Architecture of a project
History of The Reflective Musician, a two-year artistic research project
- by Håkon Austbø
Transcending conformity in musical performance
Thanks, in part, to developments within Performance Studies and Artistic Research, more musicians are beginning to look under the surface of their activity, searching for the deeper forces at play in the works they perform. The project at the Norwegian Academy of Music, The Reflective Musician, explores the different types of knowledge that are necessary to access these forces. These knowledge types may be conscious or intuitive, but the members of the project team are convinced that some kind of deep insight into the forces driving the music is necessary to ensure that the resulting interpretation casts off conformity and emerges as artistically unique.
A key question of the project has been to map the kind of insight that could be useful in this process. The performer then becomes researcher, and his/her artistic choices will be led by a wide range of hermeneutical approaches. This may become a formidable task, especially if the skill in acquiring knowledge does not balance the performer’s artistry.
To approach this issue, the project The Reflective Musician has assembled an interdisciplinary team of accomplished musicians who, between them, also have expertise in various forms of music analysis and musicology. They work together, focusing one at a time on selected works that form a performance calendar for the project. Through this approach, the team has explored several specific research questions:
1) What kind of performing knowledge might lead to specific, unique interpretations?
2) What kind of interpretations might lead to ‘new knowledge’?
3) How can this cycle of knowledge → interpretation → new knowledge be studied?
4) How can what is learned through this cyclical process best be articulated and disseminated?
5) To what extent is it a process that can benefit from the collaborative input of a team of artists and researchers?
6) What could such a team-based project teach us about the co-creative aspects of the bringing-into-being of specific, unique interpretations?
The answers to such questions do not appear ready-made at the horizon of any artist. The history of The Reflective Musician is therefore a narrative that has grown from the individual to the collective. In this article, I shall trace the key moments of that narrative, showing how my personal convictions about musical performance not only developed in themselves but also collected like-minded colleagues along the way and were shaped by input from those colleagues.
Theory and performance: a contradiction?
In 1971, I was studying piano at the Juilliard School, New York. One of my courses was about twentieth century music, but our teacher, the organist Anthony Newman, preferred teaching us Schenkerian analysis. We had worked out a graph of a Mozart sonata, and someone suggested that we exhibit the graph in front of a concert audience rather than play the piece. It was meant as a joke, but it did reflect a deeper question: Is it possible to integrate thinking into the performing process? Does familiarity with Schenker graphs or other analytical tools make interpretations different? And even if it does, might it not nevertheless be more effective to exhibit the graph, to give the audience a better view of the structure, rather than relying on their ability to infer this from the performance alone?
Music making, whether creative or reproductive, is fundamentally about uniting intellect and emotion. Schoenberg gives a strong account of this in his essay “Heart and brain in music”:
It is not the heart alone which creates all that is beautiful, emotional, pathetic, affectionate, and charming; nor is it the brain alone which is able to produce the well-constructed, the soundly organized, the logical, and the complicated. 
In my more than 50 years of experience as a performer, I have tried to explore this intersection. One of the outcomes of the May ’68 revolt at the Paris Conservatoire had been the institution of an analysis class, and when I joined this class the same autumn, I was granted the beginning of an insight into how composers used their intellectual force to create musical constructions of great emotional impact, derived from the compelling logic of their structure. I developed an understanding that masterworks, whether by Beethoven, Bartok, Messiaen or whoever, are a result of the symbiosis between the two forces: intellect and emotion.
When performing these masterworks, then, wouldn’t it be an advantage to have some insight into the intellectual mechanisms that brought them to life? Would it, on the contrary, be sufficient to grasp the psychological content by use of intuition? Or would it even be good enough to rely upon tradition and simply play the pieces in the way we learned them from our teachers?
These are quite fundamental questions for a performer. Personally, I have adhered to the first view. Some lean more towards the second, whereas others again are more of the third kind, which often tends to lead to rather predictable interpretations.
