Contact is Crisis
We do not have control over the future, nor the ability to predict its trajectories—and we never have. We will never be able to dominate nature nor master our bodies, and we never have. If we didn’t know it before the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps we know it now: rather than autonomous individuals, we are instead interconnected and codependent beings intertwined in a precarious web of relations. We were always-already vulnerable to each other and to outside forces far beyond our control. From the perspective of my music practice as a contemporary music percussionist and performer, and as a researcher in the project entitled Performing Precarity, this text seeks to unpack how the increased vulnerability revealed by COVID-19 has played a role in both disrupting and clarifying aspects of our research questions, specifically around musical works that investigate physical touch and human-to-human contact.
Performing Precarity is a project investigating instability, vulnerability, and risk of collapse in contemporary music performance. At the start of the project in Autumn 2019, I was interested in exploring the dissolution of the musician’s sense of control through an insistence on mutual vulnerability in performance, and specifically through the performance of works that involve bodily entanglement and/or networks of instruments. The motivation behind this lies in the hypothesis that precariousness can emerge in the performer’s choice (or coercion) to surrender their sense of “I” and “mine”, and instead to give into the reality of interconnectedness. This loss of sovereignty, as it were, is a loss of the ability to pursue acts of self-preservation, the instinct to protect one’s self from exposure. The following research questions have guided the research: “What would a musical practice without the instinct for self-preservation, without the instinct to be impenetrable and impervious to failure, look and sound like? In other words, how might ‘porosity’, being open and vulnerable to outside forces, be my practice in music performance?”. These questions are motivated by a wish to dismantle pervading cultures around perfection and the virtuoso-master-hero trope in classical music. Attempts to self-preserve in classical music include tactics such as rehearsing for the purpose of removing unpredictability (drilling and repeating), practicing for the purposes of “dominating” an instrument or score in order to guard one’s self against the vulnerabilities caused by what can be called the “now” of musical performance (which naturally involves other human beings and agents), as well as battling nerves through the consumption of pills such as beta-blockers. Instead of insisting on mastery through training and drilling, I instead seek out a practice that relishes experiences of losing control through submission to outside forces and a cultivation of trust amidst the discomfort.
In theory this question can be approached by any musician with any music practice. My own artistic practice is grounded in contemporary music and therefore the examples that will follow in this exposition come from this tradition, with a particular focus on performances of the compositions music for two players I (1963), by Mieko Shiomi, Koral (Etude III) (2014), by Jeppe Ernst, and Soundtouch (2017), by Wojtek Blecharz. As a method I have chosen to focus on works which remove the traditional and conventional physical distance between performers and/or audience to search for a tactile and/or sensual experience of interconnectedness and mutual vulnerability, often through real human contact. However it is worth noting that these ideas and sensations are just as present in more traditional instrumental works, where vulnerability is recognized via an energetic porousness brought on by listening and awareness of others (both human and non-human). Percussionist Steven Schick speaks of his touch-based artform as a conduit to “everywhere and everything”. Every time he touches his drum he comes in contact with generations of musical ancestors, as well as the life of the animal whose skin is stretched across the frame of the drum (Schick, 2017).1 One potential step for the research to take would be an investigation into what the implications are if a musician actively brings in the experiences of entanglement that are so concretely on display in these three works, and applies them to pieces that don’t explore relational topics as explicitly. For the purposes of this exposition, however, these three works, which not only illuminate relationality between people through physical proximity and touch, but also carry a certain "therapeutic" quality, will remain the frame of this discussion.
