Hard Times: Lecture performance as gestural approach to developing artistic work-in-progress

Falk Hübner



Another example is the Cheap Lecture (2009) by dancer/choreographer Jonathan Burrows and composer/performer Matteo Fargion. A video of the first part of the performance lecture can be seen at:


Guitarist and researcher Stefan Östersjö used a combination of live guitar playing and the showing of a number of video excerpts from finished artistic productions together with a slide presentation and talking in his presentation Go to Hell at the EPARM conference in Graz, April 2015.


Also in April 2015, pianist-researcher Anna Scott presented her research at Utrecht University of the Arts as part of the series Setting the Tone. Here she performed on the piano, ran a slide presentation and wrote on a white-board interactively with audience and students who were present. These students were both playing/performing in the lecture performance as well as taking part in a master class at the same time, thus literally experiencing the argument Scott made as well as communicating this to the audience through doing.




Recordings from the artistic sections within the lecture performance in Prague, filmed by a participant of the conference.

A possible version of one part of the final sections of Hard Times. (This video is from a recording made at the ISIS conference in Utrecht in April 2015, not in December 2014. However, the section itself had not been changed in the intervening time.)

In recent years, the discourse and relevance of artistic research [1] has increasingly expanded within international academic contexts, and artistic researchers have devised and practiced a plethora of possibilities for the dissemination of artistic research. This exploration has included available forms of "publication" as well as more live and embodied forms of dissemination, mostly in the form of lectures or lecture performances. Just one of the many utterances that manifest this tendency for dissemination outside traditional academic formats is the Research Catalogue itself.


Just for the sake of clarity, and to create a basis for discussion, I am working here with an opposition: theory and practice. I am aware and strongly convinced that artistic practice and theoretical reflection should be and are in a lively exchange with each other and constantly interpenetrate each other in ever-changing variations when it comes to the actual practice of artistic research and its dissemination. However, I am using this opposition to support my argument and with the hope that this argument will become clear by the end of the text. Additionally, in many conferences the opposition of artistic work and theoretical framework is still clearly present. In most cases, (recordings of) artistic work is/are used as either material for interpretation (this is the case in many academic presentations within e.g. the fields of musicology or theatre studies) or as illustration of an argument (as in many presentations of finished artistic research projects that are adapted to more traditional academic forms of presentation). [2]

Lecture performance as form


Lecture performance as such is not a new phenomenon. Artists have been experimenting with the form since the 1960s as a sub genre of performance art. According to Alex Martinis Roe, "[t]he Lecture Performance explicitly thematizes the relationship between art and knowledge, respectively research, as well as art and its mediation" (Roe 2012, n.p.). Since then, artists and scholars have experimented with diverse possibilities of the form, which in itself bears the potential for a considerable number of different sub-forms. Extremely versatile modes exist in which lecture and performance are literally mixed and merged: the performance is the lecture and vice versa. Probably one of the most famous examples is the lecture performance Product of Circumstances (1999) by choreographer, dancer and molecular biologist Xavier Le Roy. [3] In this work, Le Roy tells the audience about his studies and doctoral research in molecular biology and his parallel development as a dancer. In between the lecture sections, Le Roy performs a variety of different dance sequences. According to dance scholar Gerald Siegmund, Le Roy uses this form to thematise his desire for the body as both object and subject of biology as well as dance: as the body is the subject of both biology and dance, he relates both to each other through dancing (Siegmund 2006: 374-377). Theatre and dance scholar Jochem Naafs points out that with Product of Circumstances, "the dance scene has found a form in which it is able to communicate dance through words without losing some of its key elements: the lecture performance" (Naafs 2015: 51).


When artistic research is framed and presented within academic contexts, the lecture performance provides possibilities to creatively blur the boundaries between artistic work and theory or reflection. Artist-researchers regularly use variations and combinations of performance, lecture, slide presentations and video or audio material. As just two examples amongst many, the reader can find short descriptions of lecture performances by guitarist Stefan Östersjö and pianist Anna Scott on the left.

