(Un-)settling sites and styles
- in Search of New Expressive Means
As is inevitable in any kind of project, particularly one involving many people of various backgrounds and skills, (Un-)settling Sites and Styles provided its members with as much joy and enlightenment as it did experiences of frustration and uncertainty. This chapter aims at reflecting on both positive and less positive experiences the group had along the way. One of the initial projects (about Klaus Egge’s piano concertos) was abandoned due to practical inconveniences.
SEE VIDEO (in sidebar) A short presentation-video from the beginning of the project.
THE RESEARCH PROCESS
Research can be a very solitary business. Working together in a group can help lift the individual mind out of its self-containment. Group elaborations and discussions gave insight into other members’ artistic research methods, sometimes generating new ideas of how to move forward. Each individual felt the obligation to contribute to the group's needs and prepare material for workshops and seminars with specific agendas. Group feedback helped the individual members to structure their research, giving ideas for further investigations, and pointing out problematic issues.
As professional artists, we tend to cling to our training, to tradition and things we have mastered before. This can be an obstacle for creative research. The mixed research group addressed personal and artistic issues, unsettled the individual members in constructive ways, and aided interpretative resettling.
In general, the workshops and seminars functioned as important intersubjective meeting places, but not everyone benefited equally from these sessions. Some individual comments from group members were:
“The experience of trust and openness developed during the different workshops and meetings in the group. Through listening to the presentations and discussions of individual projects, “saying things as they are” was important. This included the experience of doubts, uncertainties and questions pertaining to my own research process. Because of the long time-period of the project, a positive group relationship and dynamic could develop and inspire my work. Small comments could have a constructive impact and could be exactly what I needed to go on.”
“The interaction between individual projects opened for useful questioning, conversations, discussions and a good experience of others working on similar issues. It gave a sense of security and acceptance to my work and vice versa. It was useful to follow each other’s development.”
“The lack of experience of being part of a research group led to my neglecting the significance of what this important tool could have been for my individual project. Although I experienced interesting discussions in the research group and seminars/workshops, it still was the intersubjective collaboration that had most interest and value in the working-processes as a duo and with other external persons connected to my project.”
“The research group was an important support and reference group through the individual processes. There was feedback on trying out material in presentations and concerts, and sharing of uncertainty and challenges in my work. This was valuable and beneficial to the work environment. Group members were not too involved in a critical way in each other’s processes. As close colleagues, maybe we are too near each other?”
“It was exciting to be in a group of performing colleagues and to follow their projects. The collaboration between different performers with different projects can be both a learning and challenging experience. You learn by getting a look into others’ way of working without having to involve yourself in their projects too much or be “disturbed” in one’s own. This was challenging. Because it was not a real joint project, I didn’t get a real sense of cooperation and community.”
“The interaction with the other members of the group prevented me from disappearing into my own world. The group and its individual members provided a context for working as well as a valuable sounding board for personal doubts and ideas. Being part of the research group was very inspiring in different ways. On the one hand, the colleagues had extremely useful comments and input on the work I presented to them. On the other, their individual work was largely so different from my own, that I felt my troubles and doubts didn’t connect to my colleagues’ ongoing search and struggles.”
It was a challenge to find times when the whole group could meet. Some experienced of lack of time to go deeply into each other’s individual projects and their contents, connections, and common topics. This was also due to the size of the group and to the limited amount of time each of the nine individual projects had to make a presentation at each meeting.
The estimated research time of external members (one - 10% position, three - 20% and one - 30%) could be experienced as too little time for the necessary activities of the research group. Some members used much more than the designated time, and some could not be a part of international trips because of limitations of paid research time. Members from the Grieg Academy could be much more flexible with their time-use in relation to other duties within their fulltime jobs.
Problems of language, and how to reflect on artistic issues verbally, was a challenge for some group members. This resulted in difficulties with preparing and structuring texts for research presentations in open seminars and in final publications. There was also a resistance by some in addressing the project’s research questions in relation to their individual projects.