Music analysis has increasingly become the realm of musicologists. Some performers in previous generations were great thinkers (Alfred Brendel, Charles Rosen), but nowadays, an attitude is often encountered like that of the colleague who exclaimed at one of my masterclasses where I had been explaining the modes of Messiaen: Aber das ist Musikwissenschaft! (But this is musicology!)
These issues have occupied me more and more and finally made me start the research project The Reflective Musician. Already, in 2011, I had been asked by the dean of the music faculty at the University of Stavanger, where I worked, to open a series of academic lectures with a theme of my choice. I gave it the title “Den tenkende musiker”, Norwegian for “The thinking musician”.
Towards a research project
In 2012, I was asked by Magnus Andersson to join a group at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo (NMH), devoted to performance studies of Messiaen’s music. The work of the group was part of the focus area “The co-creative musician” at the same academy, led by Magnus. The issue addressed by the group was “the unique knowledge of the performer” of Messiaen’s music, and I was invited in due to my experience in performing Messiaen, and to the fact that I had worked with him. This project led to a related research on Messiaen’s colours, which brought about performances of Messiaen’s music with colour projections. For an account of this project, see Music & Practice.
Having thus been drawn into artistic research, then in strong development in Norway, I applied for a new research project at NMH in which I intended to widen the question of the Messiaen project into a general one: What knowledge is required to develop genuine, unique interpretations? Searching for a title, I got back to that of my Stavanger lecture: Den tenkende musiker, translated as “The reflective musician”, which in English came closer to what we intended. The application was granted, the project born.
I strongly disagree with those who claim that ‘the dew-fresh tint of art’ gets lost when one starts analysing it. The better the interaction between impulses and reflections, the more intense the experience. [Elucidating the work] presupposes knowledge, and not a sparse one. The aim is, of course, the highest degree of truth and intensity of expression. 
This statement by my countryman, the distinguished pianist Robert Riefling, might serve as a motto for The Reflective Musician and was quoted by research group member Olaf Eggestad in one of our seminars (link to Brahms op. 118 video). Various kinds of analysis were mentioned in the project description: along with the Schenkerian approach, reference was made to the Schoenberg/Caplin form-function method as well as to the auditive-sonological one. Apart from analytical issues, psychological questions were evoked: finding common ground between performer and composer, a task that becomes more difficult as the historical distance increases. A study of previous performances was one of the tools foreseen, and all of these approaches and tools were to be applied to various existing works.
We also foresaw the application of the tools and approaches in the creation of new works, where the challenge is different but, all the same, related. In the case of the première of a new work, where, by definition, there can be no reference to earlier performances, the danger of copying these is therefore not present. Nevertheless, the challenge of elucidating the underlying logical structure in a new and unfamiliar work is correspondingly greater.
The research group dealing with the project had already been constituted as part of the application for its approval. Beside myself, its members were:
Magnus Andersson, then the leader of the research area The co-creative musician, with ample knowledge of the international artistic research field. After the first year of the project, Magnus took a sabbatical and was replaced within the group by
Darla Crispin, a leading figure in the development of artistic research.
Olaf Eggestad, pianist and musicologist, with great knowledge on historic performances and an informed scholar in music philosophy
Lasse Thoresen, composer, whose sonological studies led to pioneering work in the field of auditive analysis and who set out to write a new work for the project
Ellen Ugelvik, pianist, whose fellowship project at NAM implied the commissioning and performance of piano concertos by several international composers. Later, as both Eggestad and Ugelvik had to take temporary leave, two new members joined the group in 2014:
Njål Sparbo, singer, who promoted on the project Singing on Stage, a psycho-physical approach
Nils Henrik Asheim, composer and organist, reputed for his re-thinking of known repertoire, and whose project on Schubert dances had already started within the group.
The project was originally set up as a cooperation between NMH and the University of Stavanger (UiS), and many of the events took place in both cities.