Grafter at Space for Art
Undisciplined Music
Photo by Yonatan Aljadeff

Undisciplined Music

Last month Jenna Lyle and I performed our collaboratively devised piece for moving vocalists, Grafter, at a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. During the audience Q&A that followed, we were asked why we make work that involves so much physical movement for ourselves as musicians, rather than composing for dancers? A week earlier, Chicago ensemble Mocrep performed works by Carolyn Chen, Jessie Marino, Natasha Diels, and Bethany Younge at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. They were asked a similar question by a patron during their post-concert discussion. Diels and Marino responded by rhythmically swaying, bending, gesticulating in canon and finishing each other’s sentences: performing a spontaneous, real-time answer to why musicians are well suited to interpreting this material practice of being and listening together to one another’s bodies. The audience seemed simultaneously enchanted and confused. Hiero Posch, a reviewer for Cacophony magazine, wrote in response, “I was puzzled with the Q&A session afterwards. How can one hope to ask a genuine question when it is clear that the participants of the session do not treat the occasion seriously?”

Practitioners of serious music have often neglected to take their physical selves seriously.

In new music today, a focus on the body as performing subject is gaining momentum. Explorations of a performer’s physical life or subjectivity over say, traditional instrumentality or vocality, has a deep history manifest in a range of artistic streams that flow through 20th-century experimental traditions (Dada, Situationism, Fluxus, Cage, Cunningham, et al.), performance and installation art (Acconci, Moorman, Westerkamp, Cardiff, et al.), European and American art-music (Kagel, Berberian, Globokar, et al.), and opera (Stockhausen, Ashley, Lucier, et al.). Performers from theater, performance art, dance, and visual arts backgrounds have long embraced these influences. Concert music has been somewhat reluctant to get on board. Practitioners of serious music have often neglected to take their physical selves seriously as the material through which meaning is conveyed—beyond what might be required to produce the desired sounds and images for their notations, interpretations, or publicity photographs.

Most of us in the new music community would acknowledge that this situation is changing. Groups such as Ensemble Vortex, Mocrep, Defunensemble, On Structure, Ensemble Pamplemousse, Speak Percussion, Object Collection, and Ensemble Interface have developed disciplined practices that foreground the body and/or extra-musical stimuli, exploding conventional rubrics for what constitutes ensemble performance. At the most recent meeting of Darmstadt’s Summer Courses, a workshop was held called “Just beyond our instruments is the world.”

Even in the most hallowed halls of hard dots, musicians are putting aside the instruments through which we first bound ourselves to music, to see what our musically trained minds and bodies can do. This undertaking demands that performers and listeners prioritize the body, body language, and visual communication, alongside the musical values we’ve been schooled in. The methodologies and performative outcomes associated with this way of thinking used to be the purview of theater or performance art. Some might wonder why musicians should be worried about this stuff at all. Steven Takasugi posed a good question with the title of his article “Why Theatre?” (Takasugi, MusikTexte, 2016). And from under this question, more trickle out.

For those of us making forays into music that requires so much beyond what we were trained to do, shouldn’t we be getting more serious about how to get good at it (whatever that might mean)? Shouldn’t this discussion be at least as urgent as debates around the nuances of our interpretations of conventional music (which we’re presumably reasonably good at already)? As more music-identified practitioners take up residence in the interdisciplinary space between theater, dance, and sonic arts, and as the inclusion of embodied and theatrical elements become more normalized in new music, musicians must develop new criteria for evaluating our methodologies and performances. Can we faithfully execute this music using only our musical training/thinking? Should we seek to integrate learning or methods from outside of music? Do we even have the words to accurately communicate what we’re doing here?

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine

What shall we call this way of working? Last year composer/performer Jennifer Walshe wrote a text for the Borealis Festival in which she outlined a manifesto for her “way of working, both in terms of composing and preparing pieces for performance.” Walshe named this practice “The New Discipline,” and listed Object Collection, James Saunders, Matthew Shlomowitz, Neele Hülcker, François Sarhan, Jessie Marino, Steven Takasugi, and Natacha Diels as examples of other composers/performers to whose work this term might be applied. “The New Discipline” as defined by Walshe is “a way for me to connect compositions which have a wide range of disparate interests but all share the common concern of being rooted in the physical, theatrical and visual, as well as musical; pieces which often invoke the extra-musical, which activate the non-cochlear [and]… in which we understand that there are people on the stage, and that these people are/have bodies.” (Walshe, 2016)

Since the publication of Walshe’s “The New Discipline: a compositional manifesto,” articles and discussions unpacking it have sprung up in academic journals (Musiktexte), on radio (BBC radio 3), at festivals (Darmstadt), on podcasts (Talking Musicology), and in the blogosphere (Danika Paskvan). Using the word “new” was bound to create some controversy. Some might say that naming the zeitgeist as it moves through the birth canal could be counterproductive—yet it does often feel necessary to have words to name things. As Matthew Shlomowitz notes, “Labels are tricky, but I think The New Discipline is a good one.” (Schlomowitz, 2016) For a great set of interviews that unpack this further, check out this blog post from Darmstadt.

