Adam Stanovic

University of Sheffield, UK

The Dissolving Work

In the middle of the eighteenth century, composers, performers and listeners started referring to music using the term work. Prior to this time, music was often heard in support of other activities, such as celebration, worship, and even battle. Application of the term work, therefore, signalled a gradual affiliation between music and the fine arts; music was understood to require the kinds of aesthetic attention previously reserved for painting, sculpture and theatre. For Carl Dahlhaus, the concept of a musical work coincided with the rise of a listening public and an institution of concert-attendance as a cultural practice. Michael Talbot, on the other hand, prefers to emphasise the cultural practice through the gradual focus upon composers: In The Work-Concept and Composer-Centredness, Talbot diagnoses an eighteenth century shift in status that caused the composer, and occasionally the performer, to be perceived as an artist rather than an artisan; the composer has moved to centre stage, and the products of their creative endeavours came to be understood, sorted, arranged and appreciated in accordance with the named composer.
In the year 2018, it might seem perfectly reasonable to maintain our long-standing conception of musical works. After all, music is ever deserving of our aesthetic attention and, furthermore, the institution of concert attendance, and the ostensible primacy of the composer, remain stubbornly entrenched in our understanding and appreciation of music. In other ways, however, the idea of the musical work seems entirely out-of-place, harking back to a by-gone age that has long-since passed; composing music today does not necessarily involve the kinds of musical systems, technologies, languages, principles, aesthetic concerns, methods, notion of authorship, instruments, forms of performance practice, concepts of authenticity, listening contexts, among many more, that gave rise to the conception of a musical work some 250 years ago.
This paper examines these issues, and questions whether we should continue to address contemporary composition using the term work. It starts with a brief introduction to the historic context in which this term emerged. It surveys some of the dominant ideas about what works have been, historically, and continue to be in the present. It goes on to suggest that only a few of these central ideas maintain in forms of contemporary music-making. As such, it would certainly appear that the musical work, and the associated work concept, is dissolving. Far from liberating music from the shackles of the past, however, the following conclusion is presented and defended: we should not (yet) give up on our conception of musical works but, rather, insist that this concept addresses the many ways of composing music today.

Keywords: Musical Work; Musical Work Concept; Contemporary Music Making


Adam Stanovic’s compositions have won prizes, residencies and mentions around the world, including: IMEB (France); Metamophoses (Belgium); Destellos (Argentina); Contemporanea (Italy); SYNC (Russia); Musica Viva (Portugal); Musica Nova (Czech Republic); KEAR (USA). Further to this, Adam has worked in studios at the IMEB (France); Musiques et Recherches (Belgium); VICC (Sweden); EMS (Sweden); LCM (UK); CMMAS (Mexico); Holst House (UK), and he is currently scheduled to compose at Bowling Green (USA), University of Sydney (Australia), Mise En Place (USA), and ArteFacto Sonoro (Ecuador) in 2018. Adam’s music has been performed in over 400 festivals and concerts around the world, including many of the most significant contemporary music events. Adam regularly speaks about electronic music, and has written numerous journal articles and book chapters; these consider compositional methods, analytical approaches to electronic music, the nature of performance interpretation and authenticity, the nature of digitised music, and various philosophical issues that electronic music seems to produce. Adam is currently Senior Lecturer at The University of Sheffield, UK, where he directs the MA Composition and MA Sonic Arts. He supervises a range of PhD projects relating to electronic music.