The Art of Repetition 

When we interpret a piece of music, we are engaging with signs & symbols

that represent sounds and with it we are part of an understanding

about what it is that we are repeating, why and how.

Let us imagine that we wake up one day without being able to remember anything, not even our own names. That day, when we hear a church bell ring – the sound of the church bell – we would not know that this sound represents a building, that this building represents a religion, the religion represents values, beliefs and social structures. On that day, all that we have is the sound itself  – tik takHowever, in the world as we know it, the sound of the church bell is embedded in a specific context and carries meaning and so does every piece of music, art, text and poetry.

So when we interpret, read, play any piece of music, a score, a leadsheet, a transcription, we are engaging with signs and symbols, that are connected to specific sounds, that again are connected to many different sounds that represent time periods, values, socio-cultural contexts, aesthetical ideals and so forth. These sounds can indicate social behaviour, codes, sometimes even political ideas, movements, trends. 

So, to interpret any piece of music, score, or leadsheet, be it Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Gershwin or the Blues means to move within specific systems of values and beliefs that we knowingly and unknowlingly repeat, re-enact, connect with, break with and engage with. And because any piece of music is embedded in context and connected to time periods, when we interpret a piece of music we are also always interpreting the past (and the present) with it. In other words, if we repeat signs and symbols that have been written in the past, we can only bring them to our present through repetition. We could say that each single note has already been repeated. In Limited Inc. Jacques Derrida explicitly refers to the Sanskrit word “iteran”* which at the same time means “repetition” as well as “alteration”. Iterability entails repetition and alteration at the same time.  And if we connect iterability with the concept of interpretation being a form of repetition, it means that every interpretation always carries the possibility of change. 


Let us start from the present moment: as I am typing this, the present of each typed letter already becomes my past. Yet with every typed letter, the already typed is expanded. Within this movement, the meaning of the already typed is changing too and from every moment of the present we interpret the past differently. Because the present is constantly moving into the future, while the repetition in the present also redefines our understanding of the past. Hence, our horizon of understanding is also expanding and changing, and the way we interpret and understand sounds, words, objects is never fixed. One could say, therefore, that our past and our present are always co-related and redefining each other at any given moment. 


So where do we start the work of our interpretation? How are, for example, Schubert songs supposed to be sung? This question has followed me since I started working on the adaptation of lieder into songs. In the classical tradition it is common to think in terms of Werktreue or truth to the work, which could be described as a search for origin of the piece of music.  When I sing Schubert songs the way I do, people sometimes ask me if I’m allowed to do so. When they ask me that, they are implying that there must be a version that is considered the correct or ‘original’ way, in which it was sung and heard in the beginning? Yet there is no exact moment of beginning to start from, there is no ‘original’ we can grasp because we cannot experience the moment of origin. The moment we see the piece of music, the white sheet of paper filled with signs and symbols - we are already late, too late - we will never know what they meant in the moment of emerging. And as Arno Böhler states, "Im Anfang ist die Wiederholung" - "In the beginning is repetition"* . The importance in that quote for me lies in the German ‘ImArno Böhler does not say Am Anfang [At the beginning] , he uses Im Anfang [In the beginning], which is an important difference. The ‘Am’ indicates that there is a definitive moment of origin, from where we can start from, whereas ‘Im’ opens up the beginning suggesting that any beginning does not bring a definitive moment of beginning with it, but is embedded in beginnings. We can understand what Arno Böhler means by visualizing drawing a circle in the sand. If we imagine doing so, with the intention of finding how it came to be, we put our finger into the sand and start to re-trace the circle. We re-trace the past in the search for the beginning, for the moment of origin. But by doing so, through the act of retracing, the circle is already changed and we cannot determine the moment of origin, the beginning gets lost. Through retracing, repeating, the circle is altered and every grain of sand is moved into a different position. 


Because every repetition brings with it an alteration, our interpretations of pieces of music, art, text, poetry constantly change. Because our past and present are constantly co-relating and changing, so is the way we interpret signs and symbols, pieces of music, in my case, Kunstlieder. And as I cannot disconnect myself from my everchanging past and present, I interpret pieces of music, lieder/songs and their different ways of being performed from the point of view embedded in my horizon of understanding. 


