Amplification in Live Chamber Music Performance: 

Shifting Relationships, Shifting Practices

Eric KM Clark is a young Canadian composer living in Los Angeles. In his Deprivation

Music series he creates semi-aleatoric works by withholding the senses of hearing (and

sometimes sight) from his performers. Employing a system that pairs earbuds playing white

noise with over-ear noise-isolating headphones, individual performers are both isolated from

their fellow performers and unable to fully hear the sounds that they are producing themselves.

Unsurprisingly, these performative limitations can have a dramatic effect on the way that the

musicians play as well as on the way that the performers interact with each other. Without being

able to rely on their own ears, pitch invariably drifts, rhythms diverge, and ensemble unity

disintegrates. Clark’s approach is a novel one, and often produces striking effects. However,

the sonic isolation he foists onto his performers is perhaps less unfamiliar to contemporary

musicians than one might imagine. In this paper, the extreme example of the Deprivation Music

series will serve as a jumping-off point for an investigation into the impact of amplification on

contemporary performances of chamber music. While the impact of this technology is certainly

not as bewildering as the total loss of hearing described above, I will argue that the impact of

amplification on chamber music performance can be profound on multiple levels— for

performers, composers, and audiences. 

While much has been written about the impact of recording and broadcast technologies

on music, the impact of technological developments on live performance has been less

examined. This is especially true of Western art music. While scholars of popular music have

examined the impact of the microphone on vocal techniques—the emergence of “crooners,” for

instance, who employed a vocal style that would have been too subtle to employ in large and/or

noisy public venues without the assistance of amplification—the impact, or even potential

impacts, of amplification technologies on the performance practice of classical musicians has

generally not received similar treatment. There are a number of plausible reasons for why this

might be so: 

1) The widespread use of amplification in the performance of Western art music is a relatively

recent affair. Both because of the changing nature of performance venues and because of

the increasing acceptance of twentieth and twenty-first century compositional approaches

which incorporate electronics, amplification is a much more familiar component in the

classical music context than it was even fifteen years ago. 

2) While artists such as Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra employed strikingly new vocal

techniques that made the most of the newfound opportunities presented by amplification,

they were creating this new sound using new music. This is not necessarily the case with

Western art music. While some contemporary composers explicitly write with amplification in

mind, many others do not, and the vast majority of the repertoire of classical ensembles

consists of music written before amplification was a possibility. 

3) The historical tendency of scholarship concerning Western art music has been to focus on

the written score as opposed to performance practice. While this is certainly changing,

scholars of popular and vernacular musics do not generally share this historical baggage,

which might make the story of amplification somewhat easier to tell in those contexts. To fully examine the impact of amplification on chamber music would surely require a larger format than one paper can provide. However, I do feel that important observations regarding this topic may be made from even a limited study. With this in mind, I have chosen to limit the scope of this investigation via the following parameters: 

 

1) a focus on chamber music (to highlight the effect of amplification on both the individual

performer and the relationship between performers) 

2) a concentration on contemporary music (both because this repertoire features music

intended for amplification and not, and because the new music community is generally the

classical music subculture most commonly affiliated with amplification technology and

amplification-friendly performance venues) 

3) a focus on live performance (while there is obviously a certain amount of overlap in

technologies between recording (whether live or studio) and the amplification of live

performance, I feel the two contexts are different enough to warrant this delineation.)

By tailoring this study relatively narrowly, I hope to highlight some of the basic issues

that arise when amplification technologies are employed in the live performance of chamber

music. As amplification is increasingly embraced by contemporary composers and as the nature

of performance venues changes, these issues will only become increasingly pertinent. This

discussion is necessarily articulated to an array of topics related to performance and technology

(studies of recording technology, theories of liveness, historical studies of chamber music

compositional and performance practices, et cetera), but is worthy of its own discourse. I hope

that this paper can make a meaningful contribution to this under-served area of study.

Why Amplification?

Or perhaps a better question is “why now?” To be sure, Western art music has been

affected by many of the same technological developments that are often presented as a

historical progression towards total mediatization in some other genres of music. Paul Sanden

goes so far as to state that “very little (if any) musical activity of the late twentieth and early

twenty-first centuries has entirely escaped the profound influence of electronic mediation.” That

is certainly clear when viewed through the lens of recording technology. Indeed, few artists have

made so public the tensions between live performance and recorded music as Glenn Gould.

Aside from his highly publicized withdrawal from public performance, Gould went so far as to

predict the “death of the concert” in a piece for High Fidelity magazine in 1966. However, as the

use of electronic sound equipment in the studio became commonplace for most genres of music

over the course of the twentieth century, Western art music largely remained a hold-out

concerning the use of amplification in live performance. Increasingly, however, that is no longer the case. In a feature article in the Los Angeles Times in 2005, Kyle Gann wrote the following about Ethel, an innovative string quartet based in New York City:

"What's most subversive about Ethel is that they're breaking down the traditional lines 

between composer and performer and between performer and technology…They've

played several pieces that involve electronics, and they use microphones and

loudspeakers not just for reasons of acoustic convenience but as integral to the

collective sound they want to make…their use of amplification takes them outside the

polite, carefully balanced sound world of traditional chamber music. They own their  music, and when they want it to roar, they roar."

In much the same way that artists of non-classical genres appropriated the capabilities of

electronic mediation in the earlier part of the twentieth century, Gann suggests here that

classically-trained performers have begun a similar process more recently. By making

amplification “integral to the collective sound they want to make,” the performers in Ethel are

creatively responding to the opportunities presented by electronic mediation. Other examples of

this aesthetic position abound, particularly for performers who focus on contemporary music. 

Julia Wolfe, composer and co-founder of new music group Bang on a Can, made that

organization’s intentions plain concerning the amplification of its ensemble in an interview in

BOMB magazine in 2001:

 

"…we could have given the guitarist an amp and had everyone acoustic. It was more  the power of the sound. Not just the volume, it’s also an aesthetic—the quality of the  sound, and this energy you’re just not going to get from more intimate acoustic sound.  You can use effects like distortion. When everything’s amplified, the cello can be as loud  as the drums. Move the lever up, and there it is."

This affiliation of creative applications of amplification with performers focused on

contemporary music is unsurprising, perhaps, given that contemporary classical music has been

composed in the electronic era, as opposed to the music of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and

nineteenth centuries. Whether as an articulation to the aesthetic of composed electronic music,

because of an affinity for non-classical conventions, or simply to expand the horizon for sonic

experimentation, contemporary composers have often explicitly requested amplification in the

performance of their works.

In a remarkable lecture delivered in 1991 at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Karlheinz

Stockhausen discussed amplification in the context of his own music at length, as well as the

implications of amplification on instrumental performance in general. He details the impetus

behind his use of amplification, via balance considerations in his 1951 work Kreuzspiel for oboe,

bass clarinet, piano, and three percussionists:

 

 

"For many years, in rehearsals of Kreuzspiel every conductor—myself included—would

always continually be saying to the percussionists: “softer!” so that the fortes and

fortissimos became mezzoforte strokes, and the other instruments had to increase the

level of their softest notes, until one day I resolved to do away with the dilemma once

and for all. I amplified the piano with two microphones…the bass clarinet and oboe also

get one microphone each."

In this example, Stockhausen explains how amplification was utilized after the composition was

completed to heighten the impact of the music. The composer did not explicitly have

amplification in mind when conceiving of the aesthetic of the work, but he employs its use to

achieve an idealized representation of the work for the audience in a given performance. This

leads to Stockhausen’s strong feelings regarding the role of “sound projectionists,” whom he

views as working in “an entirely new field:” 

"The sound projectionist…has…a great responsibility as well. The traditional conductor

synchronizes and balances what he hears form the podium. The sound projectionist, on

the other hand, is ultimately responsible for what the people in the hall actually hear. If,

in a work with orchestra-mikes, he amplifies something too little or too much, then you

will not hear what the conductor shaped form the podium. So, it is an incredibly

demanding profession."

This approach then, with its focus on instrumental balance, differs somewhat from the methods

mentioned above (Ethel and Bang on a Can). However, it highlights an important logistical

component of performing with amplification which was left out in the previous descriptions: that

of the role of the sound engineer (or “sound projectionist,” in Stockhausen’s terminology). While

the use of creative amplification can seem empowering to contemporary performers and

composers, one must not overlook the logistical implications of sound being mediated by

someone other than the performers themselves and traveling through an electronic system that

is beyond their direct control. (More on this later.)

Aside from purely musical considerations, there are other reasons why many classically-trained

performers and groups have embraced amplification. Todd Reynolds, one of the

founders of Ethel, puts it succinctly:

"…the amplification allows us appropriateness in any venue. There's no place we can't

play. You learn what's possible by watching rock 'n' roll groups over the last 15 years.

You'd have to be a fool not to make yourself able to address any possible audience if

that's what you want."

So there also seem to be professional considerations wrapped up in the issue of amplification.

Reynolds places this in the context of the rock ’n’ roll model, presumably suggesting that

ensembles of that genre have more flexibility in terms of venue options than a classical

ensemble that is more dependent on the natural acoustic of a space and the concert etiquette of

the audience. This is a reasonable stance, but one would also be remiss to neglect the long

history of avant-garde performances in unconventional spaces, which perhaps influenced the

acoustic aesthetic of the participants and their musical/ideological descendants. John Cage was

fascinated with the implications of amplification throughout much of his career. Groups such as

Steve Reich and Musicians and the Philip Glass Ensemble also embraced amplification as a

core aspect of their aesthetic, perhaps partially due to the acoustically impractical lofts and

gallery spaces in which many of their early performances took place. It seems likely that these

early avant-garde adopters of amplification had some effect on the decision of many of today’s

contemporary music ensembles to embrace amplification in live performance.

 

It is probably impossible to identify a single reason for the increasing ubiquity of amplification in the live performance of classically-trained (and especially contemporary music-oriented) musicians in the last decade or so. These groups exist at a nexus of professional, musical, and acoustic forces which affect different performers in different ways. However, I have tried to establish some of the major factors affecting this development, and will examine them in further specificity in the case studies below. 

 

Situation 1: Listening and Playing in Music for 18 Musicians

 

Steve Reich’s landmark work Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) is undoubtedly one of

the most important compositions of the twentieth century and also one of the most popular,

judging by its continued and frequent performance by a myriad of groups as well as the

numerous recordings that have been made of the work. This is rather remarkable given the

logistical complications of actually performing it. Originally conceived of for Reich’s own

ensemble, Steve Reich and Musicians, there was (famously) not even a unified score of the

piece until composer Marc Mellits made it the topic of his doctoral dissertation in the 1990s.

The instrumentation is wildly impractical (four pianos, three marimbas, two xylophones,

vibraphone, maracas, two clarinets (doubling bass clarinet), cello, violin, and four high voices), 

and the modular construction of the work and interlocking nature of the individual parts requires

intensive listening and an elaborate system of cues between the performers.

 

In addition to these logistical challenges, the work also requires amplification. The

required amplification does not result from the need to amplify the overall sound of the

ensemble— indeed, eighteen- or twenty-odd performers including a heavy percussion

contingent and four pianos can produce quite a lot of sound. Rather, amplification is required

due to the makeup of the ensemble. Without individual amplification of each instrument, it is

essentially impossible to establish the balanced sonic world required to understand the structure

of the work given the instrumentation and distribution of parts. This amplification is important for

listeners, who would otherwise likely not be able to hear key aspects of the vocal and wind parts

in particular, but also for the performers, who must listen intently to their peers to know how to

progress in unison through the modular score. In addition to individual amplification, individual

monitors are generally employed, allowing each performer to hear other parts of the ensemble

that might not be audible with the naked ear.

Employing an instrumentation that is not meant to be acoustically functional puts the

performers in a non-traditional relationship with the audience, their fellow performers, and their

own playing:

1) Given the amplification of the ensemble, the individual performer has no way of knowing how the sound of the ensemble’s performance is coming across to the audience. Even with the use of monitors, it is unlikely (and probably undesirable) that the mix that any individual performer is hearing is equivalent to that of the audience. While there is always some element of distortion between the sound as it exists from inside the ensemble onstage to the projected ensemble sound as experienced by the audience, the manipulation of the ensemble’s sound by a sound technician via electrical mediation essentially creates a blind spot for performers in relation to the trajectory of the sound. Distortion may exist between the stage and the audience in an acoustic setting, but it is a function of largely static forces (architecture, instrument placement, size of audience, et cetera); in an amplified performance, the sound technician maintains a dynamic relationship with the sonic footprint of the ensemble that remains essentially “invisible” to the performers onstage even as it (potentially) changes during the performance. This underscores the gravity of the sound technician’s imprint on the audience’s experience of the performance, and the faith that performers must put into his/her hands. To quote Stockhausen again: “being a sound-projectionist is therefore an unusually responsible, very fine occupation.”

