Experimental Performance Practices: Navigating Beethoven through Artistic Research

Table of Contents

Paulo de Assis

Paulo de Assis is a researcher who combines musical practice (as a pianist, experimental performer, and composer), musicological expertise on Western art music, publishing experience (as author and editor), and wide-ranging transdisciplinary interests in art, contemporary philosophy and epistemology. He was the PI of an ERC grant (2013–2018), is the Chair of the conference Deleuze and Artistic Research (DARE) and is the editor of the book series Artistic Research at Rowman & Littlefield International.

by Paulo de Assis

Music & Practice, Volume 8


Responding to the overarching theme of ‘Beethoven and musical practices’, this essay aims at presenting two concrete performative projects and contextualizing them both in a broader theoretical field as well as within a practice-based research agenda that aims at developing ‘experimental performance practices’ for Western notated art music. While these ‘experimental performance practices’ are very different from dominant modes of performance – be it ‘mainstream’ or ‘historically informed’ – they are not at odds with them, nor do they intend to refute or replace them. While not questioning the valid reasons for carrying out mainstream or historically informed performance practices, I want to suggest further ways of relating to historically received documents and materials. Such inherited materials have a history of their own, and each mode of performance implies a specific ‘image of musical work’ (how one internally synthesises what one knows about a musical piece). With my proposed ‘experimental’ mode of performance, I intend to give more prominence to the overwhelming quantity of materials available today, exposing their profound heterogeneity to the audience. In this sense, inherited traditions (like in mainstream performance practices), or philological and organological work (like in HIPP), can be included and critically reconfigured within experimental performance practices. This vision enables a swift passage from one mode of performance to the other, by reducing or increasing the experimental component of the performance, which can ‘obey’ one single authoritative text and its related historically transmitted traditions (mainstream), ‘explore’ original sources and period instruments (HIPP), or ‘explode’ the materials in their historical and epistemic diversity and heterogeneity (experimental performance).

Operating in the field of artistic research in music, and having a background in piano, composition, music analysis and philosophy, it is my aim to combine a profound critical attitude with imaginative creative work, suggesting a careful reconsideration of our common musical practices, challenging dominant perspectives and fostering innovative approaches to performance. Deeply rooted in the performance of existing musical works (or at least based upon them), this specific modus operandi shares elements with composition and staging, but it would be misleading to consider my interventions as ‘composition’ or ‘staging’ proper. This is because, firstly, the methodology I propose is intended for instrumental performers, offering them alternative modes of expression that they (in most cases) have not heard or thought about, and secondly, none of my projects aim at encapsulating a perfectly graspable, enclosed musical entity (and thus are not ‘works’ proper); rather, they generate multiple instantiations that have different modes of presentation (live performance, video recording, webpage, graphic chart, CD, DVD). More than looking at musical works as perfectly defined ‘monuments’ to be passively reproduced and apprehended, my working methodology fosters creative research and experimental practices, aiming at questioning what people think they know about any musical work. To this end, research is conducted through as many available sources and materials as possible, including sketches, historical and present-day editions, recordings, period instruments, artistic and historical contexts, and analytical studies. Next, a selection of those materials is creatively elaborated in flexible and variable reconfigurations of musical fragments, texts, images, and further sonic elements. The goal is to present musical objects as multiplicities that, in addition to being reproduced (as is the case in mainstream performance practices), can be critically exposed in their wider complexity within experimental performance practices.

Organized in five sections, this paper has two main registers: a description of two concrete practice-based case studies (on Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and on his seven piano concertos, see sections 4 and 5), and a more theoretical discussion on the philosophical foundations of my undertaking (sections 1, 2 and 3). This theoretical part is reduced to a minimum, focusing on topics and ideas that directly had an impact on the two projects on Beethoven’s music, namely my interpretation of Nietzsche’s second Untimely Meditation[1] (section 1), a simplified explanation of my proposal for a new ontological account of musical works (section 2), and my claim for an ‘emancipated performer’, which is indebted to Jacques Rancière’s notion of the ‘emancipated spectator’[2] (section 3). A deeper discussion of artistic research, contemporary thought, or music ontology would lie outside the scope of this essay, which is first and foremost centred on the presentation of the case studies. The interested reader looking for further elaborations on all those (and more) music-philosophical topics can find them in my book Logic of Experimentation.[3] On the other hand, the reader particularly interested in the concrete practice-based work made, in the ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘why’ of the performances, can start immediately with sections 4 and 5, diving into the creative process and most prominent features of the case studies. Starting from these practice-oriented sections, the reader can come back to the theoretical parts later. Moreover, the five sections have a high degree of independence from one another, and they can actually be read in any preferred order, even if the proposed sequence facilitates the understanding of the overall argument.

Before entering the essay proper, and as a conclusion to this introduction, I would like to mention that the two case studies, as well as all theoretical reflections discussed below, are the result of long-term and highly dedicated work in artistic research in music. It is my hope that this combination of in-depth research with creative artistic invention is received as making a case for the validity and relevance of artistic research. From a personal perspective, I can only stress that such artistic outcomes and such theoretical developments would not have been achieved if I had remained a ‘pure’ pianist (as I had been in my twenties and thirties) or a ‘pure’ music analyst or music philosopher (which I was about to become in my late thirties). In the world of mainstream instrumental performance, the kind of creative explorations presented below are difficult to implement due to the weight of historically received (or invented) traditions. And in the world of musicology, such adventurous deviations from philologically or historically informed traditions seem all too risky to be desirable. Thus, these practices seem to find much more resonance and a more fertile ground within the realm of artistic research. It is the combination of artistic practice and scholarly research that enables this stimulating and potentially unique perspective. Beyond the traditional dualism between pathos and logos, between practice and theory, experience and meaning, nervous system and brain, or subject and object, artistic research offers a graspable opportunity to merge all these ‘oppositions’ in compound assemblages made of sense and sensation, effectively activating renewed modes of sensuous knowledge.

1. Celebrating Beethoven: Monumental, antiquarian, and critical views

In November 2016, paving the way for the celebrations of the composer’s 250th anniversary in 2020, the German government declared Ludwig van Beethoven a ‘matter of national importance’, and the celebrations a ‘national mission’ that aimed to offer ‘magnificent musical experiences’.[4] Beethoven, the paradigmatic musical ‘genius’, the autonomous artist liberated from courtly or church dependencies, the embodiment of the revolutionary Romantic artist, would be presented in all his splendour and magnificence. The city of Bonn would host a monumental Beethoven Jubilee, including concerts, exhibitions, film projects, lecture series, and events for children and young people, as well as excursions to the countryside and even picnics.[5] His most monumental works, and those to which nicknames have been attached, would figure prominently, and there would be special focuses, for example, on Beethoven’s notion of Pastorale, which would include a project titled ‘Beethoven for Climate Protection’.[6] In short, Beethoven, the composer of highly challenging musical works, which often were incomprehensible to his contemporaries, would be presented and celebrated as a social and commercial commodity, as a useful mediator of today’s problems, transforming his experimental attitude towards music, art, society, and politics into fashionable appropriations and potentially uncritical collective worshiping. Needless to say, due to the Covid-19 outbreak, almost all planned activities have been cancelled, recalling the fragility of human existence and displacing the ‘matter of national importance’ from aesthetic celebrations to health care and human survival.

