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  • Nomi Epstein


While fragility is typically defined as ‘the quality of being easily broken or damaged’, within a musical framework the term can be understood through a myriad of causal lenses. One must consider what can be ‘broken’ or damaged’ in a musical context, and secondly how this sense of impairment might present itself. This article offers an extensive categorisation of musical fragility, and a characterisation of it in its numerous forms across the works of a broad range of composers. Through classification, a distinction between local and large-scale fragility emerges. A typology of fragilities makes it possible both to identify them in works that might not necessarily be considered fragile and to identify works that use combinations of fragility types. This classification involves ten types, with compositions from new and experimental acoustic music offered as examples.



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1 Eva-Maria Houben, Presence – Silence – Disappearance: Some thoughts on the perceptions of ‘nearly nothing’. Edition Wandelweiser website, (accessed 25 February 2016).

2 Properties of fragility are often argued by philosophers in discussions of dispositions. In particular, the focus has been on whether a disposition is causally relevant, i.e. whether fragility is causally relevant to breaking. See McKitrick, Jennifer, “Are Dispositions Causally Relevant?”, Synthese 144, no. 3 (2005), pp. 357–71.

3 Ihde, Don, Listening and Voice: Phenomenologies of Sound, second edition (Albany: SUNY Press, 2007), p. 51 .

4 However, a stable element does not need to be a constant.

5 Ihde, Listening and Voice, p. 223.

6 Instances of the term ‘fragility’ found in writings on music include Boutwell's description of the texture in Morton Feldman's Four Instruments ( Boutwell, Brett, ‘“The Breathing of Sound Itself”: Notation and Temporality in Feldman's Music to 1970’, Contemporary Music Review 32, no. 6 (2013), pp. 531570 ); Harrison's discussion on the work of Aldo Clementi as ‘certain quality of fragility’ ( Harrison, Brynn, ‘The Tempo of Enclosed Spaces: A Short, Personal Reflection on the Ensemble Music of Aldo Clementi’, Contemporary Music Review 30, no. 3–4 (2011), pp. 269274 ); and Frasch's depiction of the structural architecture of her piece the silence that reigns … as ‘too fragile to exist in the physical world’. (Heather Frasch, the silence that reigns … (2011). Unpublished Manuscript and Programme Note, (accessed 22 March 2017)). Although without reference to a specific piece, Schroeder's article on ‘networked listening’ focuses on a discussion of the fragility of the performative body and of the listening experience (see Schroeder, Franziska, ‘Network[ed] Listening–Towards a De-centering of Beings’, Contemporary Music Review 32, no. 2–3 (2013), pp. 215229 ).

7 Thurley, Oliver, ‘Disappearing Sounds: Fragility in the Music of Jakob Ullman’, TEMPO 69 (2015), pp. 521 .

8 Note that I will use the terms sonic fragility and musical fragility interchangeably.

9 Kunsu Shim, Second Skin (2012), Düsseldorf, Germany. Unpublished Manuscript.

10 Casey Anderson, honey (2015), Düsseldorf, Germany. Unpublished Manuscript.

11 Kunsu Shim, Apart (2000), Duisburg, Germany. Unpublished Manuscript.

12 Shim, Apart.

13 Alwynne Pritchard, Objects of Desire (2010), Berlin: Verlag Neue Musik.

14 Pritchard, Objects of Desire.

15 Megan Beugger, Daring Doris (2012). Unpublished Manuscript and Programme Note.

16 Beugger, Daring Doris.

17 Beugger, Daring Doris.

18 Ihde, Listening and Voice, p. 51.

19 Pauline Oliveros, Sonic Meditations (Baltimore, MD: Smith Publications, 1974), p. xxii.

20 Peter Ablinger, English Texts, (accessed 20 February 2016).

21 Eva-Maria Houben, pismo beach (2007). Berlin: Edition Wandelweiser.

22 Houben, pismo beach.

23 In his Rauschen (white noise) series, Peter Ablinger explores this through varying levels of white noise that sometimes eclipses the acoustic instruments’ sound, while at other times equally shares the acoustic space, or shadows the instruments.

24 Martin, Agnes, ‘Writings’, in Agnes Martin: Writings, ed. Schwarz, Dieter (Stuttgart: Cantz, 1993), p. 31 .

25 Amacher, Maryanne, ‘Psychoacoustic Phenomenon in Musical Composition: Some Features of a “Perceptual Geography”’. Arcana III: Musicians on Music, ed. Zorn, John (New York: Hips Road, 2008), pp. 924 .

