II. A body practice emerges
“[My music] needs a body.” - Simon Steen-Andersen (Gottschalk, 2016, pg. 78)
The music-making body and its possible emergence in musical composition and performance is increasingly appearing as a major theme within musical discourses and practices. Jennifer Walshe’s manifesto The New Discipline (2016) articulates the emergence of the body by stating that this type of music is not “music theatre” but a music that acknowledges that musicians have bodies and that those bodies are a part of the music. She rejects associations to genres of “music theatre” and instead insists that The New Discipline is music. She then twists perspectives to another formulation, one I strongly agree with, and proposes that what is at stake is not whether this type of work is music theatre but rather to proclaim that “all music is theatre”. Theatre scholar Alan Read describes “theatre” as “an expressive practice that involves an audience through the medium of images at the centre of which is the human body.” He continues that this expressive practice includes “performative” forms from dance to death rites” and is “the only practice that foregrounds the body in this way.” (Read, 1993, pg. 10) If we chose to agree with Read’s definition and subsequent claims, it is then natural to relate musical practices to theatre when in search of a foregrounded music-making body.
In Why Theater? or a Series of Uninvited Guests (2016), composer Steven Takasugi explains that the moment music departs from so-called absolute music, or as Takasugi put it, “music for headphones”, the body of the performer comes into focus. This bodily view of theatre is useful as it allows for musical works that are perhaps less clearly aligned with the practices and aesthetics of The New Discipline, or instrumental theatre, or Performance Art, to move freely along a spectrum of possibilities. With as wide a scope as Read and Takasugi cast, it is possible to think through the theatrical medium as a strategy for locating the music-making body. It is not necessarily that every piece is Theatre as such (whatever that may mean) but that the musical pieces use theatrical elements for the purpose of foregrounding the human body. This project is built of works that attempt to do just that. It is built of works for performer that involves an audience and at the center of which is the human body. Each piece’s relation to notions of theatre shifts along a continuum where some works are explicitly narrative, even built on fiction, and while others rather focus on the concrete presence of the performer. To answer Takasugi’s question, “Why theatre?”: because I am drawn to a music performance practice that simply cannot survive in headphones, where the music-making body is foregrounded, where lies the possibility to zoom in and out on the physical reality of the body, on the performer’s relation to the space and audience, on the physical limitations of the performer, and on the vitality and fragility of the live performance situation. In this sense, the music that I am drawn to, and the music that builds the core of this research, privileges liveness and the living body over sound as such. Sound becomes a secondary focus to the primary investigation of the physicality of music performance.
Tracing the body
It goes without saying that the music-making body was always present. Performers come to their instrument with idiosyncrasies in physicality, energy, and gesture that create what we call “stage presence”. And though we intuitively understand that the music-making body is required for music making (by humans, at least), until recently music had largely ignored this physical reality within its discourses. Physicality and body movement have historically been seen as the by-product of the musical performance, not the focus of the art form as such. Like the history of the body in western philosophy, a philosophy that Elizabeth Grosz has describes as “somatophobic” (1994, pg. 5), Western classical music has largely remained perplexed by the appearance, meaning, and experience of the body. The emphasis on the visual domain of the performance and the mechanical waste of the musicians’ bodily movements trouble old notions of music as primarily being constituted of sound. However, this is changing rapidly in the 21st century. Recent scholarship increasingly looks at aspects of embodiment as a way of understanding the performer’s phenomenal experiences1 as well as the appearance of movement and the body in compositional practices.2 The body has become so present in contemporary music it begs that we quote body historian Mark Jenner in saying that it seems that we are now “living in somatic times.” (Jenner, 1999, pg. 143)
Several scholars and composers have begun to frame “categories” for how the body emerges in contemporary music. I will elucidate some of these approaches in the section that follows. However, it must be noted that these categories are not meant to represent reality or to feign that such cleanliness between them could ever actually exist. These categories are offered as a tool for thinking, as a method for understanding the nuances of an emerging practice. The music-making body can be pointed to in a multitude of ways: via choreographic actions that are coupled and decoupled from a sounding result, via hyper-virtuosity, via obstacles that make smooth performance difficult or impossible, or through extremes in volume, duration, or intensity that reveal the fragility of the performance situation or the physical exhaustion of the performer.3 What follows is an outline of some of these categorical frames as they specifically emerged within this research project.4
The entangled body
The unique entanglement between the musician and the instrument is the first site out of which the body emerges. The physical act of playing an instrument is itself a body-practice. It is in an extreme disciplining of the body to activate an external musical object. Increasingly, composers are exploiting this hyper-trained body and the musician’s physicality to great effect. Simon Steen-Andersen focuses heavily on the instrumental action and mechanical excess of instrumentality, tracing a lineage to similar strategies as employed by Lachenmann (Craenen, 2014, pg. 222), but extending this instrumental excess to produce compositions via choreographic strategies. Within this project I was interested in removing the instrument from the proverbial equation in order to identify in what ways the body emerges while retaining an instrumental sensibility. I wanted to see what would happen if the musician is “stripped” of her performance tool and what this move would reveal and do to the performer body. With my instrument often displaced from the center of the pieces and/or the generative process, I wanted to see in what ways my uniquely imprinted body/mind as a highly trained musician would nonetheless remain.