Probably, the Beethoven Jubilee, or some parts of it, will resume as soon as the pandemic is somehow contained. One or two years’ delay will not dramatically change the way people relate to musical works from the past, especially to those works composed by icon-status authors such as Beethoven. Yet, such a temporal hiatus could be an opportunity to reflect on our relation to the past and its remainders, a reflection that could lead to alternative modes of music performance, listening, and reception that are more critical.

In order to think about possible alternatives to the dominant modes of performance (mainstream and historically informed), it is crucial to rethink our relation to the past and to its objects. In this respect, Friedrich Nietzsche’s thoughts on the value of history and historicity are highly illuminating. I have worked on Nietzsche’s relation to music (including his own musical compositions) elsewhere[7] and I will focus here only on one aspect, namely his description of three modes of relating to the historical: the monumental, the antiquarian, and the critical. These three modes are discussed in relation to their use, a discussion that plays a crucial role in the second of Nietzsche’s four Untimely Meditations, which carries the suggestive title ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’. These modes can be summarized as follows: monumental history is used by those who need ‘great moments’ (monuments) from the past in order to admire them, idolatrize them and generate an identity out of them; the antiquarian mode is used by those who like to stick to the familiar and are afraid of seeing their past being ‘ruined overnight’, to use Nietzsche’s expression;[8] and the critical mode is used by those who look for new habits to combat humanity’s most inborn heritage.[9]

Even if Nietzsche acknowledges some positive aspects to monumental history, he critically identifies some considerable dangers related to it: the confusion between a monumentalized past and a mythical fiction which easily tends towards idolatry, the cult of oeuvres and personalities, that further points to proto-religious processes, to mystifications, and to a generalised and uncritical consumption of ‘classics’ of our culture. By the antiquarian mode of relating to history, Nietzsche means a particular type of veneration of the past, a fetishized relationship to past objects, goods, tools, instruments and achievements. This fetishization of past things equalizes them and might blur the perfect image of monuments presented by monumental history: ‘The antiquarian sense of a man, a community, a whole people, always possesses an extremely restricted field of vision; most of what exists it does not perceive at all, and the little it does see it sees much too close up and isolated; it cannot relate what it sees to anything else’.[10] If read through a Lacanian lens, one could say that antiquarians are so scared of the possibility of losing their ‘petits objets a’ that they become obsessed with conserving anything and everything with enormous care. There, where their ancestors lived, exactly there and nowhere else, do antiquarians wish to live forever. Any extra attention given to particularly salient moments (monuments), or any critical remarks about their possessions would be seen as profanations of the past, which would destroy their carefully constructed Wunderkammer full of exhibits. Within the three modes of relating to the past, critical history appears as the most productive in terms of making possible some kind of future. Its fundamental trait is an openness to ‘from time to time employ[ing] the strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past’.[11]

Applying Nietzsche’s three modes of relating to history to music performance can help us clarify some of the positions currently observable. Monumentalism is traceable in a particular way of making music that is essentially composer-based, focused on monumental compositions, monumentally performed and executed by monumentalized performers. It fulfils a mythical function, in which musical works from the past appear as totems, in relation to which any critical or deconstructive operation is actually unwelcome. Musical works are seen, in practical terms, as stabilized entities that share some sort of coherence and continuity throughout different epochs and times. The idolatry associated with this vision of things leads to the cult of the work, of the composer, and of the ‘star’ interpreter. Everything must be monumentalized – therefore, we also get larger concert halls, larger festivals, larger collections of ‘complete works’, and so on. Mainstream performers gladly adopt this vision while (strategically) claiming to be humble servants of the composer’s intentions, strictly obeying a particular score, a specific playing tradition, or orally ‘uncorrupted’ transmitted information.

Next, the antiquarian is directly recognizable in all the philological, organological and historiographical attempts to bring us back to a lost paradise, obsessed with the illusion of reconstructing things as they ‘really’ were, giving back to them their ‘proper’ order and ‘correct’ placement in history. Such historically informed reconstructions are critical of monumentalism. But they also struggle with critically dismantling their objects of work, most of which are treated as enduring fetishes, often artificially constructed in the sense of invented traditions.[12] Significantly, this antiquarian position is not confined to a specific historical period – it embraces more and more times, including our own.

Finally, the critical mode of relation to history could be the missing link to my proposed experimental performance practices. By ‘critical’, I do not mean fancy, postmodern, or exotic performances or recompositions, in which past musical works are presented in arbitrary recombinations of materials. And I also do not mean performances with spoken commentaries, in which the performer didactically explains to the audience what is being played, its compositional context, and why this and that option was chosen, establishing a strong sense of hierarchy between the ‘informed’ performer and the not-so-well-informed listener, who needs to be guided. Giving lecture-performances or adding a video background to a piece is no guarantee of criticality. Rather the contrary is the case, as these modes of presentation tend to be very popular, exploring a situation that is easily understood as very enjoyable, thus reducing the performance of historical music materials to entertainment or pedagogy. What I mean are modes of performance that challenge the core notion of musical work itself, that question the role of ‘interpretation’ by offering consistent and research-based (not arbitrary) arrangements of materials that allow the receiver to actively engage with their constitutive component parts. The critical moment, or better, the critical function of the performance operates with and within the performance itself, not in preliminary comments. Such criticality requires a fundamental rethinking of the work concept, and of the ways in which we construct an image of any musical work. If one remains caught within the traditional image of the strong work concept[13] and aims for conventional musical interpretations, it is hardly possible to propose anything substantially new. The only way to break through, to dissolve parts of the past, and to suggest productive futures of the past, is to fundamentally rethink the ‘image of musical work’, and to propose alternative ways of thinking about what musical works are and how they operate and function through time.

