Where is the self that performs?

Phil Ford

A while ago I started writing a series of posts about sound and technology studies. I stopped after doing two of them, partly because I’ve been getting blog fatigue anyway, and partly because it seemed like an impossibly large problem (actually, a complex of interrelated problems) to tackle in the blog medium. It feels like trying to bail out a lake with a china cup. But whatever, anyway, OK, so here’s something I’ve been thinking about in the same line.

In my earlier posts I had argued that the concept of the musical work not only regulates and guides our formal study of Western art music, but also ends up ignoring a good deal of our actual musical experience. Then why study only musical works? Why just study compositions? Why not study performances of compositions? And of course a lot of scholars have started doing just that.


I’m listening to a recorded musical performance — the Vladimir De Pachmann 1907 recording of the Chopin Barcarolle. At 1:06 De Pachmann starts playing a new theme (those of you who know the piece will notice a big cut). The melody starts on scale degree 5, slides down (by way of a chromatic passing note) to 4, then skips down to 2 and curls back around, landing on 3 and moving upward through an arpeggiation of the A major triad. The apex of this arrival is the tonic pitch (1). When De Pachmann gets there, he gives a little pause. It’s a nice little pause, an apt way of marking a short-range melodic and harmonic destination, and De Pachmann makes the pause in a very characteristic way, articulating the highest note of the chord a little after the accompaniment, so that the hands go slightly out of phase for a moment. One might be able to map this moment, perhaps on a temporal graph. (There are problems with this approach, but it’s certainly practicable — tempo graphing is common in musical performance studies, if only because tempo is more quantifiable than other parameters of performance.) If we gathered enough information about similar moments of rubato, we might be able to start talking about De Pachmann’s general approach to rubato. We might use this general understanding of De Pachmannesque rubato to understand certain exemplary moments of interpretation, moments where De Pachmann makes some interesting decision — for example, when he does something especially noticeable to mark the boundary between sections or the end of a piece.


And when we do that, we will be talking about De Pachmann’s interpretation as if it were like a work, but just a different kind of work. Instead of being a notated composition, this kind of work is a creation of sounds, gelled into some kind of permanence by recording technology. It’s the special ability of recorded sound to allow us to repeat a moment of time endlessly, to take what is evanescent (music played on a piano more than 100 years ago) and make it permanent, so we can review and analyze the minutest details of a performance in the same way that we can go through the score of a piece of music and look at long-range connections between different themes separated by hundreds of measures. To analyze music in this way you have to be able to freeze and reverse time — otherwise it doesn’t hold still long enough for us to nail it down. Recordings and scores freeze time in different ways, but in either case they are technological contrivances that give us an object for analysis.
Now if performances are works, performers are their authors, so we naturally will start interpreting particular moments within a performance (like that little hitch at the beginning of the new melody) as authorial utterances. Notice I used the phrase “interesting decisions” in a previous paragraph to describe the sorts of things we might want to go looking for in an analysis of a performance. But to what extent are performative gestures decisions? Are performances the result of conscious choices that performers make? We don’t ever really ask this question when we’re thinking about things like the Chopin Barcarolle that De Pachmann plays. We speak of the composer’s intentions, which performers are enjoined to realize; we speak of tonal structures, phrase lengths, motivic relationships (etc.), everything in a composition we might be inclined to analyze, as the result of a conscious application of mind. Chopin chose these things, they didn’t just happen. This is not usually something we argue, but rather something we assume, and this assumption enables us to write sentences like “Beethoven shortens the lengths of his phrases as he approaches the modulation to G major” (or whatever). It feels natural to assume the same thing of the distinctive features of a performance. (“Serkin slows down as he approaches Beethoven’s modulation to G major.”) On this account, a performance takes the form of a virtual conversation between conscious subjectivities. And indeed I have assumed just this sort of thing before.


But here’s the problem. If you have ever performed music professionally you have probably had this experience where you’re playing and everything is going really well: the music is just flowing out of you without anything to block it. You’re not thinking, “I am am playing this thing,” you’re just playing it. And in such states — “flow states” — you aren’t exactly making conscious decisions. In a really good performance, you’re just kind of going with it; your subjectivity merges with “it”, the thing you’re playing, or whatever it is that lies behind what you’re playing. And time has a different meaning; you begin a piece, you end it, you begin another one, and so on to the end of the program, playing as if in a dream where time is mysteriously dilated. Your concert is over in like five minutes (or so it seems) and you can’t really remember what you were playing. The worst thing that can happen is that you’re kind of flowing along and then suddenly your conscious mind, your ego, the thing that makes conceptual statements, suddenly interrupts and says “oh shit, we’re in the recapitulation! how did we get here?!” And at this point, as you well know if you’ve ever played Western art music from memory, you are most in danger of having a memory slip. In these moments you become aware that there are at least two kinds of consciousness that come into play when you perform — the state in which you stand apart from what you’re playing and can make little comments about it (oh god, here comes that leap, don’t fuck it up now; well, you fucked it up, didn’t you? hope it goes better in the exposition repeat) and flow state, where you are fully integrated to what you’re playing. And it’s in the boundary between the two — coming out of flow and into critical consciousness with a jolt and possibly a memory slip — that the distinction becomes clear.


