A conversation about No Say No Way

Francois Sarhan & Jennifer Torrence


j. how do we start?

f. let’s start with a general description of the situation. what brought you to ask a composer (like me for instance) to make a project for you and with you?

j. two parts, 1) i think you’re making good and important work and i want to be a part of your process and see how your work will affect mine, and 2) i’m bored with so much of the status-quo composer/interpreter relationship. i thought you would be up for a different approach.

f. thanks for the compliment. since we are not in an academic context, we can skip these formalities and go straight to the problems: how would you describe this status quo and

j. i describe it as a very long staircase. first the composer gets to go up the staircase (to the sublime, perhaps) and gets to be alone for a long time. and then she/he get’s to come DOWN the stairs with hands shaking a little bit from excitement and fear. gives the intepreter the score and the interpreter says ‘oh my god!! She/he made this for ME!!!” and then she/he goes home for 6 months and meets “perfection” sonified.

f. My sense is that it is a heritage from the romantic period, where the composer invented this position of “chosen one”, which definitively splits between him and the performer. significantly, this emerging position (late Beethoven, young Liszt and Wagner) is contemporary to the emergence of the notion of repertoire  in 1831 Mendelssohn performs the Matthaus Passion by  Bach, piece which was forgotten for many years before and suddenly, by this gesture Mendelssohn builds the dialectic contemporary/historical and repertoire/creation.

it seems to me that a lot of the contemporary music, at least the way it is conceived in Europe, is still strongly embedded in the Romantic concepts of omnipotent composer, primacy of the score…

j. that’s absolutely right, but do you feel there has been a shift away from the score today? both in general, and in your own practice? or do you find even you have a desire or need to keep the score as a worshipped object?

f. the score has no interest for me whatsoever, and if i could get completely get rid of it, i would consider it to be an improvement. there certainly is a distance taken by some composers from the score, for various reasons and with various results, but the real question is actually behind: it s the conception of composer which has to be completely rethought through. to get rid of this omnipotence, to reintroduce the interaction with the body, the performance, the audience, the simplest elements of “making music”, that is to me the first questions to ask, and the relation to notation and to the score comes then naturally.

that’s probably where some performers can have such an important role in the life of composers, when they cam provoke these sorts of crisis: then at last the composition can become what it should always be: a decomposition.

j. and do you feel that No Say No Way has achieved this moment of decomposition, or crisis, as you call it? We have almost completely left the score behind, but there are still traces of it left in our process and in the work. For me, the occasional use of a score was an important step to come closer to your language and thought process. But like you, it would be a great improvement for me if I could simply intuit or improvise through the lens of your compositional voice.

f. in my opinion, one need a composer as a “mal necessaire”, a necessary obstacle. ideally we don’t need composers or performers; ideally we can produce music being both. That’s one of the attempts of No Say No Way.

then is it an achieveement in that respect yes, certainly; at least I’m proud of having been able to communicate layers of meanings and expression without notation, with a few words, and even the written composed parts are not the most prominent of the whole show.

so there is hope.

i d like to go to the question of researching.

what is (according to you) to be expected from the idea of researching in the field of music composition/performance art ?

j. i think all that can be expected from this research and any research in the field of art is that the work will be reflected upon, as we are doing now, and then anyone in the world will have access to this reflection. done well, the reflection will offer windows into the work and the possibility of art’s existence (why? how?), hopefully giving a view into some area that merely seeing the performance or reading a historical document could never offer. for sure, the work that i and all artistic researchers do under the umbrella of RESEARCH is exactly what we would be doing artistically without this academic title. All that can possibly be offered is an attempt to understand and to share this with others.

f. so if i understand correctly there is the artistic process on the one hand, which would be the same without this academic title, and on the other the analysis of it, its description.

j. yes, it could be an analysis, it can be other things. it’s first and foremost an attempt to put into words what is so often an ephemeral, corporeal, or unmonitored process and practice.

f. ok then what could mean research IN in art ? not about art ?

j. well, technically the research IN art is always happening. testing, improvising, going with an idea, scrapping it later, cut, paste, edit, try again. so putting into words this process isn’t necessarily ABOUT it, it is still in it, but not in the natural chronology. does that answer your question?

f. yes, i must be frank and put that a little viciously i’d like to question the possibility and the conditions of a discourse about art, whether it is called research or otherwise.

j. this is a very important subject. Unfortunately we are late for dinner and must run.


j: So Francois, yesterday we started to question the very possibility of a discourse on art. And in a conversation walking in the streets of Gothenburg, we began discussing the concept that music doesn’t exist at all, it is only something we can feel or perceive, and it is something that we can only confirm through talking about. So it seems, that a discourse on art is both natural and critical, if one is committed to a concept of reality. A quick tangent: as a researcher who has been requested to document and archive my work, in effect building and consolidating a collective memory and thus a collective reality, it seems reality is very important for the world of research.

f: I’d like to clarify what I said about music. I said that music doesn’t exist as such, it’s only approachable by what resembles it. Pure music is a conceptual fantasy but is impossible to prove, even impossible to define.

