Conflicting Messages: Performer Agency in Contemporary Aesthetics

Liam Hockley

excerpt 3

Excerpt from Suzanne Farrin’s Ma Dentro Dove, annotated by Liam Hockley.

Part 1: Performer Agency, Interpretation, Subjectivity, and the “Work”

1.1 – Introduction
Musically and ideologically progressive art music composed since 1945 poses a fundamental challenge to the traditional paradigm of a “work” as constructed by a composer, interpreted and communicated by a performer, and received by an audience. In particular, the question of performer agency within contemporary aesthetics has been problematized by shifts in aesthetic and musical values, materials, and compositional praxises: issues such as the use of seemingly prescriptive notational images, intentional aporia, and unusual demands placed on the physicality of the performer are often viewed as undermining the traditional concept of performer as interpreter. [1] There exists a large gap in scholarship as the deeply interrelated issues of performer subjectivity, interpretation, and agency within progressive contemporary music aesthetics have received little attention in academic circles: much of the work on “analysis and performance” is not applicable to recent music as it is underpinned by methodologies heavily indebted to the historically-constructed interpretational implications of functional harmony. Some contemporary scholarship has attempted to bridge the theoretical gap by retooling terminology and analytical frameworks (“music as performance” has replaced the antiquated “music and performance” [2] in an attempt to decentralize the traditional “work-concept” or “work-object” with its deeply ingrained composer—work—performer hierarchy), but ultimately the analytical scope of these studies is limited to Classical and Romantic-era repertoire.

This article is a preliminary attempt to explore the possibilities and limitations of performer agency within contemporary aesthetics. In Part 1, I theorize a generative and material-based method of analysis and interpretation using Italian literary theorist Umberto Eco’s work on interpretation complemented by Eugene Montague’s recent paper on agency and creativity in performance and Carolyn Abbate’s masterful “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?.” I then make use of this framework in Part 2 to suggest possible forms analysis might take using works from my own repertoire: close attention is paid in particular to the interplay between materials, notation, gestural morphology, and performer subjectivity in works representative of a wide body of contemporary aesthetics.

1.2 – Historical perspectives on the “work” and subjectivity
Subjectivity, but one part of interpretation, must necessarily be considered in relation to some “work-concept” given that a performer’s conception of a work in terms of its immutability or variability will dictate the potentialities and limits of subjectivity within their interpretational plan. The individualized work-concept for any given musical work will consequently have ramifications in the way the score is read, learned, interpreted, and presented to an audience by a performer. It is therefore critical to understand historical perspectives on the “work-concept” in order to demonstrate the limitations of the interpretational systems that authors dealing with Classical and Romantic-era repertoires have put forward.

Treatises on interpretation written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century conceive of an author-centric Platonic ideal of a work: a perfect “other” which performers are tasked with realizing in such a way as to elucidate its immanent structures without leaving a disturbing fingerprint. Subjectivity in interpretation was therefore generally viewed as being questionable without the support of objective and defensible analytic insights on harmonic and formal structures and their intrinsic interpretational associations. Theorist Heinrich Schenker’s views on interpretation—while extreme—are at least somewhat emblematic of the thinking of this period:

“Basically, a composition does not require a performance in order to exist. Just as an imagined sound appears real in the mind, the reading of a score is sufficient to prove the existence of the composition. The mechanical realization of the work of art can thus be considered superfluous.” [3]

While theorists after Schenker adopted a substantially more nuanced view of the role of performance, his writings nevertheless had a profound effect on scholarship through the 1970s and 1980s as analysis continued to assert itself authoritatively over performance. Within the emerging field of “music and performance” during those decades, the relationship between theorists (acting as self-appointed proxy composers to defend “compositional intent”) and performers was hardly a reciprocal one: the work of analysts Wallace Berry or Edward T. Cone, for example, at least initially maintained the hierarchical power dynamic by arguing for the performance of demonstrable insights into structure as immanent meaning.

1.3 – Contemporary Discussions of Agency: Eugene Montague and Carolyn Abbate
Turning briefly now to contemporary authors on subjectivity and agency, both Eugene Montague’s “Agency and Creativity in Music Performance” (2014) and Carolyn Abbate’s “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?” (2004) were of particular importance in conceptualizing this article. The work of both authors is emblematic of the discourse surrounding “music as performance” which gradually came to replace “music and performance” in the last decade of the twentieth century. Both examine musical works—either the constituent elements or the work as a whole—through the lens of performance and therefore allow the unique voice of performer subjectivity to act as a form of analysis, granting that it can uncover unique analytical insights.

