WNPC 2017 student blogger Callum Blackmore holds a Bachelor of Music with Honours in musicology from the University of Auckland. He won the 2017 Drake Medal Prize for the best musicology essay and will be travelling to Leeds later this year as the 2017/18 Pettman DARE Fellow in Music Education to work with Opera North and the University of Leeds. His research interests include the performance of opera in the digital age, and how modern performances relate to the original context of the work. 

The Three Appassionatas and the Problem of Performance

How does one write about musical performance? The question is not as simple as it sounds, and yet it is a question I was forced to confront when asked to write about the 2017 Wallace National Piano Competition. I am not solely referring to an historical or critical discussion of performance (although these inevitably play a crucial role). In many ways, every piece of writing on performance is a kind of historical excavation, for musical performance is inherently ephemeral: by the time I have come to write about this competition, it is already over. Because the act of performance is so fleeting, there is a sense that one can never capture its essence in writing; the transient nature of musical performance seems to run counter to the relative permanence of the written word. Even video recordings of performances omit something of the experience of the performance: the limited scope of the camera lens and microphone reduce the dynamic spatiality of performance (which renders the visual and acoustic experience of the same performance distinctly different for each audience member) to something flat, reproducible, and commodifiable. What is sacrificed in these recordings is what philosopher Walter Benjamin, in his famous monograph The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, calls the “aura” of the performance, the “strange tissue of space and time” that constitutes its liveness.[1]  

Watching the Wallace National Piano Competition, I was forced to confront the concept of the “aura” head on. With every performer, there was so much that contributed to the sensory effect of the performance that can never be truly captured in writing or on camera: from the subtlest pursing of the pianist’s lips, to the way the pages of my programme seemed to buzz with every fortissimo chord, the idiosyncratic constellation of reflections across the piano lid (only visible from my angle of view), and the bright halo of sound that echoed around the ceiling of the Music Theatre in every caesura. This litany of ephemera is what constitutes Benjamin’s “aura” in performance. There is the feeling that even if I wrote a million pages of prose, I could not come anywhere near doing justice to the unique presence of these remarkable performances. Thus, the dilemma of writing about musical performance is that of approaching the ontology of a phenomenon so momentary, so seemingly intangible. 

Perhaps the moment in the 2017 Wallace National Piano Competition where the “aura” of performance was most striking was in the preliminary rounds. On the first day of the competition, three performers all gave renditions of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F minor, “Appassionata”, almost back-to-back in the programme.  At first, the prospect of hearing the same twenty-five-minute work three times in the space of two hours seemed daunting: surely by the third airing, the Sonata would have lost its charm? Yet nothing foregrounds the very act of performance like hearing the same piece performed by three different performers in quick succession. One became very conscious of every performative decision, every little quirk each performer brought to the piece. One came to see Beethoven’s Sonata not as an historical masterwork, fixed in time like some relic in a museum, but as the conduit through which the dynamism and creativity of performance could emerge. It became almost impossible to separate Beethoven’s work from the intoxicating presence, the “aura”, of each performance.

For example, on the first page of the sonata, there is a series of subito fortissimo chords that rise up the range of the piano. These chords represent a kind of dilemma for the analyst; the thickness of the texture and the sudden syncopation of the rhythm contrasts so radically with the earlier music that the ascending chords seem somewhat irreconcilable with the music that precedes them.


However, the three performers in the Friday preliminaries seemed to offer their own answer to this analytical problem through performance. For Lixin Zhang (who won first place in the competition), the string of chords seems to erupt from nowhere, roaring up the piano like a violent paroxysm. It seemed that, in Zhang’s performance, the irreconcilable chords are a true gear change in the sonata, an incendiary glimpse of the Sturm und Drang to come that tears through the gentle fabric of the exposition. The sudden vitality of Zhang’s playing thus reimagines the chords as a hot-blooded compositional rupture.

