This chapter serves to introduce the concepts of mimesis and morphosis in order to explain the musical examples presented in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods. A comparison will be drawn between the mimetic and morphosic qualities of the musical work and of current classical music performance practice in order to pinpoint how a different relationship between these two concepts guides my improvisations.
Mimesis and morphosis explain the allegedly paradoxical title of this research project, Playing Schumann Again for the First Time. “Again” refers to mimesis whereas “for the first time” can be understood as referring to a scenario increasingly affected by morphosis. There seems to be a paradox in the idea of playing something “again” and simultaneously “for the first time,” but this research project intends to expose how these terms are not antagonistic but rather both actually present at all times in each musical performance. In order to dissolve this illusory paradox, music-making will be described in terms of its mimetic and morphosic elements, and the concept of a feedback loop will serve to clarify how the practitioner navigates between the two. A feedback loop is a systemic structure in which part of the output of a particular process is put directly back into the process; this circularity causes output from one behavior to eventually influence the input to itself. Common to biological systems and also representative of how electricity works, the notion of a feedback loop will be used here to explain how the examples exposed in this research project navigate between the acts of playing Schumann again and for the first time.
The terms mimesis and morphosis are also in need of an introduction, and I certainly need to explain how my usage of the term mimesis relates to (or actually, intends to avoid) the philosophical connotations associated with the word. According to the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, the term "has been used in aesthetic or artistic theory to refer to the attempt to imitate or reproduce reality since Plato and Aristotle.” My intention is not to expound on the possibilities of the musical results here representing reality or nature, but rather to expose actions within the world of practice that align themselves more with the basic definition of the word, hovering between imitation, miming, and mimicry. Also negotiating the ideas of simulation and play, "mimesis [...] usually translated as 'imitation,' is not a simple duplicating, but a selecting, emphasizing, condensing way of representation, which might rather be called 'emulation'" (Rapp 1984, 142). Simulating or emulating something through piano playing could be one way of describing mimesis in musical performance. Acknowledging the role of repetition but also how mimesis simultaneously exhibits variation and change, I will immediately provide an example that I believe shows a high tendency towards mimetic behavior. Comparing the three versions of Eusebius Traum shown below should expose how these three "instances" of music (performed according to relatively strict parameters that are explained in the Eusebius Traum subchapter of the chapter On My Improvisation Methods) tend towards behavior that I consider to be highly mimetic. So how does mimesis in music-making work, and what is mimetic about Eusebius Traum? The guidelines behind the three performed instances of Eusebius Traum (namely to follow the figured-bass reduction of Eusebius from Schumann's Carneval, Op. 9 – a copy of which can be found here to the right as well as in the subchapter Eusebius Traum – while using figurative material reflective of a particular sketch in Schumann's first catalogued sketchbook) restrict the performer's choice of certain musical elements, for example harmonies and melodic figurations, such that the three versions turn out to be quite similar in many respects. Each performance lasts about two minutes and exemplifies a harmonic structure that can be described as having an ABA form, reflective of the figured-bass score that restricts the way the music unfolds. Each performance exemplifies piano playing that remains within a certain dynamic range (between p and mp), maintains a generally slow tempo, and exhibits generous amounts of dissynchronization (i.e. that the hands often do not play notes simultaneously).
But there are also many aspects of the three versions that are strikingly dissimilar. While two of the three begin with the same pitches, the third does not. They each vary in length, ranging from 24 to 40 bars when understood in relation to the metric elements of the figured-bass score that serves as one of their guidelines. The pitch content (i.e. the actual notes and how they are chosen) varies widely from performance to performance. In music-making that includes improvising (which, as will be explained in more detail in the chapter entitled On Scales of Improvisation, I consider all music-making to be), I suggest using the term morphosis to describe the elements of performance that shift and modify. A term that is most commonly used in biology to describe "the mode of development of an organism or one of its parts," morphosis can also be defined as a "nonadaptive structural modification" (Merriam-Webster Dictionary), a concept that I find very useful for clarifying what is morphosic in improvisation within the context of nineteenth-century classical music. The morphosic elements in Eusebius Traum – for example the reaction to a certain note and the ensuing decision-making processes that result in differing pitch choices – are indeed "nonadaptive" in the sense that they do not take the music in a direction completely outside the scope of the surrounding music. Rather, these elements produce modifications in a context marked or defined by the constraints of mimetic behavior. Perhaps morphosis can best be understood by referring to the original Greek morphōsis, translated as the action or process of forming. While the mimetic ability to emulate familiar musical actions gives the practitioner materials from which to choose, what informs, co-forms, and also transforms each performance of Eusebius Traum is the morphosis of weaving particular musical materials together in a particular moment. Most accurately, the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis guides the music-making by negotiating between the two in a way that allows for both similarity and difference, or for both repetition and change.