At the start of this research project we could never have predicted the ultimate loss of control that COVID-19 would present, namely the fear of sickness, the inability to plan or predict daily life much less long-term goals, the inability to work or live as one is used to, the fear of economic ruin. And with this loss of control, COVID-19 also revealed in even clearer terms that, as Maggie Nelson puts it, “Precariousness is the condition... that unites us all” (2011, 203). As individuals, as communities, and also as nation states, we are all vulnerable to the precarious situation that this global pandemic has caused. From the perspective of this research project, this turn of events was both incredibly disruptive and deeply revealing. From one perspective the pandemic reconfirmed the hypothesis that we are all interconnected, an idea that has also been brought forward by ecologists for decades and by certain spiritual practices for centuries. It also confirmed that this mutual vulnerability is unavoidable (despite border closures and travel bans). These confirmations also provided a certain urgency in the research to explore in which ways codependency might be generative in an artistic practice. But from another perspective the devastation caused by COVID-19 and our permanent state of interconnectedness problematizes this research’s quest to advocate for vulnerability as a method for renewal and grounding of an artistic practice. Covid has also forced a recognition that there are clearly limits to what a practice can withstand before it actually collapses. The pandemic has highlighted the very nature of the root word of the research project Performing Precarity, "precariousness": that which is dangerously likely to fail or collapse, but which has not yet done so. The extreme situation of the pandemic has thus refocused the research, especially in terms of pieces where physical touch is involved, to not go as far as the true failure of bodily harm or disease, but to nonetheless recognize the vital, liminal, and precarious space inherent to being close to another person. As poet and essayist Anne Carson puts it, “As members of society, perhaps the most difficult task we face daily is that of touching one another—whether the touch is physical, moral, emotional, or imaginary. Contact is crisis” (2000, 130).
One consequence of the pandemic is that it has made performance nearly impossible, and thus there are clear complications for a project specifically focused on human contact in performance. During the period of April - November 2020, I was scheduled to perform several different projects that appeared to display the complexity of intimacy between performers and audience, including c by Simon Løffler (for three percussionists and audience bone conduction, 2013), Soundtouch by Wojtek Blecharz (for solo percussionist and 4 blindfolded audience-participants, 2017), music for two players I by Mieko Shiomi (for two performers at varying proximity to each other, 1963), Koral (Etude III) by Jeppe Ernst (for two hand-holding performers using only their facial muscles, 2014) and Rerendered by Simon Steen-Andersen (for pianist and two assistants performing inside the piano, 2003). These pieces were chosen because they display the “image” of entanglement through their scenographic distribution of instruments, performers, and audience, as well as their concrete enactment of interconnectedness through collective music making, shared instruments, and bodily touch. In the time of covid, however, these pieces, with their demand for close proximity and human-to-human contact, became dangerous and even life-threatening. There would be no possibility of maintaining a 1-meter-plus distance between performers and/or audience, and thus no possibility of avoiding dire health consequences. In an attempt to transgress traditional boundaries of proximity to the audience and between musicians, our artform had become a health threat. Where does this situation leave these works? Does covid rule them out (at least for the time being) and/or does it heighten their relevance? Even for the purpose of this exposition considerations and adaptations had to be made. Do these adaptations hinder and/or heighten the condition of vulnerability we experience in connection to others? Do these performances manage to remain in that precarious space of interconnectedness without threatening our health and wellbeing?
All contacts are contagions
For anthropologist Ernest Crawley, “all contact is a modified blow” (1960, 78). Not only is contact risky, for Crawley it is inherently violent. It makes an impact to be in contact with an-other. This impact can be lasting, and can even change the composition of a human being due to the transmission of disease as well as other non-pathological human characteristics. Siri Hustvedt takes it one step further and suggests that the skin that receives the blow of physical contact offers a false sense of autonomy between human beings. For Hustvedt, the skin is the very entity that allows us to differentiate between "I" and "you": “How do I know that I am I and you are you? Each one of us is enclosed in an envelope of skin. Each one of us feels the movements of his or her body in the world as "mine"” (2016, 370). This suggests that the touching of skin involves the inevitable crossing of an existential barrier, potentially assaulting notions of the autonomous individual.
