Video 1a: new islands


Performing with Bodies and Technology

please scroll down for full text

Dissection is the act of taking apart a body of work into the individual parts, i.e., its main categories. For this operation, due to space constraints, only the project `new islands' is addressed; one the one hand because it contains most of the shared keywords, and on the other hand because as a solo-piece every aspect can be covered by myself, without recourse to the other performer's insights and experiences. This detailed observation is carried out entirely on the performance documented in Video 1a.

• For details on the topics of Hyper-Awareness and Hyper-Reflection refer to Chapter 3: Improvisation: Awareness.

Hyper-Awareness and Hyper-Reflection

The performance of `new islands' is characterised by a concentrated, deliberate and attentive state and relatively slow pace. The elements that come together appear slowly; through the entrance of the performer and the appearance of sonic materials, an environment unfolds for the audience that puts the focus on listening, watching and perceiving. For the performer additional domains are active, be it the instrumental interaction or the sound-amplification. At 01:00, the first vocal action demonstrates the performer's musical agency, as well as an intensified presence. In the video-close-ups, the gaze and facial expression show a focused state. From these cues can be deduced from the outside the state of heightened awareness that he performer finds himself in. The musical action placed at 01:36, silencing the ambient sound layer and uttering sibilant vocal elements, shows a shift in focus and attitude from a person ambling through the sonic environment to a musician deliberately shaping a piece. If the intentionality and ownership of control was unclear up to here, these doubts disappear and it becomes possible to understand what the role and relationship of the performer is. As recalled from an inside perspective, during this sequence the tension, attention, and awareness build that are necessary to determine the right moment for musical action. This awareness exists on multiple levels, compressed, simultaneously pointing outwards and inwards. It encompasses the position in space, the posture and tension in the body, the instrumental affordances, the state of the technical system and the unfolding of the piece. At 04:02, a negotiation with the contingent elements of the performance can be observed. Several actions are necessary to stop the resonating sound of acoustic feedback and bring the instrument to respond directly to small vocal inputs. Similarly, at 05:39, the waves of crescendo of pulsating sound and the interspersing of small vocal fragments is performed in a tense, delicate balance that demands an elevated level of awareness from the performer. Awareness is visibly directed at different aspects of the body--sound--instrument compound. From 07:50 to 08:10, a shift from a state of listening and controlling to a mode of moving and actively shaping is visible. The performer's awareness moves to the fuller dynamics of movement and sound phrases which are shaped with several sonic elements at the same time. The `choreographic' appearance of this section shows a changed role, from that of a musician merely handling sounds to that of the movement performer who engages bodily with the different materials. Pulled from my memory, the hyper-reflective aspects for me the performer mainly concerned the inner dialogue about the larger arc of the piece, about the negotiation with the sonic difficulties in the acoustic space, and the re-memorising of aesthetic intentions and reflex behaviours to avoid. Reflection probably didn't reach the meta-level that considers the practice in general or concepts such as embodiment and perception. In the semi-open, yet composed configuration of this piece, the main preoccupations were with the immediate situation, challenges and tasks at hand.

• For details on the topic of Presence refer to Chapter 3: Performance: Presence and the Body in Performance.


