The Reflective Musician – Interpretation as co-creative process

Norwegian academy of music

Today’s performer is fundamentally different from his counterpart a century ago. Particularly after the recording business emerged, the demands for technical perfection have, to an increasing degree, been a constraint upon the performer’s free exercising of his or her creative impulse. In our opinion, this leads to an expectation of ‘error-free’ conformity that suits the role of classical music in today’s society, where it is seen more and more as elitist, set in its ways and out of touch.

The situation doesn’t need to be like this, however. The classical heritage is as challenging and exciting as ever. Many musicians look under the well-known surface, searching for the deeper forces of the works they perform. The ‘Reflective Musician’ project is about the different types of knowledge that are necessary to access these forces. These may be conscious or intuitive, but we are convinced that some kind of deep insight into the driving forces behind the music is necessary to ensure that the interpretation casts off conformity and emerges as personal and genuine.

One may say that not everyone needs this knowledge. Some artists seem to possess the talent to get to the essence anyway. This may be right, but the question is then whether they are genuinely making do without knowledge or simply using the kind of intuitive knowledge talked about above. They may be ‘knowing without knowing that they know’ – a little like when Stravinsky said about Boulez’ analysis of Le Sacre: “Very interesting! I never thought of it!”
When we speak about music written in our own time, things are a bit different. Apart from the fact that it still takes courage to defy the stereotypes of mainstream repertoire and engage in contemporary works (although, fortunately, this is becoming more common among younger performers), the contact between the performer and the living composer is necessarily different from that with a long-deceased one. Although here the objective would also be to penetrate to the core of the work, the danger of conformity is not such an issue, since the material itself is new and unknown. The role of the performer here may also be quite different from the classical, re-creative one.

Whilst allowing for these differences, in both cases the process of interpretation will ideally be a sort of co-creation, as it were, with the composer, in which the performer ‘composes’ the work anew from inside the act of performance, striving to create something that is simultaneously unique and as faithful as possible to the composer’s original conception.

The next question to answer, is:
What kinds of performing knowledge will lead to a specific, unique interpretation?
We will look for the answer mainly by investigating analytical methods that reveal the constituting forces of the creative process, not just looking at the surface. One approach is Schenkerian analysis, enhanced with Schönberg and Caplin’s formal function approach. We will also make use of the auditive-sonological approach (emergent forms) that takes as its point of departure the sounding work rather than the written one. The two different approaches will hopefully lead to fruitful confrontations and discussions. Also, the analytical thinking of Messiaen, that had such an impact on a whole generation of composers, will provide a range of useful tools when dealing with certain styles.

An important aspect of the work will be to spot the elements in the composer’s personality, psyche, etc. that the performer can identify with. This may be particularly difficult when it comes to composers who lived centuries ago. The performer’s task is to expand the area of common ground, without pretending to achieve a total merging of sensibility with that of the composer, for which he or she would have to ‘become’ the composer.
It is important that, whatever the period in which the work was written, one can ‘peel off’ the layers of standardisation of approach transmitted by so-called tradition. By doing this, the work may emerge as new in our time.

Traditional musicology has used analysis as a tool for greater understanding of the inner structure of musical works but has generally shied away from linking this explicitly to how performers might make choices as part of developing their interpretations of these works. In such a view, interpretation begins where science stops. Even more recent, performance-focused musicology tends to regard the performer as a subject for scientific observation, not as a co-investigator. Performing is, in our view, not some kind of undefinable, occult exercise, nor is it simply a set of behavioural patterns to be externally codified. Rather, it is an inherently creative activity based on its own systems of knowledge which, whether conscious or intuitive, ought to be capable of being articulated in words as well as in practical music making. If we manage to make the young musicians aware of this, we may be able to break down some of the barriers that currently inhibit them from finding their “own” voices, and hence make musical life so predictable.

The research group consists of:

  • Project leader Håkon Austbø, pianist, professor at UiS and NMH. Takes a coveted position in musical life through his work on composers like Messiaen and Skryabin. Was the winner of the international Messiaen competition in 1971.
  • Darla Crispin, pianist and researcher, now associate professor at NMH, previously research fellow at Orpheus Research Centre in Music [ORCiM}, Gent, and Head of Graduate School at Royal College of Music, London. Specialises in the music of the Second Viennese School (Schönberg, Berg, Webern).
  • Lasse Thoresen, composer, professor at NMH. His works, often inspired by folk music and ethnic traditions, are performed internationally and won several prizes, like Nordic Music prize (2010).
  • Njål Sparbo, Singer. Sparbo is one of the most active and versatile singers in Norway, with a repertoire that spans romances, opera, church music, early music and contemporary music.
  • Nils Henrik Asheim, Composer, Organist and Pianist. Asheim has written for both chamber ensembles and orchestra, but has also been working with improvisation and with recomposing of works. He is currently organist at Stavanger Concert Hall. He is educated from the Norwegian Academy of Music and the Sweelinck Conservatory in Amsterdam.
  • Olaf Eggestad, pianist and musicologist. Works on the staff of UiS and is postdoctoral researcher at NMH.
  • Ellen Ugelvik, pianist, fellow at NMH. Pursues an international career as a performer of contemporary music.

For more information about the project and performances click here.