Project description

Making Sense

The performer’s perspective: on developing, interpreting and performing.

I am a classically trained cellist and chamber musician who has studied in Norway, Sweden and the UK. I hold a Master degree in Chamber music from the Royal College of Music in London. Throughout my music career, I have become more and more interested in the contemporary music scene, yet increasingly frustrated with the lack of respect that many classically trained musicians show this music. In spite of an emerging interest in and understanding of questions of interpretation in contemporary music, critical issues such as the personal voice of the performer and the cultivation of a stronger sense of presence in playing require further analysis and exploration.
In my project, I perform contemporary works, simultaneously reflecting on presence and music-as-speech to make the processes and my insights sharable with a bigger audience. My reflections stem first and foremost from a performer’s perspective, working with both embodied knowing, knowing-how, of the performing, and cognitively, knowing-that, with interpretation and the performer´s development. Most music research is conducted from the listener’s perspective: that of the musicologist, the critic-analyst and the audience. According to Lydia Goehr, research from the performer’s perspective, or what she refers to as “inside-knowing” rather than knowledge, remains undertheorized (Goehr, 1998).

Darla Crispin and Håkon Austbø from the Norwegian Academy of Music conducted an extensive research project called “The Reflective Musician” with aims to “transcend the conformity in musical performance.” Austbø claims that introspection may be on the rise, stating that “Thanks, in part, to developments within Performance Studies and Artistic Research, more musicians are beginning to look under the surface of their activity, searching for the deeper forces at play in the works they perform”(Austbø & Crispin, 2016). Austbø also calls for the criteria of a personal and unique performance to be valued above the performer’s knowledge of a given composer’s intentions, the adherence to a particular style, musical structure, historic rules, correct notes—and any other dimension that amounts to following the tradition. This project sheds light on this particular dilemma on music from several eras, and on suggestions as to solutions.
In my project I study these questions through one performer, and give a reflective account of the lived experience of developing as a performer while broadening my knowledge through artistic research. This study accounts for the specific ways in which meaning is created as interaction between performer, embodiment, and audience, and opens up space for a more subjective type of reflection than the traditional scientific research allows for. With this in mind, I could say that I attempt to explore the world of musical performance rather than explain it.

In this context, how can I perform contemporary classical music to communicate more directly with the listener, by working with presence as a performer, and using prosody as an inspiration for interpretation?
• Can a discussion of historical performance practice and reflection on theoretical concepts lead to a freer and more personal interpretation of contemporary art music?
• Can I carve out a personal method for developing presence and embodied performance in my musical practice?
• What does it mean to bring the body into performance? To allow the body to take on a more central role in interpretation?

This artistic research project is about performing contemporary music, inspired by music-as-prosody. I aim to develop a more internally controlled, embodied playing, and to use affects as a sort of artistic “raw” material for expression, in other words, to develop “the psychophysical musician” (Zarrilli & Hulton, 2009)). I will outline, explain and show how this can be realized.
In order to do this, I seek to open the space before and after the musical work through reflection on the complex process of preparing a work for concert: from practice, rehearsals, and musical analysis of the works, to what happens during the performance. I will awaken an interest in both performer and listener of contemporary art music with respect to the musician’s role and the psychophysical inner work of the musical performer. This project develops strategies for performing contemporary music, strategies that are informed by my research into rhetoric performance practices, the creation of presence in performing, and how to use such practices to become a freer interpreter of contemporary music. The title Making Sense, Not Meaning refers to my intention to create an embodied feeling of sense through my performances both for performer and listener, without a logocentric meaning (Deleuze & Boundas, 1990).


1 – Develop my musical performance and tacit knowledge
2 – Broaden and contextualize my artistic research and performances in an international
3 – Contribute to new knowledge about interpretation, embodiment and presence from a performer’s perspective

Contemporary music encompasses vastly different kinds of music and styles, including music that, according to the composer, is not supposed to be “interpreted”. Stravinsky in the 1920-30s expected scrupulous fidelity to the text (O’Dea, 2000, p. 73). This notion of the musician having to be faithful to the work, in strict compliance, creates a situation in which some understandably find it difficult to find space for interpretation and personal contribution.
Sometimes we may even feel that as listeners the music is boring and does not reach us. In other words, the music can be under-phrased. Through accentuation, articulation, dynamics and energy creating tension and release, I will, as a performer, try to create lines or shapes so that the listener may partake in an aural experience of following the music. For example, a score might indicate a type of softness, but it is up to the individual performer to determine what kind of softness is to be produced. In this way, the work will be created again every time it is performed. I aim to be a performer like as Jane O’Dea calls describes: “At their best, their renditions evince a tone of conviction, a sense of rightness, of fittingness that lures hearers to listen carefully and attentively”(O’Dea, 2000, p. 19).

