Monday, March 5, 2018

Dissertation Digest: Interpretive Labor in Experimental Music

By Kirsten Speyer Carithers

My high school had strong band and choir programs, but no orchestra. Consequently, my first experience playing symphonic music came not with Haydn or Mozart, as might be typical for an oboist, but with preparations for the annual New Music Festival at my undergraduate institution, Bowling Green State University. Looking around the ensemble during a rehearsal, a realization struck me: even for advanced players, with years of experience performing difficult repertoire, this was work.

A decade later, I was employed at a large financial-services company, poring through incoming regulations and revisions as part of a team of compliance analysts. The lawyers and executives handed down the main decrees – long overdue, as this was the era of TARP and Dodd-Frank after all – and we assessed how, exactly, this would play out within our line of business. Procedures had to be re-written, customers notified, and training documentation created for the hundreds of employees within our division. This, too, was work.

What these two examples have in common, apart from eventually informing my research agenda, is the activity of interpretation: getting from the text comprising Point A (a score, a regulatory statement) to the action of Point B (a live performance or new procedure). The intervening process, like much creative labor, remained under-recognized. When I began narrowing down ideas for my dissertation, I was most curious about the relationships between composers and performers, especially for realizations of indeterminate music. <1>(From the first draft of the prospectus: “find out how these musicians felt about their contributions to these works without being named as composers of them.”) Already, I sensed an imbalance of power, although at that point I was thinking in terms of an idealized linear shift from vessel to co-author: a rather utopian notion of composer-performer collaboration. Working through a number of case studies, from Cornelius Cardew’s work as Stockhausen’s assistant, Petr Kotík’s establishment of the S.E.M. Ensemble and the Ostrava Center for New Music, Charlotte Moorman’s leadership in the New York Avant-Garde Festivals, and the activities of the numerous members of the Center of the Creative and Performing Arts in Buffalo, NY (including Cardew and Kotík), I gradually identified several primary categories of musical labor. Within an interdisciplinary framework encompassing music studies, critical theory, and media studies, I developed the concept of interpretive labor to theorize the work of musical performance.

My research has two central objectives: to examine what it means to engage in the act of (musical) interpretation, and to align musical performance with developing theories of labor. The first drew me toward hermeneutics and the work of a handful of philosophers and literary theorists, including Heidegger and Derrida.<2> For the second, new-media scholars provide some useful paths to supplement Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital and the classic writings of Marx.<3> On the whole, though, and particularly in musicology, the connection between these two areas has been little explored. (I’ll note here that I am particularly encouraged by a few recent developments, including the growth of the Economic Ethnomusicology special interest group of the Society for Ethnomusicology, and new work published by Timothy D. Taylor and Andrea Moore on related issues.<4> I think we’re onto something!)

My theory of interpretive labor has four related models: the Scientist, the Executive, the Hacker, and the Gamer. Each model accounts for a particular type or mode of creative work, including experimentation, translation, writing and re-writing, and altering the very notion of musical performance. From the self-directed work of realizing chance procedures to the potential exploitation of a compositional assistant, and from subversive engagement with notation to the free play of performance art, the musical avant-garde’s many modes foster a rich and varied understanding of labor. Performers – both within and beyond avant-garde movements – labor to navigate their relationships to the score and to the composer, their work frequently obscured by the conventions of artistic recognition.

The relationships among composers, performers, and audiences constitute micro-economies for the work of interpretation. All three groups negotiate their connections to the musical work and to one another before, during, and after performances, and this is most challenging when there is limited precedent tempering expectations. Interpretive work therefore forms a central component in this system. In short, it is a managed cultural ecology: an economy. Composer-performer-audience relationships are also reflected in and deeply connected to economies writ large. To address these issues in music, I have turned to emergent theories of labor in other creative industries, especially as developed in response to cultural work and affective labor, the proliferation of hidden work brought forth by digital and social media, and the attendant post-Marxist critiques thereof.

Throughout the project, I have looked to the interpretive and performative labor undertaken by the musicians of the Buffalo-Ostrava-NYC networks to inform my questions. To what extent do their activities track with historically leftist and/or socialist anxiety about unrecognized (and therefore uncompensated) work? Is the phenomenon of hidden work specific to, or simply more pronounced in, the performance of indeterminate pieces? When the scores and writings of John Cage and Cornelius Cardew disrupted prevailing composer-performer relationships, to what degree did this reflect shifting ideologies? How did those developments change the types of work expected of their interpreters? Investigating these issues quickly made it apparent that performers, on the whole, tend to be under-recognized as creators, but, of course, their perspectives are crucial to understanding the social, economic, and cultural stakes within their new-music networks.

