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6. Conclusions and an Epilogue: The Complexity Model of Music Performance, Deleuze and Brain Laterality

© Dorottya Fabian, CC BY

As I was completing this manuscript Nicholas Cook’s most recent monograph Beyond the Score: Music as Performance was published. It is a magisterial overview of the field, detailed yet summative, covering more than one could think of—and in a page-turner style of writing! It makes my project fade into insignificance, at least in terms of the broader issues regarding the study of performance. There is no point to the discussion of the different approaches to investigating music performance, nor to their respective limitations. Instead I put forth my proposition for a theoretical framework that a musicology of performance could adopt and formulate what I believe might enrich our thinking about how to overcome the problems encountered in current research.

My analytical discussions conveyed my credo that is in agreement with what Cook writes in the final chapter of Beyond the Score:

It is not obvious that there is a limit on the number, or nature, or viable performance options, whether these are informed by historical precedent, structural interpretation, rhetorical effect, or personal taste. In every instance there will be some reasons for doing it one way, and some for doing it another. Each will have its own consequences, which can be explored and evaluated. There are lots of ways of making sense of music as performance, and lots of sense there for the making. It really is as simple, and as complicated, as that.1

The many ways of making sense of music as performance, and of the activity of performing, are all valid and contribute to our understanding of the phenomenon and our engagement with it. Arguing about the best method is therefore not my goal. But arguing for an increased attempt to find ways of dealing with it in its complexity; to synthesize approaches and analytical detail, is. There are two issues I raised early on in this book to which I need to return now: the importance of aural communication that takes place where music is performed (see Epilogue) and the claim that music performance is a complex dynamical system.

Based on Cilliers,2 in chapter two I listed eight characteristics of complex dynamics systems that are easy to relate to musical performance and promised to discuss them further here. The first point stated that complex systems require not only a large number of elements but that these interact in a dynamic way and therefore change over time. Performing classical music has many technical as well as musical and emotional-psychological-cognitive elements. It also has a history and a cultural-social dimension. Different approaches to studying music performance tend to focus on any one of these: Empirical analyses of performance focus on features such as tempo, dynamics or vibrato; ethnographic and psychological studies on musicians’ practice behaviour, ensemble coordination, decision-making processes, memory, body movements, emotional communication, social interaction; historical-cultural investigations on musicians’ biographies, performing tradition lineages, concertizing, receptions, diaries, and memoires; music analytical and historical performance practice research on technical and historical requirements and the fulfilment of stipulated intentions and historical requirements; and so on.

As we have seen these “large number of elements” are indeed present and play a role not just in how a performance is acted out but also how it is heard and received. The physical interactions between instrument and player, between acoustic and affective elements and between violinist and listener are also supplemented by interactions between musicians, between historical and contemporary violinists, teachers and students, and a variety of written sources evidencing “transference of information.” The detailed analysis of performance features discussed many specific interactions (for instance between tempo, articulation and dotting). Biographical information, citations from interviews, reviews, and compact disk liner notes confirmed interactions among musicians, history, culture and audiences. Comparison of recordings hinted at formations of practice—an often unspoken “interaction” among players as they form communities with each-other, their forbearers and the music they perform. The tracing of mutual influence of MSP and HIP and the often futile attempt to deliberate between the two styles showed what a melting pot music performance can be. The various complex interactions of these diverse elements from the cultural-historical through the technical-musical and ultimately to the personal were all noted. Their role and the nature and network of interactions differed in various ways according to the individual instances.

Still, it is quite remarkable how much performances change over time. Here I focused only on the last 30 years, hardly more than two generations (if you consider a generation to be 10-15 years) yet change was in evidence everywhere. Diversity of approaches could be observed in relation to most movements of Bach’s works for solo violin and the change was not necessarily one-directional; some MSP features resurfaced in slightly different form (e.g. longer phrases but lighter bowing) while HIP features were taken to more extreme levels (e.g. metrical grouping of notes and ornamentation). The variety found among the most recent recordings was perhaps the most interesting and reassuring discovery: Bach performance is in a healthy state at the beginning of the new millennium. The plurality of styles available on record is as good as—if indeed not much better than—during the proverbial golden age at the dawn of sound recording a hundred years ago. It is also obvious that performers (and listeners) vote with their playing and heart: by now it is certainly not only “the composer’s voice [that] is worth listening to when devising performance approaches.”3 I have shown many examples of interpretations of the Solos that could be severely critiqued by people with “Urtext mentality,” yet provide thoroughly enjoyable readings that exude vitality and (personal) authenticity.

The second point on my list based on Cilliers was the requirement that the interaction be rich; any element in the system influences, and is influenced by, quite a few other ones. This was observed primarily as I discussed the various specific performance features and when I described selected recordings in a holistic manner.

Remember, for instance, how often tempo, a seemingly straightforward matter, interacted with various other features impacting on perceived speed, flow and overall aesthetic effect. The perception of tempo could be influenced by articulation as well as bowing, either together or singularly. Heavier bow pressure and / or more sustained articulation tended to make the performance sound slower. Tempo, on the other hand, could influence the perception of rhythm and so did articulation which in turn interacted with bowing. As bowing is the instrument of articulation in violin playing, it is perhaps more accurate to say that bowing acted out or delivered articulation. And of course bowing also depends on the bow, very much so. Players often say it is harder to find the right bow than one’s life partner! Quite a few violinists use particular bows for particular repertoire; and the differences between a modern and an early eighteenth-century bow are considerable. Its contribution to particular musical effects has been frequently pointed out.

