The significance of a preposition in my practice

This essay was contributed by Pia Palme on March 18, 2021 as the final presentation of the FOS lecture series.


Examining the word com-posing, we find the term with [Latin: com] right in the prefix. In essence, my practice is an activity: as an artist I do somethingoften with others. When I refer to my practice, I am referring to composing, performing, and conducting artistic research, mainly in the field of music theatre and scenic music in the most inclusive sense. My interest is to compose music with space, or, I could say, space with music. What kind of relationship or activity could be described by the preposition with? In my presentation, I will go over several levels, or stages, of the way I understand and use ‘with’. These stages are not separate perspectives; rather, one stage flows into the other as they intersect with each other. Together, they interact and form a systemic structure – an ecosystem of music. Looking into ecosystem ecology, I can further systematise my findings. The discourse about the necessity of this paradigmatic change intensifies considering the pandemic crisis and the state of the Earth. In the Anthropocene, it could be that the picture is not complete without our personal stories. Thus, the with turns into a personal and intimate urgency. Arguments from ecosystem ecology bring further insights about the manifold interconnections in my practice, and enlighten the process of decision making in times of complexity. For composers, decision making is a key resource in their practice.

Over the last few years, my relationship with the environment has changed considerably and, in parallel I have observed a change in my practice. When I refer to my practice, I am referring to composing, performing, and conducting artistic research, mainly in the field of music theatre and scenic music in the most inclusive sense. My interest is to compose music with space, or, I could say, space with music. Usually, music theatre involves multiple collaborations with other artists from a variety of disciplines. What I have recently noticed in my practice is that relationships and interactions continually make their way into the foreground. 

In essence, my practice is an activity: as an artist I do somethingoften with others. For that reason, I prefer to use descriptive expressions such as interaction, interference, pollution, filter, collaboration, or cooperation in the context of my work. In general, words that connote an active exchange of materials – an embodied exchange. On the other hand, I have always conceived my practice as situational, meaning that my work and process are grounded in a certain situation and context. However, I find that the term situational still implies that there is a separation between myself and the situation. The word with is more precise: examining the word com-posing, we find the term with [Latin: com] right in the prefix. This is why I prefer to use the phrase ‘I practice with a situation’ or ‘my work and research emerge with an environment.’

Composition is the great With

What kind of relationship or activity could be described by the preposition with? In the following presentation, I will go over several levels, or stages, of the way I understand and use “with”. These stages are not separate aspects; rather, one stage flows into the other as they intersect with each other. Together, they interact and form a systemic structure – an ecosystem of music. Recently, I began to look into ecosystem ecology, which I find very inspiring and which I want to connect with my practice, in order to systematise my findings. I use an ecological concept of music in order to weave all these aspects of with together in a meaningful way.

The origin of this change in my awareness is rooted in a number of artist residencies in unique environments and societies, such as in Tehran (Iran), Reykjavik (Iceland), Brussels (Belgium) and Wellington, New Zealand. More recently, residencies allowed me to explore the fragile natural ecosystems of a Finnish National Park on the tiny island Örö in the Baltic Sea, as well as the Canadian National Park in the Rocky Mountains at Banff, and the remote village Poschiavo in the Swiss Alps. Throughout the course of these situational interactions, I became more sensitive to urgent environmental issues. In my own home country of Austria, political transformations were also having an impact (such as a terror attack in downtown Vienna last year). Of course, the Covid-19 crisis has amplified this change in awareness.

In every situation, I have observed and analysed the way that my practice has manifested, as well as what kind of performances and collaborations have emerged. It is not only the professional environment which has an influence; it is the environment in its entirety which interacts with my practice and vice versa. Again, the word with describes this interaction most precisely. My practice and my process interact with the entire situation and community: the landscape, the people and culture plus manmade technologies, the terrain (including plants, animals, the ground, earth and rocks).

Towards an ecosystem in music

Ecosystem, the complex of living organisms, their physical environment, and all their interrelationships in a particular unit of space [Definition found in the Encyclopedia Britannica].

Literally, ecology is the study of organisms ‘in their home’ (Greek oikos – house, place to live). Historically, the conception of an ecosystem as a system that couples not only the “organism-complex, but also the whole complex of physical factors forming what we call an environment” (Tansely, 1935 in: Frid, Ch. & Raffaelli, D. G., 2010) was brought up by botanists and refined over time. The term was coined and developed by the American botanist Frederic Edward Clemente and the British botanists Arthur Tansley and Arthur Roy Clapham. Their idea was quickly adapted and expanded upon as more scientific disciplines were included. Eugene Pleasants Odum, pioneer of ecosystem ecology, described ecology as the “science of the interrelations between living organisms and their environment” (Odum, 1971). Presently, the term ecosystem includes many disciplines and provides models for a number of purposes, even in the fields of economy, philosophy, and art. 