 

2) Amplification also inserts a blind spot in the individual performer’s aural relationship with his/her fellow performers. Generally speaking, each monitor will have an individual mix provided by the sound engineer that “fixes” the acoustic problems specific to each performer’s location onstage. (For instance, the pianists at the back of the stage will likely have the singers, who are at the front of the stage, in their monitor, while the strings, who are positioned adjacent to the singers, may not.) This individuation of mixes, however, also results in each player hearing a different balance of parts within the ensemble. This effectively results in a double-layered disruption of the individual’s audition of his/her peers: not only can s/he be uncertain of how a fellow performer’s sound will be projected to the audience, s/he can also not truly know how the balance of the fellow performer’s sound in his/her own mix relates to the actual acoustic quality being produced by the fellow performer. This represents a profound undermining of the traditional listening practices employed in chamber music, wherein performers rely on their listening and on nonverbal communication with their performer peers to create the sonic balance that they collectively intend for the audience to experience. In the amplified environment of Music for 18 Musicians, performers essentially must rely on the sound technician to address issues of balance and cannot necessarily trust their own ears as to what their peers are actually doing.

3) The amplification environment of Music for 18 Musicians also affects the performer’s relationship to his/her own playing. In the context of chamber music, the performer is constantly modulating his/her playing in reaction to the playing of his/her fellow performers. The twin disorientations of playing in an acoustically non-functional ensemble and of responding to the distorted mix provided through the monitor rather than the acoustic playing of one’s peers represents a profound divergence from the norms of chamber music performance. This is compounded by the fact that a performer may wish to hear him/herself in his/her own monitor. In such a case, the disruptions and blind spots discussed above apply, but in an even more complex configuration.

 

Situation 2: Mivos at LPR

 

The Mivos String Quartet is an up-and-coming ensemble devoted to contemporary music. They perform frequently and in a variety of venues. As is increasingly the case in the United States and abroad, they sometimes perform in a new breed of performance space that is sometimes referred to as an “art cabaret.” These venues tend to blend elements of high and popular culture, present a highly eclectic program of artists, and invariably utilize amplification for

performances, regardless of genre. Amplification is necessary because of the acoustic

environment, which is generally noisier than that of a traditional concert hall as a result of liberal

seating policies, vending of drinks (and sometimes food) throughout the course of the

performance, and, in some cases, table service provided by waiters.

 

In 2009, Lisa McCormick wrote a review of just such a newly-opened venue in New York

City: (Le) Poisson Rouge. She cites the young owners of the venue as having a mission

centered on the “rejection of the tired formality of the concert hall” with the wish to create “a

different kind of performance space inviting a more catholic approach to music-making.” While

this sort of rhetoric sounds egalitarian, it has an outsize impact on Western art music. As a

general hold-out throughout the twentieth century to the mediatization of live performance,

Western art music has to make more adjustments to its performance conventions than other

genres when presented in an art cabaret. While McCormick generally praises the “informal

nightclub atmosphere” and suggests that it might play a part in engaging younger audiences’

interest in attending “art performances,” she also points out the challenges to such an

approach:

"The intimacy gained by transplanting the concert ritual into a new performance

environment comes at a cost, though. Stages in bars are often cramped and

uncomfortable. Classical ensembles must either master the use of amplification or

grapple with unforgiving acoustics. Listeners can be distracted by servers weaving in

between tables, the clatter of clinking glasses and dropped forks, and the steady stream

of people coming and going during a performance."

This sonic portrait that McCormick paints for us highlights the difference in the nature of

the amplification at art cabarets from that of the Music for 18 Musicians example discussed

above. The need for amplification in these venues is not dependent on the type of music played

or the particular instrumentation of an ensemble, but simply on the fact that art cabarets are

noisy environments. (By contrast, Music for 18 Musicians would require amplification no matter

the venue.) This is a fundamental difference from the relative silence of the modern concert hall,

which has been the natural habitat of the string quartet since chamber music emerged from the

drawing rooms in the nineteenth century.

 

Let us again consider Mivos Quartet in performance at a venue like (Le) Poisson Rouge. While many of the ensemble listening challenges for performers present in works like Music for 18 Musicians that require amplification as a result of their instrumentation do not apply to a string quartet, even in a noisy environment, there are other implications of the amplification and of the sonic environment of the venue that do impact their performance. Again, the presence of a sound engineer is a logistical necessity. This causes the same sort of blind spot discussed in the above example, although this may or may not be offset somewhat by the possibility that individual microphone placement and monitors may not be necessary. If it is possible to eliminate monitors and amplify the quartet using ensemble microphones, then the players are able to retain much of the standard relationships based on listening and responding to fellow performers as in an acoustic environment. They have a mediated relationship with the audience, but an essentially acoustic relationship with each other.

However, there is a further complication in the art cabaret setting—the sonic environment beyond the lip of the stage. So far, this investigation has mainly dealt with the way that amplification and mediatization have affected performers’ listening practices. The particularities of the art cabaret setting, however, also raise the question of how that sonic environment affects audiences’ methods of listening to live chamber music and how those listening practices in turn affect the performers. In Anahid Kassabian’s book, Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention, and Distributed Subjectivity, she suggests that scholars have erroneously assumed that when people experience music, they are generally devoting their full attention to what they are hearing. She counters that in contemporary industrialized societies in which music is seemingly always in the air, the primary way in which people encounter music is in situations in which it is not their primary focus. While arguing that there is a meaningful difference between these modes of listening, she does not argue that “ubiquitous listening” does not have an affective impact on listeners. Rather, she suggests that ubiquitous listening and the affective responses it generates result in “a nonindividual, not simply human, distributed subjectivity [that] takes place across a network of music media.”

Kassabian’s unconventional concept of listening (or, perhaps, listenings) seems to speak

directly to the performance of chamber music in the art cabaret context. Clearly, moving

chamber music from the relatively quiet and undistracted realm of the concert hall to the noisy

hustle and bustle of venues like (Le) Poisson Rouge engenders movement along the listening

spectrum, presumably from fully attentive listening towards ubiquitous listening. Again, I borrow

this concept of a listening spectrum from Kassabian:

"By listening, I mean a range of engagements between and across human bodies and

music technologies…This wipes out, immediately, the routine distinction between

listening and hearing that one often finds, in which the presumption is that hearing is

physiological and listening is conscious and attentive. I insist, instead, that all listening  is importantly physiological, and that many kinds of listening take place over a wide  range of degrees or kinds of consciousness and attention."

It should be noted, however, that in the case of chamber music in art cabarets, we are not

dealing with casual reception only. This is not equivalent to elevator music or other ubiquitous

musics that often intermingle with life’s quotidian tasks. Rather, we are dealing with live

performance, and an audience that has purposefully attended a concert— if a performance they

intend to experience from a different point along the listening spectrum than they might at

Carnegie Hall.

As a result, I would argue that these modified listening practices impact the performers—

their performance is not only being amplified, but is being projected into a diffuse listening

environment which is itself a result of the sonic environment of the art cabaret. One need only

refer back to Todd Reynolds’s comment regarding Ethel’s decision to embrace amplification as a

way to allow for “appropriateness in any venue” to realize how profoundly different the sonic

environment is for chamber musicians performing in non-traditional venues. In much the same

way that the migration of chamber music from small rooms in private homes to large concert

halls prompted changes in the type of music being written and in the way it was performed in

the nineteenth century, the extensive differences in sonic environment and social context

between modern concert halls and art cabarets seem surely to result in changes in

compositional and performance practices in contemporary chamber music. Consider the

following from a review of an Ethel performance in 2006 from the New York Times:

"Part of the problem — for me anyway — concerns amplification. When a string quartet is

given an electronic boost, it tempts a composer into thinking that something big is

happening when the music is fairly obvious, as in this work, and plaintive melodic bits  float atop ominous pedal tones on the cello. Mr. Zarvos's perpetual-motion third  movement, full of perky riffs and clacking passages, seemed thin, for all the busyness."

Alterations to technical approaches to performance are also conceivable, perhaps paralleling

the microphoned environment of the recording studio. For instance, string players often quietly

check the pitch of a soon-to-be-attacked note with their left hand, before engaging the bow and

fully playing the note. This is often avoided in a studio setting, however, as the microphones are

much more likely to pick up the sound. Other potential impacts might include tuning practices for

harpists, pedaling practices for pianists, breathing approaches for wind players, et cetera. In

short, while it is difficult to declare precisely how the migration of chamber music from the

concert hall to the art cabaret will affect compositional and performative methods, it seems clear

that both will be steered by the listening practices developed in these new performance

contexts.

Situation 3: Weaving Sound

Tristan Perich is an emerging composer based in New York City who is renowned for his deft

incorporation of digital technology into captivating works of acoustic, electronic, and

electroacoustic music. In his chamber work Woven (2010), an intricate sonic tapestry is

developed by employing a system of binary-gated amplification. The repetitive figurations

performed by the acoustic instruments are manipulated by this system, which activates and

deactivates the individual microphones to create an intricate interplay between two layers of

sound— the amplified and the unamplified ensemble. Amplification plays an integral and

creative role in this work, and it poses particular challenges for performers. In addition to the

issues discussed in Situations 1 and 2, performers of Woven are faced with the reality that it is

literally impossible for them to hear the totality of the piece as they are performing it—the vital

second layer of the work, the sequenced amplification, is only audible from the perspective of

the audience, or by later listening to a recording of the live performance.

This work makes electronic mediation in the context of live chamber music performance

overtly perceptible, but, viewed in a broader context, it also serves to highlight the impact of

seemingly more subtle forms of mediation. For instance, while the concept that the performers

are essentially unaware of the overall structure of the work during a performance of Woven

seems extreme (because it is implemented via the amplification sequencing which remains

inaudible to the performers), this could legitimately be compared to any situation in which the

overall ensemble balance is determined by a sound engineer— the engineer’s manipulations of

the sound of individual performers and adjustments to the house mix are as inaudible to the

performers as the amplification sequencing is in the Perich. Ironically, while the manipulation of

the acoustic sound produced by the performers in this work seems especially pronounced, in a

certain respect, by making the manipulations so plainly apparent (to the audience at least) and

by contrasting the acoustic sound of the ensemble with its amplified variant, it might be

considered a less disruptive use of amplification in the chamber music context.

 

Chamber Music Cyborgs?

 

As I mentioned at the outset of this paper, the use of amplification in the context of live chamber music performances is a practice which has moved towards ubiquity only recently and about which there is currently little scholarship. By limiting the scope of the paper in certain respects, I have tried to contribute to this burgeoning discussion in a useful way, as I am under no illusions that a study of this scale at this particular point in time could reach definitive conclusions about the effect of this recent trend in the history of chamber music. At the same time, however, it would be difficult to avoid confronting a fundamental question that even this brief study has raised: Does amplification create chamber music cyborgs?

In a 1915 meditation on ensemble playing, J.A. Fuller-Maitland suggested that:

"Ensemble is perhaps the only branch of the art of music in which personal moral

qualities are necessary to the individual’s success. You may be as depraved as

you please, and yet be able to sing or to play well, —until the fruits of a

dissipated life begin to affect your medium of interpretation, —but you cannot

excel in concerted music unless you possess a natural altruism, unless you are

willing that others should shine as brightly as yourself, and unless you see things

in their proper relation, the composer’s ideal at the head of all, the wishes of your

colleagues next, and your own personality last."