Nevertheless it is phrasing that is without doubt the feature that occupies the ultimate seat of interactions; it emerges from the composite of most other features and is affected by personal disposition, cultural heritage, education, age, experience and so on. Most of my attempts at holistic-descriptive analysis of interpretations engaged with verbalising the constituent parts of what we call the performer’s shaping or phrasing of music. Being the most complex “element” of performance—well, this is an oxymoron, surely, as something is either an element or a complex, so it might be better to think of phrasing as a higher-level feature; a construct of interactive elements such as articulation, timing, dynamics and tempo—it certainly influences other elements, not just being influenced by them. The overall aesthetic perception and affective response largely depends on our (the listener’s) interaction with phrasing. I mentioned how trills and grace notes, even added embellishments did not matter much unless they were shaped in a particular way; usually through bowing that enhanced a sense of pulse or highlighted harmonic motion. I also discussed how phrasing could limit or boost the impression of improvisatory freedom. A comparison of Kuijken’s two recordings of the A minor Grave and G minor Adagio, among others, showed phrasing to interact with either metric organization (leading to more regularity) or harmony and melody (leading to more improvisatory freedom). Added to the mix are bowing (pressure, speed, length and distribution affecting tone and shaping and significance of notes), dynamics, tempo and timing of notes. Eventually I even ventured to mention possible affective states that the complex of phrasing may engender in a listener like me.

The third point listed in chapter two referred to the characteristics of interactions; that they are non-linear, that small causes can have large results and vice versa. This is considered a precondition of complexity. With regards to music performance it is arguable what a “small cause” and “large results” might be. Perhaps a more locally nuanced articulation is a reasonably small cause in the context of detached articulation yet it has a very significant impact (large result). The difference between metrically shaping groups and rattling them off in a motoric-mechanistic manner has become the hallmarks of HIP vis a vie the “modernist” (or “authentistic” ) style.4 Another instance of a potentially small cause having a large result is Gringolts’ delivery of embellishments in the B minor Sarabande. As discussed in chapter four, the figures he adds and the places where he ornaments are similar to Mullova’s in 2007-2008. Yet her version sounds completely different because of the more metrical delivery and period bowing style: a potentially small technical detail having a large result.

A more complicated situation came to light in my discussion of the E Major Preludio in chapter five. I understood Sarlo to claim that small differences in tempo fluctuation could create large differences in interpretative style.5 I argued the opposite; that seemingly large differences can have rather small results. Or to be more precise, I argued that details matter. For me neither the relatively large overall tempo differences nor the small tempo fluctuations necessarily caused a large change; they did not per se shift a performance from the Italian moto perpetuo style into the French “expressive” interpretative option (compare Kuijken 2001 with Wallfisch or Kremer 2005). Rather, these differences simply weakened (“deterritorialized”6) the virtuosic element that I could still hear even in the “expressive” versions (e.g. Matthews, Holloway). Similarly, the considerable difference in the strength of accents or dynamic range or the way dynamics were used had little impact on the overall aesthetics: Wallfisch’s accented playing or Barton Pine’s dynamically shaped versions still sounded virtuosic and moto perpetuo, exemplifying situations when easily noticeable (large) causes in a complex system have relatively small results.

The fourth point referred to “loops in the interactions”; when the effect of any activity can feed back onto itself, sometimes directly, sometimes after a number of intervening stages. This can be best observed when the recordings and violinists are placed in their historical-cultural context. The spiral model of performance trends that I proposed in 2003 aims to explain exactly this looping:7 Performance features that have gone out of fashion may reappear again after a while but although they are similar they are never the same. The rhythmic flexibility and expressive freedom witnessed in some contemporary violinists’ playing is different to that observed in the recordings of Joachim and his contemporaries.

In the current study we could witness such differences and “spiralling” primarily through the examination of multiple recordings by the same violinists. This showed two contrasting tendencies: Firstly, that musicians take their conceptions witnessed on the earlier version further in the same direction, and secondly, that they may return to previous, in the interim abandoned, aesthetic ideals and playing technique. However, just as it is impossible to step in to the same river twice, so it is with music performance. For instance, if a player re-introduces vibrato after he or she had been convinced of its historical inauthenticity, she will use it differently: perhaps less frequently, probably not as part of tone production but as an expressive device. The performer interacts with her past, his changing aesthetic sensibilities. However much they change, a part of them will still be there—as we saw Kremer explain on the DVD Back to Bach cited in chapter five. For some musicians the similarities are stronger, the looping is tighter and the radius of the loops shorter. For others more radical interactions may occur.

The effect of playing baroque music in decidedly HIP manner may even have a global influence, impacting on the musician’s playing of Beethoven or Brahms or Bartók (“activity feeding back onto itself”). This can be observed in the not-at-all nineteenth-century manner of performing Brahms, Verdi or Chopin by musicians nominally associated with HIP.8 Mullova, Barton Pine, Ibragimova, Faust have all worked with period ensembles and specialists whose influence they acknowledge. In Mullova’s case we have recorded evidence of how these activities influenced her playing of the Bach Solos “after a number of intervening stages” (exemplified by the 1992-1993 recordings of the Partitas). In hindsight, Gringolts’ 2001 disk studied here is a record of an early stage in his growing interest in baroque violin playing. Nowadays he is often seen playing with a baroque bow and both his technical and musical approaches to baroque repertoire have gained depth and seem to have lost some of their idiosyncratic qualities.9 He referred to this “looping back” already in 2003 when he noted in an interview:

I’d say playing good music is like reading a great book—each time you read it you gain more understanding by reading between the lines. Each word can have a double or triple meaning and you will never reach the bottom. That’s how it is with good music—it is completely boundless and that’s why, in the case of Bach’s solo violin works, it is still being played more than 300 years after its creation.10

It remains to be seen how he will play Bach in ten or twenty years’ time.

Schröder’s case may also be best understood in terms of this “loops in the interactions.” His early commitment to historical investigation, to the re-discovery of seventeenth-century violin repertoire, his role as chamber musician (especially of classical string quartets), his pedagogical activities and publications, his participation in Holland’s vibrant and experimental early music scene all formed various loops of interactions, some resulting in more ground-breaking contributions than others. Judging his role or the importance of his contribution based exclusively on his solo Bach recording would be a fatal mistake.

