Music and The Body

Costello performing Aperghis in Montréal

Costello performing Aperghis in Montréal, January of 2013. Photo by Fredrik Gran.

Take a deep breath in.  Breathe out.

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been given these directions in a musical score.

It’s a reminder.  It’s the composer’s way of saying, “Don’t forget, my friend, you are a body.”

People should start saying, instead of “I want to be somebody,” simply, “I want to be a body.”

I think embodiment is profoundly important to music.  One of the seminal books to my artistic practice was David Borgo’s writing on embodiment in Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age.  He speaks of the “embodied mind”—this notion nearly drove me into the field of musicology, and away from the realm of performance.  I was ready to give up embodiment in practice for embodiment through the mind.  A demented notion, I know.

Although I’m sure I would be happy either way, I’m thrilled that instrumental performance is my primary professional activity.

I began serious piano study as a practical necessity—and in a sense, a rite of passage—to becoming a composer.  Most music schools, even if you intended to major in something else, required an entrance audition on an instrument.

In undergrad, I quickly realized that I cared more for doers than for thinkers.  Thought is beautiful and powerful, but only in its implicit relationship to action.  I believed (and still do) that written and spoken thought is only re-actionary, and can never usurp the action to which it refers. To pay tribute to the late, brilliant Colombian writer, Gabriel García Márquez, “Lo único mejor que la música es hablar de música.” (“The only thing better than music is to talk about music.”) I couldn’t disagree more with this sentiment.

These are the terms under which I have become involved in theatrical repertoire on the contemporary music scene.  I have become a self-proclaimed “speaking pianist”—a pianist who, in addition to playing the instrument, recites text and embodies characters at the piano—and have commissioned and performed works for the body and voice, even, at times, entirely away from the piano.

(This is not to say that I am the only “oddball” on this front—and far from the best!—as contemporary music in the U.S. can only be characterized by exceptions to the rule.  Notables in this arena that come to mind are the NYC-based collective ThingNY and Aiyun Huang in Montréal.)

In recital, I find myself wanting to speak off-the-cuff to the audience.  To me, the entire tradition of an untouchable, superhuman performer is antiquated.  As soon as I take that initial bow to that willing, clapping, smiling audience, I think to myself, “I owe at least this to them—to present myself as a person.”

What does this have to do with The Body? The body, and the use of it, in this particular setting, is the only way to dismantle those lofty ideals of immortality created by superhuman virtuosity.  The body is our reminder—to both performer and audience alike—of mortality.

I play arguably the easiest musical instrument upon which to produce complex sound—the piano.  Packed with centuries of innovation, the modern concert grand is the Frankenstein of the concert hall; it is a cumulative technological invention of which to be very proud.  Kudos to those working hard there.

However, this technician’s pride should never override our will to seek out the instrument’s visceral qualities.  The ghost in the machine is not a ghost at all—rather, a living, breathing, speaking, moving person.

Superhuman strength is a man-made creation—a form of machinery.

As a speaking pianist, I have, on several occasions, turned 90 degrees to the right, to face the audience directly.  I am always thrilled by this moment.  The action swiftly effaces my noble pianist profile—the Romantic façade of a hero.  No longer is one staring at another, but rather, we are now looking at one other.  I occasionally see sheepishness in the faces (does that make me a shepherd?), exhibiting an awkwardness you may feel when your eyes accidentally meet those of a stranger you had been watching without their knowledge.

The most fundamental aspect of classical music performance practice is voyeurism.  The audience may stare upon the performer, and the performer must act as if they are unaware, looking either at their instrument, at their sheet music, at the conductor, at other instrumentalists, or the least-but-still-acceptable choice, playing with their eyes closed—essentially, anything but the eyes of the audience. Turning to the audience changes everything—it shifts the experience from voyeuristic to collaborative. And what a glorious shift that is.

Nobuyuki Tsujii

Pianist Nobuyuki Tsujii.
(Credit: Wikipedia, Wikicommons)

Let me shift your attention to Nobuyuki Tsuji, the 2009 Gold Medalist of the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.  A blind musician, Tsujii often “looks” directly to the audience, as if reaching out in a deeply vulnerable way.  The theatrical effect is quite tangible in his performance of Chopin’s Berceuse.

An audience can be nothing but voyeuristic when watching Tsujii perform.  His condition awarded him the ability to look wherever he pleases without reprimand.