At the same time, rethinking experimental music in terms of labor also suggests fruitful intersections with contemporary media. The rise of user-generated content mirrors some forms of work undertaken by avant-garde artists. For example, taking and posting photographs on “social” media, or creating a user guide for a video game, can demand significant investments of time and cognitive energy, just like making a realization of a graphic-notation score; these also simultaneously mask that effort under the guise of entertainment. My framework of “interpretive labor,” then, provides valuable insight into 21st-century creative industries as well as into the esoteric artistic networks of the 1960s and 1970s. Because of the long history of artistic activities as hobbies, lines can easily be blurred between work and play, resulting in (sometimes unintended) exploitation. And this certainly is not limited to the avant-garde; as the recent strikes and contract disputes of even well-respected orchestras attest, musical labor tends to be undervalued, across the board.

It is this question of labor in, and as, musical performance that intrigues me most and forms the foundation of this project. This brings to light lots of fruitful ideas: reframing performance practice as a mode of production, revising narratives within our music history courses to account for the labor of the musicians being discussed, reviving voices that have been left out of the conversation based on socio-economic status, reconsidering how we talk about particular types of work, and so on. In fact, artistic processes lend unique insight into the issues of creative control, representation, and access, among other crucial areas of inquiry, all of which form components in a system of labor and compensation. Perhaps by reclaiming the labor of music-making, we might also further validate the status of musicians as workers, eschewing outmoded ideas about “labors of love” that continue to obstruct standards of compensation and other forms of recognition.


<1>By “indeterminate,” I mean compositions in which one or more significant aspects – e.g., pitch, duration, voices or instruments used, etc. – are left open. This repertoire was largely developed from the 1950s into the 1970s (and beyond, to a lesser extent), and while it varies widely, it is frequently marked by unconventional musical notation, up to and including scores consisting solely of text or pictures.
 <2>See, for example, Barbara Bolt, Heidegger Reframed: Interpreting Key Thinkers for the Arts (London: I.B. Tauris, 2011) and Jacques Derrida, “The Deconstruction of Actuality (1993),” in Negotiations: Interventions and Interviews, 1971-2001, ed. and trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).
 <3>A few relevant sources: Michael Rowlinson and John Hassard, “Marxist Political Economy, Revolutionary Politics, and Labor Process Theory,” International Studies of Management & Organization 30, no. 4 (winter 2000); Henry Klumpenhouwer, “Late Capitalism, Late Marxism and the Study of Music,” Music Analysis 20, no. 3 (October 2001); Mathieu Hikaru Desan, “Bourdieu, Marx, and Capital: A Critique of the Extension Model,” Sociological Theory 31, no. 4 (December 2013); Pierre Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, ed. J.G. Richardson and trans. R. Nice (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986).
 <4>Timothy D. Taylor, Music and Capitalism: A History of the Present (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016); Andrea Moore, “Neoliberalism and the Musical Entrepreneur,” Journal of the Society for American Music 10, no. 1 (February 2016). See also Robert J. Flanagan, The Perilous Life of Symphony Orchestras: Artistic Triumphs and Economic Challenges (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).
<5>See, for example, Philip Kitcher, “The Division of Cognitive Labor,” The Journal of Philosophy 87, no. 1 (January 1990), pp. 5-22; E. Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013); Eliane Bucher and Christian Fieseler, “The Flow of Digital Labor,” New Media & Society (April 2016), pp. 1-19; and articles by Ayhan Aytes (“Return of the Crowds: Mechanical Turk and Neoliberal States of Exception”) and Michel Bauwens (“Thesis on Digital Labor in an Emerging P2P Economy”) in Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory, ed. Trebor Scholz (New York: Routledge, 2013).


Kirsten Speyer Carithers specializes in music of the 20th and 21st centuries, informed by interdisciplinary work in critical theory and the arts. Current research explores the intersections between music and labor across a spectrum of performance practices related to experimentalism from ca. 1960–1980, with additional interests in music and technology, artistic avant-gardism, and the connections between indeterminacy, improvisation, and creative labor. She has presented at conferences of the American Musicological Society, Society for American Music, and Modernist Studies Association, as well as Perspectives on Musical Improvisation (Oxford, 2014) and Performing Indeterminacy (University of Leeds, 2017). She is a lecturer at The Ohio State University and adjunct faculty in the Capital University Conservatory of Music, and is an active member of the AMS Pedagogy Study Group, currently serving on its Diversity and Inclusion committee. Her dissertation, "The Work of Indeterminacy: Interpretive Labor in Experimental Music," was completed at Northwestern University in March 2017.


No comments:

Post a Comment