How would Fuller-Maitland react to a chamber music situation such as Music for 18 Musicians

or Woven? His commentary highlights the inherently social, hierarchical, and cooperative nature

of conventional chamber music performance, qualities maintained by the nonverbal communication and active responsiveness of the individual players. In a situation in which every

sonic gesture of a performer is mediated both electronically (via the sound system) and by a

third party (via the sound engineer or a computer program), would he even consider this

ensemble playing? Viewed through the lens of Fuller-Maitland’s concept of chamber music

playing, the employment of amplification seems inherently problematic because it decays the

“natural altruism” that lies at the heart of the genre— how can one respond to “the wishes of

[one’s] colleagues” if one cannot be certain that what one is hearing through his/her monitor is an accurate representation of what s/he is playing? How can one ensure that “the composer’s ideal [is] at the head of all” when the composer has intentionally constructed the work so that you cannot perceive it’s wholeness while performing? Rather than simply saying that amplification fundamentally undermines chamber music, however, a modern scholar might instead postulate that chamber music (both performatively and compositionally) is slowly adjusting to new technological and cultural realities much as it has in the past.

In his colorful article, “Intellectual Property Meets the Cyborg: Performance and the

Cultural Politics of Technology,” Philip Auslander describes a performance by Laurie Anderson as:

"…[a] hybridization of the rock concert and performance art [that] yields a performance

discourse that is constructed through advanced communications technologies, and that

explicitly challenges the kinds of dichotomies problematized in the technological

environment at large. Anderson’s use of technology to extend her performance range 

makes her into a sort of cyborg…" 

In the same article, he also states: “to the extent that much pop music performance today is the

product of human/machine interfaces, we are already in an era of performing cyborgs.” While

Auslander’s focus is primarily in genres of music other than the Western art music tradition,

could these principles not also be applied to the situations of amplified chamber music

examined in this paper? Is amplification in the context of chamber music not essentially an

attempt “to extend…performance range?” Reich’s cyborg instrumentation in Music for 18

Musicians, which is entirely dependent on the technological mediation of amplification, certainly

seems to support the notion. And can Perich’s use of binary-gated amplification in Woven not be

viewed in a similar light as Laurie Anderson’s famous use of vocal modification technology to alter the quality of her voice in real time during performances? Both artists seem to be exploiting

the incongruous union of the natural (acoustic) and the machine (electronic manipulation).

 

Aspects of Donna Haraway’s invocation of the cyborg also seem to resonate in this

study:

"Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference

between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed,

and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our

machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert."

This sentiment stirs up cautionary feelings regarding the potential for amplification (and, on a

larger scale, electronic mediation in general) to overpower the human (acoustic) aspect of

chamber music. Of course, such warnings about technology’s potential to destroy music have a

long history, especially as related to the development of reproduction technologies. Criticisms

in this vein have continued into the present era, however, and are often articulated to discourses

of “liveness.” For instance, Paul Théberge harshly criticizes the practice of multi-track recording

in popular music:

"In order to play at all under the conditions of separation recording, the musical ensemble

must become fully integrated in the technological apparatus—the apparatus is a

mediating factor between all musical interactions in the studio"

The suggestion here is that the “technological apparatus” (and, as a result, the producer) has

overtaken the musical ensemble (the performers). This cautionary line of thinking seems

especially relevant in the context of amplified chamber music, as the disruption of traditional

methods of communication between performers could potentially translate to a sort of

separation performance, in which aspects of true ensemble performance are jettisoned in favor

of the centralized control of a sound engineer. What happens to chamber music if it becomes

“fully integrated in the technological apparatus?” Is it still chamber music? Does it become

something else? And perhaps most importantly, are cyborgs and chamber music fundamentally

incompatible?

I find myself unable to confidently answer these questions, and I suspect that no one can

truly provide a definitive response to a developing constellation of issues related to a recent

trend in chamber music performance practice. While this study has highlighted some of the

potential challenges for performers in various amplification situations, it is in no way intended to

undermine the intermingling of electronic mediation and chamber music performance which is

engaged in with creative and logistical success by an increasing number of musicians and

technicians around the world. Rather, I simply hope to highlight some of the basic issues that

arise when amplification technologies are employed in the live performance of chamber music

and to encourage further scholarship on these topics. All signs indicate that these trends will

only continue (compositionally, performatively, and in terms of venues), so let us not imitate the

performers in Eric Clark’s Deprivation Music—scholars of music, performance, and technology

need not plug their ears or shut their eyes against the network of uncertainties arising from

these new relationships between technology, performance, and sound.

===

The Power of 1 Bit:

Finding Liberation in Limitation in Tristan Perich’s ‘1-Bit’ Music

While Tristan Perich employs the use of “one bit electronics” in his artistic work across various

disciplines, his music is a good place to start to develop an understanding of his creative

process. Indeed, his first major album release bears the title 1-Bit Music, and as a composition

and an aesthetic object, it exists at the nexus of many of the creative and theoretical ideas that

course throughout Perich’s diverse body of work. “One-bit music” is essentially an invented

term, but it captures the technical/creative duality of Perich, who a creative cartoonist might

depict standing astride the worlds of computer programming and creative art with one foot firmly

planted in each domain. At a time when engagement with computers is common enough among

composers as to render it unnoteworthy, Perich’s one-bit music stands apart from the field.

While his musical application of technology creates a familiar timbral stamp, it also establishes a

work process that elucidates his broader creative aesthetic and tech-oriented ideology.

A bit is the most fundamental unit of information in computing, and can be thought of in terms of

a simple binary function. One bit of information can say yes or no, on or off, true or false; it can

say the light is shining or the light is dark, the pitch is sounding or the pitch is not. The inclusion

of further information, however — for example, the light is off but getting brighter or the pitch is

distorted but getting clearer — is more information than a single bit can bear, as it requires

addressing parameters beyond what can be represented in a simple binary instruction. In his

work, Perich programs microprocessors using binary code to mold many discrete “one-bits” of

information into a creative work. In a musical context, this programming process might be

viewed as the equivalent of setting a piece down in notation. However, as binary code is

universal, the same basic process is used in the production of Perich’s music, visual art, and

sound installations.

Because one-bit music inherently entails an extreme limitation of parameters, the resulting

timbre is highly uniform, and it has become closely associated with Perich’s music. The aural

profile of one-bit electronic sound is stark and is often associated with the digital alarm tones

produced by clocks or microwave ovens. This presents another way of considering the term

“one-bit music,” — that is, not strictly from a technical perspective, but as an identifiable, timbral

aesthetic. For instance, it seems reasonable to infer that music fans might recognize the

“sound” of Perich’s one-bit music, even if they do not have an understanding of the technical

meaning of the term or the process that underlies the sound production. This infers that the term

one-bit music can serve multiple purposes, both as a technical descriptive and as an aesthetic

label.

The particular timbre of one-bit music seems to provoke a nostalgic response in many listeners

that hearkens back to the electronic music produced by early video games or noise-generating

toys. The interest in this type of sound world is certainly not unique to Perich’s music. Various

genres of popular music, including the Chipmusic and Glitch genres, are closely associated with

these simple electronic sounds. They are also the sonic bread and butter of the circuit bending

scene. The timbral profile of one-bit music is perhaps even more clearly delineated than these

popular genres, however, as a result of its strict adherence to the total limitation of parameters

to the binary on/off of pitch. 

Another way of considering one-bit music is to view it as a challenge to the mediatization of

recording and as an ideological dissent to the predominant strains of contemporary electronic

and electroacoustic art music.

Perich’s two releases for Cantaloupe Records are the most clear manifestation of the

composer’s challenging of the conventions of the recording industry. While the standard practice

for the distribution of a musical album would be to supply listeners with a reproduction of a

previous performance (or in the case of electronic music, previous synthesis) of the musical

works in question either via a physical artifact (such as a CD) or a digital music file (such as an

MP3), Perich side-steps the issue of reproduction altogether. Indeed, 1-Bit Music and 1-Bit

Symphony could both be described as ‘all-in-one low-fi music player[s]’ that actually synthesize

the album in real time. In a very real way then, Perich’s albums are machines that produce live

performances as opposed to reproductions of a previously existing performance. Housed in a

conventional CD jewel case, the Cantaloupe releases contain a microprocessor (programmed to

‘perform’ the album’s tracks), a battery, simple track controls, volume control, and a headphone

jack, ironically repurposing the packaging of the standard recording artifact to house a system

for live music production. 

As much as his albums are a challenge to the conventions of the recording format, his one-bit

music also stands in contrast to the prevailing practice of electronic and, especially,

electroacoustic contemporary art music. Indeed, Perich has clearly stated his distaste for much

of the field:

"I really hated — and still kind of do — most electroacoustic work…There are

a lot of complications in it — a lot of it is kind of alien. Sometimes that’s great, but I never  thought electronics would be a part of my music."

This is a striking statement from one of the most highly regarded composers of electroacoustic

music of his generation. His stated aversion seems to exist on multiple fronts. On the one hand,

Perich discusses his deep abiding interest in the nuts and bolts of sound production. As a

student at Columbia, he was interested in exploring the physical limitations of the sound

production capabilities of conventional musical instruments. The world of electronic sound, by

contrast, seemed unmoored. Being unable to really understand the process of the sound’s

genesis on a physical level meant a lack of interest in incorporating electronic sound into his

musical language, a language that he describes as being fundamentally minimalist and process-oriented. The application of one-bit electronics, however, changed everything for Perich, as this

was a way of engaging with electronic sound that retained the familiar physical grit and

limitations of parameters that were (and remain) central to Perich’s compositional practice.

Perich also seems to maintain a deep distrust of incorporating systems into his creative process

over which he does not have full control— or even a full understanding. The widespread use of

programs such as Ableton Live, Logic, and even Max/MSP certainly provides composers with a

tremendous array of tools to develop and craft sound for use in their creative works. However,

by operating within a system in which the methods for creating and/or manipulating sound are

created by someone else, Perich argues that something is lost. In his one-bit music, Perich

does all of the coding himself, thereby maintaining total control over the exact parameters of the

sound that is produced in his creative works. While there is a solid argument to be made about

the limiting effect of working in a sonic framework with parameters as constrained as those of

one-bit electronic sound, Perich seems to view it as liberating — while he might not have total

flexibility given the data limits imposed by his chosen microprocessors, he does maintain total

control over the process by writing his own software. He takes this concept a step further by

advocating for the importance of understanding basic programming in general. In programming

workshops which Perich has taught at various residencies, he focuses not on creating music or

art but on providing participants with fluency at the most basic level of programming. He argues

that in a world in which more and more of our actions are mediated via technological systems,

developing a basic understanding of the workings of those (often corporate-owned)

technological systems can be liberating, both creatively and otherwise.

 

There is also an interesting relationship between one-bit music and keyboard playing. While in a

certain respect, all instrumental playing can be viewed in a binary manner (you are either

producing sound or you are not), this idea is heightened by the mechanics of keyboard

instruments. At the piano, once a note has been played, the performer retains no further control

over it, for the most part, except to determine when it stops sounding. This stands in stark

contrast to wind and string players, who can manipulate the tone along multiple parameters as

long as they continue playing. In many respects, this limitation of parameters at the keyboard

mirrors the simple binary commands of Perich’s one-bit music. Obviously, the correlation has its

limits, as keyboard players manipulate a number of parameters over the course of a piece to

create musical gestures. (The timbral uniformity of Perich’s one-bit music is a far cry from the

rich sonic possibilities of the modern piano!) However, when considering the production of a

single note, there is a parallel in that the only parameter left under the performer’s control once

the key has been struck is duration, which can be considered in the simple binary terms that

govern Perich’s electronic music. Even in terms of pitch, the keyboard performer’s relationship

with the instrument is similar to the one-bit programmer’s relationship to the microprocessor—

the production of a given pitch is the result of “turning it on” by striking a single key associated

with a single pitch. This stands in opposition to the pitch production mechanism in many other

instruments which do not maintain a one-to-one relationship between a pitch and the sound

production mechanism. (For instance, string players generally do not have a separate string for each pitch; rather, with most instruments they manipulate a small number of strings to alter the pitches available to play at any given time.) The parallel streams of one-bit information which combine to create the tapestry of sound in Perich’s one-bit music might then be seen as a retranslation of the parallel keys of the piano which are binarily manipulated by the performer to create glorious counterpoint.

 

It is easy to hear the ways in which Perich’s technological background has influenced his music,

in the bracing timbres of his electronic sound palette and his focus on repetitive processes.

However, it also seems conceivable that his musical background — and particularly his piano

study — can be seen as an important influence on his programming aesthetic. 

