Reflection upon Issues of Identity in New Music Composition, via “plastik”


jef chippewa, BFA (Music)

Independent, Montréal, Canada.





New Music in its broadest definition comprises a wide range of approaches to creation in a sound-based medium, including, for example, electroacoustic music, performance art, live electronics, various cross-disciplinary explorations. We will, however, for concerns of brevity, restrict the present discussion primarily to artistic contexts in which professional musicians are involved in the interpretation and presentation of a musical work.

The problem is not unique to the latter half of the twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century, but during this time period the difficulty of being able to unambiguously define the identity of the individual New Music composition has increased exponentially. The individual listener’s perception and comprehension of the potential complexity of identity in a musical composition is subject to many factors. These include, amongst others, his awareness of various aspects which the composer or other listeners might consider to contribute to the identity, the inherent limitations in the adopted perceptive faculties of the artistic community which he frequents and his desire and capacity to question and surpass them.

In order to consider this problem, we will address issues specific to the composition and performance of plastik, a work for a variable instrument that the performers themselves construct anew for each performance. Although plastik can convincingly be considered from within the historical context of New Music composition or, alternatively, Improvised Music, other realms of artistic activity – as seemingly remote as dada – can also be seen to contribute to the definition of its identity. The breadth of potential results in the interpretation of the performance instructions – between performers in the course of a single performance, as well as between multiple performances – will offer an effective illustration of the variability of identity. Parallels the work has with improvised music will lend further support to the discussion.

Because of the manifold influences on the creative act and the inherent perceptual differences regarding the resulting creation, the identity of the individual work cannot be deliberated exclusively within a single realm of artistic activity, as has often traditionally been the case. Any attempt to ignore or even disregard the inherent obstacles to an unequivocal articulation of an immutable identity will inevitably result in only a partial understanding of the complex of identity and of its potential impact on the artistic milieux with which it is in contact.

Keywords: New Music, identity, composition, improvisation, performance protocol.


Against the backdrop of an ever-increasing diversification of the sonic landscape of New Music since the early twentieth century, and of inherent variations in the perceptive capacities of the individual listener, the problem of unequivocally defining the identity of a musical composition is significantly complexified. The individual perceptual experience is unique; the possibility that two persons might share the same degrees of perception and comprehension of the multiple factors contributing to the manifold identity of the individual composition is virtually nil.

My own familiarity and experiences with instrumental and electroacoustic composition incorporating sound materials of varying facture (live and recorded instrumental sounds, analogue synthesis, digital processing, “sound objects”) previously contributed in part to satisfying my interest in unique sound materials which, precisely because of the unicity of their identity, question the capacity and relevance of the compositional context in which they are employed to respond to and encourage their developmental potential. The compositional contexts employing and exploring these unique sounds were not seen as absolute masters over submissive and infinitely malleable materials, but also responded to the obligations of the individual sounds’ identities, ultimately allowing these to contribute to the course of the entire work, to participate in the definition of their form. Once the composition was “finished,” their form was fixed and might be seen to have somewhat compromised – or at the very least constrained – the impact the materials might have had on the nature of their identity.

Reflection on these issues led me to conceive of a composition for a variable instrument – a sculpture of sorts – that the performers themselves construct, and that would offer continually changing perspectives on the real and potential identity of the work, both in the individual performance as well as between separate performances. This unique compositional and interpretive context would offer a kaleidoscopic context in which to consider the factors which contribute to the definition of identity in the musical composition. The title of the work, the German word plastik, holds several meanings. Firstly, it translates as sculpture; secondly, as plastic, the physical material; and thirdly, as the adjective plastic, it refers to the malleability of something, to its plasticity. Despite the first translation, this composition is not intended as a visual work: the materials which form the sculpture are chosen for their sonic and gestural potentialities, not for their physical appearance. The visual aspects of the instrument itself, as well as the possible position of plastik within the visual arts will not be discussed at length.[1]

After brief reflection upon some of the factors which have contributed to the complexification of the sonic landscape in New Music, the variability and unicity of the perception of identity will be elaborated. A description of some aspects of the composition and interpretation of plastik will then lead into a demonstration of how inherent and interpretational differences in the performance of this work enlarge the scope of its potential identity. Issues of identity which problematize plastik’s association with and dissociation from various performative contexts will close the discussion.

