music and the body

26 July 2007 - muzikologi

glengouldmémoire de 3ième année (2007) par jack hurst, mon camarade de Goldsmiths, sur les rapports entre gestuelle musicale et corporelle (en anglais) – a obtenu un First.

Discuss the interface between the musical instrument and the body with reference to your own instrument and your own body. Examine the constraints imposed by the instrument, how these can be overcome, and how the instrument itself may suggest new lines of musical thought.

There has been much discussion on the close relationship between music and human movement. This essay explores the nature of the interface between the piano and my body, as well as the cultural interface between performer and audience, with reference to the enclosed DVD recording of a 15-minute improvisation that I performed, with Bruno de Florence, for a public concert at Goldsmiths on 2 February 2007. I observe how different types of sonic patterns and musical structures influence – or are influenced by – specific body movements. I also explore the musical interface between Bruno and myself and suggest ways in which constraints and possibilities of the instrument, as well as wider sociocultural factors, might have shaped the nature of our performance. My initial observations are recorded in a table (see Appendix) and general patterns that emerge are discussed with close reference to the ideas of music theorists. Firstly, however, it is necessary to acknowledge some important insights that have been made into the relationship between music and movement and the influence of spatial properties over sonic patterns.

Ethnomusicological research by von Hornbostel, Blacking and Kubik has revealed a conceptual link between sonic patterns and movement patterns in the field of African music and dance (in Baily 1985:238-242). Baily points out that this link is also mirrored in some African languages which use the same word to describe both music and dance. In African xylophone music, von Hornbostel suggested that the spatial relationships of the hands rather than the spatial arrangement of the keys had the larger influence over the motion of the hands: ‘[The player] realizes melody above all as an act of motility, regarding regarding its audible quality rather as a side-issue, although a desirable one’ (in Baily 1985:239). Similarly, Blacking demonstrated that sonic patterns on the Butembo flute from Congo were actually conceived of as repeated patterns of fingerings (in Baily 1985:239). Finally, the importance of postures and gestures, which it is suggested are even more crucial than audible sonic results, was emphasised by Kubik who stated, ‘One can define African music in one of its fundamental structural aspects as a system of movement patterns’ (Baily, his italics, 985:241).

In accordance with these movement-music insights, Baily states that ‘A musical instrument is a type of transducer, converting patterns of body movement into patterns of sound’ (Baily 1992:149). His detailed study focusing on a comparison of the 14-stringed Herati dutār and the Afgan rubāb explored ways in which the spatial properties of an instrument and, therefore, physically how it is played, may effect the structure of the music that is played on it. Baily explained how the morphology of the former, and more recent, instrument has a combination of morphological features taken from the rubāb and an old two-stringed dutār. The the reason for the modification of the two-stringed dutār into the 14-stringed dutār was for performers of the latter instrument to be able to play the music repertory of the rubāb (in Baily 1995:242-244). This insight gives an indication of the extent to which ergonomic conditions – directly linked to the morphology of an instrument in relation to the body – can effect the typical sonic patterns of a particular instrument.

The study also demonstrated a number of differences in sonic patterns between the traditional music of each respective instrument. Firstly, rubāb music showed a wider ambitus in than that of the dutār, and the capability of producing larger intervals. The tiered array of strings on the former, as opposed to a single row of note positions on one string on the latter, enabled larger distances in intervals to be covered by shorter physical distances (less stretch) between the fingers. Secondly, in samples of music from both instruments Baily found that the frequency of ascending and descending intervals was almost twice as great on the dutār than on the rubāb (in Baily 1985:244-248), but this observation can be explained by the particular sonic patterns that are typical of each instrument. In rubāb music, the tiered array on strings makes scalar melodic patterns possible whereas the dutār tends to feature a series of descending cluster patterns (in Baily 1985:249). Baily points out the direct way that the spatial properties of an instrument can influence the type of sonic patterns conceived for, and on contact with, it: ‘dutār music is structured in such as way that this particular constraint of the linear array is minimised’ (Baily 1995:253).

At this stage, observation from this research into music of non-Western origin, it is clear that the spatial properties of an instrument can have a significant influence over the music that is played on it. In light of my immediate bservations from the DVD recording, noted in chronological order in the appendix of this essay, it is now time to explore whether and, if so, how and to what extent the piano, my interaction with another musician, and wider sociocultural factors might have influenced my own playing on this occasion.

