Musical Play: Reconciling Music Production with Music Performance


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date20 Dec 2021


With music being a saliently public and social artform, it is perhaps no surprise that a significant portion of musical activities throughout history have been oriented towards the sonic actualization of music in performance contexts. Yet, as musicians continue to adopt music practices that have their musicianship buried in circuitry and loudspeakers, it has become considerably more difficult for them to negotiate a music performance that has been historically and culturally established upon purely acoustic means of sound generation. So in the face of music performance continuing to be this nonnegotiable constant of musical life, it certainly appears that the class of musicians called music producers are caught in a most peculiar dilemma. With their practice of creating generative inscriptions defying traditional dualities of music composition and performance, a music producer would seemingly have to choose between abandoning the authentic pursuit of their existing practice or giving up the central project of playing live. In light of how such a dilemma is entangled with anachronistic axioms of musical thought based on a provincial—but albeit historied—set of musical practices, this dissertation not only seeks to clarify possibilities for reconciliation and compromise but also pushes for a more accommodating conceptualization of music-making and musicality rooted in play.

Beginning with the hypothesis that the music producer’s dilemma stems from a misalignment of music-making means with a heavily institutionalized end of music performance, a survey of the popular discourse surrounding EDM performances highlights that this paradigmatic pursuit of music performance can be delineated according to notions of liveness. Building on Melanie Fritsch, Stefan Strötgen and Paul Sanden, it is specified that aspects of musicianship which correspondingly impress upon audiences a sense of corporeality, interactivity, and spontaneity, are necessary and sufficient conditions for bringing about conventional music performances. Upon establishing what musicians would be responsible for, a comparison of technology-use couched on phenomenological accounts of guitar-playing and DAW-use reveals differences in three areas of musician involvement that could lead to a disruption of music performance norms. Drawing on Don Ihde, Thor Magnusson, and Philip Brey, a difference in terms of the human faculties that are being engaged and extended by the technologies at the musician’s disposal is put forward as a crucial factor to the music producer’s dilemma. Framing music production practices as a process that results in what Thomas Patteson calls generative inscription, a second difference regarding the scope of musical delineation is presented in view of what Bruno Latour has observed as inscription’s immutability. Lastly, a third difference in the rhythm of urgency with musical practices is discussed in light of the decisive moment (καιρός) along with Jean-Paul Sartre’s co-constituting concepts of project, facticity and freedom. With these three aspects of musicianship, it is then possible to clarify how conventional music performance has been oriented by what can be called a kinesthetically-centered, microscopically-delineating, and kairotically-regular, variety of musicianship. And as for why music producers could struggle with musical liveness or see conventional music performance as unattainable, this can be explained by how they would instead be engaged in a cognitively-centered, macroscopically-delineating, and kairotically-irregular, musicianship.

While the elucidation of these aspects of musicianship in relation to the project of normative music performance is intended to address a specific case of misaligned means and ends facing contemporary music producers, but with the music producer’s dilemma showing how musical thought rooted solely in historically monolithic paradigms of music-making are inevitably unable to account for our rapidly shifting musical landscape, a case is also made for how a conceptualization of music-making sensitive to musical play could help ground and maintain an openness to any ongoing and future unorthodoxy. With a survey of how play phenomena is approached in play studies, it will be argued that a recognition of play’s autotelicity and polymorphicity can serve as a valuable vantage point for understanding musicality beyond familiar dualities such as composition and performance. From Roger Caillois’s structural categories of paidia and ludus, to Hans-Georg Gadamer’s notion of there being risk in play, to a revisiting of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophies, groundwork towards understanding musical play in spite of its tendency to diversely evolve beyond culturally and historically contingent definition is finally laid according to how musical activity is play in the truest sense of what Gadamer calls a dynamic “to-and-fro” movement.

    Research areas

  • Music Production, Ludomusicality, Liveness, Existentialism, Phenomenology, Play Studies, Music-making