Ivan Allen College Scholar Decodes Musical Performance
Posted January 28, 2021
For all its freewheeling and seemingly immediate energy, there’s more to musical performance than meets the ear, according to Philip Auslander, a professor of performance studies in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication who has made a career of thinking about the nature of performance and the relationship between performer and audience.
In his new book, In Concert: Performing Musical Persona, Auslander culminates decades of scholarship and research bridging the theater-born field of performance studies with musicology, arguing that the best way to get to the heart of musical performance is not through the score or the composer’s intentions, but rather the personas performers put on when they hit the stage.
“When I started this project, more than 15 years ago, it was precisely because, from the standpoint of performance studies, there was a real lack of consideration of musicians as performers, which didn’t make sense to me,” Auslander said. “And on the other side of it, traditional musicologists really took very little interest in performance. I wanted to get those two sides into conversation with one another.”
According to Auslander, whose work exemplifies the interdisciplinary approach cultivated in LMC and the Ivan Allen College, examining the roles musicians play in performance is key. He draws from performance theory to identify three such roles for musical performers: the real person, the persona they put on to perform, and characters they may portray as part of a given song.
For Auslander, the middle role is the most important in terms of understanding the complicated push and pull among the music, musicians, and audiences that make up a musical performance.
“The persona is of key importance because it is the signified to which the audience has the most direct and sustained access, not only through audio recordings, videos, and live performances but also through the various other circumstances and media
in which popular musicians present themselves publicly,” Auslander wrote in his book. “The persona is, therefore, the signified that mediates between the other two: the audience gains access to both the performer as a real person and the characters
the performer portrays through the performer’s elaboration of a persona.”
While such personas are perhaps most evident in the flamboyant presentations of artists such as Lady Gaga, Prince, or David Bowie, Auslander says they are everywhere in music — from authoritarian or romantic symphony conductors to detached cool jazz players.
The relationship between performer and audience is also important, with the performers’ personae playing a central part in how that relationship plays out, Auslander said.
“Ultimately, the musician’s performance persona results from a negotiation with the audience. In this sense, the audience is the co-creator of the person,” Auslander said. “The book is called In Concert both because I’m analyzing musical performances and to suggest that performers and audiences work together to make the performance happen.”
And while it may seem as if performances of popular music today are more persona-driven and theatrical than yesterday’s rock concerts, Auslander argues otherwise. He sees evidence of tightly defined personas and stage choreography even in the early days of the clean-cut, suit-wearing Beatles.
Today, when live music largely on-hold, Auslander is finding that technology is providing performers new ways to impress their personae on eager audiences.
“Social media provides the performer with an opportunity to create a sense of intimacy with their audience, of creating a direct connection to the audience as part of their persona as a performer. It’s a continuation of the way that a persona is constructed.”
The Georgia Tech Library is hosting a virtual launch event for Auslander’s book on Feb. 10 from 12–1 p.m.
LMC is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts.
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