This article is an edited transcript of the panel discussion “Composer as Performer”, which took place during the Nordic Music Days in Reykjavik, September 30th, 2016. The panel discussion followed a concert with three performances also referred to in the discussion: Louise Alenius’ Rouge, Kristian Hverring’s FLOD and Juliana Hodkinson’s Nothing Breaking the Losing. The three performances were first premiered at the Royal Library in Copenhagen on September 15th 2016, and were commissioned by Sanne Krogh Groth as part of her research project “The Creator on Stage: the death and resurrection of the composer in 21st century contemporary music performances”. Participants in the panel were: composer Kristian Hverring (KH), composer Louise Alenius (LA), composer Simon Steen-Andersen (SSA) and moderator and initiator Sanne Krogh Groth (SKG).
SKG: It just struck me - why this phenomenon is so interesting, and why it is attracting so much attention right now: these people are so brave. They compose, they organize and they perform - they simply just do it all. This is a radical change, I would say. But maybe you [addressing the composers] don’t see it as radically as I do. I look forward to hearing whether you do or not, but for me as a listener, this is a very radical change.
What we have just experienced is of course not a phenomenon which has never been experienced before. Revisiting the history of pre-romantic performances during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, composers also took part in performances. As many already know, for instance, Bach performed at the organ, Mozart at the harpsichord and Haydn with his violin. At the time, the composer was, as well as being an organiser, a highly skilled musician, and the division between the composer and the performer hardly existed. But the appearance on stage of such composer-performers is different from what we have just experienced today: the composer-performer practices of today do not evolve through conventional skilled practices, but through other means.
Last spring, Irish composer-performer Jennifer Walshe wrote a manifesto for the Borealis Festival that has caught a lot of attention. Very briefly put, she names some new trends in the contemporary music scene as ‘The New Discipline’ and calls the composer the great auteur, who draws inspiration not only from classical musical repertoire, but also from, for example, the Dada- and Fluxus movements, visual arts, theatre, popular culture, TV-shows, twitter updates, etc. [Read her manifesto here].
From the point of view of the audience, the phenomenon is more than just the composer as auteur, and it’s more than just a pre-romantic composer-performer: it’s more than ‘a Bach’ performing his piece, a Fluxus or Dada revival, or a ‘von Trier-type’ doing contemporary music. Within the institution of contemporary music, the idea of a composer is still, to a large degree, the idea of the Romantic composer. The romantic era and classical music conventions are still present within contemporary music conventions, and maybe this is reason why this new trend is gaining such attention: the Romantic genius steps forward exposing him- or herself in a new disguise. The composer-type we are witnessing here is, in other words, neither a revival of the old, nor an entirely new phenomenon, but a complex assemblage of several traditions and practices.
KH: »This piece is pretty set in my world but there are a lot of things that I can’t control and that I don’t really want to control«
“… it would still have the same effect”
First, I would like to ask you , Kristian [Hverring]: do you always perform your own music? Or could you have other people performing it as well?
KH: I have had other people performing my music and I have performed other people’s music also. I also do music for theatre and stage art, performance art and things like that.
SKG: Your instrument is live electronics, so do you write scores as well?
KH: Yes, but not standard notation, more like graphical stuff, or writing, like a manuscript for myself. Or it might be something more mechanical, like in this piece, where the duration of the tapes decides when something new is going to happen. So I view that as a score, also.
SKG: Are these scores published?
KH: I haven’t done that, no. Not really.
SKG: You first did this piece in Copenhagen, and today you performed it again. As far as I remember, the performances were very different.
KH. Yeah, they were different. There were some elements that were exactly the same because the three voices you hear, which are recent recordings, they’re the same length and also the same sequence; they may have left the room at different times, at different places than in Copenhagen, but apart from that it was the same. Some of the other tapes playing in the background are very old tapes and they were a bit different than in Copenhagen. And some of the other treatments that I tried to do were a little bit different, yes.
SKG: Do you want them to do be different or do you try to make it the same?
KH: I like to be surprised. I’d rather answer it like that. This piece is pretty set in my world but there are a lot of things that I can’t control and that I don’t really want to control, and I also like to listen to the room, so that the audience can kind of inspire me a little bit.
SKG: I know that you had a first performance of the piece Længsel efter hud in Copenhagen while travelling up here. You had prepared this piece and then someone else performed it. Could you also imagine someone else performing the piece we just heard?
KV: »I guess it all comes down to how you present things to the audience, the framing of the piece or performance«
This being asked, I want to mention, that from our previous talks I know that some of the tapes you used in today’s performance are private recordings, so to me as an audience, the piece also has a very private expression. Could you have Tobias, who is now doing your pieces in Copenhagen this weekend, do this piece as well? Or is there a difference between them?
