‘But my seeing body subtends the visible body, and all the visibles with it. There is a reciprocal insertion and intertwining of one in the other. Or rather, if, as once again we must, we eschew the thinking by planes and perspectives, there are two circles, or two vortexes, or two spheres, concentric when I live naïvely, and as soon as I question myself, the one slightly decentred with respect to the other. (Merlau-Ponty 1968: 138)

A sketch depicting a temporal form of a section of Double Vortex in the 2015 version (click to enlarge).

Artistic work

Double Vortex for trombone, movement, and live-electronics is a collaboration between trombonist Beat Unternährer and Jan Schacher. A trombone player steps to the centre of the stage and performs a piece that lasts approximately fifteen minutes. Starting with breathing and an imperceptible rotation of the instrument and the body, the physical presence of the musician is the first and central compositional element presented. The piece gradually evolves from breathing and air sounds, to noisy double-reed multiphonic techniques and mouthpiece-less playing, to include feedback with the adjacent speaker and electronic sound processing. The movements of the trombone player become more expansive, finally covering all sectors of his peri-personal (body-encircling) space (see video 1).

The piece explores the performers physical presence and actions; physical movements that have a musical character become a core compositional element. The use of live-electronics and motion sensing problematises the relationship between musician, instrument, movement, and sound, as well as the algorithmic, autonomous system. Conceptually, the technology sits at the nexus between the instrumentalists actions and the natural or electronically extended sounds. For the audience, the declaration and subsequent recognition and reading of the technologies and sound transformations during performance generates expectations: they want to see and recognise the linkages and dependencies that are at play through technical means. The system sometimes fulfils expectations, and sometimes proposes alternate modalities of interplay.

This piece is built using a modular framework, where playing techniques and dynamic qualities as well as movement-to-sound relationships constitute the skeleton of musical material. The compositional juxtaposition of movement and sound instructions leads to sections during the piece, where the activity of the musician consists of simultaneously playing and moving with body and instrument, or performing with the body alone. In addition, two sections of the piece deal explicitly with autonomous decision making in human–machine interaction and foreground the question of agency and intersubjective interaction in the interplay between trombone player and algorithmic system. The piece ends with the trombone players breathing, while the autonomous algorithmic system continues playing on its own, before being cut off.

Technical schema 1 and 2 of the live-electronics system in Double Vortex (click to enlarge).

Video 1. Video of the performance of Double Vortex II on 25 January 2016.

Double Vortex is situated in an electronic music performance practice that is based on real-time sound processing and gestural interaction. The piece is built on a framework that falls within the current practice of electronic music making. Through this filiation it inherits a number of assumptions and tropes that limit the potential for altering the format.

Moving Music takes on the principles of live-electronic performance and lets a movement expert – a dancer – take on the role of a musician. The dancer’s movement is translated to elements of sound, the control over and responsibility for temporal and dynamic structure lies with the performer. This form proves to be less common in the domains of both music and dance.

In both cases the staging takes into account the use of the black box as an abstract space, where presence shows up in different degrees: the performers are in the limelight, and therefore occupy the centre of attention; the composer-performer sits at the front edge of the stage and is perceived as being part of the performance – his contributing role is clear. The audience partakes from a vantage point situated outside the stage space and contributes to the intensity of the performance by their focussed attention. The decision to frame the pieces in a traditional, frontal concert performance is made to be able to focus on other aspects of the process that seem conducive to generating insights about the core questions asked. Thus, the conventional framing establishes a sort of common baseline or ground truth.

This framework allows for a differential method in composing. The frame doesnt exclude a deliberate stretching of those boundaries but helps focus the energy on those elements that are deemed essential to fulfil the intended goals of the piece. The differential that is achieved stems from the fact that for most novel solutions a traditional element can be juxtaposed. An example of this would be the posture of a conventional trombone player and the way it expresses his or her conscious application to presence. In the new piece, this element is consciously shaped and results in making evident or even central the corporal presence of the performer.