===

Convention Defied, Legacy Endangered:

Long-Term Considerations for Unconventional Notation Systems

 

In Kyle Gann’s recounting of his experience mounting a performance of Julius Eastman’s Gay

Guerrilla for nine electric guitars in 2006, he describes the score in the following manner: “A real Downtown score, it needed not only to be interpreted, but deciphered.” After walking readers through his process of dealing with the logistical issues of Eastman’s idiosyncratic score, he ultimately admits: “I may have to think of my version as just an ‘arrangement.’” 

While these comments are somewhat off-hand and presented in an overall positive retelling of

the 2006 performance, they belie the quandary that faces performers of works that use non-standard notation, a practice that expanded dramatically in the second half of the twentieth

century. By upending the conventions of the Western art music tradition, composers who

employ non-standard notation or unconventional notational processes require performers to

negotiate a web of decisions that touch on issues of authorship, fidelity, and performance

practice. These issues can have a profound impact on the dissemination of a composer’s work

and on its preservation.

Eastman presents an extreme case of the dangers that can result from a composer’s disavowal

of standard notation. Indeed, his scores can often seem a haphazard affair, leaving out fundamental information such as rhythm, contrapuntal distribution, octave registration, instrumentation, etc. While it is true that some elements (including timing of sections) are often clearly and specifically marked, the scores are also often strewn with puzzling instructions such as “the lessing is miracle” and “create ticker tape music.” Frankly, it is hard to imagine that his scores would be “decipherable” today at all (to borrow Gann’s term) were it not for the good fortune of the existence of a handful of archival recordings and the dogged dedication of a small group of scholars dedicated to Eastman’s work, most notably Mary Jane Leach. Indeed, it is telling that while there has been a notable uptick in performances of Eastman’s music in recent years, the repertoire for those performances tends to be limited to the works which have been documented in the recordings released in the Unjust Malaise box set. While Eastman was a major presence on the new music scene during his lifetime, his premature death and often tumultuous life paired with his idiosyncratic approach to notation meant that his music nearly died with him.

 

So why did composers such as Eastman engage in notational practices that complicated the

dissemination of their works and threatened their legacy? In his thorough overview of Eastman’s

1980 Northwestern residency, Andrew Hanson-Dvoracek terms Eastman’s notational approach

an “inheritance” from “the previous generation of minimalists,” among whom he includes Steve

Reich and Philip Glass. Hanson-Dvoracek suggests that the working environment for Downtown

composers was highly unusual for the field of classical music, and as such resulted in an

unusual approach to notation. Characteristics that led to this altered approach to notation

included the tendency to work with a fixed set of performers, the tendency to develop works with

said performers via a workshop process over time, and the tendency for the composer to also

be the (or one of the) performers. Regardless of whether Eastman can be viewed as “inheriting”

his notational habits from anyone, he certainly had these formative circumstances in common

with other Downtown composers, if not necessarily consistently. 

 

To be clear, a similarity that Downtown composers shared in their unusual notation practices

was a tendency toward shorthand. While this can be viewed as a labor-saving device, as

Hanson-Dvoracek and others have suggested, it can also be viewed as a necessary adaptation

to represent a new kind of music. In his groundbreaking dissertation on Steve Reich’s Music for

18 Musicians, Marc Mellits explains:

"The composer worked in what can be considered an unconventional manner, at least by

modern standards. The traditional method of composing the music alone and then

involving the musicians once the work was complete was abandoned…Most of the

music and process of ‘what to do when’ was not notated, or at least not in any way that

would be utilized by anyone other than the original performer."

He goes on to point out, however, that his initial attempt to create a conventional score for the

piece by undertaking a note-for-note transcription of the ECM recording by Steve Reich and

Musicians was unsuccessful:

"The problem (for me) was that this particular score was not a good representation of the

work itself; it was a representation of the performance of the work that existed on 

recording and was more of a ‘realization’ of the work than a performance score."

As such, Mellits developed a modular system of notation which gained the composer’s seal of

approval and remains the score in common circulation among performers today. Mellits's failed

attempt to apply conventional notational practices to Reich’s music highlights the possibility for

aesthetic demands to require notational adaptations.

While working in a very different context, György Kurtág’s music might also be viewed as an

example of the aesthetic need for notational adaptations. Indeed, his magnum opus for piano,

Játékok, includes a thorough booklet outlining the expanded system of notation that he

employs throughout the eight volumes of the work. While Reich’s (and Mellits’s) notational

adaptations might be viewed as a way to get away from a perceived over-specificity inherent in

writing out every note a performer is meant to play, Kurtág’s notational adaptations move in the

opposite direction— he creates a system that provides greater precision. While his

supplementary booklet covers numerous topics including pedaling, dynamics, methods of

playing clusters, et cetera, he is especially interested in rhythm. Rather than accept the conventional note values and the method of adapting them somewhat indeterminately via the use of fermata, Kurtág creates a comprehensive spectrum of duration incorporating conventional note values, two types of fermata and an inverse fermata (which shortens the notated value instead of lengthening it). He also creates similar hierarchies regarding caesurae, rests, and grace notes. This drive to convey a heightened sense of rhythm is clearly based in the highly concentrated, often quasi-stuttered aesthetic of Kurtág’s music rather than an absolute need for greater rhythmic clarity. If he were simply interested in precision of rhythm, for instance, he could use more complicated conventional note values as opposed to creating new (or, at the very least, highly modified) hierarchies for communicating rhythmic ideas. Perhaps a mathematically precise notation of a rhythmic gesture for Kurtág would be a similar kind of “failure” as Mellits’s note-for-note transcription of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. It is difficult not to wonder if Eastman might have eventually provided some “key” to his alternative notational practices as a guide for other performers in the way that both Reich (via Mellits’s score for Music for 18 Musicians and in his modifications of his notational style with an eye toward accessibility in later works) and Kurtág (via his companion booklet to Játékok) ultimately did. The sad fact remains that Eastman died too young and that his life was often in disarray, which undoubtedly had an impact on his work and legacy. In the end, the reconstructing of his legacy through zealous scholarship and the dedication of a handful of contemporary performers to tackling at least some of his works seems remarkable under the circumstances. Kyle Gann nails it on the head (and with a satisfying, dare I say Eastman-esque grandiosity) by terming these recent developments: “The Miraculous Revival of Julius

Eastman.”

===

Towards a Workable Critical Vocabulary in Experimental Music 

 

Theorizing about possible connections between figures and movements in the visual arts and

music is a long-standing habit of scholars and enthusiasts alike. Whether via social proximity or

shared ideals, historical narratives of artistic progress often makes strange bedfellows of

minimally related individuals in the interest of mythologizing a tidy path forward. The

emergence of performance art as a sovereign discipline and an influential aesthetic practice in

the early 1960s, however, happens to be a case in which the ties between the musical and

visual art worlds is beyond dispute, and not just in social or ideological terms but also in relation

to form and process. 

 

There are competing theories about what might be considered the first piece of “performance

art.” While some consider various compositions by John Cage to be the first works in the

genre, others do not view the form as really coming into existence until the 1960s among

artists less established than Cage. Another view might highlight earlier cases of proto-performance art such as the unconventional performances at the Cabaret Voltaire in 1916

(related to the creation of the Dada manifesto) or even religious or tribal rituals that stretch back

to the dawn of humanity. Given the disputed historical and technical boundaries of performance

art, any such debate seems unlikely to ever result in a definitive answer. What does seem clear,

however, is that a critical mass of artists creating and performing work that was to become

widely identified as performance art came to prominence in New York City in the early 1960s

and that many of its practitioners were influenced profoundly by John Cage.

 

It would be difficult to write a history of performance art without discussing Fluxus, which not

only served as a useful organizing device for artists who were moving in the direction of

performance art, but also quickly developed a presence that reached from the West Coast of

the United States to Japan and Europe, with a particular concentration of activities and

practitioners in New York City. From 1956-1961, Cage taught a course called Experimental

Composition at the New School for Social Research in New York City, which was attended by a

number of Fluxus’s earliest members including George Brecht, Jackson Mac Low, Toshi

Ichiyanagi, Allan Kaprow, and Dick Higgins. It is impossible to overstate the impact of this

course on the development of performance art. George Brecht makes it plain: “Cage was the great liberator for me…I wanted to make music that wouldn’t only be for the ears…Events are an extension of music.”

What students seemed to take from Cage’s class revolved primarily around two valences: the

adoption of an aesthetic of indeterminacy and the embrace of multidisciplinarianism. Both of

these ideas represented a disavowal of modernism, an iconoclastic stance that sowed the

seeds for cultural pushback against Cage’s increasingly unconventional demands of performers

and the emerging anti-art ideology of Fluxus-affiliated artists. With the “silent piece,”

4’33” (1952), Cage not only upended ideas about the role of the performer and the nature of

music, he also provided a framework for instruction-based music. While there are multiple

versions of the 4’33” score, Liz Kotz argues that the type-written version of the score (which is

the most commonly known, as it is the version widely disseminated by Peters Edition)

represented the “bringing [of] the form of the score from music into the visual arts.” 4’33” also

had the impact of cleaving the musical performer from his/her specific field of training. Marking

the passage of time in silence does not privilege any particular instrumental technique— or,

perhaps, any musical technique at all. By removing the traditional barriers between highly-skilled but highly specific technicians, Cage opened the door to multidisciplinarianism and also

provided a space in which practitioners of music and other disciplines could engage with each

other on equal footing. Cage’s own aesthetic seems to have reached a turning point around this

time, as his work moved decisively in a less specifically musical direction beginning in the early

1960s with works such as 0’00” (1962).

Viewed from another perspective, performance art adopted the conventional musical idea that

art is experienced as an event, not as an artifact — while the artist might devise the system for

producing the artwork (ie, the composition or instructions), the work itself is actually created by

the animation of the system by the performer. This holds true even in the event that the

performer and the composer (or the performer and the artist, in the case of performance art) are

the same person. (As Sol LeWitt would have it: “The idea becomes a machine that makes

art.”) This was a transformative concept in the visual art world, and in many ways an inversion

of dominant ideologies. For instance, while a heavy emphasis was often placed on the

“‘performance” of creation in action painting (dripping paint on the canvas, etc), the artifact was

still viewed as the means of communication between the artist and the viewer. The removal of

the artifact as the terminus of the artistic project opened the door to a variety of new

approaches, including but not limited to performance art. As unconventional as Cage’s musical

approach was to become as the 1960s progressed, as George Brecht put it: “he remained a

musician, a composer.” Although many early performance artists would not retain (or adopt)

the title of composer, as Cage did, the developing discipline was inscribed with the composer/

performer dynamic that is central to musical practice. This trace of music in the emerging field of

performance art is perhaps another indication of the importance of Cage’s courses in

Experimental Composition and the prevalence of composers in the development of the form

more generally. 

Takehisa Kosugi is a remarkable figure, in that he has been an active participant in many of the

major movements of experimental music and conceptual art since the late 1950s. Beginning as

a university student in Japan, he was heavily involved with the burgeoning experimental music

scene and was a co-founder of Ongaku, the influential music ensemble that was perhaps the

earliest experimental improvisation-based group in that country. He was an early affiliate of Fluxus, and his work was included in the first collective publication of the group, Fluxus I, which served as both an anthology for early Fluxus-affiliated works as well as an important model for the dissemination of Fluxus works and ideas going forward. As typified by the heavy influence of

music on the early performance art scene, Kosugi maintained his musical chops as a violinist

even as he often performed using completely unconventional instruments or in performance

works that did not reference music at all. Starting in 1969, Kosugi tapped into the emerging

psychedelic zeitgeist and toured and recorded extensively with the Taj Mahal Travelers, a

drone-heavy improvisation-based group he cofounded. He subsequently became a frequent

collaborator with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company in the 1970s (and its eventual Music

Director) and consequently worked with and performed extensively alongside John Cage and

David Tudor. In addition to his activities with the Cunningham company, Kosugi continued to

work on his solo output and also collaborated with a variety of experimental artists in

performances and recordings. In 1994, he received the prestigious John Cage award from the

Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts and Julian Cope has called him “one of

Japanese experimental music’s founding fathers.” 

Distance for Piano (for David Tudor) (1965) is a work that exists somewhere near the midpoint

on the spectrum between “music” and “event” in Kosugi’s body of work. The work consists of the

following textual instruction:

"Performer positions himself at some distance from the piano from which he should not

move. Performer does not touch piano directly by any part of his body, but may

manipulate other objects to produce sound on piano through them. Performer produces

sounds at point of piano previously determined by him. Assistants may move piano to

change distance and direction to directions of the performer." 

