orpheus institute ghent | concert hall | 30.09.2014


Jan Michiels | concept & pianos


Marlies De Munck | text


Paulo de Assis | text assemblage

Isola Prima

Isola Seconda | Stasimo Primo

Interludio Primo

Quinta Isola

Isola Seconda

Tre Voci a

Tre Voci b

Interludio Secondo


Isola Seconda | Hölderlin

Quarta Isola

Stasimo Secondo

Isola Seconda | Stasimo Primo

Terza Isola

Tre Voci a

Diabelli Variations VI-X

Diabelli Variations XI-XII

Diabelli Variations XVIII-XIX

Diabelli Variations XXV-XXVIII

Diabelli Variations XXXI

Diabelli Variations XXXII-XXXIII

Diabelli Variations XIV-XVII

Diabelli Variations XXIV

Diabelli Variations XXIX-XXX

Diabelli Variations XX

Diabelli Variations XXI-XXIII

Diabelli Variations I-V

Hearing is a physiological phenomenon; listening is a psychological act. The first type of listening might be called an alert. The second is a deciphering; what the ear tries to intercept are certain signs. I listen the way I read, i.e., according to certain codes. Finally the third listening does not aim at determined, classified signs: not what is said or emitted, but who speaks, who emits; what it seizes upon is a general “signifying” no longer conceivable without the determination of the unconscious. It is against the auditive background that listening occurs, as if it were the exercise of a function of intelligence, i.e., of selection. When listening is oriented toward assuaging fantasy, it immediately becomes hallucinated: I believe I am really hearing what I would like to hear as a promise of pleasure.*

Morphologically, on the species level, the ear seems made for this capture of the fleeting index: it is motionless, fixed, poised like that of an animal on the alert; like a funnel leading to the interior, it receives the greatest possible number of impressions and channels them toward a supervisory center of selection and decision; the folds and detours of its shell seem eager to multiply the individual’s contact with the world yet to reduce this very multiplicity by submitting it to a filtering trajectory; for it is essential that what was confused and undifferentiated become distinct and pertinent—that all nature assume the special form of danger or prey; listening is the very operation of this metamorphosis.

Whereas for centuries listening could be defined as an intentional act of audition (to listen is to want to hear), today it is granted the power of playing over unknown spaces: listening includes in its field not only the unconscious in the topical sense of the term, but also, so to speak, its lay forms: the implicit, the indirect, the supplementary, the delayed: listening grants access to all forms of polysemy, of overdetermination, of superimposition, there is a disintegration of the Law which prescribes direct, unique listening; by definition listening was applied; today we ask listening to release. What is listened to here and there is not the advent of a signified, object of a recognition or of a deciphering, but the very dispersion, the shimmering of signifiers, ceaselessly restored to a listening which ceaselessly produces new ones from them without ever arresting their meaning. To listen is to adopt an attitude of decoding what is obscure, blurred, or mute, in order to make available to consciousness the “underside” of meaning.

What is it that listening seeks to decipher? Essentially two things: the future or transgression.


* Sentences selected and re-ordered by Paulo de Assis, from Roland Barthes’ essay: ‘Listening’ (1976) published in: Roland Barthes, The Responsibility of Forms—Critical Essays on Music, Art, and Representation (tr. Richard Howard), Berkeley/Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985.]


by Marlies De Munck

Ascolta! is a musical performance one does not merely listen to. It literally commands listening, yet it also makes one wonder – not in an uneasy, alienating way, but by grace of its warm abundance and musical generosity. In all its profusion it confronts the listener with the deceptively plain but ever-urgent question of how to listen to music. More precisely, the very concept of the performance – the particular constellation, mapping and presentation of the works, in combination with its extraordinary length – strongly compels the listener to take a stance, while at the same time inviting her to surrender unconditionally. This is not an easy position to be brought in, as it seems to require involvement and detachment at the same time. This paradoxical situation, however, can be employed as a space for experimental listening. In fact, as a ‘blowup’ of the classical concert practice, it affords the audience a magnifying glass – or ear – to explore, analyze and experiment with the classical listening ideal of ‘disinterested interest’. Such exploration may pass through a number of reflections on the performer’s practice and the ways in which it is (or is not) determined by particular concepts. For these concepts may as well play a qualifying role in our listening experience.