1.Perception of the Identity of the Work

1.1 The Shifting Sonic Landscape of New Music

In the past century, innumerable new instrumental techniques and manners of sound production have been introduced into the realm of instrumental musical creation.[2] In particular since the mid-twentieth century, the performer is often required to significantly alter his accustomed manner of producing sound on his instrument, sometimes even having to fundamentally change his understanding of and relation to the instrument and possibly to the performance situation. In the most extreme cases, the work obliges the performer to explore new norms of interpretation. This is not indicative that the composer has the intention of disregarding, negating or even discarding the entire tradition of performance and interpretation, but rather suggests that the inherent nature of the composition, those elements defined through the composer’s formal concerns and the characteristics of the materials he employs in the composition, necessitates a more radicalized approach to performance practice and its appropriation.[3] Radical expansion of instrumental performance protocol – the more or less codified collection of sounds and of the sonic palette and techniques of instrumental performance within the various milieux – can now be seen to characterize the identity of post-romantic music as much as the collapse of tonality in the early twentieth century and the dissolution of metric regularity in the mid-twentieth century were considered to have done in the past.

Another factor affecting musical identity is the exploration and incorporation of elements whose heritage lies outside the realm within which the composer habitually works. Sounds, performance techniques and instruments from other cultures or from different disciplines within one’s own culture or milieu have been extensively explored by numerous creators, not just in the realm of music, but in all artistic domains.[4] Their increased presence has nonetheless contributed considerably to the parabolic complexification of the sonic landscape, of the ambiguity of identity, in Western composition. If Debussy’s importation of scales and rhythms from Indonesian Gamelan music into his own piano compositions caused alarm in the musical establishment of the time, the problem of identity in his music is nevertheless not a terribly complex one, as he was clearly composing within one tradition – without underestimating the radicality of the impact he had on that tradition – and using another essentially as a flavouring agent.

Today the situation is quite different. Since the mid-twentieth century the problem of identity has increased exponentially. Numerous sub-communities, or factions, can be discerned even within what some claim to be singular cultural or artistic traditions. Within the New Music milieu, which itself is only a part of Western instrumental music, we can distinguish numerous strands of compositional activity: Serial Music, New Complexity, Instrumental Musique Concrète, Minimalism, Spectral Music are but a few having more or less clearly-articulated barriers. In general, composers associate more or less exclusively with one group or another, some even calling into question the relevance of other groups within the larger social constructs of the New Music milieu. Regardless of the relevance, or at least of the interest, of this line of questioning, it would nevertheless be incredibly naïve to ignore the impact the various cliques within the larger national and international New Music community have had, and continue to have, on each other.

1.2 Intention and Misunderstanding in the Definition and Perception of Identity

Each individual listener perceives the identity of a musical composition differently according to his background and particular predilection for one or another mode of perception, or group of modes of perception. Even though two listeners may be equally sympathetic to more experimental trends or events in recent music history, due to variance in their familiarity with the composer and with New Music in general, in their socio-cultural background, but most importantly, in their own experiential and perceptual limitations, governed by the socio-musical background with which they associate themselves, the likelihood that they might experience a single work in the same way is virtually nil.[5] The greater the number of factors which may be instrumental in defining the identity of a work, the greater the likelihood there will be serious divergence in their experiences. What one listener takes for granted in the composer’s intention, and therefore in the identity of a work, another may not even perceive: both perceptions may in fact be correct. Certainly they may come to agreement on a number of points in regards to the perception and experience of the work, but ultimately, the degree to which they experience or perceive each individual factor will create a unique perceptive situation for each listener.[6]

Differences in perception can be even greater across artistic disciplines, as I have discovered in discussing my work as well as the works of others with artists working in various disciplines. Discussion of plastik with visual artists may tend to centre around issues such as the socio-economic identity of the materials used to construct the sculpture, and ramifications of choices of materials on the level of intimacy an audience member may experience with the work’s execution, rather than around the sonic and performative issues of the work.[7] Many classically-trained musicians have great difficulty even accepting the work within their understanding of the Western musical tradition, while listeners who have been exposed to a broad variety of electroacoustic music appreciate the complexity of the individual sounds, and the combinatorial potential of these sounds, and improvising musicians will relate varyingly to aspects of the degree of freedom allowed the performer in articulating the various actions, and to what extent the individual performer succeeds in emancipating himself from or elaborating the composer’s material predetermination.