The performer's presence is fluctuating throughout the evolving piece. Beginning with an attitude of the everyday casual walk the presence evolves to a focused relational gaze; thus presence gets shaped intentionally. The situation at 00:20, for example, shows how a decisive impulse moves the performer to turn towards the audience and through the gaze become completely aware and present; the same effect is visible at 01:38, where the viewer is touched, concerned by the gaze in a potentially empathic and kinaesthetic way. At 01:00, the first audible breath that gets combined with the movement of the hand to the mouth changes perception of agency through the sound, influencing perception of presence. Where before there was only presence in the sense of `being there' as a figure, at his junction presence changes to being in the focal point as an actor/agent/decider, the one in charge, who is guiding actively the progression of the piece. At 01:40 the presence changes by the musician's decision to begin the engagement with the technical system. The presence shifts to a semantic, musical rather than performative (or even theatrical) mode. The opposite effect can be detected at 04:14 where concentration on tiny vocal sounds brings the body's presence back to the foreground. A different kind of presence appears at 04:38: by walking to different positions on stage and through the pointing actions (perhaps pointing to small elements in the sonic field?) as well as the emphasis on breath, the focus is put on the body's presence as flesh rather than person. The purely gestural actions without sounding results that can be discerned between 05:16 and 05:33 shift the focus from listening to watching. The musician's presence disappears and in its place the figure may be interpreted as that of a mime, conductor, or martial arts practitioner, where the body's role is different. This type of figurative presence is broken immediately by a musical action at 05:35, the performer's role reverts to that of a musician. The sequence from 05:00 until 05:55 shows again how the figure's presence receives a significance when pointing or shaping space. This is visible in the spatial gestures between 07:52 and 08:08, where it seems as if forces were exerted onto the body or the body was exerting forces in the space. The nature of the forces on/through the body hints at the invisible presence of a material that is being worked on. ``Who is he conducting?'' might be a question to ask here. The final posture at 09:10 of looking up exposes the body as present on stage, but the person as present in a different domain.

It is interesting to note how presence depends on perceiving the phenomenal body, the flesh/chair/Leib, but at times on perceiving the semantic body/corps/Körper, in different roles and significations. This leads directly to the next section.

• For details on the topic of the Phenomenal Body refer to Chapter 3: Performance: Presence and the Body in Performance.

Phenomenal Body

Looking for purely physical aspects of performing brings to light a few situations that are not purely musical but rather relate to dynamics and the shaping of tension of the entire piece. The bodily impulse that can be witnessed at 02:20 after a suspended moment is a corporeal act. This impulse is not a signal but rather an engagement with the incarnate material of the body and is used to generate a physical momentum that shapes the tension arc of the piece. Similarly, at 03:36, the contorting movements expose how the body is attempting to resolve tension, not through musical actions but through performative means. At 04:46, the performer seems to be approaching the invisible body of the sound-processes and engaging, with a gesture in space, with an imagined object of sound. The act of `touching', or better yet, tentatively groping culminates in a large gesture at 05:18 that catches the sound's body (still imaginary) and holds it, only to finally push it back with a decisive gesture. This direct corporeal relation of gesture to space and imagined objects is oriented towards a physicality that perhaps exists only in the imagination but affects the body's expressive potential and affective power. The physicality of the body is visible again in the transition in sound that is engaged/triggered with the body by a build-up of tension and a gesture of release, as if the process had been set in motion with a push and could now be let running on its own course. In the sequence at 07:48, with the ring-modulated sounds, the swing of the arms has a physical, corporeal effect on the entire body, but there is no clear signification except for the physical momentum and movement that is being generated. These movements appear rather `dancerly' than musical, these sequences produce a shift in state where the body space is extended (the `kinesphere' (Laban 1950) to include extended dimensions by means of the extended arms. The entire ending sequence from 08:51 onwards moves from a conducting to a resting state, in an attitude of waiting or undergoing; the body finally carries its weight and comes to rest.

• For details on the topics of Body-Object Relationships and Instrumental Technicity refer to Chapter 3: Affordances: Body-Object Relationships.

