Just spoke: Composing with objects, performing with subjects

It is hard to find a composer or musician today who does not subscribe to the notion that performance is an integral part of the process by which music is formed. Breaking with purely notation-based instrumental concert music in various ways, current practices in contemporary music often align the acts of composing and performing. Even though the impact of the ‘sonic’ and ‘performative’ turns on contemporary instrumental music has been small and delayed, nevertheless boundaries of agency, sociality, subjectivity and embodiment have to some extent been pushed, and conventional expectations and practices are regularly expanded and dismantled. In addition to the general integration of composition and performance with one another, an iterative process between them may come about when a composer performs in her own work or composes through performance.

For the symposium ‘Composers on Stage’ at the Royal Library in Copenhagen in September 2016, curator Sanne Krogh Groth commissioned three composers – Louise Alenius, Kristian Hverring and myself - to produce new work.  Our brief was to create works that we would perform ourselves, in the library’s exhibition space. The performances were reiterated two weeks later at the Kaldalón venue in Harpa, Reykjavik, during the Nordic Music Days.

To be billed as a ‘composer on stage’ imposes not only expectations of theatricality, excellence and probably virtuosity, but also of authenticity and spontaneity

The work that I produced for this commission, Nothing breaking the losing, uses (electric) viola, object actions, spoken word, an audio playback drone, a central performance area with cups, glasses, a small collection of metal objects, cotton sewing threads and a score. It has a musical-work-like duration, a beginning and an end, and a diffuse drone extends on either end of the work before and after. The title comes from ‘Objects’, the first of three sections that make up Gertrude Stein’s book Tender Buttons from 1914.

Performing subjects
To be billed as a ‘composer on stage’ imposes not only expectations of theatricality, excellence and probably virtuosity, but also of authenticity and spontaneity. Theatricality and authenticity may however run into conflict with one another. If performing ‘as a composer’, is the composer composing while performing?  Is there a supposition that an authentic exposure of the messy creative act often at play in original behavior will, in a composer-performance, always be smoothed over by a form of theatricality stemming from restored behavior, so that the audience will be more or less guaranteed the experience of a tidily closed work?[1] Shall the audience come closer to experiencing a much-mysticised compositional act during this performance, potentially including all the dead ends and back-tracks that the process of composition typically involves? Would that then still be composition, or would it be improvisation? Presenting her body, voice, image as part of the show, a composer can feel trapped between self-dramatisation and heteronomy. A performative expansion in the role of the ‘composer’ is going on, at the same time as the medial and spatial integration of the creative figure into the work’s presentation.

When a musician performs too, and the score is not detailed, is the musician then composing as well – or improvising within a composed framework? Do musicians and composers improvise similarly, or differently? Are all improvisations compositions, no matter who performs them? And are possible differences due to the kind of agents involved, their respective intentions and presuppositions, or are they due to differently sounding results?

The circumstances under which Nothing breaking the losing was finally created for these two performances supported a break with habits and procedures in my work: a new role for me in performance, a new way of working with a familiar musician, the elimination of rehearsal, the creation of a text for speaking aloud, a simpler score, and the active involvement of spectators.

I had previously explored electronic composition with aspects of improvisation as a way of developing my own involvement in performance as an actual technique for composing. Fixed elements such as a continuous soundtrack or film, pre-recorded audio samples, or rehearsed patterns of instrumental or electronic sound-production ensured opportunities for securing and honing structural elements in advance, while freer combinations, modifications, and adaptations of pre-recorded material, together with the live production or improvisation of new sounds, offered a chance to use performance to guide the process of composing music ‘on the fly’, or to bring together two composers.[2]

When a musician performs too, and the score is not detailed, is the musician then composing as well – or improvising within a composed framework? Do musicians and composers improvise similarly, or differently?

In a way, Nothing breaking the losing represented for me a step towards a more embodied performing practice, in that I discarded instruments and electronics in my part, and focused my performance on my own voice. For the first performance in Copenhagen, I pre-recorded my spoken word part and Mina Fred was the sole live performer, playing acoustic viola, taking charge also of the installation and audience involvement, and carrying the spoken-word recording into the performance space on a small USB player.[3] I judged that any instrumental or electronic performance from me in a pre-recorded format would fall short of the ‘composer-as-performer’ aspect. But using my speaking voice created a personalized input to the performance that not only was recognizable to those who have heard my voice before, but also, with the words actually spoken, gently adopted a mechanics of instruction and description appropriate to an ‘author’ who, in a reflective process, has designed and articulated what is being performed.

