Photo: Guadalupe López-Íñiguez

Current Reflections on my Artistic Research of Beethoven and Mendelssohn

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It has been 27 months since I started an amazing journey with Beethoven and Mendelssohn that I would have never dreamed was possible. As a musician-researcher, I had the opportunity to play their music and learn so much about them by means of a wonderful multiyear postdoctoral grant by the Kone Foundation, for which the focus was my own learning path and experiences—an autoethnographic study. (You can follow the project’s development on my Facebook page.)

I still have to pinch myself sometimes to acknowledge that this project, which merges all my fields of expertise, is really happening, that I’m doing exactly what I always wanted to do—playing my favorite music in my own way and having time to reflect and write about my learning process in order to help other musicians become more strategic, autonomous, motivated, and therefore more engaging for their audiences.

The project comes to a conclusion in December 2018, but I feel that at this point I can see where this research truly leads and how it will be significant. It has implications for professional classical musicians, and for instrumental music students and teachers in higher education. But today I just wanted to give you an idea of what artistic research in music at the postdoctoral level can be.

To carry out this artistic project, I combined different disciplines, from performance psychology to music education and historical musicology. Thus, the research designs and methods of data collection have been quite varied. Even though I prepared for this project extensively, it has still been challenging to find the best intersections of disciplines and methods and to define my specific contribution to the artistic research field—an area as complex and interesting as the inspiring people who are part of it.

But what describes this project best is that it has grown out of hand—literally. I have been attending more conferences and playing more concerts than I had originally planned, visiting a large number of key places, writing more than expected, and reading a great deal. Even though I tried to control the project as much as possible beforehand, certain things that initially seemed easy proved to be difficult and even impossible, and other tasks I had never even considered became crucial. The partnerships (and friendships) I established along the way have been and always will be priceless, and I believe that my skills as a researcher and musician have increased considerably.

It all started as a process for learning the variation works by Beethoven and Mendelssohn for piano and cello, because (as I described in my original research plan) “they represent a great chance to explore psychological aspects connected to the different characters in each variation, as well as technical aesthetics for the performance.” But it ended up as an engagement with the composers’ complete output for this particular partnership of instruments.

Only a few weeks after the project started, I realized that the variations alone would give only a stratified view of a bigger, unknown picture of these composers and my role as a performer of their music. Suddenly I found myself with a huge repertoire in my hands and only my passion and intuition to start with (in addition to a meticulous theoretical framework that would keep me sane).

I knew I wanted to get as close as possible to the performance practice of the time when the composers lived and to frame my learning experiences, faults, mistakes, and achievements through reflective diaries, which would become autoethnographic accounts that could serve as a source of reflection for others engaging in performance psychology and historical practices.

However, the more I read, traveled, met experts, played the pieces with different musicians, and studied instruments and manuscripts, the further I was from achieving that. If I followed what people had done with performance practice of music at the time, I would have been replicating them—except for the expressive aspect, which is different in each of us. Several musicologists and musicians had realized this regarding authenticity well before me. As they say, “No sin is new to the world.”  

Thus, I decided to find the balance between what we know—what is reasonable today—and what I actually wanted to do, while also avoiding failure or distancing myself from the composers. Thus, my project took on a perspective I had not contemplated before: embodied cognition. My technique was one that served my hands and heart, analyzing how my body felt the music through creativity. No treatise or expert manual would change that, despite being most inspiring and informative. Performance practice, for me, became more a process of dreaming past events through unique and playful phrasing, articulation, and body awareness than reproducing sounds from musical symbols in standard, “authentic” ways.

Another aspect of the project that went beyond my expectations was the autoethnography. I was näive thinking I could write a good personal account without having had any prior experience as an autoetnographer, apart from reading about the topic and a vague picture in mind of what to do. I ended up training myself by writing another autoethnography about my life as a musician-researcher, which also took more time and a greater effort than expected, as it is such an introspective and sometimes painful process. Research methodology is best learned from practice than from theory, as with everything in life. And so I did, which helped tremendously.