The with of the ear – perception and acoustics

I am a person who defines herself by the act and practice of listening – first and foremost, I use my ears to connect to my environment. Listening is the tool I use to actively investigate the world and communicate with it. There is an auditory field all around me, to the front and back, above and below, on all sides. I cannot close my ears; the sounds penetrate and enter me, they can become painful. Salome Voegelin (2010) and Murray Schafer (1994) propose that there is no distinction between a loud noise and the one who listens to it: in listening perception, with becomes a nexus. Listening goes under the skin. Listening perception borders on touch. It is possible to listen into things and materials. Tapping my fingers on the table, I listen into the material of my body parts, the surface material of the table, and the material inside the table all coming together, producing the short noises that act on me. Acoustically, for example according to Albert S. Bregman’s Auditory Scene Analysis (1990), every sound is perceived along with all of its echoes – these echoes are reflected by whatever materials are present in the environment. In this way, all materials, including living beings like ourselves, contribute to the acoustic information about an environment. By bringing sounds and echoes together, spatial information is created. My ears recognise the sounds and echoes from living and non-living sources, as well as from their interaction: I listen into an ecosystem.

On the other hand, listening can be investigated from the position of neuroscience. In this field, for example in the works of Eric Kandel (2012), ‘enactive perception’ is used to describe how the process of perception re-creates the world. The creative potential of enactive perception is clear when discussing the act of listening. Listening is not passive: it is an inventive activity that reaches out into space. It is helpful to consider aspects of neuro-materiality: here, we find a conception of embodied listening that includes aspects of culture, society, cognition, and behaviour – as found, for example, in the research of neuroscientist Gina Rippon (2019) on in the anthology on Gendered Neurocultures by Sigrid Schmitz and Grit Höppner (2014). The nexus actively shaping one’s environment is defined as brainbody-in-culture. I would say listening mirrors the compositional process. As listening becomes composing, I interact with the world in a direct and personal process, just as the world interacts with me.

What I’d like to say with all of this is that the with of the ear defines my primary communication with the world, a communication that I experience as direct and immediate. It is an activity that is artistic, fluid, and very personal. From the position of neuroscience, we compose soundtracks of our lives together with the environment. The with of listening is unique in that it enables me to perceive the world as polyphony: every single sound or noise finds a place within the multi-voiced total experience, every single sound contributes to the sonosphere. It is my choice as listener whether to direct my ears towards the entire polyphony at any particular time or towards singular occurrences. From a compositional way of thinking, this is what characterises a listening to a polyphony. Listening is the perfect practice to explore a multi-voiced ecosystem.

This short video was filmed on the shore of a mountain lake higher up in the Banff area, late in October 2019.

With the community – a philosophical approach

Here I would like to look more closely into the aspect of community and my relation with a community, or audience, as individual. Community is especially interesting in terms of music theatre and performative arts: both are fields which have the effect of generating a community in a public performance situation. The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy reminds us that the “place of community – in other words, the place of a specific existence, the existence of being-in-common” is always political. He speaks of an exposition that takes place in human communication: “finite existence exposed to finite existence, co-appearing before and with it” (Nancy, 2015). In his words, “ ‘to be exposed’ means to be ‘posed’ in exteriority”. Therefore, the intimacy of an ‘inside’ is confronted with an ‘outside’ (Nancy, 2015). Per Nancy, we can think of the audience forming a community that co-appears with the exposition of the performers on stage.

Much in the same way, the Mexican author Octavio Paz pointed out that in Baroque performance practice the society presented a mirror of itself: the audience and the performers were acutely aware of their participation in a community ritual as a kind of ‘social theatre’ performance. Much in the sense of Nancy’s ‘in-common’, there was a notion of respect of everybody’s role in the interaction. Together, the audience and the performing artists established a social choreography; in their ritual, the community empowered themselves and unified their social contract (Paz, 1994).

The feminist author Rosi Braidotti (2011) mentions that “all communities are imaginary constructions”. While imagined, they are still “densely material structures that weigh down on us and brand us”. (This is interesting for our situation here, at this Zoom meeting place.) She proposes that we can rethink community in a nomadic feminist way, as a collective figuration that is grounded in “a commonly shared and argued politics of location” and guided by imagination as well as situated knowledge (Braidotti, 2011).