The fifth point asserted that complex systems are usually open systems, they interact with their environment. This aspect of music performance is shown in many ethnographic studies. Quite pertinently it is evidenced in the large survey Ornoy conducted among HIP musicians at the end of the 1990s. He clearly pinpoints the complexity of this interaction with the environment when he notes:

The conspicuous discrepancy between the wide, multicolored ideological spectrum found in various writings and the somewhat uniform values of the performers’ actual practice might also indicate the lack of interaction between the two domains: many early music performers have been found to be “behind the times” with current ideologies, since they perform according to attitudes formed many generations ago. […] practical considerations took priority over ideological aspirations, and contradiction between the two domains might easily evolve.11

On the one hand musicians interact with their environment through “practical considerations,” while on the other hand they remain aloof of larger cultural-ideological movements and continue doing what they are used to, showing “conservative” / “behind times” traits. Such contradictions can be traced among the most prominent performer—writers of the early music movement; the verbal pronouncements frequently not matching musical outcomes.12

This duality is also seen in contemporary discussions of western classical music and its performance. These often criticise the “industry” for being inward looking and stratified. This attitude is considered to contribute to the perceived decline in audiences or mass demand for classical music. However, this is not necessarily the case at all, especially not in relation to the performance of baroque music and HIP.13 There are also obvious signs of constant renewal and interaction with the environment. I noted, for instance, that even The Juilliard School of Music has now introduced post-graduate studies in historical performance practice; that even James Ehnes (if not Hilary Hahn) has changed his Bach performance by the time he recorded the accompanied sonatas (chapter three). In Beyond the Score Cook lists many initiatives coming from Conservatoires, soloists, ensembles, orchestras, and opera houses. The pluralistic society we currently live in inspires musicians to experiment with new ways of performing, of mixing styles, of improvising, of enjoying and incorporating into their own practice good music of any kind and tradition. All this has an impact on their approach to the Bach Solos as well, as seen in the increased level of ornamentation and embellishing of several movements. They do not “interpret” the music as much as they play with it. They “proclaim a loyalty to the playful and emotive elements which are music’s greatest joy.”14

This demonstrates that “the value of studying the stylistic features of what Hamilton calls the ‘golden age’ of pianism does not lie so much in rehabilitating specific stylistic practices. It lies in recapturing the pluralism that was so prominent a feature of nineteenth-century musical culture.”15 Although in a study like this I had no opportunity to discuss the wide spectrum of evidence for this pluralism, the growing experimentation and freedom from the letter of the score was clearly in evidence as we progressed through the last 30 years.16 The added embellishments and cadenzas (cf. E Major Gavotte and Rondeau, Loure, Menuet I and the two Sarabandes); the sheer physicality of some of the fast movements; the abundant expressive gestures everywhere, all signified younger performers’ responses to their environment—and I did not even include Stefano Montenari’s richly embellished recording issued in 2013. The more literal, evenly balanced “perfect violin performances” of earlier MSP versions similarly reflected an interaction between the expectations of society (especially the profession) and the musicians. Back in the 1970s and 1980s and earlier “modernist” times, even tone, powerful and seamless bowing, and perfect control were the aesthetic ideals. There was only one way of “honouring the composer’s score,” so everybody at a certain level of professionalism tended to sound much the same.

How performers dedicated to the early music movement have interacted with their environment in the UK during the past few decades is traced, to a certain extent, by Nick Wilson in his 2014 book, The Art of Re-enchantment.17 I eagerly await a cultural historian’s or ethnographer’s more detailed account and explanation (perhaps in collaboration with a music performance analyst) of the stylistic changes in performance that reflect such interactions. Richard Taruskin drew important parallels between modernism and the mainstream style of classical music performance during the middle of the twentieth century.18 John Butt expanded on this work and showed parallels with postmodernism and other, perhaps more particular and personal matters.19 I have also discussed these largely theoretical propositions in chapters two and three. My main position, however, is to reiterate the importance of detail. The interaction of performance features, the differences between artists, and the complexity of music performance should not be dealt with a cavalier cherry-picking method for the sake of a plausible argument. Nuanced, systematic and comprehensive coverage is needed before broad conclusions can be drawn. And this of course means that my results speak only of performing Bach’s solo violin works. We may find different tendencies even in recordings of his Cello Suites, let alone the music of other composers and periods.

The interaction between trends in music performance and the cultural-social environment is complex and non-linear. The pluralism and diversity displayed by the studied recordings, and especially the trend toward greater freedom and individuality, clearly parallel other cultural turns. Nevertheless the link is not necessarily straightforward or veridical. In one of his essays, Fredric Jameson interpreted the “end of art” notion as originally being a left-wing idea as opposed to the “markedly right-wing spirit of the current ‘end of history.’”20 This would imply that the new “loosened HIP” has something to do with this less radical, more conformist-populist attitude. Perhaps it is so in certain cases. But for me it seems more likely that instead of trivialization the HIP performance approach has gained depth through liberation from the tyranny of the “purists” who tried to make it an alternative establishment and money-making machine. It is not at all true that “anything goes,” that the tendency is towards facile readings. Pluralism notwithstanding, these recorded performances of Bach’s solo violin works still fall within palpable boundaries (Deleuzian “territories” and “multiplicities”). Important criteria include the vitality of performance and the technical command of the violinist. Without one or the other the playing may perfectly parallel cultural trends, might even be a “perfect performance of a musical work” but not at all a “perfect performance.”21

This leads me to the sixth point about complex systems. Namely that they operate under conditions far from equilibrium. There has to be a constant flow of energy to ensure survival. This energy is supplied primarily by the ever new generations reaching maturity and starting a professional career. Their responses to their teachers and musical “parentage,” to refer to Hilary Hahn’s formulation cited in chapter three, are complex in themselves. Some feel more comfortable with continuing their tradition, others prefer rebelling against them. The lack of stability is also manifest in the anxiety over how to carve a career; how to find the balance between pleasing competition and audition judges’ expectations, yet be innovative and original, arresting and attention-grabbing with your performances. The anxiety of influence also lends energy and instability to the complex of music performance. We have seen how Mullova suffered while trying to play Bach the way she was expected to in the Moscow Conservatory (chapter three). In her 2011 book From Russia to Love she talks about living in fear and playing the violin “to get out of the USSR.” Once in the West she came to enjoy performing, came to love making music, playing Bach’s Solos.22 Volatility, instability, flow of energy from teacher to student, from performer to audience and back are part and parcel of a musician’s life and evidenced by far too many interviews, reflections and other publications to recount any more here. But given the generally held view—especially from within western classical music’s walls—that audiences are aging and the style has lost its contemporary relevance, it is worth noting the number of extremely young faces in the Berlin Philharmonic, for instance, and the mushrooming number of smaller and larger ensembles or the over-subscription by students at prestigious conservatoires.

