Jostein Gundersen, Alwynne Pritchard, Ruben Sverre Gjertsen
Although simplistic in its overall design (composers, performers, shared material), Wheels within Wheels was a complex project to manoeuvre. It was a meeting of very different aesthetics, almost a collision, taking the project in many different directions, all of them carrying some element of the unknown to the participants. The project yielded new strategies for collaboration and performance, new compositions and expressions, new skills and insights for the participants, and also feelings of discomfort, disagreement, and disempowerment alongside enthusiasm, development, and empowerment. The project provides a possibility to looking closer at the relations between aesthetics, ethics, insights, and knowledge.
The expressive qualities of the project are manifold, as we hope this exposition has displayed. For a reader of the exposition, the common denominator of the different legs of the project and their resulting expressions might be the medieval music, which we approached from different angles, re-enacted in different ways for different purposes. From the point of view of methodology, the strategy we found most useful throughout was the idea of comprovisation, the development of performances, experimental interpretations, polyphonic settings, or new pieces through improvisation.
From a participating musician’s perspective, and maybe also for an audience member, equally important common denominators might be intimacy, vulnerability, and risk. In different ways, all the main parts of the project required the participants to do and make something they did not know, in ways that could display a lack of capacity. The results were traceable to each individual, be it in the search for beautiful counterpoints, for a private (but yet public) physical experience whose sound would be a mere bi-product, for new timbral qualities in the handmade, customised, and highly individual instruments, through experimental expressions in the voice, through searching for the right time to make a good sound in a sound installation, and indeed also through the extremely demanding score of "Nuper rosarum flores". Being an expensive artistic research project, the need for public presentations and documentation elevated the sense of risk: Audiences, microphones, and cameras appeared regularly to capture the participants in their intimate searches into unfamiliar and strange materials and situations, with equally unfamiliar methods. To us, the quality of this individual search was and is a compelling and valuable part of the resulting expressions. At the same time, it is a result of a process that needs to be investigated not only with an aesthetic, but also an ethical lens.
As the term comprovisation implies, the borders between improvisation and composition are fleeting, as is the transition from an improvisatory to a compositional mode of work. This also means that it is not always obvious who is doing what, or indeed who is entitled to do what. As the project developed, we needed at times to clarify in which mode of work we were and what the function of the work was, both for the group as a whole and for the individual participants. What should a particular workshop do for the project? Was it about practising skills in a closed setting, not to be heard by anyone outside? Was it about searching for new approaches to an old problem, or unknown approaches to a new problem? Was it about finding materials, or harvesting materials, or both simultaneously? Was one person instructing another, or consulting, or merely listening, or expecting to be instructed? Who made the decisions, how, and when? The answer to such questions would most of the time be clear, but not always. At times, participants became frustrated with decisions, the lack thereof, or lack of overview when it came to roles, functions, and processes in the collaboration.
Hayden and Windsor separate between three main categories or modes of collaboration:1 The directive mode corresponds to the traditional division of work between composers and performers, where the former instructs the latter. Although the performer might share his opinion on pragmatic issues, his task is to perform. In an interactive mode, there is more negotiation between the composer and the other participants. The process is more discursive and reflective, but the decision-making lies mainly with the composer, who remains the author. Typically, some aspects of the performance will be more open and not determined by the score. In a collaborative mode, the decision-making process is collective. Such collaborations will usually not have a traditional score, or use a notation that does not define the macro-structure. Alan Taylor reserves the term collaboration for relationships where the decision-making is shared.2 He proposes four different kinds of relationship, Hierarchical, Consultative, Co-operative, and Collaborative, based on whether or not the decision-making follows a hierarchy and whether or not there is a division of labour in the imaginative input.3
We can recognise elements of all these proposed working relationships in our project and consider this plurality and openness a strength. Indeed, we are not sure we would have reached the same insights had we decided in advance what kind of working relationship we were to perform at any given time. But this openness is a double-edged sword. It allows for unexpected, interesting turns, but at the same time might provoke insecurity, passivity, or irritation. It might have been beneficial for the project had we reviewed, categorised and articulated our different modes of research more regularly and clearly.