KH: I think he could, because I think the piece is not about me. It is about everybody who is alive and everybody who is not alive, so I guess: yes, it could be Tobias breathing into a microphone and playing these tapes. He could borrow the tapes, and maybe the things you hear in the background which are not so audible could be his own recordings, if he had some. So this piece, yes. Other pieces I have performed, I do not think that anybody else… well, it would just be different, but no I don’t think so, really, but this one actually, yes..
SKG: So the fact that they are private recordings, you don’t want this semantic layer to be a part of the expression?
KH: I think it might be part of the experience when you listen to it, and I think that when you hear the piece you guess that this is probably something that is private or something that is close to me. But if Tobias were standing here playing it, you would probably think that it was somebody close to him and it would still have the same effect, I think so… but I am not sure.
SSA: I think we will always experience the material of this performance as something documentary and very personal. But it’s true – if we don’t know who you are and we didn’t read anything about the piece – we wouldn’t know for sure whether it was your biography. When we do know, the documentary and biographical side become even more present. So at least in that sense it does make a difference that you're the one performing the piece: simply because it adds that extra biographical layer to the experience.
KH: Yes, that’s the whole thing about ‘authenticity’, and as an audience you maybe feel that the experience is more ‘real’ - that is probably correct - but it’s the same experience. What does that really mean, anyway, ‘the same’? I mean, I see your point, but it is also different; like you said, it was different in Copenhagen from it is today, but for other reasons. But now we are talking about the composer on stage, so that of course makes it more important. I guess it all comes down to how you present things to the audience, the framing of the piece or performance.
SSA: It’s the same piece, simply with this little extra biographical layer in the experience.
»I really didn’t want anyone to ever hear it«
LA: I would like to add something. Earlier today you were telling me that you started recording many years ago, when you were a teenager, or even earlier, and I was just drifting over this … about the idea of recording things at such an early age, and whether you had planned to perform it or not. I think that the intention will somehow always be there, when you start documenting things: that you want to show it, at some point, I would guess. But, on the other hand, I was also thinking that when you were that young, and because it also grew out of a technical interest, the intention might not have been to perform it. In my own documentation of everyday events I have definitely been thinking »one day someone with hear this«; but it was much later in my life that I started doing it, always having that in mind.
KV: »When I first discovered the record button on the cassette-tape recorder, everything around me suddenly started becoming really interesting in a different way«
Did you use some of the very early recordings today? I hope so, and I hope that you will answer that you originally didn’t have any intentions to perform them …
KH: I really didn’t want anyone to ever hear it. I don’t think that I thought about it, no. It was a personal exploration. I tried to reproduce the things I were hearing and listening to. When I first discovered the record button on the cassette-tape recorder, everything around me suddenly started becoming really interesting in a different way. When I started playing music and became interested in recording music, and only had this cassette-tape recorder, then I probably started thinking about the fact that later, some day, somebody would hear it.
LA: … And also started to realise what sounds good and what does not sound good. I even think that once this happens, then you are already imagining.
»I want the music to be visible on their skin«
SKG: Louise, let’s move on to your piece. When I wrote to you in the first place, I said, »please make a piece where you participate yourself.« What were your thoughts on this?
LA: I thought that it was very interesting, because it’s quite a different approach. Usually I don’t have many rules, and I was attracted by the idea of going deeply in to this ‘dogma’ and showing my relationship to the musicians. I almost ‘fall in love’ with the people I work with, but I also hate them in a way, because I have such high expectations, and no one can live up to them. I thought, maybe I should just do what I actually feel like doing – during rehearsals; I want to make sure that the musicians really feel the music, in order to be able to make other people feel what the piece is about. And it doesn’t always happen only through the music, I realise that. Sometimes musicians just show up and they are very sweet and play well. BUT I often miss something, like an engagement or something more at stake. That is a feeling I have very often, actually. With Rouge I went into the physical aspect and said, Ok, I will apply this ‘engagement’ to their own bodies – it might be painful, but I want the music to be visible on their skin. At the same time this will test how strong their focus is, and how much can I do to them, while they are still staying in the music.
SKG: How did they respond when they read the score and it said: »Now the composer is going to slap you?«
LA: Well, they just said it looked interesting. And that is what I like about writing scores. I see the score as some kind of contract that you make with the musicians. If they accept playing my piece, they will do what it says: »Composer will tie up the ankles.. composer will scratch Viola player’s thigh.« I didn’t hear anything from the musicians, so I imagined that they were ok playing it.
SKG: Was the score ready before you started rehearsing?
LA: Yes of course, I sent it to them several weeks before.. And I actually wrote to them: »Have you seen the score?« And I think they said: »Yes, yes we’re rehearsing« or something like that. Ok, so we’re good. That’s fine.
