music amplifies and subverts the body

In the summer of 2016, I attended the Darmstadt Summer Courses where I met Berlin-based English tubist Jack Adler-Mckean. We quickly became friends and I learned about Jack’s unique situation: he was the only tuba player at Darmstadt. In case you’re not familiar with the general make up of this event, it consists of hundreds of composers and performers of new/experimental/contemporary music (whatever we’re calling it now…) who arrive in a small German down about 20km south of Frankfurt for two intensive weeks of concerts, masterclasses, bier, discussions, lessons, lectures, und mehr bier. Out of the hundreds of instrumentalists, Jack was the only tubist. Not only this, he was an avid improviser, champion of collaborating with composers, a specialist in microtonality, and regularly performed standing with his instrument strapped to his torso. He explained to me the stark lack of contemporary music for tuba. If you’ve never heard a microtonal tubist shred, please take a moment to listen:

As we became friends, I told Jack about my current project with Thin Edge, my then-annoyance with complex notation, and my desire to work with dancers and improvisers. His solution? Let’s do some work together. We soon found an empty class room near the Lichtenbergschule and things got weird.

We decided to do an experiment similar to the one I did with Thin Edge (which had taken place only weeks before), though with a few important modifications:

  1. The dancer (being myself at that moment…) would pick 3 movement concepts. These could be body-centric (movement that focuses on various body parts, i.e. the elbow or the shoulder), or more abstract (handling imaginary objects of different sizes, using gestalt gestures, different types of attitudes)
  2. The musician (Jack) would pick 3 sonic concepts. These could be simple (pitch/rhythmic/motivic ideas), technical (modes of playing/interacting with the instrument), or conceptual (different types of attitudes).
  3. Optional: these choices are kept secret by the performers.
  4. During the session, the musician maps their three concepts to the dancer’s three concepts. The players learn these concepts in real time. The mappings are made as follows:
    1. Musician concepts 1 and 2 mimic/amplifies dancer concepts 1 and 2.
    2. Musician concept 3 contrasts/subverts dancer concept 3.

Here’s one of our sessions:

The rules are meant to be bit vague/flexible. The point in this experiment was to create a fluctuating feedback loop between the musician and the dancer. The dancer’s behaviors become an abstract score, and the musician’s response naturally becomes material to which the dancer may react.  Both performers learn during the improvisation how they affect the other. The concepts are there just to serve as communicative signals. Thus, the performers become each other’s scores through a multi-modal translation. Movement is translated into sound and back again in real time.

While exciting, this experiment also turned out to be quite difficult. Dancers and musicians treat time and development differently in their respective disciplines (more on this later). As a musician pretending to be a dancer in this situation, I intuitively phrased my movements in more of a musical manner, less in a physical one. Additionally, the task of juggling 3 concepts, learning 3 concepts, and preserving the mappings while improvising is challenging. I can’t speak from a dancer’s point of view, but as an improvising musician, playing your instrument and keeping a sense of musical continuity is hard enough without actively interpreting a constantly changing body. During a session, current material often naturally suggests the following material, but those tendencies must be acknowledged and checked. The dancer might suggest changes that the musician is not ready for, or unable to make (both disciplines have their physical limitations).

I chose to encourage Jack to mimic and subvert my movement to problematize the movement-to-sound mapping. I didn’t want the piece to be simply an exercise in sound-painting or abstract conducting. Once a 1-to-1 mapping is “learned” by an audience, the performance becomes a banal act of “Mickey-Mousing” (sorry for the Disney reference) – like hearing a downward scale as a cartoon character tumbles down the stairs.

By creating the possibility for subversion, the relationship between the musician and the dancer flirts with hostility and betrayal, creating the opportunity for tension and resolution.

Anyways, Jack and I discussed collaborating on a performance for tuba, contrabass, dancer, and motion-sensitive live electronics. I wanted to further investigate the ideas I was working on with Thin Edge, but in a wilder, more experimental setting. Thus, the concept for ironic erratic erotic was born. The piece will feature instruments that have the lowest register in their respective families, but I feel that this also sets up a musical expectation that can be creatively subverted by creative improvisers. The instruments are large and physically imposing on the players, which contrasts well with an instrument-less dancer. More so, the possibility of the dancer gaining sonic dominance over the musicians through the use of the motion sensors problematizes the power dynamics of the performance situation.

I should probably address a fundamental question at this moment: why write for improvisers?

As I said in an earlier entry, I felt like my written compositions could not approach the level of dynamic reflexivity, spontaneity, or inter-personal focus that I found manifested in free improvisation. Additionally, my ego was slowly becoming more comfortable with my music not being performed exactly as written (which is to be expected in any situation regardless…). I wanted my imagination to be the foundation of a musician’s performance, not the ceiling. Thus, I began to imagine the compositional process not as crafting precisely-written instrumental lines, but creating situations in which performers are free to explore provocative behaviors and relationships in different ways. I would rather work with a performer to create compelling material that originate from the performer themselves, making the material prime for quick embodiment/memorization and development without the use of complex notation.

Making this piece will be an exercise in creating responsive and flexible performance situations while working remotely with improvisers. While composing ironic erratic erotic, I will not write down a single note. Here are our methods:

  1. I record 20 short (ca. 30 seconds) viola improvisations that I send to Yuri Shimaoka (the dancer).
  2. Yuri films herself embodying these improvisations, focusing on creating a clear behavior from each one. She will identify an attitude in my playing and translate it onto her body. These clips are sent to Jack and Adam Goodwin (the contrabassist).
  3. Jack and Adam mute the audio from Yuri’s clips, and together translate her movements back into music in two sessions of improvisation. The first amplifies her movements and reinforces her behavior, the second contrasts it. These audio clips are sent back to me.
  4. I take all the clips (about 20 groups of visual and audio recordings), analyze them, and order them, being sensitive to the time-scale that each suggests, the sense of continuity or contrast between them, mixing and matching clips from the same group, staggering transitions, etc…

Additionally, sections of the piece will implement of the game that Jack and I developed at Darmstadt, though of course with two musicians and a dancer. The concepts that will be used in the piece will be planned ahead of time, hopefully eliminating elements of insecurity in the performers and helping the flow of the piece.

By working in this way, we are free to explore complex material and compelling interactions without the burden of complex notation. Since all the material originates from the performers’ bodies, all that is needed for notation is a symbol to reference a particular behavior (documented in online video and audio files) and a system of simple graphics to communicate cuts/transitions/interpolations/durations between different behaviors. We should be able to fit the entire 15-20 minute-piece on one piece of paper, eliminating the need for long rows of music stands, huge cardboard scores that hide the performers, page turns, and footpedaling. This stage setup allows the performers freedom to engage/interact with each other, hopefully creating a more vibrant and visceral concert environment.

I’m already over my self-imposed word limit. So much for restraint.

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