The aspects of community and shared space which I have addressed here are essential elements of the performance that I am giving in real life (right here at home, in front of my computer) while you, as the audience, are present for me only as icons on my computer screen. In performing and streaming my talk, am I really sharing my finite existence with a community, following the concept of Nancy? Is this a community, even though everyone is currently in their homes or offices, in various countries, on this virtual platform? As I speak right now, I have you, the audience, in mind: my feelings extend outwards towards our fictitious community. Is this a ‘place of community’ or not? I would argue that yes, it is. There is a sense of doing something together, a sense of co-appearing before and with a community, and a sense of being exposed that feels very real to me, at least, in this moment. (Is it the same for you?)

Working with instruments – performative aspects

When I perform with instruments, I most often use a specially-designed sub-bass recorder. Standing, I balance the two-meter tall instrument on one arm. The instrument becomes a part of me. Over years of practice, the instrument has grown onto my body and mind. I barely notice the moment when my breath passes through my lips and flows from my body into the body of the instrument, extending down and through the wooden body. My fingertips merge into the metal keys as if they were cyborg-extremities. My body awareness extends into the metal, wood, air. My mind activity transfers into bodily motion with my brain-body acting as the instrument. Improvising, I use musical gestures. They resonate in and with my imagination. Precise and often minimal movements that project thinking mind onto metal, wood, air. Donna Haraway comes to mind: being with the sub-bass recorder, the instrument and I become what she calls “critters” that “interpenetrate one another, loop around and through one another” (Haraway, 2016). Even more so, my brain-body-in-culture is with the instrument.

For an audience, however, from the outside, the instrument is clearly visible as a separate object before me – a visual object that emits sound. In this way, the instrument acts as a bridge from my personal space to the outside world and the listeners. The recorder is an intermediary, the Third Space. The idea of the Third Space, or Intermediary, was defined and investigated by the psychologist Donald W. Winnicott (2005/1971). The term describes a psychological zone between a human being and the environment. It is a space that extends from the inner psychological space of person but is perceived as non-territorial. In this way, the Third Space is open for interaction with others. Winnicott’s concepts are quite helpful in describing what I experience in performing or composing with instruments of any kind (including technologies or assemblages of media). 

With – collaboration in composition and music theatre

In every aspect, my practice has been intrinsically and thoroughly a collaborative practice. However, it was especially during the pandemic crisis that I became increasingly aware of how I move and work within a dense network of collaborators – within an interconnected community. 

In my process of working, I connect to: performers, artists, ensembles, organisers, technicians, venues, PR people, instrument makers, conductors, caretakers, curators, stage-crews, funding bodies, film makers, printmakers, software programmers, light designers, sound designers, and so on. We work back and forth, discussing our various requirements. My artistic research occurs within a wide ecosystem consisting of various disciplines, practices, techniques and art forms.

For example, while staging my recent music theatre production Wechselwirkung, I collaborated with soprano Juliet Fraser. Her essay In the Thick of it: further reflections on the mess and the magic of collaborative partnerships was presented in this Lecture Series earlier on and I would highly recommend it for further reading (it is available on her website).

She actually asked me to notate thoughts about collaboration, and this is what wrote:

The most delightful experience in a collaboration for me is the sense of sparks jumping over between artistic-minded individuals. Sparks that can trigger something that reaches beyond what was there before, mapping out some new terrain. When that particular occurrence happens, I feel it in a physical sense. 

It is:
– a shared musical physicality… 
– a sense of sparkling…  
– ideas manifesting in physical space… 
– a playful sounding-space opening up… 
– a potentiality for discoveries… 

Collaborative experiences are not dependant on a particular result. Shared physicality seems important: co-presence on a bodily level, co-presence in the same space. For the quality of a collaboration, it does not matter whether merely experiments take place or a ‘finished’ ‘composed’ ‘work’ is produced and performed in public, at a later point. The collaborative experience seems to happen in a space outside myself yet connected to me – a Third Space again, in the sense of Winnicott’s transitional zone.

Every collaboration unfolds in a unique manner as a specific relationship – like a love affair, in a way. Some collaborations last longer, some are short term affairs. Some barely come together and some actually break apart.

About the composer-performer collaboration: it is important to keep a certain kind of professional distance while opening up in an artistic sense, not holding back. Respecting each other’s discipline, being curious about the other but not switching disciplines. Learning, not imposing. Giving space, and taking responsibility at the same time. Knowing one’s own expertise. Not giving up. Entering discussions without fear or hesitation. Daring.

