Regarding the phase of my working methodology that concerns the on-stage enactment of the new performance, I experimented with a number of different possibilities. The simplest modality of performance was the playback of the sonic image in front of an audience. Another one was the design of semi-improvised instrumental parts to be performed together with the playback. This modality proved particularly interesting for the split it generated between the source of sound and the presence of the performer(s). The overlapping of live instruments and electronic soundtrack confounded the audience, as to which was the actual sound source, and how it connected to the on-stage gestures. Finally, another option was the real-time performance and processing of pre-recorded samples through a midi interface.
At this point of my research I was presented with the chance of exploring this relationship in a more complex way. I was asked to design a piece based on one of the Diabelli Variations (1819-23) by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) for a performance with a group of six musicians on acoustic instruments. For this, I decided to experiment with another modality.
In traditional interpretation, from the point of view of the performer music notation has to mediate and guarantee identity between two sounding results: an original one, supposedly imagined by the composer, or performed at his or her own time, and the one entrusted to the performer. This means that both sounding results are considered as already predetermined by the notational medium.The phonocentric delusion is further corroborated by a mode of thinking notation that does not take into account its potential to shape sonic imagination even before the physical act of notation takes place. My claim is that sonic ideas themselves are already “thought” through the notational system. This is true not only of compositional practices that overtly expose this autonomous potentiality of notation, such as Renaissance counterpoint, serialism, or aleatoric music. When any composer starts to write, he or she is not actually, or not only reducing sound to an articulable semiotic unity. At the same time, the existence of a semiotic system – be it notation sensu strictu or instrumental and bodily interfaces, etc. – backwardly shapes the composer’s thought, anticipating the necessity of conveying it, through signs, into the new sonic result of performance. Without the primacy of the symbolic in the Western mode of thinking about sound, the divide between composition and performance – its “allographic” nature – would not be possible. For my work with an ensemble, I wanted to subvert this order between textuality and sound.
The semiotic units of sound are “what is heard”; yet, they are not, or not only an effect of the physical sound on the sense of hearing, but rather its “being-heard-ness”. Being-heard-ness is radically different to the reality of the sound in the world; similar to linguistic categories, musical semiotic units are not material, but mental. For the performer approaching the score, the being-heard-ness of sound subsists prior to sound, and in absence of sound.
In its physical dimension, sound is incommensurable with its reduction into perceivable distinct units. Sound is always a foreign language: if taken as a material event, as a reality, we always lack the a priori understanding that allows us to categorise it into comprehensible, communicable components. When a musician is confronted with phonographic inscription, his or her relationship to a sonic structure is totally different from the one that they would have with its written codification. Such fundamental difference can be explained through what Vincenzo Caporaletti names “neo-auratic codification” [codifica neoauratica] (Caporaletti 2014). The term “auratic” overtly refers to what Walter Benjamin theorised as the loss of the aura in the work of art in the era of technological reproducibility (cf. Benjamin 2008). If Caporaletti agrees with Benjamin on the deprivation of the hic et nunc due to technological replication, he also sees in the medium of phonographic recording “the means for the fixation of some significant indicators of the processual/phenomenal qualities, so as to reconstruct … a new model of ‘auraticity’ through the technological medium” (Ibid., 209, translation mine). The understanding and apprehension of the recorded sound is therefore completely different from that which is embedded in notation. Recording can fix accents and inflections that pertain to sound’s immanent nature and that can never be symbolised. In the words of media theorist Wolfgang Ernst, the fundamental difference between notation and phonographic fixation “lies in an idealistic, aesthetic, even ideological (cosmic-order) idea of sound as opposed to its physical and physiological ‘mediatic’ experience (aisthesis)” (Ernst 2013, 176). This difference is more than a matter of practical “tools”. It expresses a different way of relating to the world.
In the wake of these reflections, I designed a performative condition that would take place through a sort of “osmotic” relationship with the recorded sonic image. When designing my own piece based on the Diabelli Variations, Variation VIII, I wanted the musicians to produce sound through the “adherence of one’s corporality, ‘leaning on’ the physiological dimension of articulation, … transforming and personalising the musical text with micro-variations” (Caporaletti 2014, 228, translation mine). By contrast, what happens in written music is “[the] forcing [of] one’s perception within a visual-mechanistic system, where rhythm issues from the reconstruction of a fragmented sonic idea on the written page in mathematical divisions of notes” (Ibid.).
In Variation VIII, I asked the six musicians to organise the performance according to their listening to and imitation of a soundtrack. In practical terms, the musicians were invited to extract their sonic and gestural performance from the sounds in the recording. What I aimed for through the proximity between the recorded sound and the performed sound was an unbridgeable ambiguity between the real, material, and uncodifiable sound and the being-heard-ness that each musician would construct after such a sound, as its after-effect and not as its foundation. In the making of the soundtrack, I had worked with ambiguous sound qualities, so that what the musicians listened to was not univocal, but contaminated by the irreducible ambivalence of the micro-variations of the physical sound. While trying to adhere as closely as possible to the sound in the track, they would have to choose what to retain of it, i.e. how to listen to it. Performing the piece, the musician would also have to perform his or her listening, testing it with the possibility of refining it infinitely, and in the continuous perceptual fluctuation caused by the impossibility of clearly singling out its being-heard-ness. Moreover, by trying to adhere to the sound through the physical contact of their ear membrane and of their body, and not through the negotiations of the brain, the musicians would lose control over their will: thus being affected, provoked, stirred to produce sound.