On Musical Works


A first reflection concerns the musical work and asks how we identify it, what its boundaries are, how we grasp its meaning, and how all of this affects our musical experience. Given the fact that these are not new issues, it is remarkable that classical performers hardly ever contest the traditional format of the musical work in the ways that they perform. Ascolta!, along with other ME21 experimental performances, play a pioneering role here. They take up the challenge issued by philosophers of music who have asked about the revision of performance, given revisions in the very idea of a musical work. In her book The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works, for instance, philosopher Lydia Goehr demonstrates how the concept of the musical work lies at the basis of these concerns. By taking the work-concept as a given, many philosophers tend to assume that it corresponds to an ahistorical, objective, and stable unit in music. Hence, they have asked where it resides: in the score, in a class of correct performances, in the experience of the audience?

The problem with all these questions, according to Goehr, is that they fail to account for the fact that before 1800 the concept of a work was not the concept that most organized the practice of music, not even classical music. The concept crystallized quite late out of a complex array of new conditions and expectations in theory and in practice. This concept, however, may undergo revisions as regards notation, performance, and judgment. Any inquiry into the ‘true’ or universal nature of music in terms of the work-concept is therefore futile. Moreover, it is a complex concept with ideological assumptions contained within it, the most dominant being the performance ideal of Werktreue: the commitment to be ‘faithful’ to the work. This ideal has been internalized and unwittingly presupposed by theorists who have put forward strict criteria of perfect compliance between performance and work to support their overly strict definitions of the musical work.

 Not surprisingly, Goehr’s book has been read as a critique of a certain type of philosophy and its lack of historical consciousness. Yet her genealogy of the work concept also demonstrates how this concept molds our own musical practice. As a listener, for instance, we can feel how it shapes our expectations at a concert. Unlike audiences two hundred years ago, we do not expect to hear just parts of works, nor do we expect to hear works that are adapted to the taste of the performer. We expect to hear the work ‘as it is’. It is not so easy, however, to make explicit what we mean by this, since we obviously also want to hear something new. We hope for a performance that is thrilling, suggestive, original, innovative perhaps, and yet it should be of that one work that we may already know from A to Z. Paradoxical as that may be, it shows the extent to which our listening attitude is influenced by the concept of the musical work and the concomitant ideal of Werktreue.

 Since the musical work is held in such veneration, the idea of an imaginary museum, where all the great musical works are exposed as objects for respectful contemplation, is not so far-fetched. In fact, it is an accurate metaphor for the concert hall and its performance and listening mores. Similarly, a performance like Ascolta! could give the impression of an all-too-literal translation of the museum image – one to match the monumental dimensions of the British Museum or the Louvre. And yet, things are not always what they seem.

 When Goehr gave her critical essay its title, the image of an imaginary museum of musical works was indeed perceived as a caricature of a fossilized concert tradition. The attentive reader, however, finds that the critique is not directed against one particular concert tradition. Rather, the book critically traces the close and often invisible intertwinement of theoretical concepts and musical practices. It shows that concepts are not just mirror images of practices but can steer musical practices just as much as these practices give rise to new concepts. The emphasis, therefore, does not necessarily lie on the museum-like, stuffy tendencies in today’s classical music practice. That would be a dull critique anyway. Far more interesting is it to concentrate on the word ‘imaginary’. Not to show that our traditional listening practice is deceptive – it is every bit as real as any practice – but to highlight the capital role of the imagination as an intermediary force between concepts, performance and listening practices.




Consider the matter this way. The ‘walk-through-the-museum’ has always been a favorite theme within the artistic tradition of ekphrasis – Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is an excellent example. Originally, ekphrasis was the ancient rhetorical device of lively description to conjure up scenes and objects for the mind’s eye. Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles, for instance, is an outstanding piece of ekphrasis in the ancient sense. For, the ekphrastic goal was to give such a vivid and detailed description of something that is absent, or even non-existent, that the imagination of the listener or reader can create a corresponding image for the mind’s eye, as if it were real. Later, from the Renaissance on, each of the fine arts started to develop its own ekphrastic technique of description and depiction, this time to evoke imaginary works of art – Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn is a classic example here. In spite of technical differences, in all the arts the practice of ekphrasis came down to the same thing: evoking something that is not really there, yet is perceived as if it were because of the liveliness and suggestiveness of the depiction or description.