Before providing two more examples that show how this feedback loop can guide musical practice, I will first highlight the contrast between Eusebius Traum and the traditional realization of a precomposed musical work in performance in order to show how the musical work-concept specifically restricts performance practice. In order to do so, the question of what constitutes a performance of a musical work must be addressed. In theoretical terms, fulfilling the requirements that constitute the performance of a musical work is a task that, according to certain strict nominalist understandings of the work-concept, is nearly impossible to realize. In these rather extreme cases, one wrong note serves to render the performance no longer compliant with the work. In The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, philosopher Lydia Goehr discusses Nelson Goodman's nominalist and Jerrold Levinson's modified Platonist views of the musical work-concept. In this she continually references the issue of performance and the poor viability of analytic theory to understand the musical work, when the conditions under which a performance is considered compliant remain so improbable in practice. In order to transition away from analytic theory and proclaim the need for a historical understanding of the work-concept, Goehr uses a case example that I find particularly applicable for highlighting the difference between traditional performances of a precomposed work and the kinds of performances like Eusebius Traum that are exposed in this project. Looking for a way to understand performances as being compliant with works that also reflects certain realities of musical practice, Goehr distinguishes between internal compliance – "that a score's exhibited characters are complied with in a performance" (Goehr 1992, 65) – and external compliance – "intend[ing] to produce a performance [...] to intend-to-comply-internally” (ibid.) – in order to allow for the intention of the performer to partially constitute the definition of a performance of a musical work:
One must seriously intend to perform a work and this intention must stand in the right kind of relation to past performances or score-copies of the work—even in the right kind of relation to the original compositional activity. “I intend to produce something which is like the performance I heard yesterday” [...] The idea is that a work's identity in a chain of performances, and thus also the identity of the performances, is guaranteed by the continuity of relatedness—be it intentional, causal, or both. Continuity serves to put and keep the performance and the listener on the right musical track. (ibid., 66)
Assuming that the modern approach to classical music performance practice very often maintains the serious intention of performing a musical work, I argue that this intention and the inevitable cataloguing of such a performance into a chain of performances that are compliant with the work have a mimetic effect on this practice. Goehr's example of performing "something which is like the performance I heard yesterday" references the tendency towards mimesis in the act of performing a precomposed musical work. Even if one were interested in playing, for example, Schumann's Kreisleriana differently than yesterday, the restrictions imposed by the pre-existing musical work (while certainly allocating some room for morphosic performance elements, especially regarding non-pitch related parameters like timing and dynamics) still demand a relatively high amount of mimesis from the performer.1
How does the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis that guides the music-making exposed in the three instances of Eusebius Traum function differently than in a compliant performance of Kreisleriana? Although improvisation, both mimetic and morphosic in nature, takes place in both cases, in the performance of a precomposed work it is restricted to decisions that, for example, do not involve pitch content. While performing Kreisleriana, a mimetic relation to the score restricts the pianist from playing whatever pitches he or she chooses; simultaneously, however, there are constant shifts and modifications taking place (reactions to how a particular piano sounds, adjustments in tempo and dynamics, et cetera). Hence, morphosic elements are also integral to a performance of a precomposed musical work, albeit to a lesser degree. In Eusebius Traum, the situation is actually strikingly similar. The demands of following the figured-bass score and imitating certain melodic figurations require a mimetic relation from the performer. In this case, pitches are not concretely fixed and can be chosen in the moment, but the limits imposed by the figured-bass score and melodic material maintain significant control over the availability of pitches from which the performer may choose. Morphosic elements in Eusebius Traum also include reacting to how a particular piano responds as well as adjustments in tempo and dynamics, just as in a performance of a precomposed musical work; but the option of choosing certain pitch content is also included in the process of performing Eusebius Traum, unlike in a performance of a precomposed work like Kreisleriana.