2. A New Image of Musical Work

Different people have seen different things as art in different epochs, and people have also seen specific artworks in different ways at different times. The conception of what an artwork is and what artistic practices mean are thoroughly historical, in the simple sense that they change over time. Thus, ideas of art and images of work are epochal: every epoch constructs and obeys its own particular modes of conceiving them. With the notion of image of work, I mean a complex assemblage of things and parameters, a diagram that enables us to think about a given work from any specific point of view. It includes all the things that we acknowledge as belonging to the work, as ‘making the work’, what we recognize as being part of the work. It also includes all the mental categories through which a given epoch and a given community make sense of these works and their possible uses. Broadly speaking, there are two fundamental, polarizing positions: images of work that consider works as solved problems, as systems that were stabilized by the composer that evolved from original chaos into final order, and images of work that see works as acts of problematization, as systems that remain open for future encounters with them. The first position establishes vertical relations between an idealized summit (the Work) and its low-order preparatory materials (sketches, diagrams, plans); the second implies connections that are more horizontal, flattening those same materials, which are considered on a principle of equality and are therefore open to further problematizations and presentations. In this view, musical works are constituted as complex conglomerates of things, including sketches, drafts, manuscripts, first and later editions, recordings, analytical charts, reflexive texts, performances and installations. All these material things are the basic elements of a multiplicity – a complex articulated set of documents and objects, which can include future and even extra-musical materials situated beyond the specific time and geographical horizon of the composition. A renewed gaze upon all the innumerable things that actually construe a musical work opens up wider horizons of thought and potentiates innovative performance practices. More than what musical works are or what music practitioners do, material objects define musical works that come under closer scrutiny, enabling a completely new image of work to emerge, and a complete renewed horizon of practices evolving from that image. There is not one work, but a set of materials, which are arranged differently and are seen as being ‘the work’ – thus, my insistence on the notion of image of work. ‘Musical works’ do not exist once and for all – they are always materially rooted and psychologically driven assemblages of things and functions.

Whereas musical works have traditionally been seen from authoritative perspectives that prescribed ‘this score’, ‘this recording’, or ‘this analysis’, I argue for a fundamental redistribution of the available materials, exposing them to their historical, aesthetic, and epistemic situatedness. With the notion of musical-works-as-assemblages,[14] works are no longer seen as static entities, but rather as highly elaborated manifolds with potentially infinite constitutive parts. In place of a reiteration of uncritically inherited performance practices, this perspective offers a methodology for unconventional, critical renderings that expose the variety and complexity of the musical materials available today. The notion of image of musical work is also important in this respect, as different modes of performance imply different ‘images of musical work’. In a monumentalized view of things, notated musical works can (at least ideally) be contained in one single text that would include its own reading/performative instructions. That’s a highly condensed image of work. For antiquarians, many other documents can be relevant to the constitution of an image of work. But critically, all those documents must come from the ‘time-horizon’ of the composer; they must belong to that particular hermeneutic horizon. My point is that every mode of performance is inextricably associated with a mode of conceiving musical works. It is like different coordinate systems in geometry, each defining a different set of parameters, proportions and relations – even if they all co-exist and can be operational in their own rights. One advantage of the image of work-as-assemblage is that it can include all other images of work as particular cases by reducing the number of parameters and variables (but not vice versa). This line of thought is crucial to understanding the reason why there are so many different performance traditions and perspectives, and why each one of them has such obstinate proponents. This is the result of the different modes of conceiving musical works: what they are, how they are constructed and how they ought to be transmitted over time. Once one adheres to one ‘image of work’ it is difficult to be open to different understandings and different practices. In this sense, I believe that the concept of musical-work-as-assemblage is more inclusive and ‘ecumenical’, as it has the capacity to include all other previous images of work as particular cases.

The Emancipated Performer

The notion of an emancipated spectator is crucial to several contemporary theatre and dance performances, and it has been philosophically investigated in the last decades by Jacques Rancière, especially in The Emancipated Spectator. Rancière discusses how things become visible and shareable, and how they are brought together by individuals and groups on the basis of an initial community between words, gestures, signs and things. For him, the creation of such assemblages of words, materials and signs is the work of fiction, ‘which consists not in telling stories but in establishing new relations between words and visible forms … a here and an elsewhere, a then and a now’.[15] According to Rancière. ‘Emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting; when we understand that the self-evident facts that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection’.[16] He insists on the perspective of spectators, who must gain their freedom by emancipating themselves from those structures of domination. Spectators don’t receive a ready-to-digest, self-contained ‘work’ in front of their eyes, but must construct for themselves some kind of meaning from all the materials offered to them during a performance. In general terms, Rancière focuses on spectatorship and on a fundamental aesthetic empowerment of audiences, and his proposal applies to any kind of spectacle, including conventional and mainstream modes of performance. In my view, such empowerment gains even more centrality when confronted with ‘postdramatic’ performances,[17] in which the construction and communication of explicit meaning is not central to the performance situation. In such cases, the spectator has no other option than to proactively engage in some sort of emancipatory gesture – emancipatory from oneself, from what one has become that resists change and unpredictable reconfigurations of the ‘I’.

Rancière’s ideas have been important to my work, especially from the moment in which I departed from them, changing the attention from ‘the spectator’ towards ‘the performer’. Working with ‘postdramatic’ performative strategies applied to canonical musical works, I started developing the notion of an ‘emancipated performer’ – a performer who exposes the materials of his or her practice in their inconsistencies and in their potential to overcome good and common sense, by means of fostering a productive sense of dissensus.[18] By ‘emancipation’ I mean a permanent process of emancipating oneself from oneself, a never-ending ‘becoming-something-other’ that does not fear its endless route, nor the emergence of heterogeneity and ‘dissensus’: ‘What there is are simply scenes of dissensus, capable of surfacing in any place and at any time. What ‘dissensus’ means is an organisation of the sensible where there is neither a reality concealed behind appearances nor a single regime of presentation and interpretation of the given imposing its obviousness on all. It means that every situation can be cracked open from the inside, reconfigured in a different regime of perception and signification’.[19] My appropriation of these ideas, crucially made from the perspective of the performer that operates on stage, led to series of projects and performative developments that aim at ‘cracking’ canonical musical pieces from their inside, reconfiguring their modes of appearance so that the audience does not know what to expect nor what to focus on. What is communicated is the immediacy of the musical and extra-musical materials that relate to any given piece. And it is this radical materiality that the spectator has to cope with.

Unavoidably, there will be spectators who are willing to accept such challenges and others who won’t: people who want to rethink themselves and their conditions of existence, and people that prefer to confirm their actual constituency and identity. These different modes of subjectivation have deep implications for the political horizon of artistic practices. Film, video art, photography, installations, music, and all other forms of art can rework the frame of our perceptions and the dynamism of our affects. As such, they can open up new passages to new forms of political subjectivation. Pamphlet art or aesthetically loaded manifestos will not change society: the political power of art doesn’t reside in its explicit content (mots d’ordre), but rather in its active redistribution of the sensible, in the suggestion that things can be arranged differently, that our senses can be stimulated differently, that our relations to the world and between ourselves can be organized differently. This is the power of art – no more and no less. In this sense, performance should not be seen as a decorative ornament of our knowledge society. Performance is the place par excellence to problematize things and works. It is the ideal place to construct and to expose problems –to develop new practices and techniques of thought, to instigate new modes of apprehending historical materials, and to operate new distributions of the sensible. Instead of reifying works again and again, performance is the place to ask questions: How are works constructed? How do they function? What interferes with them?