Covid has made us all painfully aware of just how illusory the boundary of the skin as a separation between individuals truly is. Many can now relate to the feeling of apprehension at the physical touch of an-other: even a close friend or family member can pose a threat not only to personal safety but also to the restart of entire nation-states and economies after strict lockdown. During covid, safety means battening down the hatches and becoming impenetrable. Like many others, I have found myself opening my apartment building’s front door with rubber gloves on and apologizing to close friends if I accidentally touched them arm-to-arm while on a walk around the neighborhood. Direct contact and even the sharing of everyday surfaces, like door handles, has become both dangerous and taboo. In the spring of 2020, many of Oslo’s residents navigated their daily lives with a fog of suspicion around them: questioning with darting eyes if the person they were passing on the street, or sharing a line in the grocery store, or sitting next to them on a bus, was contagion-free and handling the situation responsibly. The feeling of ‘mine’ that Husvedt describes, a sensation reinforced by the false sense of impenetrable boundaries at the barrier of my skin, at the walls of my home, and at the borders of my resident nation became so clearly illusory, so unstable. At the same time, however, protecting these porous boundaries continues to be our best protection against coronavirus. At the very moment there seems to be a collective recognition of our interconnectedness and vulnerability, there is also a call to, quite literally, lose touch with other human beings.
For Crawley, not only is contact a “blow”; he further states that “all contacts are contagions” (1960, 81). His choice of the word contagion is curious. All contacts being contagions, including touch, conversation, eye contact, suggests that we are not only susceptible to the transmission of viruses and bacteria, but we are also vulnerable to their human traits and conditions. Whether they are diseases or other properties, these blows of contact pass contagions through the porous surface of our skin and our person, infiltrating our system—for better or for worse. Crawley continues his anthropological line of thinking thus: “Using the language of contagion, as more convenient, for primitive man does not distinguish between transmission of disease and transmission of all other states and properties, we find that practically every human quality or condition can be transferred to others” (1960, 91). Crawley offers the example of how in some cultures it has been observed that a person may wear the bone of a dead warrior, hoping to “catch” the honor and bravery of the deceased. The 21st century citizen can surely relate to this notion of wanting to “catch” human traits from another person, especially from someone who is seen as larger than life, even god-like. This is clearly present when watching footage of sports stars like Michael Jordan walking through large crowds with dozens of hands clambering across barriers to touch their fingertips against his skin. It is a gesture of love and respect and it is also an attempt to touch greatness, and perhaps to even “contract” a bit for themselves.
Mieko Shiomi’s 1963 work, music for two players I, creates a space for two performers to directly experience Crawley’s notion that all contacts have the characteristic of a violent “blow”, that they are contagious, and that transmission occurs through all types of contact, including eye contact. In Shiomi’s piece, the only instruction for the two players is to stare into each other's eyes at five different proximities to each other, ranging from 0.5 meters to 6 meters and for the total duration of twenty minutes. The performance in the video accompanying this text was performed by Ellen Ugelvik and myself in December 2020. This performance shows signs of covid precaution: we performed outdoors so that we would be able to perform safely without masks. (We wanted to keep our faces uncovered so that we might be more fully available to each other in the act of transmitting eye contact and energetic communication.) We placed a plexiglass panel between us so that we could stand safely in front of each other at the close proximities of 1 and 0.5 meters. Ugelvik and I both write in our reflections, which can be found within this exposition, that despite being able to see through the transparent plexiglass, we both experienced the barrier between us as an inhibitor of our gaze. But even with this barrier, Ugelvik and I both express a certain experience of “giving and receiving”, as if our eyes were sending out and penetrating the other’s being, and likewise, that we were receiving from the other, as if our eyes behave like the pores on our skin, receiving freely and without any mode of protection.