Every Interpretation could be described as a search through the act of repetition regardless of genre. Melodies could be described as musical sentences notated in signs and symbols, a musical thought that someone left to be repeated and interpreted. And interpreting musical thoughts of a stranger may be as personal as reading a diary, but in a more abstract way – the mindset of a complete stranger, the musical vision of stranger becomes part of your own, making it possible to develop a personal connection with somebody one has never met. I’m repeating, interpreting ideas, thoughts of someone I have never met and with it they become part of my journey, part of my life, part of my performance. Through interpreting we are bringing musical thoughts (back) to life, thoughts that the moment we start to repeat them, haunt us and become part of our thoughts. The obligation towards the composer and the composed lies in exactly that - in us being haunted through repetition. When we interpret we are entering a relationship with the person who left the signs behind for us to discover and when we perform, we are entering a relationship with the audience who experience our self(s) in the process of sharing what we discovered and keep discovering through the art of repetition. It is the different ways of repeating that creates diverse interpretations and different ways of performing them on stage. But regardless of genre, it is the search for our interpretation and our ways of searching that keeps us engaged  Even if we can not catch up with the moment of origin, we can keep searching and like the sound itself, can the search for our interpretations of musical works remain. 









Interpreting as engaging with signs that represent sounds - Werktreue in relation to the search for origin

Bringing our interpretations on stage, our search appears as a blank canvas on which we paint the pieces of music in different colours on a background of white leaving open spaces between one piece of music and another. How do we fill this spaces? How do we draw the line between repeating the past while letting it become our present and presence on stage? 

While in the chapter previous Between the signs I have focused on the notion of interpretation, this chapter focuses on the different ways of performing lieder/songs on stage.  


But what are these different ways of performing made of? The theatre director and performance theorist Richard Schechner roots performativity in experience and in "embodied behavior”*, as he says “Performances – of art, rituals, or ordinary life – are “restored bits of behaviors”, twice behaved behaviors, “ in other words – repeated behaviors that we learned, trained for, rehearsed etc.”* And I agree, for example, the gesture of taking a bow has been repeated over decades and so has every movement we do on and off stage. As I understand Schechner, everything we do, we’ve already done – in life, on stage, off stage, in the practice rooms, the way we play our instruments, the way we sing –are repeated bits of behaviors that shape and build our self(s), our lifes and performances. Every behavior through which we communicate, perform, navigate on and off stage is made up of other behaviors that we then re-arrange, re-emphasize and re-ensemble. In the previous chapter Between the signs, I argue that every interpretation starts with its repetition, with being repeated. I would also say that through the concept of restored bits of behavior, so does every performance. It starts and generates out of repetition. Interpretation and Performance are connected through their core of repetition. But I would also say that the difference in our performances come from different ways of repeating. If we, for example, practice our discipline under the premise of “Werktreue” our behavior might look a lot different than the behavior of a musician coming from a jazz background. 

To investigate this further, let us observe the open space between the songs in
 a classical concert setting and how it is treated differently within a jazz concert setting. I look, for example, at the behavior of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Alfred Brendel in their performance of Schubert's Winterreise to then compare it to my own behavior in the performance of the same lieder as songs of A Winter's Journey.







This demand of invisibility of the performer is quite contradicted in the tradition of jazz performance, in which the opposite –visibility– is expected of the performer. Hence, in my performance of A Winter's Journey, instead of being silent between the songs, I chose to recite excerpts of the poems by Wilhelm Müller. As opposed to holding still, I speak and I look directly into the camera. While singing I move around a lot, exchange looks with my colleagues, walk up and down the stage, I take the microphone off the microphone stand and sometimes I even dance to an instrumental solo. I feel the freedom to do so because the approach in jazz interpretation is not so much aimed at the search for origin. Most of the time it did not matter, whether the musical material came from an Irish folk song like Danny Boy, a Tin Pan Alley song from a mainstream movie or an opera like Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess; the material did matter of course but not in the sense as to repeat and interpret under the premise of the 'Werktreue' ideal. In fact, quite the opposite. The ideal lies in the repetition of the piece of music through jazz vocabulary as in phrasing, scales, swing feel and other elements belonging to this genre to create an interpretation through altering the musical material regardless of where it came from. The interpretation of the piece of music is then performed through the individual on stage and the audience expects the performer to appear through and between the music.  It seems that the differences between classical and jazz performance traditions lie not only in the interpretation of the music but also in the way the moments between the songs are performed. There are many ways of performing and filling the open space between the songs, each genre carrying their own traditions but through all, the common ground, the musical works, the white sheet of paper filled with signs and symbols written for musicians and performers waiting to be repeated, remains. These signs do not sound on their own, they signs were created to be repeated, re-interpreted and being brought to life through performing and ways of performing. The open space between the songs as well as the music itself is open for interpretation and re-interpretation. 


