The Ephemeral and the Performing Arts

“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course…” Homer’s epic poem that recounts the wide-ranging journeys of Odysseus begins with an invocation of the muse (here in the English translation by Robert Fagle). She is asked to tell us of these heroic deeds. We will listen, promises the voice in the prologue, and the Odyssey begins… Telling stories and listening to them is all that the Greek word épos (epic) originally meant: the rhapsodist declaims a text, with the text itself being altered again and again on the fly. The narrative content hence takes on a volatile form, repeatedly memorised and—as spoken word—ever in danger of ultimately falling silent. Homer’s words uttered by the Muse hence had to be written down in order to remain “audible” today, and their form changed fundamentally in the process: innumerable performances by rhapsodists became mute text.

The step from something heard only in the moment to something recorded is, however, a metamorphosis in which one of the driving forces of culture can be recognised. It is with the most varied cultural techniques that we attempt to capture the ephemeral: we collect things in order to remember people or places, we know symbols that lend a brief moment materially graspable durability, we participate in rituals that repeatedly encapsulate in a specific form moments that would otherwise get lost over the course of time, we place signs of our existence—by writing memoirs, having ourselves portraited, taking selfies, carving our names into tree bark, etc.—and since even before the Egyptian pyramids, we have developed cultures of commemorating the dead that serve to manifest a durable counterpoint to the brevity of our existence. Above all, however, we develop codes in order to record that which is merely spoken or heard in such a way that it becomes durable, which is to say: capable of being recounted again, performed again, experienced again…

Culture is therefore concerned with capturing the ephemeral—and it fails regularly in the attempt, at least if one misunderstands recording as identical repetition or “copying”: the thing that can be made durable in written form is not what is said, but its semantic content (which itself wanes in in terms of its durability, because hardly anything changes faster than the context—which we need in order to understand the content itself). And everything spoken, sung, or played is altered in the course of its repetition; strictly speaking, it cannot be repeated but at best varied: no performance, concert, or evening at the opera can ever be repeated, even if a venue’s programme promises precisely this. But if our attempts to record something constantly fail, must necessarily fail, then one might ask just why we never tire of attempting to do so. What captivates us, what fascinates us about the ephemeral?

The ephemeral—that which, by definition, exists only for a short time, is temporary and transitory—accompanies our everyday lives and affects us on a metaphysical level. Ephemera include those manifestations of cultural history that are used rather casually in everyday life, at any rate only briefly—from commercial graphics for things ranging from letterheads and labels to beer coasters and tickets. In short: things that we use and soon cast away. Ephemera in music include things like song pamphlets and broadsides—utilitarian objects that served to popularise songs and were printed on cheap paper, going through many hands before being thrown away or used yet again, seeing as even cheap paper was once valuable. Today, we are grateful for these ephemera, which have come down to us against all odds: they provide us with a way of holding on to at least a few sediments of bygone popular song cultures.

This matter of the ephemeral gets downright metaphysical, of course, when our attention broadens to encompass the entire range of those things that are transitory and temporary, including our own existence. That all cultures feature death cults and commemorate their dead in various specific ways, and that we human beings have a concept of death even as death remains, as more people than just Sigmund Freud have remarked, the biggest mystery—these are attempts to find responses to the affront that ephemerality represents to us. This barely comprehensible range between the everyday and the metaphysical that is peculiar to ephemerality is added to by our search for that one happy moment—”verweile doch! Du bist so schön”—of which we know nothing more reliably than the fact that it is fleeting. Happiness, according to Theodor W. Adorno, is a state that one can only know once one has passed out of it. Or, put differently: happiness is that thing which is most reliably ephemeral.

Video productions for the mdwMediathek are one way in which performances can be prevented from disappearing © Daniel Willinger |

The performing arts are especially well suited to the paradoxical idea of capturing the ephemeral. One of their most aesthetically appealing tasks is to allow disappearance to be experienced while prolonging it in a way that is most pleasant. It was even before the arrival of the 20th century (which developed a bit of a thing for silence—the absence of sound) that composers devoted themselves to shaping the ways in which sounds fade away. And every performance—in theatre, music, and dance—is, in fact, likewise an experience of the ephemeral; upon the final chord, or when the curtain drops for the last time, nothing remains with us apart from the memory of what we’ve just heard, seen, and experienced. The fact that every audio or video recording represents only one element of a live performance is also owed to how the ephemeral is explicitly not something that lasts or can be repeated (the special attractiveness of repetition, though, would be a topic all its own). It would indeed seem as if the performing arts were, in fact, quite passionately devoted to disappearance: How does a note disappear? What remains once a word has been spoken, once a movement has been executed within a space? Those who are onstage know that a special task is to shape the ephemeral, to expand it and to combine its necessary disappearance with aesthetic appeal in such a way that the pain of loss becomes conscious even at the moment of experience.

As aesthetically pleasing as sound’s fading away might be, it is all the more merciless a thing for those who attempt to stave off its (permanent) disappearance. To this end, it is particularly the performing arts that need “tools” with which to avoid their own disappearance post-performance. In concert with the body as a locus of memory and individuals’ memorisation abilities, cultural techniques of recording are needed in order to prevent that which is performed from disappearing. Such cultural techniques manifest themselves as systems of notation (for music and dance), scripts and prompt books, video recordings, pictures, textbooks, treatises on interpretation, descriptions, and much more. And if these recording systems and media are present, people and institutions then have to assume responsibility for their preservation as sources. Because only that which is stored can be replayed or retrieved. Proof of this hurdle can be seen in all those sources that were never incorporated into archives or libraries, with the path to being heard again thus blocked at an early stage. And while more than just the music of female composers has been affected by this, the effect on their music has been all the more lasting due to various conceptions of femininity that have been effectively associated with the ephemeral ever since Sappho’s day.

All systems of recording—be they written or technology-based—change over time. For this reason, preservation needs to be combined with knowledge of how to read and understand these systems. Only in this way can things that have been written down be performed once more. Mediaeval notation, for example, was long believed unperformable due to the knowledge of how to read it having been lost. And for that matter, the question of how Homer’s Odyssey sounded when rhapsodically declaimed is something that can only be reconstructed in the most rudimentary of ways. It is therefore the case that that numerous audible worlds, as capable as we may be of imagining them historically, have been lost forever. We rightly mourn this loss: what we would give to have heard Sappho recite or experienced Ira Aldridge as Othello, to have heard Ludwig van Beethoven improvising or Clara Schumann as a pianist! But on the heels of such deep regret follows an appealing and challenging insight: it is precisely the ephemeral nature of the performing arts that makes space for the new—new interpretations, original notions of sound, contemporary ideas.

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