Works are neither completely stable nor completely unstable entities; they are meta-stable and carry a transformational power. As meta-stable multiplicities, they have potentialities, tensions, inconsistencies, movement, undecided parts and changeable components. Performance is the place to explore these inconsistencies and make them operate productively. If placed beyond interpretation, performance is the place to embrace experimentation, to establish, on the basis of productive contradictions, the possibility of free, creative action for music performers. Interpretation becomes one parameter, not the end goal of a performance. And the performer, much more than an interpreter, becomes an operator, machining new assemblages of things against the grain of their historically inherited constitutive parts. The fundamental gesture is the passage from a passive reproduction of scores to an adventurous experimentation with all the available materials, taking real decisions, redistributing relations, changing how a given work is perceived, distributed and communicated. This ‘operator’ (or ‘emancipated performer’) gains new functions both within music and within society at large, creating a space for performers to actively engage with the artistic, aesthetic and social problems of their time, to creatively suggest new modes of organizing materials and knowledge, and to contribute to wider transformations in the way society organizes and distributes artistic objects and activities.

The following two sections will discuss two concrete examples of experimental performance practices based on music by Beethoven. Rather different from each other, they nevertheless convey a sense of what experimental performance practices can look and sound like. They also relate, in variable degrees, to the theoretical considerations made so far. The first case study, based upon Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, was carried out in the years 2015 to 2017 in parallel with the development of the theoretical framework mentioned above. The second, on Beethoven’s piano concertos, resulted from a collaboration with the Norwegian Academy of Music with the specific goal of transmitting my working methodologies to interested students and teachers. It was conducted in a moment in which the theoretical foundations were clearly established, and the focus could be on the practical construction of a performative situation.

4. Case study 1: Diabelli Machines

Between 2015 and 2017, together with different collaborators and ensembles, I worked on a series of performances based upon Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, op. 120. All these performances and collaborations were framed within an artistic research project entitled Diabelli Machines. The project generated a number of performances, lectures, articles and installations that worked as varied forms of problematizing Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Every single instantiation questioned the original work, cracking it open from the inside, disclosing its ruptures, and reconfiguring it in a different regime of perception, communication and signification. Beyond historiographical, philological, organological or sociological research, but also beyond semiotic investigations, this project aimed at creatively, yet rigorously, engaging with the historically available materials related to Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations and its imaginable possible futures.

To understand this project better, a short musicological note is required. Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations were composed in two moments: a first draft in 1819, containing 22 variations, and the final version in 1823, with 33 variations. The new variations were not simply added to the previous ones, they were inserted and interpolated between them. Including many parodies, the new variations and the renewed overall architecture of the piece gave it a quintessential characteristic: a complex game of mirrors and reflections of Beethoven’s musical past. This past included some of his own works, but also, crucially, works from other composers such as Bach, Handel, Mozart, Haydn and Johann Baptist Cramer. With the final version of 1823, the Diabelli Variations became a fabulating time machine, a musical composition that moves through different times and styles, assimilating, connecting and disconnecting them. But Beethoven’s score also points towards the future, suggesting unprecedented and unforeseeable potential developments for Western art music, some of which will be traceable in works by Brahms, Webern and Schoenberg. The Diabelli Machines takes this idea of music as a ‘time machine’ further, exposing some of the historical materials related to the original Diabelli Variations and fostering the generation of new materials that create a transhistorical dialogue between past, present and future.

On the basis of the central idea that Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations functions like an aesthetic ‘time machine’ that critically moves between different times and epochs of music history, the starting ideas for this project were three: first, to convey and to render audibly graspable the fact that the original piece has had two different ‘versions’; next, to include in the performance some of the historical material parodied by Beethoven, as if the performance entered inside Beethoven’s mind, playing those pieces that have been his object of parody; and, finally, to project Beethoven’s score into the future, commissioning short pieces (comments, interludes) from invited composers. Whereas the Diabelli Variations entertained temporal voyages between Beethoven’s own time and his past, the Diabelli Machines aimed to add a futural dimension.

In a performance of Diabelli Machines, tensions latent in the piano score are brought to the fore through different means: the irruption of other pieces (such as Cramer’s Etude No. 1, or Bach’s organ prelude Kyrie, Gott Vater in Ewigkeit); the use of instruments other than the piano, either to underline the parodic character of certain variations or to open Beethoven’s sonic horizon to instruments that did not exist in his time; the use of materials that do not belong specifically to the piece, but have a strong relation to it (for example, fragments from Beethoven’s letters, read or projected during the performance); and the use of live electronics to underline particular moments in the composition. Importantly, the dialogue between different times afforded by this time machine is not limited to the history of the piece (the one that has been documented and can be traced back through musicological studies), nor to the history of its afterlife (the influence we know the piece has had on the course of music history so far). In addition, the Diabelli Machines project aims also at constructing compossible futures for the Diabelli Variations, namely by inserting in the time machine elements that belong neither to its past nor to its future-in-the-past. These elements belong to their pure future, because they are totally unpredictable and depart significantly from the original structures contained in Beethoven’s music. A substantial part of the project was constituted by the new pieces commissioned from living composers to replace or to be interpolated into some of the original variations in the performance. All the new pieces are intended as variations on the variations, including musical reflections or glosses on the original.

Figures 1 and 2 offer a visualization of Beethoven’s original structure, showing the two different versions (1819, 1823) and highlighting the variations that constitute parodies of the theme and of certain composers or styles of composition. Figure 3 contains a schematic representation of the materials used in one specific performance of the Diabelli Machines, made in collaboration with six composers and the HERMESensemble Antwerp.[20]

Figure 1 Diabelli Variations, draft structure from 1819.

Figure 2 Diabelli Variations, final structure from 1823.

Figure 3 Sequence of pieces in Diabelli Machines #4 (2015).

As the scheme makes clear, the starting theme was preceded by an introduction composed by Juan Parra Cancino that is based on Variation 20. After the theme, we followed the 1819 sequence of events, thus playing Variations 3, 4, 5, and 6 (i.e., not playing Variations 1 and 2) creating another ‘estrangement’ for the listener, who did not hear Variation 3 immediately after the Theme.[21] Moreover, Variations 3, 4, 5, and 6 are presented as chamber music pieces – Variations 3 and 4 as a piano trio, Variation 5 as a piano duo, and Variation 6 as a piano duo with flute and bass clarinet. After another short piece by Juan Parra Cancino, Variations 9 and 10 conclude what is the first big part of the ‘original’ work. This is followed by a more extended comment, composed by Tiziano Manca, reflecting on the complete cycle of the 33 variations, thus appearing as a strong break in the sequence of events. Next, we suggest a restart, proposing the theme once again, now followed by Variations 1 and 2, placing the time in the year 1823. From here, the second big section unfolds with three new variations composed by David Gorton (replacing Variations 12, 13, and 14), continuing with ‘original’ variations, and finishing with a long and sustained musical reflection on Variation 20, composed by Bart Vanhecke. The next big section includes the parodistic Variations 21 to 28, which are played in transcriptions for ensemble, leading to a fragmentary superposition of musical gestures composed by Hans Roels. The last section is less metamorphosed, keeping the original piano pieces in their conventional sequence, which is only interrupted by Paolo Galli’s subtle problematization of the third part of the original work. Importantly, more than traditional commissions to composers, the compositions were part of a collaborative endeavour, extending over several months and many working meetings.