In the second performance, in Reykjavik, Mina Fred used an electric viola, and I recited my spoken word part live, amplified, from a corner of the space, while the pre-amp that diffused my voice was placed closer to the centre of the field of action, diagonally opposite the electric viola’s pre-amp. Some audience stood between me and the field of action; only as I crossed the room to exit at the end of the piece did my I pass close by the pre-amp, with voice and body meeting in the final two words, “Just spoke”. During the piece, Mina Fred and I entered into a duo-like partnership, with some mutual adaptation of flow, hiatus and accent between us, although the dialogue between our parts was oblique, consisting mainly in a sensibility to small details of timing with no overarching grid of coordination.

The commission and realization of Nothing breaking the losing spanned an exceptional period in my life with experiences of care, bereavement, grief and illness, during which mortality was a daily topic. The possibility of the new work as a dedicated space and duration of time in the near future that I could fill with planned or unplanned content, and in any case presumably with some degree of self-dramatisation (‘composers on stage’) was both a beacon and a worry for me during this difficult period. Grief disturbs professional reason in ways that may be beneficial or detrimental to an artistic iteration. And illness interrupts the ideal of an optimal creating and performing body - skilled, rehearsed, and under control.

Being in a mode of grief and mourning I leaned partly on materiality and objects. Materiality is in question during mourning and serious illness: how does the stuff of our bodies go from being robust and life-giving to fragile and then even dead? Images, signs and narrative techniques are often incorporated into grieving rituals; among the common performative vocabulary of grief is the act of reading a poem aloud. In addition to objects, I chose to lean on this ritual of offering a reading. I was involuntarily focused on a sense of uninterrupted loss: a continuous present having the temporal modus of a memorial. In the prolonged present, as Gertrude Stein also called it, time is bracketed out. Her words ”nothing breaking the losing of no little piece” suggested to me a freefall of loss, an incuperable void, and a succession of negative nouns and verbs that seem neither to cancel one another out nor to add up.

I talk of this period of grief not because the authenticity or explanation that lie in the autobiographical are important for others to know, but because it affected the course of this work’s development, and became a hurdle to be professionally integrated, not only by myself.

During mourning and sickness, meanings are in transition. It seems that real-time mourning must surely be in tension – if not direct conflict – with representational aesthetic practices; in moments of trauma, aesthetics almost always are understood as antithetical to processes of grieving.

I talk of this period of grief not because the authenticity or explanation that lie in the autobiographical are important for others to know, but because it affected the course of this work’s development, and became a hurdle to be professionally integrated, not only by myself.

Being equally unable to rehearse or to improvise, I realized that whatever role I would have in the performance of Nothing breaking the losing, it would be heavily reduced in comparison to my previous solo electronic performances[4], different from the duo performances, and it would seem not to deliver on the description ‘composers on stage’. I have made such reductions more willingly before. Pieces such as some reasons for hesitating, All the time and All that we cannot say all propose strategies for emptying music and scenic, time-based art of some of its typical contents and for disappointing expectations. For Nothing breaking the losing, I rather had to devise a coping strategy for being on stage without being able to perform as previously.

Feeling so ambivalent, the simplest thing would naturally have been simply to cancel. But given a curator who nevertheless holds out a space, a fixed time, an appointment for a performance, what would be the reasons for not manifesting something, whatever possible? In that moment, I felt stubbornly that if I could not make an artistic manifestation in such a time of crisis, then when? »I am too sad to make art today« didn’t seem to be a viable position. In a way, such times are not the moment to go into the nature of meaning and the status of the subject. But grieving is a time when received or presumed meanings are under pressure of transformation. Some kind of tangible and sounding connections between different agents via a physical interface in the actual world would provide an opportunity to work on such questions in a social semi-public situation. Entirely mental or private spaces could not facilitate this negotiation of subjects and meanings.

I realized what a privilege it is to have an artistic platform from which to share common experiences of mortality that are the lifeblood of art. Despite all the challenges, what did seem possible was shifting the mode of action from a composed progression to an attitude of exploration, juxtaposing and referencing both semiotically charged visual, sonic or verbal signs and less easily categorisable modes of action and expression that evoke rather than demonstrate their content.

The hands of a musician at work, taking care of sound in an entirely basic manner, must surely be relevant. A cloth laid out for things to rest or fall. A few threads sustaining the presence of their holders in a shared space. I could work with these things.

The audience can hardly be said to participate as creative agents in Nothing breaking the losing – it is only a few members of the audience who are assigned a small role for participation: a fairly unradical empowerment by any measure

I didn’t want to be alone, but also didn’t want to impose grand schemes and great demands on people who had come in order to hear sounds as art, from the passive safety of a chair or a standing place in the dark. It seemed to me at this impasse that the only way out was to involve the audience, whether they wanted to be called upon or not. They would literally have to pull their weight and make it happen.