1.3 A Unique Paradigm of Performance Protocol for the Individual Work

Existing performance protocol must not be taken for granted or unquestioningly appropriated. This seemingly implacable declamation is not meant to negate the relevance of historical paradigms of performance protocol inherited from one’s own (or another’s) culture to a contemporary setting. Rather it warns that developmental stagnation of the identity may arise out of excessive simplism in their appropriation, in their mediation: the identity of a composition using unmediated performance protocols may depend more on the existence of the source of the protocol than its own inherent potentialities. Some characteristics of the composition may be comprised, because they will not be given the proper means to fully infuse the identity of the composition with their essence. If recourse to an existing paradigm of performance protocol is critically mediated by the composer, he will, by his questioning, assure the validity of the protocol in his own work, and therefore be better equipped to affirm the multifarious identity of the composition.

Critical reassessment of performance protocol – and this concerns traditional music as much as New Music – can only contribute to its refinement and evolution, and help assure that it continues to remain pertinent to contemporary compositional preoccupations.

For me, as a composer who does not naïvely deny the absence of a single all-encompassing paradigm of performance protocol, who recognizes the variability of the perception of identity, and who refuses to be straightjacketed by the clan-built, arbitrarily-constructed æsthetic boundaries plaguing most artistic milieux, it seemed quite imperative to conceive of an artistic context which radicalizes these ideas to such an extent that the work articulated therein inexorably demands a unique paradigm of performance protocol that lays the foundation of an infinite kaleidoscopic potential of material, interpretational and formal identities via singular performances, and refers in varying degrees to a plethora of historical and contemporary artistic contexts.

2. plastik, for 3–5 executants

2.1 Description of the Work; the Unicity of the Individual De-formance

In order to better comprehend the ramifications of “an infinite kaleidoscopic potential of material, interpretational and formal identities,” we must be aware of the performative aspects of the work, that is, how plastik actually functions in performance.

The executants (performers) distribute over one hundred individually-composed actions (each a unique set of instructions concerning sounds and gestures to perform) equally amongst themselves, which they will articulate (perform) upon an instrument (a sculpture of sorts) which they themselves construct. This constitutes a de-formance (a term I use to refer to works in which the instrument – traditional or not – is severely altered or even destroyed over the course of a performance). The physical materials (metal, wood, cloth) they use to construct the instrument are selected for their sonic and gestural potential – evident or projected – in responding to the demands of the actions, as well as their capacity to produce timbres of varying intensity and complexity. Consideration of the visual character of the physical materials shall not take priority over considerations of their sonic potential, and may in some cases be ignored completely. The materials are connected or attached to the sculpture in varying degrees of permanence and fragility, using string, nails, tape and other materials.

The nature of the actions ranges from resonant (sound-producing, without provoking any radical alteration of the material or the sculpture) to destructive (those which alter the sonic or physical makeup of one or more materials, or the structure of the instrument) to abstract (defined either conceptually or in non-concrete terms). The actions have been composed with varying degrees of precision regarding the type of sound to be produced, the materials upon which or with which the sound is to be produced, for how long and in which dynamic range the sound is to be produced, and how they are to converge and interact with actions articulated concomitantly by other executants. Duration of the actions as well as their overall sonic and polyphonic complexity vary not only according to the nature of the action, but also, and in some cases more importantly, according to the executant’s highly individual interpretation of the action. The following two actions give an idea of the potential interpretational divergence:

clunking, dull ringing / circumnavigating : quietly place a long instrument against the sculpture, circumnavigating slowly, maintaining firm contact with the instrument, and, as much as is possible, in contact with highly resonant parts; an irregular texture of clunking and ringing sounds will result.

quacking, squabble : an energetic altercation with one or more other executants.

During both the construction of the instrument and the execution of the work, the executants’ decisions bear significant consequences upon the evolution of the individual de-formance, the character of which is nonetheless constrained within a tightly-controlled interpretational context borne of a unique performance protocol which evolved in tandem with the composition of the actions, each intimately affecting the course of the other’s development.

