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. [1]

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. [2]

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.

[1] Arnold Schoenberg: Heart and brain in music, in Style and Idea, Philosophical Library, New York 1950, p. 179 [back]

[2] Robert Riefling: article in Norsk Musikkliv, 1942/48 [back]

[3] Application to the Norwegian Artistic research programme, Oct. 2012, p. 3

[4]  Ibid. [back]

From left to right: Njål Sparbo, Lasse Thoresen, Ellen Ugelvik, Håkon Austbø, Darla Crispin, Olaf Eggestad and Nils Henrik Asheim.

Tools and methods

The different approaches brought into the group by the various members ensured access to a wide range of methods to develop the thinking around the works we planned to investigate. A quotation from the project description is useful here:

The question asked, e.g. which knowledge is required to create a unique interpretation, is absolutely basic for every performing musician and encompasses an enormous range of problems. We don’t pretend to reach final answers, but merely attempt to reveal some of the driving forces of the hermeneutical process.

Prerequisite of the project is that the task of the performer is to penetrate to the deeper driving forces of the particular composer in order to bring these to the sounding surface of the work. - Knowledge of the personality of the composer and the historic context of the work can contribute greatly to this, but it is always the score that gives the key to the understanding.

Insight in the inner dynamic of the score will give the performer more freedom to shape the work unhindered by traditions and conventions. This way there will be a fruitful friction between co-creative and re-creative aspects of the interpretation, a dichotomy that may also be characterised by terms such as creative vs. reproductive, challenging vs. confirmative, etc. [3]

Some of these prerequisites will not be uncontested, and have indeed been contested and discussed within the group during the project. The members of the group did, however, agree on one thing: that reflection greatly helps the performer to develop personal and genuine interpretations. What this reflection should involve is, in fact, what the project is about, and represents an area where the individual members could have slightly different opinions, and where the complementary strengths of a collective approach outweigh the single-minded focus that can be achieved by the individual researcher. As the well-known proverb says: to go fast, travel alone; to go far, travel together.

Through intensive and extended discussions, the group then developed collective strategies to approach the selected works and to present them in seminars centred on certain themes. The themes for the first year were the following:

-               New light on Schubert dances

-               Brahms, Boulez, Beethoven: Interpretation in past and present.

-               Dai Fujikura’s Diamond Dust

-               Analytical approach to Chopin’s Ballade no. 3

-               Schoenberg’s op. 19 by five pianists

Some of these seminars were coupled with performances of the works involved. The Brahms, Boulez, Beethoven seminars were followed by recitals at Stavanger and Oslo, with the three works discussed in the seminars performed by myself. The dialogue with Dai Fujikura took place after the rehearsals in Oslo for a concert at the Huddersfield festival, Nov. 2013, where Ellen Ugelvik premièred his work. Preceding the seminar on Chopin’s third Ballade, I performed the piece, and five pianists were involved performing the six small piano pieces op. 19 by Schoenberg.

The link with a performance, or several performances, of the work in question was considered vital to our method. The artistic outcome emerging in a performance is the concrete result of the reflective process. Another method of investigating the process of reflection was the open rehearsal, where analytical and other relevant matters would be discussed as they arose in the rehearsal situation and with an audience present. All these events were recorded on video and can be seen elsewhere in this exposition. In the first year we chose two works to be approached with this method: Bartók’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion, and Brahms’ Piano Quintet.

Both works were performed in a concert at Sandvika in April 2014, preceded by open rehearsals held at NMH.

Continuation of the project

After completion of the first academic year of the project, Darla Crispin and I were invited to present the project at the Centre for Musical Performance as Creative Practice (CMPCP) conference at Cambridge, July 2014. By then, we realized that the focus had been primarily on the musical works and, in the second year, would have to be biased more towards the performing process. The events planned for the second year were intended to bring this into practice. In the autumn of 2014, we focussed on two themes:

-               The Sign of 3: investigating ternary rhythms in classical and folk music.

-               Late Style: how composers like Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms arrived at a new style at the end of their lives, and what could be said about the ensuing works.

Some of the music treated in these seminars was intended for the programme of a festival that we planned as the final event of the project. This event, called “Den tenkende musiker - en festival”, took place between April 13 and 16, 2015. The festival consisted of four concerts plus a number of auxiliary events.

The themes of the four concerts were chosen with the purpose of building attractive concert programmes around them, as well as reflecting some of the focal points of the project. The following diagram shows these thematic connections and how the relationships between the seminars and the concert programmes were not on a one-to-one basis, but reveal a more complex structure.

Leading up to the festival, we already started the process through events constructed around some of the programme items. An open rehearsal was held with the Vertavo Quartet performing quartets by Janáček and Beethoven, with Lasse Thoresen and Nils Henrik Asheim, respectively, acting as mentors and presenting material for reflection on these works. A workshop around Lasse Thoresen’s new piano work Invocations was also organised, allowing the three pianists involved to discuss with the composer and among themselves the compositional choices of the work.

During the festival itself, further open rehearsals were held with the Vertavo quartet and the Allegria Ensemble. In addition, we organised a symposium with the research group members and invited scholars and performers, for which the theme was reflection in interpretation.

How to draw conclusions

During the project, it was difficult to find clear answers to our key questions. We tried out several methods for taking various kinds of knowledge into a performance process. Conversely, we intended to distil the knowledge that the musicians are using, and to verbalize it, in conformity with the project description:

Our work will primarily investigate the interplay between analysis and interpretation, an interplay that in our opinion is almost totally ignored by musicological research. What the musician does treating his instrument is in our view not an occult, indefinable knowledge based on inspiration, but a knowledge that may be expressed both by words and by practical music making. If our project succeeds, we will:

-               Upgrade the musician’s ability for concrete knowledge, and thereby put into words a number of phenomena usually regarded as results of inspiration.

-               Give the musicologist and the music analysis a new kind of empirical material.

-               Build bridges between theory and practice by acknowledging the musician’s knowledge as empirical material. [4]

Often, when working with musicians outside the group, we observed a certain reluctance to assimilate the knowledge and a difficulty to express what impact it had on the playing. Nevertheless, the performances themselves, documented in this exposition, bear evidence of a fruitful process, and the feedback received from some of the musicians confirms this. The aim to start clarifying the reflective process of the performer seems, therefore, to have been achieved, albeit on a small scale.

Work will still have to be done to persuade more colleagues that reflection is an important element of interpretation. The training of music students ought to stimulate this aspect to a higher degree and, in my view, schools should reintroduce music theory as an integrated part of a performer’s curriculum, as it threatens to disappear from the programmes and to be replaced by courses in entrepreneurship, communication and other practical topics. Valuable though these are, they cannot substitute for elements that bring us closer to Schoenberg’s vision of the symbiosis of ‘Heart and brain in music’.