Montague conceives of performer agency as occurring temporally during performance and being mediated by “physical gestures that produce material sound.” [4] Physical gestures are instigated by the composed gestures of the work: the latter are therefore endowed with discrete agential power as they, to some extent, shape a performance aside from the original authorial intent. This acknowledgment of the competing agencies at work within the temporality of performance serves to further decentralize the traditional idea of the work-object. Given that the composed gestures contain manifold internal and external connections that cannot possibly be governed by a central author or even the central text of the work-object, the performer is therefore able to act with quasi-authorial agency: Montague posits the performer as a kind of arranger, placing sounds in a new context. Despite the difference between through-composed and improvised musics, his analysis of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer’s cover of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” wonderfully illustrates his point. The traces of Jackson’s original song referred to throughout Iyer’s performance simultaneously operate on several structural levels: instigated by Jackson’s original, they signal outwards to the original intention of the author (including the connotations associated with text and genre) while simultaneously pointing inwards to complementary gestures within the bounds of Iyer’s interpretation. Throughout the course of performance, these physical gestures acquire a consistent self-validating motivic sense which generatively creates larger semantic units and formal boundaries. This type of analysis readily complements Eco’s theories on interpretation, as will be discussed shortly.

Abbate’s work focuses on and advocates for the primacy of drastic over gnostic knowledge in analyzing performance. Building on the work of Vladimir Jankélévitch, she defines the schism between drastic and gnostic as being between the physical and intellectual, the former “involving a category of knowledge that flows from drastic actions or experiences and not from verbally mediated reasoning.” [5] Splitting the drastic and gnostic self within the performer to experience the act of performance as a generative, compositional act opens the performance to the possibility of becoming an author of meaning or commentary in tandem with the musical work. While this type of analysis lends itself well to shedding new light on traditional repertoires and their shifting roles in contemporary society (her analysis of contemporary performances of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg is a particularly rich example given the work’s historical and subtextual connotations), her thoughts can also relate to contemporary repertoires. Citing Laurie Anderson’s performance piece Happiness, Abbate reflects on a particular sonic gesture meant to translate the sound of falling bodies captured on film during the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. [6] This vivid drastic gesture, so afflictive to those who understand the signifier based on their having faced the real-time tragedy in some capacity, has the potential of calcifying into pale gnostic knowledge as future audiences or interpreters are distanced from the original event. In confronting the artefacts of signifiers—even within contemporary musical works—the question is raised whether we as performers treat the original signification as a permanent fixture of the work or if we allow alternative readings to flourish: at what point does the drastic within the work become the gnostic and “which loss is regretted more deeply?” [7]

1.4 – Towards a Methodology: Umberto Eco’s Interpretation and Overinterpretation
While important in the “music as performance” discourse, the limitation of both Montague and Abbate’s work is that they do little to address the nature of interpretation within the practice of the performer: a methodology or theoretical framework for evaluating performer subjectivity and agency within contemporary aesthetics analogous to those in place for common-practice tonal works is still needed. The work of Italian philosopher and literary theorist Umberto Eco offers a particularly compelling interpretational paradigm. Most critically to the study at hand, his work refutes the application of external systems, structures, or genres—analogous to the interpretational implications of functional harmony—to swaths of texts, focusing instead on generative interpretive processes that emerge from the material of the texts themselves (while leaving open the possibility that these texts may indeed, after analysis, relate structurally to a pre-conceived genre). Within his system, there are three primary agential bodies each with their own set of interacting interpretational priorities: the pre-textual intention of the author (intentio auctoris), the intention of the reader (intentio lectoris—characterized by its free play with the work-object), and, most importantly to the study at hand, the intention of the work itself (intentio operis):

“One could object that the only alternative to a radical reader-oriented theory of interpretation [i.e. complete subjectivity] is the one extolled by those who say that the only valid interpretation aims at finding the original intention of the author. In some of my recent writings I have suggested that between the intention of the author (very difficult to find out and frequently irrelevant for the interpretation of a text) and the intention of the interpreter who (to quote Richard Rorty) simply “beats the text into a shape which will serve for his purpose,” there is a third possibility. There is an intention of the text.” [8]

Establishing a critical distinction between the intentio operis and intentio auctoris instills agency within the work to act as an independent source of meaning away from its author. Given the impossibility of knowing the intention of an author (including living ones who, as Eco points out, cannot disentangle conflicts between the intentio auctoris and the intentio operis as they are not necessarily aware of the manifold interpretations supported by their own work [9]), the text—or in the case of music, the score—must stand in as the primary source of a work over a pre-textual concept. This necessarily breaks down any sort of hierarchical top-down interpretations in favour of generative ones: the agency granted to the work through the concept of intentio operis not only drastically reduces the primacy of intentio auctoris within interpretational paradigms but also changes the role of intentio lectoris to one of mediation and collaboration with the work itself. To rephrase his argument in musical terms, the constituent elements of a piece—as understood subjectively by the interpreter (including, but not limited to, basic materials, gestures, textures, etcetera)—are open to a dense network of semiotic possibilities that point both within and outside the bounds of the work and are therefore instilled with agential power to shape interpretation and performance.