My point is this: the kind of interpretation of performances that I’ve described here, where we treat the recorded performance as if it were a new kind of work, treats everything in a performance as if it were the result of a critical consciousness. We tacitly assume that when (for ex.) De Pachmann makes that little hitch of rubato that I described he is actually thinking something like “OK, here I am, coming to the apex of a melody — I’m going to take some time.” But anyone who’s ever played music in flow state knows that you don’t necessarily think any such thing. In a flow state, it’s almost as if someone else is playing the music. This explains why musicians are often surprised (sometimes pleasantly) by what they hear when they hear a playback of their performance. Ornette Coleman’s liner notes for Change of the Century mentions this experience:

When our group plays, before we start out to play, we do not have any idea what the end result will be. Each player is free to contribute what he feels in the music at any given moment. We do not begin with a preconceived notion as to what kind of effect we will achieve. When we record, sometimes I can hardly believe that what I hear when the tape is played back to me is the playing of my group. I am so busy and absorbed when I play that I am not aware of what I’m doing at the time I’m doing it.

So in a situation like this, where is the self that performs? Where is the subjectivity to which we can ascribe intention, and whose intentions form the basis of our interpretations? It suddenly seems to me that the problem of consciousness is a great and unexamined problem of performance studies. And perhaps it is also a problem of musicology in general. Where is the self that composes? Not being a composer myself I have nothing to say about the degree to which compositional decisions belong to intentional states, but perhaps someone out there has something to say about this question.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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11 Responses to Where is the self that performs?

  1. I completely agree about the player’s flow state, but don’t your interpretive decisions about rubato &c. come during long practice sessions that lead up to and enable a successful performance?

  2. Ben F. says:

    These are interesting musicological/philosophical questions you pose, but neuroscience immediately sprang to my mind. I suspect that field might have something to reveal about the “self that performs”–I know the feeling you describe, and that musicians have described for a long time, whereby the music flows through the player as if from some outside force or influence. But there is presumably brain function somewhere going on during this state. Would be very interesting to investigate–you know, plug in to Joshua Bell’s brain while he’s tossing off a Lalo passage.

  3. danny says:

    Excellent post. I know Derrida’s style never really admits the casual reader (like one from performance studies or practice disciplines), but I do think that your reflections illuminate something that he’s been on about: the phenomenological experience of the self is something that develops within a broader structure/field. In this way, our actualisation as performers occurs when we develop our familiarity with the structure (physical, conceptual) to such a degree that our sense of outsideness from it evaporates. My inexpert reading of JD is that he might suggest that what feels like a natural self here (a letting go, a blankness) is the result of a highly critical and constructed itinerary, as Caleb suggests above. What then becomes interesting is the question of what kind of subjectivity can achieve the flow state within a certain context, which is not only a question of physicality but also one of culture, and the conceptual manipulation of the body.
    Thanks for your post, it has given me a lot to chew on for my current research!

  4. Bob says:

    Thanks for this, Phil — I’ve been interested in these questions for a long time, and it’s interesting to explore. (I even did a tiny little thing in MTO eons ago, “Composers, Performers, Notation…” Improvisation has been part of my thinking here. It’s the difference between instinct and intuition: as we all know, improv. is something that happens not instantly, but only after a ton of playing and experience. In the same way, the activities of a performer in the moment are in effect the culmination of a life’s playing and experience: a focus from the large to the minute, if you will (synecdoche, another of my hobby horses). And the same would apply for composers. The Greeks had a system for the phenomenon: the artist is guided by the muse. A kind of spiritual possession. I’m not ready to rule out the numinous, although it’s by definition tricky to quantify. But the way time works, with vast quantities being brought together in the performer’s mind to realize an instantiation of a piece or improvisation, seems quite metaphysical to me.

  5. glen says:

    Been waiting for this since parts 1 and 2, and you didn’t disappoint. I personally feel like “performance” in this context is like a meta-interpretation, a way of reconciling our extremely narrow definition of a work (bound by place time and context) with our overall conception of what an ideal realization would be, and of course both of those with ideas like performance practice, the composer’s “intentions,” audience expectations, etc. I’ve spent many years as an improviser and there’s no doubt that I simply don’t have the time to make conscious decisions, nor is it productive to divert my focus and attention away from the “flow.” It’s a union of the imagined and the real, the self and the environment, what could be and what is.
    Very interesting post, thanks for sharing. I only wish that more scholars would see the value in this line of thinking.