However, what I envision here comes from a slightly different angle. In the course of this text, I propose to use the form of a lecture performance in academic contexts not so much as a means of disseminating research findings, but rather as an integral part of the process of both artistic work and research process. I am proposing a form of lecture performance not based on a unifying understanding, where the lecture in itself is the performance (although it always is, too), but much more from an "inter"-perspective with two strong and distinct positions: the artistic work on the one hand and the theoretical-conceptual framework on the other as two distinct processes that are shared with a conference audience. The form of lecture performance that I am investigating here has a fairly simple format: it combines a frontal lecture, usually with a projected slide presentation and live performance of "real" artistic work(s). As such, this form could easily be termed "lecture and performance". As straightforward and banal as this sounds, it is crucial to see and experience "the real thing", live and as a performative act carried out by the actual performer, not as an example or illustration and mediation of the work, but as itself.


As suggested already, two aspects, which do not apply to either Scott or Östersjö, are of essential importance: first, the aim of this approach to lecture performance is not the mere communication of research outcomes or results, but it is about sharing a work-in-process, not yet finished and still genuinely open for comment, critique and questions. As a result, the lecture performance in itself is part of the research and is part of the artistic process. Second, it is important to note that, rather than organising an audience talk following a tryout performance (as it is common in the theatre scene), I attempt to utilize the presence of an audience of a conference to garner comments and questions. In this way the audience members themselves - as artistic or academic peers - become active participants in the research and artistic process.

The reductive approach to musicians as theatrical performers


In the following sections I continue by detailing a framework for the artistic research project that is used as a case here. I will carry you over hard times is a performance that I created in the context of a larger artistic research project investigating reduction. With reduction I refer to the approach of removing key elements of a performer's profession (in my case musicians), mostly in theatrical or performative situations, with the aim of transforming the musician into a theatrical performer. The performance is a continuation of my doctoral research Shifting Identities, finished in November 2013 [4]. More specifically, Hard times continues the line of choreographic works such as Thespian Play [5] and Wasteland [6], works that remove external elements of musical profession (such as the instrument) and investigate the choreographic potential of musical movements, resulting in so-called “musical choreographies” [7].


In most of the theatrical situations where musicians "perform", their profession is extended, which means that they not only sing or play their instruments, but also perform additional tasks such as walking on stage or reciting text. These diverse tasks, and the struggle and effort to perform them, result in the extension and transformation of the musician into a theatrical performer. As an alternative strategy to the use of new elements, reduction (or the reductive approach) introduces and focuses on the subtracting of specific qualities or abilities of the musician's profession. The audience watches musicians not doing certain things they are used to, such as performing without instruments. Exactly through subtracting the instrument, but still employing musical actions as performative material, it is possible to discover and develop new choreographic potentials within the musician's performance. 


The concept of extension and reduction builds upon the musician's professional identity as a basis of what can be extended or reduced. Based on the performativity theories by Judith Butler (1988), identity is constructed through oral and bodily acts; it unfolds in action. It is essential to understand that, as Butler notes, an identity "is in no way a stable […] locus of agency from which various acts proceed; rather, it is […] an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts" (Butler 1988: 519). This understanding of an essentially unstable identity, constituted by (changing) performative acts, serves as point of departure for the framework of the musician's professional identity here. I consider the following four aspects to be critical when it comes to describing what a musician actually does while making music [8]:


  1. production of sound (including silence)
  2. the instrument as "non-human actor" (Latour 2005: 72)
  3. gestures produced by the musician in more or less direct relationship with the produced sound
  4. the "musical persona" (Auslander 2006), a concept entailing how the behaviour of musicians might change depending on (social) context


These aspects lead me to the triangular concept of describing the musician's actions by means of three groups of elements: the internal, external and contextual elements of a musical profession. External elements are physical objects not belonging to the musician's body, such as the instrument and necessary tools for playing the instrument (such as bow, drum sticks, mallets, mutes for brass instruments). Internal elements are, on the one hand, physical abilities such as breathing and finger technique and, on the other hand, emotional and intellectual capabilities, such as the control and interpretation of time or specifically musically-trained listening. Contextual elements are not so much linked to the musician's body, but rather deal with the context in which a musician is performing, such as a large theatre vs. a small jazz club, an open-air festival stage or the public space.


This framework of elements is the basis for what is actually extended or reduced. Taking away the musician's instrument, as one of the essential pillars of the musician's professional identity, can have radical consequences, both for the reception of performance as well as the musician herself. In my experience, it is exactly the absence of the instrument that provokes theatricality.