The whole project Diabelli Machines (now concluded), has had eight instantiations, including collaborations with the ORCiM Ensemble, the HERMESensemble, Ensemble Interface, and the ME21 Collective, with seven composers (Juan Parra Cancino, Lucia D’Errico, Tiziano Manca, David Gorton, Hans Roels, Bart Vanhecke, Paolo Galli), the Swiss choreographer Kurt Dreyer, and a number of special guests, such as Mieko Kanno, Valentin Gloor and Benjamin Widmer. In addition to the Research Catalogue expositions that contain all video recordings,[22] a box containing a CD, a DVD, and an essay has been published in the Orpheus Institute Series.[23] While I prefer not to write on the artistic achievements of the project myself, it is worth mentioning that the kind and diversity of the work done directly contributed to the elaboration and improvement of performance-based research methodologies. As an example, one important result of the project was the investigation of the ‘early’ version (from 1819) of Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and its first ever rendering and recording as a ‘piece’ or, at least, a ‘proto-piece’. The existence of such a version was known by the musicological community,[24] but the dominant ‘image of work’, with its reverence for the composer’s ‘last will’ (the German Fassung letzter Hand) made its performance unthinkable. As soon as all the materials pertaining to Beethoven’s variations were presented under a new image of work (as we did), it became quite clear that such a performance was highly desirable. Another valuable result of the project was the demonstration of the possibility of a productive co-existence of different performative perspectives and images of work. Thus, there were manifestations of the project that were entirely ‘critical’, deconstructing the original work and fracturing it with contemporary interventions, and there were other more conventional manifestations, such as the recording of the early version on a period instrument using period articulation and playing techniques. Furthermore, the collaboration with composers adopted a format that is very distinct from the typical performer–composer collaborations of much artistic research. In this case, the composers were given rather strict rules and their short compositions were treated like pieces in a puzzle, which I positioned and repositioned independently of their ‘intended’ placement. Last but not least, the possibility of working with different ensembles, musicians, scenographers and soloists enabled the making of series of instantiations, all different from one another, yet all belonging to a common overarching research agenda. This enhanced the idea of mutational performances, avoiding the rigidity of fixing results once and for all.

5. Case study 2: Beethoven 5+2

While the Diabelli Machines project was developed along with and as part of the definition of a new methodology for artistic research in music, the more recent project Beethoven 5+2 benefited from a well-established theoretical and practice-oriented basis that enabled quicker steps, a more direct focus on the artistic materials, fewer meetings between the involved participants, and more user-oriented goals, including the transmission of working methodologies to advanced students in music. In other words: while Diabelli Machines was part of overarching research on innovative methodologies for artistic research in music, Beethoven 5+2 could use and apply those methodologies more directly, immediately focusing on the contents of its specific musical objects of inquiry. The project has had two instantiations, both situated in music schools of the highest level: The Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music (Singapore) and the Norwegian Academy of Music (Oslo, Norway). In both cases, the main goal of the project was to convey the working methodologies developed by my research team at the Orpheus Institute (especially MusicExperiment21) to students of different levels and to faculty members interested in alternative modes of performance, and to do this on a practical basis, oriented towards a performance at the end of the workshops. In Singapore, I worked with a very professional, curious and collaborative student orchestra; in Oslo, with a group of exceptional soloists who brought their own ideas and suggestions to a truly joint musical exploration.

In both cases I decided to go for projects based on music by Beethoven, especially keeping in mind the above-mentioned Beethoven jubilee, which I wanted to address from a much more critical perspective than most of the globally announced events. Due to my long-standing experience with this repertoire, I decided to focus on Beethoven’s piano concertos, pieces that I have played with different orchestras at different moments of my pianistic life. This is a repertoire one would expect to know everything about, except for one or two minor details that can always emerge in research on historical sources. But this is not the case, and some major questions emerge from the very beginning. For example, how many piano concertos did Beethoven write? Contrary to the widespread idea that he composed only five, we know that he composed seven, including the early Piano Concerto in E flat major (WoO 4, from 1784) and the original piano version of the Violin Concerto (op. 61a, from 1806). Why these two pieces face resistance in being fully acknowledged by performers, musicologists and audiences remains something of a mystery. Both pieces were published a long time ago and have been performed and recorded by many pianists. I myself played and recorded them more than 20 years ago; but whenever I mention this, people don’t believe that these pieces really exist. Thus, a preliminary decision was to give special emphasis to these two works, aiming at clearly conveying them to the participants of the workshop, as well as to the listeners of the final performance.

In Singapore, working with an orchestra, the project remained entirely focused on Op. 61a, while in Oslo, working with individual soloists, we were able to touch upon all seven concertos, offering a kaleidoscopic view of them. In both cases, the workshops were tailor-made for those concrete ensembles, and the final performances were uniquely designed, including creative input from the participant musicians, sonic installations before and after the performance itself, and live electronics and digital imaging (developed and realized by Lucia D’Errico). The performances that concluded the workshops are both available online,[25] and I invite the reader to look at them now before continuing reading – not necessarily to watch the full-length performances now, but simply to get a grasp of what kind of events they were. In the remainder of this paper, I will focus on the Oslo workshops and performance, describing their workflow, modes of collaboration, co-creative moments, and central ideas.

Oslo, First Workshop, 4–5 November 2019

Initially conceived as a workshop with and for students of the Norwegian Academy of Music, the project was sustained by a series of co-creative meetings that extended over a period of four months (from November 2019 to February 2020), and one week of intensive rehearsals leading to a one-hour performance during the research festival ‘Ding-Dong, or Dong-Ding? A Celebration of Wonder and Risk-Taking in Music’ directed by Darla Crispin and Ellen Ugelvik (Arne Nordheim Centre for Artistic Research). The first meeting, which took place at the Norwegian Academy of Music in early November 2019, had the primary purpose of conveying my general modus operandi, my new image of musical works (see above), and my specific methodologies for artistic research in music, and providing basic information on the chosen pieces. At the same time, it was an opportunity to get to know all the participants, to discover interests, ideas, and performative curiosity. At this stage, apart from the decision to work on Beethoven’s piano concertos, very few decisions had been taken. I asked every participant to think about these pieces, especially those they had already played, and to select one or two passages that particularly struck them as somehow special. Such passages would be played and would be the basis for the participants’ individual contributions. I circulated a slideshow containing the essential information about my methodological approach, and a short document of one paragraph only, emphasizing the nature of my proposed experimental performance practices.

