The Q/A



January 2020


Q: You have recently changed your project description to also include a solo piece composed by yourself. Why?


A: Well, initially I had difficulties choosing a fourth composer to work with, and then my supervisor proposed the idea that I composed something myself. Although this was (and is) a terrifying idea, I thought it was much better than choosing someone random to step into the project. At the moment I am still terrified, but I am equally exited. Luckily.


Q: Why was the idea terrifying?


A: I have never really composed anything before. I have worked with many composers leading up to new works, I have transcribed existing works and made various arrangements and improvised but I’ve never created a piece from scratch. Having collaborated with composers and premiered several pieces over the years, I have a deep respect for the composers’ skills. I mean, it has taken me years and years of focused studies, practice and hard work to get to where I am as a musician and accordionist. I assume the same goes for a composer – it is not something you become overnight merely through vaguely formulated aspirations or from a deep ‘TV-talent-show’-desire. I am certain it takes a lot of knowledge and focused, persevering work to develop as a composer. Essentially, I guess I am simply doubting my abilities. I have no idea where to start.


Q: But all composers – great or not – have been newbies at some point.

Perhaps the problem is your background as performing musician. Your whole musical upbringing was based on playing finished, scored music – either historical or contemporary – which means that you have only been exposed to the finished works. The whole compositional process towards that final score, the inspiration, the trials and errors, the developing or choosing of material, the failures, the doubt, the pivotal decisions, the editing – all this has been more or less obscured. You’ve mainly engaged with finished works of art. And since you stepped foot on the path towards professional musicianship most of these works have probably been of a rather high quality. So now, when having to compose a piece yourself, perhaps you feel you must come up with a perfect and thoroughly composed piece of sounding art more or less directly.  But you do not know how to get there.


A: That sounds very likely! As mentioned, I have worked with composers a lot and premiered a number of pieces, but often the interface between us was limited to an initial introductory presentation of the accordion’s technical abilities. 


Q: Really? And then you received the final score?


A: Well. That is not uncommon. Surely there have also been collaborations [prior to Just Do It!], where I got more information about the composer’s inspirational starting point, or the background of the material developed in the piece? Perhaps it would not be a bad idea to scrutinize my memory of previous collaborations.  


Q: Perhaps not.


A: What a pity I did not document everything back then. Imagine if I had kept a nice log with every step of the collaboration and my corresponding thoughts. It would have been so much easier to go back and learn from the different processes. Now I just need to get going one way or the other. Some weeks ago, I started doing short improvisation sessions on my own, simply to generate material. A kind of flow-of-consciousness-writing through the instrument to explore what might show up if I let my body and mind play around on their own. I imagine that the 33 years I’ve been having a squeezebox strapped to my chest have left some traces or sediments in my sensory system, and maybe they could be interesting to excavate. 


Q: I get it: Instead of a composer imagining sounds that you then have to develop on the accordion – often with new techniques as a result – you want to activate the tacit knowledge within you. That’s interesting. Perhaps. But I can’t help thinking that facing your fear and alleged inferiority when it comes to composing seems to be a personal undertaking. Why is it interesting for your research project?


A: I’m not sure facing my fears as such is interesting for others. What hopefully will be interesting, however, is that unlike the pieces I am commissioning, I will be completely in charge, and I can decide freely what kind of bodily material will be used. This means that my own composition can be some sort of back-up if it turns out that the other pieces are all too similar or if they do not bring forth the needed diversity of bodily performance…


Q: God, that sounds boring: Your reason to create a piece is to make a safety back-up? Do you really think that anything interesting will come out of that?!


A: …well…it’s not…I thought I’d… I mean I’m not…


Q: You’d better have a substantial, profound reason to compose a piece. Or it will be yet another meaningless ‘Study’. Just like the pieces you dislike so much yourself.


A: I know! And I will. It’s just that I am not sure I found this profound reason yet, and when I had to convince the PhD-board to accept adding an auto-composition to the project, it made sense to mention the ‘back-up’ as something meaningful for the project. Another issue, however, is that with a self-composed piece, I will be composing for my own body. I can explore what the difference is – if any – between performing bodily material developed by someone else and performing your own bodily material. 


