Universiteit Leiden

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PhD project

Transcription and the role of memory in contemporary music

What is the role of memory in contemporary music?

Giuliano Bracci

At a time where repertoire from different ages and places is readily accessible, the perception of heritage and tradition has been deeply transformed. Aesthetic choices and orientations are strongly related to themes such as the relationship with tradition, cultural heritage, and narratives related to both collective and individual memory.

Memory is a key subject in Western culture and it tends to occupy a number of liminal positions: the borderlines that exist between subjectivity and objectivity, the outer and the inner world, the self and society. Memory is one of the most vital of our faculties, without it the powers of cognition itself remain transient and unframed. Memory is both a form of knowledge and an agent of imagination. It has a central role in the foundation of both individual and collective identities, in our emotional understanding of ourselves and the world, in the practices of auto-representation of society, in our relation with tradition and in the definition of cultural heritage.

Music can be a distinctive field of research on, and reflection about memory. Time is the medium of music as much as it is sound, and it is through memory that the listener and the composer interact with it.

A specific music practice where memory, heritage and tradition play a key role is the transcription, and I plan to use it as a specific tool to investigate the substantive meaning of these notions in my composition work and in contemporary music today.

Transcription is a context in which specific reflections about the music of the past take place, and where a variety of individual attitudes can be observed. The practice of transcription has a  long history. In my research process I would not consider the functional aspects of transcription, such as the transmission and the diffusion of a musical work, or its use in the rehearsing before a performance. Rather, I will focus on a deeper aspect of transcription: namely its ability to mirror an active and critic relation with the music of the past. Transcriptions can function as an act of discovery, appropriation or reconquering of a distant era's art. They can be considered as acts of protection, criticism or sabotage. I will investigate the notion of transcription and position it in a wider context of aesthetic and philosophical ideas.

A central and substantial tool for my research will be my work as a composer. My research on memory will be at the very centre of it, and I will explore, within my composition practice, the close interactions between remembering, perceiving and imagining. I will write transcriptions and new pieces to actively investigate my research subject through my own composition practice.

Then, with a focus on Western repertoire, I will study the art of transcription as figure of an active listening among contemporary composers. I will analyse selected contemporary composers’ works, critically examining the compositional techniques and aesthetic choices they adopted in their transcriptions. I will research how musicians and musicologists approach the themes of memory, heritage and tradition, and how these themes are faced in other artistic fields and institutions such as museums and academies.

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