Reflections on the roles of instrument builder, composer, performer

One thing that has occurred to me over recent years, is how the new international trend of developing music controllers and instruments, as for example most notably seen at the annual NIME conferences, challenges many traditional roles in music. A traditional Western view has been that of a clear separation between instrument constructor, musician and composer. The idea has been that the constructor makes the instrument, the composer makes the score, the performer plays the score with the instrument, and the perceiver experiences the performance, as illustrated in the figure below.

Traditional chain in the musical ecosphere.
Traditional chain in the musical ecosphere.

However, as we often see in the community surrounding the NIME conferences, there are many people that take on all of these three roles themselves. They make their own instruments, compose the music, and also perform themselves. This new trend also challenges the traditionally separated concepts of instrument and composition. Using various types of neurophysiological, physiological or biomechanical sensors, performers themselves may become part of the instrument. Similarly, the instrument may become part of the composition through various types of algorithmic processing. The perceivers may also become part of both the instrument and the composition in systems based on audience participation and collaborative performance. As such, the notion of the traditional concert is changing, since many “instruments” and “compositions” may be used as installations in which the perceivers take an active part. In this way perceivers are turned into performers, and the composers end up as perceivers to the performance.

I find this change of role exciting, but it is also a challenge to traditional (music) institutions that are built around the very idea of separating all these elements. So it is perhaps not too surprising, that a lot of NIME activity is happening outside traditional music arenas. I don’t have any empirical evidence of this, but my feeling is that there are more people developing, composing and performing with NIMEs in computer science departments, architecture schools, fine art academies or just entirely outside of any institutions, than within music academies. It will be interesting to see whether this will change over the years, and that we will see more interdisciplinary work also within the musical ecosphere.

Disciplinarities: intra, cross, multi, inter, trans

For some papers I am currently working on, I have taken up my interest in definitions of different types of disciplinarities (see blog post from a couple of years ago). Since that time, I think talking about the need for working interdisciplinary has only increased, but still there seem to be no real incentives for actually making it possible to work genuinely interdisciplinary. This holds when working within an academic setting, and it is even more complicated when trying to bridge academic and artistic disciplines.

In the middle of all of this, I hear the word transdisciplinarity more and more frequently. Trying to find a proper definition of what this means, I came across Marilyn Stember’s 1990 paper Advancing the social sciences through the interdisciplinary enterprise. There she offers the following overview of different levels of disciplinarity (my summary of her points):

  • Intradisciplinary: working within a single discipline.
  • Crossdisciplinary: viewing one discipline from the perspective of another.
  • Multidisciplinary: people from different disciplines working together, each drawing on their disciplinary knowledge.
  • Interdisciplinary: integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches.
  • Transdisciplinary: creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.

Based on this, I have added two elements (inter and trans) to my former sketch of the different disciplinarities (based initially on Zeigler (1990)):

Sketch of different types of disciplinarities (cc-by Alexander Refsum Jensenius).

I am still not entirely sure that I understand the difference between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, but I guess that the latter is one more step towards full integration. That is why I have drawn the centre circles so that they almost overlap, but not entirely. I would imagine that when/if full integration of disciplines occurs, you are back to a single discipline again, so I have added that to the figure as well.

In her paper, Stember argues that many people believe they work interdisciplinary, while in fact, it is more common to work multidisciplinary.

For myself, I think I work on the edge between multidisciplinarity and interdisciplinarity. I do most certainly integrate knowledge and methods from different disciplines (mainly music, informatics, psychology, movement science), and try to create a holistic perspective based on this. However, I often feel that I have to choose an approach when presenting my work for different (disciplinary) groups. Then I feel like a music researcher when talking to technologists, and as a technologist when talking to music people. This could mean that I have not been able to develop my ideas into a truly interdisciplinary approach, yet. I am not sure I will ever get to transdisciplinarity, and I am not even sure that that would be an exciting goal to work for either. After all, many of the interesting things I come across are based on the “friction” I encounter when working between the different disciplines.