Composers on stage. Ambiguous authorship in contemporary music performance

The practical circumstances and workflows within the field of contemporary classical music have changed drastically in recent years. Previously, the music was, to oversimplify, conceptualised and composed by composers sitting at their desks writing scores to be published as well as interpreted and performed by highly skilled and professional musicians. Today we find a practice in which composers engage actively in the process of creating and co-creating not only the auditory part of the performance, but also the visual design and theatrical decisions of the performance. A practice recently termed The New Discipline by Irish composer Jennifer Walshe (Walshe, 2016).

What is of particular interest to the present article are composers within this practice who are actually taking part in the stage performance. This phenomenon sheds light on the conventions of contemporary music and revitalizes discussions concerning the concept of musical work and authorship(s), examined in the light of performance analysis.

Previously, the music was, to oversimplify, conceptualised and composed by composers sitting at their desks writing scores to be published as well as interpreted and performed by highly skilled and professional musicians

Such performances are rooted in the historical avant-garde movement and can (with reference to e.g. Adorno, 1949 and Bürger, 1974) be interpreted as if they are exposing the inner working of history and musical performance as critiques of the (bourgeois) institution; or they can, from for example a media archaeological perspective, be interpreted as DIY projects that in a political sense criticize established views on instruments, media and their historical narratives (e.g. Parikka, 2012; Groth, 2013). With this article I will plead for a third interpretation, which sees such performances as both criticizing and reflecting history while also accentuating the tradition and role of composer in a Romantic sense. Composers are presented as the main authors of the musical pieces in program books; on front pages of the scores; and now, physically on stage, as part of the performance, either solo or in collaboration with other performers. This appearance, I will argue, contains a ‘doubleness’ (Carlson, 2004, p. 5) in which both representation and presentation are present: The institutional context strongly represents conventions of western art music; meanwhile, a type of performance and live art aesthetics are presented at the same time, stressing the presence of the artist with the intention to avoid semiotic communication with the audience (Fischer-Lichte, 2008, p.13-15).

It is this tension, the simultaneous appearance of two conventions and traditions, perhaps even to be considered paradigms, in the one and same performer that is the subject of investigation for this article.

The article discusses this phenomenon through the lenses of the historical aspects of the score and the status of the composer (Sallis, 2015) as well as musicological research on musical performance (Cook, 2013; Auslander 2004, 2013) and includes perspectives from theatre and performance studies (Carlson, 2004; Schechner, 2006) and literary criticism (Foucault, 1969; Barthes, 1967).

In my analysis I will take a point of departure in the characteristics in Walshe’s recent manifesto on The New Discipline. Inspired by her reflections, my analysis is structured through a tripartite focus on: a) stage appearance as a result of pragmatic decisions, b) the relationship between stage appearance and auteur-ship, and c) the composer’s awareness of performative and theatrical aspects when entering the stage. A, b and c are supported by observations regarding one composer each.

A brief historical view of the status of the author in scored music
The rise of the composer and the score

To contextualize what I consider to be a drastic change in the conventions of scored western art music (WAM), I will begin by revisiting the role of the composer in a historical framework, including subjects such as sketch studies, the status of the score, the concept of the musical work, documentation and poststructuralist theory.

Within the field of contemporary music, the idea of a composer is on one hand influenced by post structuralism – that the meaning of art works is not established as a direct result of the author’s intention, but is, very briefly summarized, established in the mind of the perceiver. As famously formulated by Barthes in his canonic essay “The Death of the Author”: ‘The birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the Author’ (Barthes, 1967, p. 7), or by Foucault, who asks: ‘Who really spoke? Is it really he or not someone else?’ and concludes in the end: ‘And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: What difference does it make who is speaking?’ (Foucault, 1969, p. 22).

On the other hand, the musical works that are the subject of study for this article are situated in a culture that, to some extent, still celebrates the composer as the main and single author of the musical work. A person, if we take the ritual of applause or program notes into consideration, who remains of great importance to the musical stage performance, sometimes even more important than the musicians performing the piece.

The idea of the composer as the sole, solemn genius author of the musical work has not always existed, but is estimated to have consolidated during early Romanticism (e.g. Goehr, 1992:162, Volgsten, 2012: 105-124, Cook, 2013:8-32).

In Canadian musicologist Friedemann Sallis’ 2015 book Music Sketches, the rise of the composer as profession appears around the French Revolution. Sallis’ book offers an overview dating back to 1600 and divided into two time periods: from 1600 to the period of the French revolution and from the French revolution to the present.

The first period is characterized »as the era of the composer/performer [...]. This was the time when the distinction we draw between the composer and the performer was not nearly as sharp as it is today. Virtually all professional musicians were performers, and most composed, arranged or prepared music for performance as called upon by circumstance.« (Sallis, 2015, p. 2). Drawing parallels to visual artists at the time and the painter’s imitation of nature, the performance of the musician was perceived as simply imitating the voice »through which nature herself expresses her sentiments and passions.« Sallis continues: »Composers were seen as assemblers of this acoustic material and composition was understood as comparable to the general use of language that does not presuppose self-sufficiency, uniqueness or ownership of any given expression« (Sallis, 2015, p. 11). To consider the musical work as intellectual property did not arise until the 19th century (see also Volgsten, 2012, p. 63). The functions and contexts of the music were much more important than a single author’s credit.

