The Failure of Music – Amanda DeBoer Bartlett

I’d like to explore the ideas of failure and obscurity as the narrative of performance, the inability to express as the material of expression. I find these ideas clichéd and overused, and I have encountered numerous works dedicated to making me fail in public (in very subtle ways), during my time as a contemporary music specialist.

In order to address ideas of performance, we must recognize that in order for a performance to occur, there must be an audience present. This is what distinguishes a performance from a rehearsal, recording session, etc.

There is a great deal of audience anxiety in contemporary music. We don’t want to influence our audience. We don’t care about our audience. Is the audience a voyeur or a participant?

Without our control, audiences will react to our performance. We can acknowledge this fact, or ignore it, but it will not change the due course of fate. If we assume our audience is reasonably intelligent and can react with adequate capacity to events in their daily lives, then there is no need to worry about manipulating them in performance. They most likely came of their own accord and recognize that they are experiencing a representational performance. They probably came to the event for just such an experience. No need to worry about them, unless we cannot deliver.

I think contemporary music may suffer from a lack of application. If an architect obscured the fire exit from visitors (the building represents a failure to escape), there would be serious consequences.

In practice, performance is a representational act during which audiences do not respond with mirrored experience but with reactionary experience. If the desired effect is “sadness,” I do not cry during the performance because 1. I won’t be able to sing and 2. The audience won’t feel sadness. If I act sad, the audience will feel pity – very different from sadness. If the desired effect is “discomfort,” the performer does not need to do something physically uncomfortable, or even represent something physically uncomfortable, but rather do something that will make the audience uncomfortable.

It is human nature to desire measurable and repeatable success, especially when we are on public display, and so I question the intention behind failure and the inability to perform as a performance. The composer is always enacting some amount of control over the body of the performer by designating time-based notation, but typically the performer is given agency over the method of production.

What I haven’t yet discovered is the desired sound of these performances. Failure is not a sound, it is a narrative, and an unimaginative narrative at that. Is there a deeper structure behind failure? Can you represent that narrative through sound? Is there an intention for the audience to discern? Is the performer allowed to transmit that intention? How hard should the audience work to discern your intention at the performance they are attending?

Sometimes I perceive an unofficial competition for obstructive failure. The winner (loser?) is a silent, shaking performer in the corner of the room.

My primary mode of performance is singing, and in contemporary vocal music that uses extended or non-traditional vocal technique, recent trends indicate a fondness for straight-tone singing, breathiness, delicacy, and colloquial/informal diction, as well as a resistance to language and narrative. There is a strong push to thwart the idea of the singer as a soloist, and an inclination toward masking or obscuring the resonant colors of the voice. ** Commonly, there is a resistance to a trained, formal sound, and a preference for the “natural” sound (as long as the natural sound is very thin).

It is the failure of technique, the obscuring of the message, the inability to communicate that we are communicating. It is a lack of expression. The technique of the piece (the material) dominates the technique of the singer and leaves her with only the edge of sound, a hint of phonation. The work polices the voice and fulfills the timeworn fantasy of the vocalist in distress – and quite accurately.

The result is flaccid and unassuming. A narrow use of timbre that is easily contained within the boundaries of delicate chamber music. Subtlety entices while obscurity suffocates.

**A teacher of mine calls this the “sexy baby voice,” as it often results in an infantilized tone. I often receive pieces with the expressive marking of “pure” or “pallid.”

I have recently encountered certain subsets of expression that manifest, either through notation or other instructional form, a sense of control over the human body of the performer.

Naturally, dance and movement based art forms derive their being from controlled movement, and even in theatre do we find notated physical direction within the script. The understanding in dance is that movement is the material of the performance, and we acknowledge the physical presence of the human on stage. In theatre, the movement has, historically at least, assigned an intention that creates situations and scenarios which the characters must then confront or resolve for the duration of the play.

In music, the assignment of physical movement to the performer might utilize contradictory and conflicting configurations that compel the performer to make choices between techniques, and possibly result in novel and unfamiliar sounds. This is the best possible scenario. Likely, the performer is improvising the work to some degree, and therefore we can attribute success in the performance to their creative abilities. But is this a failure to fail?

In pieces of music designed for failure and obscurity, there is characteristically a great deal of craft involved in the construction of the piece, but the piece might be missing dimension – the dimension of human connection between performer and score, between performer and audience, between audience and composer. That connection only results from intention to communicate. The intention to thwart communication is alienating for both performer and audience – the equivalent of a musical time-out (why are we being punished?).

In failure-performance, that agency is sequestered and bodily authority transferred to the score. Fear of the body results in the desire to control it. Fear of the voice results in painfully thin and unsensual singing.

When I’m performing your music, what am I doing on stage? If the goal of a piece is failure, I’d rather not succeed.

I was recently asked why I perform contemporary music, if I’m so frustrated by its application. That is a fair question. (And to be clear, I find these narratives and intentions in every corner of contemporary music – thorny academic pieces, new minimalism, aleatoric music – it’s quite pervasive, and I wonder if anyone could find links to societal shifts in the past 10 years).

I recently collaborated on an extremely difficult piece that I was struggling to connect with. Suddenly the composer said that it was about being inappropriate – and I totally got it. That’s definitely something I connect with. I still feel like the piece was technically out of my reach, but every time I return to it I will become a better musician and hopefully convey the pieces’ ideas to the audience with more clarity and nuance. I will communicate.

I think there is value in accomplishing difficult tasks, and in performing music that is slightly beyond our capabilities as performers. I love collaborating on pieces that make me a better musician because of their complexity. I find it especially satisfying when the complexity and difficulty of a piece stems from a larger concept or human narrative that challenges me to dig deeper into my intellect and psyche. Bonus points if the piece is able to connect with the audience on that level as well – this duty is 50/50 composer/performer.