A Winter's Journey live

performed by Julia Pallanch*


lieder/songs  on stage

Here the open space between the songs is filled with silence, a stillness that creates tension, in which we can only hear and see the pianist turning the pages of his song book ‘Liederbuch’, while Fischer-Dieskau moves calmly and slowly in between the songs, his movements are static, rooted in stillness. They are both dressed in dark colours and sober clothes, filling the open space between the songs by holding still so that it almost feels like the songs have no end and the silence in between becomes part of the lied. With their behavior they are suggesting that they don’t want to take away any focus from the music. They make themselves disappear in order to let the music shine through them and with that ‘behaving’ in a tradition that demands from performers that they are invisibile. Quoting Stravinsky, Lydia Goehr describes this image well of the invisible performer: “For Stravinsky it was a 'moral responsibility' that the best performance be one that most successfully negates its own presence. The demand here is for performance transparency: performances should be like windows through which audiences directly perceive works. Sometimes the demand is also for performers invisibility.”* For me, the problem of this view is that to “directly perceive" a work, as Stravinsky says, suggests the idea(l) of an origin, a fixed moment of emergence of the work, and that the performer’s goal should be to re-create this moment  in spite him/herself or the present moment. But this is impossible. For that to happen, performers should have the ability to repeat unique circumstances – a contradiction in itself as no event can copy another event, for there are endless factors, behaviors, tone of voice, background noise, body language that make each instance unique. 

When I compare the way of performing Winterreise in the classical setting to my own performance of A Winter’s Journey, it presents itself very differently, although it is the same repertoire. Coming from a jazz background I was inspired by the ways of performing of for example, Charlie Chaplin, Judy Garland or Frank Sinatra, as I describe more detailed in the next chapter.

The artistic challenge of working in-between genres and practices was, on the one hand, to find my interpretation of lieder/songs and on the other, the appropriate way of behaving on stage in-between these lieder/songs. Coming from a background as a jazz interpreter I was inspired by the ways of performing of the likes of Judy Garland, Charlie Chaplin or Frank Sinatra. 


For instance, Judy Garland's performance of the song Swing Mr. Mendelssohn Swing from the movie Everybody Sing (1938), fascinated me for her natural way of combining classical material and jazz idioms. In this scene (see video), young school pupil Garland sings as part of a well-behaved girl’s choir. When the teacher leaves the classroom, Garland starts to improvise over the harmony of Mendelssohn’s Frühlingslied, which leads to a different and jazzy interpretation of the song. As the  teacher returns, Garland is kicked out of the classroom. What is interesting about this scene is that the idea of ‘breaking the rules’ is present both in the story of the scene – Garland rebelling and being kicked out of the class – and in the combination of musical genres, breaking the rules of classical interpretation by introducing jazz idioms. In other words, Garland performs ‘rule-breaking’ both through her interpretation of the music as well as through the subversion of the behaviour expected from her in the context within which she's singing. This example directly connects to my work regarding the re-interpretation of classical material, in my case, Kunstlieder. Watching it, and Garland's self-confidence as she moves from classical to jazz makes me realise my own insecurities about how to act on stage when performing my lieder/song, or rather, how to be on stage when 'not singing' in the performances of my lieder/song. 

