Project and methods
The author’s conviction … is that music begins to atrophy when it departs too far from the dance. … Bach and Mozart are never too far from physical movement.
Ezra Pound (ABC of Reading, 1931)
The goal of the project ‘Zum Spielen und zum Tantzen: A Kinaesthetic Exploration of the Bach Cello Suites through Studies in Baroque Choreography’, was to investigate the relationship between dance and instrumental music in the Baroque era, using J. S. Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello as a point of departure, through learning and practising Baroque dance.
The research questions
Assuming that both Bach and his audience were conditioned by an extensive experience with the movements and gestures of the French court dances:
What did this mean for the way an eighteenth-century cellist played the Bach cello suites, and how did that cellist experience playing this music? How can I as a musician of today get close to a similar experience?1
How did contemporary audiences react to Bach’s solo suites, and to what degree did they feel a connection to their own dance experiences? Is it possible, using experiences from Baroque dance practice, to create a situation where a modern audience could reconnect this music to its dance origins?
I presented two artistic results of my project work:
- A dance performance in which the cello suites were removed from their habitual concert context. Through the use of Baroque choreographies, as well as tools from contemporary dance, the audience was invited to understand the dance content of the music in a physical way.
- A recording of the first three Bach cello suites, which sought to capture and communicate my ‘new understanding’ of the suites.
From the outset of the project, I decided upon four methods of investigation:
- Practising and reaching a certain level in the art of Baroque dance by taking regular lessons and participating in intensive courses.
- Studying contemporary choreographic sources, such as those by Feuillet, Rameau, Tomlinson, and Taubert (see bibliography).
- Experimenting with historical dance tempos for the dance movements in the cello suites.
- Cooperating with and accompanying dancers.
I also performed the Bach cello suites on several occasions, often together with other dance music or dance-related music of the period.
Preparing the dance performance and the recording intensified and brought together all the elements of the inquiry. The dance performance in particular, with its close and continuous contact with the dancers, felt like a culmination of the learning process, where I constantly had to mobilise everything I had studied in the project up to then. In this sense, I find it difficult to separate methods and results. Rather than being separate objects of demonstration, the results became an integral and important part of the method.
In my daily cello practice, I processed and integrated the lessons learnt from dancing. Even if the technical aspects of my cello playing were not in focus here, the changes in posture and body use influenced both my instrument hold and certain other aspects of my playing technique. I needed to discard old habits and find new technical solutions to old problems, and consequently both intonation and tone quality became rather fragile at times. As I performed actively during the whole project period, it cannot be denied that there were some difficult moments.
On the other hand, this work led me to rediscover the resources I had accumulated during my thirty-five-year history as a cellist. Accepting and accessing these resources was an important step in the process of creating new interpretations of the Bach suites, or, rather, letting the suite movements shape themselves around the new elements that my work with historical dance brought into my playing.
This project naturally falls within the domain of artistic research, in the sense that the artist and the art practice are at the centre of the investigations. Annette Arlander, in her essay ‘Characteristics of Visual and Performing Arts’ (2011), holds that research in the field of performing arts is mostly practice based and that the artistic practice in itself is more important than the study of a specific artwork. This kind of research strives to enrich the artist’s practice and to communicate the resulting knowledge through the performance of his or her art. In the words of Julian Klein (2010), ‘artistic knowledge is sensual and physical, “embodied knowledge”. The knowledge that artistic research strives for, is a felt knowledge.’
In his book The Tacit Dimension ( 2009), Michael Polanyi describes the kind of knowledge that cannot be captured properly by language but comes to expression in action; or, as one of my fellowship colleagues put it, it is ‘something that needs to be done in order to be understood’ (Aase 2009). This ‘tacit knowledge’ is an important element of music and dance, both in learning processes and in performance situations. Henk Borgdorff, in his essay The Debate on Research in the Arts (2006), writes, ‘Art practice – both the art object and the creative process – embodies situated, tacit knowledge that can be revealed and articulated by means of experimentation and interpretation.’ In my project, I sought to rediscover a tacit knowledge of the past and ‘embody’ it in the present through a practice-based research process.
Historically informed performance (HIP)
One of the fundamental ideas in the HIP ‘movement’ is that a musical work does not exist in a cultural vacuum. A score contains only a fraction of the information necessary to perform music correctly, and the meaning of this information changes according to the time and place of composition. When we take into account a maximum of elements of the historical context of a piece of music, we understand and, ideally, perform it better. As a point of departure for artistic creation and imagination, this is an extraordinarily powerful idea, which, along with an interest in history, was what first attracted me to performance on historical instruments.
Another central notion in HIP is that one should use instruments appropriate to the period and place of composition of the performed work. For the ‘Historically Informed Performer’, acquiring the new skills required to master different versions of his or her instrument – sometimes even learning a new instrument altogether – brings a new understanding to the music and opens new potentials for creativity.
The project of learning a skill that was considered essential to a musician in Bach’s time (but is largely ignored today) and observing the effect of this newly gained skill on my performance of the music of Bach, thus seemed to me a valid undertaking within the context of HIP.
Literature and context
Even if, in Laurence Dreyfus’s (1996: 29) words, ‘intuitively, we understand a great deal about Bach’s music and do not find the culture in which he worked especially mystifying’, there are certain aspects that are more difficult to grasp than others. To know more about the life and cultural context of the composer, I have consulted a number of Bach biographies as well as contemporary sources. I also felt I had to make sure that my basic ideas would not have been ‘utterly inconceivable to the composer’ (ibid.: 27); therefore, Little and Jenne’s Dance and the Music of J. S. Bach (1991) has been, throughout the project, an important source of information on the composer’s relation to dance. I will also cite a number of sources and scholarly works that have been indispensable to my comprehension of Baroque dance style.
I am not the first to have approached Bach’s music from a choreographic standpoint. Francine Lancelot’s choreography Bach Suite, created for and with Rudolf Nureyev in 1984, is emblematic in that sense and has been of special interest because it uses Bach’s Third Cello Suite. Other music by Bach has been choreographed in Baroque style, for example in Que ma joie demeure by Béatrice Massin (2002), Corpus Bach by Sigrid t’Hooft (2005), Ouverture à la danse by Marie Blaise (2006), and Bach & la Belle Danse by Sarah Berreby (2011).
Numerous contemporary choreographers have also set Bach’s music to dance, or created dance to Bach’s music. Mark Morris worked with Yo-Yo Ma to choreograph the Third Cello Suite in Falling Down Stairs (1997), and many others, such as Nacho Duato (Bach: Multiplicity: Forms of Silence and Emptiness, 2012), Paul Taylor (several choreographies, including Esplanade, 1975, and Promethean Fire, 2002), Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (Zeitung, 2008, and Partita 2, 2013), Angelin Preljocaj (Larmes Blanches, 1985, and Un trait d’union, 1989), and Jiří Kylián (Sarabande, 1990) have used Bach’s music for their choreographies.