I suggest that it is only once you think of music as performance that you can start to make sense of scores

The second period is the »era of the strong work concept […] in which music conceived as “works” consigned to paper (as opposed to music as an acoustic event, experienced though performance) emerged as a new concept that had a major impact in Western culture going forward« (Sallis, 2015, p. 2-3). These two eras are not divided by a specific date but are to be identified as gradually shifting. What is of special importance is the change of the role of the composer that followed the French revolution and the ‘elimination of the ancient régime’. This led more or less directly to a change in the composers’ self-identification from Kapellmeister to Tonkünstler, from being identified as a highly skilled musician to being a poet or artist: ‘This change of attitude must have contributed to the way they and others valued the artifacts produced in writing their music’ (Sallis, 2015, p. 3). Scores can, of course, be found back in the 17th and 18th century, but did not become the object of study until the beginning of the 19th century.

Methodologically, Sallis leans towards ‘generic criticism’, a mid 1970s French literary scholarship in which, in comparison to philology, ‘the knowledge of the text is not an end in itself, but rather a means to better understand the process that brought it into existence’ (p. 9). In Kinderman’s own work the approach is explained:

The term “generic criticism” or “critique génetique” relates not to the field of genetics, but to the genesis of works of art, as studied in a broad and inclusive context. This approach stands in contrast to the so-called “new criticism” of the mid-twentieth century, with its formalist focus on the text itself and disinclination to probe issues of creative process, lest these involve entanglement with the so-called intentional fallacy. (Kinderman, 2009, p.1)

This approach opens towards an extension of traditional philology and towards investigations of several aspects of the musical work – from single author paradigms to collective processes stretched over time – from placing the core of intention in the written work to placing it in the performance and contextual circumstances. Sallis: »The single author paradigm, which continues to dominate sketch studies today, would have seemed strange in an era that had little sense of copyright« (p. 1-2). As I will show in my analysis, this approach is also appropriate when it comes to the musical works that are the subject of this article. When the composers perform the pieces themselves, not only do the performative aspects on stage change, so does the status of the scores as well as the processes of production and publishing.

This historical introduction is not intended as a teleological narration of authorships, but serves as a perspective that brings in a broader dimension to the understanding of the relationship between composer and score. The composers I am studying carry characteristics from both of Sallis’ eras without being identical to either one of them. The composer acts as a composer-performer, while at the same time he or she also embodies the notion of copyright and other, more esoteric, characteristics stemming from the later era.

Performance and score
In Beyond the Score (2013), Nicholas Cook, like Sallis, commences a critical discussion of the status of the score within the tradition of WAM with a specific focus on musicological practices. Cook’s overall aim is to study music as performance:

I suggest that it is only once you think of music as performance that you can start to make sense of scores. Seen in the context of performance culture, scores are much more like theatrical scripts than the literary text as which musicology has traditionally understood (or misunderstood) them, and that is just one of several ways in which thinking of music as performance means rethinking basic assumptions of the music-as-writing approach. (Cook, 2013, p. 2-3)

The quote seems to point in the direction of theatre and performance studies. However, Cook positions his approach as belonging to neither this field as such nor to the so-called ‘performative turn’. Referring to theories of Richard Schechner, Victor Turner, J. L. Austin and Judith Butler, Cook reckons the field was of great importance for humanities during the 1990s, but when it comes to the study of musical performance, he stresses that »[it] appeared on the agenda, but only as considered in terms of its social, institutional, or aesthetic contexts« (Cook, 2013, p. 25). Actual performance analysis, especially of phonographic material, was left out.

Cook underlines that his work is »not intended as an attack on modernist performance, but it does show how modernist assumptions have boxed in both performance and thinking about performance« (Cook, 2013, p. 3). These assumptions are addressed as ‘the paradigm of reproduction’, meaning that music is always only a representation of the written text: the musician is a mediator of the composer’s work, while the listener is expected to strive for the adequate interpretation of the work itself; the composer’s intention is to be found behind the interpretation:

[I]t is here, in a conception of the relationship between composer, performer and listener that extends from E.T.A. Hoffmann and Adolph Bernhard Marx to Schoenberg and Pierre Boulez, that the ethically charged language that has surrounded WAM […] performance emerges: I am talking of the language of “authority”, “duty”, and “faithfulness”, as well as the overall tone of, for example, Schoenberg’s reference to “the Sodom and Gomorrah of false interpreters”. (Cook, 2013, p. 13)

In the opening chapter Cook maps this paradigm by revisiting various approaches to the score throughout music history. One reference, which »reveal deeply embedded assumptions of prejudices with particular clarity« (Cook, 2013, p. 8), is to Arnold Schönberg’s remarks that the performer is only necessary for audiences that are not able read the score for themselves (p. 8). Another is to Schenker’s writings and his method of analysis, which only focuses on the structures within the score.