I have limited my project to interpreting contemporary works by Norwegian and Nordic composers who represent different aesthetical perspectives, and who come from a tradition of Western composed and written classical music. The main composers in the project are: Lene Grenager, Jon Øivind Bylund Ness, Nils Henrik Asheim and Karin Rehnqvist. I cooperate with the composers during the composing process without asking them to adapt the music to my project, and I am open for their comments on my interpretation of their work. Discussions will be included in my reflection.

My interpretation practice is inspired by rhetoric performance practice. The main concept governing rhetoric performance practice is that the musical line follows patterns of speech (prosody) and is articulated in similar ways as spoken language. Many researchers look at the links between music and language, but in this project, it is the idea of language as an interpretational tool which is most crucial. This way of reflecting on music and language is as Lawrence Kramer states: ” [S]peaking melody is a device basic to accompanied song, to musical theater, and even to instrumental music, but there has been virtually no theorizing about it”(Lodato & Urrows, 2005, pp. 127-144).

My initial project plan was narrower in scope and limited to the exploration of the rules of music rhetoric with the aim of infusing such rules in contemporary performance practice. The rhetoric field has faded out of view since the romantic area, and it was initially my aim to shed light on the aspects of it that I see as constituting a set of universal rules of performing. In the process of working through my research questions, I came to realize that I was in fact seeking to explore interpretation in a broader sense, opening up new spaces and possibilities rather than just applying new rules. Attempting to expand the notion of music as speech, I now see music-as-speech in a broader sense as a tool to rid myself of this rigidness of the “rules” and to explore the freedom of expression with a strong feeling of being in the moment, of presence. Presence is a well-known concept with various significations and definitions, but we do not talk much about it within the classical music tradition.

In theatre, presence is much discussed, and director and actor Phillip Zarrilli shows how he and Stanislavski are both inspired by the Asian Martial arts and meditation techniques to activate the bodymind. They call it the psychophysical performer, manifested in the quality of an embodied awareness. Body and mind work together as one in the moment (Zarrilli & Hulton, 2009). For me to develop as a psychophysical performer, I will need both an embodied understanding (knowing), and an intellectual understanding (knowledge).
As underlined in the previous sections, I am interested in the embodied qualities of presence, which amounts to a playing that engages affectively with the material and the audience. This aspect of my research opens up for new perspectives based on theories dealing with embodiment, presence and affect, such as Alexander technique, and non-Western paradigms and practices, which look at these processes in different ways than the Western tradition. One of these principles is the life-force as the Chinese concept of Chi. Aikido practitioner and sociologist Håkon Fyhn describes it as a feeling of energy searing through the body (Fyhn, 2011), and I reflect on some of this, also from the combined view point of being a black belt Martial Artist myself.

I believe we as musicians should see developing a freedom in interpretation and a strong inner presence as one of our main goals. We need to talk about this additional level that explores “what music is”. Brushing against moments of “what music is” requires a rigorous, lifelong personal practice in order to achieve what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Associate Professor in Behavioural Sciences at the University of Chicago, calls “flow” or ultimate experience:
“Flow denotes the holistic sensation present when we act with total involvement. Flow is a subjective state that people report when they are completely involved in something to the point of forgetting time, fatigue, and everything else but the activity itself.[…] The intense experiential involvement of flow is responsible for three additional subjective characteristics commonly reported: the merging of action and awareness, a sense of control, and an altered sense of time (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014, p. 230)”.
I believe the performing method I work allows me to get into this flow through a strong feeling of presence. I find it interesting to look at others also developing methods for creating this flow, like Frank Heckman at CoDArts in Rotterdam (Heckman, 2017).
The idea of a rhetoric understanding of the music stems from Antiquity, and the music students of the baroque era studied rhetoric in order to “make music talk.” The analogy between music, speech and passions is described in literature from 1600-1800, and was of great importance for all aspects of music, from compositional form to embellishments and performing practices. The understanding of music’s meaning in the rhetoric music has been widely discussed; through the importance many scholars gave the “doctrine of affections”, and the “doctrine of figures.” A repertoire of melody types existed, for example, that created musical equivalents for the figures of speech in the art of rhetoric (Bartel, 1997; Mattheson & Harriss, [1739] 1981; Mozart, [1756]1975; Quantz & Reilly, [1752] 2001; Tarling, 2005). A pragmatic understanding of rhetoric in music has also been expressed in the concept of music-as-speech.
Sources like Johann Quantz, Leopold Mozart, CPE Bach and Sulzer also talk about arousing the music’s passions in the performer to subsequently move the listener. In mid-eighteenth-century Berlin, influential practitioners and theoreticians requested instrumentalists to transport themselves into the passions of the music to move their audiences, recalling the cautionary statement: “A musician cannot move others unless he too is moved.”(Bach & Mitchell, 1949). There is much scepticism regarding this “emotional performance practice” as says Jane O’Dea:

