Performance, Subjectivity and Experimentation


This project investigates the question of how subjectivity may be variously constituted through musical performance.

Who is the ‘I’ that performs, and how is that ‘I’ embodied in the performance? Does that ‘I’ reveal aspects of itself of which it may be otherwise unaware, and if so, to whom: itself (thereby awakening intrapsychic knowledge) or listeners (thereby increasing interpersonal knowledge)? Does it also seek to protect aspects of itself by masking psychological revelation (in the manner of Borges’s ‘I’, who acts as a public face to privatize subjectivity)? What of that ‘I’ is carried from one performance situation to another, or even from the performance of one piece to another: is there here a core set of qualities by which that ‘I’ may be known and which projects a common set of characteristics? How is that ‘I’-ness perceived by the performer herself and/or by the audience, and does the performing self expand intrapsychic knowledge ?

The construction of subjectivity and formation of identity have in recent decades been matters of great concern in theories linked to artistic practice. Musicological perspectives on subjectivity gradually emerged in the 1980s and beyond, with the focus shifting in recent years towards reception and the listener. Perhaps surprisingly, though, subjectivity in musical performance remains a neglected area, especially in the field of classical and contemporary practice. Moreover, when the topic of performance is addressed it is usually from a purely musicological perspective; there is very little practice-led, artistic research explicitly concerned with subjectivity. Our project seeks to redress the balance, taking the performer as the prime focus of the research and drawing conceptual models into that frame.

The project addresses the question of subjectivity by means of 4 discrete but closely interlinked sub-projects, each of which takes an experimental and exploratory approach to the process of performance-making, examining how subjectivity is produced through this process; how expressive strategies are formed through the creative process of developing and/or practising musical materials. We ask how similar and different these processes are for different performers, with different instruments (and repertoires), different working processes and different performance contexts.

Practice and theory are interwoven in this project. For many performers, the discourses of expression and the self in performance are at once all-pervasive and somewhat opaque: fragments of philosophy, psychology, psychoanalysis and notions of embodiment are often entangled with matters of instrumental technique and apparently abstract notions of musical expression into a practice geared towards the generation of a ‘personal’ and ‘unique’ musical ‘voice’. At the same time, performers rarely engage with more complex accounts of subject formation. This project will bring recent notions of subjectivity in  performance into the practical arena, experimenting with their claims, testing their validity in different contexts, and bringing the theories into play with each other. From this, new models of performance subjectivity, identity and agency will emerge.

In collaboration with the Orpheus Institute.