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Performing Precarity

To be a contemporary music performer today is to have a deeply fragmented practice. The performer’s role is no longer simply a matter of mastering her instrument and executing a score.


Music practices are increasingly incorporating new instruments and technologies, new methods of creating works, audience interaction, and new situations of interdependence between performer subjects. In these conditions, the performer increasingly finds herself unable to keep control and a sense of mastery over the performance. In other words, performing is increasingly precarious.

Performing Precarity seeks to investigate this new paradigm by abandoning notions of mastery and instrument-specificity as the core of a musician’s practice in favour of the idea of the network and its ensuing precarity:

  • What kinds of practices emerge when traditional conceptions of beauty and perfection are relinquished in favour of precarity, fragility, risk, instability, failure, and mutual dependence between performers, composers, technologies, and audiences?
  • What kinds of reflections will emerge out of this repositioning of the performer from “master” to a mutually dependent agent in such a network?

Applied by instrument historian Herbert Heyde to describe the mechanics of instruments, the notion of the network suggests new ways of thinking about the interdependencies of musical performance. Unlike the solid conception of instrumental identity implied by the notion of idiomaticity, that of the network suggests a relational conception of performance practice which embraces and potentially affects all aspects of musical performance, highlighting a wholly different set of performative qualities – interdependence, fragility, unpredictability, risk. In this project, we should like to pursue such qualities guided by an ethical performativity founded upon precarity.

Being constantly exposed to the risks of performative collapse or failure, and to dependency on others or on technology, the performer embracing this must also surrender to these hazards, ultimately risking transforming their very conception of self.

The nature of fragile, unstable, precarious material means it is usually experienced by performers privately, often with a sense of shame at potential or actual failure. In the case of performances where fragility is a productive space of musical meaning, it is often challenging for the performers to convey their resulting experience of interconnectedness and heightened sense of vulnerability. This project seeks to reveal these experiences and tacit knowledges by shining a light on the nature of precarity in performance.

Reflection and documentation

The project places reflection as the foundation of the working method with the goal of articulating a multitude of perspectives on the topic of precarity. These perspectives will be gathered through regular reflection, including public reflection, storytelling, dialogue, and non-verbal reflective strategies.

This reflective material will be subsequently disseminated via the Research Catalogue and other presentation and publishing means.

Project group

The project group includes Ellen Ugelvik and Jennifer Torrence (Norway), Laurence Crane (UK), as well as artists from the resource group Anders Førisdal (Norway) and Philip Thomas (UK). Each artist will approach the thematic of precarity through their own practice, including the performance of new and old works.

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Published: Apr 4, 2019 — Last updated: Jun 29, 2023