(Un-)settling sites and styles
- in Search of New Expressive Means
UNSETTLING AND UNLEARNING
As established musicians, we tend to form conventional or habitual ways of approaching and performing music. A main challenge is to keep the artistic processes and performances always alive and innovative. Unsettling and unlearning implies being able to rethink earlier views, challenge old notions, explore new possibilities and thus renew oneself.
“… classification sets limits to perception. If the theory that underlines it is influential, it restricts creative work. For new works, in the degree in which they are new, do not fit into pigeonholes already provided. They are in art what heresies are in theology. There are obstructions enough in any case in the way of genuine expression. The rules that attend classification add one handicap. The philosophy of fixed classification as far as it has vogue among critics (who whether they know it or not are subjects of one or other of the positions that philosophers have formulated more definitely) encourages all artists, save those of unusual vigour and courage, to make ‘safety first’ their guiding principle.” (Dewey: 1934, p. 235)
Radically reconfiguring aesthetical perceptions is crucial for bringing a music investigation process into the realm of artistic research. Throughout the three-year research period, the group members therefore encouraged each other to reconsider conventional and habitual ways of working with music, and to unsettle and “re-settle” their preferences and choices.
Several members had difficulties unshackling the notion of fidelity to the composer’s authority and what they perceived to be the composer’s musical intentions. The question of fidelity – the “right”, “original” or “traditional” way to approach a composer’s score, the lyrics, the audiences, or to identify and communicate the intrinsic essence of a piece of music – seems to be a recurring theme in the Western classical music tradition.
Christopher Small coined the term “musicking”, which means highlighting music as a process (verb), not as an object (noun) (Small: 1998). Artistic research involves spending considerable time with process - “musicking”, incorporating artistic experience, intuitive notions, tacit knowledge and musical analysis into a methodological approach. In attempting to “unsettle” their habitual playing styles, group members focused on numerous musical articulations and gestures, experimenting and improvising in search of new colours and sounds, investigating dynamics of musical patterns, phrases, trajectories and forms.
The process of un-learning and re-learning basic features of musical apprehension aspired to reduce the bias of the intuitive heuristic approach. Extricating appropriate verbal language to address aesthetic preferences and tacit knowledge turned out to be a challenge for all the musicians involved. The musicologist, on the other hand, left his habitual scientific stance to discuss tacit phenomenological aspects, such as “site aura”, the “ambience” surrounding a composer’s cultural impact and how perceptions of these issues influence interpretation and performances of their works.
Several projects involved finding new technical approaches to their instruments. The violinist switched to viola and chose to relearn the Sæverud "String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3" with a group of young musicians who had no previous experience in playing Sæverud’s music. One of the singers added a laryngoscope and the assistance of a medical crew to visually recalibrate her larynx, during both rehearsal and actual performances.
One project aimed at reconfiguring the performer’s basic sense of tonality, caused by an over-strong impact of traditional Western music in relation to folk music idioms. This step was necessary for tuning in to Geirr Tveitt’s modal universe and altering the focus towards emergent musical forms in his music.
The composer in the group temporarily waived his sovereignty to invite a cellist into his domain, while the cellist left his traditional scores to enter a collaborative improvisational process of composition. Both integrated their personal aesthetics and used the dialogue itself as research material. In addition, they added electronics and transducers (small vibration speakers that can transform almost any object into a sound resonator) to extend the use of their instruments. Instrumental sounds were transmitted though transducers into resonant instruments such as cello, piano and harp, making these instruments function as loudspeakers.