 The idea of an imaginary museum of musical works appeals to the same ekphrastic interest. We may feel inclined to form an image of it, perhaps even ‘see’ some vague image of a museum building. However, just like the idea of a square circle provokes the imagination but at the same impedes every attempt to visualize it in detail, it is not so easy to conjure up a museum of musical works, not in the least because of its strangely volatile collection. In order to become a real instance of ekphrasis we need more than just an idea. We need an artistic medium that depicts the exposed musical works as if they were performed in real time. One can imagine this to happen in a novel, like in Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, where the compositions of the fictive composer Adrian Leverkühn are described in minute detail. For a painting, it seems harder to depict particular musical works in such a way that the spectator can imagine hearing them in detail. What seems even more difficult, however, is for music to ekphrastically depict other musical works, for it seems that music cannot portray or represent other music without becoming that music itself.

 Why is that so? If someone wants to musically depict a musical work in great detail, it will need to sound like that work. Inevitably, the performer will end up playing that work, or some version of it – no need for ekphrasis. This is because music is what Nelson Goodman called an ‘allographic’ art. That means that music cannot be forged because it allows for an infinite number of copies in the form of performances and notation. To put it differently, every copy of a musical work will constitute a new performance or score of the same work, even ‘bad’ performances with many wrong notes or scores written in an illegible hand. Consequently, any performance that musically depicts a work in minute detail, is a performance of that work. This is, at least, a widely accepted view on the nature of the musical art that is based on the modern concept of the musical work, according to which performances in themselves do not constitute new works but only re-present existing works, over and over again.

 And yet, creating an imaginary museum of musical works is precisely what Ascolta! is all about. In an ekphrastic act, the absent outline of Luigi Nono’s Prometeo, tragedia dell’ascolto, interwoven by Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, is reshaped through works by Liszt, Schumann, Holliger, Brahms, Sciarrino, and others. Following the curves of the Venetian Grand Canal, the listener is given a guided tour through the imaginary museum of Nono’s and Beethoven’s works, with Liszt, Schumann and the others as experienced gondoliers.


Musical affinities


What, however, do we need our imagination for, if all we hear are real performances of real works? Or, to put it differently, how can we hear Nono’s Prometeo and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, if what we really hear are other works? To answer these questions, let us look at the function and effect of the work concept in a performance. Firstly, by providing a tool to grasp a piece of music as a work, the work concept allows us to conceive of a work as an individual identity with its own, typical characteristics. Indeed, we do not need to add up all the music’s characteristics in order to make a ‘grand total’. Rather, we have an image of the work that covers its meaning or identity, without needing to go into the details of all its turns and phrases. This is not so different from how we conceive of people: we can grasp a person as a whole in one mental image or thought, because we dispose of the concept of a person. Thanks to this concept we can capture a person as a distinctive individual, without having to conjure up all his or her characteristics. Similarly, the work concept allows for a piece of music to become a meaningful object, with its own, distinctive identity. This does not mean that it turns into an abstraction. Rather, the music condenses into a qualitative essence that is intuitively recognizable as that music, and that can be remembered and referred to as such – something that is not possible in an improvisatory context where no work concept applies and each performance instantiates, as it were, a new musical identity.

 Thanks to this possibility of grasping a piece as a whole, in our imagination the musical work can build up relations with persons, things and ideas. In fact, its identity and meaning is for a large part defined by such relationships. Connotations and associations in the form of ideas, stories, anecdotes, emotions and atmospheres, flesh out the image we have of a work and actually determine the way we perceive or perform it. Such associations may well be personal or based upon significant historical facts: it doesn’t matter. What matters is that, in our imagination, they become part of a work. Among the many relations that a musical work can maintain, an important category, especially for performers, is the relation of one work to other musical works. Obviously, one work can remind of another because of musical resemblances between the two, yet the connection may just as well be inaudible, perhaps merely draw on contingent associations. By juxtaposing such works, ‘elective affinities’ between the two can come to the fore and illuminate what otherwise remains concealed in the music.

