Soundflow is a word that gets at what set me on my path as a musician, not quite realizing it at first, but more and more consciously in time. It gets at a fascinating world of minute differences in sustained piano sound, which my principal piano teacher opened for me in my teens, and it also gets at the sense of being wonderfully immersed in playing, so that it feels like you only imagine a sound and it sounds out, even more alive than you imagined it, an experience that kept me in love with playing the piano over the years.
This is also an experience that is well described by what some researchers, like psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, have called “flow.”
More on soundflow HERE.
Soundflow is also a word that helps me describe most of my work, both at and away from the piano, as well as the constant interplay between playing the instrument and doing the research work, which is to say, following the questions that come up at the instrument. And work that continually moves between practice and research fits well with what others have called artistic research.
To me, artistic research is about what we know (or know to ask) by virtue of being practicing musicians. It is a research activity we know to embark on because of what we do in our studios, rehearsals, on stages, and in performance, however we engage with it. Once developed at least to some point, artistic research often reflects right back in how we engage with our artistic practice, and so, it may result in a published chapter or article, or it may also lead to a concert that is performed slightly differently, or to an entirely novel form of performance event or artistic practice.
This is a somewhat informal (and personalized) way of putting what has been argued more formally over the past few decades by practitioners, theorists and theorist-practitioners, predominantly in Europe. More resources on the broader context of artistic research are listed HERE.
In my own work, there are several related themes (below). All of them are anchored in piano playing, as that is my main entry point into music experience, but each is also about music experience more broadly conceived (like listening or moving to music, for instance).
The Art & Science of Playing One
Note, Or Tone at the Piano
Perhaps the largest and most long-standing theme for me, this is about tapping into nuances in the sound when playing the piano. Tone is an experience specifically bound to the piano, and at its core, it is really about soundflow at the piano, the idea of flow foregrounding an aspect of experiencing sound at the piano which is akin to meditation.
So tone at the piano is about a state of being where you experience sound as what you imagine, what you hear, and what you do concurrently. The sound and the means of its production become one and the same, and it feels like you just imagine a sound, sense a certain suppleness in your hands, and you listen, as the sound you imagine fills the space around you.
In my research work on tone, I have tried many different directions, the most lasting ones being:
A Romantic Sensibility: Tone is an inherently Romantic notion in the ways it is described and discussed as well as experienced. A Romantic sensibility is part of both understanding and experiencing tone.
Audio-haptics: Working with tone rests on an extra tight interaction between auditory and haptic (touch in motion) abilities. In time, these two senses come to be experienced in terms of one another, making for a sort of acquired, piano-specific, sensori-motor ability, or "audio-haptics."
In the Realm of Improvisation: Working with tone is about real-time adjustments to acoustics, instruments and the specific inflections of what you hear moment-to-moment while at the piano. In this sense, it is not about something you learn and fix as part of an interpretation; it is rather about an ability to engage and shape in real-time, akin to improvisation.
More on this research theme HERE.
Preludes and Repertoire
This is about reinventing today an improvisatory practice tied to the Romantic repertoire (especially Chopin, Liszt) and fashioned on Romantic preluding practices. Preluding (or interluding) is just what it sounds like – an improvised bit of music one plays before or in between repertoire pieces in the course of a particular performance, as a way to “set the tone” for a given work, or shape the arc of the full program, or also on more mundane motivations, like trying out an instrument or summoning an audience into place.
For me, this theme came into being as a way to tap into a sense of freedom and familiarity with some of my favorite piano repertoire, and ultimately, develop my sense of creative agency (see below) in playing that repertoire.
More on this research theme HERE.
Creative Agency in Classical Music
Agency, as the sense of authoring one’s own actions and shaping one’s own circumstances, is something that was missing in my experience playing the classical piano repertoire. When I first encountered the concept in graduate school, it was a revelation: without the concept of agency, I only had a vague sense of something amiss in my performance experience, something that had to do with freedom, expression, perhaps even ownership of the pieces I played, but agency put it all together! What I needed was a sense of freedom to create, freedom to make the gestures that would sound the sounds of a performance, in full consciousness that these gestures were mine, that they were my responsibility and right to make.
It is not necessarily obvious why a classical music performer would feel her sense of agency crippled or underdeveloped. This theme is about exploring this question (which other scholars have done in depth and with great clarity), and even more so for me, it is about bringing attention to this question as an existing and perhaps pervasive aspect of experience in classical performance, and from there, turning attention to developing concepts and cultivating practices that foster and strenghten a performer's sense of creative agency.
More on this research theme HERE.
This is about the creative agency of listening, or about a clearly felt sense that listening is never a passive receiving of stimuli; rahter, it is always a creative act. During a concert performance, a musician gets to make sound that everyone there can hear, but what each person hears in the sound that is present in the space, that is a matter of co-creation, or in other words, something that everyone listening shapes for him- or her-self. Hearing a sound as joyful, mournful, pastoral or expressive in any way is a matter of active participation on everyone's part in creating a particular concert experience. A performer can go a long way in offering sound that is exquisitely created at the instrument, but ultimately, the listening experience is a collaborative affair.
More on this research theme HERE.
The Soundflow Institute: How Music
Performance Relates to Everything
The Soundflow Institute is a web of conversations, collaborations in the making, and a virtual common ground (with carefully taylored translation initiatives) for (mostly) classical musicians and researchers of all kinds.
