The Politics of Performing Intimacy in New Music
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The Politics of Performing Intimacy in New Music


This dissertation investigates the roles of composer, performer, and audience member as they cultivate, engage with, or encounter intimate performance in contemporary Western classical “new music.” Through a selection of three pieces written in the last fifteen years, I investigate performances of intimacy in works by composers David Lang, Kaija Saariaho, and Kate Soper. Collectively, these pieces address normative modes of intimacy production in Western classical music with regard to audience address (Lang), relationships with God (Saariaho), and performer interaction (Soper). In each of these works, intimacy is proposed as a catalyst for social change, and as this dissertation shows, the effects of intimate performances are mixed, either repackaging tropes of sameness or intervening in them by calling attention to racial and gendered difference. The first chapter, on David Lang’s the whisper opera (2013), weighs the consciousness-raising potential of evoking intimacy among audience members through whispered and quiet instrumental performance delivered in close proximity. The work successfully deconstructs audience/performer connection through individualized engagement and the lack of a singular aural and visual focus. Ultimately, however, Lang’s use of Google autocomplete to create an idealized, didactic listening environment positions the concert hall alongside the internet as a falsely universalizing space. The second chapter, on Kaija Saariaho’s La Passion de Simone (2006), explores an intimate musical relationship with God and the supposedly suprabodied (unmarked) space of religious transcendence. Through particular focus on danced gesture, this chapter focuses on the racial and gendered inflections brought to the work in a performance by mixed-race soprano, Julia Bullock at the 2016 Ojai Music Festival. The third and fourth chapters explore the potential of Kate Soper’s Cipher, for soprano and violin, from her larger work Ipsa Dixit, to engage the act of intimate performance to deconstruct dogmatic pillars of Western thought and their manifestations in Western classical music. The third chapter offers a close reading of Cipher’s feminist musical interventions and reflects on Soper’s collaborative relationship with violinist Josh Modney—Soper and Modney crafted the piece together through a series of workshops and performances. The fourth and final chapter offers my view into learning and performing Cipher, and illustrates the potential that performance brings to the interpretation and deconstruction of this work, and the Western sphere of thought and music in which it seeks to intervene. By highlighting intimate musical process, this chapter underlines the larger aim of the dissertation to illustrate the potential of performance to enter into larger conventional structures of meaning, specifically with regard to race and gender, offering uniquely inflected meanings to musical works, rather than repeat performances of works which refuse the inflection of performer identity. A focus on bodies illustrates how their intimate connection across a wide array of registers has the capability to begin to reshape norms within the Western classical canon.

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