Which roles do Robert Schumann and Bobby Mitchell play in this project? To what extent do the musical results presented here sound like Schumann or sound like Mitchell? In this chapter, the concept of “sonic signature” will be presented, as a means of describing how music always bears certain audible qualities that reflect the approach of a specific musical practitioner. A sonic signature, proposed as a substitute for the colloquial phrase "finding your own voice," can be understood as emerging from a practitioner's individual approach to making music, regardless of how idiomatic the context and content may be. Peter Kivy's notion of "personal authenticity" will also be compared to sonic signature. I believe that the pursuit of one's sonic signature ultimately reflects what intentions certain music-making strives to convey, towards both the past and the present.


In the Introduction to Playing Schumann Again for the First Time, the issue of which roles Schumann and I play in this research project was initially discussed using the analogous concepts of language and accent. I presupposed that although I am adopting materials from Schumann and working with them through my own musical practice, I will never be able to "speak" the Biedermeier musical language that Schumann "spoke" in quite the same way: I will always have an "accent." In this chapter I will discuss the implications of having an accent while making music, especially in the context of an idiomatic framework such as the one guiding this project. I will then propose using the term sonic signature to describe the imprint that a practitioner leaves on his or her music-making. Already in use among digital music producers, the term sonic signature can describe “that one certain something(Curtis 2016; author’s own emphasis) that makes an audio file recognizable as the product of a specific sound engineer. I claim that the term can also describe the aspects of an instance of acoustic music-making that deem it recognizable as coming from a specific performer. Curtis writes about “one certain something,” but I will argue that there are multiple aspects of a performance that reflect the individual approach of a practitioner.


Before describing the term in more detail and discussing the implications of consciously pursuing one's own sonic signature while making music, I will first provide two musical examples, Humoreske and zart, that I believe show different aspects of my sonic signature. To evaluate the potential impact of my sonic signature on each of these performances, consider the following: If the performer were to play a trick on the audience, playing Schumann’s Carnaval (Op. 9) according to the score, but at some point inserting one of these two extemporized character pieces, which of the two musical examples might best fit into the performance?

Humoreske:                                                             zart:

Humoreske has attributes that make it remarkably similar to Schumann's compositions; the melody was taken directly from Schumann's own Humoreske (Op. 20) and similar harmonic progressions can easily be found in Schumann's music (the frequent augmented chords and the brief modulation to the major key associated with the flat-sixth scale degree, to give two examples). Zart presents harmonic and melodic materials that are certainly related to what could be found in Schumann’s works, but an analysis of zart could potentially show that certain melodic gestures (especially the suspensions on the seventh scale degree) and the openness of the harmonies (lots of subdominant-to-tonic movement) display signs of being influenced by music that lies outside the realm of Schumann's compositions, for instance American twentieth-century singer-songwriter music. Although Schumann certainly used suspensions on the seventh scale degree and subdominant-to-tonic harmonic movement, he used these materials less often or in different contexts. I intend to attribute many factors inherent to the musical results of both Humoreske and zart to my sonic signature. Throughout the course of my work within the scope of this project I began to consciously and ever-increasingly pay attention to my sonic signature.


In which ways are Humoreske and zart reflective of Schumann's works and how are they the results of my musical practice? Although the guiding principle of this project ‒ the "framework," to use Frederic Rzewski's terminology ‒ has been to utilize Schumann's musical material to try to find ways to improvise more convincingly within the context of Romantic-era piano repertoire, the music presented here is very clearly a direct result of my own musical practice in that my piano playing is the means that bring the music into existence. Although Schumann's notated heritage plays a significant role in the two extemporized pieces, I must ultimately take responsibility for the way the music sounds. My music-making is a result of a personal accumulation of knowledge (embodied and otherwise), experiences, and informed intuition; each of these elements contribute to my music-making and together they impose a sonic signature onto the music that can only be my own. Therefore, a different practitioner, engaging with the same materials and using the same rules and framework, would most certainly produce music that sounds different from my playing.


Of course, the concept of sonic signature can also be applied to performers who remain closer to the score. For example, the claim that Martha Argerich and Vladimir Horowitz’s performances of Kreisleriana sound very different was made in the chapteOn Rethinking the Current Performance Practice of Nineteenth-Century MusicThis can be attributed to their respective sonic signatures. The examples that I use here to explain the notion of sonic signature are not simply realizations of a precomposed work ‒ as is the case when Argerich and Horowitz perform Kreisleriana ‒ but rather music-making that exhibits a greater degree of improvisation. However, in all performances, regardless of how many degrees of improvisation are active, a performer’s sonic signature is present.