Ultimately, the discussion of mimesis and morphosis in musical performance seems to center around the issue of to what degree they are restricted, or to what degree the feedback loop between the two guides the process. The chapter On Scales of Improvisation will discuss degrees of improvised musical behavior in far more detail, but the examples of transposition and more freely improvised music (not related to any specific pre-existing musical work or figured-bass score) will now be provided to shed further light on the variety of ways that the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis can function in performance.
The example on the right of a few bars from the first two pages of Schumann's Humoreske, Op. 20, performed in E Major instead of the notated Bb Major, exposes the highly mimetic process of realizing the score as written with the simultaneously morphosic act of having to do so in a different key. During the act of transposing music from one key to another, especially when there has been no preparatory practice in advance, the feedback loop between the mimetic relation to a score and the morphosis of realizing it "for the first time," due to a completely different keyboard topography and hand movements, guides the performer. Navigating a musical score in an unfamiliar key is an embodied activity: the "ways of the hand" (to utilize the title of David Sudnow's 1978 book on learning to improvise jazz on the piano) are completely different, yet the contents of the musical score remain intact. A relatively explicit ratio between mimetic and morphosic elements can therefore be conceived for this act: a mimetic relation to the score remains as intact as in the realization of the work during a performance in the original key, while the playing is traversed by the morphosic elements that newly emerge when embodying the score in a different key. The feedback loop between these two guides the practitioner who hears how the music should sound while realizing those sounds with foreign hand movements.
In the many examples exposed in this research project that do not relate directly to any specific pre-existing musical work (such as the Lieder ohne Worte), the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis takes on a more prominent role in that it is the main guiding force during the moment that the music takes shape; external demands such as transposing or following a figured-bass score are no longer present; the music thus emerges from a more unrestricted feedback between mimesis and morphosis. Lacking concrete and predetermined external guidance from any specific musical parameter, mimesis and morphosis more freely interact and influence each other. The resulting music exhibits (often highly) mimetic elements in that familiar figurations, harmonic patterns, and melodic gestures emerge as a result of their presence in the practitioner's embodied knowledge. However, these materials do not emerge in a pre-established context guided by any external score or other parameters, but rather in a musical moment filled by the morphosic situationality of the moment. The morphosic shifts and modifications influence what kinds of mimetized materials emerge, and the feedback between these two propels the music forward.2
In the Introduction, I mentioned that Playing Schumann Again for the First Time intends to circumvent the ontology of the musical work. I will explain this in more detail here by using the concepts of mimesis and morphosis while comparing the nature of the musical work to that of contemporary classical musical practice (which will be discussed in more detail in the chapter On Rethinking the Current Performance Practice of Nineteenth-Century Music). Returning to Goehr and the claim I made earlier that the intention to perform musical works compliantly results in a highly mimetic performance practice, I will now contrast this mimetic aspect of performance with the morphosic nature of the musical work itself. This contrast is presented here in order to ultimately propose that a conceptually simple exchange between the morphosic and mimetic natures of the musical work and performance practice results in more space for improvised behavior in the performance of classical music. Tired of the attempts made by analytic philosophers to define what a musical work is (because of the relative ease in finding case examples of either non-paradigmatic works or questions of performance that do not sync with how musical practice actually works), Goehr articulates the need to move away from a purely ontological approach to defining a musical work and towards a more historically-inspired understanding. The reasoning behind the need to understand how the musical work-concept unfolded over time lies in the three-fold claim that it is an open concept (Goehr 1992, 93–95), that it became a regulative concept at a certain point in history (ibid., 101–106), and that it is therefore an emergent concept (ibid., 107–111). The essential point made here in relation to my desire to circumvent the musical work during performance is that the musical work-concept changed and is continuing to change over time. Understood within the context of mimesis and morphosis, Goehr's claim highlights the morphosic nature of the musical work itself. In his article “Epistemic Complexity and Experimental Systems in Music Performance,” musician-researcher Paulo de Assis describes certain properties of the musical work that I understand as morphosic:
Musical works are highly elaborated, complex semiotic artefacts with intricate operational functions. They are made of a variable, though normally large, number of constitutive parts that interact in non-trivial ways. This gives them, in the first place, systemic complexity. But they are also the products of invention and embed a rich array of interconnected knowledge encapsulating one or more operational principles. [...] Like organisms, they also manifest evolution [...] doing this in three ways: (1) in terms of "pure" creation, that is, new, original compositions; (2) in terms of re-creation, that is, the performance of past musical works; (3) in the sophisticated process of their preservation over time (editions, recordings, theoretical reflections, etc.). (de Assis 2013, 155)