Performance and score, presentation and representation, are being reconsidered not only in musicological discourses, but also live on stage, where we find it entangled, presented and represented in the performances themselves

This paradigm of reproduction is closely related to that of Romantic authorship. The score is the closest we can come to the voice of the composer; it is here the musical substance can be identified, giving us access to ‘the true product of the mind’, and should therefore be treated with great humility by its performers (Cook, 2013, p. 20). Cook names it ‘Plato’s curse’.

Cook’s discussion of the modernist assumptions regarding the score is of relevance to the cases I am studying, which arise within a field in which such assumptions are still present but which are now ripe for renegotiation. When taking part in the performance, the composer embodies this representation. Performance and score, presentation and representation, are being reconsidered not only in musicological discourses, but also live on stage, where we find it entangled, presented and represented in the performances themselves.

MAP – ‘Music as Performance’ and historical representation
Within the field of popular musical studies, especially those of Simon Frith and Philip have contributed to methodologies for analyzing popular musical performances with a special focus on the performer. In the text “Performance Analysis and Popular Music: A Manifesto” (2004), Auslander takes his point of departure in Simon Frith’s three personae (Frith, 1996): 1. ‘Personally expressive’, 2. ‘Pop star image’ and 3. ‘the character appearing in the song’s personality’. The three personae are based on an idea that pop singers are, not unlike stage actors, posing a double enactment. A discussion that is also to be found within the field of performance studies by Marvin Carlson (2004, p. 5), among others, who also refers to it as ‘doubleness’, as well as Richard Schechner (Schechner, 2006, p. 28), who introduces the term ‘restored behavior’.

The three analytical layers Auslander (Auslander, 2004, p. 11) suggests to use for analysis are: 

  1. Performer (the ‘real person’, individual messages and expressions)
  2. Performance Persona (input from Music Industry, music, song, etc.)
  3. [Character] (optional layer addressing a character in song narratives).

Auslander states that the lines between these three layers ‘may be blurry and indistinct’. As an illustration of this, Auslander concludes after a brief analysis of David Bowie, originally named David Jones, and his many alter egos: »Even in the absence of overt autobiography, however, these numbers of relationships can be complex and ambiguous« (Auslander, 2004, p. 7). To add further distinction and nuance to the identification of layers of personae, he places them within two discourses: The Musical Genre Conventions and The Socio-cultural Conventions.

Auslander works mainly with examples within popular music but stresses that his approach is appropriate to both pop music as well as WAM performances. When considering the field of contemporary music, however, the suggested analytical approach offers in some ways an adequate approach, while some aspects need to be adjusted. The practices discussed in the present article differ from both commercial pop music and established WAM in several ways: The practices are arising within a framework where WAM conventions concerning composers and the central position of scores are innate; meanwhile they also are engaging a socio-cultural sphere that is aesthetically strongly influenced by contemporary performance theatre, tied together by close networks of professional and personal relationships.

I suggest that within the field of contemporary music, first of all, the Musical Genre Conventions point towards reminisces of the Romantic era of WAM: music composed by a composer and performed by highly skilled musicians in the shadow of ‘Plato’s curse’. Meanwhile, the socio-cultural convention detaches the same convention: the composer appearing on stage as practitioner deconstructs the very same idea in a way that reflects the composers described by Sallis as early examples of authorship. Secondly, within this field, audience and participants are often closely related to either professional collaborators (sometimes even personally), making alter egos difficult to establish. Meanwhile, pressure from the ‘Music Industry’ to create a marketable image is hardly present in the way it is in popular music or commercialized classical music. The [personae] layers appearing in the phenomenon of the composer-performer are therefore more likely to be constructed by convention and history than by the promptings of producers and managers.

Performer ("Real Person") ->      Performance Persona ->          [Character]

(Composer in practice)               (Historical idea of composer)

Presentation                               Representation                          Theatrical representation

It should be noticed that both Auslander’s and my own revised model take the audience’s reception and participation into account, with implicit reference to reception theory.

In the afterword to Cook and Pettengill’s anthology Taking it to the bridge. Music as performance (2013), Auslander revisits his MAP-manifesto, referred to above, one last time and calls for transdisciplinarity in the study of musical performance:

Ultimately, I shall argue that a true productive approach to music as performance must move beyond formulations that mark off disciplinary territory, even in the interest of emphasizing complementarity, in favor of an approach that sees music and its performance as inextricably imbricated with one another. (Auslander, 2013, p. 352)

This also means an avoidance of perceiving musical gestures as “primary” or “secondary” within the musical performance (Auslander, 2013, p. 353). »Perhaps, then, the solution to the disciplinary dilemma is to recognize that there is no dilemma, no ontological or epistemological gap between music and performance that needs bridging. Music is what musicians do« (Auslander, 2013, p 355). In the field in which I am working, it is of great importance to note that part of what the performers (musicians or composer-performers) often do is: pay close attention to the score. With this act, the musical representation becomes present as an agent, along with other scenic objects, musicians, performers, etc. When it is the composer of the score who assiduously engages with the representation, the act appears even stronger. Through this enactment, the musical work concept becomes an agent, appreciable on stage and embodied and confirmed by the actions of the musical performers and the institution itself. Indeed, when the performer is also the composer, the layers of presentation and representation become even more ambiguous.