Initially, I wanted my improvisations to remain close to Schumann's musical material and to limit the space for other musical influences. Despite this, my sonic signature still comprises elements that have been collected from other aspects of my practice. I describe this as an accent in the IntroductionMy initial experiments were important, in the sense that they helped me to focus on Schumann and consciously avoid other influences in my playing as much as possible (see R meets R for example). However, my goal is not to repress but rather to negotiate my (current) sonic signature in combination with Schumann’s material in order to produce improvisatory results that reflect both, and through this process, to adopt elements from his material that form, inform, and transform my sonic signature. As I have already stated, a sonic signature does not simply exist; rather, it reflects the accumulation of materials that a performer has been exposed to and is permeated by countless external influences, including one’s cultural background, education, the existing musical canon, and the instrument(s) at one’s disposal. In this project, I am working with Schumann’s musical material with the express intention of trying to integrate it into my sonic signature, with the hope that it will influence the way my piano playing sounds. However, new encounters do not overtake or destroy the thread of other factors that contribute to my sonic signature; the process of integrating elements into a sonic signature leave new traces that, alongside the others, become characteristics that make an individual's sonic signature unique.1


My ideas regarding sonic signature are closely related to what Peter Kivy calls "personal authenticity" in his book Authenticities: Philosophical Reflections on Musical Performance from 1995. In it, Kivy pinpoints four main authenticities that can guide a musician's approach to performing a pre-existing musical work:


"composer authenticity"  the respect for a composer's original conception;

"sonic authenticity"  the quest to restore the sound materials with which a composer worked;

"performance practice authenticity"  the quest to recreate the same performance practice environment in which the music was initially created;

"personal authenticity"  the esteem accorded the performer's individual expression, which may at times deviate from what a composer indicated. (Jackson 1997, 12)2


I believe that a "performer's individual expression" should be given esteem, and that exhibiting personal expression seems all the more possible when the music-making integrates greater degrees of improvisation than are typically present during the realization of a precomposed musical work in performance. However, regardless of the esteem granted a performer's personal authenticity, I have already argued here that a sonic signature is always present and that a performer necessarily brings elements of his or her practice (through embodied and tacit knowledge) into play.

Therefore, I think it is necessary to deviate from Kivy’s use of the term “authenticity” to avoid the connotations of what it can mean to be authentic, which can range from being “genuine,” to an understanding rooted in existentialist philosophy where authenticity can denote the degree to which an individual's actions are congruent with his or her beliefs and desires. I argue that every practitioner has a sonic signature, regardless of their desire to be genuine or align their work with certain (ideological) norms and values. Just as every literate person can sign their own name (an embodied act), everyone who makes music carries certain traits in his or her (embodied) practice that leave an imprint on the way the music-making sounds.

Kivy’s list does however raise the issue of proportion between the different authenticities. Musical results may more heavily reflect the more historical authenticities if a performer's sonic signature or individual expression is not actively pursued. Considering the degree to which a sonic signature is present in any performance, compared to other factors relating to other authenticities, may be the most efficient way of understanding how practitioners themselves understand the impact their own sonic signature has on their engagement with historical repertoire.


After stating that "improvisation [...] can transform a performance into something much better, much higher, than expected," guitarist and free improviser Derek Bailey asked harpsichordist Lionel Salter "whether this sort of thing was possible in the present-day performance of baroque music" (Bailey 1992, 28). Salter's response, that it “would be an absolute artistic crime" (ibid.), represents a relatively extreme view towards using improvisation to imprint one’s sonic signature onto music in a historical idiom. Although there was and still exists a school of performance practice that approaches baroque repertoire while attempting to avoid improvisation, I would like to contrast it with a plea by viola da gamba player and musicologist Laurence Dreyfus:


That we [classical musicians, BM] are tied to our texts and rarely stray from them (unlike most other musicians) means that unfettered play remains an unrealisable if still no less desirable ideal. So the time might be ripe to abandon our habit of asking: “should I interpret the music this way or that?” and revel in the wealth of experiential possibilities open to us as lovers and players of music. (Dreyfus 2007, 272)


Dreyfus asks classical musicians to extend their music-making beyond merely interpreting music and to search for more “unfettered play.” I argue that improvisation, guided by a feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis, plays a crucial role in the process Dreyfus requests, and that a practitioner's own sonic signature will inevitably emerge in a more present manner from this kind of approach to historical repertoire. The phrase “unfettered play” can be applied not only to music-making that happens in public, where interpretations are presented to an audience, but also "when a musician is alone, or an audience absent: in those moments, there is no one to tell, no one to whom interpretations are offered" (Dreyfus 2007, 271). Therefore, although a musician's sonic signature certainly impacts the performances he or she gives in public, I maintain, based on my own experience, that what happens when a musician is alone, i.e. while practicing, can impact one's sonic signature the most. The accumulation of tacit knowledge gained through practice then presents itself in the course of public performance in ways that are individual to each musician.