So music is a braid of non-music which we call music.

This non-music being the context, the instruments, the acoustics, the audience listenings, memory, the reproduction system, etc.

Removing these elements removes the music itself.

It’s the opposite of soap. It doesn’t exist when we don’t use it, but as soon as put into the water of use, practice, repetition, context, it grows.

j: So IF music exists, it only exists in the moment that it exists. And its existence, if there is one, is a complex web of intangible objects. Thus bringing us to this problem of discussing it. It is very difficult and doomed to attempt to discuss music (and art in general). But, we are not necessarily discussing the work itself (No Say No Way), are we? We can only attempt to discuss the complex web of intangible objects that give the structure for this piece.

f: Yes, it may be that whatever we say we always talk about something else.

And that’s one of No Say No Way topic: what we plan to do, what we plan to say is always obliquely drifted. In No Say No Way there is a clear proposition of a lecture, which is not exactly art, but this proposition turns to become a ritual and an internal demon’s domination.

j: It seems we are now having a discourse on a work of art.

f: On a work of art, yes, definitively. The question will always remain, though: where is art in this project. Is it to show this process? Is it the skills used to produce the show which give it this label? Or is it just by calling it a show that it becomes artistic?

j: Well, by “this project”, do you mean the work No Say No Way? I think this answer may be different for both of us. From my perspective I think that it is art due to its intention and its context. We have assumed the constructions that the art world has provided us, the commission, the theatre, the duration of a suitable and festival appropriate work, we have kept in the bounds of artistic practice through the use of scores and theatrical articulations, and we have sought out to make a work that gives a perspective, some new way of looking at, a very human characteristic. And of course, the fact that we call it art, and the fact that others accept it as such is an important contractual agreement establishing it as art. At the conceptual level it is and always was art, so there is nothing we can do now to change that. Or is there? What do you think?

f: I agree with you on all that, my only question is about the content of this piece, and of all the pieces actually. Is there any content that would allow it to go in or out of this definition of art. That’s what I pointed out before about music: in my opinion there is no art as such, it’s only defined by external decisions.

For instance in no say no way, I tried my best to avoid libretto, music score, and actual sound producing. However it’s not a dance piece, not a physical theater performance.

It’s about music, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call it music, if I had any confidence in this word.

j: No, I think content is irrelevant for the concept of art. For me, art is equally as non-existent as music. It is a braid of non-art. There is nothing IN no say no way that includes or excludes it from art.

f: Good. Im glad you see it that way. We succeeded in that sense.

My sense is art is not a content, but a mean. It s a totem, we elaborate a contract ­ – a multi-layered contract– but the content doesn’t matter. What matters is that the contract is fulfilled.

And in this contract, there is an ensemble of clauses. You name them.


  1. there are some thing that we can not say with words alone
  2. it is possible that it can be expressed in another way, let’s call this other way art.
  3. it is not important that the sub-text of the art is understood in any one single or number of ways
  4. it is only important that it is expressed and received
  5. it may not be important that it is expressed or received.

f: Do you betray your own contract sometimes ?

j: Never! But, in the case of this research, a discourse on music, I do not attempt to say what the work “says”, but rather to say something else coming from within the braid that makes no say no way.

f: You are the mean of the mean, so to speak?

j: Well, as an interpreter I can only be a mean, a tool, a messenger, an honest and loyal messenger for someone else’s purposes.

f: I find this statement questionable, because it looks more like a defending or excusing position than a real goal in the process of making a piece.

And frankly, No Say No Way is far from a piece which establishes this relation creator/performer. Or?


j: It is true. You’re right that I was speaking harshly about the interpreter’s role in the creative process. The creation of No say no way is by far one of the most integrated creative processes I have had. We basically made the work in 10 days. Of course you had to bring the concept and content for us to build from. Maybe we should speak more about this. Can you say something about why you wanted to make this piece on this topic of reticence?

f: I would start with the idea that making a piece per se is an interesting activity, but it becomes important if it can question its own existence, its necessity. Since the input of this collaboration came from you, a performer who is very much in search for a new or different approach to music performance, my general questioning towards making a piece turned in the direction of “what is it to perform a piece?”

