Reflections on the 5th International Performance Studies Network Conference

Lee Blasius recently instructed a program committee:  “One question we don’t need to ask is, ‘Is this music theory?’  The field is an ever-expanding horizon.”  On the surface, many of the presentations and performances given at this summer’s 5th International Performance Studies Network Conference, held at the Norwegian Academy of Music in Oslo, presented analyses that defied or ignored the conventions that many might associate with music theory (as well as composition, musicology, and performance studies).  Yet the multiple perspectives, disciplines, and topics that attendees encountered in Oslo this July should encourage music theorists, in the spirit of Blasius’s instructions, to think more expansively about what music theory and analysis can do, for whom they operate, what tools and methods they might employ, and what new voices to include.

As always, the parallel sessions prevented those of us in attendance from reporting on the entirety and richness of the full program.  There were, however, highlights that we would like to share with our colleagues.


Introduction: David Kopp (Boston University)

The Performance Studies Network (PSN) is a legacy of the Center for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (CMPCP), a five-year initiative based at the University of Cambridge led by John Rink.  CMPCP’s tradition of biennial conferences has continued under the auspices of PSN; this was the fifth in the series, and the first to be held outside the UK.  Darla Crispin, director of research at the Norwegian Academy, was the conference organizer.  The growth and maturation of the field of musical performance studies and the continuation of CMPCP’s mission, framed within the European practice of artistic research , were evident throughout the conference.

The guiding philosophy behind CMPCP/PSN is that musical performance, and by extension music, must be understood as more than the realization of the composer’s vision and its representation on the score.  The performer’s contribution constitutes an essential, active, and creative element of music, thus providing a compelling object of study.  Moreover, because performers are recognized as thoughtful, expert practitioners—not mere channels for a composer’s intent—they are uniquely placed to share in the research endeavor.  Not surprisingly, a majority of conference presenters wore multiple hats:  active equally on the one hand as performers, conductors, composers, educators, and critics, and on the other as scholars (whether in traditional academic fields or as specialists in artistic research).  Many of the performer-presenters were of considerable distinction.

The presentations reflected several topics central to musical performance studies.  These included, among others:

  • Performance practice, from established approaches to historically informed performance to the developing practice of the 21st-century music
  • Determining and articulating performers’ contributions to the realization of music beyond the information on the score, both individually and in collaboration
  • Composer-performer collaborations in which both contribute to the creative product
  • Improvisation
  • Analysis of recordings
  • Anthropological, sociological, and cultural aspects of performance
  • Interdisciplinary and cross-cultural approaches to the development of performance strategies
  • The influence of technology on performance practice
  • Approaches to music production
  • And, last but not least, despite a current of skepticism directed at the privileged position of the score, several talks drawing on the performance and analysis tradition, given by both North American and European presenters.

There were also several concerts given by Norwegian artists, ranging from avant-garde music to music inspired by Norwegian vernacular traditions.  Many of the presentations gravitated toward new music, where the contribution of the performer is often more explicitly acknowledged or readily ascertained.  An equally important goal, though, was evident in other presentations that aimed to demonstrate the unacknowledged and essential contributions of performers to music of the European canon.

The role of music theory in the PSN enterprise was most apparent in, but not limited to, the presentations that involved performance/analysis questions or the analysis of recordings.  If the conference raised any challenges for North American theorists, they might be to better recognize and incorporate those beyond-the-score aspects of performance into analysis, and, through the force of future work, to expand the presence of music theory within the performance studies community.


Daniel Barolsky (Beloit College)

Daniel Leech-Wilkinson, in “Aspects of belief and attachment in the performance of classical music,” equated our deeply rooted reliance on compositional instructions to a kind of religious devotion.  Doing so, he drew attention to how normative processes, especially those of performance style, are not only created but also policed.  Attempts to deviate from these norms have been regulated by critics (and theorists, I would argue) in a manner that not only discourages interpretive creativity but also perpetuates, in euphemistic ways, outdated gendered binaries, homophobia, and misogyny.  Although Leech-Wilkinson focused on music criticism, his larger argument can be extended more broadly to “the heteropatriarchal values that underlie western classical music belief.”

Many of the presentations in Olso offered ways to combat these limits.  The most activist strategies could be found in Challenging Performance, a new project created by Leech-Wilkinson and his colleagues that seeks to challenge traditional practices and gives voice to entirely new ways of analyzing and hearing familiar repertoire.  Analogously, Rosanna Lovell, Brandon Farnsworth, and Darla Crispin led a panel conversation on GRiNM (Gender Relations in New Music), a relatively new organization (2016) that confronts the normative mechanisms that have resulted in such major classical music festivals as Darmstadt programming a disproportionate number of compositions by men.  Readers will find it well worth their while to explore both of these websites and to take note as they develop.