Q: Do you think there is a difference?


A: I am not sure, but I remember that when I was learning Jennifer Walshe’s SELF-CARE I had to push myself quite a bit – I had never done such things on stage before. Explosive physical movements, screaming, shouting outbursts of texts, doing yoga poses and so on. It felt very liberating for me to be ‘allowed’ to do such craziness on a stage…


Q: I guess we don’t have time to go into the reason for this sensation of liberty?


A: Correct. That’s for another reflection text. But back at the time, I wondered if it were in fact easier to push my limits – to ‘let go’ as they say – because it was Jenny’s piece, meaning that in a way I was not responsible. I was just the medium, the interpreter. 


Q: You think your performance would have been more restricted if you composed the piece – because then you’d be ‘responsible’ for it?


A: That is the question. Is it liberating or inhibiting to perform your own pieces? Is there a lack of responsibility when performing someone else’s piece – does this allow for more freedom in expression on stage? Or on the contrary, is it increasing the expressive potential when you perform your own work, because you have generated the material and made all the decisions in the process. The piece builds on your own intentions – and who knows them better than you?


Q: Is this a matter of doubt?


A: What do you mean?


Q: As I hear it, you are wondering what circumstances let you perform to the fullest?


A: Yes, that’s another way to put it.


Q: Right. I imagine you can only be free and fully present on stage, if you are not in doubt about what you are doing.


A: Because if you doubt then a fraction of you will inevitably and constantly be evaluating?


Q: Exactly. So, when someone else has written the piece, you are not ‘responsible’ for it, someone else already made the decisions. And without responsibility, in a way, you can allow yourself to not care, and not caring limits the risk of doubting… 


A: …and when you perform your own piece, you are responsible for it and thus start doubting it on stage? I don’t think so. Only makes sense if you are either not satisfied with your own piece or if you generally doubt your own abilities. Don’t forget that since Cook, ‘the piece’ in fact is the performance.[1] So there is no way of separating them. 

I do agree, however, that doubt blurs the performance, so as performer I need to eliminate it – or at least put it aside in the moment of performance. But is that not obvious? This is something I constantly ask of my students: Always know what you intend – if you are uncertain about it, it will never communicate sharply to the audience. Regardless of who the composer is.


Q: I see. So actually, it makes no difference if you compose a piece yourself? 


A: I DON’T KNOW! I’m trying to find that out by writing my own piece, goddammit.




December 2022


Q: Wauw. You finally did it. 


A: I did.


Q: To be honest I nearly lost faith. I thought you’d dropped the idea with some kind of excuse that it wouldn’t be of relevance for your PhD after all.


A: Me too.


Q: So why didn’t you? I mean drop it? To me there are reasonable arguments for doing so – especially that your PhD is not seeking to investigate the composer-performer relationship.


A: …or that there seemed to always always ALWAYS be more important tasks to do. Whenever a concert was approaching, the importance of my own composition paled instantly compared to practising.


Q: I see. You’re a musician, you want to practise and do well. 


A: Of course. I know what it’s like being on stage, and I know that being under-prepared on stage is the most horrible feeling. Partly because I don’t want to embarrass myself, and partly because I hate when I’m not able to unfold what I think the piece deserves (regardless of the audience’s opinion). So, avoiding this feeling is generally a strong force of motivation. 


Q: And a convenient excuse? I imagine that practising is a type of work that has a solid frame and a more or less clear goal? It’s comfortably familiar to you compared to the blank canvas of composition?


A: Partly true. But I needed to practise a lot in order to properly investigate some of the new strategies, for example what I learned through the SingingBody for My favourite piece or the dance lessons for the Pop Star in PERSONHOOD. And let’s not forget that all new works are far from ideal at the premiere and that most of my PhD pieces only had their premiere so far. So they still need far more rehearsal time. 


I think that for a long time I struggled to find strong enough reasons for throwing myself into the deep ice-water that was the composing process. And additionally, some senior members of the international Artistic Research milieu actually questioned my composition-endeavour at a presentation I made. They felt there was already more than enough material in the project and advised me to rather focus on the reflection than risk blurring things by opening new fields of inquiry.