While the textual format of the performance instructions is a commonality shared with other of

the composer’s works that could be considered pure performance art events, this work exists in

a musical context. While the instructions put the performer in an unconventional relationship

with the piano, the suggested role of the performer is still to produce sound (if indirectly) via a

musical instrument. This is a far cry from other Kosugi works without a musical component (or

even reference), such as Theatre Music: “Keep walking intently” or Chironomy 1: “Put out a

hand from a window for a long time.” At the same time, there are non-musical parameters in

Distance, and the performance revolves around a limitation to musical production placed upon

the performer—the prohibition of interacting with the piano directly to produce sound. Therefore

this work cannot be understood as a purely musical (or even sonic) endeavor either, in contrast

to Kosugi’s work as a violinist or his creation of sound works for Merce Cunningham Dance

Company. In multiple ways, this work is a telling example of the overlap between experimental

music and performance art in this period. 

 

The attempt to critically evaluate works of performance art presents a network of challenges and

might be considered counter-productive by some practitioners. Indeed, there was a major strain

of antiestablishmentarianism running through the early performance art scene, which included

both sentiments against art and against the entrenched institutions which fostered, preserved,

and disseminated it. Proposals for the “sabotage and disruption” of cultural institutions were

outlined in Fluxus News-Policy-Letter No. 6 and espoused approaches including “disrupting

concerts at ‘sensitive moments’ with ‘smell bombs’,” “disrupting entries of concert halls, theatres,

museums, galleries etc during critical hours,” and “posting & mailing announcements (to

libraries, newspapers etc.) with totally revised dates of various concerts, plays, movies, exhibits

etc.” Another prominent example of the antipathy for the cultural establishment of many artists

in the experimental scene in New York in the 1960s would be the protests organized by

composer Henry Flynt under the umbrella of Artists Against Cultural Imperialism in 1964.

Displaying placards and chanting slogans outside of concerts of what they identified as “rich

man’s snob art,” their slogans included “Death to all fascist musical ideas!” 

With this rhetoric in mind, the idea of critiquing works of performance art or experimental music

via conventional musical or artistic discourses might be seen as anathema to some. There are

other practical considerations that make evaluating this work in the manner of more

conventional performance practices highly contentious. For starters, the relationship between

traditional notation and musical performance makes it possible to delineate creative agency as it

relates to various components of a performance — teasing out “interpretation” (the performer)

from the parameters of the unchanging score (the composer) is simplified. This clarity can be

greatly muddied in works that embrace indeterminacy. Indeed, how can one evaluate a work in

which the composer (or artist) purposefully removes him/herself from the resulting presentation

of the work by embracing the influence of chance? Furthermore, the curatorial nature of

classical musical and its musical museum known as “the canon” means that critics are

deeply familiarized with a core body of works and a set group of stylistic schools. In evaluating

pieces from within or tangential to that core body of work or in critiquing performances of these

works, listeners have a relatively standardized set of criteria to refer to. This is not the case at all

in works of performance art or avant-garde music, in which the aesthetic world of the work might

be created whole-cloth by the artist in question, or in some cases, might purposely undermine

conventional ideals of aesthetic value. Another problem in evaluating many of these works is their avoidance of traditional techniques or virtuosities, which in more conventional musical works can serve as a point of evaluation as to the skill level of the performer in question.

The philistine’s refrain rears its ugly head: “That’s not art! — Anybody can do that!” (To which a

young Henry Flynt might have responded: “Exactly!”) 

To find a way out of this conundrum, returning to Sol LeWitt might be instructive. In describing

conceptual art, he says: “In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of

the work.” He contrasts this with “perceptual art,” which is art primarily engaged in stimulating

the senses (and, perhaps, emotions). If we accept that performance art largely falls in the

“conceptual” side of this dichotomy, then it makes sense to adopt a system of critique that

engages with the ideas behind a piece and the logistics of the performance rather than

evaluating what occurs during the performance itself. As an example, two invented critiques of a

fictional performance of Distance for Piano (for David Tudor):

 

1

This piece was successful because of the pleasant harmonic washes that resulted when the

performer hit the upper strings of the instrument with rubber tubing. The effect was reminiscent

of Messiaen’s bird transcriptions, and was effectively off-set by the subsequent low rhythmic

thumpings that resulted from engaging the bass strings with an oven mitt. The increasing

excitement of the bass thumps led to an exciting climax and a resonant ending. The movement

of the piano during the work, however, seemed clumsy and unnecessary and disrupted the

beautiful flow from one section to the next.

2

This performance was not a success. The ill-conceived decision of the pianist to be within arm’s

reach of the piano undermined the central device of the work. While increased proximity might

allow for better control of the outcome of the performer’s engagement with the instrument, it

deprives the work of the sense of strain and alienation which seems inherent in the instruction

that the “performer positions himself at some distance from the piano from which he should not

move.” While the performer in this case did stay put, the larger impact of the piece was

undermined by his apparent need to maintain control over the specific outcomes of his mediated

interactions with the instrument. The movement of the piano was a jarring intrusion into the

performer’s otherwise seamless control. While I admit to experiencing a certain twisted

satisfaction from seeing the performer lose control momentarily, one wonders if Kosugi’s

instructions regarding the movement of the instrument might provide a better key for application.

(For instance, does movement only apply to moving the whole instrument around? What about

moving the pedal up and down, or opening and closing the lid?) 

I would argue that the first critique presented here is inadequate because it engages with the

fleeting results of indeterminate processes as though they were conceived intentionally by the

composer. If the critic is judging the specifics of an indeterminate aspect of the work (the

specific notes played, the specific rhythms, the specific structural arc as realized in this

particular performance), then the critic is actually not judging the work at all. In contrast, the

second critique engages with the conceptual undergirding of the work as a basis for commentary about the performance and of the work itself. 

While any system of criticism regarding experimental practices in any field will likely always

remain a challenge, it seems reasonable to base the criteria for evaluating works of

performance art and experimental music practices with roots in the aesthetic of indeterminacy

on the “conceptual” components of the work in question. It is possible to judge “perceptual”

music based on the criteria of whether it delivers on illuminating the sensations it wants the

audience to perceive. Similarly, “conceptual” music can be evaluated on whether or not the

concepts at the heart of the work have been effectively communicated to the audience.

===

Reconsidering Liszt and Debussy:

Virtuosic Radicals at the Piano

 

Both Debussy and Liszt are often regarded as “piano composers,” and with good reason. Aside

from the fact that both composers wrote prodigiously for the instrument, they also each pushed

at the boundaries of the predominant pianism of their eras. In doing so, their music leaves a

mark not only on the abstract history of musical style and composition, but on the physical

history of musical instruments and pianists’ techniques. 

 

A strikingly material manifestation of Liszt’s pianism bumping its head against the conventions of

the era was his tendency to put pianos out of commission during his recitals. It seems that the

pianos of his day were often unable to stand up to a recital-length submission to Liszt’s

innovative virtuosity. In his diaries, Carl Lachmund recalls Liszt discussing the complications

these ill-equipped pianos caused him as a younger man:

 

 

"In those times pianos were built too lightly. I usually had two grands placed on the

platform, so that if one gave out it could be replaced without delaying the recital." 

He continues with other colorful observations including requiring the assistance of two

strongmen to stand along either side of the piano to stabilize it as he practiced before a

performance in Cologne. 

Standing in direct contrast to this account, Roger Nichols summarizes a complaint regarding

Debussy’s often subtle performances:

 

"It is not surprising then that when Debussy played the piano abroad, on pianos and in

halls he did not know, there were sometimes complaints that he was practically

inaudible." 

In a very different way, then, Debussy’s pianism could also be at odds with the norms of his day.

While Liszt presumably just had to wait for piano construction to catch up to his bombastic

technique, Debussy’s personal piano seems to highlight the qualities he most valued in an

instrument. The Blüthner grand piano that stood uncrowded and unadorned in his living room

was strung with an additional set of strings that are not struck by the hammers, but merely there

to provide additional resonance. This sympathetic stringing system, referred to as “aliquot

stringing” (or aliquotflügel), was not available among French piano makers, but was apparently

extremely appealing to Debussy, who had the piano shipped from Jersey in 1904. 

 

The points of contrast continue. While contemporaries of both composers remember pianists of

striking qualities, Debussy did not consider himself a great pianist. He was a harsh critic and

was as unsparing regarding his own playing as he could be with others: “I am not a great pianist…It’s true that I can adequately perform some of the Préludes, the easiest ones. But the others…make me quiver.”

 

Liszt, on the other hand, seemed comfortable with the mantle of celebrity virtuoso that he

developed in his youth. Surely, a performer unsure of him/herself could not maintain the

constant touring that Liszt undertook in the 1830s and 40s. Indeed, his practice as a performer

seems central to his musical identity:

"And I do four to five hours practice as well—thirds, sixths, octaves, tremolos, repeated

notes, cadenzas etc. If I don’t go mad you will find in me an ARTIST, yes, an artist such

as is needed today." 

The fundamental differences in the way that these composers viewed their performance

relationship with the piano provide an important framework in which to view their innovations in

writing for the instrument. 

LISZT

Liszt the performer is inseparable from Liszt the composer in his works for piano. Even in the

late works, which often eschew virtuosity and explore harmonic terrain that must have seemed

treacherous for the era, the sense of the performer remains in the theatricality of gesture, the

dramatic use of timing, and the vivid imagery created via fine-tuned textures and coloration.

While changes in his personal life and musical interests over his extraordinarily long career

surely leave their imprint on his musical output, the instincts of a consummate performer who

knew the instrument and the crowd like an extension of himself are a unifying feature

omnipresent in all of his works for the instrument.

The simplest reading of Liszt’s contribution to pianism focuses on virtuosity. While there is much

truth in the old axiom of Liszt being “the Paganini of the piano,” interpreting his expansion of

piano technique as virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake leaves something to be desired. Indeed, an

unconventional way of interpreting Liszt’s painstaking development of a “transcendent”

technique might be as a journey of liberation. As opposed to noted virtuosos such as Sigismond

Thalberg, whose calling cards were often related to their development and prominent display of

mastery of a specific technical challenge, Liszt might be perceived as actually lessening the

allure of self-referential technique by developing an integrated mastery of the instrument. In a

sense, Liszt changed the definition of virtuosity from being able to do certain things very well to

achieving a facility that allowed you to do everything well. A comparison of Liszt’s etudes with

earlier series of etudes by composers like Chopin or Czerny highlights the tendency of Liszt to

integrate multiple technical challenges in a single work, as opposed to isolating single aspects

of technique. This method of integrated virtuosity was an inversion of the displays of technical

brilliance as commonly presented by other piano virtuosos of the day like Thalberg and

Dreyschock. 

Of course, it would be an overstatement to say that Liszt ignored the power of virtuosity entirely

—for many years his life was that of a touring virtuoso, after all, and inventive transcriptions and

improvisations were part of the bread and butter of his career, while tales of his virtuosic feats

kept the Liszt myth alive— but as much as virtuosity established his legendary status as a

performer, it also opened up new possibilities for him as a composer. On this point, I think that

Charles Rosen is on to something when he laments that: “Critics often write as if Liszt’s innovations in piano technique were merely ways of playing lots of notes in a short space of time, instead of inventions of sound.” 

Indeed, Rosen identifies Liszt’s “feeling for sound” as being the “greatest of any keyboard

composer’s between Scarlatti and Debussy.” By understanding sound quality as a driving

force in Liszt’s compositional practice, the standard complaints regarding Liszt’s idiosyncrasies

of form or lack of thematic development are tempered by an awareness of his constant

development of texture and sound quality. By placing sound quality at the center of our

understanding of Liszt’s compositional practice, the music of his “late period” also seems less

disjointed from the rest of his oeuvre, as the disappearance of virtuosity can be understood as

simply another sonic experiment in texture and a reaction to the changing demands of an

increasingly radical use of harmony. In this light, the starkness of the writing in late works such

as La Lugubre Gondola No. 1 (1882) and Unstern! (1880-86) can be understood as a sonic-technical application that, while sounding very different, is actually acting in the same manner as

the dizzying compound trills and passagework of an earlier work like Feux Follets (Étude No. 5)

(1837). 