During the three days of that first gathering, I had the opportunity to visit the space in which the performance was to be held, the Majorstuen Church, which is located just a few hundred metres away from the Norwegian Academy of Music. Fortunately, that evening there was a concert, and I could see not only the main hall of the church but also the little side chapel in which the concert was taking place. It is crucial to mention that I always work with the specific architecture of the performance spaces available, something that is a logical consequence of my new image of work: traditional concert halls are entirely front-orientated, clearly designed for performances working under the paradigm of the strong work concept and pre-determining sonic options and possibilities. The moment one thinks in terms of diversity and fragmentation of materials, of a variety of sources of sound and image, one has to address the spatial configuration of the event. Music doesn’t simply happen within a given space: music unfolds within a space and, critically, music also gives shape to space. Sometimes, I use the term musictecture to refer to the merging of music and architecture.

The Majorstuen Church is a beautiful space with a large floor area, high roof, plenty of light and excellent acoustics. Frequently used for concerts, it has a conventional distribution of chairs, audience and performers (Figure 4), a distribution that is perfect for conventional performances but very problematic for my kind of approach.

Figure 4 Normal setup for concerts at Majorstuen Church.

Thus, my first task was to devise a rearrangement of this space that could fit my musical ideas for the performance. The solution I found was to empty the centre space (where the chairs were sited) and instead use it for the strategic placement of the instruments at a good distance from one another, to seat the audience along the walls, thus making a boundary that defined the concrete space of performance, to use the ‘stage’ as a visible waiting room for the performers (as they would never be playing all together at the same time), and to create a choreography of movements and displacements of the musicians while going to their playing positions. The result of these spatial considerations led to a complete reconfiguration of the church (see Figures 5, 6, and 7).

Figure 5 Setup for Beethoven 5+2.

Figure 6 Setup for Beethoven 5+2.

Figure 7 Setup for Beethoven 5+2.

This reconfiguration of the space and positioning of the pianos, percussion, organ and technical control desk defined the basic ‘instrument’ to be used for the performance. Rather than ‘instruments placed in a space’ we have a place that functions as an overarching instrument.

Next, it was crucial to think about the precise movements, displacements and trajectories of the musicians while moving towards their playing positions. The solution was rather clear and minimalist: (1) The starting position for everybody is sitting at the desks on the ‘stage’; (2) whenever playing, move to the instrument in a straight line, walking slowly but naturally; (3) after playing, move back to the desks in a straight line, walking slowly but naturally; (4) if crossing the walking line of another performer, adapt your speed to avoid a collision (see Figure 8).

Figure 8 Working sketch Beethoven 5+2 (disposition of the instruments and trajectories for the performers).

This simple set of rules in conjunction with the specific durations of each musical contribution ‘automatically’ creates a controlled and effective choreography of trajectories that establishes an aesthetic distance to the music being played. These linear paths operate under an aesthetic regime that is very different from the Classical or early Romantic world of Beethoven’s music, which is (conventionally) directed towards the stage and prohibits the movement or shifting of the musicians within a performance. The movements and paths designed by the performers play a major role not only for the performers (ourselves) but also for the listeners, functioning as a positive estrangement technique that gives an immediate (later on, sustained) hint at the critical character of the performance.

Oslo, Second Workshop, 15–17 January 2020

Between the first and second workshop, the group communicated via email, and the participants started sending me their choices of musical sections or fragments to be played. As we would not have much time, I worked out a plan for a sequence of musical events that would make sense to the musicians involved and that could be assimilated by the team in a short period of rehearsals. This plan followed a few simple and straightforward ideas: (1) Clearly present the aesthetic horizon of the musical part of the performance, including and performing pieces by other authors that delimitate the field of operations of Beethoven’s music – in this case, I chose Mozart’s D minor Piano Concerto from 1785 (to which Beethoven composed a cadenza) and Brahms’s D minor Piano Concerto from 1858 (which was composed following the formal scheme of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto). (2) Follow the chronological order of composition, defining a timeline that immediately conveys Beethoven’s musical and biographical development. (3) Give every piece the performance time that each performer wishes to have for it, thus guaranteeing the maximum energy and engagement of the performers who would feel that their respective contributions are ‘their own’. (4) Check the total duration of the event at every rehearsal and adapt singular contributions when needed. (5) Perfectly calibrate the timing of the full duration of the instrumental performance within the wider frame of an installation that will precede the performance proper, starting outside the concert space, using the entry hall and access corridors of the church for playing pre-recorded music or for trombone interventions.

With these ideas in mind, I prepared a first draft of the event’s structure. This draft was then discussed and further elaborated in our second workshop, when we met for three days, mainly in the Levin Hall of the Norwegian Academy of Music. The participants were very collaborative and, most importantly, creative. Kristian Heian (organ) rewrote the first section of Brahms’s Piano Concerto for organ and timpani, perfectly capturing the dramatic and grandiloquent atmosphere of the piece. Sigstein Folgerø (piano) and Simen Brenden (percussion) worked out an ethereal version of the second movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, rewritten for piano and marimba, a recomposition that I immediately saw as one of the highlights of the performance, especially because it provides a deep moment of recollection that allows much of the preceding material to be internally assimilated. Vivian Louise Tsui (piano) composed a totally new cadenza to Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, and Grace Oh (piano) focused on a very specific rhythmic transition within the written-out ‘cadenza’ of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. Trombone player Chris Stover suggested a link to Beethoven’s Drei Equale for four trombones and offered a walking improvisation in a crucial moment of the performance, namely the passage from the ‘first’ to the ‘second’ Beethoven, the moment in his life associated with the famous testament written in Heiligenstadt with his philosophical reflections on the value and meaning of life. Whether or not it is a coincidence, the Drei Equale were the only musical piece played years later at Beethoven’s funeral, symbolically closing an arch that resonates with the crisis from Heiligenstadt. Finally, Lucia D’Errico prepared a video installation that appeared sporadically at certain times, breaking the musical flow and adding new dimensions to the ongoing musical discourse. This installation had two main materials: images related to war and the military (which is a key element to understanding Beethoven’s concertos, especially their first movements), and historical film recordings of Oslo in the 1930s, a period that became particularly interesting to this performance as the first performance ever of Beethoven’s concerto WoO 4 took place in Oslo, in 1934. Additionally, the choice of film-clips focused on the arrival of exotic goods (bananas, cars, tobacco) at the seaport – something that resonated (to me) with the markedly exotic episodes in all the rondos of Beethoven’s concertos.