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine

One of the strengths of this way of working is its flexibility. This is a music that can create situations for performers and audiences that utilize both immediate experience and signification in ways absolute music cannot. Through it we can explore new corners of the interior experience of music making, community kinetics, directionality, interpersonal relationships, sexual hierarchies, the specifics of site, or references to any cultural artifact you can tie down. A recent work of Walshe’s, Training is the opposite, incorporates women’s boxing. In Carolyn Chen’s Supermarket Music, performers intone the names of products on the shelves, conducting cart-pushers through changes in speed and volume. Jenna Lyle directs four performers to ride a precarious pile of wooden boards, choreographically affecting the musical results in Plank Rodeo, and Jessie Marino’s Endless Shrimp features vocalizing, percussion-playing musicians in front of a screen showing factory production lines, pink-slime, and—of course—endless shrimp. In a music that is open to the world, virtually any topic is up for grabs. Every feeling, meaning, action, or sign becomes a potential focal point. As Walshe puts it, “While Kagel and others are clear ancestors, too much has happened since the 1970s for that term [music theatre] to work here. MTV, the Internet, Beyoncé ripping off Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Stewart Lee, Girls, style blogs and yoga classes at Darmstadt…” Whether or not the title “New Discipline” feels useful to you, as this trend/thread/practice moves towards the new music mainline, I think there’s a good argument that we’ve reached some significant evolutionary stage.

Most professional musicians have spent decades learning to compose, play, or sing. If we’re to communicate effectively in this body-forward, not exclusively cochlear art form, we have some work to do. As we retool and experiment, we unpack our entrained assumptions about our performing selves and what they can or should be able to do. Composer/performer Jessie Marino has a long checklist of questions, references, and self-assessments she applies as she develops performances of her own work that are not necessarily the typical criteria for success most musicians employ. She asks, “Where do you focus your eyes? What is the physical demeanor of the body? Does it contrast from the face? Does it contrast from the thing you are saying? Can I display gravity/anti-gravity? What is the reality I am performing in? On stage? In a tank? Outer space? Next to an Elephant? With chickens on my arms? Should I use an accent? Probably not!” This is a process of exploring and intuiting what’s important, then taking those threads in hand to make convincing choices as we prepare for, perform, and evaluate our work.

This is a process of exploring and intuiting what’s important, then taking those threads in hand to make convincing choices.

The “discipline” part of this practice is pretty important. We need to get creative and rigorous with how we organize priorities, documentation, and evaluate rehearsals and performances. Journaling, peer-feedback, video-documented rehearsal, and the honest assessment of those materials is key. Not only to improve the work but to ensure that some sincere, in-the-moment focus gets practiced into the work. Taping rehearsal lets the self-devisors amongst us leave the heavy analytical lifting to later. As Marino puts it, “Tapes don’t lie, so be honest with yourself and your collaborators.”

Like any developing field, there are practitioners who work with greater and lesser degrees of experience, sophistication, and care. After we’ve accepted that the frame around our instruments is dissolved and we’re putting in the time to experiment, we’re faced with all the problems posed by the absence of shared vocabulary, tested methodologies, and rigorous training. It isn’t at all simple. Personally, I’m in the unusual position of being a new music-focused performer whose early education was designed for a career in opera. For my peers and I, time was devoted to stagecraft, body-centric learning methods, and acting classes all with the goal that our intentions in the performative moment would have a fighting chance of being understood by the audience. As an opera singer, you spend time in the theater working adjacent to lighting designers, set designers, dramaturges, make-up artists, and directors. Being close to their expertise gives you a feel for the complex work of appointing and framing the extra-musical.

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine

Every artist in this field has their own narrative of influences and trainings, which often reflect diverse experiences outside of conservatory-model performance and composition. The new music community is DIYing their extra-musical training to fit the purpose of their musical ends. To my mind this is neither a problem nor a virtue—but I have sometimes sat through performances wishing those involved had found ways to utilize existing non-musical knowledge bases or worked with expert collaborators (from dance, theater, or opera, etc). Making experimental music doesn’t require the perpetual re-invention of the wheel, only that we accept that we don’t know where it’s going.

Making experimental music doesn’t require the perpetual re-invention of the wheel, only that we accept that we don’t know where it’s going.

