of the performance is the present representation of the past. The performance practice is expected to sustain the correct delivery of the message (i.e. the ‘intended meaning’).
Of course, the critique of this simplistic position is well known to any reader of modern theory of literature, philosophy or musicology. The question is how this critique can influence the way we think of – and study – practices, and further, how it relates to performing presence.
The coercive power of practice
As Michel Foucault reminds us, practices are mechanisms of control – means of ordering acts and discourse. A written law or directive is open to critique and discussion. We can question its possible lack of logic, its moral, or its flawed political or social implications. The ordering rules of a practice, however, may wrongly be considered as something natural, something above interest and influence, above the constant interaction and negotiation in which social life is entrenched. But more importantly, the rules of practice are internalized, they are applied, not necessarily analyzed or openly articulated, by its practitioners.
Musical practices are related to social spaces and sites, to an institutional framework of coercive structures. The classical concert is dependent on social conventions, traditions and habits. In critical terms, it is against the unifying and ordering power of these structures that the particular performance has to prevail in order to manifest the ‘performative now’. In the concert hall, the coercive power of institutional rituals and routines finds its materialization, which explains Nono’s harsh words: ‘The concert hall is a horrible room. It doesn’t give opportunities, only one opportunity’. Nono’s statement can explain how musicians feel entangled in a situation where performing presence is difficult. Options are few; the restrictive structures are not only internal (e.g. conventions, habits, inhibitions, assumed expectancies etc.), but also external (e.g. concert hall, program, recording equipment, instruments, editions, etc.).
However tempting the idea might seem, to attack institutions, reconstruct the concert halls and opera houses, renegotiate social contracts and reject conventions, would be a Sisyphean task. And there is no guarantee that it would achieve the desired outcome, of musical practices that are less restrictive and better adapted to perform the ‘here and now’. The point is that we are depending on practices; they are in what we do, they are internalized. But this is also the beauty of it. Practices can change, they can adapt, and, not least, they are the forms of knowledge that practitioners can influence through their actions.
There are different approaches to practice studies. We can explicitly examine a practice – that is, we can study how it works and what knowledge it provides – but we can also study a phenomenon through practice. When the phenomenon is (public) performance, we can apply different tactics to practice in order to breach the ideal of a seamless unidirectional continuation, from composer to score, through musician and performance, and to listeners.
The tactics and aesthetics of breach
Challenging the status of performance and its relation to musical conventions has been an important issue for the late-twentieth-century avant-garde movement in music. Avant-garde composers such as Luigi Nono, Helmut Lachenmann and Brian Ferneyhough, have profited from consciously negating established performance traditions. Although pursuing different creative paths, they explored the particularity or nominal status of the performance.
In aesthetic terms, the nominalization of the performance could be considered a reaction to the prowess, the smoothness of professional performers performing in established concert institutions. The conscious and creative use of tactics of breach created new materiality, and defined new roles for the performer. And as we shall see, these tactics have been – and still are – further explored by performing musicians. Let us then first mention some of the tactics that are related to Nono, Ferneyhough and Lachenmann. Then we will mention some further possible tactics that can be found in the artistic activities of performing musicians.
The emphatic introduction of chance into music, in particular associated with John Cage, but widely adapted by conventional modernists such as Lutosławski, was a way of accentuating the particularity of the performance by introducing choices and contingency in the score. Closely related to this tactic is of course the age-old improvisation.
Exposing the presence of bodily gestures
Body performs. And making it struggle with a chain of movements, positions, attitudes, is a way of articulating the performance as a nominal event. In practical terms, this can be done by imposing technical impossibilities, radically new playing techniques, extra-instrumental gestures and other forms of obstacles (cf. Ferneyhough and Lachenmann).
A similar accentuation of the particular instance of performativity is created when the exposing of artistic co-creation is targeted. This can be the result when the notation is insufficient, inconsistent or erroneous. The performer is thus forced to experimentation, to become co-creative, to rearrange practice.
Imposing frustration or an element of violence
This is a tactic that can be found notated in the score of avant-garde composers but also as a conscious part of the playing style of some musicians. By deliberately choosing an unusual or even unplayable tempo, or deploying a mode of articulation or playing that is experienced as emphatically ‘unnatural’, the particular performance is negating its conventional representational function, which may create frustration, but may also be experienced as a kind of violence imposed on the listener.