Body-Object Relation -- Instrumental Technicity

In `new islands' the relationship between body and instrument is particularly ambiguous. The instrument can be described understood to include all the technical elements put into place to capture, manipulate, and process sounds (see subsec:technicalImplementation for more technical details). The worn nature of both microphone and sensor-gloves makes a clear separation difficult, also physically, between instrument and body part. One of the design goals of the gloves was precisely to produce the merging of the body's with instrument's action space. In the observed performance, at 00:23, for the first time through the hand postures and groping actions the gloves become visible as instrument. Barely a minute later, at 01:02, the microphone becomes active and can be perceived as a part of the instrument. The short, decisive actions with the outstretched hand seen between 01:19 and 01:22, which results in muting the sound-track, demonstrate the instrumental link between the gesture and the sound. A little bit later, at 01:36, gesturing and voice generate the impression of conducting and speaking. In this situation, the body becomes the instrument or the material of the action, but not the sound. In contrast, the clear control gestures at 01:40 emphasise the hand's role as instruments, or as carriers of instruments, albeit in an ambiguous role. The microphone emphasises the voice as an instrument, but by the amplification of tiny sounds the question arises if the microphone is the instrument or the body. The wireless elements hug the body and enter into a state of `symbiosis' with it, merging body parts with the technical interface. This fusion has the potential to render the instrument-body compound transparent, both in terms of intentionality and actions, as is visible at 02:20. The instrumental actions with this interface remain ambiguous: they represent both symbolic and metaphorical relationships to (abstract digital) sound processes, as can be seen at 02:23 and at 05:00, where the gesture is read as signal rather than instrumental action. The technicity of the instrument that is visible in the close-ups at 08:52, does not necessarily proclaim a cyborg relationship (Haraway 1987), it does not generate a monstrous body (Kozel_2007), but rather makes transparent the hand gesture's role as movement and control actions. The proportion of purely movement-related actions in the entire piece is relatively small. This is mainly due to the fact that it is not possible to take of the instrument and carry out unencumbered gestures. At the same time, the presence of the link through the body-hugging sensing mechanism that motivates the repertoire of movements and gestures in the first place. A sequence such as the one between 08:19 and 08:50 would never be performed, if the instrumental link with the sound didn't exist.

• For details on the topic of Performative Awareness refer to Chapter 3: Body Awareness: Levels of Body Perception.

Performative Awareness

Walking to the front of the stage to face the audience, from 00:18 to 00:24, the pre-reflective body-awareness of the performer is readable, if only in the change of posture from casual walking to taking up an erect position to gaze at the audience. In the voice actions that follow at 01:02, the action of `tasting' the sibilants accompanied by holding the hand in front of the mouth reflect on the one hand the body-embedded capabilities of speech and hand actions that are below the level of cognition. The content of speech, on the other hand, can be perceived as intentional and consciously focused (`so, so, so' in Japanese for `good', or `well'). The distinction between sub-personal and conscious actions becomes visible in the control gesture of making the fist. The hand-action itself belongs in the domain of pre-reflective capabilities, a motor pattern to be triggered. From the point of view of the performer's awareness, it produces a strong corporeal impact that combines self-perception with transparent body perception. The fist-gesture has an iconic significance for the musical system as much as for the audience. For the performer, using an iconic gesture makes the body becomes transparent, contrary to other arm gestures that are used for continuous modulation and require bodily awareness and adaptation in relation to the sound.

The action of walking around the stage space from 04:40 onwards is another example of pre-reflective awareness. At 05:34 we see a virtuoso gesture in combination with vocal action. The shaping and control is pre-reflective, only the intent to carry it out and onwards is intentional and conscious. The shape and timing of the gesture and utterances depend on pre-reflective corporeal capabilities that can be made aware but may not be consciously controlled. In the section from 07:20 until 08:20 it is interesting to observe the feet, rather than the arm and head movements or musical actions. The balancing and weight distributions on the feet reflect the body's tension and are subject to the extended postures, thus making visible how apart from movements the entire body is involved in shaping the performance. In a detailed view, at 08:44, a control gesture of the left hand can be observed: the thumb is pressing against a sensor mounted on the glove and positioned on the side of the hand. We see an unnatural, learned, instrumental action that idiosyncratic but whose execution demonstrates expertise and a level of integration, which makes it pre-reflective in its detailed execution. The conscious content of the instrumental action in this case is to activate the ring modulator, not thinking how to press with the thumb on the sensor located on the side of the hand.

• For details on the topics of Skillful Activity and Sensorimotor Skill refer to Chapter 3: Enaction: Original Conception: Skill and Chapter 3: Enaction: Sensorimotor Enaction.