For the production Wechselwirkung, I brought together a core group of five main collaborators. Rather soon, this collaborative group formed an ecosystem that began to develop by itself. I felt very much drawn to observe the various relationships, threads and filaments evolving between us, as if they were musical nerve fibres. Aside from being part of the overall collaborator’s mesh, I distinctly experienced the unique relationship with every individual contributor – a relationship depending on the professional cooperation we shared. With Irene Lehman, the theatre scholar and dramaturgist, my relationship felt vividly intellectual: quick-footed meetings on a mind level occurred mostly online, with lots of verbal exchanges. With Christina Lessiak, my partner in research and project partner, the collaboration became a management and research affair in the best sense of the word: a more functional, practical and respectful connection. Apart from endless exchanges about how to organise this and that in times of crisis, we also met over topics of feminism and listening, and we exchanged our research observations. With dancer and choreographer Paola Bianchi, my relationship was intense and included edges and conflicts. I experienced it as quite physical, because of Paola’s professional involvement with the group as a dancer and stage designer. Our relationship grew and took place in the theatrical terrains of space, stage design, movement and timing. With Paola, I felt the clashing of theatre disciplines that oftentimes draw on different systems of expertise and hierarchy. Often, I felt the need to negotiate and translate between the two of us. I felt deep respect for her work, underpinned by a sense of warmth and distance at the same time.

From the compositional angle, it was most interesting to watch how Paola’s and my ideas came together in the practice of Juliet Fraser – the singer who physically brought together the artistic collaboration between Paola and myself, merging it with her soprano voice, her expertise as a vocal performer, and her body work. The nexus Juliet/Paola/myself was an intense affair. It is hard to find words for this complex collaboration that I want to investigate more deeply. 

The collaboration with singer Juliet Fraser was at the core of the piece, it was the heart of the composition. To me, the collaborative relationship with Juliet felt fragile and very professional at the same time, quite intimate and touching. Very much happened on a fictitious level: when composing alone on my desk, Juliet’s voice rang in my ear, for hours and days. For writing the piece, I had to imagine her physical presence as a singer. This is the thing a lover would do when imaging the beloved person – in my case, it happened from a compositional and professional interest. A fascinating turn, the compositional twist on the old theme of love? Is this, then, a collaboration, too – or is it pure dreaming? In my mind’s ear and eye, I saw and heard my collaborators, I conceptualised shared musical and theatrical activities that I wished to happen in the future. 

Shorter, real life research sessions and sequences of feedback exchanges back and forth augmented the longer process of composition, until in the end we all came together physically, to rehearse and produce the piece in Vienna. Then, during the final rehearsal period before the premiere, it was interesting to observe how our core group of five suddenly integrated into the much larger community who assembled to stage the entire piece. It seems that because the five of us trusted in our connection, having gone through a long and intense process together, we were able to integrate the entire group into a bigger collaborative body – yet another ecosystem.

With myself: on being my own collaborator, my own inspiration – autoecology

In my practice, I must be able to collaborate with myself. In addition to the time spent in collaboration or experimenting with others, I plan and sketch out pieces, listen inside to my imagination, notate, correct, I practice my instrument, write texts for my pieces, and so on. This means that many hours are spent alone, working at my desk or with instruments. I experience this as a retreat, a withdrawal from the outer world, into some kind of quiet inner realm charged by imagination. Per Winnicott (1972) and the philospher Don Ihde (2007), an isolated nucleus within ourselves may be characterised by a desire not to be found, a quiet centre as an inner horizon of silence into which all sounds fade – the sonic horizon. Every time I come to the end of a collaborative production, I return to into this space of profound solitude. Usually, this is a space where I return to and from where I emerge again, being ready for the next project. Ever since the first lockdown in Austria in March 2020, I have been in isolation much more than usual. This disruption has made my inner rhythm irregular with the prolonged periods of involuntary isolation. Nevertheless, in my inner mind space I still find solace, confidence, ideas and inspiration. I am with myself, completely.