It will not go unnoticed that within this field there are an unusually high number of A) female-identified composers, B) composer-performers, and C) vocalists or movers. Vocal and theatrical performance spaces have traditionally been more welcoming to women than composition departments have been. For many, this music is a place to work through ideas of gender and body politics that conventionally notated music, with its historical and patriarchal baggage, may not be well-suited to accommodate. Collaborative composition and unconventional creative hierarchies flourish here. Performers can use their own bodies to try out ideas without requiring specific institutional support, and composers who want to try out what something feels like, but don’t have ready access to a company of players to experiment upon, have found this practice a boon for building experimental work sustainably.

grafter at omaha photo Alex Karjaka

Grafter at Omaha
Photo by Alex Karjaka

This discipline emphasizes “doing” or experiencing, over the kind of “reading” that is possible when following the translatable instructions of conventional Western scores. The embodied activity of performers is no longer to be glossed over, like an obligatory technology employed as a means for producing sound. This music treats the presence of embodied subjects as a considered part of the making, the thinking, the meaning, and the performative moment. As described by composer/vocalist/movement-artist Jenna Lyle, “There’s the execution of the raw material (making the sounds, doing the movements, etc.), but for me that’s meaningless if there isn’t a palpable energy of discovery and reflection, and maybe even a shared, albeit intangible bodily experience between all involved in the performance situation.” There is commitment to bringing “something off of the page to this music.

The embodied activity of performers is no longer to be glossed over, like an obligatory technology employed as a means for producing sound.

The attempt to learn completely new skills, allowing ourselves to be amateurs again, requires more than a little patience and a willingness to take joy in discovery. After so many years of training, it can be easier to convince yourself that some aspect of a piece is unimportant rather than admit it would take a long time to get right. Lyle has said that the best performers of her music have a quality of openness. “Above all,” she cautions, “don’t fear your vulnerability or your inability to accomplish something immediately. Listen and discover first. Be patient. Then analyze.”

That final step—analysis—might the hardest part of getting good at this kind of music. Musicians are trained to critique and evaluate “music” but our criteria for judging the effective communication of the bodies, lights, spaces, images, movement, and taction required for this *music* is far less well developed. As we go about solving our musical-theatrical problems, musicians should accept the challenge of ensuring the extra-musical work we do is as nuanced, connected, and effective as the stuff we’ve all been trained for. Our audience seems to want to know why musicians are performing this music. If they’re asking the question as we come off stage, perhaps we need to be more convincing while we’re on stage. Though maybe, it’s just a matter of time.

Mocrep at the MCA

Mocrep at the MCA
Photo by Deidre Huckabay, courtesy of Cacophony magazine


Thanks to Jenna Lyle, Jessie Marino and Jennifer Walshe whose interviews and correspondence contributed significantly to this article.


Jessica Aszodi

Australian vocalist Jessica Aszodi is a performer of notated and improvised music, a researcher, teacher, curator and producer of music that challenges the status quo. In her genre bounding career Jessica has premiered dozens of new pieces of notated music, performed works that have lain dormant for centuries, sung roles from the standard operatic repertoire and collaborated with a constellation of artists from the far reaches of the musical palate.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

4 thoughts on “Undisciplined Music

  1. Sugar Vendil

    Thanks for writing this! I started incorporating movement into my work a couple of years ago and I often wonder whether what I’m doing is “right” or acceptable. I’m so glad to see other musicians are doing this too. I feel the body is so inseparable from the sound and experience of music making and I want to explore how far I can push this idea.

    Reply
  2. Zara Lawler

    Yes, thank you! As another player/mover/actor, it is great to hear about other people experimenting with this kind of performance…like scientists all in our separate labs, working on similar problems. I do think it’s time to name this movement! Music-based interdisciplinary art? I feel like “new discipline” is too vague (and sounds a bit punishing!) though I do like thinking about it as a discipline that has some rigor to it. Hmm…

    Reply
  3. Michael Robinson

    This is a highly significant discussion. What occurs to me personally is how using a combination of software and hardware named the meruvina, the physical nature of music is an element paid special attention to, focusing as a means of delivering content upon extreme uses of staging (panning) rarely if ever present in other experienced music. (The middle section of Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin is one masterful example that comes to mind.) Corporeality or physicality is also centrally present in the actual act of composition; perhaps most easily understood by how master percussionists have described rhythm as a phenomenon emanating from the body, with the same applying to melody, timbre, dynamics, expression and form combining to reveal the corporeal and spiritual uniqueness of the utterer, related to the ancient South Asian philosophy of chakras. The physical appearance of gesture is sometimes invisible, echoing the unique domain of music existing in-between physical and metaphysical dimensions heard but not seen “keeping one step ahead of the persecutor within”.

    Reply

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