Indeed, when the performer is also the composer, the layers of presentation and representation become even more ambiguous

Contemporary contexts: The New Discipline
The pieces I have chosen as cases for my discussion of such ambiguous authorship are all from the 21st century. I will focus especially on work premiered in Denmark, but the phenomenon is also appearing in other Nordic and European countries.

I will begin by contextualizing the phenomenon. As I wrote, the phenomenon is arising as a new tendency in the field of contemporary music. A practice in which composers no longer remain behind their desks to write scores addressing professional musicians, instead engaging with several aspects in the process of creating a work: the concept, rehearsals, production, staging and, finally, being present at the performance either off or on stage. The Irish composer and vocalist Jennifer Walshe (b. 1974) has recently described this practice in a Compositional manifesto as The New Discipline:

The New Discipline is a way of working, both in terms of composing and preparing pieces for performance. It isn’t a style, though pieces may share similar aesthetic concerns. Composers working in this way draw on dance, theatre, film, video, visual art, installation, literature, stand-up comedy. (Walshe, 2016)[1]

Walshe draws lines back to Dada, Fluxus and Situationism as well as Kagel’s instrumental theatre. She also states that

[…] too much has happened since the 1970s for that term to work here. MTV, the Internet, Beyonce ripping off Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Stewart Lee, Girls, style blogs and yoga classes at Darmstadt, Mykki Blanco, the availability of cheap cameras and projectors, the supremacy of YouTube documentations over performances. (Walshe, 2016)

The practices she refers to are somewhat removed from the conventional WAM discourse and situated in a culture that embraces all kinds of technologies, aesthetics and trends. But, and this is the observation that is of relevance to the present article: The practice Walshe is defining is still called music.

[T]hey are not “music theatre”, they *are* music. Or from a different perspective, maybe what is at stake is the idea that all music is music theatre. Perhaps we are finally willing to accept that the bodies playing the music are part of the music, that they’re present, they’re valid and they inform our listening whether subconsciously or consciously. (Walshe, 2016)

Walshe’s description of music calls for an interpretation similar to Auslander’s embracing of auditory concepts and expressions as well as performative and theatrical aspects.

Indeed, when the performer is also the composer, the layers of presentation and representation become even more ambiguous

Meanwhile, Walshe also stresses that she is not only interested in the final representation of the piece, but her definition is also dependant on procedural considerations. Among these considerations, the composer is still reckoned as the creator of the artistic process and work. Walshe writes: »In the rehearsal room the composer functions as a director or choreographer, perhaps most completely as an auteur« (Walshe, 2016, emphasis mine).

With this reference to film theory, a new understanding of authorship is introduced. The term auteur arose in film theory of the 1950s and 1960s, where certain critiques (e.g. in France, with Francois Truffaut’s 1954 essay, and in the United States, with Andrew Sarris’ 1962 essay) argued that a film of good quality was created by a strong director and should be an expression of the director’s intention and inner thoughts. »The strong director imposes his own personality on a film; the weak director allows the personalities of others to run rampant« (Sarris, 1962, p. 12). The theory was for the most part developed in close relation to analyses of French film noir, but has also been employed in writings on the Americans Wells and Hitchcock, for example, or the Dane Lars von Trier.

The theory’s strong focus on the intentional aspects of the concept met critique within the New Criticism of thinkers such as Barthes and Foucault, who, as previously mentioned, placed the authority with the readership. To Walshe, the composer of the 21st century is an auteur (pursuant to the romantic view of composers and authors), but an auteur who is not only directing a crew or composing a score, but one who also engages in the physical creation: She writes that »the New Discipline is located in the fact of composers being interested and willing to perform, to get their hands dirty, to do it themselves, do it immediately« (Walshe, 2016).

It is this identification, the idea of the composer as auteur and conceptualist in which he or she also appears as producer and performer, which has formed the topic for analysis, an analysis of a practice in which the participants are very much aware of their own doings and their overall intentions with these doings. However, what is still missing is an analysis of the impact of this new practice. Reflecting this, Foucault states that: »People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does« (Foucault. Interview in Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1983, p. 187). In relation to the current issue, my analysis aims towards an investigation of how such performances can be perceived and received by their audiences, how they work within the institutions, and how they relate to larger historical contexts: Performances with simultaneous modes of presentation and representation; performances that can be perceived as both open and autonomous; and performances that capture tradition and past within the present.

Body of works – overall view
The New Discipline, as Walshe has named it, appears on the stages and in festivals for contemporary music all over Europe. Not in all, but in many pieces, composers are performing on stage. German Johannes Kreidler (b. 1980) performs political pieces that raise questions concerning the institutional aspects of contemporary music. His piece Fremdarbeit (2009) is an 11-minute-long composition for ensemble and sampler created by outsourcing the compositional work to colleagues in India and China. As part of the performance, he introduces the project on stage in the format of a performance lecture as a sort of warm-up for the final musical result. In her miniature opera Remember me (2012), British composer Claudia Molitor (b. 1974) communicates directly and intimately with her audience (of fewer than 20 people) for each performance. The opera is a small multimedia show with prerecorded sound and music combined with visuals. The only prop is the composer’s own writing desk, an heirloom from her grandmother. The composer herself is present in a white, almost transparent, dress, establishing an intimate situation as she whispers little phrases in the audience’s ears and offers little bites of food.

