Movements and Music

For me, music starts with movements by a performer.

Music is the interaction between the making of movements (by a person, usually called a musician), the vibrations caused by these movements (by an object, usually called a musical instrument) and the perception of these actions. In my view, music happens in an interactive circle of these three activities.

The activity of making movements seems to be the most intentional of the three. The body is making a gesture. This gesture is shaped by the performing body. The gesture has a clear destination, that could be called music but that does not necessarily imply a direct relation with sound. There are a lot of movements of the performing body, that I would consider as belonging to and even crucial for music, that do not however necessarily produce any sound at all.

For the second activity, the vibrations caused by these movements, it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of ‘reactivity’ rather than activity. An object reacts to the energy which has been put in it, trying to lose it again by vibrating. The behaviour of the object as it vibrates is determined by the material and form of the object itself. In this case, I see the materiality of the object, referring not only to the material it is made of, but also to further physical characteristics. The object itself consists of all the material that reacts to the first activity, including the room, the acoustics etc. In contrast to the movements by the body that are also caused by the physical characteristics of the body, the vibrations of the material are merely functioning as an unintentional response. The reaction of the material is inevitable. In this sense, the performer can predict the reaction of the material and for this reason is able to ‘play’ an instrument. The difference between these two actions should therefore not be seen in their origins as a body or material but in the presence or absence of intention.

The perception of both these activities forms the third activity, enacted by the audience as well as the performer. The third activity connects both former activities. It is a reaction to, not only the movements of the performer and the vibrations of the material, but also the perception of the performer and material themselves. In a case where the performer can perceive their own performance alongside the vibrations of the material, these activities may further influence the movements of the performer.

My aim in the descriptive passage above is to underline the importance, for my practice, of all kinds of other information contained in a music performance beyond that which is audible. To briefly summarise: for me, music is an activity during which an intentional movement by a performer transforms an object, which creates audible vibrations. The perception of both these actions, as well as the perception of the body and the material that either accomplish or undergo these actions, results in an interpretation and a critical judgement by the audience and/or performer. In turn, the movements of the performer might be influenced by this interpretation and critical judgement.

Due to the synchronous perception of these two activities: movements and vibrations, and these two physicalities: body and material, there is a clear connection for audience and performer between all these elements during the performance. This connection is, in my view, not necessarily only based on the resulting sound, but also on other perceivable information. For this reason, I see music not as a purely auditive phenomenon, but as a web of relationships between what is heard and what is seen during the whole process of producing sound and listening to it.

Musical performances took place as I described above until the invention of technologies for sound recording and reproduction. These direct relationships between movement, body, vibration, materiality and perception are distorted as soon as sound can be silently transmitted in space (as in the case of the telephone and radio) or time (caused by all types of sound recording). I would like to emphasise that it is sound that is transmitted here, because all other elements of musical performance discussed above stay where they have always been. It is exactly this isolation of one component of music that destroys the relationships between the visual and auditive components of the music I mentioned before.

I do not think, however, that these sound transmission and recording technologies can be seen as the cause of the isolation of sound from its visual components. These technologies were developed at the end of the nineteenth century. In my opinion, the reason for their invention should not be seen as a mere result of new technological possibilities but more as a paradigmatic change in the idea of what music itself is and should be. During the end of the eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth century the perception of music became more and more focussed on the perception of the sound of music; instrumental music became more important than vocal music, special concert halls were built for listening to music and it became understood that the audience should remain silent while engaged in this act. At the beginning of the twentieth century moreover this whole development culminated in the phenomenon of hiding the musicians behind a curtain throughout the concert performance. This act proposed that ideally nothing should distract the audience from listening to the sound itself, which was now synonymous with music itself.

Most music nowadays is heard without seeing movement, since recorded music, in all its forms, is the main way to perceive music. Often our mind will be able to have some visual idea about the sound production, since we have visual references of how a guitar, a violin or a trumpet is played as well as what they look like.

Movements and Instruments

In my own work, my research explores the visual and auditive relationship of producing sound. Electricity gives us the possibility to play instruments in a different way. Early electronic instruments like the Theremin and the ondes Martenot are still based on linear scaling of musical parameters. For example altering the distance of the right hand to one of the theremin antennas changes the pitch from low (when a large distance exists between the hand and the antenna) to high. The same linearity can be found in many other new electronic instruments and also, to a certain extent, in many synthesisers and electric guitars.

