A Cybernetic View of Theory and Practice, or Reflections on Integrating Analysis and Performance

by Victoria Tzotzkova (Harvard University)

“The dualism between subject and object disappears…. The world as this ‘cybernetics’ constructs it is a monism.… Because the worlds are coupled, they must in the last analysis be regarded as a single system.”

—N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman

The cybernetic principle—the idea of a self-changing feedback loop, where each part is continually reinvented through its interaction with all others—has been at the core of different technological advances, and is also at the core of theoretical work in different fields. In some of its unfoldings (like the theory of enaction developed by Francisco Varela and his collaborators), the basic idea of a dynamic, generative, recursive interaction, linking the constituent parts of a process has served as a powerful framework for theorizing the fundamental relationship between an organism and its environment. Stemming from concerns in regulating automatic processes, research in cybernetics has been developed in much larger contexts, posing some profound philosophical challenges, but also engaging diverse communities, and opening avenues for research, design, and experimentation.

For all its promise and power as a model for conceptualizing different aspects of human existence, as well as for creating tools and technologies, the cybernetic principle can bear deeply unsettling implications: once in motion, the process continues on a path that cannot be reliably predicted at the outset; a self-changing process shapes itself as it goes along.

In regards to relating—or even integrating—performance and analysis, can we usefully consider this idea of a dynamic interaction of mutually engendering parts of a holistic process? What would it mean for performance and analysis to interact, such that each continually shapes the other? What would exploring the relationship between performance and analysis look like if we tried to imagine it with the idea of cybernetics in mind?

I. A personal turning point relating analysis and performance

Growing up in then still communist Bulgaria, I started formal music training at a very young age, a study that included solfège and basic theory. In my hours of practice, still as a child, I developed the habit of doodling around my pieces, going, for instance, between themes from different Haydn sonatas I was playing. I got chastised for resorting to a bit of that same practice during a concert, and, being a dutiful student, I stopped it.

Years later I began to think my doodling may have been a good idea, but I was so completely out of practice, that it was pretty much impossible to reclaim. I had become a typical, non-improvising, classical performer. Yet some years later (and after a few encounters with French traditions in keyboard harmony), I gradually reclaimed my doodling abilities, and the path was through theory: the countless harmonic dictations and simple tonal progressions that had been drilled into me as a child turned out to be a perfect beginning for a course in re-learning how to improvise. I now practice my doodles, and from a performer’s standpoint, find it to be the best anti-anxiety routine I know, as well as a great way to build up my classical performer’s sense of agency. In this sort of practice routine, studying harmony or motivic gestures, devising practice exercises, or building up my performer’s familiarity with a piece are aspects of the same process: a sort of continual feedback, merging performance and analysis.

II. A brief overview of a movement

The Performance and Analysis movement (and the Performance and Analysis Interest Group [PAIG] of the Society for Music Theory) arose at least partly in response to a perceived divide between performance and analysis, which many felt did not capture their musical experience. In recent decades, the movement has expanded the focus of music analysis, from the score (predominant in traditional analysis) to also include recordings, embodied aspects of performance, and performers’ voices.

In British musicology—as well as elsewhere in Europe—performance studies and artistic-/ practice-based research are becoming a relatively significant part of the study of music, which has given impetus for emergent institutions specifically devoted to such activity (e.g., The Orpheus Institute, Belgium), as well as projects specifically conceived to cross between university and conservatory settings (e.g., Centre for Music Performance as Creative Practice, UK). This trend has resulted in events like masterclasses in artistic research (e.g., by Paulo de Assis), the Performance Studies Network conferences, as well as research positions for practicing musicians and research studies involving conservatory and professional musicians. The Centre for Performance Science (Royal College of Music, London) is also a catalyst for a related move to develop the more explicitly scientific study of performers and their performances.

Yet, most research in this vein—which explicitly involves or addresses practicing musicians—comes typically from musicologists, psychologists, empiricists, etc., and rarely from music theorists. Even those of us in music theory who specifically work on performance would generally agree that, by and large, our discipline has not yet found ways to embrace performance as an integral concern.

III. Carving out spaces for dialogue: The PAIG special session

What stops music theory from fully embracing performance? Are we looking to address performance and performers through beliefs and practices that do not facilitate a fluid exchange? If so, do we do this consciously, or out of habits we have not yet clearly examined? What might these habits be and can they be revised in fruitful ways, to build on cherished skills and approaches while inviting performers’ insight and participation?

One of the aims of the PAIG-sponsored special session at last year’s SMT conference in Vancouver was precisely to address questions like these from an unusual angle, namely, by giving the floor to performers. The three presentations of the session were given by performers—Patrick Boyle (jazz trumpet, joined by his trio), John Lutterman (baroque cello), and Charles Neidich (clarinet)—with a response from British empirical musicologist and performance scholar Eric Clarke. Each of the presenters addressed concerns that emerge in practice and through the experience of performance, and spent considerable portion of their time playing their instruments. One might say that these particular performers were all of a special kind: those who have already developed their performance concerns into research programs. But they still spoke as performers, and developed their presentations from that standpoint. They each brought to the session their love for the music they play, as well as their enthusiasm for engaging with their scholarly audience.

Whatever might be keeping us—as scholars—from fully embracing music performance as an area of study, hearing out performers’ voices might point some ways out. In listening to performers talk, we undoubtedly hear some ideas and expressions that are not entirely native to music theory. But we also recognize many of the insights as deeply musical and also deeply familiar. So we might try listening specifically with an ear to finding the common vocabulary and common commitments, and use these points of contact as points of departure, as a springboard from which we can reflect back on what we do as music theorists, and on the sorts of things music theory can be.

If we let them, performers might take us into directions we have not already taken. These directions would be as of yet unknown, and following them would be to embark on a journey with no preexisting roadmap. By the same token, in talking to us, performers themselves—like the presenters at the PAIG special session—might approach, experience, and perhaps even do performance a little differently.

IV. “How should music theory change to accommodate this kind of work?”

I was asked the question above at my dissertation defense and am forever grateful for it. It opened the possibility that music theory is a fluid and evolving endeavor, and that the concerns and commitments I have by virtue of being a pianist may not only one day be included; they may even shape the concerns and commitments of the discipline.

If we do engage performers and find ways to build and maintain live ties with the people and activities within music performance, there may be changes to what we know as music theory and what we do as music theorists. Similarly, a tight interaction with performers would also potentially bring changes to what we know as performance and what we (or they, performers) do as performers. An ongoing (cybernetic) interaction implies both.

For me—as both performer and theorist, or better yet, as a musician—these changes are exciting and welcome.