Interpretive Agency: Flexibilities, Constraints, and Departures in Reena Esmail’s “Jhula Jhule”
Carnegie Mellon University
A piece of music is an ecosystem; it “lives” because of an interconnected community of individuals who each contribute to the work’s creation. A composer can curate musical parameters–duration, feel or style, motivic material, large-scale form, but a score also creates and restricts interpretive space. While scholars have offered extensive engagement with the musical experience of the listener (Sessions 1962, Kozak 2020) and the performer’s role in communicating musical structure (Said 1991, Cone 1968) an underexplored portion of a composition’s ecosystem is the flexible, interpretive space from score to performer.
Drawing on the analytical frameworks of Daphne Leong (2019), Alexandra Pierce (2007), and Pauline Oliveros (2005) which center the performer as a crucial site of interpretive analysis, this paper traces the transitions and distributions of interpretive ownership along a continuum from composer, through performers, to listeners, cycling and recycling along the spectrum. Using Jhula Jhule (2013) by Reena Esmail as an analytic case study, I outline the limitations and affordances of the notated score as a foundation for a performer’s analytical work. Adherences, departures, and movement beyond the artifact of notation are traced aurally, through three different recordings of the piece.
The proposed framework accounts for the elements Esmail seeks to control in her notational choices and documents the space for a performer’s individual interpretation. It begins by expounding the limits and freedoms offered by notation, highlighting points where the score encourages artistic choice. The second portion engages the interpretive freedoms taken by performers in three cited recordings from a body-first perspective. With Pierce’s gestural models as a starting point, I further disengage the common conduit of score-to-listener in service of highlighting an embodied mode of knowing present in performer-oriented analysis. I close by exploring the ways in which the positionality of a performer informs what and how they notice in the music, which in turn shapes their performance. By challenging perceptions and historical, composer-centered frames in western classical traditions, I balance the attentions of music-making between involved parties, recognizing the ways in which a performer’s analytic work and interpretive choices shape our attention to—and beyond—the score.
Performative Effort and Temporal Experience in Two Works by Elisabeth Lutyens
Oberlin College and Conservatory
Time—its feeling, its passing, its meaning—captivated British twelve-tone composer Elisabeth Lutyens throughout her career. Through evocative titles, ambiguous formal organization, and rhythmic flexibility, Lutyens’s music invites analysis that treats form as a “becoming” process (Parsons 2016; Schmalfeldt 2011). Across repertoires, analysts who take phenomenological approaches tend to consider temporal experience to emerge from the relationship between a listener and musical sound (Howland 2015; Lochhead 2016; Kozak 2020; Osborne 2022). Yet musical sounds convey traces of the activities of moving, feeling, and thinking humans (Mead 1999). In this paper, I argue that the effort a performer exerts as they unfold a musical work plays a crucial role in shaping temporal experience for listener and performer alike. I analyze two works by Lutyens to show how local gestures and qualitative dimensions of a performer’s effort invite three modes of temporal experience: forward-moving, associational, and vertical. Effort thus becomes an additional node in the network of “perceived, performed, and even imagined elements” that constitute musical structure (Leong 2019).
La Natura dell’Acqua, Op. 154, for solo piano, features many of Lutyens’s characteristic temporal manipulations. Across the piece, fluctuations of the pianist’s effort suggest four overlapping phases: accumulating, exploring, disrupting, and recollecting. In each phase, changes to and connections between physical and musical gestures instantiate forward-moving and associational modes of musical time. Six “pillar chords” scattered throughout the piece cut across the horizontal temporal flow and invites a deeper inhabitation of the present moment—temporal verticality.
Lutyens’s Chamber Concerto, Op. 8, No. 1, starkly contrasts La Natura in rhythm, instrumentation, and affect. Nonetheless, fluctuations of gesture, effort, and texture in the final movement (Rondo) invite—and freely mix—forward-moving, associational, and vertical temporal experiences. Again, gestural continuities and disruptions instantiate both forward motion and association, while textural builds craft moments of verticality. In a movement whose title evokes a centuries-old formal type, Lutyens’s idiosyncratic temporal processes invite listeners and performers to consider the tensions between classical formal norms and modernist methods of shaping musical time. Temporal experience, then, emerges not only from a performer’s effort, but in the relational space between performers, listeners, composers, and analysts.
Gestural Analysis of Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte
Performative gestures in Caroline Shaw's string quartets sound like they naturally blossom from instrumental affordances (De Souza 2017), while her musical gestures have a dynamic, movement-like quality to them. To explore this facet of Shaw's music, I propose an analytical frame that centers the invitation to move with the music (Cox 2011). My analysis of Entr’acte is situated at the intersection of performative and musical gestures, and I argue that the interaction between these gestures creates a body-based formal narrative of this piece.
In my analysis I define three types of gesture: performative gestures, repetitive gestures, and metaphoric gestures. Performative gestures are the physical actions needed to create the sound. I examine three right-hand techniques, arguing that the artifact of this motion is apparent in the sound, inviting a body-based understanding. Repetitive gestures include literal repetition of chords, melodies, and sections in the individual piece as well as well-learned patterns such as harmonic, metric, and formal schemes that elicit expectations for continuation (Margulis 2014). Repetition provides space for movement, like feeling the groove of a piece or the pull towards a harmonic goal. Metaphoric gestures centers fluctuations in texture, dynamics, timbre, and rhythmic pacing, and how these changes map onto our experience of motion from an ecological perspective (Clarke 2011).
The interaction between these gestures in Entr’acte creates different qualities of memetic engagement throughout the piece. Formal sections are not just defined through constrasting musical material, but the degree and qualitiy of memetic engagement, inviting the listener to experience form as choreographed dance.