How to become emotionally engaged in the music and yet manage to avoid being carried away in the manner described as sentimental? The emotions must depend upon and be directed towards/ through the character of the work – in order to commit yourself to the expression of such emotions, you have to understand what they are and know how to express them appropriately. All of this can be accomplished, however, without actually feeling the emotion expressed (O’Dea, 2000, p. 56).

I believe there are different understandings of how to create this expression in the performance, as arousing the passions in yourself or seeing the affects we have as raw material for the expression we want to convey, without having to “interpret” the feeling.

According to Bruce Haynes, the modern playing style of classical art music to which our taste is connected could be seen as objective and clean, with focus on constant metre, intonation, order and precision. This style is well suited for the music industry where recorded and edited music is flawless and should be listened to over and over again. In early rhetorical music it was natural for a composer to also be a skilled performer, and for performers to both compose and improvise, at least their own cadenzas. Today we find this type of musician in the jazz tradition, but not as frequently in classical art music. Bruce Haynes (Haynes, 2007) says: “ [W]e have gone from being composing and improvising musicians, to become extremely skilled at reading notes”. Richard Taruskin (Taruskin, 1995) terms this way of playing as a refuge in order and precision, hostility to subjectivity, to the vagaries of personality. (sideref)

An important aspect of the musician’s role is how much freedom you have as a performer within the boundaries of the written text? Materially, the work in itself is a mere piece of paper with symbols, attempting to express the composer’s intentions. It is the performer who must make it come alive. The concept of ‘interpretation’ in contemporary music has been challenged, but for me, interpretation is made up of all the choices we make so that the music comes alive. Even with music, which is not supposed to be ‘interpreted’, as a performer, you will nevertheless make informed choices with respect to sound sensation, tonal properties, timber, actual dynamic, articulation, tension and release in the lines of the music, which will then form the listener’s experience of the work.

In my project, I also consider the cellist Pablo Casals, one of the greatest performers of his time, a transitional figure between the rhetoric style of playing and the modern style of today. He is still today well known for his expressive performances and intense musical interpretations, and maybe best remembered for his recordings of the Bach suites. In interviews, Casals refers to “the old natural laws of music”, which he saw as essential for all meaningful interpretation (Blum, 1977). In his Masterclasses (Hammid, 1961) he asks his students to “speak the music” and he talks about letting the intensity of expression evolve organically with the melodic curve. In this way, I see his musical principles as pointing back to performance practices grounded in the Western European rhetorical baroque and classical art music tradition. Shaping the music as speech, with flexible timing, sensitivity and very clear phrases. ”The art of interpretation is not to play what is written” (Blum, 1977). And with what Blum nominates as one of the most important principles for Casals, the Asian “first principle”, to have Chi, the experience of art has an immediate effect on the listener’s mind and body.

In artistic research the objectivity of traditional research is not a goal in itself. Since research is often carried out through the performer or artist directly, it is an objectivity described hermeneutically as: “the performer being a participant observer of his own research” (philosopher Juha Varto(Varto, 2009)). The understanding of interpretation must pass through practice to reach a deeper comprehension, but the theories and sources remain important to elicit reflections and ideas. I read theory and sources from a performer’s perspective, at the same time as I experiment through my performances. In this way, I will, according to Michael Polanyi (Polanyi, 1967), develop and expand my tacit knowledge. The process will be a continuous oscillation between action and the belief that it is leading me somewhere—at the same time as reflection on and evaluation of the results cast these choices in a critical light. The practitioner and the researcher in me have a mutual and concurrent development of knowledge, yet a tension exists between my subjective experience and the more sharable and general knowledge. I therefore try to create a transparency in my method and process and leave room for the reader and listener.