The random distribution of the actions amongst the executants, and the fact that the order of the actions is not pre-determined produces an interpretive context in which specific sonic elements may appear only a single time (the material being physically altered through the articulation of another action upon it), if at all, and the particular order and manner in which the actions converge will be unique. Certain sound types or materials may disappear the moment they are articulated, or at the very least, concomitantly with the disintegration of the sculpture. The idea of unicity extends beyond the composition of individual elements, through the interpretive stage and into the level of the identity of the work: no single de-formance of plastik could ever be repeated, the instrument disintegrating each time the composition is presented!

2.2 Improvisation and Interpretive Variability

While irreversibility might be considered to be inherent to the work of many improvising musicians, it only exists artificially in most composed works: the composer generally retains the privilege of being able to rewrite, rearrange or otherwise alter the relations between individual elements, or between individual elements and the whole of the composition, throughout every stage in the creation of a new work, or at least until the final stage, that is, until the composer declares the work to be “finished.” Even in those cases where some form of improvisation has been included as an integral part of a composed work, the degree of freedom the performer is allowed or assumes, or the improvisation itself, may become fixed to a greater or lesser degree over the course of several performances, either by the composer, or by the performer.[8] Further, any revisions to the completed composition are generally understood as improvements to the work, and are, except in isolated cases, neither considered nor perceivable as developments of fundamentally new works. For such works, two separate performances will not typically display any radical alterations to the identity of the piece, despite the differences in the character of the improvisation between the performances. In contrast, irreversibility can be present throughout the entire range of compositional and interpretational decision-making processes in the realm of improvised works. In improvisation projects free of pre-fabricated architectonic or “conceptual” schemas no “corrections” to the overall form can be made for the simple reason that compositional decisions are made by the performers in the same timeframe as their interpretation of the work.

Although not specifically conceived as an improvised work, plastik articulates certain principles and characteristics inherent to some improvised works. The executants are largely responsible for decisions regarding the choice of materials and how the instrument is constructed with these materials. These decisions will to some extent pre-define the sonic and gestural potential of the instrument. By delegating such responsibilities to the executants, I was not simply attempting to disburden myself of some of the compositional responsibility, but rather emphasizing the value I place on encouraging the performer to fully explore and demonstrate his own interpretive capacity. The converging results of the executants’ decisions will affect – and even define! – the character of each individual de-formance to such an extent that its global (extending throughout the entire production) and local (the individual moments in the course of the de-formance) sonic and gestural character will be inextricably linked to that single group of executants.

The exploration of absolute irreversibility is perhaps the most notable parallel to improvised music: the articulation of some actions will cause irreversible effects on the sculpture, and, in direct proportion to the progression of the work, the ability to continue to articulate the work is actually jeopardized. In the end, all that remains of the de-formance are memories: the means by which the composition may be articulated have disappeared through its very articulation.

A few of the actions also explore (faults of) memory in the interpretive act as a formative compositional element. Each executant’s interpretation and capacity to remember sounds or configurations which occurred previously will understandably vary to an enormous degree:

memory (lapse) : re-articulate a sequence of events which occurred 1–2 minutes prior.

One of the most significant differences between composition and improvisation is the tempo at which compositional and interpretational decisions pertaining to local convergences of materials and gestures are made.

2.3 Changing Identity at Different Stages of plastik

Through the articulation of the actions upon the physical form of the completed sculpture, the work simultaneously takes musical (perceptual) form and is de-formed (physical form) by the executants.

The potential effects that an individual action might have on the character of the de-formance are incredibly diverse: this potential is contingent on interpretational differences between executants, and on the timing of its articulation and its confluence with actions articulated by other executants. During the construction of the instrument, an executant may incorporate a certain material into the sculpture’s construction, with the intention of using it for the articulation of a specific action, and yet discover, during the de-formance, that the material’s physical state can no longer respond to the specificities of the action, or that the material is no longer even part of the instrument! Some actions also explicitly instruct the executant to subvert another executant’s interpretation:

usurpation : irreversibly alter the sonic characteristics of a material being articulated by another executant…

Modifications to the physical materials and structure of the sculpture during the course of the work’s execution incessantly alter the gamut of sonic and gestural potentialities. By and large, these are increasingly restricted through these modifications, as the sculpture gradually disintegrates – in direct proportion with the evolution of the de-formance – into a pile of dissociated materials severely disendowed of their initial sonic complexity. Concurrently, the nature of each executant’s interpretation and the manner by which he manifests his own perception of the sonic potential will augment, shift, and otherwise modulate the perception and interpretation of the other executants. Unforeseen sonic and gestural combinations will also contribute to this perceptual modulation. The executants must at all times remain open and prepared to reinterpret and re-contextualize their initial interpretation of the action’s potential according to the moment when the action is articulated.