Similar research conducted by Jane Davidson on a classical pianist has revealed
that there are ‘a vast array of movements and gestures that serve many urposes’ (in Rink 2002:239) which well exceed what is technically required on a purely ergonomic level and can, therefore, be regarded as serving an expressive rather than entirely practical purpose (see Clarke, in Rink 2002: 67). Furthermore, Davidson has suggested that bodily movement is actually the source of musical expression, with the body itself used as an instrument to communicate basic human qualities from performer to audience. Supporting evidence for this, she argues, can be seen in the rhetoric which surrounds descriptions of musical expression, that regularly draws on the notion of bodily movement – such as, ‘it was a moving performance’ (in Rink 2002:145). The bodily origin of musical expression and the mind/body split are complex issues too large to be explored here but they do infer that the expressive intention of the body has, in any case, an equally important role in performance.

In respect to my own playing, the most striking observation concerns the movement of the upper body, that lent forwards during moments of expressive intensity in the music. Moreover, the furthest point from an upright position tended to coincide with the expressive climax of a particular phrase. In a part of the study by Davidson, measuring the movement of the body parts in space every 0.20s during a piano performance during which the pianist was asked to play the same piece of music three times and each time with a different expressive intention (in Rink 2002:239), Davidson found ‘a relationship between the movement size and the intensity of the musical sound expression – the more exaggerated the expressive intention of the music, the larger the movement’ (in Rink 2002:239). In addition, during prolonged passages of loud dynamics I observed a constant forwards and backwards rocking motion. The opposite happened when the music was less dramatic, when a fairly closed posture was adopted that even seemed to emulate the constrained sonic quality of the music. This can be seen to happen during prolonged trills and tremolos, for example, and other quiet transitional passages. It is important to note that our body movements would generally be considered far too exaggerated by classical standards but in jazz and free improvisation, advocated by such influential figures as Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett, such liberal movement of the entire body is perfectly acceptable.

In reference to the piano in particular, Blacking made a telling insight into the relationship between musical structure and the sensation of physical movement: ‘A pianist who plays the Études of Chopin or Liszt cannot help being conscious of the sheer physical pleasure of numerous passages, and noting how the music grows out of the physical movement (in Baily 1985:242). Of course, the morphology of an instrument can have a dramatic influence over which sonic patterns may be ergonomically demanding for one instrument to play and ergonomically pleasing for another. The spatial properties of the arrangement of the keyboard mean that an octave leap of the left-hand on the piano, for instance, is considerably easier than the same obstacle on the dutār, so the octave tremolo produced in our performance could be very fast with very little physical exertion. This physical factor, combined with the improvised context of the performance and the fact that this particular structural device tends to often occur during practice sessions, may have influenced me to continue it for a more prolonged period than if, for instance, it were a very demanding passage with which I was completely unfamiliar.

In addition, I have noticed that the majority of our movements during playing appeared, arguably, to mirror the expressive character of the musical material being played at that moment. For instance, the lifting of the chin and slight shaking of the head around the 3m 40s mark, seems, on second look, to encapsulate the ‘held’ expressive quality of the phrases and even anticipate the transitional passage which followed shortly after it into a rather quieter, more introverted section. Similarly, the timing of upper body sways coincided with a pause in my playing, following a period of activity. From her research, also, Davidson suggested that the timing of gestures always coincided with a phrase boundary or climax (in Rink 2002:147). Clarke has stated that movement in performance shares a visual, as well as an audio, event (in Rink 2002:66-7) and, on observation, it is certainly the case that there is a continuous use of a variety of gestures – such as lifting of the chin, circular or waggling arm movements, a sudden change of posture, body sways and head bobbing – that are used for a variety of purposes. Davidson has suggested that the relationship between performer and audience is built on a ‘manifold of assessments…on the basis of information from such visual cues as dress code, general mannerisms and other non-verbal behaviours like the direction of gaze and the physical gestures made when playing’ (in Rink 2002:144). As Small states, ‘[a] uniform says something about the nature of that collective identity’ (1998:65), and indeed, Bruno and I deliberately chose to wear bright and different clothes to one another because our improvisational ideology is separate from the formal performeraudience ideological conventions of the classical tradition. Furthermore, due to the unavailability of a second grand piano, the decision was taken for a compromise – to turn my back to the audience in order for them to be able to see the expression in my movements, although not my face, due to the height of the upright piano being too tall for me to see over.