In work that embraces more radical interpretations, Lina Navickaitė-Martinelli and Georgia Volioti introduced new analytical lenses through which we might explore new modes of listening.  Navickaitė-Martinelli, in her “P is for Person, Performance, Pogorelich:  Performer’s Identity as Creative Tool,” used a comparison with a slow cinematic take by Michelangelo Antonioni to help reimagine how we might listen to a hypnotically drawn-out interpretation by the controversial pianist Ivo Pogorelich.  However simple the comparison, many of us in the room, previous critics of Pogorelich, came to recognize how the pianist’s tempo, however unconventional, gives the listener space and time to explore—almost like a temporal X-ray—the inner workings, dynamics, texture, and make-up of a given score, details that would have been lost at a faster tempo.  Similarly, Volioti (in “Narrativity in Grieg’s Ballade Revisited:  The Nineteenth-Century Pianist as Storyteller”) used recorded performances by Eugene D’Albert and and Percy Grainger to conceive of the narrative possibilities of Grieg’s Ballade, a theme and variations that had appeared to resist or fail to convey narrative construction.

Cecilia Oinas and Naomi Woo explored the interrelationship between analysis and embodiment, thus expanding the domain of analysis even further.  In “The Body in Pain at the Piano:  Where Form Meets Failure in Ligeti’s Etudes pour Piano,” Woo presented an “autoethnography” of the author’s process of learning (and at times failing to learn) the Etudes.  She provided us with the critical reminder that any analysis of a score as a “work” will always be “radically incomplete” if we limit our engagement to just reading and listening.  In a discussion of Ligeti’s Étude no. 3:  touches bloquées, Woo drew attention to the cognitive dissonance that occurs not only between what we see and what we hear, but also between what performers hear or feel (including pain) and how they play or practice.  A similar cognitive dissonance was explored by Oinas’s paper, “From four-handed monster to an all-embracing Vishnu:  On sensitivity, intimacy, and corporeal interaction in György Kurtág’s four-handed works.”  Because the negotiation of bodily space is central to any four-hands successful collaboration, such music is more inherently physical than other duos.  Not only do Kurtág’s compositions intentionally force the performers to cross over and invade each other’s space—a critical and rarely analyzed element of this music—but because both musicians are playing the same instrument, what the individual performer plays is often confused with what she hears.  The author will be presenting an expanded version of this paper the upcoming SMT conference in San Antonio.


Michiko Theurer (Stanford University)

Of the presentations I was able to attend, the one I keep coming back to is a multi-modal performance/lecture given by Anna Scott and Valentin Gloor, entitled “Brahmsphantasie:  Performing Historical Fictions.”  Their presentation posed questions about how historical fictions and contradictions can be used as tools for analysis and interpretation of canonical music, using as an example Max Klinger’s Brahmsphantasie Op. 12, a fantastical creation that led Brahms to reimagine the potential of his own music.  When I entered the room, the lights were dimmed and Gloor was singing Brahms as he climbed over and between chairs in the audience, while Scott played the piano at the front of the room.  The presentation unfolded in a series of seamless transitions between musical performance, scholarly lecture, and theater, sometimes layered in such a way that it was difficult to untangle one from the other.  At one point, Scott compared Klinger’s Brahmsphantasie with Baroque emblem books, explaining that the multiple and conflicting layers in the emblem books forced the viewer to interpret or choose between possible readings.  As she spoke, I kept getting distracted by the sound of Gloor crumpling pages of music in the back of the room.  Why on earth was he distracting from what she was saying?, I kept thinking, until I realized this forced hovering-between-ideas (schweben) was precisely Scott’s point.

Toward the end, Scott announced that at a previous conference (Orpheus Institute 2015) they had presented a paper concerning an entirely fabricated invented correspondence between Brahms and Debussy and the (alleged) resulting music.  In exposing this falsehood, she asked:  did she also in some way kill truth?  The tone of her question was extremely complex, and loaded with the intellectually rigorous and musically persuasive power of their presentation.


Victoria Tzotzkova (Massaschusetts Institute of Technology)

When I think about what gives the PSN conferences their distinct flavor, one particular point stands out:  that often there is a palpable sense that the person speaking is a performer.  These are still clearly scholarly presentations, sometimes more historical in approach, sometimes more sociological, psychological, experimental, and so on; but the questions being posed and the ways these questions are treated are, somehow, essentially performerly, to borrow a favorite term from Mine Dogantan-Dack.  In other words, these are questions that come up in the course of practicing, rehearsing, and performing—they are fundamentally relevant to experiences in performance.  Rather than asking performers to do scholarly work in the ways that academic music disciplines already do their work, these conferences seem to have become platforms for research that is not typically native to either the academic music department or the conservatory.

This is not to imply that this research merely consists of the incidental insights performers glean in the course of practice—the work is typically done in depth and with rigor.  But the questions raised seem to be specifically directed at performers, often aim to identify and analyze a particular aspect of performance experience, and generally tend to be readily subsumable back into performance experience.  I found this element of a performer’s voice both engaging and compelling, and I want to briefly trace it in three presentations.  (As a pianist, I gravitated towards more-or-less piano-centric talks.)