The energy of renewal and the palpable physical vitality emanating from a symphony orchestra performing Mahler or Beethoven or Stravinsky, or anything else for that matter, speak for themselves. This physical energy becomes particularly perceivable when watching DVDs and digital broadcasts (for instance from the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall). The close-ups of intensely focused faces, moving bodies, eye contacts, breathing, and the physical effort and concentration involved when sounding loud, fast, or deeply expressive passages all add to the impact of performance. Although it is unlikely that anything would go wrong, it is possible to sit on edge and feel one’s adrenaline and heart-rate rise as the musicians negotiate being in a state “far from equilibrium.”

The seventh point claimed that complex systems have history. Not only do they evolve through time, but their past is co-responsible for their present behaviour. In music performance this manifests quite clearly in debates around historical performance practice and the current state of affairs. Changes in performance style are often brought about by a reaction to the past. The matter-of-fact, literalist style of the 1950s to the 1980s certainly had such an element. I remember our discussions of performers and performances when I was a student at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music in Budapest (Hungary); what and whom we liked and why. Precision, relentless tempi and anti-romantic expression were highly prized—but as a result certain music, especially baroque music, sounded boring or trivial. All this had changed when musicians started playing it with inflections and dancing movement. Alternatively, the success of the historically informed performance movement must be “co-responsible” for the increasing number of recordings demonstrating HIP influence. Among the studied recordings that were made in the new millennium hardly any could be categorized as entirely MSP. Even Julia Fischer’s and Sergey Khachatryan’s versions displayed aspects of the HIP style.

Tracing the co-responsibility of the past might lead us back to the issue of aging audiences and the die-hard view that performances have become all too uniform. The focus on technical perfection and big sound during the 1960s to 1980s may be held responsible for this prevalent view. The history of the recording industry, its promotion of a star cult that continues to be the norm with established “legacy” concert organizers relying on snobbish audiences may also be responsible for the much more limited opportunities and exposure of many excellent musicians without good agents. The present behaviour of pluralisation, of self-recording, of direct marketing and accessing potential audiences is a reaction to that historical development and a sign of the dynamic energy with which performers embrace new technologies and technologically mediated opportunities. These show the evolving history of music performance. Although making a middle-class living as a young, up-and-coming classical musician is admittedly rather hard under current circumstances,23 it is not a viable expectation “that classical music should occupy the role it did a hundred years ago, in a far more monolithic culture.”24 Such an attitude is not commensurate with characteristics of complex systems. The history of a complex system evolves and renews; it contributes to and is co-responsible for the present functioning of the system. It is never static. Therefore what we see developing now is yet another sign of performance being a complex, dynamic system. What we see is a transformation and pluralisation that fulfils the “more reasonable expectation” identified by Cook as the expectation “that classical music should be a successful niche culture, or set of niche cultures.”

The final, eighth point referred to potential clusters in dynamic complex systems; interactions that take the form of clusters of elements which co-operate with each other and also compete with other clusters. An element in the system may belong to more than one clustering. Clusters should not be interpreted in a special sense, or seen as fixed, hermetically sealed entities. They can grow or shrink, be subdivided or absorbed, flourish or decay. We have seen many instantiations of this characteristic. The cluster of bowing and articulation both co-operated and competed with the cluster of tempo and dynamics, for instance, while bowing belonged to other clusters as well, forming one with phrasing and tone and another with ornamentation. Actually these clusters (or “multiplicities” and “assemblages” to use Deleuzian language) tended to have more than the named interacting elements, blurring the distinction between clusters. In other words, it was impossible to consider them as “fixed, hermetically sealed entities.” They did indeed fluctuate in size and significance at times allowing one specific element to “rule,” other times interacting so tightly that it proved impossible to tease them apart.

6.1. Summary

Throughout this book I have developed and evidenced a novel theory of music performance using the analogy of complex dynamical systems. This theory overcomes the problem of contrasting and contradictory explanations that arise from reliance on limited and generalized information. The new theory accommodates (1) the distinction between various overarching trends and individual performing styles; (2) differences in degree not just in kind; and (3) the interactions among various technical and musical elements of performing. It also clarifies the distinctive roles of aurality versus literacy in musical practice and allows for a more comprehensive and subtle explanation of the relationship between performing styles and broader social-cultural-historical trends. The model fosters interdisciplinary approaches and the combination of qualitative and quantitative methods. Moreover, the theory of complexity highlights the fact that each individual may display contrasting traits in diverse repertoires and thus cautions against generalisation. The theory accounts for and unifies all the parts in the puzzle, offering solutions for long standing debates and mutually contradictory stand points. It is complex but complex systems cannot be adequately described by means of a simple theory. The models themselves have to be at least as complex as the systems they model.

Such a conceptualization of music performance is an important contribution to this field of research. Complex dynamical systems are always more than the sum of their parts; they are constituted also by the intricate relationships between their components. By placing emphasis on the interaction of the various expressive and technical elements, the theory draws attention to the limitations of researching particular aspects of performances and maps a new path for empirical and experimental research, and research into creative practice. Such a new path has also been argued for by cognitive scientist Patrik Juslin in his recently proposed theory of musical emotions.25

Significantly, the theory enables a valid argument for aesthetic criteria in judging performances. This is especially useful in an age of pluralism and relativism when sceptics critique the assumed “anything goes” and revert to authoritarian, absolutist and normative ideologies. Just as the unpredictability of complex systems may turn into randomness, ad hoc execution in performance may result in mannerisms, stylistic incoherence and a lack of musical flow. The holistic approach fostered by the adoption of the complexity theory helps explain and evaluate the artistic-aesthetic qualities of performances.