The performer’s artistic process – practicing, reflecting, and asking questions – is usually not verbalized, documented, or seen as valuable for others. The isolation of the practice room can reduce one’s ability to see work from an outside or external perspective. Some members of the group could experience external input at seminars as problematic, because there was a feeling of a lack of understanding for their project. This also revealed the problem of communication where the language of commentary, English, and style/terminology could be experienced as foreign to a performer’s background and references. Some group members had not experienced this kind of situation before – short presentations followed by short commentaries – and could feel uneasy with this form of assessment. Because some research members had difficulties using English in oral presentations and written texts, it was decided that texts/presentations could be made either in Norwegian or English and then translated to English afterwards.
Group members had very different backgrounds and experience with this kind of research work. Some had former experience with PhD projects in artistic research and musicology and were therefore used to structuring research work and writing about music. Others had had no experience whatsoever in these matters. Concerns about these issues were talked about, but not followed up or resolved along the way until the last part of the research period. It was assumed that everybody had responsibility for their own individual projects and seeing their project in relation to the joint research questions. Looking back, it became clear that these issues could have been dealt with much earlier. Some have questioned whether there has been a mismatch between the aspirations of the project and the uneven research competence among group members.
The final plan of how to present the project on the Research Catalogue was changed late in the process due to the discrepancies presented above. From the initial idea of presenting each individual project separately on the Research Catalogue, it was decided to collect main points of all the individual projects into one presentation, with individual project contributions as summaries in the individual projects, with side-links to further reading. Though this was for some a difficult change, it became clear that the project could gain by being united as a whole. It is hoped that this new perspective can generate more interest, thereby increasing in relevance to future research in the field.
Throughout the project, the research group had joint concerts and presentations with contributions from all members and their individual projects. These events were carefully planned and functioned well collectively. Concerts were generally well attended except for those in Valevåg and Siljustøl, the homes of Valen and Sæverud, respectively. The low attendance there was naturally a disappointment for the group. The question was raised as to whether this had something to do with the concert being advertised as part of an artistic research project – which could be perceived as unfamiliar to the general public. In Valevåg, efforts were made to make two successive events in the local church and at the composer’s villa, to show how performances of the same music could be performed and experienced differently according to the research group’s reflections about “site”. We thought that this would be an interesting experiment in Valen’s geographical surroundings. Only five people attended in the church and none came to the villa. Despite this, the group performed for each other (and the concert arranger!) in the villa and had interesting discussions afterwards. At Siljustøl, Grieg Academy piano and string students participated together with research group members in a concert. This created an arena for sharing and made it a special event for all involved.
NEW EXPRESSIVE MEANS?
The subtitle of this group project “- in Search of New Expressive Means” may seem rather pretentious. How do we define “new expressions”? Perhaps the individual members have merely expanded their own expressive abilities? The musicologist in the group focused on how the expressive choices changed when the group performed music at different venues, making theoretical reflections for seminars and publications. For a creative artist like a composer, artistic research and the search for new expressive means is a normal and natural endeavour. In the project “Composer-Performer Collaborations”, the research was based on modifying aesthetical attitudes, thereby developing novel musical sounds with artistic qualities which were integrated in a variety of compositions. However, the Norwegian Artistic Research Programme invites all artists to join, and the definition of artistic research is in constant flux. For performers of musical scores, the questions concerning artistic research and new expressive means are somewhat intricate and has led to quite a few final reflections whilst editing the various text contributions from the research group. A main issue is seeking insight by amalgamating analysis and praxis.
As discussed in RESEARCH QUESTION NO. 2, the performative artistic research is a fine-tuned balancing act between respecting the performance tradition (fidelity to the score) and simultaneously ensuing personal associations that generate different expressive ideas. From a performative angle, music is communication – based on a set of musical codes (a musical “grammar”). Consequently, artistic research for performers is partly regarded as a preparation for the actual performance, and how to express what the performer believes to be the essential contents of a musical composition to an audience. Sharing artistic ambitions and various strategies of preparation with other musicians and the general public through lectures, seminars or publications is a central part of the research project, and by formulating this process many habitual ways are examined, defined and challenged. The “result” of the artistic research, however, are the recorded and live performances.