“Les Jeux d’Eaux à la Villa d’Este” (1877) from the third year of Les Années de Pèlerinage is a

clear example of Liszt’s abiding interest in developing new colors and textures at the piano, and

it is tempting to think of the work as a large-scale (and exceedingly prescient) sonic experiment.

While French composers of the early twentieth century are often thought of as the masters of

the representation of water via piano sonorities, Liszt’s application of a variety of repetitive

arpeggio and tremolo figurations create a remarkably atmospheric aquatic depiction in what

must have seemed a strikingly avant-garde style. The colorful sound-world and the evocative

nature of the passagework is established right from the beginning—how startling the static

harmony and repetitive ascending arpeggios of the opening measures must have sounded to

listeners in 1877! (And a dominant ninth, no less!) These watery gestures morph over the

course of the piece— sometimes appearing as compound tremolos, cascading figurations, or

more expansive arpeggiations, and smoothly moving in and out of the spotlight as melodic

material appears and recedes through the liquid texture, almost like beams of light. Ravel’s later

work, Jeux d’eau (1901), has also been widely admired for its effective depiction of water

gestures, but it is also notorious for the punishingly awkward technical demands it makes on the

pianist. While Liszt’s water figurations are every bit as gushing as Ravel’s, the myriad figurations

that create his watery palette generally achieve virtuosic brilliance without tying the pianist’s

hands in knots. Even at his most avant-garde, the old performer instinct is ever apparent. 

A simple summary of Liszt’s impact on pianism might be that by dramatically expanding

technical demands on performers he altered both the development of piano writing and piano

construction for future generations. A deeper reading, however, informs these technical

developments by grounding their emergence in a larger ideology of sonic experimentation. By

understanding Liszt’s virtuosity in the context of sound, we are able to unify our understanding

of the full body of his work and also appreciate the broader range of influence that his work had

on future composers who not only adopted aspects of his virtuosic writing, but also picked up

where he left off (if sometimes decades later…) in his sonic explorations. 

DEBUSSY

Perhaps there is no greater proof of the wide-reaching influence of Liszt than the long-lasting

impression that hearing Liszt play in 1886 (the last year of his life) had on Debussy, who was

generally a scathing critic and especially so of pianists. It seems that Liszt’s approach to

pedaling was particularly memorable, which Debussy fondly recalls as a sort of breathing (“cet

art de faire de la pédale une sorte de respiration”). It is noteworthy that the aspect that most

stuck with Debussy about Liszt’s performance was the use of the pedal, an aspect of piano

technique that is integral to sonic color and a quality of Debussy’s playing that so many listeners

have commented on. 

While both Debussy and Liszt share in common an intense focus on sonority, their disparate

personalities influenced the way in which their innovations in piano writing developed. As stated above, the trace of Liszt the performer always seems near at hand in his written works for piano. Debussy, by contrast, had a much more unsettled relationship with his own performance abilities. This reluctance to embrace the role of performer seems almost certainly

to be rooted in personal predilection rather than aptitude, as the recorded reception of listeners

to his live performances was often positive to the point of perplexity:

"…his sensibility of touch was incomparable; he made the impression of playing directly

on the strings of the instrument with no intermediate mechanism; the effect was a

miracle of poetry." (Alfredo Casella)

"I have never heard such music in my life, such music as came from the piano at those

moments." (Mary Garden)

"Debussy was an incomparable pianist." (Marguerite Long)

And lest the idea of Debussy the performer crystallize in an image of docile tranquility, let us not

forget that he was also fully capable of playing the bass part of the four-hand version of Le

Sacré de Printemps alongside Stravinsky while he was composing it. Surely, he more than

adequately tackled the driving, thorny material as Stravinsky warmly remembers Debussy the

pianist in his autobiography: “How well that man played!” 

Regardless of how others perceived his playing, however, the reality is that when Debussy was

composing piano music, the trace of Debussy the performer remained faint. Instead of the

sense of dramatic gesture and theatrical timing that springs from the pages of Liszt’s piano

music and results in a certain looseness of notation, in Debussy’s piano writing we see an

extreme attention to clarity and detail. The compositional imperatives of a traveling virtuoso in

the 1840s and that of a mostly non-performing composer working on commission in late

nineteenth and early twentieth century Paris clearly imposed different sets of incentives on the

creative processes of both composers. However, just as understanding Liszt’s piano writing

entails embracing his essential performer instincts, interpreting the piano writing of Debussy can

also benefit from an awareness of his particular position as a pianist with a deep understanding

of the instrument but a general disinterest in performing himself. 

Marguerite Long has written extensively about her experience working with Debussy, and her

comments on Debussy’s pianism are compelling. As Debussy was sardonically dismissive of

most pianists, the fact that he often spoke glowingly of Long’s playing of his music heightens the

authority of her writings. In her book, At the Piano with Debussy, she recounts a period of

particularly intensive work with Debussy during the summer of 1917 which largely created the

foundation for her understanding of the technique required to adequately interpret his scores. 

There are two recurring themes in her recollections of this close work with Debussy on a wide

variety of his pieces: his absolute insistence on fidelity to the specific demands of the score and

a deeply controlled, sonorous timbre. Long describes Debussy’s scores as including “all the

indications possible for the execution of his work,” while pointing out that he could be “fierce”

about this principle. Given the level of specificity in the notation of parameters including

dynamics, articulation, tempo fluctuation, and voicing, this requires the pianist to exhibit both a

high level of care and a great amount of control. At the same time, she describes Debussy’s

touch in the following terms:

 

"While floating over the keys with a curiously penetrating gentleness, he could achieve

an extraordinary power of expression. There lay his secret, the pianistic enigma of his

music. There lay Debussy’s individual technique; gentleness in a continuous pressure

gave the colour that only he could get from his piano." 

The terms used in this description — floating, gentleness, continuous pressure — seem at odds

with the highly exacting demands of the notational requirements. Herein lies the paradox and

the challenge of mastering Debussy’s pianism. While the performer must retain absolute control,

s/he must also refrain from exhibiting that control physically in a way that undermines a deep

sonority. Debussy might not have viewed himself as possessing the skills of a virtuoso pianist,

but by demanding strict adherence to instructions across a wide variety of parameters

(dynamics, articulation, tempo, etc) and total command of the resonance of each sounding note,

he demanded a new virtuosity of control from his pianists. 

Indeed, while Marguerite Long was a successful pianist well into her career when she began

working with Debussy and was especially noted for her sophisticated interpretations of French

music, she states: “The more I involved myself with Debussy’s musical thought, the more his expression seemed to call for a complete mastery of technique.” This is a remarkable statement and underscores the challenges beyond those of conventional technique that are required to truly master Debussy’s piano writing. Positioned between his deep knowledge of the instrument and his disinclination for a performance career, Debussy expresses in exacting notation the actions required to realize his music. In so doing, he leaves less room for the performer to insert his/her own decisions regarding the notated parameters, but he does provide a clear roadmap for a successful interpretation, making clear through his specificity that the demands on the performer are very high.

Ondine from the second book of Préludes exemplifies a number of the issues discussed above.

The very title of the work (while printed at the end and intended only as an impression, as per

Debussy’s intention) implies the impish, variable nature of the water sprite. The tranquil opening

is abruptly interrupted by the brittle interjection in measure four, only to immediately return back

to the placid opening material. While it would make shifting from these two types of playing

much easier, there are no indications for rubato, which means that none is allowed. This

alternation between extremes of dynamic, articulation, and touch with abrupt shifts between

them can serve as a microcosm of the aesthetic of the whole piece. It also highlights its

technical challenges implicit in Debussy’s highly specific scores, and reinforces the concept of

Debussy’s virtuosity of control. 

===

Book Review:

The Orchestral Revolution: Haydn and the Technologies of Timbre, by Emily I. Dolan.

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 290 pp.

 

The title of Emily Dolan’s compelling book is not exactly misleading, but serves more as

a treasure map rather than a direct signifier of what is to come. “Orchestral,” “Haydn,” “technologies,” “timbre:” each of these subjects serves as a salient point of reference in

this study, and yet the title implies a straightforwardness that is largely absent here. Rather than

a linear history concerning Haydn’s orchestration, its precursors, and its lasting impacts, Dolan

undertakes a larger task in this study, and, arguably, slays a few dragons along the way. This is

a book about orchestration, it is a book about Haydn, and it is a book about timbre; however, it

is also a call for a reinvigoration of the field of musicology and a model of how to productively

revise our methods of researching and understanding the musical past. 

In the well-structured introduction, Dolan presents the reader with a useful analogy: she

compares the increasing use of live video technology in orchestra performances today to the

changing nature of the orchestra in the eighteenth century, from “an ensemble that was heard

as powerful but sometimes blunt and indelicate, into a diverse musical community in which each

instrument had its own character and identity and lent its unique voice to the whole.” (p.3) On

multiple levels, this analogy cleverly sets the stage for the rest of the book: by defining

orchestration as a technical development, she foreshadows her interest in a methodology that

takes the development of instruments and their effect on musical practice into account; by

comparing the historical period she will focus on to a performance practice development in the

modern era, she upends the conventionally teleological storyline of “the rise of instrumental

music;” and by employing terminology that presents orchestral developments in the eighteenth

century as fundamentally a change in perception, she makes clear that this study will not be

rooted exclusively in the comfortable terrain of the musical score or the freighted concept of the

“work.” She also uses the introduction to put forth some of the larger issues she intends to tackle which transcend the study of timbre and orchestration suggested by the book’s title: creating “a history that seeks to restore the visibility of instruments” (p.14), an area in which she feels that musicology has much to learn from scholars of science and technology, and a reframing of the aesthetic, centered on an eighteenth-century philosophy of the aesthetic as the mediation between sensation and cognition. Additionally, the author makes clear that this study is intended as a model of how musicology might reform itself. Indeed, she is refreshingly up-front about her agenda: “The study of technology offers a possible direction for the field, a new focus and center in a discipline that has moved beyond the work.” (p.20) 

 

While this book primarily focuses on the latter part of the eighteenth and first half of the

nineteenth centuries, the first chapter (“Lessons at the Ocular Harpsichord”) steps further back

in time to examine the ocular harpsichord and its philosophical underpinnings. The unusual

contraption, as theorized by Louis-Bertrand Castel, serves a useful purpose for highlighting the

second-class status with which music was regarded by many Enlightenment-era thinkers. It also

demonstrates a relationship between the concepts of sound and color quite different from that of

modern terminology. Rather than equating the “color” of a sound with its timbre, Castel

associated color with pitch. In this, he built on the hypotheses put forward in Sir Isaac Newton’s

Opticks (1704) which theorized that there is a direct relationship between the proportions of

colors in light refracted through a prism and the pitches in an octave. The desire to “improve”

music by supplanting the aural with visual stimulation is a clear example of the reigning

hierarchy through which thinkers of Castel’s era considered music. In such an environment

where aural stimulation was denigrated and the individuality of instrumental sounds was

mistrusted, the author argues that the emergence of a discourse of timbre was impossible.

Dolan takes one other detour into the more-distant past in this chapter by examining early

organologies, which are remarkable for their general disinterest in describing how instruments

actually sounded. She makes the compelling argument that “to trace the history of timbre is, at

the same time, to chart the emergence of the modern conception of the power of music.” (p.52)

As music shed its second-class status and as the individual qualities of sound gained

precedence, the concept of color in music shifted from a relationship with pitch to a relationship

with timbre.

It must be noted that the discussion of the ocular harpsichord would surely have been

strengthened by a more clear description of the instrument from the outset. Particularly, in the

context of a discussion largely about the relative worth of visual and aural expression, not

clarifying whether the the ocular harpsichord was strictly visual or visual and aural needlessly

muddies the water for readers not already familiar with the concept.