By seeking complexity in what is apparently simple and straightforward, performative choices are accentuated. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett writes that complexity ‘can serve as a design tool to counter neutrality. Additions of complexity can prompt people to engage more with their surroundings’. He continues, saying that: ‘introducing complexity is a procedure that addresses the suspicion that things are not what they seem; here, making things more complex is a technique of investigation’.
Adding complexity may take many forms and shapes. One form is to provide new and conflicting information about the work, its historical performance practice and interpretation that challenges the ‘neutrality’ and ‘conventions’ on which the standardized performance of the repertory in question is built. The standardization of performance depends on simplicity in both historical and interpretative information. Complexity can thus be created through actively charging the notion of work, performance and aesthetics with new and different perspectives. Complexity implies ambivalence, and thus, an active participation and decision from the performer.
Finding or making resistance
In aesthetic terms, we need to challenge what is too easily taken for granted; we need to challenge the path of least resistance. Even though making it simple is a sign of mastering a technique or an art, this simplicity can also be deceiving and lead to indifference. ‘Certainly, simplicity represents a goal in craftwork—it’s a part of the measure of what David Pye calls “soundness” in a practice. But to make difficulties where none need be is a way to think about the nature of soundness’. The claim we could make is that all practices, in order to stay vital, need to challenge their own making. In fact, could we not say that practices turn into conventions or habits when they are ossified by pure routine and fixedness? If so, then we must accept that practices need to be challenged in order to preserve soundness, to be dynamic and adaptable. In other words, the soundness of a practice is a strong argument for its ability to create presence and not simply represent a codified past.
Dissociating cohering procedures or phenomena (i.e. practice from technique)
A practitioner is ennobled by his or her mastering of technical difficulties, which explains the radical shift in identity and performance when the relation between specific instrumental (or vocal) technique and practice is consciously severed. (By changing the instrument played, imposing unfamiliar playing techniques, radically changing the context or role of the performer etc.). The practice is unsettled; the playing becomes more fragile and conceivably more present.
To dissociate the technical or even bodily mastering of an instrument from the performer’s actions creates a way of de-familiarizing what is taken for granted: the making of a practice. A conscious rethinking or even re-figuration of practice may then be the outcome. Or should we say, this can even be a method of research into the ordering principles of a practice?
Emphatically taking control over time
This tactic is part of any musician’s possible jurisdiction. The way a performer uses the small caesuras, fills or dramatizes the empty spaces between the phrases, leads in a creative and constructive manner the phrasing, deliberately evading any automatic performing, is to take control, and further to take away some of the auditory control that the listener may have gained through a previously gained familiarity with the performed music or its generic conventions.
Challenging the sufficiency and autonomy of music
Breaching the conventional idea of the sufficiency of music in performance, by insisting on a reciprocal or complementary relation between musical and other modes of perception, is a tactic that can radically change performance.
Creating a site-specific or site-sensitive performance
Presence involves site. Taking the specificity of the site into account is a way to actualize the performance. Repertory, seating, the ‘mise en scene’ of the performance can be adapted to the particular site. This tactic can also lead to seeking (radically) new sites for performance, sites that contribute a specific character.
Personalizing music and performance
The classical concert has for good reasons been criticized for its inability to adapt to changed conditions of reception and for its ritualistic character. To some extent, it has developed into a parallel to the scientific laboratory, an ‘objective’, clean, well-organized site, where all participants have clearly assigned roles to play. Undoubtedly, this ‘ritualistic art-laboratory’ inhibits and predefines not only the behaviour of the performers and the audience, but also the repertory, the performative choices, the emotional content and so on. To personalize the music and the performance is then a tactic that permits the performer to appropriate the site and the event. This process can begin with a creative collaboration between the composer and the performer, but it can also begin with a personalized programme where the performers’ abilities and preferences are defining parameters.