The body as instrument
The most obvious way the body can be underlined in a percussionist’s practice is by employing the body as an instrument in itself. The body must be the oldest musical instrument humankind has ever known, whether it is activated via clapping, stomping, snapping, or the use of the voice. “Body percussion” has a relatively long tradition in the percussion repertoire that includes pieces such as Vinko Globokar’s ?Corporel (1985), Robin Hoffman’s Ansprache (2000), and Francois Sarhan’s Homework (2008).5
Within this project the body emerges as an instrument in No Say No Way (Sarhan) and in Blaha Lujza Tér (Jutterström). Both of these composers have dedicated much of their recent work to exploring the body as an instrument, though certainly not with the same aim as the other. In the case of Jutterström’s work the body appears as an extension of both compositional and choreographic thinking. That is to say, Jutterström explores the notion that the body that moves also makes sounds, and vice versa. Any body that moves is thus producing potential musical material. Following action notation strategies that the likes of Lachenmann have pioneered, Jutterström allows a physical gesture, such as a circle performed by the hand on the flat surface of the ground, to yield its sonic result. In addition, Jutterström points to the body as an instrument through snapping, flicking, and various vocal techniques. At the core of Blaha Lujza Tér, however, is an exploration of spatiality and how a work is experienced differently if it is heard at a great distance from the audience or at a close proximity to that audience. This matter of the body is something separate than the notion of the body as instrument, a topic which I will return to below.
Sarhan, on the other hand, uses the body rather as a method for making theatrical music. In No Say No Way, the body produces semiotic signs to convey meanings that serve a narrative. These signs often include simple hand gestures, shakes of the head, and occasional facial expressions which are notated through action notation. In addition to these theatrical, non-sounding elements, the body is conceptualized in Sarhan’s work as a translated drumset: the feet, legs, thighs, stomach, chest, and head build a full register of sounds to be struck by the performer’s hands. Much of the music written for this instrument is built of repetitive gestures and is often groove based. Within No Say No Way, the climax of the piece is a ten-minute euphoric dance entitled Die Lärmtrompeten des Nichts (The Noise Trumpets of Nothingness), which manages to combine narrative uses of the body (which serve the larger context of No Say No Way) and an instrumentalization of the body similar to his older work, Homework. The result is a choreographic music piece where the body is both moving like a dancer, and performed on like an instrument. In work where the body is the instrument in itself, the performer undergoes a double of both having and being a body: having a body that can be used for a specific purpose, and being a body that is undergoing a transformation of potentialities.
Physical Gestures and Actions
No Say No Way is a perfect segue into another way the body has emerged within this research project, that of physical gesture and actions. Actions can be gestures which are notated with musical notation, video score, or as a text score. These types of actions are akin to those actions employed by John Cage in works such as Song Books (1970) and Water Walk (1959). Actions can be simple gestures with the body or they may incorporate objects. They may be sounding or silent, but in actions, sound is often secondary to the physical event. This notion of actions as music has been taken up by many current composers including Matthew Shlomowitz, Natacha Diels, Jessie Marino, Mark Applebaum, Neo Hülcker, and many others. Actions can also be events which span longer stretches of time. This is the case in What Noises Remain (Swendsen/Torrence), where the body emerges through extended events that require anywhere from two to five minutes. The events performed in What Noises Remain often create a visual image through the body’s relation to the instrument or via choreographic situations in dialogue with the instrument. This was the case, for example, when the rope is used as an implement to play the instrument, but that is also increasingly entangling the performer. Through this progressive restriction of the rope around the body a type of narrative material is conveyed at the same time as the sounding result on the drum if affected.