Was the pursuit of my sonic signature a conscious act? Unlike Salter, I did indeed actively pursue musical results with the intention of engaging with and developing my sonic signature, albeit in a specific idiomatic context. The spiral shape presenting musical examples (entitled “Creating Layers for Improvisation”) that can be found in the chapteOn My Improvisation Methods depicts the way I integrated materials into my sonic signature. Beginning at the outskirts of the spiral, materials from Schumann were used to find room for more and more layers of improvisation, and the music-making slowly increases the distance from these materials in favor of music more guided by the feedback loop between mimesis and morphosis (as described in detail in the chapter On Mimesis and Morphosis). Once a performer has engaged with all the phases, he or she does not land where (s)he originally started at the beginning of the spiral but has already worked towards a different practice that is reflective of his or her engagement with these materials and their realization in the various phases. The music-making at this point does not sound the same as it did before, and I attribute this difference to a developed sonic signature that reflects influences from before this process as well as the changes made during the process.


(Boeck and Sabartes 1955, 485)

Being aware of the effect my sonic signature has on the results presented in Playing Schumann Again for the First Time places the music in this research project more within the realm of what can be described as historically-inspired performance practice  using the adjective from fellow improvisers Bert Mooiman and Karst de Jong's article “Historically Inspired Improvisation” (Mooiman and de Jong 2016)  rather than within the realm of what is commonly referred to as historically informed. The historically-informed performance practice movement aligns itself mainly with the first three authenticities on Kivy’s list: doing justice to the composer’s intentions, the specific sounds of instruments, and the performance-practice environment of a certain era. As can be seen from Lionel Salter’s response to Derek Bailey, the notion of personal authenticity is less freely accepted. This project, in contrast, strongly acknowledges the idea of personal authenticity. Therefore, it could be considered as an example of an attitude towards performance that acknowledges elements from the past as well as the present.

Is it possible to describe a particular musician’s sonic signature? Can it be put into words and categorized into constitutive elements, or can it only be experienced through listening? As mentioned earlier, a sonic signature is reflective of the accumulation of materials that one has been exposed to, and it is permeated by countless other influences such as cultural background, education, the existing musical canon, and the instrument one has at one’s disposal. Describing the way a particular musician’s sonic signature sounds using descriptors related to parameters such as timbre and timing is certainly possible. Just as it could be said that eighteenth-century American statesman John Hancock’s signature (reputable because of its large size compared to the other signatures on the USA Declaration of Independence) exhibits different aspects of contour and line than another person’s signature, one could also say that Frederic Rzewski has a different sense of rhythm than Robert Levin, and their respective rhythmic sensibilities affect and co-create their sonic signatures. Words can be used to describe characteristics of a particular musician's sonic signature; however, a sonic signature is most directly accessed through listening, by recognizing elements that remain audible, observable, and consistent in the way a musician plays.

And what about the elements in a musician's sonic signature that may in fact change over time, or those that are integrated into one's playing at a later stage? As previously stated, the process of integrating elements into a sonic signature leave new traces that, alongside the others, become characteristics that make an individual's sonic signature unique. A handwritten signature may also reflect processes of adaptation and change, although it is also commonly used as a tool for recognizing the singularity of a particular signer over the course of time. For example, Pablo Picasso's signature between the years 1898 and 1923 demonstrates both consistent and differing elements, as can be seen here in the example to the left. Although these signatures vary from each other and reflect his diverse usage of contour and line, they also show characteristics that expose them as coming from a singular source. The musical examples in this project are diverse and varied, as shown in this chapter with the examples of Humoreske and zart, but they all display elements that are part of and therefore co-create my sonic signature.

Overview of the following chapter


The final chapter in Playing Schumann Again for the First Time discusses the impact of listening, forgetting, and conceptualizing on improvisation in performance. Pianist-improviser-composers Frederic Rzewski and Robert Levin’s reflections as to what is happening cognitively while improvising will portray an understanding of improvisation in performance that involves listening (to what has just been played), forgetting (all the knowledge that one has accumulated except that which is necessary for realizing the current musical moment), and conceptualizing (an improvised performance's constraints). Improvisations by Rzewski and Levin in the contexts of the music of Beethoven and Mozart will be presented to contextualize their opinions as to what is happening when one improvises. A Conclusion follows the last chapter, where the knowledge gained in this project will be described as lying within the realm of improvisation as practice  a category of improvisation that circumvents the need to be presented as art and is rather intended for the development of one’s own music-making.