For me, I go to live concerts to directly interact.  If I feel like not interacting with other bodies, I’ll stay at home and listen to a recording.  (Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that either.)  The use of the body in a concert setting offers an accessible and dynamic alternative to the long-standing performer-as-deity ideal.  I’m not interested in watching a superhuman compete in a human challenge.  No one likes a rigged game.

***

The most outstanding theatrical performances are those that embody, not those that transcend.  In theatre, super-human actors are useless.  What makes them any more valuable in music?  The purest musical virtuosity convinces us that even the most physically transcendent feats are commonplace and human.  The etymology of “virtuoso” suggests excellence and mastery, not deification.  Descriptors like “god-like” and “superhuman” are hyperbolic.

The in-the-moment magic is what I crave as a spectator, not the aforementioned descriptors.  As performers, we should do our best to preserve that aspect, and to preserve it virtuosically.   The Body—and with it, the visual, the theatrical, and the voice—is essential to my artistic practice as a musician.  The Body is all we’ve got and embodiment is all we can do, and no composition or performance in the world can transcend this.

Join me next week as I write to you a third time, using body parts to discuss body parts: Music and The Heart.

4 thoughts on “Music and The Body

  1. william osborne

    I’ve spent the last 34 years writing music theater for instrumentalists, and mainly for my wife who has become a master of this newly evolving genre. In a world where technology increasingly replaces the body in musical performance, works that stress corporeality seem to be an important part of the future of music as a performative art. You can see videos and slides of our work here dating back over 30 years:

    http://www.osborne-conant.org/theater.htm

    In your commentary, I sense that you follow the Western tradition of viewing the body and mind as a duality. Some feel this approach might be based on false assumptions about what humans are. In the off chance you don’t already familiar with it, you might want to look at the work of cognitive psychologist George Lakoff who has argued that there is no Cartesian dualistic person with a mind separate and independent of the body. Reason is not disembodied. Its very structure comes from the details of our embodiment. Philosophers such as John Dewey and Merleau-Ponty also view the body as inseparable from reason. Our body is the primal basis that shapes everything we can mean, think, know, and communicate. Our bodies shape the metaphors we live by and the nature of the universe we experience.

    So it’s not like we can forget we are a body. Our surest path to artistic transcendence is to integrate the mind and body into the perfect unity that the mind-body actually is. This is one of the great meanings of music.

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    Reply
    1. Andy Costello

      Hello William,

      Thank you as always for your comments.

      I think the best way to approach the question, for me, is to dismantle opposing duality (in this case, Mind and Body). I’d always more willing to admit to ‘both/neither’ rather than ‘either/or’. To take it a step further, the best answer to these types of questions are ‘both AND neither.’

      The approach of mind vs. body is really just a system to work from, similar to perhaps the dialogues of classical Greek literature…

      Anywho, I admittedly know the work of Lakoff only on a surface level, and will definitely read into his findings with more depth when I have a chance — thank you for the recommendation!

      And as soon as I have time and access to viewing the link, I most definitely will.

      Thank you, William,
      Andy

      Reply
  2. William Paceley

    Well written and thought provoking. It’s interesting to observe how every performer takes a different personal stance regarding their relationship with the audience.

    That being said, there’s something oddly satisfying about observing a more traditional performance. I would argue that the disconnect between audience and performer can actually strengthen the impact of a performance. Even as a highly trained classical musician myself, when I have the opportunity to watch the elite perform it’s hard to not put them on a “superhuman” pedestal. I feel they belong there.

    The old hat semi-stoic style of performance probably isn’t the most productive way to build new audiences, but it certainly can be satisfying.

    Reply
    1. Andy Costello

      Hello William (#2!),

      For me the live energy of people in a room is a fundamentally unique form of music-making, which is totally different from admiring a statue, a still body on a pedestal… Both have their place, sometimes the space to imagine as a spectator is quite beautiful, which creates a magic all of it’s own. Like a book. Or like what we’re doing now, using words to explain music.

      Interesting… I’ve never really viewed another human as superhuman. Is that odd? No matter how refined someone’s particular skill is, I can’t bring myself to believe that they are above human standards. Perhaps we are on the same page, and just using a different vocabulary to say the same thing, but I’m very against the term “superhuman.”

      To me, “superhuman” is a dehumanizing term, and at least from what we can learn from oppressed demographies, any descriptor, whether complimentary or pejorative, that dehumanizes the subject is counterproductive. I believe this is the same case for superhuman. It is used to describe people in music, both positively and negatively, and no matter the context, I believe it distances audience sympathy. To bring my rant full circle, sympathy is exactly what we need with our public, if we want to productive in building new audiences.

      Reply

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