Then my way of working changes according to the performers. Sometimes I compose detailed music and gestures, sometimes only a set of actions, sometimes a video.

In the case of No Say No Way I had 4 ideas, and wanted to build scenes out of them.

First an idea of procrastination: just at the moment of producing a sound, when the stick is about to touch the instrument, an obstacle (like the choice of the sticks, or the position of the music stand, etc) postpones this first choice.

By making a list of actions, growing in numbers, the actual gesture of producing the sound gets further and further.

Second a projection idea where the image comes from the stage (via a video projector) and is intercepted by a scrim, this scrim being hung by the performer.

Thirdly, an aborted lecture: a text to be said who never comes through. That was based on an earlier short composition I made.

Fourth, a general feeling of tragicomedy, staging this difficulty, impossibility of achieving something.

This ideas, once experimented, required sometimes more flexibility than I expected, and sometimes, on the opposite, it turned out that I had to compose something – in the classical sense of the word: a precise score. What was exciting for this [composed] part is that it is exclusively gestures and actions that are notated, and they more or less imply no sound at all.

In the end I can conclude that it’s my first anti-show, where there is no text, no music, and no action until the end….

j: Some of these ideas didn’t end up getting into the piece, for example the use of the projected image and scrim. This is a natural part of any creative process. There was also some discussion about playing the composed score/dance along to an electronic tape part including gibberish and some words. We also thought about creating a video with shadows of my body, offering my “true” feelings about what I was trying to say. Another attempt was to take you marimba solo I don’t belong and to establish some sort of discussion or conflict with the triangle, or the scores. Simply, there are many ideas that DIDN’T make the final version, a very normal process in any creative endeavor. Your process, from my point of view, has always been to simplify this project, to take away the projector, hopefully the speakers, etc. And to my question, through all of this trial and error until coming up to the final version, has the piece revealed any concepts that you did not expect? Do you think you have over simplified at any point? Or should we go further? And finally, is there any episode that you yearn to add, or is there another piece for another context coming out of the process we shared?

f: I think a piece is never simple enough. Because complexity is not something I have control on. The ideal is to get a very complex result, in its consequences and implications, with a minimalistic set of tools. That was the reason I didn t take the sound recording in the end, although I decided to reintroduce a sample of Beethoven. There are several episodes that coud be added, indeed. But what makes this piece very theatrical, and very linked to your personality, is that it needs a life on its own to find a balance: how slapstick, how funny, how long, how musical it should be, that is in your hands, and no decision, no notation can fix that. So I think that the more you’ll perform the piece, the more feed back we’ll get, the more I’ll know if and where to add and or to take out….

j: Yes, I agree that the piece will benefit from a long life and many different kinds of environments. I have to say that one concept that emerged from our process that I did not expect was the idea of the totem. This is the topic which allows no say no way to extend far beyond the anxieties of the music performer and even the concept of anxiety at all. The concept of the totem, humanity’s haphazard approach to naming and crowning our totems and the same haphazard response to destroying and replacing them is very complex indeed. I can reflect even in my own life, from adolescence to today my assorted totems—my favorite stuffed animal, my favorite composer, my first love—to not even touch on any religious totems. The great tragedy of no say no way is the emptiness of our belief instinct.


j: You say in you the text about No Say No Way, “To talk, to play, to perform, to compose, presupposes a braid of solved questions”. You say that No Say No Way shows what comes before the performance on stage. But of course it is also showing what happens on stage if these questions are unresolved, though the work gives no information about what the questions are, or why they specifically need to be answered. The entire work fails to achieve anything, it fails to be a lecture, it fails to be a ritual to overcome anxiety, it fails to break the loop of it’s own unanswered questions. Can you say more about the nature of failure, what fascinates you, both inside and outside this work?

f: i think the piece gives information about the questions: how to face the fear of playing, how to dominate the overwhelming historical legacy (Beethoven for instance), how to face (self) expectations?

if you take the question supposed to be solved: why is one here playing something on stage, for instance, (a question that our horn player friend solved, if i consider his confidence in presenting us his offspring). so no say no way presents that quite clearly, via for instance the discouragement gesture (deflating balloon), and the procrastination, at least i hope it is clear enough for the audience.

failure: i would say, abnormal is more interesting than normal; it instructs us about normality.

so failure gives light on success, moonlight.

somehow this character of the triangle nerd is successful in exhibiting her obsessions, and therefore hope is still possible.

when successful people are lost, trapped in their actions, which only hide their obsessions.

i don’t see failure, boredom, constant repetition, absence of sound, of text as negative aspects, on the contrary, on stage failure is like a disease for a body. we cure the diseases by observing them, that’s how they can be fascinating for some people.


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