Hard Times - Introduction to and concept of the artistic work


Although a significant amount of work has been realised, and both the main concepts as well as the practical-artistic contributions have materialized, several aspects of reduction remain to be explored further: I seek to approach the concept from various points of view not yet investigated as well as through more refined relationships between sound and movement.


I will carry you over hard times (called Hard times from here on) is a performance for percussion player, objects and four channel soundtrack. I have created this artistic work as composer and director in close collaboration with the performer, percussion player and music theatre performer Maarten Zaagman. [9] In the work, Zaagman performs a musical choreography without instruments, miming movements that are synchronized with sounds emanating from four loudspeakers, within an absent setup of classical percussion instruments. Please see the video on the left for an impression.


In the course of the performance the initially empty stage becomes filled with objects related to classical percussion playing: various kinds of mallets, music stands, sheet music. The performer becomes more and more occupied with manoeuvring between the various absent instruments and bridging the distance between them in the stage space, ending in an absurdist "tour de force" approaching the boundaries of what is physically possible.

But, speaking from a collaborative and artistic point of view, what is the point of letting a musician perform without his instrument? What is the fascination behind the idea of a musical choreography, a choreography performed by a musician without his instrument? Why expose him to such an uncomfortable situation? Well, the taking away of the instrument creates a tension, a state of increased awareness, which makes it interesting and fascinating for the theatrical stage. The musician has to bridge the long-trained, now missing familiarity with his instruments; and it is this additional effort which makes something else visible: the performer can become really visible (compared to performing with instruments), "bringing a focus on the bodily performative quality much more effectively than in most music making with an instrument." (Hübner 2014: 176)

Artistic research


As a new, previously less explored, element of the Shifting Identities research, space is taken into consideration much more in Hard Times, or, to be more precise, the potential of musical bodily movement in a space. Previous works in the research into reduction, such as Thespian Play or Wasteland, do include a focus on choreography but tend to leave the performers relatively anchored to the spots where they are performing; while Thespian Play keeps the performer standing on one specific spot throughout the entire length of the work, Wasteland begins to break this up, incorporating slightly more movement. In the latter piece, the performer "travels" from one position to the next, performing one or more sections in a certain, relatively fixed, location until he travels again to the following position.


The aspect of moving through a space (rather than executing choreographed movements while standing in one fixed place) is one of the major areas of exploration in this new piece and was so from the outset of the concept. In fact, the nature of the classical percussionist's profession invites such an approach: moving between a large number of different percussion instruments, organised in space, is everyday practice for the average percussion player in an orchestra or classical music ensemble. As soon as these instruments are eliminated, made absent, I, as composer-director, am left with a great number of possibilities for spatial arrangements, without needing to consider the "real-life" limitations, inherent within a space full of percussion instruments, on the movement and navigation between these instruments. What I aim to do in this work is to design what I call a "virtual setup": an absent percussion setup within which the performer navigates while performing, and which becomes established in the audiences' imaginations through the musician's performance. In the video on the left it is possible to see this process of removing the instruments, arranged in the rehearsal space [10].

Process of the work until the first iterations of the lecture performance


In the initial rehearsal phase we started to collect various materials around the idea of miming the marimba and other percussion instruments. This resulted in a series of studies for marimba and developing a movement vocabulary with the general idea of mime, including small interventions such as leaving out notes from the soundtrack. The final study resulted in the choreography in the video above.


As a first result of the process, the studies created up to this point were presented by Falk and Maarten in the performance lecture Reduction as a means to enhance visual and choreographic potential in musical performance at the 5th global conference of Inter-disciplinary.net, “Visual Aspects of Performance Practice”, November 2014 in Prague [11].


The structure of the presentation had two layers. One was the verbal and visual presentation, laying the theoretical framework for the research into reduction, with information similar to what I have outlined above. This was intersected with sections of performance by Maarten Zaagman, presenting the work-in-progress live.



As the main approach to the lecture performance in Prague was sharing the state of our process at that point in time, it is rather difficult to present any kind of finished conclusions as concerns outcomes. However, the presentation and live performance of the various fragments of the work-in-progress sparked a fruitful discussion at the conference. Audience members shared and discussed their associations after having watched the performance. One of these associations concerned a section in which the performer left out several notes, while miming others. Audience members were experiencing the "missed notes" as a metaphor about the things we miss in life, for example. The focus on these missed notes, combined with the associations, brought me to other ideas in the artistic work. As the performer looks at the notes he "misses", he could also look to a different place in the performance space. This place can be the spot for the next location to play at. The performer continues to follow the things he might miss in life, with ever more desperation, as he never finds what he seeks.