Eco, however, cautions against opening a work to a chain of unlimited semiosis in which all interpretations are correct a priori. In place of a fixed intentio auctoris, the immanent logic of a work (as coded by the original author) imagines possible “model readers”—theoretical interpreters who generatively (in the authorial sense) build different possible constructions of the work through the contextualization of its constituent materials within the framework of the piece. [10] The totality of model readers predicted by a work necessarily limits the number of model readings as well as the boundaries of a work are coded by its materials. Brian Ferneyhough’s description of his solo flute piece Unity Capsule as being a “finite but unbounded expressive world” would seem to be a call to action for performers to engage with the work on this level. [11]

Within this finite world however, interpretation must follow some guiding principle to maintain the inner coherence of a work: Eco uses the concept of “isotopy”—proposed by fellow semiotician Algirdas Julien Greimas—to define the bounds of interpretation. Defined by Greimas as “a complex of manifold semantic categories making possible the uniform reading of a story,” [12] Eco reimagines isotopy as more of an umbrella term that refers to coherence at the various textual levels of a work: “a constancy in going in a direction that a text exhibits when submitted to the rules of interpretative coherence.” [13] Subjectively perceived elements of a musical work, as my analyses in Part 2 of this article will show, are seen by an interpreter as discrete agents within the work which cohere on different structural levels and interact in the morphology of the gestures.

This interpretational process therefore constructs the work from its materials rather than by validating an either pre-conceived intentio lectoris interpretation or an assumed intentio auctoris. As a “machine for creating possible worlds,” the logic of the work is also self-regulating: “any interpretation given of a certain portion of a text can be accepted if it is confirmed by, and must be rejected if it is challenged by, another portion of the same text.” [14] (In the basest of musical analogies, this refers to the immanent interpretive logic that differentiates a graphic score from a complexist one.) Therefore, contrary to what recent scholarship on music as performance argues, a “correct” interpretation of the work is in fact theoretically possible: a sensitive interpreter who thoughtfully interacts with a piece using the same kind of generative logic and approach as the author can successfully actualize one of many possible readings of the subcutaneous structures and independent agencies at play within the limits of the immanent logic of the work. [15]

Given the decentralization implied by Montague, Abbate, and Eco, we can imagine the beginnings of an analytical methodology for understanding the role of the performer in contemporary aesthetics. The score acts as instigator: interpretation is the result of a subjective or drastic analysis in which musical values, memories, and feelings held by the performer are acted upon and stimulated into action. This, however, is not intended to discount the need for objective analysis which maintains a valuable place in interpretation as identifier of large-scale organizing principles or interpretive boundary-markers, demonstrating what a score does not allow a performer to do based on its inherent musical characteristics.

Part 2: Incipits of Analyses

2.1 – Introduction and caveat
Before delving into the analyses, it should be assumed that my brief observations are purely subjective and that each of the pieces I address are laden with diverse interpretational possibilities: the case of Mark André’s …IN… is a good example in that the composer’s published analysis differs significantly from mine. [16] These analyses stem entirely from my own prejudices, interests, and methodologies as an interpreter of contemporary music and are based largely on drastic insights gained in learning and performing these works. It should therefore go without saying that any of these works could be analysed in terms other than the categories into which I place them and that a more complete analysis of each would certainly expand to examine diverse inroads into the material. The idea at this point is to suggest and explore ways in which Eco’s interpretational paradigm could be used to identify and track a variety of constructs at play within a musical work: how does basic material interact with physical and conceptual constructs to create analytically self-regulating (isotopic) and distinct gestural language at different structural levels and to what extent do these elements exert agency over the physicality of performance?