My work searches for a less directly proportional approach between sound and movement. Microphones and loudspeakers are of course ideal tools to achieve these kinds of relationships, since they transduce sound waves into electricity and vice versa. The electric signal can be transformed in many possible ways and therefore the sound that enters a microphone does not need to have any obvious relationship with the sound diffused by a loudspeaker. Whereas musical instruments are often designed in such a way that their vibrational behaviour always reacts in the same predictable manner, in my performances the opposite is often the case. When playing a traditional instrument the repetition of the same movement with more force often results in a louder sound. In my performances, however, there is no such compulsory physical relationship between sound and body movements, since the relationship between body movements and the resulting sound can be made anew during every moment in the performance, due to the use of electrical connection between them both.

An example can be found in my performance Groene Ruis.

Three Categories of Movements in Music

During a music performance several kinds of movement are made by musicians. For my performance Song No 3 these movements play an important role. I would like to propose three different categories of movement by a performer of music that I use as tools for composing. To define the movements of performers in these categories enables me to clarify the cultural context, the implications of performing a certain movement and the possibility of using the movement for aspects that exceed their original meaning. Although I will often underline in this text [1] that these categories are intertwined with each other, I do think it is helpful to use them as the starting point for a vocabulary in composing with movements.

The three categories I have developed are:

  1. Movement for the music
  2. Movement due to the music
  3. Movement to the music

Movement for the music
describes the movements made that are directly related to music but not resulting in any sound. For example the movements made by a conductor and the nods of performers that indicate the start of piece are typical of those belonging to this kind. They act as visual cues needed for communication between performers.

Movement due to the music describes movements that are compulsory for the music. Moving the bow to obtain a tone is necessary if you play the violin, as a trombone player has to move the slide for playing long glissandos. This category is the only one that has a direct result on the sound. These movements are inevitable and ‘forced’ upon the musician by the music they wish to play (whether this is a score or an improvisation is not important, although there is of course a psychological difference between a composer ‘forcing’ musicians to make certain movements and improvising musicians that decide, for themselves, which movements will be executed).

The third category, movement to the music, describes unnecessary movement in so far as the auditive result is concerned. These movements are made during a performance by the musician, but are absolutely inessential. The music does not prescribe them, as in the second category, and they are not needed for any communicative aim between musicians. This kind of movement can, moreover, be observed in music listeners; they shake their heads, tap with a foot or even move their whole bodies, dance etc. These are all reactions to the music they are playing or listening to.

As mentioned above, it is obvious that the borders between these categories are vague and that it is in fact nearly impossible to allocate the movement of a performer into exactly one of these categories. In this sense the division is highly superficial and it is impossible to decide which movements within a specific performance belong to one or other of the categories.

Relationship between Movements to Music (Category 3) and Movements due to Music (Category 2)

When singing, the main movements of the performer that produce sound are those needed to press breath through the vocal chords and change the shape of the whole vocal tract. All other movements could be seen as more or less superfluous, or at least arbitrary. No one can sing without breathing, but many people can sing with nearly no movement of the arms. The way in which the arms are moved during singing, that I have named as category 3, movements to music, creates a specific relation between the performing body and the sound. [2] There is no connection between them, which could be discovered directly, as is the case with for example the shape of the mouth. A specific mouth position will form the sound in a certain way; opening the mouth as far as possible will, for example, force a singer to make an ‘a’ sound, as in far. It is impossible to sing another vowel, such as ‘i’, as in ring. The sound (in this case the text that is spoken or sung) is dictating the way to move and the movements are therefore due to the sound. This kind of constrained relationship cannot be found in movements to music. The same song can be sung by two singers, with each using totally different body language. This does not imply that the body language does not have any influence on the sound that results. As has been mentioned above, musicians need these movements for their performance practice and without them their performance would sound different. All of these movements, whether they are made due to the music or to the music, happen in the same body. The performing musician does not often differentiate between them and these categories of movements are intertwined in a very complex way. At the same time, the movements a musician consciously exercises are mostly movements due to the music, not movements to the music. A violinist exercises their scales, to develop technique, respectively their ability to make movements due to the music. They will not exercise the movements made, for example, by the torso or the face during the performance, in the same way. These movements are seen more as a physical expression of the music played, a corporeal reaction to it rather than an essential bodily movement to achieve a sound. For the audience these movements to the music seem to give visual cues about the emotions of the performer and are therefore part of the final perception of a performance. One of the most obvious proofs of the influence of these movements on the music can be found in the statements of audience members, who have said they cannot stand the movements of a certain performer and so close their eyes.

