I have a half-baked idea that I want to talk about in this post. It’s about interpretation, non-rehearsable music and my recent piece Community of Objects. I’ve been working on an article about this piece recently, and doing a lot of reading to try to gain a better understanding of my own context for this composition. One of the articles I’ve read has been ‘Vexations of Ephemerality: Extreme sight-reading in situative scores – for makers, performers, audiences’ by Sandeep Bhagwati (references linked at the end of this post in case you’re interested).
Bhagwati’s article is focused on ‘situative scores’ – scores that are produced in real time and therefore need to be sight-read onstage. At one point he talks about the problems of interpreting such scores and it occurred to me that Community of Objects seems to differ from other pieces that demand ‘extreme sight-reading’ in that it kind of replaces interpretation, in the traditional sense, with personal emotional response.
Taking a step back, let’s start with Bhagwati’s definition of interpretation:
‘Interpretation’ is a term used in the context of fixed scores to describe a process in which practise, repeated readings, analysis, comparisons with other scores, information about the musical or cultural context as well as non-musical concepts and imaginaries are condensed into the moment of performance. (Bhagwati 2017, p. 2)
While overall accurate, this definition rather sidesteps what I feel is a crucial element of interpretation, which is that it is personal to a performer. It is a manner of performing something which has been developed by an individual (using repetition, etc.) which may reveal something of the performer themselves – if not their personality then at least their stylistic preferences – in their performance.
However, as Bhagwati points out, with situative scores, there can be no repeated readings, no rehearsal in the usual sense. And because repetition and time spent with the music lie at the heart of interpretation, interpretation therefore cannot exist for music which must be sight-read on stage.
Which I am finding interesting when considering performances of my own situative piece (because while the score of Community of Objects is not generated on the fly, it is kept a mystery to the performers until the very moment of performance, and so could perhaps be considered to be situative) because the displayed personality of the performers is an essential part of the piece.
If we consider that interpretation is principally an individual’s performed response to a score (which may be developed through the approaches listed in Bhagwati’s definition) rather than the tools used to reach that response, then a version of interpretation could indeed be possible in a piece which uses extreme sight-reading by changing the priorities of the piece.
Bhagwati’s examples all seem to create a tension based on a need for accuracy in performing the situative score – the challenge is all about ‘getting it right’ (or – more likely with extreme sight-reading – ‘getting it wrong’). Accuracy will usually be the first part of learning a piece of music – get it right then develop your personal approach once the technical part is under control. But what if the expectation of accuracy were bypassed? In a sight-read piece where technical accuracy is not important, there is scope for personality perhaps.
In the case of Community of Objects, the element of accuracy is bypassed by using commonplace activities and a free timescale – opening boxes, following simple instructions, tearing paper, etc. Most people will have internalised these from an early age. They don’t really require any thought. Instead the challenge in this piece is emotional: it focuses on eliciting genuine emotional responses and the performer’s challenge is to allow themselves to be open and vulnerable, sharing any emotions they feel, whether surprise, disgust, boredom, etc.
My feeling is that the performers’ approaches to the unknown content – driven by that vulnerability which has them just be themselves – convey their personalities in performance, the way a rehearsed interpretation might do for a fixed score. And just as personal interpretative gestures usually have an effect on the audience’s understanding of the music (whether to clarify or confuse), as described in Eric Clarke and Jane Davidson’s ‘The Body in Performance’ (another recent read – see ref below), the individual responses may provide a ‘way in’ to the piece for the audience.
Consider these two moments from Community of Objects performances – the first shows Alice Purton (on the left) in the Plus-Minus Ensemble performance, who discovers some buttons in her box; the second shows Tim Cape (on the right) in the Bastard Assignments Snape Maltings performance, who has been given some beach pebbles. Both have the instruction ‘play with these’:
These are very different interpretations of the same instructions and similar materials – but they aren’t rehearsed. For both performers, this was their first encounter with the piece. Instead of an interpretation gained by repeated exposure to the composition and developed over time, their personalities come through and drive how they interact with the material they have been given.
Sandeep Bhagwati, poor chap, seems to be quite disillusioned with the effectiveness of situative scores to create meaningful musical experiences. His sorrowful conclusion to the article states that ‘the ephemeral score… vexes us with its aggressive absence of meaning, of connection, and of sense’ (p. 6) but I wonder whether this is less a factor of the need for ‘extreme sight-reading’ and more to do with crushing the performer’s personality under the pressure of ‘getting it right’. Is openness an answer here? To leave some space for the person performing it to be a real person, not just a performing machine?
Bhagwati, S. (2017) ‘Vexations of Ephemerality. Extreme Sight-Reading in Situative Scores – for Makers, Performers, Audiences’, in Third International Conference on Technologies for Music Notation and Representation, A Coruña, Spain. Available at: http://www.udc.es/grupos/ln/tenor2017/sections/node/15-vexations_ephemerality.pdf (Accessed: 31 August 2017).
Clarke, E. and Davidson, J. (1998) ‘The Body in Performance’, in Thomas, W. (ed.) Composition, performance, reception: studies in the creative process in music. Aldershot: Ashgate.