2.2 – Incipit 1: On physicality and mechanism in Richard Barrett’s CHARON
Consider the quotation at the end of the score, taken from Paul Celan’s Breathturn: “There: the bitten through eternity-penny, spat up to us through the mesh.” The focus on the action of the mouth not only relates to the topoi of mythology and ritual that Barrett has coded gesturally into the work [17] but also to the sound-world and means of production in CHARON which metaphorically translates the distressing physical struggle of a voice attempting to speak. Barrett uses his intimate knowledge of the instrument’s mechanism to fracture and create resistance within the carefully cultivated relationship between the performer’s body, their instrument, and the work. In doing so, he forces the performer to confront and attempt to communicate through forces that, rather than facilitating musical speech, work against them on an intensely physical level. Focal pitches that embody specific degrees of physical resistance between player and instrument ground each section of CHARON; gestures and phrases can therefore be mapped according to degrees of opposition. The highly microtonal material of the piece—facilitated by the mechanism of the bass clarinet—blurs the line between pitch and timbre and the resulting guttural play of resistances and tone colour give the feeling of a voice that is trying to speak but cannot open its mouth properly. Furthermore, the frequent use of embouchure manipulation as expressive element is particularly significant as it destabilizes the point of contact between performer and instrument: the interruption of the ingrained mechanisms of sound production and regulation—which would normally be needed to homogenize the shifting physical resistances at work in the piece—creates an extreme degree of alienation. Unencumbered speech only arrives after the point of greatest complexity and confrontation; the metaphorical voice develops new musical syntax and grammar as it (re)learns to speak. The model reader created by the intentio operis is a highly confrontational one: analogous to Celan’s attempts to say the unsayable, CHARON articulates a tension between the internals and externals of the physical, mental, and material aspects of performance.

Measure 20 of CHARON showing “play of resistances” at work. The written A-flat 4 appears in several guises: first in a normal context (this pitch has little inherent resistance), then as part of a “fingered glissando” which introduces some shifting physical resistance between performer and instrument through the gesture (which the performer cannot normalize due to the rapidly oscillating embouchure manipulations superimposed on the passage), and finally as a detuned quasi-overtone of the extended low range of the bass clarinet (extremely resistant).

2.3 – Incipit 2: On the physical means of sound production and resonance in Mark André’s …IN…
Breath is the fundamental apparatus behind the performance of a wind instrument and controls all aspects of tone production, quality, and resonance. …IN… engages the performer to develop an intensely subtle catalogue of breath effects including a variety of attacks as well as relative balances between pitch and noise (from 1/5 sound + 4/5 noise to full sound) whose states of physical production become quasi-motivic elements running in parallel to the musical gestures. While a literary text is the source of much of the musical discourse—in this case, an excerpt of the Book of Revelation in both French and German translations—it relates primarily to the performer’s drastic understanding of the gestural elements and structures over an overarching gnostic analysis. The phrase “je suis l’alpha et l’oméga” figures most heavily throughout …IN… as André fixes the oral cavity position of the “a” and “o” vowel sounds as resonators for breath and clarinet colour and—significantly—stratifies relative levels of high/bright and low/dark resonance on a separate staff above fingered pitch. Given their preponderance, “a” and “o” resonances act as the central isotopies of the piece: they become a means of organizing, understanding, and shaping the material by clarifying the relationship between gestures and sounds. Other extracts from the text, while crucial to the discourse of the piece, are somewhat subsidiary to “a” and “o”: looking at the score example below, we can see that they are either manifested as larger spoken/whispered extracts (“das” in m. 54), broken down syllabically as a means of projecting a specific breath colour either as pitch or noise (“eit” in m. 59), or used as an indication of character beyond traditional notational vocabulary: a hard attack with a “w” sound resonance—a German “v” sound as in “ewig”—can indicate a more aggressive tone than the same gesture with a vowel resonance (as in m. 59). While the subtle sonic differences between vowel resonances are arguably only perceived by the performer in real-time, the physical states which create these resonances can be traced as discrete agents through the work.

Score Excerpt
Example 1. Measures 54-67 of …IN… showing diverse vowel resonators. Note the use of both “a” and “o” resonators for slap gestures, as well as the relation between gestures in measures 57 and 65. (hdb indicates breath projected onto the mouthpiece, db indicates normal embouchure position)

2.4 – Incipits 3+4: On musical memories and histories in György Kurtág’s In Nomine–all’ongherese (Damjanich–emlékko) and Antoine Beuger’s dialogues (silences)
Kurtág—The title In Nomine–all’ongherese (Damjanich–emlékko) suggests the work as being a locus for the ‘dead’ historical styles (though not in a post-modern sense) of the sixteenth century In nomine tradition and the eighteenth and nineteenth century all’ongherese style. The two musical topoi impose distinct gestural profiles on the surface and subcutaneous structures of the work. The burden of specific musical memories and histories therefore weighs heavily upon the performer as Kurtág challenges them to absorb the historical identities and ingrained performance practice coded into each style’s distinct gestural language—a task intensified by Kurtág’s idiosyncratic notation.