As the order of the actions is neither fixed nor known to the executants, the overall form of the piece for a given de-formance cannot be predetermined to any extent. Each subsequent de-formance will articulate a fundamentally new set of perspectives by which to consider the work’s identity, according to the various material and interpretational decisions made by the executants, and to the ramifications of the order and convergence of the actions. Witnessing at least two de-formances, the listener will experience the variability of some aspects of the work’s identity in a very explicit manner: his comprehension of what the composer or executants may or may not be attempting to communicate will augment with each subsequent experience of the composition. This is certainly true to a large extent for the experience of virtually any work of art, regardless of the era or tradition to which it belongs. This concept is simply radicalized in plastik.

3. Association with and Dissociation from Existing Instrumental Performance Practice Protocols and other Art Forms

In all musical genres involving performers, the effects of individual interpretive decisions on the character of the individual performance are immediately apparent, albeit in varying degrees. The greater the potential impact of individual interpretive decisions on the general flow and on the resulting form of the piece (assuming the performers are conscious of and are permitted to explore this impact), the more the work tends to preclude its reflection solely from a predominantly object-based perspective (traditional composition), and the more it demands consideration from an interpretation-based perspective (improvised music). However, the attempt to situate a work clearly within one or another musical tradition is inhibited by the fact that neither the New Music nor the Improvised Music milieux can really claim to have developed a fixed and immutable performance protocol or permanently delimited palette of forms by which the identity of the individual piece can be irrefutably assessed.

At this point, I would point out that plastik was conceived first and foremost as a musical composition, intended for a small group of performers and a specific instrument: for this simple reason, I do not hesitate to consider it a part of the Western chamber music tradition. All the actions have been composed according to sound or gestural considerations, with consciousness of how these actions might – constructively or destructively – affect the sonic and gestural nature of the work in the moment of their articulation. Several factors nonetheless necessitate its reflection with a consideration of improvised music. In addition to the high degree of interpretational flexibility already elaborated, some of the actions instruct the executant to interact with other executants in varying degrees of precision regarding the specificities of the interaction.

It must further be admitted that plastik on some levels displays semblances to other realms of artistic practice in the past century which may or may not explicitly depend on performance. These semblances severely problematize the consideration of its identity solely in the realm of musical creation, whether object- or interpretation-based. Parallels with individual pieces or events within other artistic traditions may be more or less apparent, however, because of the plethora of associational identities it bears, any attempt to relegate plastik to a single historical artistic or performance practice would be tenuous at best. No matter how important the similarities may seem, the multiplicity of intentions underlying the composition of plastik convincingly preclude its exclusive association with traditions such as dada,[9] Fluxus,[10] and performance and installation art, not to mention Jean Tinguely’s self-destructing sculptures.[11] These and other possible associations are certainly not irrelevant to the comprehension of the work, but rather contribute to the clarification and definition of its identity. As elaborated above, the extent to which they contribute is a function of the individual’s awareness of these art forms and of the direct and indirect influences they have had on the evolution of the artistic community which he frequents.

4. Summary: Questioning the Permanence of Identity

Today, as the problem of identity is manifold, how do we properly assess the identity of artistic products, and who ultimately decides on the truth of these interpretations? The fact that one or more of the composer’s intentions are not immediately or at all apparent to an individual listener cannot be used as an argument against the importance or existence of those facets of the work’s identity. Similarly, something a listener perceives in the work which the composer does not, can not, or will not perceive must also be admitted as contributing to the work’s identity on a perceptive level which perhaps lies outside his experiential scope.[12]

With the proliferation of art forms and artistic practices in the twentieth century, the augmentation of the palette of sounds and of instrumental techniques and formal concerns, and the varyingly mutual influence of these and other concerns, it would seem that no single tradition or practice is justifiable as the sole and absolute authority for the consideration and ultimate definition of identity in the work of art. Unicity of identity may exist only in the relational identity of the multifarious influences on the creation of the individual work.