The person who in this case takes the role of the traditional “composer” (myself) does not state any “intention”, nor trying to achieve the clarity that alone allows the perpetuation of a faithful performance. I did not ask the group to perform a composition, but to perform a performance. I did this as I wanted to dislodge them from the familiar “of” of interpretation, with its rules and conventions, and to instead create a short-circuit of the “performance of”: performance of performance of performance of performance of… As a result of this infinite inward curvature, performers would have to question their own perception, to face the crisis that the physicality of sound always presents us with, and that notational codification resolves and domesticates. Notation is always “right”, in that it expresses an a-priori mental category that sound will try to conform to later on (according to the ways of the interpretational “of”). By contrast, sound is never “right”. One can try to channel it into a particular perceptional category, but only by having the perpetual doubt of having lost something in the process. While notation aids and disciplines memory, physical sound can only be forgotten. Isidore of Seville wrote that “unless sounds are remembered by man, they perish, for they cannot be written down” (Isidore of Seville [c. 635] 1472, bk iii, chap. 15). It is true, sounds cannot be written down, but they cannot be remembered by man either, except through the deforming duration of forgetfulness.
The fact that this operative methodology starts from a phonographic text might raise some reasonable objections. Not only is the performance dictated by an imitation of a technological reproduction, but performers also have to face a creative impasse that seems even stronger than that which would be forced upon them when needing to interpret a score. At first glance this would appear perfectly in line with a vision of performance in chase of an “original” sound. However, what actually happened in the performance of Variation VIII negates this. The real, physical presence of sound is impossible to retain in one’s consciousness. It always exceeds the mental categories of listeners and performers, or even of composers. In the effort of remembering the sounds in the soundtrack, the memory of these sounds fades away. The absence of a clear rhythm or metrical division sees the performers as being lost in a free fluctuation of temporal duration. Time broadens up. Patterns and articulations become lost. The mind of the performer is no more in communication with itself, but drifts away in the impossible effort to remember a material phonic sequence deprived of the foothold of structure. The possibility of control over the sounding result is forestalled, as the such a result will be constructed not in compliance with explicit parameters, but in its unpreventable difference with the sonic image.
The practicalities involved in working with an ensemble of six people, and the time constraints of the rehearsals, suggested for me to utilise a graphic guide for the performers so that they could identify the segments in the sonic image that they were meant to be performed by each of them. My idea was to facilitate the discerment of pitch ranges, and to clarify the assignment of the different sounds for each instrument. Through mere listening this would have been time-consuming, and complicated by the fact that the sonic image had been produced by utilising different instruments than those that would be used for the live performance. This operation, which could have been substituted by longer working sessions and a workshop approach to the preparation of the performance, proved not only highly contradictory from a theoretical point of view, but also detrimental for the attitude of the performers.
I report here some of the instructions I wrote for the use of the graphic guide:
… you can use this graph as guidance; I suggest using it only after familiarising yourself with the recording.
This is not a score. It is a tool that can help you in the performance of this piece of music. The other – more important – tool is the audio recording, and the two are meant as complementary parts of each other. … It is a visual guideline, and not meant as a graphical support for improvisation.
When reading the graph, keep in mind that:
- the reading order follows that of traditional notation: from left to right, one line after the other from top to bottom;
- the notated space has no precise correspondence with the passing of time. …
- the notes in boxes … are purely referential, and are just there to remind each instrumentalist around which pitches to organise the sounds he or she will produce.
Even if the indications for the kinds of desired approaches to the graphic guide try to be as explicit as possible, and try to state its difference from a prescriptive score (the pitches are indicative, rhythm should not be strict, etc.), they contain a basic contradiction in themselves, in that the guide wants to restore a level of clarity in a process that is meant to unsettle the notion of musical clarity itself.
Even if the process partly worked in the theoretical direction envisioned, some of the musicians in given moments approached the graphic guide 1) as one approaches graphic scores meant from improvisation where graphic symbols are treated as an approximation of rythmic-diastematic notation (for example: a horizontal line is a long note, vertical space on the page corresponds to change in pitch, a waved line is a trill, etc.). This happened despite this possibility being explicitly mentioned in the instructions, and was probably due to the primacy of the visible on musicians that are used to reading from scores. 2) Some of the musicians approached the guide as a prescriptive score (for example: four equal symbols amount to an equal division of a pulse in four parts).
Most of the musicians also resisted the fact that I relied on the impossibility and ambiguity of the process, and were constantly asking me “what I wanted” and if what they were doing “was right”. Deprived of a statement of intention and significance from my side (in a sense, deprived of the score), the function they usually were called to perform (creating a correspondence between score and materiality) was suspended. In other words, professional musicians that were so well trained in the interpretational “of” were thrown off-balance by such a drastic change in the nature of the “of”. Not ready to dispense with “written music”, they were perplexed by a dimension of sound that – as paradoxical as it may seem – interpreters never relate to: physical presence independent from its being-heard-ness.