In his Schubert Lounge (2015) Norwegian composer Eivind Buene appears on stage – or in private houses – as a musician performing interpretations and re-compositions of Robert Schumann’s songs in a 1970s singer-songwriter style. Buene was inspired by Schumann’s own original private performances and wanted to get to know the composer, not only through reproducing his songs, but also through experiencing a recreation of his practice: ‘The important aspect for me is the do-it-yourself quality of the first performances of the songs. […] I will transpose the music “back” from the spectacle of the concert hall to an intimate performance in my own home in Oslo, thus utilizing the topos of the Hauskonzert’ (Buene, no year). Other works that should be mentioned are Norwegian Trond Reinholdtsen’s one-man ongoing Opra project (2009-); François Sarhan’s 12-hour staged concert Ephémère enchainé (2015), in which he appears as composer, musician, stage director, set designer and creator; and Swedish Siri Landgren’s The Voice is False (2013), a composition about and performed with her own voice. Among Danish composer’s, we find the phenomenon present in Jeppe Just’s Jeppe Just Instituttet (2011- ), Jexper Holmen’s Lullaby (2009), Kaj Aune’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (2012), Morten Riis’ Steam Machine Music (2010) and Opaque Sounding (2014) and Louise Alenius’ When Silence Came (2015).

People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does

Zooming in
The analysis in the present article is centered on the following three pieces: Juliana Hodkinson’s All the Time (2001), Simon Steen Andersen’s Buenos Aires (2014) and Niels Rønsholdt’s Ord for Ord (2014).[2] What these three pieces have in common is that they are theatrically staged, and they were premiered in Denmark. I have experienced live performances of Buenos Aires and Ord for Ord, and I have familiarized myself with All the Time through various kinds of documentation – such as video recordings, the unpublished score, newspaper reviews and my interview with the composer (7/1 2016). There are no published scores or librettos for Ord for Ord and Buenos Aires, but to support my subjective memories of the experienced works, the composers have kindly made various sources accessible and participated in interviews (Steen-Andersen 6/1 2016; 16/3 2016 and 10/12 2013 Rønsholdt).

In my analysis I will take Walshe’s The New Discipline as my point of departure. Inspired by her reflections, my analysis is structured through focuses on a) the stage appearance as a result of pragmatic decisions, b) the relationship between stage appearance and auteur-ship and c) the composer’s awareness of performative and theatrical aspects during onstage appearances. I will illustrate each of these points with reference to one of the composers studied. I will conclude with a discussion of all three works analysed.

My analysis of the three pieces is based on studies of various sources, and I have interviewed all three composers. In these interviews I have focused especially on their own intentions with, view on and experience of the fact that they appear on stage. I have enquired into when, what and why their first experience on stage was and asked them to relate these reflections to later performances. All three composers are well-educated either in universities (Hodkinson) or conservatoires (Rønsholdt and Steen-Andersen), and all have great awareness of the practice’s historical dimensions and how it is embedded in their own practices. To stimulate a dialogue about their practices in broader, more historical perspectives, I showed them various images of canonic composers. Among these images, several displayed composers in performative situations: Bach at the organ; Haydn with his violin leading a rehearsal in a living room setting; Liszt at the piano with an angel behind him; Schönberg and Stockhausen at blackboards; Beethoven, Nørgård and Saariaho writing scores; and John Lennon and Yoko Ono during their ‘Bed-In for Peace’ performance. Other images showed a painted, Romantic portrait of Richard Wagner and styled photo portraits of Bob Dylan, Dolly Parton, Michael Jackson and Marina Abramović.[3] There was also one of the Beatles playing as a group and one of Erkki Kurenniemi demonstrating one of his electronic instruments.

The images served to encourage a dialogue about what a composer – as such – was and is to them, to encourage them to reflect on various types of practices in relation to their own practice and how they relate these reflections to a historical account. At the end of the session I asked them to draw circles around the images of the composers with whom they most strongly identified. These interviews serve as background information in the analysis of the pieces.

a) Pragmatism in Hodkinson’s All the Time (2001): Details, appearance, noise and silence.
In 2001 the British composer Juliana Hodkinson, who was based in Denmark at the time, was involved in the premiere of her instrumental theatre piece All the time at the venue Den Anden Opera in Copenhagen. In the 70-minute performance for oboe, clavichord, theorbo and electro guitar, Hodkinson appeared on stage lighting matches as part of this – in sound, staging and performance – very minimalistic show. »Music and theatre can hardly be made with less ingredients than she does. Thirty matches are struck and extinguished one by one, in the otherwise darkened space, while the composer – who is striking the matches – and an oboist move step by step along a M-shaped drying rack with 30 little scores attached.« (Levinsen, 2001)

Music and theatre can hardly be made with less ingredients than she does

Ahead of the creation of the score, Hodkinson met individually with all musicians to explore their instruments. The composer has described these meetings as a research phase to prepare the compositional process and as influential to the piece’s unusual instrumental usage (Hodkinson, mail-correspondence with author, 8/9 2016). In contrast, the score itself was written in a state of seclusion and individually. During the rehearsals, only pragmatic obstacles (like fire doors) made the ensemble deviate from the score. Such a relationship between composer and performer can, in the words of Alan Taylor, be described as a »[h]ierarchical working relationship: Tasks are divided between the participants. One or more participants decide on the contributions made.« (Taylor, 2016, p. 570).

