Sverker Jullander


Exposition: Quest for a Breathing Performance (23/04/2018) by Anu Vehviläinen
Sverker Jullander 21/05/2019 at 12:16

The following peer review was presented to the author during the process and has influenced the final exposition. It is here presented in a slightly edited form.


Sverker Jullander:


It is obvious that the submission is about performance, and as such it would qualify as relevant to the theme. This is not, however, to say that it answers or deals with all the questions in the call. In relation to the questions mentioned in the call, I think that it is closest to “How is performance as research actually done?’ rather than to other questions seeing performance as a ‘medium’ for doing other ‘things’. In other words, for this presentation, performance is the goal or study object rather than the means or medium for something else. The emphasis on the artistic work preceding or leading to performance, or, differently put, having performance as a consequence (an aspect not mentioned in the call). However, I do not see this as a problem.


The most important contribution of the exposition is that it goes into concrete detail in providing an ‘inside’ (auto-ethnographical) perspective of the practice of a concert pianist, dealing with issues such as practising, concert preparation and the actual performance situation. My impression of these parts of the text is one of openness and honesty, which adds to the value.


From a certain perspective, the most rewarding section in my opinion is ‘My technical expertise’. It is basically a demonstration of a way, or method, of practising the piano on a professional level. As such it is well made, and the combination of text and instructive video clips works well.


The exposition is practically all about the author’s own artistic practice. The question of ‘research orientation’ is more difficult to answer. In the introduction, the content of the exposition is described as ‘a private artistic experience’. The use of the word ‘private’ raises doubts about the character of the exposition as ‘research’. On the other hand, it becomes clear that the intention is not for the experience to remain ‘private’ but rather to expose, as far as possible, the ‘tacit knowledge’ of the author-pianist – certainly a legitimate purpose of artistic research. Perhaps ‘personal’ would be a better word here than ‘private’.


There are some quotes about experimentation in connection with artistic research, but not much of a discussion on in what way and to what extent this particular project is experimental in character. It is also difficult to see an experimental design here (as opposed to the previous project presented in Heimonen et al. 2018, in which the author participated), apart from a couple of minor deviations from the conventional concert setting: the presence of the performers on the stage already when the audience enters, and the limitation of applause to after the last piece. Otherwise the setting is an ‘ordinary’ duo concert, including preparations of different kinds.


Another concept, and one that is more relevant to the article’s purpose is that of ‘[artistic] excellence’. It appears in the concluding discussion, but could have been discussed more thoroughly and the author’s points could have been made clearer. The author takes exception to focusing on ‘my excellence’ but writes, a little later: ‘This expertise [the author’s own] stems from a four-decade long education, hundreds of piano lessons and thousands of hours of practicing. That is excellence, …’. But isn’t that also ‘my [the author’s own] excellence’? It is difficult to grasp exactly where the dividing line goes between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ excellence. This might have to do with a certain confusion between (desirable or undesirable) mental attitudes in the concert situation and the concept of artistic excellence as such.


From a research perspective, the strength of the exposition is the detailed account of the pianistic work, where (rightly, I would say) the technical aspects and their significance to the musical result are highlighted. On the other hand, the rather too brief treatment of theoretical aspects is a weakness. Somereferences to previous research on musical performance (e.g. by John Rink and Nicholas Cook), performance anxiety (e.g. by Aaron Williamson), and musical excellence (e.g. by K. Anders Ericsson) could have been in place.


This exposition is certainly of value to pianists (researchers or not). Some more general aspects, such as mental preparation and the question of excellence, should also be of interest to other musicians and performing artists.


The exposition does not initially present a specific research problem, but, especially in the concluding discussion, the question of artistic excellence (its ontology, desirability, and effect on the performance) comes to the fore. It could have been a good idea to formulate some kind of problem or question early on, instead of just taking the reader for a ‘walk’.


The element of actual innovation is not prominent, though the deviations from the conventional recital format may count as such.