6.2. Where to from here?—Epilogue

If music performance is complex, should we just put it in the “too hard” basket and give up studying it? Or should we accept that we can only study aspects of it and perhaps never be able to complete the jigsaw puzzle? Throughout my analysis I referred to contemporary philosophies that offer methods of approaching complex dynamical systems. In particular, I used the analytical concepts developed by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari and Bruno Latour’s questioning of science. These concepts and ways of thinking proved plausible for studying and understanding processes that are complex and dynamic.26

Deleuze and Guattari’s book A Thousand Plateaus provides a performed model of what they call the “rhizome,” where immediate connections between any of its points are allowed. In essence, as I understand it, they use the insights of dynamical systems theory and extend the notion of self-organizing material systems to other realms. I showed how the resultant de-centred network (“rhizome”) may be used as a metaphor for music performance or, rather, as a model for analysing music performance. My cross-referencing to their terms indicated how their description of processes they call territorialization (ordering “hierarchical bodies” in “assemblages”), deterritorialization (breaking of habits), and reterritorialization (formation of habits) can be applied in investigations of changes in performing styles. They call an “assemblage” an emergent unity that joins together heterogeneous bodies in a “consistency.” We can replace the term “heterogeneous bodies” with “performance elements” or “performance features” while “assemblage” could be the emergent style that joins (“territorializes”) these elements or features creating overall aesthetic effect (“consistency”) and perhaps even affect.

Non-linear thinking in the humanities and social sciences has taken root during the past decade or so, especially through the work of Manuel De Landa27 and Bruno Latour, on whose ideas I relied upon more. Such approaches have become fashionable in certain musicological circles as well.28 However, most remain fairly theoretical and abstract. I have not seen these ideas applied consistently in analytical studies of performance. Nick Nesbitt presents a specific argument for the case of using Deleuzian thinking (or rather, Latour’s Actor Network Theory that is an analytical tool kit developed from Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the agencement) to unpack the processes of jazz improvisation. Still, his paper also lacks a demonstration or modelling of how such an analysis might unfold.29 Reading such literature can make one feel that plain language would be just as good and would aid comprehension. But of course the fault could be with the reader. In any case, even though I did show the obvious parallels and applicability, I am more inclined to turn to science and empirical evidence to find viable routes and explanations. I found what I was looking for in Iain McGilchrist’s volume, The Master and his Emissary (Yale University Press, 2009).

The Brain and its Two Worlds

I am no neuroscientist and am familiar with only the smallest fraction of that literature, more out of curiosity than research.30 McGilchrist’s argument is compelling to me because of the wide range of research and scholarship he refers to from neurology and psychology to anthropology, art history, literature, history, music, and philosophy, as well as their sub disciplines and much else (the notes in the paperback edition run to over 50 pages and at the start of the “Select Bibliography” (p. 518) the reader is referred to a more complete list to be found at Still, I am aware that his near 500 pages (in small print) long volume was first published in 2009. Six years is a long period in the rapidly developing field of brain science. So I perhaps trust my intuition and prejudices here, but I am comforted by the many overtly enthusiastic reviews the book received from all corners (including neurology, neuroscience, neurobiology, behavioural neurology and neuropsychiatry) when it appeared.31 Ultimately I simply find the distinctions he draws useful for explaining the difficulties and short-comings of performance research and to emphasize the importance of aurality and bodily understanding. For me the distinctions also provide biological support for philosophies that promote a non-linear and experiential way of being, thinking and knowing.

The Master and his Emissary is a book about laterality; about the processes and functions of the left and right brain hemispheres. However, McGilchrist is at pains to stress, if not on every page then almost as frequently as that: “we now know that every type of function— including reason, emotion, language and imagery—is subserved not by one hemisphere alone, but by both.”32 Essentially the book argues that what matters most is a consideration of how the hemispheres use the “skills” they possess; how each contributes to the various functions the brain fulfils. Overall the book explores the characteristics and consequences of an over-reliance on analytical, abstract thinking. I see this over-reliance to be particularly detrimental, misleading, and limiting when applied to music performance studies.

To put simply, the left hemisphere tends to be logical, inward-looking, self-referential, working with what it already knows, good at focused attention, categorizing and abstraction; “analysis by parts, rather than as a whole.”33 In contrast, the right hemisphere tends to be holistic, is good at detecting anomalies, has an “open” attention, looks outside of itself, feels to “be a part of something much bigger,” is concerned with “everything that goes on in [its] purview.”34 This, McGilchrist points out, “requires less of a wilfully directed, narrowly focused attention, and more of an open, receptive, widely diffused alertness to whatever exists, with allegiances outside of the self.”35

Melodic contours and unexpected harmonic events are processed primarily in the right hemisphere, which is also the dominant hemisphere for emotions.36 Empathy, our ability to relate to others, to see their perspective and be attuned to their feelings depends primarily on the function of the right hemisphere. Music encourages empathy, even entrainment. Some argue that “mental representation of music may occur simultaneously in different areas” and it is true that “musical training shifts some music processing from the right hemisphere to the left.”37 But the separation is not clearly delineated and perhaps it is not in our best interest to encourage a take-over by the left-hemisphere. Rather, the evidence of my analytical discussions and the parallels drawn with oral cultures compel to approach musical training and performance more holistically; to engage the right hemisphere for a more complex and complete understanding as well as creative renewal.38

McGilchrist draws upon study after study to illustrate and evidence the differences between left and right hemisphere processes. He covers an impressively wide spectrum of sources—both in terms of time and disciplines—that lend overall weight and philosophical credibility to the argument. Together these provide an explanation why it is so difficult to study creativity and artistic practices; why it is easy to feel disappointed upon reading scientific examinations that impress as simplistic and beside the point regardless of their increasingly sophisticated experimental apparatus and measuring techniques. By dissecting and analysing the parts (something the left hemisphere is good at and what empiricism and sciences set out to do since the Enlightenment) we lose the whole—which is what we would like to understand and for which we would need to rely more on our right hemisphere’s capacity. As I pointed out in chapter five, “complexity does not accumulate, it proliferates.”39 The elements of complex systems “have no representative meaning by themselves but only in terms of patterns of relationships with other elements.”40 Self-referential, categorizing cognition is not well positioned to help us understand such dynamisms; meaning is created globally and needs to be understood that way.