The two central pieces of this project serve as vehicles for exploring corporeality. Their entire development and creation processes aim, on the one hand, at performance and, on the other hand, at creating a space for reflection, experimentation, materials collection, and iterative testing – in a continuous dialogue – of the configuration and balance between the key elements of each set-up.

The pieces share the formal framing; they are solo pieces with live-electronics intended to be performed in a concert situation. The composer is always present as a live-electronic performer, influencing to varying degrees the evolution of musical elements. Furthermore, the use of technology is in both cases instrumental – that is, it provides the means to extend or alter the sound outcomes of an artists musical performance. From a compositional point of view, both pieces consist of several sections that create a progression of musical materials, gestural expressions, and sonic principles. The works share the notion of a dramaturgic arc; they are neither static states nor minimalistic empty spaces.

The question of augmenting, sensing, and interfering with the performers body through movement-to-sound linkage is a recurrent theme. In the case of the interactive dance piece, the connection through sensing technology between movement and sound poses a number of critical questions about the role and impact of wearable and surveillance technology on the performing subject, as is expressed in the quotation by Susan Kozel (above right).


Moving through the singularity of performance (click to enlarge).

Video 2. Video of the performance of Moving Music on 25 January 2016.


The piece for interactive dance and electronic sound Moving Music is a collaboration between dancer Angela Stoecklin and Jan Schacher. The underlying question of how gesture influences the perception, affect, and impact of music is shared with the trombone piece. In the relationship between dancer and sound, however, they exist under an inverted sign. Compared with music there are fundamental differences in how dance deals with time and movement materials. When considering how dancers movements are always already their material, how the dynamics of movement are self-evident in the dancers' bodies, it is noteworthy that a musicians dynamics and expressions always require translation into the sound-domain to take their effect (see video 2). The two domains only share a limited set of fundamental characteristics and principles. Whereas dance and movement is inherently multi-dimensional, multi-modal, and based to a very high degree on physiological as well as psychological human factors (Kozel 2007), technical processes of electronic sounds are based on models of mathematical formalisation (Xenakis 1992).

The exploration of materials for this piece is informed by the categorisation of movements and their qualities as defined by Laban (2011). In his system the term effort is one way of defining the central aspect that human perception is sensitive to when identifying movement qualities. Using the term in its most literal form enables a direct linking of measured effort – that is, energy – with sound energy. By doing this in the fundamental dimension of time, the piece explores shaping or phrasing of time with the aid of linking individual limbs to sound processes. Contrary to music, in dance, space in its absolute form plays an essential role. The placement and trajectories in space are basic material for movement and are translated to a sound map with the aid of camera tracking.

The overall structure of the piece has the classic form of the thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The first two sections focus on the aspects of time and space. The third section enables a more complete expression of movement and sound. The dancers task is to take the materials, forms, and interactions of the first two sections and transform them with the intent of shaping and phrasing without restraint. The goal is to explore the dynamics and forces that have accumulated over the time span and to put them into a succinct order of movement phrases and sound gestalts through the electronic sound-generation instrument that is at the dancer‘s disposition.

‘There is an extraordinary push-pull to wearable and ambient technologies, a dynamic of seduction and repulsion. We are seduced by the convergence of computational systems with corporeality … or by unseen systems that anticipate corporeal needs … ; seduced by the potential expansion of our senses, intellects, and imaginations, of how we engage with the world, how we communicate, how we remember the past and project desires into the future. Yet we are only a breath away from repulsion at the specter of the monstrous body or monstrous forces of surveillance and control lurking just behind the technologization of the body. Once the domain of research and performance converges with skin, blood, flesh, internal organs, biology, or DNA, political questions around who controls, owns, or has access to our bodies are unavoidable. (Kozel 2007: 271)

Moving Music: symmetries, asymmetries, and mediated indirect links in the relationship between dancer, sound, musician and movement (click to enlarge).