The exposition touches on several issues relevant to other performing artists (see my comments on the ‘research orientation’ above). The theoretical contextualization is limited to the idea of experimentation in artistic research, whereas there are other aspects that are more relevant to the content of this article and could have been more developed theoretically. The author’s process in working with the Byrd piece (or parts of it) is well documented (it was probably wise to exclude the other pieces on the concert programme in order to allow a more detailed treatment of this piece).


Other artist-researchers are quoted, especially in the section ‘The experimentation by “Silence Ensemble”’ (which is actually about another, previous research project), but there is not much of a theoretical discussion.


One of the strengths of the exposition is the pedagogically useful account of the author’s work with one of the pieces played in the concert. It could be useful for students to have more accounts of what musicians actually do when rehearsing or practising, not only what they, as teachers, tell the students to do.


The method used is basically a straightforward account of parts of the preparations for a concert, especially (but not exclusively) those relating to the technical aspects of piano playing. On this descriptive level, it works well. As seen in some of my comments above, I think the analysis and discussion could have been more thorough. As to the ‘experimental’ part relating to the concert format, it would have been interesting to see an evaluation also by the audience (but that would perhaps fall outside the realm of ‘pure’ artistic research). It is also a bit strange that the collaboration with the violinist is hardly at all discussed. For instance, how did it affect the concert project that only the author/pianist and not the violinist participated in the previous project with the Silence Ensemble, especially in view of the author’s claim that there is a ‘clear connection between the two events’?


To sum up: the emphasis of this exposition is on the author’s practical work as a pianist. To get a picture of the relationship between this practice and artistic research, one should also read the exposition on the ‘Silence Ensemble’ project, which apparently gave the impetus to the present submission and has a clearer orientation towards [experimental] research. On the other hand, the present submission adds to the ‘Silence’ project in that it, unlike the latter, deals with public performance, which after all is the goal of the work of professional performing artists.


I have no objections to the design from the perspective of legibility and relationship to the contents. The possibilities offered by the Research Catalogue are not fully exploited (apart from the video clips, the exposition could have passed as an ordinary journal article) but this is, of course, not an end in itself. The referencing is correct, as far as I can see, but some of the publications included in the reference list are not mentioned in the text. The text is understandable but the English needs some revision.


Since the music played (William Byrd) is copyright-free, the music example taken from IMSLP and almost all of the videos only feature the author herself (I assume that the violinist has given her permission to publish the last video clip), I see no ethical or legal problems.



  • The descriptions of the author’s work including the detailed account of the work with the Byrd piece are lucid and valuable, not least from a pedagogical perspective.

  • In describing even problematic aspects of her work as a pianist, the author shows honesty and courage.

  • The text brings up important issues related to musical performance



  • The relevance of the quotations on experimentation in artistic research is not obvious, and they follow upon each other without any real discussion

  • Too brief and not quite clear discussion of issues such as excellence (and on the other hand, rather too much space given to the previous ‘Silence’ project, the publication on which the reader can anyway easily access)

  • The relationship between the ‘Silence’ project and the present submission should be more clearly established, but limited to those aspects that are really relevant to the present submission (for instance, the ‘ontological question’ is only relevant to that particular project, not to the present one). It seems strange that one of the two ‘threads’ mentioned in the Introduction actually concerns another project, the results of which have already been published.

  • Very few references are given concerning aspects central to the present project.


Recommendation for improvement:


The author should consider reducing the section on the ‘Silence’ project, leaving only those aspects that are discussed in, or relevant to, the present submission. Perhaps this section could be included in the Introduction, since the previous project undoubtedly forms an important part of the background to the present one.


The discussion of the problem of ‘excellence’ should be extended and clarified.


The text would benefit from references to previous international research, not only on artistic research but more specifically on musical performance.


Long quotations should not follow upon each other without comment.


Since ‘breathing’ figures so prominently in the title of the submission that it might be assumed to be central to the exposition as a whole, the concept could have been developed in the Introduction.


To conclude, I would like to say that, despite the critical comments offered in the course of this review, I have read (and listened to) the submission with interest. The problems discussed are relevant to any [keyboard] performer and my sincere hope is that the exposition will, upon revision, be published.