One result of these admittedly rather artistic and associative steps, has been the next objective within the work process, a radicalization of what I termed "movement in a space". This movement will become much more extreme, to the point of total exhaustion of the performer. Within the work, the musician-performer will be moving between the different "virtual instruments" to such an extent that his physical presence will be radically intensified through relentless physical movement: running, rushing, jumping, eventually falling. This idea is a direct result of the stage of the work shown in Prague and at the same time adds a facet to the idea of "musical choreography" that I have not explored earlier. Interestingly, exhaustion has occurred quite frequently in the performing arts since the second half of the 20th century: the energetic and extreme choreographies of Belgian choreographer Wim Vandekeybus are just one well-known example; the physical theatre of the young Dutch collective Schwalbe [12] is another. However, in musical performance, physical exhaustion is much less common. The reason for this might be relatively straightforward: at least in classical and jazz music, total physical exhaustion is not the most conducive to playing an instrument or singing properly. A counterexample could be found in popular music, where artists such as Michael Jackson introduced the combination of singing with physically extremely demanding dance moves. However, exhaustion here is more possibly a side effect (in the case of less-trained performers), rather than a goal in itself––it is meant to be invisible, to be hidden behind show, entertainment and amazement. In my new artistic work, I strive for the exact opposite, to make this exhaustion explicit and tangible, the process made visible and experienceable. Strangely, it is exactly the absence of the instruments that seems to make this approach toward exposing exhaustion more possible.


How small the impact of this discovery might possibly be, there is one point I would like to make as a first sub-conclusion. What the presentation at the conference, the subsequent discussion and the ensuing reflection reveal is the extent to which such a lecture performance can have an impact on and how much it can benefit a process of artistic research. The presentation that Maarten Zaagman and I gave in Prague had the essential aim of sharing the process. The inspiring feedback we received brought us to the next phase in which the artistic work will continue to evolve. This could not have occurred in the same way without having presented it while it was in such a vulnerable and inceptive stage. Both as artist as well as researcher, I am grateful for being able to share this contribution to the domain of artistic research presentation and dissemination forms as well as to the field of process-based artistic work.

Imperfection as Play


In December 2014 I presented the lecture performance at the University of the Arts Utrecht. We shared several excerpts from Hard Times. As a last excerpt, in order to demonstrate the idea of movement in space and exhaustion, Zaagman performed a part of the potential closing section of the performance. First, please watch the video on the left.


At the time of the performance in December, the section had just recently been composed, and Zaagman had not had much time to study and rehearse this section to perfection. As a result, he had to use sheet music in order to perform the section, and he did not fully succeed in performing each part of the piece correctly. He was not able to reach every note, among other slips due to the high tempo and the amount of running that was involved. Interestingly, exactly this lack of perfection elicited much response from the audience, triggering a lively discussion about the general idiom of mime performance that is set up in this piece. In fact, even without instruments, the performance communicates the musical profession in some essential aspects: virtuosity, technical perfection, efficiency in moving among different instruments, and rhythmical precision. 

In the beginning of the piece and with almost everything that follows, exactly this perfection stays intact and conveys a great deal of what makes it pleasant and interesting to watch: the closer the musicians comes to perfect synchronization with the soundtrack, the more the impression emerges that he actually produces the sound, regardless of what we as audience actually witness: disbelief is suspended. It is at the point in the concluding section where something of the impossibility of performing this kind of performance task is introduced that the setting, the task itself and the effort to perform it become the subject of the piece in themselves. An intriguing play between the musician and the rhythmical precision of the soundtrack-as-performance task emerges, as the imperfection and impossibility of reaching several notes break the perfectionist and virtuoso element of the piece. This adds yet another interesting layer to the idiom of a mime performance and a musical choreography, which I as composer-director of the piece had not planned or provoked earlier. The idea itself and thus a crucial aspect in the final section of the artistic work is a direct result of the work-in-progress performance and the audience discussion afterwards.