Early on in the book McGilchrist refers to a study by Goldberg and Costa from 1981 to start explaining the main differences between how the hemispheres work.41 He notes that we use the word “know” in at least two different ways which languages other than English often express with different words. One sense in which we use the word “know” is for what the German calls “kennen,” that refers to experiential knowledge, an encounter, an understanding of what is known.42 The other sense in which the word “know” is used refers to factual knowledge or “wissen” in German. This kind of knowledge is constructed by “putting things together from bits.” He writes (p. 95):

[Factual knowledge] is not usually well applied to knowing people. […] ‘born on 16 September 1964,’ ‘lives in New York,’ ‘5ft 4 in tall,’ ‘red hair,’ ‘freckles,’ and so on. Immediately you get the sense of somebody—who you don’t actually know. […] What’s more, it sounds as though you’re describing an inanimate object—‘chest of drawers, two single over three double, bun feet, circa 1870, 30 x 22 x 28in’—or a corpse.

This type of knowledge is valued by science because its findings are repeatable, disengaged from the subjective, general, impersonal, fixed. It is the kind of knowledge that the left hemisphere is good at generating. However, such knowledge “doesn’t give a good idea of the whole, just of partial reconstruction of aspects of the whole.” For a holistic, experiential knowledge we rely on the right hemisphere.

So far so good, but why is this relevant for studying music performance? Because, as McGilchrist points out, music apparently “requires us to know it in the sense of kennen rather than wissen.” I will cite him at length here to make the argument clear:

To approach music is like entering into relation with another living individual, and research suggests that understanding music is perceived as similar to knowing a person; we freely attribute human qualities to music, including age, sex, personality characteristic and feelings. The empathic nature of the experience means that it has more in common with encountering a person than a concept or an idea that could be expressed in words. It is important to recognise that music does not symbolise emotional meaning, which would require that it be interpreted; it metaphorises it—‘carries it over’ direct to our unconscious minds. Equally it does not symbolise human qualities: it conveys them direct, so that it acts on us, and we respond to it, as in a human encounter. In other words, knowing a piece of music, like knowing other works of art, is a matter of kennenlernen. Coming to us through the right hemisphere, such living creations are seen as being essentially human in nature. In an earlier book I argued that works of art—music, poems, painting, great buildings—can be understood only if we appreciate that they are more like people than texts, concepts or things. But the perception is ancient: Aristotle, for example, compared tragedy to an organic being (p. 96).

Whether these different ways of knowing relate to the hemispheres of the brain or some other neuro-biological mechanisms, is not for me to say. Music is processed in the brain in multiple and parallel ways. Nevertheless I certainly agree with the conclusions, and especially with regards to complex dynamic systems, that “To know (in the sense of kennen) something is never fully to know it (in the sense of wissen) at all, since it will remain for ever changing, evolving, revealing further aspects of itself.” On the other hand, “To know (in the sense of wissen) is to pin down so that it is repeatable and repeated, so that it becomes familiar in the other sense: routine, inauthentic, lacking the spark of life.” (Ibid.).

It seems a crucial loss when, due to analytical pinning down, due to writing rather than listening and observing or participating, “[k]nowledge of the whole is all too soon followed by knowledge of the parts” only.43 Scholarship of creativity, of improvisation or of artistic processes dissects the whole. While it might get closer to knowing the elements at work, it gets further away from understanding the phenomenon. If we insist that musicians and artists become researchers rather than deepen their experiential “kennen”; if we insist that musicians develop “left-brain capacities” such as abstraction, rational thinking, linearity, and logic, we will miss out on the capacity of music and the aural domain to “activate other parts of the brain (mostly in the right hemisphere […]) [and to] bring into play new kinds of ideas.”44 By encouraging musicians to become researchers, by limiting discussions of performance to empirically-experimentally measurable or verifiable “facts,” we distance ourselves further both from the object of study as well as the creative practice itself. It is crucial to integrate the two ways of knowing and to celebrate both instead of prioritizing analytical-abstract knowledge in written up peer-reviewed publications. As Veit Erlmann has argued,

The error of modern epistemology is that, eager to declare […] a distanced stance as the sine qua non of reason, it excluded […] formations of complementarity as too complex to be known and named. And because complex formations exist only as capacity, “as a black memory, a middle between presence and absence, forgetting and memory,” they are ill suited for founding the subject in modernity’s either-or logic.45

To be sure, I am not advocating for sloppiness or personal “confessionals”; not at all. I believe in the rational project and am curious and keen to understand what I think I know, but I want it all, “and / as well as”, not “either / or”. If we keep it constantly in mind that music performance is like a complex dynamic system we will have a lesser chance of falling back on just dissecting; of losing sight of the whole or of becoming prescriptive and normative in our conclusions. Just like musicians who “never leave a piece of music alone” but “are always tangling with it, wrestling with it, [are] seduced by it,” the analyst of music performance must also always toy with and be completely “entangled” by her object of study.46

In chapter two (at notes 110 and 113) I cited Bruno Latour to underline the “limiting and inhibiting effect of becoming too explicitly aware of the process”47 and the sense of wonder one feels when achieving something semi-consciously. I also suggested we need to gain a better understanding of how knowledge is gained, understood, and transmitted in oral cultures, as the locus of music performance is in the aural realm (also shown above when discussing the fourth and fifth points of complex dynamics systems). The “written word tends inevitably towards […] [a] specialised and compartmentalised world,”48 and before long the holistic perception of listening could also be endangered: “the more the eye and ear are capable of thought, the more they reach that boundary line where they become asensual. Joy is transferred to the brain; the sense organs themselves become dull and weak. More and more, the symbolic replaces that which exists.”49

This of course resonates with Deleuze’s philosophy. Another such instance is when McGilchrist notes that “Language enables the left hemisphere to represent the world ‘off line,’ a conceptual version, distinct from the world of experience.” Language individuates. Music reinforces empathy and helps maintain a commune, being attuned to the whole, the domain of the right hemisphere. Importantly McGilchrist also notes:

Isolating things artificially from their context brings the advantage of enabling us to focus intently on a particular aspect of reality and how it can be modelled, so that it can be grasped and controlled.

