Body as performing subject, body as compositional object: the pianist's embodied practice in the context of composer-performer collaborations.

Lead Research Organisation: University of York
Department Name: Music


The relation of piano sound production to accompanying bodily gesture in performers remains an unresolved phenomenon with many researchers attempting to resolve it. Early empirical studies compared key depression with the resulting tones (Ortman, 1925), while recent studies range from investigating timbral nuance in relation to touch (Bernays, 2011, 2013) to considering the influence of extraneous performance noises (finger-key sounds) on identifying piano tones (Goebl et al, 2014). Performer-researchers have explored the relationship between gesture and the timbral identity (Dogantan-Dack, 2011). Performer case studies have examined the functions of movement in performance, identifying underlying habitual, unconscious and culturally-determined processes (Davidson, 2012; Godoy and Leman, 2010). This is all in addition to numerous 'methods' produced by keyboard performers and teachers of the last 300 years. However, there is no consensus regarding the relationship between gesture and sound or effective physical technique. Moreover, none of this work focuses on performance of contemporary piano music yet composers seem ever more interested in the role of performers' bodies in sound production; experiments in twentieth-century music theatre have extended out towards accepting 'that the bodies playing the music are part of the music, that they're present, they're valid and they inform our listening whether subconsciously or consciously.' (Walshe, 2016). In Ray Evanoff's 'A Series of Postures' (2011) which I performed in 2012, blunt juxtapositions of tempo change, piano geography and dynamic control force the performer to utilise parts of the body not typically associated with historical piano technique. The result is an '"extra-musical" theatricality' from composers who are 'dealing in an overt way with the interaction between the score and its performative result' (d' Heudieres, 2016). These compositions are predicated on the tussle between exploitation of the body and a performer's healthy body management. What is the role of mindful awareness of one's performing body when acting within such a compositional process? Are potentially 'unhealthy' qualities of the human behind the body what composers want to expose? Through practice-led research, I will investigate the interplay between composers' inclusion of the performing body, its inscription in notation and the processes of physical and sonic realisation. Collaboration with composers sharing an interest in embodiment (Federico Reuben and Neil Luck at York; Federico Pozzer at Leeds) will lead to new pieces (live performances and films) that creatively engage with this interplay. The accompanying thesis will draw on documentation of the research process in relation to theoretical discussion to examine key aspects of the process in terms of working with and through the tensions described above. As part of this, my use of body will be explored with a Feldenkrais practioner(s) (Teresa Brayshaw). The Feldenkrais method seeks a body's physical limitations and habitual reactions through a focus on self-awareness leading to alternative movement. The openness and flexibility of this method might offer a means to align the performing body with composition practices seeking to exploit the limitations of the performer. An autoethnographic strand of research including research into bodily habit (Tarr, 2008) and intuitive organisation of movement (McNevin et al, 2003) will inform the practical enquiry. My found habits and their potential for generating embodied compositional material will be explored through the collaborative process, leading to new possibilities in sound production and embodied performance. This research would build on very recent developments in embodied music performance practice as research (e.g. Williams; Orning; Benjamin) but applied to contemporary piano practice. Linking the Feldenkrais Method to the context of contemporary music practice is entirely new.


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