What Ugelvik and I describe in our reflections is no less than our attempts at dialogue and understanding via an unspeakable communication. From the outside perspective of the viewer however, different interpretations can emerge, and it is unclear what is possible to interpret in the video documentation accompanying this text. Seemingly confirming Crawley’s description of contact as a violent blow, artist Lea Tetrick, who documented this performance, remarked that we looked like “warriors” and described Ugelvik’s gaze as “fierce”. In our own reflections, Ugelvik and I discuss our personal struggles to remain open and vulnerable to the other. Rather than on the verge of attack, we seem to struggle more with the notion of surrender. Complex inner worlds surge between us both, with the slightest variations unfolding with the changing proximity of our bodies. Bruce Ellis Benson describes the conditions for dialogue as relying on a certain tension that both parties hold, like the way a string instrument holds tension between its pegs: “In the same way that instruments are tuned on the basis of tension, so the relationship of musical partners depends on tension to be maintained” (2003, 170). He continues, noting that in fact the fierceness that Tetrick picked up on is an example of what is essential for dialogue and mutual vulnerability: “The danger for genuine dialogue, then, is not the presence of tension but its loss or imbalance. A dialogue is only possible when each person both holds the others in tension—that is, holds the other accountable—and feels the tension of accountability exerted by the other” (2003, 171). The variations and sensations Ugelvik and I reflect upon are evidence of such attempts at holding the necessary and sometimes uncomfortable tension of dialogue. Our reflections reveal a wild internal dance: softness and struggle situated in an endless, silent stare.
Shiomi’s duet systematically unveils possible ways in which our proximity to another person heightens our sense of corporeal and energetic entanglement. However, throughout her work, exposure to physical touch is left out, but perhaps it is exactly here, on our skin, that notions of mutual vulnerability become even more concrete. For the skin is porous, freely giving and receiving energy, vibrations, and nutrition, and also more dangerous particles. “[M]ingling bodies are potentially impure and dangerous” (Husvedt, 2016, 286) and the site of skin, like all transitional spaces, is risky, not least due to “the stuff that leaks through corporeal boundaries” (ibid., 285). The skin’s porousness presents a kind of vulnerability to the other in the form of bodily and energetic contamination. Mary Douglas explains this contamination thus, “Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins. We should expect the orifices of the body to symbolize its specially vulnerable points. Matter issuing from them is marginal stuff of the most obvious kinds. Spittle, blood, milk, urine, faeces or tears by simply issuing forth have traversed the boundary of the body” (1966, 121). The boundaries of our bodies are structurally designed to be transgressed, and every touch confronts and confirms our everlasting and mutual vulnerability.
Works that entail bodily mingling, entanglement, and touch are increasingly prevalent in experimental music. Many composers, including Francois Sarhan, Yiran Zhao, Simon Løffler, Jeppe Ernst, Liv Kristin Holmberg, to name a few, have invested much of their musical output to questions regarding human-to-human contact. However within the context of the research project Performing Precarity I had begun to doubt if such pieces truly point to an area of precariousness in the field of music performance. It was not until COVID-19 stopped the world in March 2020 that I understood that there is without a doubt serious personal (and therefore musical) risk in physical touch. Although physical interaction is a foundation to our understandings of other performing arts practices, such as certain forms of theatre, dance, and performance art, music is not traditionally understood as an artform based on human-to-human touch. In western classical music there is a performance practice convention of keeping our distance. In most cases, each instrumentalist remains at their “station” throughout a work or even an entire concert, abstaining from any risk of corporeal mixture with other agents. With the exception of hearing, which is an act of physical touch (the touch of sound waves physically hitting the walls of the ear) audiences also traditionally keep their physical distance in the conventional concert situation, especially regarding the bodies of the performing musicians.
Countering these conventions, the composers listed above, as well as others, attempt to remove and challenge traditional barriers between performers and audiences. This move is often done to create the conditions for a “new” experience or perspective on relationships to sound and the body. In the case of audience-performer relations, the nature of this interaction is often uneven: the performer knows more than the audience about the proceedings of the musical event, and thus the audience could be seen as “more” vulnerable in the situation. However, it is worth remembering that the performer was always vulnerable to the blow of contact with the audience, always susceptible to the audience members’ traits and conditions, as well as their expectations. All of these aspects of the audience members affect the performance and the piece—as well as the experience for the performer. Regardless of which parties do or do not have information about the proceedings of the works, notions of vulnerability are shared by the performers and audience alike.