Charlie Chaplin’s way of performing becomes language


This scene from the movie Modern Times is the first time in Chaplin’s filmography that we can hear the tramp's voice. Chaplin has always been a huge inspiration to me, I admire his universal artistic language and that he is able to integrate everything at once - acting, dancing, singing – while he is always telling a story. We see him rehearsing backstage for the song that he is about to perform in front of an audience in a restaurant. Because he keeps forgetting his lyrics, his co-star writes the lyrics on his cuffs. For a second we can read just the beginning of the story he is about to sing and perform. Chaplin’s every move, every gesture is already telling and preparing us to what is about to happen. He is constantly interpreting movements, gestures and human behavior. The moment he walks out, and presents himself to the audience he loses his cuffs and with them the lyrics; therefore, when he starts to sing, he sings in gibberish. Yet, although the words themselves do not make any sense, we still attach meaning to Chaplin's every sound, movement and gesture, weaving a story around them. As such, his way of performing becomes a language of its own, that we are free to interpret as we please. What inspires me in this exapmle is that his gestures and movements are equal to his singing, to his ‘words’. On the contrary to Sinatra’s example, where the talking becomes equal to singing. Now, in Chaplin’s case, every movement becomes equal to language, becomes language. This encourages me to not only approach the in-between on stage to connect through directly addressing and talking to the audience but to communicate through gestures, movements. That could be simple gestures like drinking a sip of water on stage but instead of treating it as something that is a habit, letting it become a movement that is part of a concert, part of performing. In addition to that, in his example we follow the story leading up to his singing and we continue his story through out the music. His words are not necessarily the key to understanding the story of the song but his movements become the lyrics. Chaplin’s example reminds me that the way we behave and the story we tell around the songs, the chosen body of work has an impact of how the music is heard, which further encourages me to observe my own way of behaving and moving on stage and to look more closely at the stories I tell around and between the lieder/songs? 

Or shall I, like Frank Sinatra, speak to the audiences in a classical venue like I would in a jazz club, or should I be silent between songs in a jazz club like Fischer-Dieskau would in a classical concert? In the live recording of a concert with the Count Basie Big Band At the Sands, midway through his set, he performs a 15' monologue that is known today as The Tea Break and that is featured on the album as its own track. By doing so his monologue, his talking is becoming an equal part as his singing. In addition to the importance that he gives to the spoken word and to addressing the audience, it is the way he performs talking, that fascinates me. He chose where and for how long to fill the open space between songs, which is exactly half-way through his set,  while saying almost nothing between the songs before and after he reaches that point. When he gets to his monologue it almost feels like a break in between sets, where he takes time, relaxes, starts to have a conversation with the audience, connecting with the audience through making jokes, sharing stories about his colleagues and himself. He lets us know his star sign, his birthday and where he grew up, yet always keeping a certain distance where we feel he is in control and consciously chooses what he wants to share. He is making it seem so easy to engage and connect with his audience. And this is what I admire the most. When I compare it to my own behavior between the songs, I often see myself rushing or feeling the pressure of having to say something between every song, sometimes shifting into a different role, a more private Julia on stage. Whereas Sinatra seems to stay in his role as the singing and talking performer. One could say his monologue is a mixture between a Stand-Up Comedy Set and telling personal stories. He is taking his time, building up to his punchlines and leading away and back to the music. I found another version of the Tea Break and I noticed that he uses the same structure and even a few of the same jokes and anecdotes, which shows that he prepared the material, which suggests that he chose his words as carefully as he chose when and how he performed them; like he chose his songs and the way he performed them. When he sings, he tells stories, when he speaks he tells stories. He ends his monologue by directly leading into the next song You Make Me Feel So Young with the words “Now I better start to sing before I turn 51, I mean 29”. The transition is organically, the piano comes in when he says “29”,  suggesting that this line could be a cue for the band. I would very much like to include aspects of his way of performing the in-between in my concerts, like choosing a specific moment during the concert where I take time to connect with the audience and not letting the open space simply pass by but really using it, deciding on when I would address the audience and what I want to convey with what I’m saying.

My transcription from my personal archive

examples of in-between  on stage

Judy Garland performing Swing Mr. Mendelssohn Swing

Scene taken from Everybody Sing (1938)*

The Tea Break performed by Frank Sinatra from the album At the Sands with Count Basie Big Band conducted and arranged by Quincy Jones

Charlie Chaplin's Non-sense song* from Modern Times