I’m with the stone bench in the garden, with the snails, with the compost, with the stove, the church bells, the helicopter and the rain, with the grass and the plum tree. With the plastic waste and the virus. Nobody can escape. We have become entangled beyond repair. The Anthropocene will never again go away. It will be with me until I die. I will never be free from pollution any more.
With the planet

Travelling extensively and living in remote places as well as in urban centres, I have found that humans have made their mark on ecosystems everywhere – to an extent that is quite shocking. It feels violent. My body is touched. I feel an urgency, a drive to act. The urgency fires my practice, I feel driven, but I don’t exactly know how this process will unfold. It is an open-ended process. Interestingly, Bruno Latour (Davis & Turpin, 2015) describes similar experiences in a recent interview about art in the Anthropocene. Latour mentions that he observes a kind of urgency being expressed, when he talks with scientists and artists. He says that in these conversations he notices a ‘narrativity’ in what people explain – meaning, that it seems to be important to include one’s personal experience when talking about the Anthropocene. It could be that the picture is not complete without our personal stories (also, remember the lecture by Dr. Susanne Kogler recently, and her reference to the philosopher Hannah Arendt). Thus, regarding the planet, the with turns into an intimate and personal urgency. 

And this brings me to:

The feminist composer’s with – engagement on a personal level, compassion 

The final with that I would like to explore here is the feminist with, which is a with of political and cultural engagement. I see feminism as an activity, not a perspective. Feminism is manifest in the way I take decisions and act. This with emerges from an in-depth connection driven by compassion rather than an interest in producing ‘feminist art’ or nominally ‘feminist works’. I see feminism as the desire and will to effect change: it is not enough for me just to observe, criticise, or protest. I also want to take action towards building a future society and culture. I see my activities as guided by a certain direction and a certain mode of thinking, one which is oriented around the idea of a more inclusive, open, and equal culture. This applies to my compositional process and artistic production as well as to my everyday life. 

The topic of decision-making during composition and in everyday life brings me back to the concept of ecosystem. 

Music is a forest and I’m a tree of my own within this greater living entity. I stand apart, but could not – and would not want to – thrive without others of my kind. This could be the Anthropocene throwing its shadow onto music theatre and composition: the ecological situation of the planet makes me realise how interconnected things are – there are interdependencies and interferences everywhere. At this stage, com-position meets com-passion: I experience both as activities guided by an awareness of others around me, of the entire environment, of the ecosystem that I am a part of. The term feminism is a label for a kind of compassionate practice. I resonate with the term ‘feministing’ proposed by the curator and art historian Gill Park (2020) as well as with her position that artistic experimentalism, theory, and activism belong together. 

The feminist aspects of music and music production form the foundations of my artistic research. In order to be able to compose genuinely, I felt the need to become socially active in my own way. There is a need for women* (that is, people identifying as women in the widest sense) to represent themselves, artistically and politically. Following Park’s position, one could say that I’m interested in the experiences of women* “while investigating urgent theoretical questions about art and our social relations” (Park, 2020). This is particularly important now, during the pandemic crisis. All over the world, women* are stating their ideas and needs with renewed urgency. On one hand, the pandemic crisis affects women* in many ways: often they are involved with providing care for others. On the other hand, they continue to be engaged in environmental and social activism, with women* bearing the majority of the burden of environmental changes.

Conclusion: decision-making in complex situations

While fields such as collaboration, listening, feminism, or instrumentality have been widely explored as separate fields of study, the concept of an ecosystem allows me to bring them together, in an innovative way. Thus, it is possible to understand how they interconnect and influence each other. It is interesting to observe both living humans and any non-living elements such as instruments and technologies together as a single ecosystem in music. The paradigmatic shift to ecology brings a new awareness into my practice.

Ecosystem ecology is a science that relies on mathematical models. Earlier, in the 1960s, scientists took a more reductionist view in ecological mathematics: if the number of influencing factors is limited to a bundle of few main factors, then changes can be calculated quite precisely and predictions made with less effort. However, in more recent years, scientists have increasingly taken the importance of ‘smaller and weaker’ links and factors within a system into account. What they found is that the minor factors determine the dynamics in the system. Ecosystem science now uses much more inclusive models. The term socio-ecological system is used to examine human society within the natural environment. As social factors, technologies, behaviours, psychology, and economical factors are observed, I would also like to see music, art, culture and artistic research included within such analyses. 

Ecologists argue that “socio-ecological systems are highly complex and poorly understood.” They maintain that “full and objective knowledge of complex issues is unattainable. Complex issues will always be characterised by uncertainties, unknown, and ambiguity” (Sander, Dedoncker, & Keune, 2014). However, people must be able to reach decisions in order to act. Therefore, choices and decisions must be made in a pragmatic way and not be driven by the wish to minimise risk. If the system is highly complex, it is simply not possible to control the outcome of a decision beforehand. This is interesting in terms of the current crisis.

In the Anthropocene, we must take risks in order to shape the future: in life, in art, in culture, in music.


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