  6. In expanding the inquiry to composition (as an act and as a discipline), I think one needs to consider other regulative concepts at play, such as the ‘composer-as-creator,’ and the relationship of the autonomous work to tradition/heritage/past works. Down the road, I think that thinking about composition in these terms can impact our understanding of performance in general, not only in music.
    I’m posting on this elsewhere (http://zimmermannboyce.blogspot.com/2009/04/selves-in-performance-and-in_22.html) but I’ll just say here that the work-concept that you begin with here has many tendrils into compositional practice, including a subtle but powerful bringing-together of the composers’ agency as individuals and the role of tradition and heritage in the basic grammar of composition and the foundation of composition as a discipline distinct from other kinds of musicking.

  7. Jonathan says:

    Great food for thought, but I need to say that you didn’t have permission to print my exact in-the-heat-of-battle performance thoughts word for word, starting with “Oh god, here comes that leap.” I know no one else engages in such destructive self-punishment in the course of performances–just me.

  8. lylesan says:

    What a terrific and very helpful insight into the nature of music making. Thanks.

  9. mark says:

    First, thanks for quoting Ornette Coleman. My jazz friends sometimes talk to me about “the mind getting in the way,” which i something I struggle with constantly at the piano. Strange, as a rock musician I never had that problem. Now Phil, I know that on Friday nights you were not playing basketball for the team, but it’s uncanny the similarity between musical flow and sports flow. And there is thinking involved. I’ll dribble behind my back, create some space, and pull up for the J (swish) = I’m gonna kick it with this C7(9)/Bb, resolve to F, then F-maj.7 and resolve to Cmaj7, or whatever. They are conscious decisions, but made without anxiety. Flow is what we’re after, and I think you’re right, whether we call it mind or ego or self, we need to escape it and master it simultaneously. I can’t answer the question, though, of what happens to the self at such moments. I suppose it just calmly refrains from interfering, satisfied that later it can take the credit for the art.

  10. Samuel Vriezen says:

    Some random surfing brings me to an interesting & stimulating discussion here! (how wonderful lame excuses for not writing a string quartet can turn out…)
    “So in a situation like this, where is the self that performs? Where is the subjectivity to which we can ascribe intention, and whose intentions form the basis of our interpretations?”
    Have you considered disengaging the notions of “subjectivity” and “self”? A potential alternative could be a Badiou-like approach, in which the subjectivity is in fact exclusively the act of being faithful to the unfolding of a truth. The subject then is not necessarily embodied by a single consciousness; rather, it’s an activist process of following up on a single fundamental decision. In the course of such activity the truth unfolds; this truth is the infinite (never completely realized) collection of all consequences of that fundamental decision. A performance then would constitute one particular instance, a finite part, of the truth of the work that is being performed (which allows for infinite performances). Such an account might also help account for the ‘flow’: the decision-making is simply the process of being faithful, but that doesn’t really involve having to make fundamental decisions all the time – the more fundamental decision was in fact to decide to play the piece and take it seriously, and bring everything you’ve got to the piece – allowing the piece to operate on you.
    In this picture, subjectivity is more interesting than self. And indeed, how much more interesting is the guy behind the piano than that which he makes the instrument be part of? The question of ‘self’ strikes me as at its most important when you’re talking about copyright issues – economics. When talking about questions of what the music is about, less so. It’s more interesting, I think, to look at how some musical piece or practice structures music making, and to equate a particular subjectivity with this structure of music making, and to see how that works in each individual case. So I would argue that a question like “Where am I when I play Beethoven or Cage or free improvisation?” is less interesting than a question like “What kind of subjective structure does playing op.111 or Variations III or doing free improvisation make me part of?”

  11. TTU Theory says:

    Shortly after reading this post, I began rehearsals for Le Sacre du Printemps (I am a double bassist in our local symphony orchestra). As I was furiously counting through the final Danse Sacrale, and marking my part (which I intend to post on shortly) I couldn’t help but think of this post. It seems to me that this is a fine way to think about solo piano or violin or ____ playing, but I’m curious to what extent any sense of “flow” or subjectivity goes out the window when one is a lowly “orchestral infantryman” (if I might borrow a phrase Jonathan used a while back). I don’t know that, particularly in a score as difficult as Le Sacre that I would be able to enter such a state of “flow” as you describe.
    The conductor, on the other hand, had the entire score memorized–grace notes, rehearsal markings, and everything. I suspect he was able to “lose himself,” but my stand partner and I, who had to lead some student players through the brambles, certainly were not.
    I’m finding that quite a lot of music theory works very well for piano soloists, and very poorly for orchestral double bassists.

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