The difficulty experienced at attempting to suggest the reasons for particular movements can be explained by the fact, not just that they are made subconsciously, but that they are not solely produced to serve individual expressive, visual or psychological purposes. The reality is far more complex and points towards the intrinsic link between the expressive intention of the body and the mind. For example, in one experiment by Davidson, it was demonstrated that different gestures ‘were so bound up with [the pianist’s] conception of the music that they were observed when he produced an imaginary performance of the same music’ (see Clarke, in Rink 2002:67).

Most certainly the largest influence over my phrasing and, therefore, style of musical expression was my interaction with Bruno, which took place through a number of different ways. Other than through direct aural perception of one another’s playing leading up to and during the performance, factors such as social interaction, state of mind, shared musical background – most notably Jarrett – and performance ideology had an effect, to varying degrees, on the highly shared relationship of our musical interface. This, in turn, influenced our imitative sonic patterns, consistent rubato feel, expressive tendencies, and so on.

Fundamentally, the decision to perform together using two pianos clearly influenced the sounding music not in just acoustic terms but also with regard to stylistic considerations and performance conventions of the free jazz improvisation and Western art music traditions to which the piano is intrinsically associated with. The decision to sit on piano stools, for instance, was controlled by a completely automatic association made in our minds between the two objects, to which no consideration to other potential playing possibilities was made at any stage. In relation to the essay title, therefore, it could possibly be argued that a significant constraint of the piano can be a conceptual one to do with the cultural associations and performance techniques that a classical pianist, in particular, is trained to abide by. Furthermore, society’s strong will to preserve the esteemed values of the Western art music tradition, Small states, is reflected in the institutional training that professional musicians receive: ‘the training [musicians] have received in music college or conservatory…has been directed as much toward the acceptance of the profession’s assumptions and the maintenance of its esprit de corps as it has been toward the acquisition of the skills that are necessary to practice it” (Small, 1998:67). Other culturally-related physical factors (or constraints) of the piano, such as the universal use of the Western well-tempered system of tuning, have traditionally limited the range of different harmonic and sonic timbres available to the composerperformer.

However, ground-shaking philosophical and aesthetic discussion on music in the twentieth-century, advocated by the likes of the American composer John Cage, have created a whole range of musical possibilities where cultural barriers previously existed. Cage’s well-known modification of the ‘prepared piano’, in a piece such as Sonatas and Interludes (1946-48), radically altered the expressive character of the sounds produced by the piano and, thus, also challenged the deeply-rooted musical associations that audiences make about the piano. The use of found objects such as metal nails, screws and pieces of rubber and plastic directly attached to the strings created an unusual range of timbres, from ringing, bell-like resonances to chiefly percussive timbres reminiscent of those such found in Balinese gamelan instruments. It is not a coincidence that Cage’s philosophy, predominately based on non-Western aesthetic ideas, was reflected in his application, into Western art music, of musical sounds from the music cultures of the world in which they are typically found. However, Blacking has stated that musical developments (such as those taking place within the work of Cage) are also intrinsically dependent on the sociocultural context of change in which they operate, because ‘musical change…reflects the deeper sources and meanings of social and cultural continuity and change’ (Blacking, in Byron (ed.) 1995:173).

In addition to the changes brought about by modification of the piano, extended playing techniques, mainly developed since the 1960’s, have vastly that increase the range of timbrel possibilities that are available to both the composer and improviser. These have been brought about by methods of playing directly on the strings by strumming or plucking (such as in Henry Cowell’s early experiments with the ‘string piano’) or using vibraphone or drum beaters, and altering the pressure exerted on the strings on contact with the hammer by simultaneously touching the strings to either create clear harmonic overtones or microtonal infections (see Dean 1992:91). Like in the way that the spatial properties of the fret boards on the rubāb and dutār differently influence the music, the choice of size of the beaters for the piano is significant in relation to the sonic patterns produced with respect to the spatial arrangement of the strings inside of the piano, because it determines how many strings can be struck simultaneously by a single beater, resulting in either single pitches or pitch clusters. Also, brought about by modern developments in piano construction, the third (selective) sustaining pedal offers further differentiation of the instrument into multiple note groupings. The treatment of the piano as an independent percussive source, through the striking of the wooden case or crossbars has also been explored (see Dean, 1992:91-93).