»…forcing them to be fully present«
SKG: Simon, In your piece Buenos Aires (2014, red.), you really challenge the singers and the musicians, too: no one gets to sing, no one gets to play, and everybody is tied up in various materials and machines. In this piece, the performers almost appear as cyborgs. Can you please talk a little about the collaboration with both the musicians and the singers during the creation of this piece?
SSA: When I do this kind of work with the musicians, it’s mostly to distract them, or to have some kind of resistance that will actually reduce them to amateurs on some level, forcing them to be fully present and really fighting for it. When I ask the singers in Buenos Aires to sing with these so-called speech aids, where all the intonation is done with the thumb and the sound comes from a vibrator pressed against the neck, they will never be able to 'sing' completely in tune. It is a big challenge, but it is also a lot of fun for them, which helps. I also have other pieces with set-ups where I literally add physical resistance to the player’s movements – a little bit like you do, Louise. I think there's a big difference between real resistance and acted resistance, and I think working with real resistance and the real audible struggle is a way to bring something real into the performance.
When I heard Louise’s piece, I must admit that I didn’t really hear much influence on the sound from the distractions or the resistance. I am not sure if that is a problem, but for me it was a problem in that particular project that I mentioned. So, I kept increasing the resistance and they kept playing it almost perfectly, and we had to take a lot of takes and add a lot of weight before they actually failed – strange huh? But because they are such good musicians, they can really quickly adapt to many different challenges.
SSA: »I think there's a big difference between real resistance and acted resistance, and I think working with real resistance and the real audible struggle is a way to bring something real into the performance«
SKG: Could you imagine making the resistance so much that they wouldn’t be able to play?
LA: Oh yes, completely. But, not in this piece. Because there is also another thing in my pieces. I actually like that kind of pain myself, so it is not only about pain, but also about touching the musicians (both soft and hard), and I realised that Mina liked the ’pain’ too. When I was scratching her very hard on her leg, she said: »this is nice, you can do it harder…« I think that’s very cool. With Carolina, we decided to have a stop sign if I went too far during the performance. The first time we performed it, both musicians were sore for several days. I think that’s great, but you [SSA] are so right: they make some kind of priority – they are so focused that it is hard to get them out of control. And I like the exact point where they are just about to lose focus, but are still mainly into the music.
A musician-controlled hierarchy?
SKG: Could you imagine that you would let the musicians get you, as composers, out of control?
LA: I would never agree to that, no way. Would you [SSA]?
SSA: No, I don’t think so.
LA: That is the difference between…
SKG: And what about you, Kristian? Could you turn the hierarchy upside down?
KH: I like to be in control and ‘hurt’ people as much as the next guy, but I also enjoy being ‘hurt’. I like to let go and just see what happens in that situation, but that would be after a process of working with some people for some time, where you find that this is becoming interesting. The situation has something to offer that I might not have come up with otherwise. It will never just be ‘not interesting’, whatever that is. Most things are at least slightly interesting, I think, if you do them long enough. Every situation contains a seed of inspiration or material, just waiting for you to discover it, discover a structure you can build on. Like looking at a wall until you discover patterns in the paint, or shadows cast on the wall which you didn’t even notice before. It may sound a bit far-fetched, but I find it to be true; you just have to find the right key for you to unlock what will inspire you in that situation. It might result in what you think is catastrophically boring music to turn the hierarchy on its head, but it might also provoke some thoughts and ideas in you that you otherwise wouldn’t have arrived at. Anyway, the hierarchy is actually, or unfortunately, still intact, because you, as a composer, initiated the situation in the first place; you agreed to give up control.
SSA: »But to say that you go on stage to be in control? I don’t think so«
»…we probably went on stage before we thought of it as ‘a thing’«
SKG: So, your appearance on stage, is this just the composer’s extra control? Or what is it, why is it that you go on stage and do things?
SSA: I think I can speak for all three of us and say that we probably went on stage before we thought of it as ‘a thing’. The first time I went on stage, I was playing a cover song in a rock band. I think in electronic music, pop music, and rock music you don’t really think that much about it – you compose and you perform.
I think that this combination is completely natural, except maybe, coming from one specific place – an academic composition practice, at one specific period of time. Because, like you [SKG] said in the introduction: composers were very active earlier as well. We also have some Danish examples of people writing piano concertos, and playing them themselves – like Niels Viggo Bentzon, who also poured water into the piano and was a part of the Fluxus movement. It is quite a small break between then and now, where this is not so much the case and where it is more the exception to perform a piece yourself, in this academic practice. But I really think that it is a natural thing to do, if you can and feel like it. Or if you have to out of necessity, because you can't afford the musicians, or nobody wants to perform your work. There are quite a few newer performance movements that started out of this situation, and then it became a style and a statement.
