Experiencing Indeterminacy in Performance

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What do we mean by ‘performing indeterminacy’? Performance is, on one level, always an act of substantial determinacy: we ascribe the making of a sound or action to purpose of some kind, on some level. An event is brought into existence and witnessed as such. But performance is always, also, indeterminate: contingent, contextual and unpredictable to different degrees, characterised by the significant uncertainties in the complex interactions of performers, instruments (of any kind), spaces and audiences. Performing music defined as indeterminate can, but does not always, involve indeterminacy in the event of performance. Some players, with some pieces, use the rehearsal process to explore different possibilities before determining the content to be delivered in performance. Here, the extent of that indeterminacy in performance is arguably no different to that inherent in performing any score, no matter how fully determined the content. The difference lies in the process towards performance. In contrast, there are of course many performances of indeterminate music in which players make more or less in-the-moment decisions about exact content, though from a circumscribed range of possibilities. And, equally, there are scores that themselves determine such indeterminacy in performance, with instructions that require in-performance decision making. This summary confirms the richness and complexity of the field, but while indeterminacy has been the subject of ongoing debate and theorisation for some 50 years now, the discourse remains predominantly focused upon composers: on the extent and nature of their intentions and how they are expressed in scores. In this respect, even apparently performance-orientated discussion rarely moves beyond matters of realisation: what a player can and cannot do in response to a particular score. Despite all the claims for the ways in which indeterminate music might afford players a particular creative agency, notwithstanding the insightful commentaries of certain performers, and regardless of the work of those, like George E. Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, who have considered indeterminacy and experimentalism in relation to a wider network of musical practices, much of the discourse remains couched in the same old terms. Starting away from music, with Marjorie Perloff’s consideration of the nature of literary indeterminacy in the early 1980s, this essay explores the parallels with the reflexive quality of indeterminacy manifested in a range of performance work. The main concern is the locus of indeterminacy, focusing on its manifestation in the experience of performing; its immanence in performance. Underlying this is the contention that we don’t attend to this enough—that we might consider more carefully what constitutes indeterminacy experienced in and through performance; what we do in manifesting indeterminacy in and through performance, bringing it into the act of performance, embodying it.

This is a substantial invited article, for a themed issue of Contemporary Music Review, 'Performing Inderderminacy', developed from selected presentations at the conference of the same name, University of Leeds, June 2017, where I gave a keynote presentation. The article heads up the volume, following on from the editors' introductio
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)130-154
Number of pages25
JournalContemporary Music Review
Issue number2-3
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2022

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© 2022 The Author(s). Published by Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group

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