Invocations Reflections Portfolio
- by Lasse Thoresen and Darla Crispin
Part One: Introduction
Within the Reflective Musician Project of the Norwegian Academy of Music, Invocations was a sub-project for which the composer Lasse Thoresen was responsible. His task was to compose piano pieces that left the performer with a greater leeway for individual interpretation. The discussions between composer and performers took place via e-mail, so that the dialogue between composer and performers could be preserved for further reflection. Three pianists played two of the three pieces each; in this way interpretations of the same work could be compared and discussed. The three pianists were: Håkon Austbø, Yejin Gil, and Vebjørn Anvik.
The Reflective Musician project aims at lifting up a certain ideal of how an interpreter/performer should relate to the music which h/she is to perform: To arrive at a better interpretation the performer should not only practise, but also analyse the structural and compositional aspects of the music. This approach would be considered essential for the creation of an individual interpretation. There is, however, no consensus among musicians that this is the only approach by which to develop interpretive integrity. This question, then, is one that will be discussed in the present paper. Moreover, the following interview between Darla Crispin and Lasse Thoresen, as well as the documentation of the correspondence with the three pianists, throws light on the interaction between composer and performer in the creation of a new piece of music.
Part two: Darla Crispin interviews Lasse Thoresen about the ‘Invocations Project’ within ‘The Reflective Musician’: 5 March 2015
The nature of the compositions, for the information of the reader:
1) Would you please give a brief description of the pieces within Invocations?
In the classical music tradition, the composer is supposed to decide the basic premise/conditions for a piece by presenting a carefully notated text to the performer. However, it is the performance itself that will decide whether the music will reveal its true potential. The element of the performer’s interpretation is inescapable for music to appear as a living presence.
The project, The Reflective Musician, sets a focus upon the co-creative role of the performer. My most important contribution for the project has been to write three piano pieces that allow the performer a great range of choices
• Invocation of Crystal Waters
• Invocation of Pristine Light
• Invocation of Rising Air
The elements that are named in the titles are not primarily material: it is the symbolic reality of the natural elements that is being invoked.
The first piece, Invocation of Crystal Waters, was written prior to the setting up of the comparative experiment with three pianists (for the International Grieg Competition in Bergen).
Invocation of Pristine Light has the following subtitles for the sections that the performer can combine in different successions: Pristine Light, Rays Spreading, Lamp in a Niche, Solar Prominences.
In Invocation of Rising Air, the following subtitles appear: Lofty Spaces, Inner Ascent, Skylark, Arioso, Inexorable Ascent: Coda.
Invocation of Crystal Waters: Aqualudium: Deep Clear Water, Drops, Soft Flowing Waters, Waves, Stone Falling in Water. Aqua Fuga – Water Flights.
Each of the pieces develops one type of interval-structure and one linear contour, respectively.
2) Did your working process vary as a result of discussions with the performers? What did the process – or processes – entail?
The Invocation of Crystal Waters was written for a competition, so that gave no room for negotiations. In the case of the two, newer pieces, it is possible to take impressions from the performances, and reflect upon whether the intentions have been fully realised.
After the workshop, Invocation of Rising Air seems good, but Invocation of Pristine Light has some possibilities for improvement, so changes have already been made. [A discussion of the reasons for the changes and the performers’ arguments can be found in part 3, point 3 below.].
Because music as a phenomenon is sound-in-time, the completion of a score is not the definitive factor in the notion of a ‘work’. The true realisation of the work is in the unfolding of the music through real time. (…) It is only then I can evaluate to which degree the music is realised.
E.g. Invocations of Rising Air – the virtuosity of the pianists helps the composer to be open for adequate self-criticism, since hearing the work in the right tempo and dynamics is necessary for evaluating whether the piece has found the optimal form.
A composer who does not revise his music having heard it is either completely perfect or lacks a true sense of intention for the piece. Too much ‘experimental music’ and ‘free improvisation’ ends up being small talk in search of an idea.