Skillful Activity Mediates Experience

An exploratory attitude pervades the performance and a strange kind of sensorimotor link exists between body, posture, gesture, instrument, and environment. The motor and sensor engagement is done with the knowledge about the possibilities of materials, processes, and expectations about the results of certain actions, as well as adaptations of behaviour as a consequence of the exploratory interaction mode. Between 00:10 until 01:02 this attitude prevails, it is evident that the performer is placed within a sonic environment that is not the result of his immediate actions. The interactions seem to produce some effects on the sonic environment (changing the balance of layers), but the performer is himself listening and reacting, while moving about the stage space. At 02:22, an impulse can be felt and a decision is executed through a full body gesture, which shows clear knowledge of the consequences of the action in the flow of the moment. Within the larger gesture a musical action is embedded that is skilfully carried out through quick grasping movements with the hands, synchronised with a vocal impulse. Together these elements generate a new sonic layer within the sound processes. The level of sensorimotor integration of this embedded action can be judged by the fluency and ease of execution in several domains: in the corporeal sphere of instrument affordance, in the gestural domain of coarticulation within a larger movement sequence, as an instrumental control action combined with a vocal action, and in the musical and sonic domain as agency of the musician. A few other moments in this performance exhibit this level of integration. The best example may be observed between 05:33 and 05:38. The short phrase shows the negotiation of several layers of contingency. Beginning with a back-pocket action to activate the microphone, the flowing bi-manual gesture captures and modulates sounds in two streams, which originates from a synchronised vocal action. The entire sequence is a peaking in sound intensity, which is rapidly brought down again, producing a short window of increased dynamics. The capability to generate and control compositional elements in this manner bears witness to the level of integration between handling of the contingent musical flow and the physical, instrumental, and sonic affordances that are in play. A similar integration is visible from 06:02 to 06:20, when specific musical actions are carefully placed within the sonic context. In the resonating and pulsating soundscape minimal vocal impulses are fed into beating left-right panned sound delays. This is done with short efficient hand gestures. Anticipating a change, additional sound processes are applied with a longer gesture that finally leads to the change in soundscape with the arrival of new material (the noise of a truck passing in the rain provides a classic crescendo/decrescendo wave). The environment that is engaged by this combination of elements resides in the sonic sphere and the body--voice--interface--gesture--processing compound is applied in a seamless manner. The domain of action is the invisible sonic domain, as with any musical action, its content is detached from the physical stage space. The action domain that generates and modulates the sounds, however, is physical, visible, and kinaesthetically perceivable, by the performer as well as the audience. The importance of space on the bodily expression is visible in the sequence between 07:52 and 08:21: the sensor affordance enable movements in the directions of the `kinésphère' (Alaoui 2013) to have different effects. A different order of sensorimotor skill is exhibited in the gestures of reaching, twisting and turning. These skill belong to the general motility and articulation of our bodies, and is leveraged to achieve a specific gestural and sonic result. Overall, the perceptual experience of the performer is tied to the skilful integration and negotiation of materials, the body, instrumental affordances as well as the situational, musical, and spatial conditions that develop on stage. This is transmitted to the audience who experiences the piece, by co-performing on a sub-personal level, many of the actions and reactions of the performer.

• For details on the topic of Inter/Subjectivity refer to Chapter 3: Phenomenology: The Focus on Perception: Embodied Subjectivity.


By stepping on stage, at 00:10, the artist as subject becomes immediately present and intersubjectivity is generated in relation to the audience. In addition, the appearing soundscape creates a sonic situation, an environment within which the subject is now located. The actions of the performer, even if low-key, show an engagement with the environment, thus asserting a subjective position. At 01:02, a position facing forward is taken up and the voice is used for the first time. ``Who is he talking to?'' we might ask, making of this abstract communication an eminently intersubjective moment. From 01:38 until 02:10, the vocal action is more communicative and becomes musical, which changes the signification of the action and the role of the performer. This is emphasised again at 02:20, when the performer steps to the front, facing and looking directly at the audience. The step out of the environment into a direct relation with the audience shows the change in intersubjective rapport, which is repeated at 04:38, with the addition of an almost intelligible, whispered `listen', a communicative gesture with the intent of engaging intersubjectively with the audience. A new type of relation appears at 04:41 with a walk to a place on stage and a pointing gesture towards an undefined entity. The gestural actions, such as the ones at 05:45, appear as a kind of intersubjective communication, but with the question who the subjects are. By looking up into the dark, at 09:12, an imaginary situation and the subjective placement of the performer in this environment is posited for the last time. These actions all carry significance, which is not explained, and point to the central question about subjectivity in this type of performance.

all materials © 2011–2017 by Jan Schacher