These visual cues to be observed in music performances are an essential part of the performer’s identity. If a singer is performing using a microphone for the amplification of their voice, it is obvious that the microphone should be close to the mouth during singing. To observe the way in which different singers perform with microphones is to note the remarkable number of ways of handling a microphone. In fact, every singer has their own way of holding the microphone and bringing it to their mouth. Although arm movement also plays an important role in singing without a microphone, microphones add an extra dimension to these movements. The audience knows that the voice will be barely audible and sound quite different as soon as the microphone is away from the mouth. Therefore, the movement of bringing the microphone to the mouth clearly signals that the singer will soon start to sing, to make music. It is a very powerful movement, since it visually illuminates a process that previously has been mostly invisible. The way the microphone is brought to the mouth is often used by the singer as a visual cue to imply his or her relationship to what he or she is going to sing.

For example, due to these movements the microphone often seems to become a subject for whom the singer is singing. In such cases the microphone can be seen as the general ear of the audience, into which the performer sings softly, holding it in both hands and moving it gently. At other moments, the microphone is much more a counterpart; the singer pulls it to the mouth and screams through it. This movement of bringing the microphone to their mouth underlines the way they going to sing through it and is therefore a category 2 movement, a movement due to the music, it is compulsory for the musical sound. At the same time the way the microphone is brought to the mouth, fast or slow, with one hand or two, if the microphone is taken down again during the song or not, is more a category 3 movement, since it is not directly shaping the final sound result. In general
, bringing the microphone faster or slower to the mouth will not change the final sound result; because most singers will not start to sing if the microphone is not close to the mouth. The speed of the movement is therefore a visual cue. This might seems like a paradox, but in fact it just reveals once again, how interleaved these categories are. A part of the movement belongs to category 2, another part to category 3 or to clarify; exactly the same movement can be part of category 2 in one situation or in category 3 in another situation. Just bringing the microphone to the mouth for example, as mentioned above, without singing into it would transform the movement, described above as part of category 2, into a category 3 movement, since it has not influenced the final sound result. This becomes explicit, when we have a look at performances where the microphone is not a visual presence anymore. This is the case with headsets. Performers wearing headsets do so because they do not want the audience to notice they are using amplification. These ‘invisible’ microphones are therefore often used when singers are performing something else than purely music. In some cases, there movements should not imply that they are involved in singing a song, but just acting naturally. This is the case in theatre plays and musicals, when it is necessary to conceal their microphone to act a certain role, which entails singing as well as speaking. In other cases they are worn by performers that carry out complicated choreographies, which are not related to category 3 movements on the music, since they are self-contained and autonomous movements. The situation is no longer focused on the performance of music but on other theatrical action.

Using Movements to Music (Category 3) as Movements due to Music (Category 2) in Song No 3

As mentioned earlier [3] many movements performed by singers with microphones remain silent. They move their arms for example, but there is no audible result. These movements are often made by singers to underline their performance with visual cues. In my performance Song No 3, the movement that brings the microphone to the mouth and back is the main movement carried out by the performer. During Song No 3 the movement controls the sound of the performance and is thus transformed into a movement that also belongs to category 2, movement due to music. The movement of the microphone becomes integral to the shaping of the sound. The performer is only able to control the sound by moving the microphone. At the same time the movements still refer to the common movements of singers when using a microphone and in so doing reference the expressive nature of these gestures.

Examples of different kind of microphone gestures during the performance of Song No 3:

Example 1: Using microphone gestures known from 'speaking through a microphone':

Example 2: Using microphone gestures known from singers.

Example 3: Another example of using microphone gestures known from singers.