3) What have you hoped to learn from this approach of working with different pianists performing the same work?
I learned about the possibilities in the materials that had been presented. The performers came up with some solutions to form that I had not anticipated. By having two performers play an identical piece in succession, one gains some more specific insights into what the performer represents in the interface with compositions. The presence of different performative temperaments becomes clear. So, much is revealed about the performer’s part in creating meaningful musical situations.
Questions of musical expression may be studied through musical semiotics. In my Aural Sonology project 1, I created a certain approach to the meaning of music-as-heard. 2 Musical meaning is then something that is constituted by the listener – given what s/he hears. There are four basic manners through which the human mind constitutes meanings; these manners (or intentionalities) would be called semiosis, which is the term for the process of constituting the sign: the nature of the connection between the signifier and the signified. Since semioses can differ, the same thing (the signifier) can lead to different meanings, through:
- Comparison (abbreviated CPAR; constituting the iconic signs, such as metaphors)
- Inferring an unseen cause (INFER; constituting the indexical sign)
- Association of one thing with another (ASSOC; constituting the metonymic sign)
- Recognition of a category as defined by other signs (RCOG; constituting the arbitrary sign)
Musical meaning (exosemantics – i.e. when music brings up with the listener other ideas than music) can be described in these terms 3. The four categories of signs are seldom capable of describing musical meaning and its semiosis adequately when used in isolation; but by combining the semioses in ‘semiotic chains’ one comes closer. The signifier in music appears at three articulation levels: that of the Sound-object; that of compound sound patterns (motives, rhythms, chords, etc.); and that of form-building patterns (which arranges the previous into larger units). A semiotic chain would specify on which articulation level the signifier is found, then describe the semiosis through a semiotic chain. Possible extramusical (i.e. exosemiotic) interpretations can then be discussed.
In the case of the Invocations, the interpretation of the pieces is not completely open (e.g. there are titular associations) 4. Symbolic meanings through resemblance (e.g. kinetic metaphors in the music) may be established. In my approach to the semiotics of music-as-heard, I would codify this a semiotic chain of the type: (L2, CPAR+RCOG; F2) 5.
When discussing specifically the semantic implications of the performed interpretation, we are into another semiotic chain, as we would include the performer’s feelings, personalities, etc. (L1, L2, L3: CPAR, INFER; F2.) 6
All of these aspects describe some of the labyrinthine ways that music is constituted, and this is highlighted by showing different performers at work.
Potential lessons of the approach:
1) In more general terms, you have worked for two years within a research group that has an emphasis on intense work processes as part of musical interpretation. As a composer, do you feel that this has had an impact upon your practice? If so, what have some of the outcomes been?
The initial motivation for joining the project was to see whether what I have done in aural analysis could meaningfully play into the interpretative work of the performers. There have been few arenas to test it, so the question still remains partially unanswered. But then some of the verbal exchanges and reflections have provided a valuable context to think with others. It has, of course, also been a way to expose some thoughts for a larger audience. In research terms, however, it has generated the development of a way to represent musical metre in terms of its aural appearance through a notation (of rubati, metrics, etc.). I wrote a paper on Rachmaninoff’s interpretations of Chopin’s 3rd Ballade; it is accompanied by films that trace the rubato playing visually, and interpret these in endo-semantic terms 7. This paper was partly based on another Reflective Musician Project, ‘The Sign of Three’. I developed a way to visualise rubato by referring to the metrum-as-heard, using the Acousmograph 8.
2) Do you feel that contemporary composers are changing their manner of working as a consequence of the emphasis upon collective creativity that has emerged recently?
There is a tradition of the ‘open work’, and usually the open work emerged in the context of serialism as a reaction: The super-determination of the musical text of the score was compensated for by giving back to the performer some kind of agency.