In particular, the property of musical works to manifest evolution resonates with the definition of morphosis presented earlier, as “nonadaptive structural modification,” and De Assis' comparison of musical works to organisms references the analogous use of morphosis as borrowed from biology. The way that musical works manifest evolution that will be most useful in the upcoming argument, the "sophisticated process" of a work's "preservation over time," results in an ever-increasing amount of what De Assis calls constitutive elements. He claims that "the dismantling of musical works into their graspable constitutive elements reveals them as complex accumulations of singularities, as multi-layered amalgamations of 'things'" (de Assis 2013, 151). I understand this aspect of the musical work – the continual modification of itself that results in an ever-increasing number of its parts – as morphosic. In order to substantiate the claim that the "variable, though normally large" amount of things that constitute a particular work changes and that it in fact also increases over time, I will once more use Schumann's Kreisleriana as an example. The existence of this work presupposes the ability that it shifts and modifies itself towards a seemingly infinite amount of "things." These “things” include but are not limited to: E.T.A. Hoffmann's character Johannes Kreisler who appears in three of his novels, including Kreisleriana from 1813; Schumann's first version of the composition written in April 1838; his second version of the piece due to revisions made in 1850; the recording of a performance by Alfred Cortot in 1935; recordings by Vladimir Horowitz and Martha Argerich; Roland Barthes' text Loving Schumann; the improvised tracks based on Kreisleriana on Michael Gees' 2013 album Beyond Schumann; the private performance of Kreisleriana I witnessed at Frederic Rzewski's home in September 2013; Paulo de Assis' Rasch project (the 11th instantiation of which includes my Kreisleriana V. meets Kreisleriana VIII. and Free Fantasy in the Style of Kreisleriana VI.); the practice method I propose for the opening bars of Kreisleriana I. in the Practicing subchapter of the chapter On My Improvisation Methods; et cetera. This list is obviously incomplete and heavily reflective of my engagement with the work; still, it shows how morphosic a musical work is. Continually adopting musical "things" – new performances, recordings, critical editions, texts, practice methods, etc. – affects Kreisleriana in a way that leaves the work in a constant morphosic state.
In order to return to the explanation of why I intend to circumvent the (already existing) musical work in this research project, consider the effects of the constantly morphosing musical work on the performance practice of such a work. The regulative force of the work places performance practice in a position to remain in a space where the work can be recognized, all the more necessary due to the work’s morphosic properties. In support of this claim that the musical work-concept stabilizes musical practice, Goehr says that "we do not, for example, improvise while performing Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D 'seriously' in a concert hall" (Goehr 1992, 105). Is this actually true? And who are "we" in her example? Some clarification is necessary and will be provided in this research project. That we actually do improvise (to some degree) while playing Beethoven's violin concerto will be made clear in the chapter On Scales of Improvisation, while the chapter On Rethinking the Current Practice of Nineteenth-Century Improvisation will show that "we" classical musicians are in a constant process of searching for varying approaches to the performance practice of this music. For now, it can be understood that her argument is that performers often relate to specific musical works in a manner that leaves performance practice in an increasingly mimetic state. Consider the ways in which compliant (Goehr might say "serious," also using quotation marks herself to allude to the irony of using such a word) performances of Kreisleriana are similar, but also how they are different from each other. Variation in tempo, sound quality, dynamics, and timing remain acceptable and practiced to a certain extent; variation in the actual pitches is another matter. Does this mean that Michael Gees' Beyond Schumann or my Kreisleriana V. meets Kreisleriana VIII. are not "serious?" Or, does it simply mean that they are "non-compliant?" Playing Schumann Again for the First Time proposes a conceptually simple exchange between the morphosic and mimetic elements of the musical work and its performance practice in order to circumvent the work-concept and to create more space for improvised behavior in the performance of classical music: By increasing morphosic behavior in performance to such a degree that the musical work may or (more likely) may not continue to be recognizable, room for various degrees of improvised behavior is created. As a result, the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis should begin to play the role that the musical work previously played – namely, to provide the guiding framework for performing music. With a specific musical work no longer necessarily present, the engagement with mimesis, engrained through practice and experience, happens in a morphosic context influenced by shifting experiences, musical moments just performed, and the specific performative demands of the moment.