The considerations laid out in the present discussion are not specific to plastik, nor to the New Music or Improvised Music milieux, but are equally relevant in consideration of other artistic disciplines since the beginning of the early twentieth century (if not earlier). Any single person’s comprehension of a work’s identity, no matter how convincing it may seem at a given moment within a particular perceptual context, is inevitably incomplete and therefore impermanent. At any moment the individual may be entirely correct in his assessment of the identity of a particular work of art, but in the next moment new factors potentially relevant to the assessment of its identity will necessitate adjustments to his previous comprehension of the work. My own interest in elaborating a context which assumes as a foundation the variability of identity is not a dismissal of the problem of conclusive definition of identity in the New Music composition, but is rather an emphasis of the belief that this variability in fact contributes to an enlarged comprehension of the potential of identity.


[1] However, although this paper discusses perception of the work of art predominantly from the perspective of the listener experiencing a musical work involving performers, viewer may be substituted at any point for listener, as the problem of the perception of identity is also relevant to the visual arts.

[2] Electroacoustic composition certainly benefits from a palette of sonic possibilities remarkably more complex than that of any instrumental combination, and theoretically endless, but here we are concerned primarily with instrumental performance.

[3] Several works by German composer Helmut Lachenmann could be cited as examples of explicit critique of the norms of instrumental performance. For example, Pression (solo cello) and Toccata (solo violin) both explore manners of sound production which produce sounds which are quite “natural” to the instrument, but which have traditionally been excluded from the gamut of permissible sound materials.

[4] This practice has of course existed for centuries in Western Music – consider the mutual influences of “Serious” and Folk Music throughout the centuries – but the degree to which cross-cultural, cross-disciplinary and cross-æsthetic exploration is encountered since the beginning of the twentieth century distinguishes this period from others, at least in this respect. Discussion of the relevance or ethics of such practices is not the goal of this paper.

[5] Although many listeners claim a certain level of openness and interest in regards to the broad range of approaches to musical composition in the present day, in my experience, virtually all listeners – regardless of the extent of their musical training! – have a more or less fixed set of criterion by which they judge each new work they come into contact with. These criterion may vary over time, but are nonetheless profoundly coloured by the individual listener’s perceptual capacity and awareness of his own past and present experiences, and perhaps moreso by his ignorance of experiences he has yet to make, or tends to avoid. His perceptual limitations are also representative of the political and social agenda of the micro-community – within the larger national or international New Music community – he frequents.

[6] This leads subsequently into a discussion of the importance of programme notes in improving the individual musical experience in the twentieth century, but cannot be discussed here at present.

[7] Depending on the types of materials chosen for its construction, de-forming the instrument can create an impressive amount of breakage, some of which flies thorough the air, creating a potentially hazardous situation for viewers too close to the sculpture. The executants wear protective glasses and workgloves during the de-formance. The work will be discussed more in detail in §2.

[8] The phenomenon of a performer “fixing” an improvisation over multiple performances is too complex a subject to elaborate in the present paper.

[9] Next to his sculpture on exhibit at the April 1920 dada Vorfrühlings exhibition in the Cologne Winter Brauerei, dadamax (Max Ernst) placed an axe, which the public was encouraged to use on the piece. Although violent revolt against the excesses and shortcomings of Bourgeois society was certainly part of the dada agenda, its raison d’être and its impact on the course of the history of art are somewhat more complex.

[10] George Brecht, in Play a Sentimental Tune, asks the performer to first play a tune on a violin, and then perform several actions to it, such as removing the bridge, de-tuning the strings, etc. The intention was not so much to create a new musical composition as it was to radically question the validity of social convention, the status quo of performance protocol and, using one of the most potent symbols of the musical establishment, to severely chastize the decorative aspects of the chamber music tradition.

[11] Taking the incorporation of time into a medium not traditionally explicitly considering time amongst the experiential aspects of the work to an extreme, some of the sculptures Tinguely created destroyed themselves without the direct intervention of their creator, or any other person, during the actual performance.

[12] If this problem is already significant in “understanding” the works of our own time, we can only speculate on the level of misunderstanding we have today of the works of composers such as Beethoven, to give an example.