My method is based upon reflection-on-practice (Schön, 1995), or simply a reflective method based on the observation of my own process in a concert-preparation situation, the concert itself, and reflection on the performance in hindsight. I have video recordings of my day-to-day work, audio and video recordings of concerts, and I also have my own ongoing reflections in conjunction with notes from working with one of my supervisors Stanislav Kulhawzuk. Through a master-apprentice situation with Kulhawzuk, I work on developing a method for reaching “flow,” or presence in performing. I have documented our work in lesson notes since 2012. As a result of our contact, I have come to understand that focusing on strengthening the use of intuition and freedom of performance is crucial to reach a higher level of performance. At the same time as a balanced use of the body and thorough knowledge of style and tradition is equally important.
The methodology of my artistic research consists of practicing, performing and observations of my own performing practice. The main focus of the method will be the reflections based on these observations and the effect on the music upon the implementation of these ideas.
I research with myself as a research object, and the methodologies and theory go beyond a reflection on practice, but serve as a tool for practical use and development. The study of theory alternates with my performing practice to create a continuously broadening spiral of development as I internalize the knowledge as tacit knowledge. In the actual performing situation, there is little room for reflection, and it can actually be a disturbing factor in the performance. At this level, interpretation and performing are based on intuition and tacit knowledge.

This artistic research project In performance is by nature a multi-faceted endeavour and leads to the creation of both several music performances, a written reflection, and artistic performance artefacts. This project creates an intriguing laboratory setting in which contemporary musical performance can be continually thought and reworked.
I have performed concerts throughout the period of research and this way present works in the ongoing process. These works of which I have all commissioned (except Maja Ratkje’s piece To F) and performed between 2013 and 2017, will be a part of the project documentation, some of them both in recordings and written form:

Khipukamayuk, Solo concerto by Lene Grenager, performed with Trondheim Sinfonietta, September 2014
Cello stories, Solo concerto by Nils Henrik Asheim, performed with Trondheim Soloists, November 2015
Marmæle, Solo concerto by Jon Øivind Bylund Ness, performed with the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra, May 2016
In Orbit: Piano, clarinet, violin and cello quartet by Karin Rehnqvist

Tryllesangen by Lene Grenager
Solo suite by Lene Grenager
To F, solo cello piece by Maja Solveig Kjelstrup Ratkje
Many Thousands Gone, commissioned work with cello and voice by Ellen Lindquist
Concertino piccolo per violoncello et voce, commissioned work by Eirik Hegdal
Hospice Lazy, a commissioned performance work for Alpaca Ensemble by Alwynne Pritchard.
Ulvedrømmer, a commissioned work with cello and voice by Lene Grenager and M. B. Lie
Possibly other works added if relevant for the project.

As well as the main works in the original plan, the three first works on the list above by Grenager, Ness, Asheim and Rehnqvist, I have included other works which I find relevant in order to communicate my musical performance to the audience, and have a broader catalogue of music on which to reflect. I intend to publish a written text in an essayistic format reflecting on the project and the process by which I achieved my results. I will also use my website, to present the project and write the reflection with multimedia. Written material will be in English. I intend to later submit my material for peer review for a possible publication in relevant journals like, for instance, Journal of Artistic Research (JAR). Finally, a part of the final presentation is a CD-recording with three works by Lene Grenager, published by Øra Fonogram, showing selected works by the same composer with whom I have worked during this project. The repertoire for the final artistic presentation is left open to see what is most relevant.

The project addresses the critical issues of musical rules and freedom of interpretation, connecting this to an embodied understanding of performing. The historically informed performance (HIP) movement, with its exclusive focus on the historical genres of baroque, classical and romantic music, has overshadowed potential links to the contemporary music. I believe that the concepts of the historically informed performance practice have the potential to infuse music with a more subjective expression and freedom, and thus are relevant for interpretation of contemporary music. The awareness created can give liberation from habit and new possibility for creativity.
My project will ask probing questions about interpretation and give another angle to the ongoing international debate on interpretation, especially with respect to contemporary music. I also see it as relevant to classical or romantic performance practise to reflect on the possibly stale role of the performer. By looking into and reflecting I will also lay the ground for other performers who are interested in exploring these traditions and thoughts in a contemporary setting.
At NTNU and in Trondheim there is a strong environment of musicians, composers and musicologists working with contemporary music, but it has also been beneficial for me to connect my research to other artists in the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme and scholars at the Norwegian Academy of Music to get feedback and cooperate with a larger environment. Participating in the Summer Academies of Artistic Research in 2014 and 2015 has been of vital importance for the project and also for the international networking.


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