Backbone of the performance and the four installations

With all these ideas and concrete sonic materials, I was able to adapt my first draft, bringing everything together in a more coherent sequence of circa one-hour duration. As I also had several other ideas of my own, particularly related to the above-mentioned ‘forgotten’ concertos, this became a sort of composition exercise, creating a sonic landscape in which each and every element could find an adequate place. The reader might ask how this ‘coherence’ differs from the ‘finished products’ criticized above. The answer relates to my notions of assemblage and image of work: the moment one approaches a concrete actualization, a specific performance situation, one has to construct a communicable ‘arrangement’ or ‘collage’ of the potentially infinite available materials. One has no escape other than to operate a momentary ‘stratification’ of the assemblage, grounding and territorializing some of its components. Otherwise, there would be no performance whatsoever. This is a paradox similar to that of the ‘open work’, which becomes temporarily ‘closed’ every single time it is actually performed.

Additionally, the intended ‘framing installation’ gained increased relevance and became not one but actually four different installations, preceding the ‘real’ start of our joint performance. The first installation was planned for the small chapel; however, unfortunately, this space was not available to us on the day of the performance. Thus, the first installation took place in the entrance hall. The idea was to gather all audience members in one location, from which they would enter the main space of the church following a precisely defined path. The installation consisted of Chris Stover playing on one trombone fragments of Beethoven’s original composition Drei Equale, WoO 30 (1812), for four trombones. At the same time, a small sound source (an iPad) played a version of the Drei Equale for choir, a version that I wrote at the end of December 2019 specifically for this performance, and that was recorded during a choir rehearsal in Leuven at the beginning of January. Chris Stover moved from one musical stand to another (there were seven in total), creating many moments of ‘silence’ that were filled by the subtle music coming from the iPad. This combination of choir music ‘from afar’ with fragmentary trombone interventions created a church-like but actually not-church-at-all atmosphere, preparing the audience for the kind of experimental experience that would follow in the next 60 minutes.

The second installation was graphematic, replicating the idea of the exposition of objects in a museum. The full scores of all the concertos were displayed on music stands. Additionally, all the anagraphic information (title, date of composition, tonality, movements, date of composition) related to the pieces performed was printed and placed on the wall, next to the scores. This museum-like installation was located along the left side wall, in a kind of corridor that the audience would be led past. Interestingly, we observed afterwards that almost nobody noticed it, and people simply passed by without engaging with this information. That the installation had little power to attract was a minor problem because the major problem was that the movement of the audience into the ‘main’ performance space became much quicker than we expected. This resulted in the public being seated in their chairs much earlier than expected, making the first musical intervention (the Brahms concerto played by the organ and timpani) feel much longer than it should have. In retrospect, I realized that in order to make the people engage with the scores and anagraphic information, one would have needed more physical barriers, maybe placing the scores in little columns ‘on the way’, stopping the walking flow and directing people’s attention more effectively.

The third installation was made by us, the performing musicians, who were sitting on what normally is the ‘stage’, working on our laptops, browsing the web in search of information: audio and video recordings of the specific pieces we would be playing in a moment. In order to make this installation apprehensible, the trajectory of the audience members passed behind us, enabling them to see perfectly what we were doing on our computers. Some of our monitors were also shared on the two projection areas on the left and right sides of the front wall. This worked out very well, and everybody understood what we were doing.

The fourth installation was conceived as a background for the audience’s movement between the entry hall and the final sitting positions inside the performance space. At the same time, it was intended to signal the limit of the aesthetic horizon of the performance. It consisted of the version for organ and timpani of Brahms’s First Piano Concerto, which closely follows the formal structure of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. The chosen musical passage (of five minutes duration) could be repeated for as long as it was needed, depending on the time the audience took to sit down. This was fine, with the only caveat that, due to the failure of the score installation, the public sat down in their chairs before the first five minutes had elapsed. Thus, this moment felt slightly longer than it should have.

Oslo, Third Workshop and Performance, 4–7 February 2020

With all decisions about the installations and the fragments to be played taken in the second workshop, the third and last three-day meeting was used for rehearsing the whole sequence again and again, ensuring the smoothness of the transitions and spatial movements of the performers. The full sequence of events, as communicated to the performers in a spreadsheet, is shown in the table of Figure 9.

Figure 9 Beethoven 5+2, sequence of events

-1 Drei Equale Fragments Chris ad libitum
0 Brahms Concerto Beginning in loop Kristian & Simen ad libitum
1 Beethoven No. 0 2nd movement Paulo & Kristian max 8 min
2 Mozart D minor Concerto & cadenza (Beethoven) Beginning (15 bars) + 9 before cadenza, cadenza to end Sigstein 4 min
3 Beethoven No. 2 bars 135–147 + [10 before SOLO] bars 85–102 + bars 213–228 => modulate chromatically to C Paulo & Sigstein 4 min
4 Beethoven No. 1 bars 99–237 Paulo & Sigstein 4 min
5 Improvisation on Drei Equale Chris ad libitum
6 Beethoven No. 3 From beginning, then 13 bars before cadenza + cadenza by Vivian + with Simen & Paulo Paulo, Vivian, & Simen
7 Timpani interlude Simen ad libitum
8 Beethoven op. 61a Beginning until bar 87. Next, cadenza Paulo & Simen
9 Beethoven No. 4 2nd movement Sigstein & Simen 5 min
10 Beethoven No. 5 – Beginning (3 waves) until bar 11 (with organ & timpani) + bar 484; in bar 526 Paulo goes to bar 359 to 371 attacca =>

– Attacca n. 0 (similar passage, 1st movement bars 233–249) + build up to the cadenza.

Grace & Kristian & Simen, later Paulo 4 min
11 Beethoven No. 0 Film Oslo + Rondo (full) Paulo 9 min
12 Beethoven Drei Equale Kristian & Simen ad libitum

This sequence of events permits different readings, which must be construed by each listener. Some objective information about each piece was projected onto the walls as the particular piece started. These simple reminders of what was being played were especially needed for those less well-known concertos. I do not want to make too many statements about my ‘intentions’, especially as my whole working system is based upon the notion of a plurality of readings. My own reading is simply one of those readings, and it could easily be taken for the ‘authentic’ one, something against which I strongly struggle. Nonetheless, one possible way of reading this performance is to approach it as a portrait of some of Beethoven’s artistic and biographical developments and major changes of direction. In a telegraphic manner, this reading would go as follows (see Figure 8 to better follow the sequence of events):

