Conducting Performances as Events

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Derrida (2007, 441) described that ‘an event implies surprise, exposure, the unanticipatable.’ In performance a conductor operates within a complex adaptive system: musicians are constantly adapting to each other resulting in complex feedback loops. Because of these feedback loops the aggregate behaviour of the ensemble can be dramatically influenced by single agents. All complex adaptive systems demonstrate emergence; in a musical sense Cook (2012, 457) describes that ‘the act of real-time performance generates meanings, whether interpretive, acoustic, or interpersonal, that are emergent in the sense that they could not have been predicted by any of the performers, or on the basis of the various inputs to the performance event.’ It is the unpredictability of the ‘combinatorial emergence’ inherent in performance which satisfies Derrida’s description of an event. How does the combinatorial emergence of the performance event influence the interpretive practices of a conductor?

In this paper the author answers this question from an autoethnographical perspective, revealing how embracing the performance event as an element of the interpretive process can lead to a multiplist rather than singularist view of interpretation. The original study was based on an experiment of the author conducting five scores on two different occasions separated in time by between one day and several months. The study design included extensive content analysis of over 30 hours of video in which more than 12,000 codes were applied and collated. The study design also included traditional texted research, auto-ethnographic writing (a 25,000-word practice journal), semi-structured interviews, the use of Sonic Visualiser, and the documentation of a range of score study methods which the author describes as ‘listening in silence’. Although there are numerous studies that compare different performances of the same piece (Clarke, 2012), and consider the extent to which differences are intentional and/or creative, none has been undertaken by a conductor in the role of artist-researcher.

The study developed what the author calls the ‘ethos of multiple interpretability’, suggesting that when a conductor embraces the score and performance event as being of equal importance they can be ‘animated by’ the belief that there is no single correct way to perform a work specified by a score. The significance of the study resonates with the now widespread reappraisal of the conductor as a co-creator with the orchestra, and with a number of existing studies that have investigated distributed creativity in group music making.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 6 Jul 2018
EventPerformance Studies Network Conference 2018 - The Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, Norway
Duration: 5 Jul 20188 Jul 2018


ConferencePerformance Studies Network Conference 2018
Internet address


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