Moving to Become Better: The Embodied Performance of Musical Groove (2011)

Vincent Meelberg

About this exposition

Starting from the knowledge that the perception, experience and creation of music is always a bodily activity, the exposition explores the influential and intrusive power of musical ‘groove’. Whereas the concept of groove has been extensively discussed both as a general phenomenon and from the perspective of the listener, the exposition looks at the ways in which groove can specifically affect and influence the performers during a musical performance. Interested in testing whether groove can constitute an infringement of the performers’ bodily autonomy, and thereby influence their interaction, the exposition introduces the composition Moving to Become Better, a piece of practice-based research designed to explore the connections between the mutual influences of groove and the performance of musicians.
typeresearch exposition
published inJournal for Artistic Research

comments: 3 (last entry by Vincent Meelberg - 01/03/2012 at 22:31)
Yves Knockaert 21/11/2011 at 17:38

The submission is interesting because of the focus on one example (the groove through the composition Moving to Become Better) and the large amount of approaches to the subject. It is interesting to learn how the ‘groove’ can be explained with arguments found in the theories of many authors, and Meelberg achieves this, staying very close to the subject and not fading into generalities. However, in my personal opinion, the ‘ethical’ dimension is not so interesting or important, and less convincingly argued here. That said, I respect that it is important for the author as a musician: the concept of ‘becoming better’ is already in the title of the composition, he pays attention to this in the quoting Dewey and, later in the text, in the mention of Deleuze. The author is also very careful and aware of counter-arguments, and shows a consciousness of the ‘weakness’ of proof-based arguments in the field of ‘feeling’ the music.


I have, of course, some remarks.


The musical or artistic part could be more elaborated (I mean: going deeper in the ‘groove’ experience of the composition Moving…) with not only the meaning and the experience of the author/composer, but also the experience of the other performers. Currently these are only mentioned to confirm the ideas of the author/composer. A more elaborated artistic part would also be more balanced with the theoretical part. This would address a certain overbalance of philosophical, psychological and theoretical approaches in the text, as if there is a strong need for hard argumentation of the experiences of the experimental performance of the composition.


Some items are not elaborated. For example: why is it a composition and not an exercise? At a certain moment in the text, it is called an ‘investigation’, what exactly is meant by that?. What happens if played before an audience without ‘warning’ that the groove will come and go, start and stop? The disappearance of the groove could be seen as a mistake or a ‘bad’ moment in the perception of the public. Leaving the groove or playing out of the groove must be as ‘convincing’ as what the public expects: uninterrupted groove.


This is a case of practice-based research, where composition, performance, improvisation, playing in and out of the groove and the ‘art’ of performing together (with and without groove) go hand in hand. It is a real experiment, because of the non-predictability of the performance: how will the groove be, how long, how strong, how will the performers influence each other, etc.


The whole experiment is connected to theory, even proved in some aspects, which means that the academic level of the exposition is high. There is a research question (the groove), a method (the making of the composition and the performance). There is the openness to other artists to discuss the question through the performance or as listeners, and there is new knowledge here concerning groove-performance and groove-experience.


The idea is challenging, the research is experimental and the text invites the reader to do the same experiment and to listen to the piece. The embodied knowledge is made explicit through a lot of sources and theoretical material. This all makes the exposition a good example of writing about practice-based research in a clear, comprehensive, artistic and academic way at the same time.

Taina Riikonen 21/11/2011 at 21:55

The research question and the aim of investigation are very interesting at the moment, in the field of musical performance studies. The novel approaches that have abandoned a ‘from-page-to-sound’ (‘traditional‘ music analytical) hierarchy are flourishing with the important emphases on musicians’ embodied experiences, socio-material meaning-making as well as cultural and local diversity.


The subject of the submission is, therefore, of much interest. However, the artistic research on listening / sensing the groove gives quite a potential to experiment with and create new methods of investigation, innovative, corporeal verbatim on music making, new analytical categories and close interaction with the reader. All this potential could be utilized more extensively in the submission.


The practice as research is always a complex task, and when studying groove in performance, operationalizing the practice is not simple (or easy) at all. The author bases his research question and the background of the research in the field very well, but there are some essential conceptual and epistemological undercurrents in the text that I suggest need solving in order to get the research and argument on a more solid basis.


1. The basic setting of the submission implies a subject / body split. If the body is treated as a surplus, as something that is ‘needed’ for intellectual contemplation, how could the reader be convinced of the significance of the study of the embodiment of groove? The privilege to the body (experiences) could be written in the text in many ways.


2. The different registers and types of groove could be better explained in terms of bodily interaction. The even deeper investigation of practice as research could probably bring out some new and subtle qualities (and the cultural differences connected to them) as a result of the study.


Considering the insights above, I miss here a more intense leaning on the embodied methods (listening), corporeal analytical parameters (not necessary music theoretical) and performer-centred arguments (linguistics based on sensory experiences, interaction during playing etc).


The layout and the overall design support the aim of the proposition well. The textual narration is in a good balance with the display of the score examples. However, since the author wishes to emphasize the performers’ perspectives around groove, the creative use of multi-material data could be done more extensively.


The research question and overall artistic-scholarly problematic is very well chosen. Also, the author’s own personal location in the research is well reflected. The strength of the text is its rich reference apparatus (to the relevant research). The conceptualization of groove as an intruder is also a successful embodied act and therefore it could be applied in the textual level even more.


I suggest some further elaboration for the following issues:


1. The operationalizing of the actual music making practices to the analytical parameters. One suggestion could be that the descriptive text besides the score examples is substituted with the quotes and reflections of the live playing situations. A ‘What does the body do’ approach (instead of what does the body mean) might help here. Also, more specific embodied sound making terms could be used.


2. The conclusions could be more innovative. In the artistic research context the remark of groove being first and foremost a bodily phenomenon is a starting point of all the investigation, not the conclusion. I consider the chapter ‘Towards an Ethics of the Groove’ to include a lot of results that could be understood as conclusions.

Vincent Meelberg 01/03/2012 at 22:31

First of all, I would like to thank the peer reviewers for their valuable comments. And since JAR offers the authors the possibility to publicly respond to the reviews, I would like to address some the issues raised by the peer reviewers.

The question whether Moving to Become Better is a composition or an exercise is an interesting one. Since my performance practice mainly concerns improvised music, I don't really make a clear distinction between musical performance, musical investigation and musical experimentation. I don't expect the audience to do so, either. Failing, or the risk of failing, is an intrinsic part of improvised music. Hence, I am not afraid that the audience would perceive the disappearance of the groove as a mistake or a bad thing, but only as an interesting musical event (but perhaps I'm too idealistic or naieve here). So yes, it could be considered an exercise (although I would prefer the term "experiment"), but an audience used to improvised music would probably not mistake it as "failed" music.

Furthermore, I find it surprising that Taina Riikonen believes I treat the body as a surplus. I would say that my account verges on suggesting the opposite: that cognition is a surplus. I don't really understand why she arrives at that conclusion, but I do agree with her that an elaboration of embodied methods would be preferrable, and that a stronger focus on bodily interaction, and on the question "what does the body do," would be welcome. This is something I plan to do for a future project.

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