In respect to how the piano might suggest ‘new lines of musical thought’, it is vital to add to this discussion that no musical material was decided on prior to Bruno and I’s performance – there was no agreed harmonic or thematic framework to the improvisation. In fact, the only condition was that the performance had to be around 15 minutes in duration due to the timing schedule of the concert. Indeed, even without such agreement, the very large range of the instrument allows the possibility for a rather more textural, rather than harmonic, approach to improvisation. For instance, I find that that the most satisfying moments of our collaboration occurs when both of us are using the two extremes of register simultaneously, such as around the 2m 30s mark. Indeed, throughout the performance I tend to play mostly in the high treble register whereas Bruno is mainly concerned with the lower sonorities of the piano and this is also usually our preference in practice sessions. Consequently, I do realise that my left-hand does not play such an important part in the overall shaping of the music so perhaps there is scope for extended techniques, such as those mentioned, to take place in the shared middle register of the piano in order to alter the timbre of this ‘muddy’ harmonic section of the piano with a more unconventional approach. Finally, Bruno and I have also discussed the possibility of using live electronics, but at the moment we are still exploring the acoustic properties of the instrument.

influence the extent of body movement during performance. The processes at work in the relationship between mind and body can be summed up by Blacking, who has stated that ‘At some level of analysis, all musical behavior is structured, whether in relation to biological, psychological, sociological, cultural, or purely musical processes (Blacking, in Baily 1992:142). Indeed, the physical aspect of training to play an instrument is directly effected by the ideology of the performer; which stems, itself, from associations that performers make to their surrounding cultural environment; which values, itself, some music styles and performance conventions above others. Therefore, the only true musical (non-physical) constraints of any instrument in any performance setting are ideological or conceptual constraints imposed by the sociocultures in which they are formed.

Furthermore, ‘All public behavior sends a message about the relationship of those who are exhibiting it to those who watch it’ (Small 1998:64). A enormous amount of non-musical information is shared through music-making because, essentially, it is a highly social activity. Baily states that ethnomusicologists are now convinced that music is deeply rooted in the psychophysiological nature of the human being (in Baily 1992:146). Perhaps it is for this reason, then, that ‘What goes on at the body instrument interface is just one piece of that complex jigsaw that we call music’ (Baily, in Reily 2006:123).

Baily, John. “Music structure and human movement”, in Peter Howell, Ian Cross and Robert West (Eds.), Musical Structure and Cognition, London: Acedemic Press, 1985.

Baily, John. ‘John Blacking and the “Human/Musical Instrument Interface”: Two Plucked Lutes from Afganistan’, in Reily, Suzel Ana (Ed.) The Musical Human: Rethinking John Blacking’s Ethnomusicology in the Twenty-First Century. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

Baily, John. “Music Performance, Motor Structure, and Cognitive Models”, in Max Peter Baumann, Artur Simon and Ulrich Wegner (Eds.), European Studies in Ethnomusicology: Historical Developments and Recent Trends. Berlin: International Institute for Comparative Music Studies and Documentation, 1992.

Blacking, John. “The Study of Musical Change”, in Reginald Byron (Ed.), Music, Culture, and Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking. The University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Clarke, Eric. “Understanding the psychology of performance”, in Rink, John (Ed.). Musical Performance. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Davidson, Jane & Correia, Jorge. “Body Movement”, in Parncutt, Richard and Gary

E. McPherson (Eds.). The Science & Psychology of Music Performance. Oxford University Press, 2002.

Davidson, Jane. “Communicating with the body in performance”, in Rink, John (Ed.). Musical Performance. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Dean, Roger. New Structures in Jazz and Improvised Music since 1960. Open University Press, 1992.

Small, Christopher. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening: University Press of New England, 1998.


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