The second chapter (“The Idea of Timbre”) builds on the groundwork laid in the first,

highlighting the developing importance of timbre in the orchestral practice of the second part of

the eighteenth century. These developments occurred in an environment in which similitude with

the human voice was often highly valued. This attitude, Dolan argues, was a hindrance to the

development of orchestration technique, which is dependent on the acceptance of the value of a

diversity of instrumental timbres. The author also uses this chapter to relate the developing

discourse of timbre to what she describes as “the birth of modern aesthetics.” (p.71) As she

states: 

"…before [the aesthetic] was bound to art and seeped with the language of idealism, 

aesthetics was the study of the relationship between immediate sensation and the  higher orders of cognition…Aesthetics was a study of mediation, and dealt in equal  measure with immediate sensation and abstract reason.” (p.71-72)

Dolan seizes on the writings of Johann Gottfried Herder as an example of the developing

understanding of timbre and its aesthetic implications. His vision of musical experience was

premised entirely on sensory experience and on the idea that those sensory experiences were

already suffused with aesthetic information. For instance, he states that music “plays on the

clavichord within us which is our own innermost being,” (p.84) a concept that undermines the

mathematical theories of sound presented by many Enlightenment thinkers and posits that

musical experience is premised on human perception more so than the sympathetic resonance

between bodies (as Rameau had postulated in his theory of the corps sonore). Rather than

focusing on harmony or melody, Herder championed the study of single tones and how they

“penetrate the soul of the listener” (p.77), which clearly places considerations of timbre in high

relief. In a more general sense, the emphasis on sensory mediation opens the door to the

discussion of music as sonic experience and tone as aesthetic experience, which is a necessary

precursor for the development of a discourse on timbre. Without the development of this

rhetoric, the “orchestral revolution” which Dolan wishes to highlight in this study could not have

happened.

 

In the third and fourth chapters (“Haydn, Orchestration, and Re-orchestration” and “The

Republic of Sound,” respectively), Dolan is at last capable of discussing Haydn in the desired

context. The primary purpose of this portion of the book seems to be to invest Haydn with a

position of preeminence concerning the development of orchestration technique. Overall, Dolan

makes a compelling case for this designation, but she is also clever to not overplay this hand.

She makes clear that the orchestral ensemble underwent a process of standardization and

institutionalization in this period, which enabled many of the orchestrational achievements for

which Haydn is rightly lauded. On the other hand, the author argues that Haydn’s approach to

orchestration was a deeply holistic one. Dolan demonstrates how both Haydn’s compositional

and orchestrational approaches are based on principles of development and variation. The

implication is that while the institutional and technological developments had to have been in

place, Haydn’s orchestrational break-throughs were an extension of his particular musical

genius. While making this point, she also argues for an increased stature for orchestration in

musical analysis. As she points out, orchestration can serve as a tremendously important factor

in the dramatic structure of a work while also exerting a disproportionate impact on the way that

a listener perceives the work. She convincingly employs “orchestral graphs” to depict the

instrumental texture of slow movements of Haydn symphonies and contrasts them with those of

Mozart to highlight the composers’ differing approaches. 

 

Haydn’s oratorios, and particularly The Creation, serve a special place in this discussion of

the composer’s orchestration technique. Most importantly, Dolan examines Haydn’s depiction of

chaos in the work, and extrapolates larger orchestrational principles from his choices. While a

composer faced with creating a musical depiction of chaos could conceivably choose to create a

harmonic or rhythmic effect, Haydn instead relied on orchestration technique to communicate

the concept of chaos by creating a sense of disorder and confusion among the instruments. 

Haydn’s chaos presents the instruments as vital, living, and in the very process of

discovering their agency. In these measures, Haydn reveals the structure of the

orchestra by first disassembling it; instruments search for their proper roles. Until these

forces coalesce, music—understood as melodies organized into clear phrases,  functional harmony, and decisive cadences—is impossible. (p.140) 

While holding up Haydn as the true shepherd of the orchestra, leading the ensemble into

a more liberated future, Dolan also highlights the new dynamics at work in the changed

orchestral context. She argues that an acceptance of individual instrumental timbre acted as a

source of liberation and autonomy, while the development of orchestration led to “the formation

of the new liberal instrumental subject.” (p.164) This concept relates to the title of the fourth

chapter, and Dolan spends some time examining the relationship between the hierarchy of the

new orchestra to concepts of individual freedom in society by contemporary thinkers such as

Rousseau. She also notes, however, that the newfound freedom and autonomy of the “liberal

instrumental subject” opened the door to a more subjective form of criticism and foisted a new

set of responsibilities on composers. 

In the fifth chapter (“The Real Museum of Musical Works”), the author takes an

unexpected detour to discuss the rise of orchestra machines in the nineteenth century (models

using various names are discussed including orchestrion, panharmonicon, Bogenflügel, et

cetera). While the history of this peculiar trend is highly illuminating, it seems a rather abrupt

shift from the prior chapters. That is not to say, however, that it is completely unrelated to the

larger project at hand. Indeed, Dolan convincingly argues that “the popularity and proliferation of

orchestra machines signaled the objectification of orchestral sonority” (194), which is clearly

displayed in these instruments. This fetishization, in turn, could not have existed without the

standardization of the orchestra which developed in tandem with the new concepts of

orchestration. The devices also provided an intriguing opportunity for reproduction, although the

author’s attempt to connect this capability with the standardization of the orchestra was less

convincing. (“The orchestra functioned as a recording technology: like the machines designed

to imitate it, it enabled repeat performances of musical works.” (p.200)) This chapter also seems

to be where Dolan most forcefully attempts to inject musicology with the sort of focus on

historical objects and technological instruments that is more common among science and

technology scholars. While some might quibble with the relevance of the history of orchestra

machines in this work, the focus on historical objects in the context of musical instrument

development is certainly on target. This extends, of course, to the evolution of the orchestral

instruments that we are familiar with today, but also to the development of less-familiar musical

inventions such as the octobass. As Dolan points out, the impulse to “perfect” orchestral

instrumentation “is another way of understanding what it means to speak of the consolidation of

the orchestra as a concept: it is to imagine it as a collective and perfectible whole.” (p.205)

In the sixth chapter (“Abuses of the Orchestra”), Dolan depicts the shifting terrain of

orchestration post-Haydn. She argues that a new status quo developed in which instruments

were allowed individuation but were expected to be employed within certain parameters.

Neglecting these parameters or employing the use of non-standard instruments (particularly

“Turkish” percussion) could lead to one’s piece being criticized as “noisy.” Both Rossini and

Berlioz are investigated amidst this new “noisy” landscape, and the author finds interesting

counter-currents in the work of both composers to the prevailing “effect”-oriented orchestral

writing popular at the time. However, the author argues that the harsh criticisms of orchestration

in this period fostered the idea that orchestration was a compositional component of secondary

importance, given its perceived susceptibility to passing trends. Similarly, the ceaseless

development of new instruments and tinkering with old ones cast an air of diminished authority

on timbre. The author argues that these shifts in attitude have had lasting implications,

particularly for the field of musicology. Even in this, however, Dolan sees progress, as

“eighteenth-century writers equated music as a whole—not just musical effects—with nonsense,

accusing the entire art form of being mere jingle-jangle. Nineteenth-century critics, on the other

hand, could focus their complaints primarily on one aspect of music: orchestration.” (p. 256)

The final chapter is followed by a brief but pithy epilogue (“Orchestral Alchemy”) in which

the author examines an intriguing photo of a panharmonicon covered in heavy drapery. This

image serves as a jumping off point for a discussion of the submersion of the orchestra beneath

the stage at Wagner’s Festspielhaus and an examination of the various impulses behind the

desire for an “invisible orchestra.” Dolan artfully pivots to a critique of the musicological

establishment: 

"Like visitors to Bayreuth, scholars of music have been able to attend to music’s effects 

without necessarily concerning themselves with its material causes. The purpose of this

present study was to venture into the abyss and to discover what lurks in the  metaphorical Festspielhaus in which much musicology has operated." (p. 262)

In so doing, she achieves the trick of framing this book as a blow for reform while also

highlighting the importance of materially-oriented studies such as this work. On both the topical

and the disciplinary levels, her arguments are compelling. 

This informative book would be more user-friendly should the work samples have been

arrayed in a less complicated manner in relation to the text. Similarly, issues of translation

(particularly in the footnotes) would benefit from standardization, and the small number of

grammatical errors and misprints would not be missed. While all of the topics covered in the

work are captivating and are pursued in a compelling manner, the author sometimes falls short

in her mission to wed the investigation of the development of orchestration technique with her

mission to shift “musicology’s traditional narrative” (p. 7) away from its well-worn trajectory and

towards one that is more concerned with practice, instruments and technology, and a holistic

approach to musical analysis. Such an ambitious task, however, might be impossible in a

volume of this length, and the author grapples as best as can be imagined with these twin

topics. Overall, Emily Dolan’s book is a worthwhile study that contributes meaningfully to the

understanding of orchestration, timbre, eighteenth-century aesthetics, and the music of Haydn,

while also transmitting a timely and well-considered appeal for change to the field of musicology. 

===

More Than a Game:

Performance Practice Considerations in György Kurtág's Játékok 

 

György Kurtág’s Játékok is widely regarded as an important contribution to twentieth century music. Much has been written about its innovative notation system, its potential for use in piano pedagogy, its fluency with keyboard technique, and its special rhythmic vocabulary, as well as its general importance in the context of the composer’s complete oeuvre. In some cases, Játékok is treated as a sort of magic key to understanding Kurtág’s musical idiosyncrasies—perhaps not without reason. With all of this said, however, the performer wishing to program Játékok is faced with a complicated scenario. As a result of factors inherent to the music, to the performance history of the work, and larger issues related to contemporary concert conventions and expectations, this widely acclaimed set of pieces presents certain challenges.

First, there is the music itself. Put simply, Játékok consists of eight volumes of short piano pieces for two- and four-hands by György Kurtág. But how should a performer understand these works? Is this a pedagogical series? Certainly, there are indications that support this perception. The pieces are short, often requiring only the most rudimentary technique, and, particularly in Volume I, there is a clear educational intention, complete with exercises, references to children’s development, and efforts at composing music with the child’s mental development in mind. Kurtág goes so far as to include a piece composed by a child in this first volume—A nyuszi és a róka, Takács Jrusztuba 6 éves korában irta (The Bunny and the Fox, Composed by Krisztina Takács aged 6). Even the title of the series evokes the playful spirit of the young.

Yet there is much more here than a simple piano method. In this regard, it is tempting to draw a parallel to Béla Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. While often thought of in a pedagogical light today, it is important to remember that Bartók incorporated selections from Mikrokosmos into his recital programs. Indeed, Bartók scholar Benjamin Suchoff goes so far as to suggest that “the evidence indicates that the Mikrokosmos was not conceived of as a piano method in 1926, the year of its origin, but as recital pieces to fill the need Bartók had of such material due to the increase in his concert bookings.” On the other hand, this assertion might be undercut by communications between Bartók and Boosey and Hawkes (which published the work in 1940), in which the work’s presentation in a pedagogical light is plainly apparent. One might also point to Bartók’s earlier contributions to a piano method in collaboration with Sándor Reschofsky published in 1913 as evidence of his ongoing interest in composing piano music with a pedagogical purpose. Similarly, scholars have credibly suggested various non-pedagogical motivations for Játékok.

 

In truth, the search for a definitive compositional purpose for either of these works is probably more useful as a mechanism to generate academic debate than it is for practical application. The fact that both Mikrokosmos and Játékok have been used effectively by their respective composers and others both as pedagogical tools and as convincing performance works settles the question without needing to declare a winner. While extolling Játékok for various musical and pedagogical qualities, Hungarian-born Israeli pedagogical composer Andre Hajdu takes a philosophical approach:  “I myself taught these pieces, and I can testify that they always opened new horizons for my students. (But these students were already 15-18 years old, and well trained in contemporary music.)”  He frames the pedagogical utility of Mikrokosmos in a similar light: “…what Bartók intended to be simple technically is just what requires the greatest maturity musically. And vice-versa: when the music is technically more difficult, it becomes easier to comprehend, as if the difficulty itself would hold the understanding.” 

 

 

So there is a tension here. Both Játékok and Mikrokosmos are works in which pedagogy is one purpose among many. While it has been suggested that Bartók’s extra-pedagogical motives could have included concert pieces for his own purposes (he clearly also seems to have been interested in presenting theoretical concepts in a systematic way), what might Kurtág’s “ulterior motives” be?

Many writers have referred to Játékok as a sort of diary. This is reasonable as it exhibits some of the fundamental characteristics of a personal diary or journal. Kurtág wrote “in it” consistently—from at least the early 1970s up through the 21st century (Volume VIII was published in 2010). The work often touches on personal topics—a large proportion of the pieces in Játékok reference an individual by name in the title (whether composer or personal acquaintance), sometimes related to specific events (birthdays, deaths, etc). The pieces do not have the air of singularity about them— Kurtág often composes more than one version of the same piece or circles back to similar ideas over numerous pieces— a quality that might suggest a “diary” style of writing, intended primarily for private consumption. And given the breadth of time over which the volumes have emerged, they produce something of a personal chronology, even if the real meaning of this chronology is only understandable to the composer himself. It should also be noted that later volumes (starting with number four) of Játékok have included a subtitle: Diary Entries and Personal Messages.