I would encourage the reader-listener to allow the ordering of the musical examples exposed in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods to further serve the purpose of explaining how I attempt to circumvent the musical work and create more situations where the interplay between mimesis and morphosis can lead to music that exhibits ever-increasing degrees of discovery, exploration, and creativity. Beginning with the Practicing subchapter, explicit moments from musical works are used as initial platforms for practice methods that already bring the music away from what could traditionally be considered a realization of the work. Continuing along the spiral entitled "creating layers for improvisation," the next category is called "superimposing characteristics from one musical score onto the characteristics of another," which negotiates between two musical works by superimposing them on top of one another in order to create a new instance of music that sounds neither like the one nor the other and, simultaneously, like the one and the other. The process is continued by "starting to play a piece only to abandon it and complete the musical experience yourself," by "roughly imitating a piece of music," in order to finally reach the point of playing stand-alone music (i.e. music that does not explicitly refer to any particular precomposed musical work, however taking genre and context into consideration). It is important to acknowledge that this process can never completely negate mimesis in favor of exclusively morphosic processes, and that is also not the intention. Morphosis presupposes mimesis — the repetition of conventions, rehearsed patterns, references to previous performances and musical works — but reworks these materials in unforeseen ways. The increasingly morphosic context created by situations that are unplanned receives mimetic moments in response, and a feedback loop that negotiates the shifting proportions between mimesis and morphosis propels the practitioner towards a more substantial mimicry: the capacity to engage in appropriate mimetic behavior according to the specific demands of an ever-shifting morphosic scenario.
Thus, improvisation in performance has been described in this chapter as a process guided by a feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis. Considering what materials a feedback loop has from which to draw, music philosopher Gary Peters pinpoints the difference between “what is given” (in the present) and “what is there” (from the past): “the there and the given are not identical but separated by the ‘generosity’ of the latter and the difference the giving of the there produces” (Peters 2009, 4–5; author’s own emphasis). This difference is created by giving something that is already there the opportunity to act that constitutes “the marking of a space” that “produces an artwork, [and] is also the originary and originating gesture of the artist too” (ibid., 13). Within the scope of the goals of this project, it can be put like this: Through the feedback loop that guides improvisation in performance, the “what is there,” the elements from the past, is mimetically recalled through a practitioner’s knowledge and is given in the morphosic scenario that is the present. This process marks the space that produces an improvisation and therefore also the improviser. Finally, considering what Peters calls “improvisatory exigency,” the urgent need or demand of improvisation to “outstrip the dead weight of what is there [and] to give it again and again as if for the first time” (Peters 2009, 5), brings the subject of the following chapter to mind: Is it necessary to continue to engage with improvisation in classical music today, like in the past?
Overview of the following chapters
In the chapter On Rethinking the Current Performance Practice of Nineteenth-Century Music, an argument will be presented as to why circumventing the musical work to find a different balance between mimesis and morphosis in pianistic practice is necessary, not just for learning how to improvise but also for reinvigorating contemporary classical performance practice. On Scales of Improvisation presents a detailed analysis of the degrees of improvised behavior apparent in performance and composition in order to help guide the reader-listener through the core of this research project, the musical examples exposed in the chapter On My Improvisation Methods. How the performer relates to the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis during the course of performance and how it situates the musical results in an idiomatic context that also contains one's own sonic signature are issues that are discussed in the chapters On Sonic Signature and Between Listening, Forgetting, and Conceptualizing.
On Improvisation in the Nineteenth Century
On Mimesis and Morphosis
On Rethinking the Current Performance Practice of Nineteenth- Century Music
Between Listening, Forgetting, and Conceptualizing