Performing and knowledge
The list of tactics of breach could be much longer. As we have seen, some of these tactics are initiated by the composer, some are dependent on research, others on a conscious re-reading of the score – some are primarily effected from the inside of a practice, others from the outside. But they are means by which practice can be vitalized and creatively used to perform presence. Creating or finding breaches is a way of engaging with practice, not simply as (re-)producers, but as co-creative practitioners and researchers. It is further a way the performance as a cultural phenomenon can be studied, through practice. Breaching the smooth surface of the simplistic communication model, challenging the standardization of performance practice, is not only means by which musicians can perform presence; they also reflect an aesthetic ambition for composers. In fact, this turn to production of presence can explain important characteristics of contemporary musical engagement, by performers, composers and researchers.
And yet, breaches tend to mend. If Gustav Mahler was deliberately breaking from the dominant practice of Wagnerian orchestration – by imposing awkward instrumental techniques, trivial sounds, fragile lack of orchestral solidity, all resulting from a clear vision of creating modern music – the rediscovering of his music in the 1970s was accompanied by a romanticizing tendency, of a harmonious performance filling in all the ‘awkward spaces’ clearly indicated in the score. A similar tendency can result when performers succeed in playing effortlessly (or at least, apparently so) the near unplayable scores of Ferneyhough. Somehow paradoxically, the breach is filled and the result will be a perfected surface of a complicated – rather than complex – music. The complexity instigated by Ferneyhough’s conscious breaching of conventional performance practice and technique – by letting the performer in all precariousness, struggling mentally and physically with the score – will disappear. In both these cases, we would conclude that the tactics of breach instigated by the composers become ineffective. The aesthetic ‘rationale’ of the breach must be comprehended, or known, in order to be aesthetically re-actualized.
Deliberately, we have not discussed the role of the listener in the experience of the performative now. This is a topic that by far exceeds the limits of this text. Nevertheless, it is crucial for the musician actively to share a common ground with the listener. This sharing is hearing. The experience of ‘eventness’ is mutually accessible not through playing but through hearing. Hearing is an activity that ties performer to listener, but also that informs the performer of what is performed, it is a process of knowing that ‘poses a continuous demand on our musical imagination and creativity’. That a tactic of breach is actually performed as such, even if intended by the musician, needs to be verified by the hearing into what is performed. Playing could then be compared with the painter’s brushstrokes over the canvas, hearing with the painter’s stepping back from the canvas in order to see and know what others might see. Following this train of thoughts we can conclude that performing here and now is to perform, hear and know.
Let us return to Cage’s question. Composing, performing, and listening – ‘what can they have to do with one another?’ The answer is that they have indeed something to do with one another; they can produce presence. Presence is where and when these practices come together on equal terms, where they transcend distance in space and time, and create “meaning” – here and now.
Presence, practice and research
But what has all this to do with research? Can the use of these tactics be qualified as research? The premise for this question needs to be reflected upon, as it seems to offer only two alternatives; either it is (then ‘yes’) or it is not (then ‘no’). The question supposes a distinction between what is artistic creativity and what is research. But this distinction is anything but clear-cut. The tactics of breach used by Ferneyhough, Nono, Lachenmann or Cage reflect not only their creative process, but also a search into the limits, possibilities and transgressions of a practice, which they further reflected upon in their own well-articulated and erudite texts and interviews. What is interesting to notice, and what is also showed in this issue of Music + Practice, is that more and more musicians are following the example set by Glenn Gould and Cathy Berberian, questioning the order of their practice, reflecting on the goal, the restrictions and possibilities that are present in practice. So where is the line of demarcation between creativity and research?
Similar challenges are also found in a wide range of relatively new research disciplines, like development research, health research, urban planning and environmental research. The use of the term ‘participatory research’ in different combinations, often including ‘community’, designates an attempt to employ, change or establish practices in order to solve a particular problem. The similarity to our field is that this form of practice-based research does not (necessarily) have a conventional academic design, which easily leads to a discussion of its criteria.
The criteria for new fields of practice-related research in music (labelled ‘artistic research’, ‘practice studies’, or ‘performance studies’) will undoubtedly always be discussed, but one important criterion seems unavoidable: the research must be documented. To write an article and/or to document the research – both as process and result – in a stable form, is to invite others to make use of it. We can, as a community, build on and evaluate the processes and its results, we can find, develop and articulate new artistic understanding and practical knowledge.