 In Goethe’s novel die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective Affinities), a test setup in which seemingly unrelated individuals are juxtaposed, becomes the breeding ground for romantic relations. The chemical law of elective affinities is not only used here as a metaphor for the capriciousness of romantic love; it is also presented as a scientific explanation of it. Along those experimental lines, we may compare the suggested elective affinities between musical works to the meaningful relations that art historian Aby Warburg elicited in his famous ‘picture atlas’ called Mnemosyne. This exploratory work consists of several wooden panels on which nearly thousand pictures are pinned. Warburg selected these pictures from books, magazines, newspaper and other daily life sources, and arranged them according to different themes, such as ‘astrology and mythology’, ‘archaeological models’, ‘migrations of the ancient gods’, ‘vehicles of tradition’, ‘Dionysian formulae of emotions’, and many more. There are no captions and only a few texts in the atlas. Moreover, the pictures are juxtaposed according to an anachronistic logic, following Warburg’s intuitive knowledge of the works and objects that they depict. By exhibiting this collection, Warburg made otherwise invisible, but meaningful links between the depicted works, things and events graspable for the imagination.

 The collection is more than a blueprint of Warburg’s mind – it is a kind of ekphrasis that conjures up meaningful relations for the mind’s eye. To the spectator, however, the juxtaposition of the pictures may seem arbitrary at first. Only when one starts to grasp what links them up, sheer contiguity becomes logical continuity. The intricate constellation steers the spectator’s guise from one node to another, without ever allowing for one final meaning to crystallize. Rather, the pictures become part of a comprehensive understanding on a higher level. In the end, one experiences that ‘meaning’ is a dynamic and infinite matter that transgresses the presupposed individual boundaries of concepts, object and persons. Like in a rhizome, the complexity of the system and the never-ending dynamics of its relations, allow for the permeability of each of its elements. The invisible connections serve as umbilical cords that continuously exchange oxygen and nutrients to continue growing and transforming.

 Something similar can happen in the performer’s mind with regard to his or her repertoire, and this is where the work concept proves its value. Under the influence of the work concept, the music imaginarily crystallizes into distinctive individual works that, as such concise entities, can become nodes in a constellation of meaningful relations with other works and things. These related and associated objects, persons, and ideas can be so vividly present in the performer’s imagination – hovering in the mind’s ear, so to speak – that they color the performance of a piece. Following the particular law of elective affinities, they vibrate sympathetically in the performer’s head, like drones and overtones. They constitute, as it were, an imaginary museum of musical works.


Challenging the listener


When these virtual works and objects remain largely inaudible and unacknowledged, listeners tend to feel alienated from the imaginary musical world of the performer. But when we acknowledge the ways that we can juxtapose works so as to create associations with them and thereby also sympathies with the audience, then the performance becomes an emancipatory act. It liberates those virtual voices that, in a traditional concert setting, are silenced by the one work that is being played. Furthermore, by choosing to play only the affiliated, ‘virtual’ music and by providing associated objects and thoughts a performer can try to evoke, ekphrastically, a musical work without playing it. That is to say, by letting resonate all the surrounding nodes in a constellation of musical affinities, a meaningful void is created that is the imprint of the absent work.

 Now what has all this to do with us, listeners? Why listen to the fantasies of a performer? One good reason is that this is an extraordinary and challenging listening experience. It empowers the audience by giving a stage to what is otherwise censored by an all-too narrow interpretation of the ideal of Werktreue. Indeed, it runs counter to the idea that the best performance presents the work completely naked (as though unclothed by layers of association). It opens up the boundaries of the musical work, shows its porous make-up and permeable meaning. It exposes the ideal of self-sufficiency as pure semblance. For, if we manage to let go of the restrictive listening mode in which each and every work is heard as an autonomous entity, separated by applause and respectful silences, we might enter that wonderful web of musical affinities. And perhaps, if we develop new listening strategies, our listening efforts are rewarded and we can hear those fabulous inaudible works that are not played for us tonight.


orpheus institute ghent | entrance hall | 30.09.2014

performance chart

[see further materials here]