Fabrizio Manco*

Aural choreography, University of Roehampton, London 2016.
Photo by Joe Kelleher

What I call “aural choreography” is moving by following environmental sounds, it is where the acoustic environment is the choreographer and where movement responses are never exactly immediate and perfectly synchronized with it. One is moved and “composed” in how the acoustic environment resonates through impermanent boundaries.

It is part of Ear Bodies, my interdisciplinary research, pedagogy and performance practice of the ear, a way of being in an animated acoustic environment in which the whole body becomes an ear. I argue that performance, which is always theatre, in the sense of being a “watching place” (and a “place for watching”)—from its Greek etymology theatron—is a “listening place” (and a “place for listening”) and is about many “auditory glances.” I open myself to the life of a theatre which began, begins, continues and ends with sound, constantly resounding in, through and with us.

Being part of a listening place means also being part of an ear group, a meeting of different and diverse bodies, a meeting through listening of differences and communality. It is an environmentally aware coming together. It is the resounding of the many environmental, spatial, visual, social, somatic, performative relationships through sound which become experience. It is through the consideration of sound in its ecologies in performance that one can realize a constant bodied relation to it. In aural choreography, the auditory is behind the kinetic; it is the pre-condition for its being. We realize that sound itself is the ultimate performance and the ultimate enabler of movement.

In a choreographic case, sound is the dynamic agent and the dynamic position. Paradoxically, it is a position which is not position, because it is always dynamic. Where the body moves according to the sounds, in time as we listen and move with them, we physically respond to a location’s sonic inputs, responses which are never exactly immediate and perfectly synchronized. I think of inter-corporeal spaces and relationships through the auditory. These relationships can also be understood as something choreographic and compositional, as always rooted in acoustic space. A space moves our listening, sound is the choreographer and our being moved by sound is our composition.

When I talk about “composition,” I do not specifically mean it as Komposition (which in German usually means musical composition), but in a sense that, as well as theatre, performance too is always composed in terms of movement and sounds which are not a result of pre-conceived or pre-organised structures. By just following the sounds, one is composed and composes by contingency and non-intentionality, similarly to John Cage’s insistence on indeterminacy and the absence of intentionality.[1]

In aural choreography, frames and fields are realized through compositional practices of drawing. These delimitations include those in architectural, staged, landscaped spaces, and focus one’s attention to “form” without being formalistic. Form is intended here as an aid on our perception. Drawing is intended as always performative, as movement, as structural and as sound lines of those “found sounds” in the immediate acoustics of a site. Aural choreography also means striving to challenge architectural anthropocentrism in diminishing, as far as possible, its ontology, where aural architecture and performance create, simultaneously, a moving connection and relation between bodies and spatial acoustics. An auditory event has its coordinates, and it has its spatial field. This field becomes as such through structures, but also through frames, which are frames of field, devices for navigation in performance, allowing a connection with a site and create a circumnavigation, which, in turn, creates an experience of place, involving “place-sensitivity” and “time-awareness” (Casey 2009: 388).

Aural choreography’s parameters are an application of framing. A site has its own intrinsic qualities, different sonic spatial contexts, which can be brought to awareness, in the tension and connections between all the settings. These settings are predisposed to that space left for the event of contingency. This encounter helps to realize a connection to a specific site and to move “in the moment” without any aim; as contingency has no aim. I see this as becoming the contingency of a site: aimless moving. Once we have welcomed the contingent, there are other ways of experiencing a site, where all its aspects and events play in “composed performance.” The performance composing process involves the discerning of distinct auditory messages which serve to “spatialize” movement as choreography. In this choreography, different auditory messages can enable a very vast range of nuanced movements.

Auditory discrimination means “choosing” which acoustic cues to follow and to move accordingly. This includes the capacity of a body to realize the connection between body and sound, to corporeally listen. A performer attuned with corporeal listening is in a process of being sound-choreographed, beginning with the practical simple task of just orienting oneself towards what one perceives as sound sources. One’s attention finds a sonic source for an instant, then the attention flows and wanders, whilst that sonic input lingers on in the body.

Aural choreography is a composition “strategy” for performance. It takes into consideration one’s body’s positioning in a site. This would require a focused practice in movement linked to auditory attention with respect to gravity and the vestibular system. An integral part of this practice are preparatory exercises which consist of working with the experience of being moved by focusing on acoustic inputs of direction, speed, volume, tone and binaural cues of location and “acoustic coloration.”[2] This picking up of specific sounds from within an eventscape[3] is fundamental as an individual response. Once receptive to auditory inputs, we are sensitive to the movements of sounds and their intensities. In moving auditory discrimination, the discerning of sonic specificities needs to be immediate.

