Jane Dickson ‘Instrumental Indifference’

Glenn Gould’s musical idealism is exemplified in his “sublime INSTRUMENTAL INDIFFERENCE”. He shunned the works of composers who were overly concerned with the specific sonorities of the piano and focused instead on music which could potentially be transferred intact from instrument to instrument. While this particular idea of instrumental indifference appears intrinsically linked to Western art music, it highlights a universal issue ” the relationship between the musical idea and the instrument, between the ideal and the empirical.

Originally used to describe someone who “possesses the inventive genius proper to the art”[1] , the current understanding of VIRTUOSITY which has maintained itself since the nineteenth-century relates predominantly to a performer’s physical or technical skill. The specialisation of performance and rise of this definition of virtuosity began in the late eighteenth-century and reached its height in the mid nineteenth-century with performers such as Liszt and Paganini. Gould referred to this as “the great disaster for music”[2], reducing music-making from a potentially ecstatic and sociopolitically influential experience to competition and entertainment by placing an emphasis on gladiatorial elements such as speed, power, digital wizardry and spectacle. While not all instrumentally specific music is virtuosic in this sense, due to the necessity of technical mastery of a particular instrument, virtuosity implies instrumental specificity. Adorno describes virtuosity as “an institutionalized box office ideal detached from people, which mistakenly sees in itself an unwavering capacity for inspiring the audience” shaped for “the kind of atomistic listening associated more readily with the Culture Industry.”[3] This undoubtedly contributed to the exaltation and commodification of both performer and performance.

On PERFORMANCE: “If, as Shaw suggests, “Happiness and Beauty are by-products”,   then so too are concerts; the by-products of stimulating and rewarding hours and years of fruitful work and study, of discovery and experiment ” in short, of practice.”[4]

Computer based NEW INTERFACE development and performance, particularly instrument “inspired and instrument” like gestural controllers, present an interesting means to observe one contemporary understanding of the relationship between instrument and idea in relief. A technocratic and performance-centric field, it has a history of valuing virtuosic potential and the visual spectacle of performance, dislocating and aggrandising physical gesture and other superficial elements of instrumental music-making. The computer and new interface have the capacity to create a caricatured example of virtuosity. As Garnett observes, “the machine can move more quickly, more loudly and less bounded by physical or cognitive constraints than any human possibly can”.[5] The emphasis placed on the musical object or instrument and its inherent rather than human value coupled with the insatiable quest for the new is almost commodity fetishistic. While technical mastery and instrument flexibility can be tools for musical expression, this field can often present the gulf between instrument and idea rather than narrow it, revealing “the discrepancy between “producing and imagining,” between “doing and feeling,” between “science and conscience,” and between the “produced artifact and the human body.”[6] The influence our understanding of virtuosity has on our idea of music- making and performance is good reason for an evolved, evolving and pluralistic definition of the term.

The heuristic nature of FREE IMPROVISATION can question the notion of technique and virtuosity. It arguably remains instrumentally specific and in constant danger of being bound by the very material it seeks to explore, but the focus on potential of material, individual exploration and subverting a system can result in the development of individual and non-standard techniques and results. It has the potential to challenge Günther Anders’ view that “we are utopians in reverse, not capable of imagining what we ourselves have made. While utopians cannot make what they imagine, we cannot imagine what we make.”[7]

The potential of art to reach beyond system, to enable the “dislocation of expectation”[8] and the development of new ideas, depends on an awareness and appreciation of NEGATION. The “positive assumptions of system”[9] and tradition, which among other things often involve gender imbalance and the neglected potential not just of the feminine but of diversification and pluralism, are to the detriment of invention and progress.



[1] Pincherle, M. The World of the Virtuoso. (Trans. L. Brockway) Victor Gollancz, London, 1964

[2] Glenn Gould transcribed from interview taken from “The Art of Piano; Great Pianists of the 20th Century”, NVC Arts, 1999 (VHS)

[3] Theodor W. Adorno The Mastery of the Maestro quoted in Said, E. W. “Glenn Gould, the virtuoso as intellectual”, Raritan, Summer 2000

[4] Norris, P. “Practice, Music-Making and Education”, Yehudi Menuhin School Newsletter, February 1983

[5] Garnett, G. E. “The Aesthetics of Interactive Computer Music”, Computer Music Journal, 25:1, Spring 2001

[6] Günther Anders in Dijk, P. van Anthropology in the Age of Technology; The Philosophical Contribution of Günther Anders, Rodopi, Amsterdam, 2000

[7] Ibid.

[8] Said, E. W. “Glenn Gould, the virtuoso as intellectual”, Raritan, Summer 2000

[9] Gould, G. The Glenn Gould Reader, ed. Tim Page, Vintage Books, New York 1990


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