Q: Who said that?


A: Oh, I’ll keep the name to myself. Just someone, who has been in the AR game for a long time. At first, I was a little provoked by this – I mean ‘can decide about my own project, thank you very much’ – but at the same time it was an almost relieving support of my inner resistance against the composition task. To be honest I was starting to freak out about the approaching deadline for the PhD, feeling that I hadn’t produced any valuable reflection material at all. Subsequently, however, a composer-friend of mine strongly encouraged me to carry on! He wished that everybody would get the chance to compose at some point in their life, and he was sure it would develop me as a musician. 


Q: So we’re back at what I said in our first talk years ago: The composing challenge is of value to you as personal ‘artistic development’ going from performer to the so-called ’performer-composer’. But what’s its value in your PhD project? And how could it possibly be interesting for a broader artistic field?


A: I have been asking myself the same questions. A part of me was intrigued by the prospect of composing a piece – so many other performers in the field are making their own pieces – and another part of me wanted to overcome the apparent – and somewhat pathetic – tension within me. And on a practical note, I had already committed to perform my own piece in Hamburg at the Festival für Immaterielle Kunst in September 2022, so I really had to create it. However, I secretly made the agreement with myself, that the piece didn’t necessarily have to be part of my PhD. This was somehow liberating for me.


Q: Did this kickstart the composing process?  


A: No. Not immediately. Spring and summer of 2021 were insanely busy with activities that needed a lot of practice. The good thing was, that the curator of Festival für Immaterielle Kunst, vocalist Frauke Aulbert, kept getting back to me again and again asking for information about the piece: How long would it be, what equipment would I need, which themes would include and so on. Maybe they needed the information for practical reasons (venue/tech, fundraising, booklets) – or maybe Frauke knew that a musician like me needed constant nudging/pressure to step over the threshold. 


Q: She’s clever.


A: Indeed. And it worked. Partly thanks to Frauke, partly because I had such a guilty conscience that I didn’t manage to write the piece for Only Connect in Oslo back in the springwhen Bjørnar Habbestad so kindly offered to present it. I was sick and tired of my own many excuses.

 So from 1 August I blocked my calendar more or less until the premiere at FIK on 15 September. This gave me about 6 weeks, and since the piece should be 5-8 minutes I thought (hoped) this would be enough. 


Q: Can you briefly tell me how you got from pretty much nothing to a finished piece?


A: It wasn’t from ’nothing’. The accordion free-improvs I mentioned in our first conversation turned out to be uninteresting, but during the lockdown I experimented with some of Jerzy Grotowski Plastiques exercises. I intended it to become a daily routine, but that never happened. Nonetheless, I set out by watching the Odin Theatre’s instruction video and got fascinated by some of the hand movements [2] – especially by watching the teacher perform them: so flexible and fluent, almost fluid. Very expressive. He was completely engrossed in the movements – whereas the students seemed stiff and a bit distanced. I wanted to use this hand movement somehow. 


In addition I had long been thinking about Tourette’s Syndrome and how the ticks associated with this condition suddenly change people’s behaviour in unpredictable and totally disconnected ways – at least as seen from the outside – the way these totally uncontrolled sudden ticks break, or even defy, the lacquered surface of our civilized social interaction. There’s no way we can know what really happens inside another person – although Google and Facebook and other ‘surveillance capitalists’, as Shoshana Zuboff calls them [3], strive hard to do exactly that. 


And as something exemplifying utterly controlled civilization, I thought of Japanese tea rituals. Initially the idea was that I should sit on my knees and play the accordion, but then the instrument was hanging too loosely on my body to make loud accents with the bellows. But the Japanese connection remained as I used chords from the traditional Japanese mouth organ shō – ancient predecessor of the accordion – as a basis for the piece. 


Q: Ok, so you had some ideas. But then what?


A: I got in touch with my co-supervisor, composer Manos Tsangaris, who helped me to finally start up the composition process, then I met him on zoom maybe every 7-10 days. The sessions were short, but they were a huge help. Partly because of Manos’ specific feedback on what I had produced and where I was in the process, partly because he was absolutely confident that the piece would be ready in due time for the premiere.