With aural choreography, we have another tool for reflecting on immediacy. The smallest to the biggest delay of movement responses to the acoustic inputs instigates one’s movements with their trajectories, while one responds with immediacy to those acoustic inputs. In aural choreography, thinking and moving means almost synchronized movement to sound. Immediacy and delay of response between sonic inputs and the body’s form connections and patterns. Movement is engaged in relation to listening as a way of “observing” space with the ears, a way of analyzing the acoustic spectrum. Often, moving by using the environmental sounds of different sites, one’s body could become almost like an instrument, a sort of “spectrum analyzer” of the acoustic spectrum. For instance, in an in-situ movement improvisation, the perceptual discernment becomes the movements of sound as if, in my imagination, movements of the body almost approach those of an ear hair cell.

In being moved by sound, in any speed of pace and response, a movement can stop, but a sonic input never actually decays. It keeps its specific quality and intensity and it takes its time: if it is a fast or slow moving sound, it moves us at our own time. What is important is the responsiveness to sounds, which, then, transform into movements of the body, one which takes place between an auditory sensory input and physical synchronicity to that input. This is an almost-synchronicity of sound with movement and, for a range of moments, I am in my relation with the temporality of many acoustic living sites. In this specific process of composing performance and of being choreographed, an acoustic conditioning takes place. The body, then, becomes environmental. This conditioning is to be understood as a somatic way of developing and performing listening-in-movement. Audition needs to be immediate, developed and navigated in how, for instance, a sonic cue orientates one to certain sounds instead of others. Auditory orientation is of significance in this spatial storytelling of aural choreography. What becomes important is the experience which comes forth: a form of spatial disorientation within orientation, and finding of orientation within disorientation. Sound, which is multi-directional, can have this choreographing function: often orienting the body in a perceptual field of a disorienting environment of sounds.

Testing asymmetric hearing, part of Process 4-Intuition Group research. Middlesex University, Trent Park, London 2007. Photo by Carla Vendramin

In orienting, the slightest asymmetry of bilateral hearing has its importance. For aural choreography, this bilaterality is not only a binaural experience of movement, but also it is to be considered as “asymmetric symmetry.” The ears have each one a distinct and imperfectly symmetric, subjective and unique way of relating to the world. They are a complex sensorial, bodied ways of perception where, paradoxically, a balance is achieved through that very auditory asymmetry. Aural choreography, through the perceiving of binaural asymmetry is not a simple issue of location and of placing but of actually dwelling in one’s asymmetric hearing/listening body.

I find the body potentially transformative and mobile even before extrinsic movement takes place. A moment—even before that moment is performed—is already actualized on an intrinsic level. Here, the experience of contingency is important where the prediction of auditory stimuli changes, attention against prediction, and, all the time, this creates a new performative context.

Performance research in Ugento, 2007. Part of Klohi, performance research in archaeological and other sites, Salento region, Italy (2005-ongoing).
Photo by Fausta Muci

Aural Choreography: frames of field 

Through one’s awareness, frames create fields of auditory perception. One frame comes after another, one frame within another frame in a topological but also physical acoustic space, one which creates relations. Acoustic space aggregates physical events, matter, and creates its numerous manifestations. A culture sees the human and other sentient bodies in relation to hearing/listening to the world which is, in human terms, a somatic “measurement” of perimeters of physical space as site which we hear/listen to. Space, like sound, generates. With acoustic space, being dynamic, we always have a connection with it even when not aware of it. The somatic extent in which a body creates ritualistic/liminal perimeters is here the component of an acoustic space, specifically, that of a field. The ears are this somatic extent. Sound creates a field but also a somatic world, we recognize this as an interaction through a physical delimitation. In aural choreography, structure is needed. This structure could be physical/architectural/scenographic, invisible or of any other visual means, but, in any case, it is always an acoustic frame, the frame which becomes a field, when we become aware of the acoustic ecologies in the space that we are a part of. Sound becomes a pretext for exploring its ecological interactions.

Through autobiographical unfolding, an example of these delimitations comes from my working and interest in an agricultural Southern Italian past; that of the specific visual ways that the peasantry had, and still have, to highlight areas. Tying, harvesting, with the use of materials like ropes, colored strings, fabrics, nets, ribbons and also paint, as well as other different materials, created their own earth and sound fields, together with the consequential sonic events of their working; their own arte povera. By also applying imaginary or visual frames, these delimitations could become a tool for one’s situated listening body. An example is what, in Salentine dialect, farmers call finita. A finita is a stone which delimitates an imaginary perimeter, one made by four stones connected by imaginary lines. Visually, the cultivated areas are marked spaces for recognition, as fields, where plants are dormant or germinating. Then, the site and the marked/drawn field both coincide, and this coinciding event is “an always open theatre.”[4] Being always open, the acoustic field is for its living and vital voices.

