The ‘Performer’s Sound’ as Expression, Interaction and Meaning

The present paper offers some reflections on expression and perception of sound in musical performance. From the utmost intimacy or intensity of sound in live concerts to the relatively recent phenomenon of ‘sterile’ sound in studio recordings – the search for the beauty and individuality of tone is undoubtedly behind the scenes for every classical music pianist who must tackle not only their particular corporeal capabilities and their individual interpretive insights but also the capabilities of a particular instrument as well as the expectations and constraints of a particular performance tradition. Taking as a point of departure specific issues already addressed in semiotics and performance studies, the author shall focus on how, in the art of music performance, sound becomes the primary sign of recognizability and means of conveying an original message of a given performing artist. Existing semiotic models are applied to the analysis of a performer’s sound production as the primary vehicle for attaining the sonic identity of an artist with the aim at discussing the intrinsically interactive relationship between a sound and the performer’s gestures as its source and causal agent. Assuming that every performer possesses one or several characteristic features, one may say that some sort of ‘semantic gesture’ dominates one’s interpretations and distinguishes them, in the perception of the audience, from other performers. We shall focus on the sonic expression of this semantic gesture, i.e. the expressive, emotional and interpretative potential of an artist as conveyed through sound, and how this individual and apparently sonic sign reaches the listener through both acoustic and visual media. The paper presents preliminary findings from the project “Perception of Expression in Musical Performance: Cross-Cultural Aspects and the Lithuanian Case”, No. S-MIP-19/49 / F16-503, funded by the Lithuanian Research Council.

Lina Navickaitė-Martinelli

Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre

Professor and Senior Researcher at the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, and Chair of the Musicologists’ Section at the Lithuanian Composers’ Union. Author of the books A Suite of Conversations: 32 Interviews and Essays on the Art of Music Performance (2010) and Piano Performance in a Semiotic Key: Society, Musical Canon and Novel Discourses (2014), she has presented keynote and guest lectures, edited academic collections and published her research internationally. Her main research interest is the art of music performance, with a specific focus on its semiotic and sociological aspects as well as practice-led research.

music performance
semiotic self
sonic self
performer’s expression