From the white cloth spread on the floor, holding semi-precious objects, the field of action in Nothing breaking the losing is later extended when the musician hands sewing threads to the seated audience. Lightly held taut by pairs of audience members, threads run between them across the display area, with objects suspended on them directly above the delicate cups and glasses. Thin, fragile lines of contact are made between seated audience members, and in turn between them and the performing musician who later slides her instrument along the threads, depending on their tautness to elicit scratchy, husky sounds.

The audience can hardly be said to participate as creative agents in Nothing breaking the losing – it is only a few members of the audience who are assigned a small role for participation: a fairly unradical empowerment by any measure. Nevertheless, without this participation, the piece’s second half cannot take place at all. Involving the audience actively with the materials of the performance was a strategy for involving them in an occurrence where emotional involvement would necessarily be unevenly distributed but potentially related to a word I speak early on in the piece: compassion. The production of empathy and sympathy prompts questions of the transfer and transferability of emotions. Intimacy is bound up with hermeneutic openness or ambiguity. An internal sacred space may be opened through the performance of music to a small audience. Music’s ability to fabricate spaces of intersubjectivity and social interaction has always been the foundation of both its autonomy and its political connection to the world. It all boils down to a basic physical property of the connection between sound and the body: acoustic vibrations in the sonic environment always produce the somatic effect of sympathetic vibration.

The piece is a kind of memorial, a duration for dwelling as much as for performing. It presents itself in part as an occasion, albeit an understated one. The imagery of the extra-instrumental materials – sewing thread, vintage crockery, a table cloth laid out on the floor – invite associations with the traditional habitus of old ladies. But being placed on the floor, under a downward gaze, these objects are already rather sad, the cloth as much a no-walk zone as a space to draw one’s chair up for tea. The set-up gently invites guests to take their place in the arena of action, where some seated guests may be ‘served’ (with a coloured thread to hold), while they in turn are invited to serve the performance with this simple action. Just as fine porcelain cups are vessels for spending a moment together (having a cup of tea or coffee), I hoped the piece could behave like a vessel for a short social interlude. The imagery of a group of cups and glasses does not even propose a meal, but it suggests a scenographic structure from the everyday that can soften rigid distinctions between spectator and performer. In the sparsely staged environment of Nothing breaking the losing, tiny interactions between individuals are produced by variously small and unremarkable connections. Incrimentally, composer, performing musician and active audience work here towards one another, but the situation is still hierarchical. A flattening of hierarchies begins to take place, but it is a short-lived and incomplete exercise.

Reading and Speaking
In Nothing breaking the losing, the spoken word was not dramatized. I wanted to objectify my voice. I wanted to objectify everything. I wanted to rule out the possibility of breaking down – a scenario under which all perspectives would collapse onto an overwhelming subjectivity.

At first, I felt it would be right just to read selected passages, individual sentences, from Tender Buttons. A common reaction to much of Gertrude Stein’s writing is the impulse to hear oneself reading it aloud, to vocalize one’s attempt to give her written words pause and continuity. Stein’s texts so often contain the backtracking that our reading minds make, on behalf of the spontaneous speaking voice – our small repetitions, hesitations. She describes ‘beginning again and again’ as one of her main compositional strategies. But the act of reading also invites appropriation, particularly when the reading takes place, literally, within a creative act. Reading is the process by which a transient reality is constituted, ideally transforming the recipient and prompting further performative acts such as writing or more reading. My appropriation of words, topics, phrases, and grammatic turns of phrase from Stein’s Tender Buttons leans on a sense of intertextuality and performance somewhat at odds with the conception of text as intellectual property and static work concept, a medieval-like sense in which literary texts were primarily recited and invariably altered in the process. Something arises, perhaps, through the process of transition, repetition and reproduction – a tangle of relations between the subjective and the objective. I felt that the moment of my new piece was a node where self-dramatisation and self-expression, public and private spheres, and also theatricality and realism all met. Seen against the background of a moment of personal impasse, leaning on a text outside my life and my voice seemed the only way to re-enter into it.

The piece is a kind of memorial, a duration for dwelling as much as for performing. It presents itself in part as an occasion, albeit an understated one

Both amplification and playback interrupt sound’s space-time continuum. In the case of Nothing breaking the losing, amplification’s function is not simply to mike up details but to re-embody and juxtapose different perspectives in a way that sturdies them all in interaction among one another. The space of the white underlay and the space of the audience, seated and standing, are angled. Stereo is skewed, but does not dissolve into a surround sound. This reconfiguration of a two-dimensional perspective sits well with Gertrude Stein’s cubist aesthetics, revealing a given subject's essence through multiple perspectives, and with it the irreducible difference of each listener’s experience.