But its losses are in the picture as a whole. Whatever lies in the realm of the implicit, or depends on flexibility, whatever can’t be brought into focus and fixed, ceases to exist as far as the speaking hemisphere is concerned.50

McGilchrist then asserts the importance of metaphor, which he claims to be “a function of the right hemisphere, and [to be] rooted in the body.” It is important because “Metaphoric thinking […] is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of sign to life itself. It is what links language to life.”51 Metaphoric language bridges us to the experiential world because “words are used so as to activate a broad net of connotations, which though present to us, remains implicit, so that the meanings are appreciated as a whole, at once, to the whole of our being […] rather than being subject to the isolating effects of sequential, narrow-beam attention.”52

Inevitably, there is much discussion of music in McGilchrist book. Although many of the points he makes are familiar to students of music, he tends to shed new light on them or draws novel conclusions that seem useful when considering an emergent musicology of performance. For instance, on p. 121 he states that “skills are embodied, and therefore largely intuitive: they resist the process of explicit rule following. […] a skill cannot be formulated in words or rules, but can be learnt only by watching and following with one’s eyes, one’s hands and ultimately one’s whole being: the expert himself is unaware of how he achieves what he does.” This explains why music, especially the playing of an instrument has to be taught through the “apprenticeship model” and why Conservatoires need to remain practical institutions with plenty of time for experimentation and experiential learning that is best fostered by one-on-one tuition and lots of doing and modelling. It also explains why practitioners may not be the best auto-ethnographers writing practice-led or practice-based / practice-informed research (recall Latour cited in chapter two, fn. 110). Once we move out of the zone of demonstration and talking in metaphors (as is most often the case during lessons and rehearsals), and adopt a scientific language, we have lost the whole and have only (some of) the (not necessarily most important) constituent parts.

Being immersed in the experiential world is second nature to musicians and all the difficulties about studying this world, the difficulties I have been trying to highlight here, had long been summed up in the saying that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” So I might ask again, should we just put it in the “too hard” basket, go home and continue experiencing it through playing, composing, improvising, listening? I certainly would not advocate for that! What I do advocate for is a more balanced, humble, and open-ended approach, or indeed a more “right hemisphere” approach: the right to do things (research, that is) differently, to partly remain in “oral culture mode,” to use metaphor, to “proclaim a loyalty to the playful and emotive elements,”53 to engage with aesthetics not as attitude but as capacity of sensing, to not shy away from describing subjective experiences, to present performances as performance, as play.

1 Nicholas Cook, Beyond the Score: Music as Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 402.

2 Paul Cilliers, Complexity and Postmodernism: Understanding Complex Systems (London: Routledge, 1998), pp. 3-7.

3 Kenneth Hamilton, After the Golden Age: Romantic Pianism and Modern Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 281. To be sure, Hamilton is asking the question “is the composer’s voice the only one worth listening to when devising performance approaches?” and arguing for “a more liberal attitude.”

4 The term “authentistic” was coined by Richard Taruskin. See his Text and Act: Essays on Music and Performance (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), esp. pp. 99ff.

5 Dario Sarlo, The Performance Style of Jascha Heifetz (Farnham: Ashgate, forthcoming).

6 A term borrowed from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (London: Bloomsbury, 2013) and explained in chapter two.

7 Dorottya Fabian, Bach Performance Practice, 1945-1975: A Comprehensive Review of Sound Recordings and Literature (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003), pp. 246-248.

8 I have discussed examples in Dorottya Fabian, ‘Is Diversity in Performance Truly in Decline? The Evidence of Sound Recordings,’ Context, 31 (2006), 165-180. See also Clive Brown, ‘Performing Nineteenth-Century Chamber Music: The Yawning Chasm between Contemporary Practice and Historical Evidence,’ Early Music, 38 (2010), 476-480.

9 See the Medici TV youtube broadcast of a concert excerpt (held during the Verbier Festival in July 2011) where he and Masaaki Suzuki perform the Largo from Bach’s Sonata in C minor BWV 1017, available at

10 From a post by Greg Cahill on the All Things Strings website available at [last accessed October 2015].. See also the interview cited in chapter three, talking about the “experimental” stage he was in at the time of recording the disk studied here.

11 Eitan Ornoy, ‘In Search of Ideologies and Ruling Conventions among Early Music Performers,’ Min-Ad: Israel Studies in Musicology Online, 6 (Special Issue 2007-2008), 1-19 (p. 18).

12 I have mentioned a few examples in earlier chapters and pointed out many more in Fabian, Bach Performance Practice.

13 The reporting about audiences is often inaccurate and misleading as Lyndon Terracini of Opera Australia explains in Australian Book Review (02 September 2014), for instance, available at

14 Lawrence Dreyfus, ‘Beyond the Interpretation of Music,’ Dutch Journal of Music Theory, 12/3 (2007), 253-272 (p. 272).

15 Cook, Beyond the Score, p. 401.

16 Think of projects and ensembles like Officium (Jan Garbarek with the Hilliard Ensemble), The Red Priest (Johann I am only dancing), O’Stravaganza, All’Improviso, Yo Yo Ma’s Inspired by Bach, Uri Cane’s Goldberg Variations (among others), Joe Chindamo’s Reimaginings, or Matthew Barley’s various projects. His website sums up this new generation’s attitude: “[Matthew Barley’s] musical world is focused on projects that connect people in different ways, blurring the boundaries that never really existed between genres and people.” See Consider also the new courses in classical improvisation convened by pianist David Dolan at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and reported in, for instance, David Dolan et al., ‘The improvisatory approach to classical music performance: An empirical investigation into its characteristics and impact,’ Music Performance Research, 6 (2013), 1-38. In May 2015 they advertised a masterclass / lecture recital with Robert Levin entitled “Creative Repetition.” The abstract informed that the lecture recital is “focusing on how to approach repeats creatively. His performance will include two piano sonatas by Mozart (K. 330 in C major and K. 576 in D major) with improvised repeats as well as improvised interlude between them […].”

17 Nick Wilson, The Art of Re-enchantment: Making Early Music in the Modern Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

18 Taruskin, Text and Act, pp. 90-154, 164-172.

19 John Butt, Playing with History: The Historical Approach to Musical Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002). See also John Butt, ‘Bach Recordings since 1980: A Mirror of Historical Performance,’ in Bach Perspectives 4, ed. by David Schulenberg (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press), pp. 181-198, where he discusses the potential of the “anxiety of influence” one generation of musicians might feel vis-à-vis their forebears and teachers.