From the score we learn that Hodkinson had carefully planned the setting and the acts of the performance. Over half of the pages are guidelines for the stage setting and instructions for the musicians on how to act, play and perform with the many props. As an example to illustrate the level of details, we find a clavichord that is:

[…] stuffed with white soft material […] and white down feathers, and wrapped with undyed or natural-colour blankets or heavy-duty material, as if for transporting – all this is bound in a criss-cross pattern […] and a table to place it on (at standing height), a tall candle stand with a 1cm section of ordinary candle, 2 halved birthday candles, a small box of matches, a candle extinguisher, a glass marble, shaving brush, table-tennis ball, pencil, small radio, win-machine […] several fire-crackers in 2 sizes. (Hodkinson, 2000)

The miscellaneous is also described carefully, including, among others, a list including podium sizes, types of fishing wires as well as clips to hold notations and lightening devices and followed by a drawing of how the space should be organized. Afterwards, descriptions for the musicians concerning the desired sounds of the instruments are given, followed by a synopsis describing the overall setting and acts. The synopsis ends:

The gradually opening auditorium windows adding [sic] an additional dimension to the space (the outside world and its sounds, as well as sounds form the performance place in the extra space), and also bring in cold air to underline the profound difference between the two spaces. All the musicians are involved in a test of the upper extremities of their instruments, and in addition the oboist is finding out the capacity of his lungs, to the very end. The energy is shot out of the auditorium into the night air by a rocket, lit from inside the performance space. (Hodkinson, 2000)

Not only the theatrical space is detailed within the piece, so is the contextual situation and site itself. Notation and timing take up another page, as do instructions for the handling of matches and firelighters. Dynamics are defined as ‘extremely quiet’, and the written notes for unorthodox mastering of the instruments are unfolded.

The music consisted of the instrumentalists barely playing sounds; for the most part, only the sounds of the musicians’ breath, the manipulation of the matches and the instruments themselves were to be heard. Silence was the main element of the piece, and every slight movement, sound and beam of light stood out against the background of this minimalist setting. Such aesthetic choices also created space for co-creation of the work with the audience, who, in the minimal situation, become just as present as every other actant.

Hodkinson’s own performance on stage was, according to her, more of a coincidence than a statement. Someone had to strike the matches, and since the musicians felt more comfortable having the composer doing this, as she had throughout the rehearsals, she agreed to become part of the performance too. She was surprised that the reviewer even noticed that it was her since the space was so dark and her presence anonymous (Interview with Hodkinson, 7/1 2016).

But, as seen in the review above, her appearance was noticed. At the performance, Hodkinson was present as herself and as performer; meanwhile she also appeared as composer-performer representing a musical work. The latter was not only framed by the connotations of convention, but her acts on stage underlined this dimension: She was the one literally enlightening the score. The score was presented so that it played an important role within the piece. Not only was it a text from which the musicians derived their performance, but also an object that, hanging around the space from strings, also defined the physical of movements and spatiality of the piece. It was the composer herself who showed the way both conventionally, by authoring the score, and performatively, during the performance. In this way the doubleness appears, and representational layers become central acts of the presentation itself.

b) Stage appearance in Steen-Andersen’s Buenos Aires (2014): Auteur-ship as meta-narrative
The scenic work Buenos Aires by the Danish, Berlin-based, composer Simon Steen-Andersen (b. 1976) was premiered in 2014 at the Norwegian festival for contemporary music, Ultima, performed by Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart and the Norwegian asamisimasa ensemble. The piece has been presented as a ‘meta opera’ as well as a ‘chamber opera’. In Steen-Andersen’s view, a label does not seem to make much difference. He thinks of himself as a composer – someone who puts things together – no matter how and in what media he works (Interview with Steen-Andersen 6/1 2016). As in the case of Buenos Aires, he composed and coordinated all aspects of the piece himself. He authored the dialogue, did the stage directing and, of course, composed the music, of which there ended up being very little. He did this in close dialogue with the performers, but was, just as with Hodkinson, the final decision-maker in the overall composition process. Again we find a working relationship that can be identified as hierarchal.

