Towards a Redefinition of “Performer” – Liam Hockley

These brief words are written largely in response to the myriad of conversations I have recently had with colleagues and audience members about my musical interests—conversations which inevitably turn to discussions of the Romantic-era idea of the performer as inspired creative artist, an image which is seemingly undermined by contemporary musical aesthetics, especially of the ‘complexist’ approach.* Works, for example, that engage with new musical materials systematically, objectively, or self-referentially; or whose primary aesthetic objective is not unambiguous emotional communication between composer, performer, and audience are often seen as stifling individual creativity and being at odds with the artistic nature of the performer. I maintain that such concerns are rooted in a deeply entrenched bourgeois value system which has formalized models of the “successful” work or performance. The ideas of artist and interpretation are not discarded in the face of the increased demands placed on performers in complexist contemporary music, but do need to be re-examined, deconstructed, and redefined. There is a wealth of material discussing new compositional aesthetics and methods, but very little regarding equivalent changes in the nature of performance: new responses on the part of composers to the aesthetic issues of our time require performers to engage with the material of new works from different perspectives and to retool the concepts and values of performance.

Notation—in the form of a musical score—is the enduring representation of a composer’s intention and acts as the primary mediator between composer, performer, and audience. It exists in a paradoxical state—it can be both freeing and constricting—and comes hand-in-hand with the massive historical burden of explicit communication. Performers are accustomed to dealing with notational systems that communicate a strict and quantifiable aural meaning; a traditional musical score mediates a clear relationship between composer and performer, as the latter is able to clearly understand and realize the intentions of the former through the understanding of a shared notational code. Complex—or any non-traditional—notations present a fundamental paradigm shift in performance practice as the scores tend to evade “reading” and place emphasis on the physical production of music. The traditional performance practice of the instrument is often not taken for granted; performers are therefore required to set aside the learned and ingrained mechanics of performance in order to execute combinations of physical gestures that may overlap and conflict. Furthermore, the dense web of information can be alienating in that it does not allow performers to accurately perceive the aural result of a gesture or the work beforehand. Such conditions are obviously very polarizing to performers of traditional classical music as they raise uncomfortable questions which are not dealt with in traditional pedagogy: playability, accuracy, perception, and—most importantly—empirical representation versus mediation of a musical score.

Notational issues can become contentious as they subvert the absurd and historically-constructed notion of an “ideal” work or performance, thereby fostering an environment in which the intrinsic awkwardness of a work or musical encounter is laid bare to the public. Such a stance is antithetical to the bourgeois concept of the “successful” work, and therefore also the values of “successful” performance. Both concepts are based on an invisible contract between performer and audience in which an authentic representation of a given score (i.e. clear and accurate communication of notes, rhythms, phrasing, and form) is expected to be easily perceived by an audience. This value system continues to thrive in many circles (even in some factions of the new music community), and is driven to often absurd lengths by the capitalist system of recording and marketing which has commodified the expected experience of any given piece of music (or of a “work,” speaking generally) as well as having developed the idea of “definitive” performance. In many respects, this objectification of the subjective contravenes the very performative ideals and values it pretends to uphold as it creates easily marketable generic templates for performances and engrained attitudes and expectations towards their reception. Contemporary instrumental pedagogy has largely acquiesced to this—the popular use of the term “extended techniques,” for example, infers a needlessly alienating binary distinction between the past and present (at what point did instrumental technique and pedagogy stop developing?). The lack of critical engagement leads to a problematic material-based definition of “new music” that ignores the performative possibilities and challenges offered by works which directly address recent aesthetic issues. An abundance of so-called “new” works exist (usually quasi-pedagogical pieces written by performers for performers) that deliberately ignore the aesthetic and moral problems of contemporary music performance by reducing the issues solely to the material-technical domain. These works are, despite their often canonical or institutional status, fundamentally regressive as they can easily fit into the generic bourgeois composition, performance, and reception templates.

The complexity aesthetic is therefore often contentious to performers and audiences alike, who are equally challenged to abandon the absolutist standards that have come to characterize the capitalist-dominated classical music industry and adopt new criterion for performance and reception. From a pedagogical standpoint, the aesthetic presents unprecedented physical and interpretational dilemmas to performers now required to develop a new relationship with the performance of their instrument and the concepts of notation and the work. Performers are charged with developing a responsible interpretation of complexist music that acknowledges the impossibility of perfectly realizing the score given the conflicting and overlapping nature of the material without shrinking away from the challenge: in other words, the demand for empirical representation that has come to characterize traditional classical performance is often impossible and unwanted—the immense amount of surface detail is not merely a virtuoso display, but a physical means to a sonic end. The quantity of material therefore raises questions of interpretive intention and demands a new set of aesthetic criteria that acknowledge the qualitative differences in the nature of performance. The act of artistic interpretation is no longer a matter of individualistic phrasing, articulation, etcetera, but achieving a distinct sonic and physical identity for a given work—the relative “success” of the identity being based on the clarity of the mediation between the intentions of the composer and of the physical possibilities and limitations of the performer. To this end, performers must be able to make aesthetically informed judgments about the music they are engaged with—both within the score and the contextualizing argument or impetus of the piece. Through this line of questioning, one can arrive at an understanding of the physical and sonic identity of a work: finding and exploiting components that can be brought out in performance—musical ideas around which a performance can revolve (i.e. what is the nature and significance of this figure or passage in the broader context of the work?). Realizing the identity of such a work often means inverting the artistic values espoused in traditional pedagogy: prioritizing the negotiation of the notated sensory aspects—local physicalities—over the understanding of large-scale phrasing and form. New vistas emerge from this standpoint: the fundamental interpretational act is to understand and practice the conflicts inherent in the informational surfeit, allowing a solution to emerge in the context of a performance.

By accepting experience over understanding we do not allow the wealth of detail to hinder our interpretation, but open new potential inroads into the work. Detail is neither constricting to an interpretation nor freeing, but an active force that draws the performer’s mental and physical attention to the composer’s idiosyncrasies and the unique sonic forms and identities of the work. The artistry emerges as a special active kind of involvement with the new expressive potentials of the aesthetic.

* – Understanding completely that the terms ‘complexist’ and ‘complexity’ are largely poor journalistic terms, I use them largely in reference to Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf’s article, “Complex Music: Attempt at a Definition” in New Music and Aesthetics in the 21st Century, Vol. 1: Polyphony & Complexity, edited by Claus-Steffen Mahnkopf, Frank Cox, and Wolfram Schurig, 54-64. Hofheim: Wolke Verlag, 2002.