Even though music in itself has little semantic precision, it has many similarities with other forms of communication: a basic narrative is expressed, intertwined with contrasts, comments, and associations. The basic narrative is expressed by the mood, the sounds (instrumentation), the tempo, the energy, the articulation etc. Melodic elements, rhythmical patterns and musical forms emerge and leads the audience to individual presumptions in real time about what to expect about the following musical trajectory or impending contrasts. If the expectations are either fulfilled or annihilated, many people will lose interest and let their minds wonder elsewhere. If the expectations are met, but with meaningful artistic “coils”, new expectations arise, and spark renewed interest and reflection. The score and the performer’s rendition will be merged together, and the general audience will not be able to estimate the schism between the composition and the interpretation during a performance.
Communicative performative preparations are concerned with
establishing an appropriate basic narrative,
manifesting the musical form and the changing trajectories,
testing rubato, transitions, contrasts, articulations etc.
reflecting on how and when to insert artistic twists or coils, and
in what way the twists or coils might add relevant meanings or associations.
Time is an important factor in artistic research. Time to reflect and to practice, immersing deeper into pertinent questions than in an average professional preparation process. Time to modify traditional and personal attitudes, aiming to unsettle and reconfigure notions about musical expressions and their meaning. Below is a brief summary regarding the unsettling of attitudes towards expressive means gleaned through the individual projects:
Unsettling attitudes towards expressive nuances in a “neo-classic” style
The individual project “Rethinking Expression in Harald Sæverud’s Piano Music” focused on how combining greater nuances of sound, dynamics, articulation, and tempo can create more varied expression in a style of music which traditionally has been played in a more straight-forward manner. This project challenged an objective or rigid way of performing so-called neoclassical music. The pianist experienced that exploring exceptionally nuanced expressive means in Sæverud’s piano music proved to be a key to appreciating its potential. He also recognised the importance of smaller venues, such as Sæverud’s living room, as especially appropriate sites for being able to hear and appreciate such nuances of expression.
Unsettling attitudes towards sound and musical form in modal contexts
The project “Sonotical Interpretations of 70 Songs by Geirr Tveitt” focused on how embracing a modal sound context can open for a different way of thinking about tonal centres and make possible a “tuning in” to a variety of untraditional approaches and strategies. By including Lasse Thoresen’s ideas about phenomenological sonology, the project challenged traditional ways of “listening behaviour”. This modification of the researchers’ habitual mindsets generated a greater sensitivity to sounds, musical phrases and musical form and they experienced an increased freedom to be creative as performers.
Unsettling attitudes towards sound and timbre in singing atonal music
The individual project “Lines and Limits” focused on how balancing the voice (partly aided by a laryngoscope) assisted in an extraordinarily attentive use of timbre, vibrato and dynamics. Aiming to omit a “cold”, calculated style of singing (originating from the focus of singing the correct pitches), this was crucial in the search for greater vocal sensitivity and phrasing in Valen’s atonal sound world. Singing whilst watching the vocal folds with a laryngoscope can have implications for students and performers of atonal music by addressing the balance between uncritical use of vibrato and rigid dynamics.
Unsettling attitudes towards finding and structuring sounds through improvisation between composer and performer
The project “Composer-Performer Collaborations” focused on how one can find new expressive means through experimentation with extended instrumental techniques, the use of electronics, improvisation, analysis, notation, dialogue, and step-by-step development. Expressive means undergo transformation in this process, creating new meanings by using the same material in different structures, venues, and instrumental combinations.
Unsettling attitudes towards slowness and modes of listening
The individual project “The Surface is Slow, performing piano music by Morten Eide Pedersen” focused on the importance of being in a special mode of listening and sensitivity in extremely slow tempos. The performer’s reflective and meditative mode of listening was regarded as the prerequisite for the audience’s chance to join in and listen deeply, keeping concentration together with the performer. The researcher experienced the importance of performing Pedersen’s music in a room which responded acoustically, interacted with expressive means, and created an acoustical space between performer and audience.