The reality of this shared vulnerability for performers and audiences was emphasized in discussions with Wojtek Blecharz about the possibility of remounting Soundtouch in Berlin in the summer of 2020. The piece involves a solo percussionist and four blind-folded audience-participants who lay on their backs, one at each cardinal direction, with their heads towards the center of the room. They are surrounded with percussion instruments of all shapes and sizes, which are mostly hidden from their view upon their entry into the space. Over the course of the piece, instrumental objects and sounds are brought very close, and even into the hands of the four audience members. This close physical experience for the audience is precisely the motivation of the work: cymbals and crotales are struck and physically swung over the heads of the audience, emphasizing spatial listening. Wooden planks are laid across the hips of the audience members and china cymbals are balanced on the sternum of the audience before they are struck in percussive waves and rhythms that vibrate through their bones and bodies. At the climax of the piece the physical proximity between the audience participants is further transgressed when the performer places an instrument in one hand of each audience member, and a mallet in the other hand. Each person is instructed through physical guidance by the performer (due to their blindfolded disorientation) to strike the instrument their neighbor is holding out towards them. The process creates a ring of arms: one arm hitting the object percussively and the other receiving the impulse from their neighbor’s strike. This is the most blatant moment of the piece revealing its ultimate goal of creating a ritualistic space for interconnectedness through impact and instrumental vibrations. Indeed, a unique aspect of Soundtouch is how it makes concrete the similarity between sonic vibrations pressing against and through our bodies and the energetic connections felt when sharing a space with others.
Beyond the vulnerability of physical touch, Soundtouch also faces the exposure inherent to participation and sharing space, which ultimately destabilizes the piece itself. In this work, the percussionist is at times a soloist, but is even more often a kind of facilitator in providing the necessary instruments to each audience member who will then perform and play the instruments themselves. In this case, the audience is actually responsible for the overall sonic result, which is completely dependent on the four of them to fulfill and shape alongside the percussionist. One example of this is in the second major section of the piece, when each person is handed different kinds of rattles and ratchets. The performer gives the audience member the object and, through strategies of touch (without verbal communication), invites them to play (for) themselves. In this way, the piece can, and maybe should, be conceptualized as a quintet for five percussionists, four of whom are blindfolded, the fifth behaving as a kind of sorcerer, mysteriously conjuring unseen (but completely felt and heard) worlds. Soundtouch is an interesting example of how the audience can be particularly vulnerable to the performer’s control, and also of how the performer is vulnerable to each audience member’s personality and reactions to the tasks they are given. Furthermore, the piece itself is impacted by each individual and how they contribute musically to the work. Such a piece results in performance of varying degrees of musical “quality”, however for Blecharz the quality of the piece lies precisely in the performer and audience's ability and willingness to connect with one another, to the sound, and to the instruments in their hands.
My experience of performing Soundtouch in many ways echoes Jamaica Kincaid’s descriptions of attempting to tame her garden in My Garden (Book) (1999). In the first chapter of her beautiful prose she laments again and again at the way the flowers don’t obey her visions and how furry creatures (a fox, a rabbit) intrude “her” space. In the final chapter of Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanisms and Decolonial Entanglements (2017), Julietta Singh reflects on “cultivation, discomfort, and the cultivation of discomfort” in the work of Kincaid, and in particular Kincaid’s ambivalent relationship to this unruly garden life. Singh’s reading suggests that Kincaid’s discomfort in part stems from her deep wish to “master” her garden: for each blossom to bloom at the exact right moment in the year (and not in the wrong season!), or for blossoms to point in a particular direction (she has an ongoing battle with a certain wisteria). But Kincaid also deeply understands that she will never be able to master something which has a mind of its own, such as her garden. Her prose offers a powerful meditation on an ambivalence born of a wish to master in combination with deeply loving the essential struggle that forever hinders and stalls that mastery. In one unforgettable scene, Kincaid laments that a fox has entered “her” garden. It had “startled” her and forced her to consider different ways to scare it away. She ponders “what to do?” about that fox, it was “her” garden after all! But the fox just looked back at her with an air of self confidence that suggested it was totally unaffected by Kincaid’s threats. In a similar moment a baby rabbit enters the garden and, just as the fox had done before, “startles” Kincaid. Kincaid doesn’t mind that the rabbit ate a few bits of her garden, but she does consider the rabbit “a pest...because sometimes, when I did not expect him, he would suddenly hop into my view, startling me out of some worry or other…” (1999, 19).