This is one part of it, and then of course, the other part of it is this extra personal or biograhical layer, which I think is present in both of your pieces. I think what made the difference in your piece, Louise, was your presence and maybe that decision of not taking it further than you did. As soon as I saw the gaffa tape, I immediately imagined them being all rolled up, but the fact that you hold back, and you don’t go further than you do… you are actually very discreet, and in that way I had the feeling that my expectations became a big part of the experience.
But to say that you go on stage to be in control? I don’t think so. Maybe you take responsibility, but I think that you can do that on all kinds of different levels: you go to rehearsals, try to work with the people performing your piece or maybe you do electronics or maybe you, for one reason or another, are on stage. But I would say, in many ways you are also losing a bit of control by going on stage. I feel much more in control in the back when I am doing the sounds or doing electronics and I have a global, outside view of the performance.
SKG: Louise, can you explain the differences in your relationship to the musicians while on stage or when acting more like a traditional kind of composer type? Are there any differences in the relationship with the musicians?
LA: Not really, actually. Except that I really like to be around musicians. I mean, it goes with this sort of love for them as interpreters and performers. But it doesn’t really change anything, they do their best anyway, I know that. But, I have also worked with orchestras that were more traditional. Once in Russia I worked with a symphony orchestra, and they also told me they were very distracted by my presence. For some time they did not believe that I was the composer. When they finally accepted it, they got really stressed out, because they were afraid to play wrong. I think an orchestra rehearsal can be a stressful situation for both musicians and composer, but I don’t feel that at all with Mina and Caroline or with many contemporary musicians.
LA: »I have many pieces that I don’t perform myself, because there would be someone else performing it much better than myself«
SKG: But there is definitely an authority…?
LA: But it is horrible. I hate that. You know, that’s another reason to be there, it’s to say: »Hey, let’s do this together. It’s something we do together, we need each other to do it.« I think that it’s always good to get to talk to people and establish some kind of trust.
»I am not afraid of the responsibility«
SKG: Kristian, how are your feelings about the role of authority.. of being in charge of sound, of time and of timing?
KH: I think Simon said an important word before: ‘responsibility’. I see it as a responsibility. I am not afraid of the responsibility. Often I am in a new situation, and I kind of like that. I realize by now that I probably like being scared, a little bit scared, which is also part of this thing about being on stage. It is stressful – but I apparently like that. So I don’t really see it as authority, I don’t know... it might be perceived as that. But I don’t think about it like that.
I think about it as this piece I want to present; but of course I also want some kind of reaction, because otherwise I could just be sitting at home.
LA: The ego is in the piece, so the important thing is that the piece will get out there in the best way possible. I have many pieces that I don’t perform myself, because there would be someone else performing it much better than myself. This piece is much more important to me, than being on stage… And it really is nice to sit and watch somebody perform it well.
»…it's fun. Why give that away?«
SSA: I agree. I would say that my ego is very concerned with how the work is delivered and also how it is received and so on, and much less concerned with which face you see up on stage. I am not doing it to expose myself. I believe you can find a few composers in the younger generations where you at least have the suspicion that the self-staging is a part of it – they want to put themselves in there as a part of what they do. Self-staging, but as an integrated and also maybe slightly ironic part of the whole thing. So, it does exist of course...
SKG: »The composers don’t really need to be on stage – but they really want to«
But, I believe much more in the practical necessity. In a piece like Run Time Error, I can’t really see how I would differ between performing and composing that piece because every little step or every little idea builds up as a part of the composition, I am already thinking of the performance and the whole logistics of it while composing. I could of course build up something and then have somebody else come in and learn it, but they would have to start from scratch. It just seems like the logical next step to do, since I actually can do it. Had it been a composition for oboe that would of course not be the case. Plus it is super fun, so why give up something which is really fun? I like setting up the whole thing, but I also like running and playing through it. And then later the joysticks come in. I could hand them over to somebody else but here it is kind of a point for me that it is the same person live and on the screen. I think that it is important that you have this little dopplegänger situation, where one person is controlling him- or herself. I like that as an extra layer.
I actually did two Run Time Errors with school kids; one time I was doing the camera and one of the kids was running around with the microphone, and the other time the kids were doing both the camera and performing as well. I was always doing the joysticks though. But that’s just in order to make the best possible presentation of the material – again a practical necessity. And it's fun. Why give that away? That would be like: »I baked a cake, who wants all of it?« At least I want a taste of it.
SKG: And this might be the reason why it is such a joy to experience these performances, because as an audience you sense this. The composers don’t really need to be on stage – but they really want to.