26 Amacher, Liner Notes to Sound Characters: Making the Third Ear. Tzadik, 1999.

27 Stefany Anne Golberg, ‘Sound Envisioned’, The Smart Set, (accessed 14 March 2016).

28 Chiyoko Szlavnics Website, (accessed 25 February 2016).

29 Metzer, David, ‘Modern Silence’, The Journal of Musicology, 23 (2006), pp. 331–74.

30 Bernhard Lang, Differenz/Wiederholung (2002). Vienna: Zeitvertrieb. Available at (accessed 23 February 2016).

31 Eric Wubbles, This is This is This is (2009–10), (accessed 19 February 2016).

32 Jürg Frey, More or Less Normal (2005–07). Berlin: Edition Wandelweiser.

33 Oliveros, Sonic Meditations.

34 James Saunders, Choose who tells you what to do (2014). Unpublished Manuscript.

35 Birkhofer, Denise, ‘Eva Hesse and Mira Schendel: Voiding the Body – Embodying the Void’, Woman's Art Journal 31, no. 2 (2010), pp, 311 , here p. 7.

36 Michael Baldwin, Reflections on Ephemerality and Notation in My Recent Work (Master's Research Thesis, University of Huddersfield, 2012).

37 Michael Baldwin, Ephemera #6 (2012). Unpublished Manuscript.

38 Baldwin, Reflections on Ephemerality, p. 6.

39 Nakai, You and Hoffman, Elizabeth, ‘The Music of Ellen C. Covito: An Interview with You Nakai’, Perspectives of New Music 51, no. 1 (2013), pp. 520 , here p. 8.

40 Ellen Covito, Composed Improvisation G (2014). Available at (accessed 14 March 2016).

41 Aaron Cassidy, The Crutch of Memory (2004). Buffalo: Aaron Cassidy/ASCAP.

42 Kanno, Mieko, ‘Prescriptive Notation: Limits and Challenges’, Contemporary Music Review 26 no. 2 (2007), p. 251 .

43 Mieko Shiomi, Mirror Piece No. 2 (1966), in Fluxus Performance Workbook. Performance Research e-publication, ed. K. Friedman, O. Smith, L. Sawchyn. (2002).

44 George Aperghis, Shot in the Dark (2011), (accessed 12 February 2016).

45 Aperghis, Composer's Notes: Shot in the Dark (2011), (accessed 21 February 2016).

46 Manfred Werder, stück 1998 (1998). Berlin: Edition Wandelweiser. This is reminiscent of John Cage's Organ2/ASLSP for which the composer has left the instruction ‘as slow as possible’, and, hence, the piece's duration, open to interpretation. It is currently in the midst of a 639-year-long performance in Halberstadt, Germany.

47 The performer must contact the composer indicating the duration of the intended performance to obtain the next pages of the score, and instruction to begin at the point in the score where the last performance left off. Thus far sections have been performed over 17 years, beginning in March 1999.

48 Werder, Note on stuck 1998 seiten 1–4000, (accessed 24 February 2016).

49 Jürg Frey, One Instrument, Series (1999). Berlin: Edition Wandelweiser.

50 Pascale Criton, Biography (2007), (accessed Retrieved 15 March 2016).

51 Pascale Criton and Deborah Walker, Chaoscacci (2013). Unpublished Manuscript.

52 Harry Partch, (1930/33). ‘The Rose’ from 17 Lyrics of Li Po, available at 9 (accessed 23 February 2016).

53 Scott Cazan, Intercept for two string players and sine tones (2015). Unpublished Manuscript.

54 Cazan, Intercept for two string players and sine tones, available at (accessed 2 March 2016).

55 John Luther Adams, Sila: The Breath of the World (2014), (accessed 10 February 2016).

56 Agnes Martin, Writings, ed. Dieter Schwarz (Ostfildern: Cantz, 1991), p. 15.

57 Agnes Martin. White Stone, (accessed 22 February 2016).

58 Chaya Czernowin, Adiantum Capillus-Veneris (1) ‘Etude in fragility for voice and breath’ (2015), (accessed 23 February 2016).

59 Ryoko Akama, acorn for (2015). Unpublished Manuscript.

60 Akama, acorn for

61 Catherine Lamb, overlays, transparent/opaque (2013). Unpublished Manuscript.

62 Klaus Lang, Der Weg des Prinzen I (Die Sieben Boten) (1996). Vienna: Zeitvertrieb Edition Partitur. Available at (accessed 22 February 2016).

63 Rebecca Saunders, Stirrings Still (2006). Recorded by Ensemble Musikfabrik on Stirrings Still (Wergo, 6694 2).

64 Michael Pisaro, Fade (2000). Berlin: Edition Wandelweiser.

65 Knakkergaard, Martin, ‘The Music That's Not There’, in The Oxford Handbook of Virtuality, ed. Grimshaw, Mark (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 392 .

66 Brian Chappel, Ephemeral Architecture: Towards a Definition (2004), (accessed 27 February 2016).

67 Ihde, Listening and Voice, p. 233.

68 Ihde, Listening and Voice, p. 233.

69 Birkhofer, ‘Eva Hesse and Mira Schendel’, p. 7.

70 Michael Pisaro, Time's Underground. (1997). Edition Wandelweiser. See (accessed 20 February 2016).


  • Nomi Epstein


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