Generally I find it to be a strange and unconvincing concept that people communicate to each other through singing

The opening scene of the piece depicts the recording of a sound track for a commercial. The producer is not satisfied with the female singer (Johanna), whose voice is too operatic for him, explaining it to the singer in this way: »I do think opera singing sounds completely absurd with all that vibrato – and generally I find it to be a strange and unconvincing concept that people communicate to each other through singing […] which also makes the words completely impossible to understand.« (Steen-Andersen, 2014, p. 2) The two of them continue discussing the art form, and the producer continues:

… if I was to write an opera I would either set it on another planet inhabited by singing non-human creatures, or I would do like they do in many of the musicals and only let the characters sing when they actually sing in the story. Or maybe I’d try to avoid using the voice at all; you know, look for alternative ways of communication with other musical bi-products, and then compose with those. (Steen-Andersen, 2014, p. 4)

From the second scene, and towards the end of the piece, the producer's vision is realized. The setting is a court trial, with the female singer being interrogated while sitting in wheel chair, wearing a straightjacket and with masking tape over her mouth, making it difficult for her to answer the questions. The dominating aesthetic of this dystopian cyber-universe is ‘resistance’. None of the singers are using their voices naturally, but channel them through various electronic devices, such as an electrolarynx or a keyboard to produce synthetic speech; the singers are tied with ropes to heavy boxes that they drag with great effort across the stage; the ensemble are lifting weights while playing. The visuals consist either of the text of the dialogue performed through the electronic devices (and therefore very hard to understand) or video from hand- and head-held cameras carried and worn by the singers. Every single act on stage is deconstructed: the voices, the singing, the acting, the playing and the staging.

The cyborgs of this new universe ask Johanna to help them rehearse a song from her part of the world. During this rehearsal, Johanna reflects upon the ensemble: »I think the way they play their instruments is a bit inconsequent compared to the way you sing« (Steen-Andersen, 2014, p.15). She then turns to them, adding more and more ‘resistance’ to the performance: »Cello, try playing the middle part on the lowest string. Guitar, try to play the chords on the wrong side of your left hand«, and so on. This goes on for a while only to be interrupted by Steen-Andersen himself, sitting behind the audience. Through a microphone he addresses the musicians on stage, adding more and more resistance to the performance. He also commands: «And don’t try to act, I want it to be real!« The music commences once again only to be interrupted once more by Steen-Andersen: »You are still acting, you know – I think we still need more resistance to make it 100% real what you’re doing« (Steen-Andersen, 2014, p.17). After a complaint from one of the singers who has gone backstage to call the producer of the piece, Christine, the producer ends up calling Steen-Andersen and convinces him to allow the piece to continue. These conversations are made audible to the audience through the performance space’s speaker system.

When Steen-Andersen appears in the piece, we are reminded of the great auteur, the great conceptual originator and architect of it all, who creates and directs every single movement on stage. When the character of the producer eliminates Steen-Andersen’s character, the authority of the auteur-ship is, like everything else in the piece, for a moment deconstructed and put into question. This is, however, only a temporary and fictional deconstruction; when the piece ends, through the ritual of applause we are once again made keenly aware that Steen-Andersen is the composer of the piece. It was his resistance, his narrative, his staging and his deconstruction.

The piece also concerns an avoidance of professional and virtuosic performance. None of the participants could contribute what they were best at, but were challenged instead with various types of resistance and obstacles that made it difficult to move, sing or act in the way they were trained. Verfremdung and various mediations are present everywhere, all decided upon and designed by the composer to avoid a display of their professional skills. In the case of Steen-Andersen’s work, the “hierarchical working relationship” (Taylor, 2017) between composer and performer can be found not only in the working process, but is integrated into and explicated through the aesthetics. 

c) Performative and theatrical aspects of Rønsholdt’s Ord for Ord (2014): Hyper-awareness and embarrassment.
The Danish composer Niels Rønsholdt (b.1978) also strives for resistance in his pieces, but very differently than does Steen-Andersen. Rønsholdt states:

My whole practice is in many ways to get to the essence of things. This is driven by a critique of contemporary music, which, as I experience it, is characterized by a layer of distance; for example a distance in the craftsmanship through an excessive focus on structures, in the way the music is performed, and a distance from any content. But then what is actually the content of music? (Rønsholt in Groth 2016, p. 7)

Rønsholdt’s way of achieving this is to expose himself as a person, composer and performer. He is a professional, classically-trained contemporary composer of written scores, using (to some extend) WAM aesthetics and form, often consciously entangled within the clichés of various genres. On stage he acts as a singer, but without having been professionally trained, unlike most singers within this genre. He pays great attention to this aspect of his performance and has, in relation to the French-chanson-inspired Me Quitte (2012-13), described his work as ‘embarrassing’: »In Me Quitte I make a complete fool of myself. I was certain that this would be the last work I would ever compose. Making these songs is in itself embarrassing and going just too far, even if they are so definitively cast in a conceptual construct. But the actual material, it’s just so ...« (Groth, p. 4)

Rønsholdt performing Ord for Ord. ACTS Festival for Performance Art. Roskilde 2014. Photo credit: Sanne Krogh Groth

In the staging of this piece he appears in a white suit as a ‘crooner’, delivering the songs with great pathos. He sings well, but the non-trained voice and the pathos brings fragility to the piece, exposing and humanizing the great author ‘behind’ the piece. This is especially evident towards the end of the live performance of the hour-long song cycle, where his duet partner Anna Katrin Egilstrød shows no sign of tiredness in her voice, while Rønsholdt’s voice becomes more and more exhausted.