This specifically includes
professional classical performers who have always asked themselves questions but had little space to devote to them, as well as
performers who are convinced that they have nothing to offer to scholars or scientists, and then on the other side,
scholars and scientists who have completely abandoned their once-beloved musical activities, or
scholars and scientists who have at some point or another had an inkling that musical experience might hold clues and insights worth exploring; and then also,
anyone else who likes the idea of recasting at least some of the norms and habits in music performance, in the world of classical music especially, and
those who like the idea of recasting at least some aspects of established research practices and reimagining what research outcomes might look like, in the world of research and academia.
The Soundflow Institute is conceived as a meeting ground for these traditionally parallel worlds – of music performance and academic research – which naturally spills over into the so-called “public sphere,” or in other words, which invites and involves people who do not necessarily identify as musicians or researchers but have a liking and curiosity for playing music and doing research.
The Music Performance Collaborathon is a past event in that spirit, as are many of my projects, like "Contingent," "Listening to Rooms and Pianos," "Shared Experience across Two Pianos."
Elitsa Stoyneva, voice
Kristiana Alipieva, 'cello
A side note: Projects are also events are also concerts, and they are always collaborative, just like listening is collaborative; so projects, events and concerts are only loosely sorted and they all involve collaborators and co-creators.
“Contingent,” a study of rehearsal and performance experience with improvised and non-improvised music, with composer Joshua Hahn and a brass quintet, as well as a small choir and audience
“Thracian Dances,” a program with the Chromos Collaborative Orchestra and Bulgarian dancer and choreographer Petar Petrov based around a cycle of orchestral tableaux pieces by Bulgarian composer Petko Stainoff
“Listening to Rooms and Pianos,” an audio piece and guided practice sessions on specialized listening in piano performance and in architectural acoustics, with Dr. Fiona Smyth
“Shared Experience across Two Pianos: Autoethnographic Studies on Ligeti’s Three Movements for Two Pianos,” with pianists Hubert Ho, Steven Beck, and Clemens Teufel
ClassicArt String Quartet & Ensemble with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, pianist and co-founder with cellist Kristiana Alipieva
Based in Sofia, Bulgaria, an ensemble of classical musicians from the Philharmonic, Opera, and Radio orchestras, dedicated to sharing our enthusiasm for the music we perform, canonic and new, through experimental and interactive concert presentations
“The Piano is a Thousand Instruments”: A recording project of solo piano repertoire from late Romanticism to today, foregrouding different approaches to piano sound
Classics & Folklore: Interactive workshop and performance series on the interplay of folk and art music in Bulgaria from around the turn of the 20th century into today, with Bulgarian folk music singer Elitsa Stoyneva
The Soundflow Institute: A platform for collaborative projects that intersect music performance experience with humanistic, scinetific, and technological research
with Dr. Fiona Smyth
with composers (from left)
Bert Van Herck, Carl Christian Bettendorf & Richard Beaudoin
Clockwise from top left: presenting in Reykjavik and Oslo, during a recording session at Killian Hall, MIT and at the Collaborathon at the Harvard Student Organizations Center
Clockwise from top left: with pianist and new music specialist Luciane Cardassi, with vocalist Elitsa Stoyneva, with composers Hiroya Miura and Carl Christian Bettendorf and music personality Marlon Feld
Speaking and playing in Boston and Cambridge, MA
with my dissertation adviser and beloved mentor Professor George E. Lewis
and with Bulgarian soprano and long-time inspiration Ms. Stefka Evstatieva
Some Past Events
with my principal piano teacher and life-long influence Ms. Rosetta Goodkind
Composers Bert Van Herck, Richard Beaudoin, Joshua Hahn, and Carl Christian Bettendorf
“Impromptu”, a salon evening of Romantic repertoire and Romantic style improvisation, with pianists Clemens Teufel and Christos Vayenas, Harvard Musical Association, Boston (May 2019)
“With Light in My Soul,” ClassicArt String Quartet & Ensemble with the Sofia Philharmonic Orchestra, with poet Simeon Asparuhov, “Bulgaria” Chamber Hall, Sofia, Bulgaria (June 2018)
“Classics & Folklore,” an interactive workshop-performance on folk and art music in Bulgaria, with vocalist Elitsa Stoyneva, Lewis Library, MIT (April 2018)
“T60, Or: The Mystery of Acoustics: First Steps towards a Therater of Sound in Twelve Scenes” based on the acoustics of Killian Hall, MIT; works-in-progress presentation in collaboration with Drs. Fiona Smyth and Florian Hollerweger, Killian Hall, MIT (November 2017)
“On the Threshold of Tone: An Interactive Workshop on Pianistic and Architectural Listening,” with Dr. Fiona Smyth, invited guest presentation, Music and Technology, taught by Professor Florian Hollerweger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (November 2017)
“Expressive Sound in Piano Performance, or an Invitation to Collaborative Listening,” an interactive session on sounds from late-Romantic, contemporary, and new music repertoires for the piano, Musicology in the Concert Hall: Performance Studies at Work, International University of Andalusia, Spain (December 2016)
“Music Performance Collabor-a-thon: Practice, Theory, Research, and Technology,” a conference and project development workshop to explore the intersectons of music performance experience with other spheres of human activity, ideologue and organizer, in collaboration with Dr. Fiona Smyth and guest presenters Dr. Andrew Goldman and Ben Wetherfield, Student Organizations Center at Hilles, Radcliffe Qaudrangle, Harvard University (November 2016)
"Artistic Research: Listening and Performing Practices in Classical Music,” a workshop-presentation, with Dr. Andrew Friedman, Wintersessions, Music Department, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA (January 2016)