In that music, the interval has been annihilated as an aural reality. An interval is a difference between two sounds. It is NOT a thing. It is a difference that corresponds to a category that a listener has confirmed beforehand – by social structures, traditions, tuning procedures, etc. Moreover, it can be transposed.
Now, in sound-based music (working with noise) one works with differences between sounds, but these differences are not perceived as intervals. When the rotation of 12 pitches gets sufficiently quick, they surpass our awareness and ability to process them in memory. So, even pitch-based serial music mostly has such a complexity that the intervals no longer can be aurally identified by the listener. At that point, the music excludes a meaningful interpretation of details; the performer becomes a ‘realisation machine’. Aleatoric music is often an effort to compensate for this lack of signification in detail (articulation level 2) by opening choices on articulation level 3 (form). It is through the individual performer’s choices that his/her identity will appear.
Many mobile pieces with ‘choices’ are not so free – the freedom of material choice does not become a freedom to express something different.
However, my music is not music that presents a sonic entity without exo-semantic implications; indeed, my music is highly infused with ideas and sentiments. Although I experiment with sounds, textures and composition techniques in initial phases of a composition, I feel that none of such musical apparatus should be used unless at a point in the process when I have a sense of a certain vague but nevertheless consistent expressive symbolic idea that I want to project. So, in my Invocations, I tried to give the performer choices that also are significant in terms of expressiveness, rather than merely in terms of ordering of material.
So when I criticise my own composition (both the performance and my own writing) it is because I can refer back to the initial idea of how the piece should sound and what impression it should make, and compare it with how it appears in sound and time. If, when listening, I do not get back what I wish, I do not consider the composition successful, and this may lead me back to my composition desk.
There is an example to learn from Beethoven: he practised a method that I would call ‘inspired self-criticism’. His String Quartet opus 131 shows 600 pages of sketches. At some point in the process he must have conceived what in essence the work was about – again these vague but semantically charged intuitions – and on the basis of this he could reject earlier ideas and start improving on his sketches until he was satisfied with the ‘materialisation’ of his idea of what the piece is about. Of course, this is nothing but speculation – the model of a process of composition I propose I believe to be valid and this is my point; I shall on the other hand not advance any claim to know in which way Beethoven actually did compose.
On the other hand, it has happened in my life that I have got back MORE from performances than I had hoped for. In these cases I feel a little bit bewildered and humbled, because I feel myself surpassed, something has happened outside my control that I cannot replicate at will or be certain will happen again.
Part Three: Selected correspondence during the process:
1) On freedom and performer anxiety:
25 February, 2015
As you’ve already written on the introduction e.g. ‘…The performer is under no obligation….’ I feel you give me many possibilities and opportunities how I interpret & play. It is really exciting; on the other hand it makes me bit anxious… So I would like to ask you just one thing more before our work next week.
I’m just not so sure if I did understand correctly: the form-scheme. Should I follow this form (absolutely) like A-B-A’-C-D…etc. which is written in the title pages? Or could I decide the form freely?
Thanks in advance and I look forward to meeting you soon!
26 February, 2015
--- it seems the question of form has begun to engage you creatively, so I understand very well your being 'anxious' - since more is at stake than mere correct playing. Thank you for being engaged!
I made up a formal scheme that has a certain relationship to contours that generate the material, and I on my part am anxious to see if that makes sense, or if you can make it make sense. So yes, I would like you to follow the scheme literally. But I am also curious if you come up with forms that deviate from the formal scheme, provided your solution also makes musical sense. So try to follow the scheme, and if you feel like it, make another version playing the piece in the way you feel makes sense: We will then have two versions to discuss; and, mind you, what we do next Tuesday is for spelling out the process of interpretation, and to discuss it with the others and eventually with the audience - nobody expects a 'perfect' result at this stage.
I am looking very much forward to working with you! -- 'til Tuesday!