Working with musicians the way we did, raised other important ethical questions, relating to how we engaged persons as resources for the project. We need to look closer at the kind of asymmetrical power relations that arose from the experimental and interdisciplinary quality of the project, and how the mechanisms we set in motion worked to empower or disempower the participants at different points.
When a person chooses to join a project, he or she brings along a deep and complex reservoir of qualifications, experience, and ideas. No doubt, one would expect to be invited because of these characteristics, and look forward to contributing to the best of one’s abilities, and at the same time hope to learn or develop skills and knowledge that somehow build on one’s qualifications. In Wheels within Wheels, we in part asked musicians to undertake tasks very different from what they were used to and far from anything their specialised qualifications could have prepared them for. Some of these tasks and exercises have been related in the previous pages, for example performing wearing ear protectors and/or listening to ASMR sounds, with eyes closed or facing the wall, unable to see or hear one another, or improvising with timbral explorations and improvisations in an anechoic chamber, improvising in a tonal (or rather modal) language one does not know, resulting invariably in expressions that at first sound rather feeble compared to the virtuosity with which these musicians go on stage on a weekly basis. To bring one’s expertise to a project, only to be asked to "leave it at the door" was at times disorientating and unfulfilling for some participants. It is not enough that someone is an artist to be able to assume that they are open to new approaches to working with a medium in which they have developed very specific and often highly rarefied and even fragile approaches and techniques. As a result, some participants at times grew anxious or frustrated because their expectations had not been met, their resources as musicians not used or recognised as they maybe thought they should be and their consent not sought. On top of that, within the context of the rehearsals as they were structured, they did not have it in their power to do anything about any of the above, aside from dropping out of the project altogether. The way the project was rigged contributed to this misbalance of power: The authors of this exposition received monthly salaries and were expected and motivated to engage with the project between the regular project encounters. Most of the other participants received a fee for each workshop and performance. The level of preparation would vary accordingly, reinforcing the asymmetrical power structure. We might have meant for the project to be an open space for experimental music-making with a flat structure, but we did not rig it that way.
The strongest agent in creating asymmetrical power relations was the interdisciplinarity itself. In all parts of the project, some participants had very little experience with the field in question, others much more: The musicians specialised in baroque music felt uneasy improvising in a medieval style next to musicians specialised in that field. The "medievalists" in the group were equally uneasy entering into the expanded performance field of Pritchard, and no-one except Gjertsen had any idea what was going on in his max msp patches and whether or not what we fed into them would be considered any good in the field of experimental electro-acoustic music. This question of quality is crucial when discussing power relations. If you are not in a position to judge whether or not what you contribute is good or relevant, you are vulnerable in a way very different from the vulnerability we praised as compelling and valuable above. You are at the mercy of the qualifications and judgment of others. It requires a lot of trust and good will to be in such a position, as well as an openness to the possible results of the research. As a guest in a field, it is not a given that you will feel like you have an equal share of the ownership of the results (which was one of our goals). It is not clear what you can take back to your own field. It is not clear whether, or how, you will be able to employ any of the experience from the project at a later point.
We believe the points of tension and frustration that occured during Wheels within Wheels to be symptoms of unresolved ethical issues. We could have dealt with them differently. That would have meant rigging the project differently, applying research methods differently, which certainly would have yielded different results. Ethics, in this sense, is intimately linked to methodology and consequently to aesthetics, an insight that, for us, grew in the course the project.
This being said, we find the project to have been highly rewarding. The participants generally responded to the challenges with a combination of virtuosity, curiosity, openness, trust, and willingness to experiment which more than compensated for weaknesses in the structure. Accepting to enter foreign territory led to new and unexpected experiences and insights. The collaboration was a positive force and resource. It resulted in a wide range of artistic expressions, some of which we have tried to share in this exposition.