20 Fredric Jameson, ‘“End of Art” or “End of History”?,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern, 1983-1998 (London: Verso, 2009), 73-92 (p. 76).

21 Lydia Goehr, ‘The Perfect Performance of Music and the Perfect Musical Performance,’ New Formations, 27 (1996), 1-22.

22 Viktoria Mullova and Eva Maria Chapman, From Russia to Love: The Life and Times of Viktoria Mullova (London: Robson Press, 2012). See also interviews with Eric Jeal ‘Viktoria Mullova: From Russia in a Blond Wig,’ The Guardian, Wednesday 17 August 2011, available at,’ or with Jamie Crick on Classic FM ‘Classic FM speaks to Viktoria Mullova,’ available at

23 See, for instance, interview with Monica Huggett by Laurence Vittes, ‘From Rock to Bach,’ Strings, 21/6 (January 2007), 53-57: “Unfortunately, while musicians like Huggett continue to refine and deepen their understanding of Baroque performing practices, the outlook for the commercial side of their musical lives is not so positive. ‘In London,’ Huggett says, ‘It is shrink of the Baroque. I don’t envy my young colleagues. There are a lot of players still playing concerts who want to live a middle-class life, but it’s a real struggle. [Baroque] musicians may be highly intelligent and highly trained, but when it comes to financial reward, they are very little respected.’” (p. 56).

24 Cook, Beyond the Score, p. 403.

25 Patrik N. Juslin, ‘From Everyday Emotions to Aesthetic Emotions: Towards a Unified Theory of Musical Emotions,’ Physics of Life Review, 10 (2013), 235-266.

26 Manuel De Landa is one writer who attempted to show in his book, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy (London: Continuum, 2003) how Deleuze’s philosophy may be linked to contemporary “chaos” or “dynamical system’s” theory.

27 Manuel De Landa, A Thousand Years of Non-linear History (New York: Swerve Editions, 2000). I thank Ellen Hooper for this reference. See also dozens of articles in Deleuze Studies,

28 See for instance Sounding the Virtual: Gilles Deleuze and the Theory and Philosophy of Music, ed. by Brian Hulse and Nick Nesbitt (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010). I am grateful to Ellen Hooper for alerting me to some of this literature.

29 Nick Nisbett, ‘Critique and Clinique: From Sounding Bodies to the Musical Event,’ in Sounding the Virtual: Gilles Deleuze and the Theory and Philosophy of Music, pp. 159-180.

30 So I am more familiar with books for “general” audiences than scientific papers. My thinking is informed by, for instance, David Huron, Sweet Anticipation: Music and the Psychology of Expectation (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007); Daniel Levitin, This is Your Brain on Music: Understanding a Human Obsession (London: Atlantic Books, 2006); Antonio Damasio, The Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain (New York: Vintage, 2012); Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2007); The Psychology of Music, ed. by Diana Deutsch, 2nd edn (San Diego: Academia Press, 1999), among others.

31 The positive responses are available at A critical view that is explored and replicated here is available at

32 Cited from the book’s abstract on McGilchrist’s website: available at

33 McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, p. 24.

34 Ibid., p. 25.

35 Ibid.

36 Anne Dhu McLucas, The Musical Ear: Oral Tradition in the USA [SEMPRE Studies in The Psychology of Music] (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), p. 120.

37 Ibid.

38 Perhaps it is no coincidence that the less analytical, more existentially orientated Continental philosophers’ work seems to have greater potential to assist explaining the phenomenological experience of musical performance. I mostly adopted Deleuze’s ideas, but see also Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, among others I drew upon in chapter one: Edmund Husserl, The Idea of Phenomenology (The Hague: Martinus Hijhoff, 1964); Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962). In his wonderful study Reason and Resonance: A History of Modern Aurality (New York: Zone Books, 2010), Veit Erlmann also shows a long tradition of Continental writers and thinkers who have considered hearing as important as seeing, if not more so.

39 Richard Toop, ‘Against a Theory of Music (New) Complexity,’ in Contemporary Music: Theoretical and Philosophical Perspectives, ed. by Max Paddison and Irène Deliège (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2010), pp. 89-98 (p. 91).

40 Bruno Latour, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 11.

41 Elkhonon Goldberg and Louis D. Costa, ‘Hemispheric Differences in the Acquisition and use of Descriptive Systems,’ Brain and Language, 14/1 (1981), 144-173.

42 McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, pp. 94-97.

43 Ibid., p. 97

44 McLucas, The Musical Ear, p. 158.

45 Erlmann, Reason and Resonance, p. 314. The internal quote is from Michel Serres, The Troubadour of Knowledge (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), pp. 20-21.

46 Laurence Dreyfus, ‘Beyond the Interpretation of Music,’ Dutch Journal of Music Theory, 12/3 (2007), 253-272 (p. 272).

47 McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, p. 107.

48 Ibid., p. 105.

49 The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche 3: Human All too Human I [1878]. Translated with Afterword by Gary Handwerk (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), §217, p. 145 (emphasis added). Another translation reads: “The more capable of thought eye and ear become, the closer they approach the point at which they become asensual: pleasure is transferred to the brain, the sense-organs themselves grow blunt and feeble, the symbolical increasingly replaces the simple being.” Cambridge Texts in the History of Philosophy: Nietzsche. Trans. by R. J. Hollingday (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 100. A third translation gives p. 115: “The more capable of thought that eye and ear become, the more they approach the limit where they become senseless, the seat of pleasure is moved into the brain, the organs of the senses themselves become dulled and weak, the symbolical takes more and more the place of the actual.” Dover Philosophical Classics, ed. and trans. by Oscar Levy (New York: Dover Publications, 2006 [London and Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis, 1909-1913]).

50 McGilchrist, The Master and his Emissary, p. 115.

51 Ibid.

52 Ibid., p. 116.

53 Dreyfus, ‘Beyond the Interpretation of Music,’ 272.