For the performer performing actions, the execution is not unlike the execution of playing an instrument. After all, learning an instrument is fundamentally a training of the body. It is a training of the wrists, fingers, arms, mouths, and legs to execute precise tasks. The type of body training and execution that physical gestures require, then, is not totally foreign to the instrumentalist. Matthew Shlomowitz calls this type of music theatre one that evokes the performer as an “automaton” (2016), a performer that executes actions independent of their unique subjectivity. For the performer, the complexity of action-based music emerges when the actions are totally divorced from sounding material, musical material, and an instrumental relation. In these cases, it can seem that the only remnants of a musical practice within these pieces is the fact that musicians are performing them.6 This fact fundamentally troubles the notion of what a musician “is” as a performer. And it throws into question how the work should be read and critiqued. These types of actions move the musician even further away from music and more firmly towards the realm of a general performance practice. In the case of the works created for this research, What Noises Remain, Etudes to become a deer, No Say No Way, How to Fight, Institute for Post-Human Performance Practice all engage the performer(s) in actions that seem almost devoid of musical skills, execution, and references. However, very often these actions, though seemingly divorced from music, are treated and even conceived as music, containing breath, musicality, and a logic of musical languages.
The body moving in space
The body in space is not new to composition. Spatialized sound and explorations into perception and phenomenology have all been done for the service of both so-called “absolute” music and explicitly “theatrical” music. The body moving in space has been used in this project first as a method to “open” the stage, to explore the potential of thinking with the room in created the work and to “free” the percussionist from the traditional and stationary percussion set-up. Spatiality offers a possible reconsideration of how the stage can be used in music performance as it moves towards theatre and performance, whether this is done for narrative aims or for examining the nature of the bodily co-presence of performer and spectator.
Within this project the performance space was very often used to create a theatrical situation. No Say No Way unfolds within a simple lecture scenography that creates a situation in which the piece takes place. This situation also creates a poetics of proximity between the performer and the instrument, the triangle, which emphasizes the character’s expression of reticence and hesitation. Similarly, in What Noises Remain, the space is used primarily to express the distance the performer has to the instrument in an effort to communicate underlying themes of freedom and captivity. On the other hand, some pieces within this project have explored the performance space primarily for the acoustic situation and the bodily situation that proximity between the performer and the audience reveals. In Blaha Lujza Tér the same ten-minute work is performed twice, once at a great distance from the audience and once at a very close proximity to the audience. It is a simple exercise that exposes aspects of aural perception, but it is an exercise that is made complex due to the bodily co-presence of the performer and the spectators. In another example, Tom Johnson’s Nine Bells plays with the performance space for acoustic aims, as well as with the intention of exposing how the body moving in space produces musical sound. He does this in space by underlining the sound of the steps taken in order for the performer to reach the nine bells that are suspended in the room. The sound of her steps emerge as a musical material. This use of the performance space is not explicitly narrative, but rather opens up the performance situation to a larger choreographic and dramaturgical dimension.
Exhaustion and athleticism
Endurance is a common theme in performance art, and it seems to also be emerging as a common theme or strategy in contemporary music. There seems to be a renewed interest in long duration pieces and conceptions of the “Event”, which can include a sense of saturation that can approach exhaustion, either physically or mentally.7 Within this project many of the pieces either sought or inadvertently achieved a physical athleticism to the point of exhaustion. This is the case in Nine Bells, which has been described as a solo for “athletic percussionist”; in No Say No Way, which climaxes with an ecstatic dance with so much energy that the performer and the entire piece literally collapse; in What Noises Remain which meets its dramatic climax with the performer throwing her body at the bass drum again and again, seemingly collapsing into it unrelenting; in How to Fight, which has any number of play “fight scenes” that incorporate basic aikido movements and the delivery of rapid text, a combination that consistently leaves both performers breathless; or in Institute for Post-Human Performance Institute, where the percussion solo ends with a long accelerando that literally states in the score, “Repeat until fainting or almost fainting”. In all of these examples, a point of physical exhaustion is sought after and attained.
The effect of exhaustion to reveal the body is obvious. The struggle is real, it’s visceral. There is no possibility of acting or pretending. It can be heard in the panting breath and in the increasingly clumsy steps around the stage. Where musical mastery is so often about feigning effortlessness, these pieces actively seek to show the physical labor of performance. Sound Touch by Wojtek Blecharz is a piece that at its core engages with the audience body and the relation between performer and spectator. But due to its limited audience capacity (four at a time) the piece is always performed across several hours, physically and mentally exhausting the performer. The body of work listed above has revealed a certain tendency in my artistic practice that is built on an excess of energy and even risk of collapse.