Concluding remarks


At the end of this exposition, it must be pointed out that this additional layer of "imperfection as play" had not previously been part of the idiom I developed. The perfection of performing "playback" was––and still is––an essential element that remains not challenged in any way. Adding an element of play, breaking this perfection and actually making this perfection the subject of a work is a crucial step in the development of this aesthetic. In this sense, the audience's feedback made it possible to introduce a completely new aspect to the idiom of musical choreography and mime setting within a musical performance. I am strongly convinced that this is a benefit of the effort of sharing the work process with the participants of the lecture performance and that this would not have been possible without this audience. Additionally, I am convinced that it requires a professional audience (consisting of peers either from the academic or the artistic side) to not only experience this aspect, but even more to communicate and verbalize this, to bring this into the discussion. When considered the other way around, these reactions, feedback and discussion were provoked in direct response to the chosen form of the lecture performance. It is my conviction that the presence of the performer and the live performance, opposed to merely a mediated presentation of the artistic material, made it possible to elicit this critical feedback.


I proposed to use the mode of conference presentations––in the form of a specific kind of lecture performance––as a means to develop both artistic work and research. In my own practice I investigated this idea by employing it as an integral part of the work process as a whole. As mentioned several times, this involves a different attitude toward such presentations, understood much more as a process of sharing rather than a moment of disseminating results or findings. Seen from the perspective of theatre as an art form that, at the core, works in a collective and co-creative fashion, this approach considerably enlarges the collective community in which such a piece develops: not only the performer and other collaborators take part in this process, but a relatively large and evolving community of critical and well-informed "qualitative experiencers" (Nelson 2010) [13] add to the critical mass that informs this work. This is what ultimately makes the proposed form of lecture performance a fruitful gesture within the process of artistic research, which actively contributes to both the artistic as well as the theoretical aspects of such work.


However, there are challenging possibilities for a further exploration of this approach to lecture performances at conferences, concerning the work with and processing of the audience feedback. Up to this point, the feedback and discussion has not been collected in a structured manner, and neither has the discussion been led in a structured way, but rather remained in a fairly standard "question and answer" mode as usual at conferences. I made notes after the discussion and reflected on these both in theory and (composition and rehearsal) practice, but without a formal framework or dedicated research instrument. In order to further develop and deepen the approach of using both lecture performance and discussion as tools within the artistic process, and as a more valid method in artistic research, it would be fruitful and even necessary to find a form in which the discussion, its process and outcomes is formalized and documented much better: to develop a research instrument for a) designing questions relevant for the artistic and research process, b) creating a form to guide the audience discussion and reflection, c) the collection and processing of the discussion's results. If such an instrument can be developed successfully, the overall approach of this exposition might be able to prove useful not only in my own artistic research process, but become beneficial and effective for the wider community of artistic researchers.


In this text I use "artistic research" as a synonym for what is otherwise often called "research in and through artistic practice" or sometimes "practice-based research". In this terminology I am following Stephen A.R. Scrivener (2009). Furthermore, the approach I take here is very much in line with Henk Borgdorff, who frames artistic research as "an endeavour in which the artistic and the academic are united" (Borgdorff 2012: 3)


I am in no way interested in judging these more traditional forms in any way. The only reason I mention them is to give a basic outline of what is still fairly regular practice at many conferences and to provide a basis for the argument for the form of lecture performance I am about to introduce here.


Video link to a short excerpt of the work:


A video of the whole performance can be seen on:



See: Hübner, Falk (2014). Shifting Identities. The Musician as Theatrical Performer. Amsterdam: International Theatre & Film Books.


With "musical choreography" I delineate the approach of using musical gestures––typically closely related to the instrument and the sounding result––as autonomous movement material.


For a closer examination of these aspects, see Hübner (2014: 71).


At the time of writing, June 2015, the performance is still a work-in-progress, with the aim of being finished before the summer break of 2016. For more detailed information concerning the progress of the piece, please see http://hubnerfalk.com/artistic/music-theatre-performances/hardtimes/


This section was also presented at conferences. It is important to bear in mind that this is not yet an artistically successful part of the final performance but a brief study in order to explore the idea of movement in a virtual setup of percussion instruments.


'Schwalbe', viewed on 11 July 2015, http://www.productiehuisrotterdam.nl/makers/schwalbe.


"Experiencer" is a term that can serve in situations where either “spectator” or “audience” seem to fall too short, suggesting "a more immersive engagement in which the principles of composition of a piece create an environment designed to elicit a broadly visceral, sensual encounter […]." (Nelson in Bay-Cheng et. al 2010: 45)