Performance as negotiation: understanding and regulating the shifting balance between discrete elements while maintaining the primacy of communication and connection.

Opening of In Nomine–all’ongherese (Damjanich–emlékko). The short-long rhythmic foot and quasi-improvisatory ornaments that Kurtág uses in this passage are hallmarks of the all’ongherese style. The use of the In nomine tradition is much subtler and has to do with background focal pitches; the written C4 in this passage is but the beginning of a larger structure at work in the background of the piece.

Beuger—The performer deals less in this case with specific stylistic histories and more with enacting real and invented memory through music. The seemingly quotidian material that Beuger works with—fragments of pure, ‘white-note’ diatonic melodies (temporally and sonically distorted by the performer)—creates innumerable yet strangely intangible internal and external connections while the lengthy silence that surrounds each statement affords both performer and audience the time to reflect on their personal semiosis. The prescribed audibility of pages turning not only demarcates the time-structure of the work but also evokes the imaginary act of leafing through and meditating on a volume of semi-forgotten or illusory folksongs.

From page 4 of dialogue (silences). Note the use of common diatonic patterns suggesting various modalities, as well as tonic and dominant sororities within C major.

Abbate, Carolyn. “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Spring 2004): 505–36.

Cook, Nicholas. Beyond the Score: Music as Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014.

Eco, Umberto. Interpretation and Overinterpretation. Edited by Stefan Collini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

________. “Two Problems in Textual Interpretation,” in Poetics Today, Vol. 2, N o. 1a (Autumn 1980): 145–61.

Ferneyhough, Brian. Collected Writings. Edited by James Boros and Richard Toop. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995.

Montague, Eugene. “Agency and Creativity in Music Performance.” Gli spazi della musica 3 (2014): 49–69.

Schenker, Heinrich. The Art of Performance. Edited by Heribert Esser. Translated by Irene Schreier Scott. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

1. An issue which I addressed in my first FOCI Words contribution, “Towards a Redefinition of ‘Performer’” (June 9, 2014).
2. Nicholas Cook, Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 10.
3. Heinrich Schenker, The Art of Performance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 3.
4. Eugene Montague, “Agency and Creativity in Music Performance,” Gli spazi della musica 3 (2014): 57.
5. Carolyn Abbate, “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?” in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 3 (Spring 2004), 510. Gnostic knowledge can be loosely defined as the body of musicological and theoretical knowledge dealing with a particular musical work.
6. Specifically, the 2002 documentary film 9/11 directed by Jules and Gedeon Naudet.
7. Abbate, “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?,” 534.
8. Umberto Eco, “Interpretation and History” in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, edited by Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 25.
9. Umberto Eco, “Overinterpreting Texts” in Interpretation and Overinterpretation, 72.
10. Ibid., 64. A more nuanced discussion of the model reader and Eco’s concepts of “open” and “closed” texts is crucial to developing this work in the future, but is ultimately outside the scope of this particular article.
11. Brian Ferneyhough, Collected Writings, edited by James Boros and Richard Toop, (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1995), 99.
12. Quoted in Umberto Eco, “Two Problems in Textual Interpretation,” in Poetics Today, Vol. 2, No. 1a (Autumn 1980), 146.
13. Ibid., 153.
14. Eco, “Overinterpreting texts,” 65.
15. Human nature and notions of fidelity and responsibility are clearly at play within the interpretive process as well, but are ultimately outside the scope of the present article.
16. See: Mark André, “Concerning the Morphology of the Constituent Materials of …IN… for Amplified Bass Clarinet” in New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century, Vol. 2: Musical Morphology, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and Wolfram Schurig (Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2004), 22-33.
17. A coin—Charon’s obol—was placed on the mouth of a corpse to pay passage to the afterlife but also as a seal to protect the soul and prevent it from leaving the body. CHARON is drawn from the larger ensemble work The Opening of the Mouth (1992-97), which contains many allusions to Egyptian and Greek mythology and ritual in tandem with the poetry of Paul Celan. Space does not permit a thorough gestural analysis, though it should be briefly noted in passing that CHARON initially concerns itself with periodic phrases using limited and repetitive pitch material which conveys a sense of ritual gesture—a more concrete material isotopy that could be used for future analyses.