The voice as a fifth limb
The voice is perhaps the most developed extension in the percussion practice that expands the art form towards theatre and other stage arts. The voice is an extension of the body and one that the percussion-performer has readily accessed. The percussion repertoire is stacked with pieces from Georges Aperghis, Vinko Globokar, Fredrik Rzewski, and so many others where percussionists are asked to perform their instruments in more or less “traditional” ways but where they are simultaneously asked to speak, sing, act, or narrate. Across the course of this research project, I spent much of my training energy on the development of the voice, either through private lessons or singing courses. The musical voice is a natural extension to the musicality of percussion, and indeed it was relatively simple to work on developing the voice as it follows a similar method and trajectory to learning a percussion instrument or a piece of music. My interest in the voice in this project was less about becoming a singer or an actor, but rather about the voice pointing once again to the unique body of the performer. Instead of considering the voice as separate from a body practice I see it as the fifth limb of the percussionist.
The body as concept
In some cases, the body is engaged within a musical practice via the concept of the body rather than the use of actual bodies. Within this project in particular, the notion of the body in transition was a common approach to a conceptual body in music performance. Etudes to become a deer is a piece that speculates on the possibility of deer musicianship (how do would they listen, do they consider their sounds musical?), and seeks out a transformational process where a human body can become deer via physical and sonic imitation. Institute for Post-Human Performance Practice speculates on the musician-body in a time of artificial intelligence and robotics. Institute for Post-Human Performance Practice is a multi-media work that includes a 35-minute “mockumentary” where the performers, Trond Reinholdtsen and myself, “perform” body alteration surgeries in search of a music performer who has increased musical ability through physical enhancement and reduced risk of failure through improved brain capacity. We attach “arms” to my body, extend my limbs, and even give our consciousness over to Artificial Intelligence (AI++). The piece is not looking at the body as musical or gestural material as such, but is rather looking at the concept of the musician’s body as a grounds for making new musical work. The body emerges as both a thematic and a method for creating. In these two cases, the music-making body is brought under investigation through the conceptual lens of transformation.
The audience body
Recently, there has been an increased interest in the audience body and the spectator’s physical experience of music.8 Sound Touch is such a work that brings the audience in close physical contact with the performer and emphasizes the spectator’s physical experience of listening. Sound Touch appears to be, for all intents and purposes, a typical percussion piece. It includes a wide range of percussion instruments, all of which are performed in a more or less normative fashion. However, the core of the piece and focus of the percussionist’s role is not to perform on these instruments, but rather to give them away to an untrained audience to perform themselves. In this way, the piece can be understood as a quintet rather than a percussion solo. The percussionist’s primary task then, is in the relation with the audience member, and specifically in the task of showing through physical touch in what ways the spectator can engage with the instrument objects and each other. In parts of the piece, instruments such as planks, cymbals, and vibrating devises are placed on the audience’s bodies and played by the percussionist. All of the material in Sound Touch was developed to activate the listener’s body. All of the material was created specifically for the listener’s physical perspective. The audience body as a focus in music practice, I believe, is an inevitable result of ongoing research and practices that privilege the live body, an entity which emerges through the co-presence of the performer and the spectator.
The body remains
Through this process of reflection, it is clear that the body can and does emerge out of an immense array of possibilities. Though the themes, aesthetics, and goals of every project were wildly different, the body remains as a “home” out of which these theatrical and performative pieces were generated and performed. Though it would seem it is now time to finally settle on a way of talking about and gathering all of these tendencies under one “roof”, the task of labelling these diverse practices as “one” remains difficult if not impossible. It is questionable what use there is in creating new labels for talking about this type of music other than the fact that labels help us organize a stubborn, chaotic, and ever-emerging discourse. Adopting labels such as theatre into describing this work, as I have done, is also a complex matter. Theatre carries a long and cumbersome history of its own, with institutions, artists, and traditions that both do and do not relate easily to contemporary music practices. However, like music, theatre is itself a difficult concept to pin down. Like any major art form, theatre is constantly in flux, morphing with other practices, and spanning a massive spectrum of both doing and making. For now, at this point of my understanding of this work, I will settle with the term of theatre, and specifically Alan Read’s open conception of it that foregrounds the body.9 With such an open reading of the term, theatre then is not and cannot be singular. Using the term theatre in relation to music does not have to imply the use of fiction or narrative, nor point to the humor of Mauricio Kagel. This open conception of theatre allows a certain complexity to remain, a complexity which was always there and that will always be there as long as music is performed in front of live audiences. Any attempt to untangle these weeds will only oversimplify the richness of the foregrounded body in performance and the spectrum from which it emerges.