Cambridge MPhil Thesis: “An Autoethnographic Approach to George Crumb’s ‘Five Pieces for Piano’”

The first chapter of my Cambridge Master of Philosophy in Music dissertation:


INTRODUCTION Analytical musicology has largely focused on studying the hermeneutic and theoretical implications of the music-as-text.4 However, in the moment of performance, the performer’s mental inquiry is focused on the complexities of the moment of performing – both on the body and also the mental/interpretative, as well as close listening and monitoring of one’s own sounds. Furthermore, the performance of extended techniques that are commonly utilised in new music compositions, subverts engrained sensorimotor habits and necessitates further research.


The impetus for this research direction came from my own experiences as a classically trained pianist. An injury in my mid-teens led to an extended inquiry into the biomechanics of navigating the instrument, and an increased awareness that the way I used my body in piano performance could either aid or impede the way my expressive intentions were perceived. I became increasingly conscious of how my body looked and felt during performance. In addition, a desire to transcend the aesthetic and ideological boundaries of the common practice period led to my later interest in new music written for the extended piano. Playing inside the piano required an even higher degree of physicality than playing on the keyboard, as I was bent over the keyboard often in rather awkward positions, reaching for far-flung strings with my petite torso rather than ergonomically seated at the piano stool, but I found myself enjoying the unique sensations of interacting with my instrument in new ways.5


These preliminary thoughts led me to my proposed investigation of the experience of music performance from the perspective of the performer. This dissertation explores utilising autoethnography as a method of performer’s analysis through the performance of George Crumb’s Five Piano Pieces. I will also discuss how autoethnography influenced and enhanced my approach to performance.


I employ an autoethnographic research process to articulate my own experience of performing, linking it to a theoretical framework derived from phenomenology. Contemporary phenomenology takes as its intellectual premise that all perception originates from the body rather than the mind, offering a methodological framework to extract knowledge about the unique ways that a performer experiences himself/herself as an embodied being during the event of musical performance. Phenomenology as a method of inquiry has an extensive academic longue durée, but I intend to use the interpretations of the more recent scholarly work of Enactivists such as Varela, Rosch, and Thompson (1991) and Colombetti (2014) to inform my understanding of phenomenological tools. Psychologist Daniel Stern’s work on dynamic forms of vitality (2001; 2004; 2010) theorises on how we experience personal feelings and movements in all aspects of our everyday living. These forms of vitality – continuously informing the experience of being alive – are dynamic and ever-changing, flowing between different sense modalities, and therefore provide a viable lens through which we may examine the experience of making/creating musical performances.


My dissertation situates itself within the larger performance studies discourse, aligning its aims with many of those that form the discipline: e.g. moving away from score-based analysis; focusing on the performer and the experiential nature of music as event rather than text; and creating and acknowledging the possibility of a multiplicity of meanings and approaches. Within this larger discourse, it aligns itself towards the (APaR) movement, endeavouring to produce research outcomes that will inform my own practice as a pianist, leading to a deeper relationship with my own performing body and informing scholarly understanding of performing bodies in general. Under Darla Crispin’s framework for the various categories of APaR work,6 the type of auto-ethnographic research project that I am undertaking would fall under the “Artistic Research as Process” category, as I “develop habits of self-scrutiny that hones [my] understanding of the processes taking place in [my] artistic practice”.7 The theoretical knowledge I derive from praxis feeds back into my praxis, engendering creativity and contributing to my artistic growth, while the scholarly insights might prove helpful to other artist-researchers.8


A brief note on the order of my dissertation: the sonata form, or arch form, presents itself as an apt analogy for the structure of my dissertation on an autoethnographic analysis of George Crumb’s Five Pieces for Piano (which, incidentally, is also written in an arch form). In the “exposition”, I set out the context of my dissertation and the methods through which I will conduct my research. In the “development”, I problematise and elaborate on the intellectual and methodological strands that I set out in the first two chapters, spinning them in original directions through autoethnographic reflection. Finally, the ideas I set forth are drawn back into a coherent thesis in the “recapitulation”, or conclusion, of the dissertation.


My usage of the sonata form as an allegory for my dissertation structure also functions as a meta-metaphor for artistic research. A meta-metaphor utilises the interpretation of the original metaphor as a metaphor for something else: the metaphor of sonata form being a reflection of life is in itself a metaphor for the all-consuming nature of artistic research. Both resonate with phenomena greater than themselves. Artistic practice as research (APaR), is not just a way of making art or carrying out scholarly research – it is also a way of living;9 a way of interacting with phenomena; of understanding creativity and critical analysis as symbiotically intertwined. Although my dissertation is primarily concerned with the role of autoethnography in engendering creativity for performers, it also discusses issues of western art music (WAM) performance practice, the relationship between research and praxis/ analysis and performance and the role of an artist-researcher in today’s musical-intellectual climate.


Similar studies undertaken by performer-researcher exploring the subjective experience of performance have focused on music from the common-practice period, but it is anticipated that my Case-Study on experimental WAM will unearth new insights about the relationship of pianist to performance/instrument, as well as contribute to discourse on the role of autoethnography as a mode of artistic research. While the role of autoethnography in contributing to the artistic development has been explored in existing literature, my dissertation goes one step further by exploring how it can be used as a method of performer’s and performance analysis,10 as well as drawing on diverse fields of knowledge – Enactive phenomenology and Daniel Stern’s work on dynamic forms of vitality – as the theoretical framework to which I link my experiences.

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