Much like I experienced when performing Soundtouch, but certainly the same is true performing any piece of music, I have a certain ambivalence to the performance situation. I want everything to be just so, just as I had envisioned it, just as I had rehearsed it! But the performance situation is full of intruders: the audience-participants, a crying baby, a broken instrument, the look of Ellen Ugelvik from across the room that “startles” me out of what I had intended to worry about (my performance!). Sometimes when an audience does or plays something I find distasteful while performing Soundtouch, I find myself echoing Kincaid’s refrain: “What to do?” But I also see that it is exactly these uncomfortable moments, where “my” space has been “invaded” and “transgressed”, that the elusive sense of presence springs forth. It says “NOW!”, and I have no choice but to respond to it, to receive those blows of contact. All other plans must be put on hold, or better yet, forgotten. And it is in these moments that I understand my own fallacy of ever believing a certain mastery or control over “my” space was possible. As Singh puts it, "It is the garden, and its unwelcome inhabitants, that reveal to the gardener the fantasmatic nature of the sovereign subject” (2017, 170). For it is the concert space, the space that is shared with other performers, audience, technologies, and instruments, a space much like Kincaid’s garden, “rife with unexpected visitors and "willful" species”, that so profoundly reveals not only my own vulnerability but also, as for Kincaid, my “fraught constitution as a porously bounded subject” (ibid). So it is exactly this state of discomfort where a performer might find new experiences or understandings. For is it not true that, as Bruce Ellis Benson illuminates, “The ‘ideal’ composer, performer, or listener is one who is really ready to encounter an other who (as Gadamer puts it) ‘breaks into my ego-centeredness and gives me something to understand’” (2003, 167)?
Taboo of Touch
What I want as a performer is to be broken into, to be startled out of some worry or other, and to find new understandings inside that vulnerability. It is in that vulnerability that I believe I can undo my urge to master, my instinct to control, my dream of sovereignty. COVID-19, however, has tested the parameters and conditions of “being broken into” that a person can reasonably withstand. It has forced us to reflect on our understandings of discomfort, versus that of real danger. It has underlined the reality and relevance of our interconnectedness at the same time as it has heightened our fear of the consequences of that mutual vulnerability. It is in this paradox, this uncomfortable place, that I believe we can begin to understand the relevance of these pieces and practices.
This exposition attempts to sit in this paradox and to try to trace certain modes of vulnerability in contemporary music performance—from human contact via eye contact and touch, to the precarious negotiation of shared space—and to reflect on how these encounters might breed new understandings and new knowledge. The reader will find videos of Soundtouch, music for two players I, and Koral (Etude III), all performed with the safety of COVID-19 precautions. Each performance involves participants from my personal cohort. This selected audience appears to be the only responsible context in which to present such pieces at this time. Despite these efforts, performing this type of work in 2020 and 2021 feels like a clear act of transgression. The works seem to carry a certain sense of taboo, and perhaps rightfully so. From another perspective, the possibility for shared experiences and human-to-human connection seems more crucial than ever.
Each of the works were selected for the methods by which they create heightened awareness of others through physical proximity and touch, the removal/emphasis of particular senses, and approaches to human interactivity. What might such works feel like to us now, as they force us to come so close to one another? How might these works be read in the context of a global pandemic? In what ways might their transgressive blow of human contact even more acutely reveal our always-already mutual vulnerability? Perhaps the total impact of these works and their relation to covid will only be felt once this pandemic and the taboo of touch has passed. For it will only be then that we can safely test our new understandings of the precariousness that unites us all, as well as the generative, albeit ambivalent, state of cultivated discomfort that these works create. Because the vitality of our blurry and thrillingly risky codependency flourishes only when the fallout of collapse is scary, but not deadly.