The early concerto in E flat major from 1784, composed at age 14, doesn’t resemble any of Beethoven’s later works, suggesting a composer full of innocent serenity and jovial expression. Thus, a major change of direction obviously happened between that piece and the first ‘official’ works, including the much worked and reworked (over a time span of 10 years) Second Piano Concerto. Between the two, we place Mozart’s D minor Concerto as a symbolic gesture, pointing to the impact that Mozart’s music in particular, and Viennese musical life in general, had on Beethoven’s development. Next, we play the First Concerto, which signals Beethoven’s full commitment to new musical horizons (something he himself doubted in relation to the Second Concerto, which explains his hesitations about publishing it, and also the reason why he published it only after the ‘First’ Concerto gained broader recognition). Before the Third Concerto, we have the trombone improvisations by Chris Stover based upon materials from the Drei Equale. This creates a reflective moment, a suspension in the flow of events, that can be linked to the period of the Heiligenstadt testament, just before the composition of the Third Concerto. The long timpani interlude between the Third and Fourth Concertos recalls the military component both of those years and of most of the music materials of Beethoven’s concertos (especially their first movements). This military element becomes very striking in op. 61a because of the central role played by the timpani and the important unaccompanied woodwind sections. Contrary to the cliché understanding of the Violin Concerto as lyrical and poetic, this take permits a much more political and militaristic view, which is unmistakably recognizable in the voracious cadenza for piano and timpani that Beethoven wrote for the original piano version. This cadenza plays an important role in the overall architecture of the performance, especially as shortly after we have the ethereal second movement of the Fourth Concerto, thus creating a great affective contrast. Next, there is all the grandeur of the Fifth Concerto, introduced here by the organ and timpani (which also relates back to the beginning of the performance, to the organ and timpani version of Brahms’s First Concerto). To conclude the performance, we decided to go back to the early concerto from 1784. This was done for two reasons. First, not only is the tonality the same (E flat major) but also Beethoven seemed highly attached to this concerto, the score of which he carried with him through all his numerous residential moves. Second, the third movement of this early concerto was premiered in Oslo in 1934 (by the pianist Walter Frey), which created a curious coincidence with the city where the performance was taking place. The black-and-white film sequences projected on the walls are intended as an evocation of those years, depicting scenes of Oslo’s public life taken on the streets, at the port, in gardens, inside kitchens, and at national festivities. The very end is a return to the beginning: another version of the Drei Equale, arranged by me for organ and timpani.

As part of a festival devoted to the ‘celebration of wonder and risk-taking in music’, the performance took place on 6 February 2020 (15:00–16:15). A proper video recording was not planned, and the performance was simply recorded for internal documentation on two handycams without any other external microphones. Thus, I invite the reader to accept the low-fi technological quality of the recording and to watch the complete performance now, which is accessible at https://orpheusinstituut.be/en/projects/beethoven-5-2.

As can be seen, beyond presenting musical works as monuments in and for themselves or conveying historically reconstructed sonorities, this performance is an offer to navigate Beethoven’s music through the means of artistic research, critically exposing the diversity, complexity and heterogeneity of the historically inherited materials. In this sense, an experimental performance practice (in general) does not convey a finished and closed final product. It remains fundamentally suspended, including an inner granularity that suggests other modes of playing, listening, perceiving and apprehending. It carries the potential to change the way we relate to musical works from the past, not by repeating what one already knows about them, but by cracking them from inside. Instead of reifying musical works, performance can be the place to challenge ourselves and to ask questions, to activate new distributions of the sensible, to propose new arrangements of things and materialities, to stimulate our senses differently, and to rethink our relation to the world and between ourselves. This is the micro-political power of experimental performance practices. Beethoven 5+2 and Diabelli Machines are just two examples of such practices. I hope that readers grasp the potential of such an approach and develop their own critical renderings of other musical works. The possibilities are infinite.


[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, in Untimely Meditations, ed. Daniel Breazeale, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 60–123. Essay first published 1874 as ‘Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben’, 2nd part of Unzeitgemässe Betrachtungen (Leipzig: Fritzsch, 1873–76).

[2] Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, trans. Gregory Elliot (London: Verso, 2009). First published 2008 as Le Spectateur émancipé (Paris: La Fabrique).

[3] Paulo de Assis, Logic of Experimentation: Rethinking Music Performance through Artistic Research (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2018). Freely available at https://library.oapen.org/handle/20.500.12657/28242.

[4] Rick Fulker, ‘Highlights of the Beethoven Anniversary Year 2020 Announced’, DW.com, https://p.dw.com/p/2tzpV.

[5] Fulker, ‘Highlights of the Beethoven Anniversary Year’.

[6] ‘Beethoven für Klimatschutz’, in Bthvn: 250 Jahre Beethoven, www.bthvn2020.de/bthvn2020-magazin/index-h5.html#page=97.

[7] Together with my team from the Orpheus Institute, I conducted a four-year research project on Nietzsche’s notion of ‘the weight of music’, particularly focusing on the tensions between Nietzsche the composer and Nietzsche the philosopher (for an overview from which you can navigate the seven performances of the project, see: www.researchcatalogue.net/view/417172/417173). Especially relevant is Nietzsche 6 (Vienna, 2016, www.researchcatalogue.net/view/153176/308887) and Nietzsche 6+1 (online two-screen film, www.researchcatalogue.net/view/380154/380155).

[8] Nietzsche, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, 73.

[9] Nietzsche, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, 68–77.

[10] Nietzsche, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, 74.

[11] Nietzsche, ‘On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life’, 75.

[12] Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds, The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[13] For a summary and critique of the work concept, see de Assis, Logic of Experimentation, 189–91.

[14] For further details on the notion of musical-works-as-assemblages, see de Assis, Logic of Experimentation, chapters 1 and 2.

[15] Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 102.

[16] Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 13.

[17] On postdramatic theatre, see Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. and with an introduction by Karen Jürs-Munby (London: Routledge, 2006); Erika Fischer-Lichte and Benjamin Wihstutz, Transformative Aesthetics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018).

[18] Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 48.

[19] Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator, 48-49.

[20] The full video recording of this performance is featured on the DVD Diabelli Machines 8 and is accessible online at www.researchcatalogue.net/view/241121/241122. Another performance of this same collaborative endeavour, made at deSingel in Antwerp, was documented in detail and is accessible at www.researchcatalogue.net/view/143209/211231.

[21] While it is impossible to determine how listeners will individually engage and respond to what is being presented to them, I am playing with the expectations of those particular listeners who are familiar enough with the piece that they ‘struggle’ to cope with the omission of Variations 1 and 2. This is a typical problem of ‘postdramatic’ modes of performance, namely the fact that they require a certain familiarity of the spectator with mainstream performances. When Italian theatre director Carmelo Bene staged Richard III (1981) without male characters (except for Richard III), this would have gone unnoticed by someone who had never read or seen Shakespeare’s original play.

[22] Accessible at www.researchcatalogue.net/view/302790/302791.

[23] Paulo de Assis, Diabelli Machines 8 (Ghent: Orpheus Institute Multimedia Series, 2018).

[24] See William Kinderman, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987).

[25] https://orpheusinstituut.be/en/projects/beethoven-5-2.