By contrast, Frank Chen’s lighter approach to these chords suggests that the gesture emerges more fluidly from the music that precedes it. Frank’s gentler rendition of these chords, with a slight rubato towards the apex of the ascent, paints the sudden syncopation as more of a rhythmic ornament than a sudden shift in tone. The ascending chords, and the descending arpeggio that immediately precedes it, feel like two sides of the same coin; a gestural ying and yang which, with Frank Chen’s effortless flow, form a dialectical relationship. While Frank plays down the dynamic and textural contrast of the phrase, he brings out a subtle game of mirrors in Beethoven’s Sonata.

In Tony Yan Tong Chen’s performance, a slight decrescendo towards the top of the ascending chords, coupled with a whimsical tilt of the head, give the phrase a searching quality. Tony presents the phrase as a burning question, the ascending contour mimicking the rising tones of speech. A very nuanced rhythmic push-and-pull, varied ever-so-slightly in subsequent repetitions of the syncopated chords, added to the speech-like effect. This has the effect of reimagining the exposition as a kind of musical conversation; not so radical, given the Enlightenment’s obsession with music qua rhetoric.

Thus, through the phenomenon of performance, we have three different analytical approaches to this passage, suggesting, perhaps, that the key to understanding Beethoven’s work lies not in pouring over the score, but in the “aura” of the performed work. It is in the performed repetition of the work that these analytic possibilities surface. As philosopher Henri Lefebvre writes “there is no identical, absolute repetition.... There is always something new and unforeseen that introduces itself into the repetitive: difference.”[2] Lefebvre proposes to extend the analysis of rhythms beyond the realm of notated music, and into all aspects of everyday life where there are difference and repetition. In Lefebvre’s model, these three repeated performances of the ‘Appassionata’ constitute a kind of ‘rhythm’ in and of themselves, and, therefore, deserve close analysis. Certainly, the performances at the Wallace National Piano Competition have offered up fascinating insights into Beethoven’s work. This implies that, while the ephemeral nature of performance seems to evade the written word, writing about performance may yet prove an analytic necessity for the musicologist.

[1] Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, et. al (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008), 23.  

[2] Henri Lefebvre, Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life, trans. Stuart Elden and Gerald Moore (London: Continuum, 2004), 6.


Carnal Musings: Conceptualising the Pianist’s Body

Piano performance is often highly deceptive; the apparent effortlessness with which the pianist’s hands glide across the keys obscures the raw physicality of the act. Watching the 2017 Wallace National Piano Competition, it certainly seemed as if playing the piano was second nature to these performers.  One often forgets that playing the piano is a decidedly carnal phenomenon, especially when observing performances that seem to flow so naturally, as I saw in abundance in the Wallace Competition. Yet anyone who has ever attempted to learn the piano will know just how sluggish the untrained body seems in the face of all eighty-eight keys. In one particularly memorable moment, winning pianist Lixin Zhang closed his eyes during a particularly elegiac phrase in Edwin Carr’s Concert Studies. Between the serenity of his expression and the placidity of the phrase, he could have been sleeping; it was difficult to see the sheer physical control required to execute that passage.

While there is little doubt of the importance of the pianist’s body, one might question the nature of its role within the performance event. When writers discuss piano performance, they often invoke a Cartesian dualism, which establishes a distinction between the pianist’s body and mind. Franz Liszt, for example, hints at a Cartesian split when describing mind and body as separate entities during a particularly demanding practice session: “my mind and my fingers have worked like two damned ones”.[1] For Liszt, the mind and body seem to work in tandem, equal partners in the act of performance. However, Robert Schumann, while still proposing a mind/body split, attributes a special agency to the mind, describing it as the “internal organ of music” which controls the pianist’s body: “the fingers must do what the head desires; not the contrary.”[2]

Thus, two conceptions of musical agency emerge, one which views mind and body as equal agents in musical production, the other which gives weight to the agency of the mind, the body a mere vehicle for the mind’s musicality. Certainly, in Liam Wooding’s performance of Haydn’s Piano Sonata in C Major, a gamut of facial expressions accompanying every flash of the fingers seemed to suggest a mind and body as symbiotic agents. Yet, occasionally Wooding’s facial expression would shift ahead of the music, prefiguring one of Haydn’s many musical volte-faces. Here, the mind seems to the be the instigating agent, every thought translated into a physical gesture.