I also thought I could write most of the articles at the beginning of the project, but soon realized that since this project did not provide immediate results, but instead required an examination of quality in the long-term and constant observation-reflection, the most important output would be at the end, and in some cases even after the project is finished. Each concert, rehearsal, and recording session has provided a research measure for more quantitative writings beyond the autoethnography (in relation to performance psychology). Therefore, I cannot write the final insights until I have performed the final concert in October 2018. Considering the review time most journals require, we will likely see the overall results for this project in the spring of 2019 at the earliest. That is how research goes…

Finding the proper 19th-century pianos to play this music the way I wanted to was both interesting and tedious. I was obsessed with this particular issue. We—the pianist(s) and I—might have a concert in which we played music by both Beethoven and Mendelssohn and get two perfect pianos, but couldn’t change their pitch level to the original, or the temperament required was not possible for some reason. Or we had to prepare a program to fit into a venue that had only a very early fortepiano, thus excluding Mendelssohn or the later pieces by Beethoven. Or we had to play a concert with both composers’ music but with a really late, out-of-context piano. Or some of the pianos were a bit fragile and got out of tune easily. What a nightmare!

I prefer not to speak much about the acoustics for this project, nor about the set-up trials with my cello or the bows used. One wants to play saloon music with perfect tools. However, nowadays sometimes the halls that are perfect do not have any keyboards that fit the project regarding historical performance, or the tools you need are too expensive or too difficult to find.

Dealing with artistic research was a big issue as well. Coming from a context that favored realistic, quantitative research did not help me much. It was hard to open my mind (and heart) and accept I was part of a field that I had despised before, but that it was the only way to complete this project. I still do not quite understand everything going on in the artistic research field, but I sure found my particular way of fitting in and living through it.

Another considerable matter was getting enough funding to obtain the resources necessary for this project. My primary funder covered most of my expenses and working hours, but we needed additional applications in order to manage extra travels that had not been considered in my original budget but became significant to the project. Or for covering certain concert expenses such as the rental, transportation, and tuning of pianos and fortepianos at every venue, renting music halls, making professional videos, paying for language editing services, and more.

Researchers know that applying for funding takes a considerable amount of time and that almost every month there is an open application to be prepared. This time-consuming aspect of long research projects also applies to meeting conference deadlines, contacting concert promoters and festival directors, or writing to academics for advice.

Projects like this also require significant efforts to compile high-quality program notes, prepare educational materials, publish popularized articles, present at conferences, produce recordings, visit libraries to study original manuscripts and first editions, visit places connected to the composers, learn how to use specific research software, give invited talks and workshops, attend video interviews, send media releases, follow media reactions and audience responses, and report about all this to the funder... Not to mention playing the actual concerts and progressively improving as a performing musician!

And funnily enough, even though my project finishes at the end of this year, 2019 will be filled with activities related to it—the project has a life of its own now and would not like to end! In addition, my next research and artistic projects expand on this one. So thank you, Kone Foundation, from the bottom of my heart for this—it takes only one person to have a bold idea (#rohkeatekijä, as they call it in Finnish), and another to believe in it and to help make it possible. I hope you keep artists and scientists dreaming.

I would also like to thank other institutions in Finland that have been and continue to be supporters of this project so far: Arts Promotion Centre Finland, Uniarts’ Center for Educational Research and Academic Development in the Arts (CERADA), Uniarts' Center for Artistic Research (CfAR), and the Sibelius Academy’s MuTri Doctoral School and faculties of Classical Music and Music Education. The list of other institutions, associations, and private persons—including my indefatigable, inspiring, and generous research mentor—which have supported this project, both in Finland and worldwide, is very long, but I will take care at the end of the project to acknowledge them and give visibility to their excellent work in supporting cultural and/or scientific projects.