The cups and glasses in Nothing breaking the losing are at first museal; surrounded by too much space, they hold small metal objects (keys, bulldog clips, tiny bells, tuning forks) and they are fastened to lengths of coloured sewing thread that are waiting to be first used, then broken. The objects hanging on the suspended threads move only slightly, to produce first a tremolo and then tiny crashing sounds.

The notion of a string instrument is present only in pared-back form. As an object, the electric viola already seems curiously truncated, its solid body cut away to the essentials in order to keep the weight down. In Nothing breaking the losing, instead of a bow of typically 150-200 resined hairs, the viola strings are excited first from a distance by a few long sewing threads tied on to the instrument’s strings. Fastened  either side of the viola bridge, the long sewing threads are played by the musician running her lightly-pinched thumb and index finger along them, which in turn are prepared before the performance with tied knots, to give the slippage additional grain.

After some minutes, when much longer lengths of sewing thread are extended by the audience across the main performance area, the viola becomes an interface between different physical elements of the installation set-up, and also between different people (musician and audience members). Instead of  a bow moving along a string, gestural actions of movement and stasis in the viola’s tone production are inverted: the viola moves along the long suspended thread. This potentially inserts an awkwardness; intuitive gesture is lost, musicianly expertise is put into parenthesis and must come from another skill-base than the customary control of bow and left-hand fingering.

But the musician performs absolutely as a musician. Her arms, hands and fingers work sensitively, carefully and busily to extract pitches and timbres from the construction of threads and instrument. She takes care of the sound and literally draws it out of the materials, with the spoken word part obliquely commenting on her actions. The enlarged physicality of drawing sound from long threads in a partly resistant situation visually amplifies her performance. The resultant sound from the viola is noise-based, muted and punctuated. Objectifying the viola in this way – distancing its sound production from normal playing traditions - dismantles some of its musicality on the one hand, but accentuates perhaps its intrinsic value on the other.

The instrumental and material progression of the piece is, literally, extended in the present moment – and dismantled

Despite this hopelessly anti-instrumental set-up, the result might nevertheless seem warm and harmonious, approaching musical qualities through the back door, so to speak. Resonance, harmony, timbre and sustain are deployed as very basic elements. A tremolo is also objectified – while audience members hold threads taut, the musician agitates the gliding of her viola up and down them with ever shorter movements, until finally prompting the audience to shake the held threads, making the objects dance a quiet tremor. The effort to make such an ungainly construction sound at all, without damaging the viola or props, without tangling or tripping over threads, with a sense of sustained tone, is a considerable feat of performance, and one that cannot be practised before the audience is present in concert. Both quietness and substance nestle amongst percussive bumps and snags, unaccustomed gestures and impulsive movements. Only a few pitches occur; their repetition becomes a continuous texture more present than the intervals between them. It is all so thinly extended in space, hardly there at all. But without this little extension of the threads, there would really be no breaking, no shaking, no resonance for the viola, no contact, no connection between people. No melody, no rhythm except the rhythm of the musician’s movements, her work of pulling sound from resistant materials. And the rhythm of the spoken word, evenly droning on like a radio.

In Nothing breaking the losing, things eventually become tangled towards the end of the piece. The motions of the audience, with the threads suspended criss-crossed between them, cause the threads and objects to entangle in a mesh that can only be undone by cutting the threads and letting the objects drop to the floor. The instrumental and material progression of the piece is, literally, extended in the present moment – and dismantled. Only the end of the flow of spoken words and cutting of  threads provide the causality by which this work can be said to be‘closed’ in a conventional sense.

[1]Following Schechen’s distinction of restored behaviour in performance as something that has been rehearsed, as opposed to original behaviour in which the subject comes to know itself as it tries out an iteration.

[2] In composer-as-performer duos: The general case (2007) with Jennifer Walshe, and Fish & Fowl (2011) with Niels Rønsholdt.

[3] Mina Fred is not only a classically trained instrumentalist but also an experienced improviser, accustomed to performing noise using the entire body of her instrument, and to using her voice. In Harriet’s song, which I had written for Mina Fred 15 years earlier, she not only plays the viola but also sings to a text by Jane Bowles while accompanying herself with a music-box. In Angel View (2014), Mina Fred has performed with Scenatet on radio, hairdryer, dinner plate and cutlery, leaves and feathers, besides viola.

[4] La coquille et le clergyman, 2012; Allerleirauh, 2012; Ten Minutes Older, 2013; Laznia, 2014; and Paperweight Arcade, 2014

I would like to thank the following for their support and inspiration: curator Sanne Krogh Groth; musician Mina Fred, artistic director Anna Berit Asp Christensen and producer Laura Møller Henriksen from Scenatet; Jesper Egelund from the Royal Danish Library; Fjóla Dögg Sverrisdóttir  and Gudny Gudmundsdóttir from Nordic Music Days.