Q: Ah the good-old ‘I have faith in you’? 


A: Haha, yes. It works every time. At least when it comes from someone with such massive experience both as composer and composition teacher. In general, it was fantastic to get advice from a person who really knows the drill from his own practice. One has to do it to know it, right? The ’Master-Apprentice Model’ hasn’t outlived its usefulness yet.


Q: So what were the most useful pieces of advice?


A: Well, the first one was about discipline: to work every day for a specific, limited, period of time, for example two hours, with no distractions whatsoever – no internet, no phone, no nothing – and to endure the tension when I felt stuck. Stay in the room and stay with the piece no matter what for the full two hours, and accept that even the slightest progress, maybe just a single thought, was an acceptable result, and that these two hours would be enough – that I could leave the piece with good conscience for the rest of the day. 


Q: Only two hours? That’s a pretty mild workday?


A: Yes. However, avoiding all kinds of distractions made the hours very focused and efficient. My thoughts would never drift too far away from the task – even when taking a break. When I practise music, I am often less disciplined: although I practise for more hours, I often check my phone or mail or do other things in every small break. I think I’ll avoid that from now on.  Furthermore, the ‘permission’ to let it go after the two-hour session was helpful, and probably necessary keep a relaxed, open – and creative – state of mind, especially when the whole situation was so new for me. 


Q: I imagine that stamina will accumulate over time – as when practising music. Any other good advice besides the work discipline?


A: One important thing was that I should be aware of the difference between a piece being a collage presenting disparate materials and ideas, and a piece that organically merges materials in a development that the audience can understand. And another big issue throughout the process was how to notate everything in a way that other performers would clearly understand it. 

Manos generally refrained from making personal aesthetic judgements about the actual music I wrote. Sometimes I was almost hoping he would, though, but of course he couldn’t – and shouldn’t – interfere with my subjective decisions. What is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ anyway? 

Instead, he commented on structural aspects and gave ideas for ways to develop the material.


Q: It was composition lessons, right?


A: Absolutely. But I guess this is different from lessons in music: for the performing musician, the creative process lies in the interpretation, which means that personal creative choices – what the student develops and presents – can be discussed and even judged in relation to the existing score. But the personal creative choices of composition are not relating to or depending on something in that manner.

Anyway. Another good advice was to think of my piece as something on the way to something else, for example as a ‘Study’ in a row of studies to come, rather than ’The Big Masterpiece’. Again – as when calling it a day after only two hours – to avoid the tension and stress from big expectations that so easily suffocates creativity, and to stay present in the process rather than focusing on the end result.


Q: It sounds like being present in the moment of performance rather than thinking ahead on what comes next.


A: That’s right. Maybe it would have even aided the creative process if I actively worked on being in Patsy Rodenburg’s ‘Second Circle’ [4] of energy in the two-hour sessions. I’ll have to try that next time. 


Q: ‘Next time’? This makes me curious! 


A: Well, I don’t have anything specific in the pipeline, but the process with Manos was quite inspiring, so I’ll not rule out the possibility of attempting to write another little study. 


Q: Time is flying, but before we end, I’d like to briefly go back to your research project. Did you achieve what you had hoped for by composing a piece of your own?


A: That is a good question… Partly, yes. Although the bodily performance is very limited in my piece, it does include something that none of the other pieces have: the combination of accordion playing and non-instrumental bodily movements. Merging right hand gestures with left hand accordion sounds opens for a new kind of polyphony, which could be interesting to explore further. Especially if the accordion part would be more interesting than what I managed to write this time.


When it comes to reflections on the co-creating performer, I think my respect for the composer’s work has only grown – perhaps I’ll even have slightly more sympathy with them when delivery deadlines are crossed – but the challenge of precisely notating my own material has strengthened my view that a score is hardly ever more than a shadow of the sounding piece. The performer is co-creator of the piece. Regarding the discussion we had about potential differences between performing my own rather than someone else’s composition, I don’t think there’s much of a difference if the co-creating performer role is taken seriously. 


However, in this my piece still feels a bit like a study to me, which of course isn’t so motivating for future performances. 


Q: Even more reason to write another piece?


A: Haha, true. I’ll consider it.