But there is a second layer—Kurtág has appeared as pianist, alongside his wife Márta, in performances of Játékok that have been especially noted for their intimacy. This simultaneously bolsters the concept of Játékok as diary while also emphasizing the performative (as opposed to pedagogical) nature of the work. Paralleling his late-blooming international renown, György Kurtág and his wife have performed Játékok at major international festivals and venues, often to rapturous crowds. The performances consist of excerpts from Játékok, both for two- and four-hands, interspersed with four-hand Bach arrangements by Kurtág. 

While seeing a composer perform his/her own work is often a special experience, there is something rarefied about these performances of Játékok  by the Kurtág’s, as can be evidenced by the language used in both reviews of and publicity materials for the performances. In a recent online review of one such performance in London in 2013, the reviewer (Gavin Dixon) highlights both the visceral impact and the idiosyncrasies of the performance. On the one hand, their performance made “the fact that he’s written any work not for piano duet suddenly [seem] profoundly irrelevant,” but he also highlights aspects of the performance that deviate from standard concert convention. The performers “came onto the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall hand in hand…and then proceeded to the piano, a curiously (mis)tuned upright as unassuming and modest as [the] couple themselves.” He highlights a further peculiarity of the performance in that “whenever one of the couple is playing alone, the other will stand closely to one side, listening intently and turning pages as required: both performers play as active a part in the solos as the duets. In one movement, otherwise performed solely by Márta, György gently leaned forward from the left of [the] piano and added the final chord, a pp cluster at the very bottom of the keyboard.” The special and unusual quality of this performance was also highlighted in the Southbank Centre’s description of the event (presumably written in advance): 

The impetus behind the pieces is often personal and movement and gesture is as important as notes and rhythms. The emotional impact of the music is experienced most directly live in concert when the pianists can appear almost like dancers as, in the duets, arms and hands cross and intertwine in a touching and intimate performance.

So how should all of this be interpreted by potential Játékok performers who aren't György and Márta Kurtág?

There are multiple issues to unpack here, but let us start with the foundation that these performances establish clearly that Játékok is not strictly a pedagogical work or a personal diary unsuited for public performance. While the simple decision to publish a work would seem to support the idea that the composer extends his/her blessing for the work to enter concert life, that is perhaps a dangerous assumption to make given the current state of the field—or at least, there is danger in applying such an assertion too broadly. Contemporary composers limit the availability of their work for a variety of reasons—as a rejection of the profit-making model of corporate publishing houses or to ensure that the work is only performed by musicians who have received specialized training or met specific requirements of the composer, for instance. A composer’s desire to mediate the performance practice of a given work can be expressed in a number of ways, and it is not inconceivable that a composer might release a work for theoretical universal performance while also maintaining a preferred vision of how s/he intends or would most want the work to be performed. This idealized performance might depend upon specific performers or specific performance practices related to the work itself.

Subsequent to the standardization of the recital format over several decades of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the programming of a recital essentially became a modular affair. There is a set amount of time and the performer (and/or presenter) arranges blocks of varying sizes to fill the amount of time provided. Influenced, perhaps, by the standardizing influences of Romantic conceptions of a “museum of musical works” (to use Lydia Goehr's evocative terminology) as well as the impact of the streamlined repertoire demands of conservatories and competitions, the details of musical programming became less connected to the actual musical content presented, while the relationships between works presented in the institutionalized recital format were devalued. While issues of complementarity, programmatic themes, performance logistics, and the like can certainly play a part in deciding which “blocks” are chosen or how they are ordered in this modular system, the larger structure is rarely tampered with. Increasingly, this modular concept is being challenged by contemporary performers, who often view the deification of the recital format as an ahistorical and impractical burden. All of this raises the question—does the Kurtágs' idiosyncratic presentation of Játékok in their own performances suggest that they (or, perhaps, he) consider a tweaking of standard recital convention necessary to effectively perform the work?

 

One point of departure for this consideration is the inclusion of the Bach arrangements. In a performance of his own work, why would Kurtág include the work of another composer? (To be clear—these Bach arrangements are not included in the printed score of Játékok in any way. They are simply added into the mix for the Kurtágs’ performances.) Certainly Kurtág is well-known for his humility, bordering on self-flagellation. In interviews, he is constantly speaking ill of his own music and his own capabilities. When asked how his music differs from the “classics,” Kurtág responded: “…It is not different but I am less talented than they were. I do what I can. I wish it could be as good.” This low self-regard in terms of compositional ability might also be reflected in the fact that Kurtág does not teach composition (another parallel with Bartók). He was on the faculty at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest for many years, but as a teacher of piano and chamber music, not as a composer. 

 

General humility might be part of the answer, but it leaves something to be desired in the case of a composer secure enough about his own music to not only present it, but to perform it himself (albeit alongside his wife). Could there be another factor?

 

Much has been made about the terseness of Kurtág’s musical language. This is especially apparent throughout Játékok where both the writing and the pieces themselves seem to be condensed down to the bare essentials. Kurtág has said both that “I keep coming back to the realisation that one note is almost enough” and “my mother tongue is stuttering." He has also spoken at length about his preference for a “parlando-rubato” sense of rhythm, such as in the introduction to Játékok: 

 

We should make use of all that we know and remember of free declamation, folk-music, parlando-rubato, of Gregorian chant, and of all that improvisational musical practice has ever brought forth.

The clear implication is that metrical pulse should be mediated by a human concept of rhythmic placement or declamation. This is enshrined in his creative system of rhythmic notation, which includes a spectrum of graduated caesura, as well as symbols to slightly shorten or lengthen the given time value of standard rhythmic symbols, and it permeates the basic structure of most of the pieces in Játékok. 

Could the music of Bach then serve as constitutional foil to Kurtág’s stuttered “mother tongue?”

 

Kurtág has described experiencing Bach as being:

 

"…in the presence of a brain that functions like a computer, which quite simply, starting from one and the same point, runs through, over and over again, the entire range of variation possibilities of the given piece of material."

This is a strikingly different perception of music than Kurtág has of his own music; the seamless fluency implied by the computer analogy seems antithetical to the deeply human concepts of “stuttering” and “parlando-rubato” which Kurtág has applied to his own works. The mechanized vision of the computer’s effortless creation also has a special resonance in light of Kurtág’s period of personal crisis while living in Paris in 1956, a time in which Kurtág found it impossible to compose. By working with psychologist Marianne Stein, he was able to regain functionality over time. Interestingly, the path back to rekindling his capacity for musical generation included a period of crafting simple figures out of matchsticks and creating scribbled drawings (“signs”), both of which could perhaps be viewed as precursors to his lasting affinity for condensed and fragmented musical forms.

Clearly, Kurtág’s relationship with the compositional process is not a painless one. Paul Griffiths has described Kurtág as “occupied with the same hard business of making statements in the face of meaninglessness and futility,” and some contemporaries have suggested that the trauma of the war years in Hungary have also left an imprint on his music. (Andre Hajdu:  “Behind all of us there was the experience of what we used to call the Shoa (camps, forced labor, hidings…) with its deep consequences on our whole personality… its traces can be strongly felt in our music.”) Could the inclusion of Bach’s music in his Játékok performances be an attempt to transcend the dense, fragmentary qualities and possibly traumatic origins of his own work? And should the inclusion of the Bach transcriptions be viewed as necessary components of the performance practice of the work?

 

There are other peculiarities present in the Kurtágs’ performances which performers must also consider. What of the unusual choice of instrument? Alex Ross provided some interesting details in a review of a 2006 Játékok performance, in which he notes that the upright piano has been selected for its capacity of “supersordino”—essentially its mute pedal is permanently depressed—an instrument suitable for large halls only thanks to the amplification system developed by the Kurtágs’ son György Kurtág, Jr. Ross comments that “You felt like you were eavesdropping on an intimate family affair,” a comment that highlights the aforementioned special quality of intimacy that seems inherent to these performances. 

 

Thus far, we have investigated a number of idiosyncratic performance practice elements in the Kurtágs’ performances of Játékok. This has included the heightened quality of intimacy in the inter-body relationships of the Kurtág’s themselves during performances of both two- and four-hand pieces, the inclusion of Bach transcriptions in a performance otherwise consisting entirely of selections from Játékok, and the use of an amplified upright piano “con supersordino” in place of a conventional grand piano. For the pianist considering a performance of Játékok, the reality of this performance practice history compels some decision-making. While it would seem obstinate to disregard the unconventional components that the Kurtág’s have incorporated into their performances, one must also guard against stale mimicry. To be certain, different performers will respond differently to this set of facts. In my case, I reached the following conclusions while preparing for a performance of Játékok:

1) While the inclusion of a limited number of selections from Játékok in an otherwise mixed program might justify disregarding the idiosyncrasies of the Kurtág’s performances, a program consisting exclusively (or primarily) of Játékok pieces requires a more thorough consideration of their performance practice.

 

2) Because my performance will consist only of solo selections from Játékok, the issues of inter-personal intimacy and relationships between physical bodies is moot.

 

3) The instrument that the Kurtág’s often employ in their performances (an upright piano “con supersordino”) seems inextricably linked to the “intimacy” between the two performers. As Alex Ross has pointed out, the Kurtág’s performances can seem like a family affair, and the image of the long-married couple sitting together at a weathered upright seems to lose something integral when matched with a different performer. Presenters and audiences are interested in the entirety of this performance of intimacy, and not only in the musical performance of Játékok, when they see the Kurtág’s perform. As a result, I do not feel compelled to perform on a similar instrument, as I think it is related more to the performance of intimacy than to the performance of the music itself.

 

4) The inclusion of the Bach transcriptions operates on two levels. It is both a structural element, that serves as a counterpoint to the short, condensed, fragmented movements of Játékok, as well as a personal element, that is another manifestation of the intimacy between the two performers. Because my rendition is a solo performance, recreating the specific intimacy of these four-hand arrangements is off the table. (It is open to question whether the particular quality of intimacy evoked by the Kurtág’s in these simple, sublime, and thoroughly integrated arrangements is extractable from the larger performative context of intimacy inherent to their performances, even in the hands of another four-hand team.)

 

Thus, in my own performance preparations, I determined the structural purpose served by the Bach transcriptions should be maintained, but that the specific qualities of intimacy they support in the Kurtágs’ performances is not replicable. Because these interludes serve an essentially structural purpose, I decided to consider any music that would serve a similar purpose. Ultimately, I decided to create interludes using selections from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos. This seemed appropriate on numerous levels. Kurtág has spoken of Bartók’s music in similar ways to Bach, as a composer whose work is “so abominably good” that it can be viewed as something of a counterpoint to his own work, which he consistently disparages in comparison to other composers. While the contrapuntal brilliance of Bach lends a continuity of motion to the arrangements that Kurtág includes in his Játékok performances, Bartók’s persistent use of ostinati creates a similar quality that stands in contrast to the “stuttered” quality of Játékok. In certain ways, Kurtág’s music seems more closely related to that of Bartók’s than that of Bach’s—both Hungarian composers, both writing primarily in the twentieth century, both using a musical vocabulary inflected by folk musics of the Balkans. On the other hand, all three composers share some striking similarities—they were all professional keyboard players for at least some part of their life, they all wrote pedagogical music intended for children, they all had an interest in applying larger theoretical concepts into their keyboard music. Also, I feel that no solo Bach work or transcription is fully capable of capturing the same quality of sublime contrapuntal bliss that is possible with four hands.  

 

In closing, while Játékok is widely considered to be an important addition to the piano repertoire, there remain unsettled issues of performance practice concerning the work. A definitive approach is probably unattainable by any performers other than the Kurtág’s themselves, and yet, if this vital music is to live on, contemporary performers must grapple with the issues at hand to develop an acceptable path forward for the continued concert life of this great music. This process is important in the context of Kurtág's music to be sure, but as the conventions of the nineteenth century recital format continue to recede further into the past, similar considerations will surely become increasingly relevant to performers more broadly.