Yet some seem to invert Schumann’s model, attributing agency almost entirely to the body: rock and roll sensation Jerry Lee Lewis, for example, famously said that his fingers “got [sic] brains in ‘em,” asserting that “you don’t tell them what to do; they do it.”[3] This certainly seemed the case in Wooding’s performance of Messiaen’s Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus. The ecstatic cascade of chords which open the thirteenth movement, ‘Noël’, were performed with such primal vigour that Wooding’s body seemed to take on a life of its own.

Therefore, framing piano performance in terms of a Cartesian dualism immediately prompts the question of agency: does the pianist’s mind control the body, or the pianist’s body control the mind, or do mind and body coexist as equal partners as the pianist plays? Or, perhaps, one might imagine the mind and body locked in a struggle for power, railing against each other in the act of performance. Certainly, when I play, as a musician who reads music well but, sadly, gave up the piano at a young age, it often seems as though my mind reads the music faster than my fingers can play it: it is as if my body refuses to do what my mind tells it to.

But what if the agency of piano performance lies not with the mind, nor the body, but with some sort of external force? One understanding of musical performance views the pianist’s body merely as a conduit for the musical work itself. The musical work, as a separate agent, seems to animate the body of the performer. Music historian Carolyn Abbate describes this as the “hand-within-the-puppet” effect, the “idea that a musical work… physically animates and controls the performer’s inert body”.[4] One certainly got a sense of this in Leon Chen’s performance of John Elmsly’s Three Pieces for Piano. The sonorous open fifths which slice across a pianissimo style brisé seemed to propel Chen’s body into action, suddenly wrenching the fingers away from their arpeggios.

As I watched the competition unfold, it occurred to me that there might be another agent to consider when discussing the ontological status of the performer’s body. It is so often forgotten that the piano itself, the physical instrument, has a kind of agency of its own in the act of performance. The material attributes of the piano greatly affect, not only the sonorous qualities of a piece, but the way it is played. The piano keys, the interface between performer and instrument, have a slightly different weighting instrument to instrument; any pianist will tell you that these subtle variations in construction have the power to completely transform a performance. One even gets the feeling that the piano stool, which so many of the pianists took such pains to adjust, has some form of agency in the shaping of a performance.

It may seem somewhat bizarre to attribute agency to an inanimate object, yet contemporary critical theory is becoming increasingly fixated on the power of the physical thing. Actor-network theory, for example, posits a theory of social construction which views the world as a complex assemblage of “actors”, which include both animate, and inanimate objects. Bruno Latour, one of the greatest exponents of this theory, posits that objects play a crucial role in determining social relations, and thus have an agency of their own: “the apparently reasonable division between the material and the social becomes just what is obfuscating any enquiry on how a collective action is possible.”[5] Perhaps piano performance can be understood as a kind of collective action between human and object, in which the piano itself is afforded a similar puissance to the performer. Certainly, seeing so many breath-taking performances on the University of Auckland School of Music’s magnificent Steinway in the space of two short days, one cannot help but wonder if the piano has a life of its own.

[1] Franz Liszt in Harold C. Schonberg, The Great Pianists from Mozart to the Present (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987), 164.

[2] Robert Schumann, Advice for Young Musicians, trans. Henry Hugo Pierson (New York: Project Gutenberg, 2009), 7.

[3] Jerry Lee Lewis in Lepota L. Cosmo (ed.), 5000 Quotations on Rock ‘n’ Roll of Legends, Bands, Producers, Instrumentalists, Writers and Leading Vocalists ( United States: Lepota L. Cosmo, 2016), e-book.

[4] Carolyn Abbate, In Search of Opera (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), xiv.

[5] Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 74.