Mark Ferraguto’s presentation (“Interior Virtuosity in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto”) drew on letters, criticism, and philosophical writings from Beethoven’s time and current analytic work to highlight a then-important conversation about distinguishing between real and fake artistry in virtuoso performance.  While I cannot claim to have retained all details of the discussion, the points that stood out for me include the following:  in the context of that distinction, expressive markings can become a way to signal the depth of inner experience; that also within this context emerges the polarity between brilliant vs. expressive virtuosity, both of which can be part of real artistry.  These two styles can become a particular lens through which to analyze and experience specific passages of Beethoven’s keyboard writing, especially in a work like a concerto, where the artistic personality of the composer-soloist is explicitly on display.  Ferraguto drew our attention to passages that exemplify each category, and suggested that knowing about these categories might affect how such passages are treated in performance.  It was exactly that last point that bespoke a performer’s outlook to me:  this understanding of virtuosity—carefully researched and laid out—was offered not only as a piece of historical research but also as an attitude one might adopt in playing the piece.  If, through the many variants of the solo part to the Fourth Concerto, Beethoven was negotiating the full range of his artistic persona, from the brilliant to the expressive, then that same attitude of showcasing a range of inner experience and pianistic prowess may also be productive today.  Ferraguto did not explicitly make this point, but in offering these ways of understanding virtuosity, he certainly opened the possibility.

In “Beautiful Piano Tone–A Matthay Legacy?,” Julian Hellaby presented the findings of an experimental study he undertook which aimed to establish whether pianists in the Tobias Matthay legacy were any more likely to be perceived as playing with “beautiful tone” than pianists who were never in contact with Matthay.  (Being a strong proponent and life-long theorist of beautiful tone in piano playing, Matthay is an obvious choice for questions about this elusive concept in piano performance.)  While the results were personally fascinating to me, the main point I would again like to make is that the question the study asks is fundamentally pianistic and performance-centered.  In the Q&A session, Hellaby used a short Romantic excerpt to demonstrate at the piano an aspect of how he understood beautiful tone.  The very understanding of the concept is rooted in experience at the piano, and sharing that understanding seems to almost require a demonstration, again at the piano.  With a strongly expressed scientific outlook and allegiance to proper experimental design, the study also remains clearly pianistic and steeped in experience:  it treats a question that a performer would ask.

Tor Espen Aspaas’s presentation (“Unfolding Beethoven Extempore”) focused on passages in Beethoven’s piano writing which bear the mark of extemporizations.  Again motivated by performance experience, Aspaas’s research aims to create an improvisational framework in which a performer could experience portions of Beethoven’s oeuvre.  The difference this switch could make is something Aspaas discovered first-hand, having recorded the full Beethoven sonatas cycle twice:  first working from traditional methods for interpretation, then more recently from this improvisational perspective.  There was not sufficient time to spend with his recorded examples, but in his own judgment the extempore framework not only offers a sense of greater freedom in performing the works, but also sounds fresher, more spontaneous, and more compelling than the earlier interpretations.  Again, this is a long-term research project, hosted at the Norwegian Academy and spanning several years, which springs from performance experience and, once developed, aims to directly impact performance experience.



2018 PAIG Meeting at AMS/SMT

“Since Schnabel: Pondering Hypermeter in Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas”

Presented by William Rothstein (The Graduate Center and Queens College, CUNY)

Friday, November 2, 12:30–2:00

** New Location: Lone Star B Crocket CD

Our upcoming meeting will take the form of a 45-minute presentation (see abstract below) followed by an extended analytical discussion.

For those who wish to do a bit of “pondering hypermeter” in advance of the meeting, Prof. Rothstein has generously prepared some study materials about the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata in E-Flat, op. 33, no. 3. These materials may stimulate your thinking and serve as food for thought for the discussion. Click here to download them in PDF format

We wish to emphasize that this preparatory material is completely optional. Everyone is welcome at the meeting and in the discussion, regardless of whether they have perused the preparatory materials. A handout will be available for the talk, and it will be possible to follow without having done any preparation.

We hope to see you there!


Abstract: According to his pupil Konrad Wolff, Schnabel said that when he began to play a passage, he needed to know how far away the end was. Hence the “metrical periods,” as he called them, that he marked in his edition of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, first published in the 1920s. Unfortunately, he never defined very clearly what a “metrical period” is.

Many performing musicians have felt a need similar to Schnabel’s: how to feel, or count, Beethoven’s rhythms of medium size (3–16 measures). The terms “meter,” “metrical period,” and “hypermeter” have been used by many, but the same term often conceals different meanings, as John Paul Ito has rightly pointed out. In this talk, I consider the views of several writers since Schnabel, from Tovey to Temperley to Ito. Excerpts from most or all of the following Beethoven movements will be discussed: op. 28, i; op. 31/3, i; and op. 90, i.