‘Critical Vocalisations’ – getting started


I have only a little over three weeks to prepare a talk for a postgrad student conference at UQ, which obviously falls within the period where I will also be preparing for my recital! Therefore, I need to get really bloody organised and ensure I have a routine of writing and practising rather than my usual method of cramming in full days of one or the other in the final fortnight. I simply can’t afford that.

With one to two hours per day of paper prep and three to four hours per day of practise I should be okay. This needs to be locked into each day with priority and other things (teaching, politics, chores, socialising…) will just have to fit around that.

But I’m finding it very difficult to make a start on this paper – I’ve now cancelled three meetings with my supervisor Rob Davidson and I can’t put it off any longer, I’m meeting him this afternoon. Rob’s not a bad supervisor actually, he knows how to work the academic sphere to suit himself. Anyhow, here’s the abstract for my paper:

The Western art music tradition has a firmly established, three-tiered hierarchical system: the great musical master, the composer; the working musicians, the performers; and finally the audience, the listeners. Contained within these are further hierarchies, for example the conductor’s role of authority over the orchestral musician. Given these structures, how might the inclusion of the performer’s voice in modern instrumental music – a technique commonly known as ‘vocalisation’ – challenge the traditional situation? And what might this mean for the performer in question?

Drawing upon texts by Jacques Rancière, Lacanian theorists Mladen Dolar and Slavoj Žižek, and 20th century composer Helmut Lachenmann, as well as specific examples of vocalisation in the contemporary flute repertoire, this paper examines the position whereby vocalisation acts as a critique of the ‘imaginary’ structure of the Western art music tradition. According to this position, this technique could be said to disrupt the logic of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ in the performance situation, changing the power relationships between composer, performer and listener. The emanation of the performer’s voice, essentially from ‘behind’ their instrument, leads to a heightened presence of the musician which throws into question the authority figure (the composer) and opens up spaces for new analytic and performance practices.

This paper concludes with a number of questions, for instance: what lies beyond this critique of imaginary structure? And does this mode offer a genuine framework for the performer’s interpretation or realisation of the work, or how can we move to one from this point?

It is not a particularly original approach – I intend to make the very standard critical move (rupture, etc.) – however it has not before been applied in this specific case (to my knowledge) and it is useful for my purposes (I need to follow this line of thought through to its conclusions to see whether it actually holds anything of worth to me).

But I haven’t yet made a start on turning these thoughts into anything more besides a long reading list, and a basic idea of the paper’s structure. So! Time to turn these things into progress…

Draft Structure matched with texts:

Introduction //

  • Commonly accepted hierarchical systems in music: composer, performer, listener (Stravinsky – The Performance of Music, Cook – Music: A Very Short Introduction, Warren – The Composer and Opera Performance)
  • The ‘distribution of the sensible’ (Rancière – Aesthetics and its Discontents)
  • The performer in the middle – slave to both ends or position of power?

What is vocalisation? (Rigler – Vocalizing with the flute) Played examples (Crumb, Takemitsu, Saariaho, Ford, Rigler – project score examples on screen)

Vocalisation as critical gesture //

  • Potential of voice to disrupt hierarchy (Penny – Flutes, Voices and Maskenfreiheit, Dolar – A Voice and Nothing More, Barthes – The Grain of the Voice)
  • Psychoanalytic implications (Dolar, Miller – Jacques Lacan and the Voice)
  • The composer’s role: critical art (Rancière – The Emancipated Spectator, Lachenmann…)
  • The performer’s role: body in motion (Rancière, Penny, Bradshaw – A Performer’s Responsibility, Clarke & Davidson – The Body in Performance)
  • The listener’s role: ’emancipated spectator’ (Rancière, Beaumont – Expectation and Interpretation in the Reception of New Music)
  • Longer musical example (Takemitsu?)

A series of questions //

  • Beyond the critique – what does this actually mean for the performer?
  • Approaching a framework for interpretation/realisation

Not entirely sure I’m going to manage to keep all that to 20 minutes… Having just written all of that out, I am starting to remember how interesting this might be (rather than just how terrifying the prospect of writing a paper is). And writing for a talk can be pretty fun. Next step will be fleshing out the notes for the introduction – I aim to have this done by Thursday at the latest, and I want to have much of the notes done by mid-next week.


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