In the solo-performance Ord for Ord (Word by Word), Rønsholdt takes this approach a step further. In this piece he acts the parts of five characters, apparently one man and his four mistresses, singing fragments of clichéd romantic lines, as if quotig sporadic text messages. Specific instruments (acoustic guitar, electric guitar, children’s accordion, piano and pizzicato violin) and certain gestural movements serve as indicators of each character. The musical form (recitatives and shorter arias), the transparent instrumentation and the tonal patterns echo Baroque opera, whereas conventions of WAM are also present. The singing was live, while the accompanying instrumental music was played back from a prerecorded audio file that had been performed, recorded and produced by the composer himself.

This piece has been staged twice, performed by Rønsholdt himself. The first time it was staged by English director Lore Lixenberg and the second time by Danish director Troels Primdahl. Both stage scenarios emphasize the intimate, exposing the composer as person and performer. According to Rønsholdt, he did not interfere with the work of the directors. This was part of his concept, to let go of control as far as the visual domain of the performance was concerned.

The setting of the first performance was a dinner table with 16 guests (the audience) sitting around it. 

Covered with and surrounded by fruits, berries, chocolate, cake and red roses, Rønsholdt and a young woman were lying on the table, as if dead, when the audience entered the space. The audience (limited to 16 persons at a time) were seated around the table and invited to partake of the food while experiencing the performance.

During the performance Rønsholdt got up and moved to a chair at the end of the table. The young woman remained for while, but eventually checked her cell phone and left the room. With the smell of food and flowers as well as the presence of the performers so close to the audience, the situation became very intimate, increasing towards the end of the piece, where Rønsholdt took off his shirt, and, in a metaphorical sense, revealed another layer of the performer. At the end of the performance, the audience was asked to leave the room without applause. No bowing and no celebrations of the composer were permitted.

Rønsholdt performing Ord for Ord. ACTS Festival for Performance Art. Roskilde 2014. Photo credit: Sanne Krogh Groth

The WAM conventions present in Ord for Ord refer for the most part to Baroque opera, a time characterized by the pre-Romantic era composer-performer. Whereas Me Quitte stays within a conventional concert framework – with applause, orchestras and scores – Ord for Ord is radical not only in the sense of the performing composer, but also in the setting and in the avoidance of certain conventional concert rituals. This avoidance strengthens the presentation of the performer and his acting. By using the Baroque opera as a formal framework, the historical references in this piece extend beyond the Romantic era, to a time when the composer-performer was the ruling convention.

I would go as far as to argue that in this piece the presence of the composer-performer  “on stage” tends to be more of a “presence” than a representation of the composer, even though this “presentness” happens by means of a very theatrical setting, which paradoxically has representation as its precondition.

But, after all, and in the larger perspective, it is still a “composer” performing, who, in the eyes of the audience, might still be representing the Romantic idea of the composer. The question in this case might actually be whether this work could have the effect it has if it were not for this layer of consciousness in the mind of the audience? Is Plato’s curse actually the most important agent of them all?

So, this leaves me with a final question. Where does The New Discipline leave authorship? Did the author really die? Has a resurrection occurred? My answer to this is that within contemporary music, the death of the author and the rebirth of the reader tends also to result in a resurrection of the author. As illustrated in my analysis, strong authorships are intentionally deconstructed in various ways: through a staging of the score, through a staging of the auteur, and through enactment of one of the composer-performer paradigms. Inevitably, the pieces are produced and communicated within frameworks in which Romantic authorships are still present and whereby these ambiguous authorships appear.

Where does The New Discipline leave authorship? Did the author really die? Has a resurrection occurred? My answer to this is that within contemporary music, the death of the author and the rebirth of the reader tends also to result in a resurrection of the author.

As also discussed, the compositional processes were collaborative, hierarchal working relationships (Taylor, 2017). Rønsholdt’s co-operative working relationship (idem) with stage designers differed from the other cases. As a result ‘such letting go’ paradoxically strengthened the composer-performer’s presence on stage.

It is this ambiguity, the simultaneous presence of several layers of times and traditions, that fascinates me and has been the driving force for this article. The three performances I have presented obviously all draw upon the aesthetics of performance art. However, concurrently, the teleological narrative, as found in the modernistic understanding of new music, is to various extents also enacted through the performativity of the composers and the embedded institutional conventions. The whole point of the performance would not be possible if this context did not exist, a context in which we find autonomous artworks, teleological narratives and last, but not least, authors. I have included examples from three pieces in which composers deconstruct conventions in an attempt to remove their own authority. But in so doing I have also revealed authors who are only able to do this due to their identities and status as authors and composers. The re-appearance becomes possible through the workings of tradition and the multilayered and traversing dimensions of representation and presentation.

[1] Walshe’s manifesto has gained widespread attention within the field, and a revised version was recently the inspiration for several articles in MusikTexte, Zeitschrift für neue Musik, no. 149, Maj 2016. 

[2] I initiated the commission for Ord for Ord as co-curator of the performance festival ACTS, Museet for Samtidskunst, in 2014.

[3] Abramovic (and several others) was added after my first interview with Niels Rønsholdt, who explicitly referred to her.

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Thanks to Juliana Hodkinson, Niels Rønsholdt and Simon Steen-Andersen for generously giving access to unpublished materials, for sharing their thoughts through the interviews and for answering my questions along the way in the process.