2) On pressing the boundaries of choice:
20 February, 2015
Concerning the conjunction of Drops: I thought this was free choice, but the rounded variant was my choice anyway (seems logical)
One more general remark - I already mentioned this for you, but I repeat it here: I feel free to choose a different conjunction where you haven't left a choice. After Waves, for ex, I chose the overlapping one, and I think you consented to this.
Looking forward to discuss more of this with all of you!
3) Discussion about the composer’s change of the composition after the first test performance
Lasse Thoresen, group email, 5 March, 2015
I was not quite satisfied with the way the first Invocation [INVOCATION OF PRISTINE LIGHT] turned out. The piece became too active, too abrupt, too whimsical, and lacking in sections in which to ‘breathe’ (inhale…). Consequently, I reworked one section entirely: Lamp in a Niche. The new version will be softer, and give some absorption time to the other sections. Please write me if my instructions concerning the way to perform this one are not clear.
Håkon Austbø responds, 10 March, 2015:
On reading your comment, I was unsure whether you thought we had misunderstood the piece. In fact, your intention to make revisions (when will we get them?) testifies that some passages may present challenges to the overall idea of Pristine Light.
…My intention was always to keep the pulse through all of the segments in order to comply with your indication "ecstatic forgetfulness of self": Indeed, a self-effacing attitude should always be the one we adopt when interpreting a musical work. As for the ecstatic part, that will depend on how well one masters the piece, which is not yet quite the case since preparation time has been short. On April 14, this will most probably be better.
If you make changes to Lamp in a Niche, I am unsure whether to include this in a (longer) version for the concert. I shall have to see it first. But if you intend to bring in some breathing and "absorption time" into that section, it might be in contradiction with the unrelenting pulse that you insist on.
Lasse Thoresen answers: As I wrote in the introduction of this piece, I want it to have a constant, energetically sustained quality. The eighth note pulse should carry through the piece all together. I then found out that the A elements have a tendency to arrest the pulse too much. So you may see I added eight note pulses in a number of the A elements. Even places where there is a notated fermata, I would like you to suggest the presence of the eighth note pulse. There are only two elements left with a fermata and Laissez Vibrer; they should only be used for ending the piece, then.
Håkon Austbø comments: 10 March, 2015
Another point is, of course, the A sections. I have used all three ending with fermata and find it a pity if you restrict our choices of those to the end of the piece. It would mean that I have to give up one of the more fortunate points of my version (in my view), the transition from A8 to SP. I think it's possible to keep that kind of transition without losing the rhythmic energy…
Lasse Thoresen responds:… When it comes to Lamp in a Niche, I had the suspicion already while writing it that my pencil was ahead of me. I did not have a good piano to test what I wrote, but hearing it confirmed my suspicion that I had not reached my target. My target is to match in sound something entirely incommunicable that forms the expressive idea or the creative charge - whichever way one can name something which is there prior to that something coming into existence. It exists only in my mind. I want a performance to give back to me this expressive charge, and if it does not, I revise the music.
Yes, this piece needs a constant energy, and long breathing is no point, as you suggest. The constancy in the piece is supported by three elements: The centre pitch A, the eighth note pulse and the flutter-time speed (like in trills and quick passages). Since they are three, they do not all need to be there to maintain the presence character I am looking for; in the new version of this section the eighth note pulse and the centric pitch A are all there. I am pretty sure it will work. The old version of Lamp in a Niche is definitely rejected.
4) Concerning a tempo problem:
21 February, 2015
1.The tempo of Sky Lark seems too fast to play. If it should be 104 as you’ve written, could I play more freely and have more space in order to breathe?
Thank you in advance and I look forward to working and discuss soon!