Unsettling attitudes towards using the voice to project realism in texts
The individual project “Discovering Expressive Means in Geirr Tveitt’s Øverland Songs” focused on how the underlying emotions within a poem can challenge the singer to adapt expressive means that are suited to project the realism of the lyrics. The researcher experienced that the use more speech-like timbre and other effects of the voice created more varied and contrasting expressive means than if the song cycle were sung in a merely traditional “classical” way.
Unsettling attitudes towards developing expressive means through interactive processes with students
The individual project “Taking a Fresh Look at Harald Sæverud’s 2nd and 3rd String Quartets” focused on how expressive means could be renewed as a result of a collaborative process between researcher and students. In this, students had to learn and assimilate a new and highly personal style from scratch. By changing the role from first violinist to violist, the researcher changed his perspective, guiding the students from a different position and reassessing his earlier views on interpretation.
Some reflections and recommendations regarding artistic research at the Faculty of Fine Art, Design and Music, University of Bergen
This research project wishes to present some reflections to our institution based on our experiences.
Traditionally, academic environments have promoted more individual and separate research and development. Sharing artistic research requires a high degree of trust and willingness to be open to other perspectives about one’s work. Process and method orientation are crucial for artistic research.
The research group emphasises the need to continuously develop the field of artistic research within the Faculty of Fine Art, Design and Music. Artistic research should have relevance for and connection to the daily music/art practice within institutions. There is a need for a continuous critical focus and awareness of what we want artistic research to be, what its value is for our artistic community, and how it can be developed and communicated.
The project’s experiences with intersubjectivity (see RESEARCH QUESTION NO. 6) have shown that trust is crucial for individuals within a group to be able to open up about one’s own artistic experiences and processes. A positive side effect can be an improved interactive discourse within an academic environment. Work in smaller groups over a time period, such as duo-collaboration or inter-project exchange, can be recommended as a way of encouraging more openness and of developing artistic consciousness. This can help create a culture for sharing artistic work processes and methods, while also promoting a stronger sense of ownership to the artistic research field.
Getting involved in each other’s projects over longer time periods can be a way of building tradition for artistic research. With this as a starting point, other activities, such as individual instrumental teaching and Master and PhD supervision, can benefit from such dynamic interactions between all levels of activity in the institution.
An important outcome of this project has also been the inclusion and interaction with students participating in string quartets, seminars, concerts, and workshops. This has had synergetic effects on research processes and teaching, by increasing knowledge about and experience with the repertoire. It has also resulted in student Master projects connected to the research project.
As a regional university, it is natural that the composers and music of our own region should receive particular attention for continuous research, performance, and teaching. We hope that our focus on lifting regional composers’ oeuvres and sites will become part of an institutional strategy at the Grieg Academy and Grieg Research Centre. This bridge-building approach has also created attention and focus on lesser-known Norwegian composers through national and international collaborations.
FURTHER READING ABOUT OTHER REFLECTIONS
by Knut Vaage and John Ehde
The composer-performer duo searched for new expressive means. Using a mixture of improvisation, composition, acoustic and electronic sounds, a new kind of hybrid music emerged through a dialectic process. We have summed up this process and results in texts, recordings, and scores. We hope that our cooperative work method can inspire other composers and performers. We developed new “expressive means” by experimenting with extended playing techniques and electronics. These findings were developed step-by-step through improvisation, analysis, notation, and dialogue. New performance opportunities gave the impetus to new pieces and methods. A rich output of new works in many formats was created in this way.
The first part of their process consisted of searching for and finding interesting new sounds. The second part involved working with electronic and computer-based technologies. Our search for new expressive means within electronic sounds combined three different kinds of electronics with acoustic sounds:
1. Transducer technology - small vibration speakers that can transform almost any material into a sound object. Acoustic sounds were transmitted through transducers into resonant instruments, making these instruments function as loudspeakers.
2. Effect- and loop pedals were activated on instruments by close-contact mics, a kind of equipment normally is used on electric guitars.
3. Advanced use of the latest computer technology.
The third part of the process was to make musical scores with very precise notation and instructions with adequate freedom for improvisation. Results were tested on colleagues and at smaller concert venues, before all elements were summed up in their closing concert, «Hybrid Spectacle».
Cello sounds “Catalogue of Cello sounds” (Ehde)