23 February, 2015
Thank you for useful observations, - a first performance is the best way to arrive at a better and more exact score... The Sky Lark is a true virtuoso in rapidity. So are you; I am quite sure of that having heard your recordings. So please play as fast as possible, and it will be fast enough. It would be a shame, in a piece invoking the air element, to deny a performer the right to breathe! (I told a conductor in another piece I wrote: Never try to conduct a bird!) I see, on closer scrutiny, that I should have been more careful in notating a few things; e.g. in the third beam of the Sky Lark, the grace notes end up in MM 2000, which is outside human limitations; the first value should have been an eighth note. The thirty-seconds in the last line of the Sky Lark (MM 832) is getting close to the edge, admittedly...
Part 4: Lasse Thoresen: Some conclusions:
One research question that guided the Reflective Musician Project is:
What kind of performing knowledge might lead to specific, unique interpretations?
The documented experiences with the Invocations Project provide the ground for reflections on this subject.
Since the compositions leave more than usual to the performers’ choices, the result is more likely to reflect the uniqueness of the performers’ interpretations. When more responsibility for the end-result is given to the musicians, it seems to increase their sense of ownership for the music and was perceived as a positive element. As the pianist Vebjørn Anvik expressed it in an email:
The degree of freedom given to the performer to influence the musical shape of these works has been an especially inspiring challenge. Listening to the clearly different “solutions” to these questions during the performances was a truly unusual and in my opinion very rewarding part of the studying process.
A related research question to the one above might therefore have been:
What type of freedoms should a composer leave the interpreter to enhance the chance of obtaining specific, unique interpretations?
Interestingly, none of the performers seems to have found it useful to study the compositional structure of the music, or to ask the composer about it. My initial position, that the composer’s technique may be as irrelevant to the performer as the performer’s fingering would be to the composer, seems confirmed. This recalls Arnold Schoenberg’s response to Rudolf Kolisch, that:
You have rightly worked out the series in my string quartet (apart from one detail: the 2nd consequent goes: 6th note, C sharp, 7th, G sharp). You must have gone to a great deal of trouble, and I don't think I'd have had the patience to do it. But do you think one's any better off for knowing it? I can't quite see it that way. My firm belief is that for a composer who doesn't yet quite know his way about with the use of series it may give some idea of how to set about it--a purely technical indication of the possibility of getting something out of the series. But this isn't where the aesthetic qualities reveal themselves, or, if so, only incidentally. I can't utter too many warnings against overrating these analyses, since after all they only lead to what I have always been dead against: seeing how it is done; whereas I have always helped people to see: what it is!…
This conclusion addresses in a critical way essential suppositions of the Reflective Musician’s programme as expressed in the Research Programme Description, leaving a number of questions open. Yet, what seems incontestable is that a musician, to perform a work well, needs to interiorise much information. It is the depth and nature of this interiorisation that is under discussion. A mere acquaintance with the score and a mechanical execution of it certainly involves a degree of interiorisation, but it does not go very deep. However, for an orchestral musician, unless having a soloist role, this may be sufficient. A soloist, however, or a conductor for that matter, will profit from other types of in-depth studies. Through acquaintance with musicological research, the musician may find useful stimulus for interpretation through exploring the ideas and ideologies of the time and place of the creation of the work, and getting to know the composer’s personality and thoughts. Through structural analysis the performer may share some of the composer’s ways of reasoning with his material. And through using tools of aural analysis, such as those developed in the Aural Sonology Project, the performer may increase his/her awareness of the articulation of phrases, simultaneous layers, dynamic forms, and endosemantic implications of rubato playing.
When a piece of music is deeply interiorised in the performer’s memory, the performance may be animated by the insights gathered; an interpretation that is at once informed and yet spontaneous may emerge. The question as to what kinds of efforts are needed not only to acquire information but also to handle it with freedom and intuitiveness is one that invites further research.
The challenge for the performer, in relation to the noble goals of the Reflective Musician, is to have available the requisite time for passing through these processes of deepening, which evidently come on top of the ordinary practising, which is the conditio sine qua non for any acceptable performance. The present music culture often emphasises production over depth, and so does not provide the ideal context for an aesthetics guided by ideals of depth, individuality, sincerity and breadth of perspective.