A field is constituted by a frame. But the field is also an experience of space, and, as such, it is possible only through sensorial perception, realized through sensorial engagement in performance, and, in this sense, the performance field is phenomenal. Frames are also necessary as improvisational and compositional devices, and, even with the present awareness that these frames are completely fabricated, they are nonetheless necessary parameters of corporeal navigations. When I move through frames, listening becomes a better way for the body to specifically relate to different locations, through its being a sort of flexible and fluid diaphragm of exchanges. All of these exchanges imply process, where one’s ears perceive only the epiphenomenon of acoustic space, but still, the greater vibrational environment can make my spatial responsiveness emerge. Spatial responsiveness could make us ponder on how we, as attending performers, act, move, take responsibility for a delimited site. I move within a flux of those sounds which are the distinctive marks of what can only be found in the immediate acoustics of a site.

“Framed Field,” sketch for installation How to Explain a Field to a Dead Magpie (?).2012.
Photo by Fabrizio Manco

A delimitation is one restricted by our sensorial perception’s horizons. The actual perceptual field is the setting of the spatiality of a frame, and this is one of every distinct auditory sensation. Every auditory sensation meets and corresponds here with the spatial, as auditory framing of a space. This framing comes also from what one imagines to hear. For its paradoxical and acoustic imaginary character, a field is of something endless because it is framed. A field’s perimeter is an open perimeter, it is not a boundary for safety and withdrawal, but one which is open to welcome coming events. A frame is instead a device for easy moving, one coming from immediate experience.

By applying both conceptual and physical restrictions one’s listening becomes a tool for attempting to localize one’s place in the space/world. In this way, framing becomes a practical method for sensorial responsiveness and for enabling moving in context. This moving in context is the relationship with and inside the margin with what is beyond the margin. At the margins of a frame, there is another frame. An act of framing is the performance. This act is the thing which allows “acoustic communication.”[5] The frame still remains a reference point and becomes a spatial liaison between one’s body and the relationship with the environment, the field. It becomes that tangible space-in-between, the passe-partout of a relationship. Periphery is to become a perceptual extension and a continuous deference.

Farmers in a field just outside Melissano, Italy and nets under olive trees.
Photo by Fabrizio Manco

In aural choreography, this translates in compositional terms: composition takes place in delimiting the space in which one moves. Inside these delimitations one toils, composes, practices a ritual. In a field, the sensation of sound as decaying and dying can also make one realize the temporality of contingency. As Merleau-Ponty reminds us: “Each sensation, being strictly speaking, the first, last and only one of its kind, is a birth and a death” (1962: 216).

Perceived in the air as in the body, sound is always living material, an illusory dying one, where human and animal sound is sentient body-sound in a fluid geometry of connections, realizing infinite ways of moving with unpredictable sound. This could be seen as an education to minute listening, through the ear and gradually to the rest of the body.

Drawing earliness

Earlines performance, University of Roehampton, 2010, and workshop for London Metropolitan University students, 2012. Photo by Stella Schito and Helen Spackman

A relationship is called a place. A place is a temporal passing of experience. A passing which leaves traces, markings which eventually will disappear. In the world and the surfaces, where life can discover many hidden lines, there is an archaeology where our bodies can listen to those just passed and already passing sounds, leaving only for a moment acoustic traces in space, on paper or on other surfaces of a moving drawing of sounds: these are earlines drawing. Earlines drawing is another media of aural choreography, engaged in the exploration of the corporeal experience of sound, where sound is drawn, the body draws and is drawn by the perception of sound.

Earlines drawing also functions as pedagogic tool, as a tool for performance as well as performance in itself. An enhanced system of gradual attuning is realized through individual and group performative line-drawing of sound in space or surfaces. This “temporal” drawing is also a choreography in itself, as a combination of sound-enabled movements, and it is important for this specific temporality, as both a performative and visual medium too. In my work, when it becomes a combination of line-drawing and architectural drawing, earlines explore one’s perception of the interaction of sound with planes—including a reference to descriptive geometry—the line, the dot and the puncture, but also the stitching of sound through threads and needle on fabric, using as a constant reference what I am able to hear.

Earlines performance, part three (stitching sound), University of Roehampton, London 2010. Photo by Justin Hunt

Earlines are a method of composing performance resulting from an effort towards detail in their tracing. The effort is invested in being adherent, as much as possible, to the listened sonic sources and their qualities. While we draw “scribbly” lines are the place of acoustic actions, the topos in landscape and architecture. In earlines drawing, a line is already performative, it has moved even before it’s being traced, it’s being followed.

Earlines workshop at the University of Portsmouth, 2012. Photo  by Ross Percy

Movement, environmental context and time are all a reflection on the drawing-performance process itself. The drawing is produced by listening and focusing on the outdoor sound fields (if performed indoors) as binaural inputs coming from windows, attempting to go beyond masking noise. The sources, speeds, distances, directions, intensities, durations, tones, frequencies and rhythms of the external sounds are immediately drawn using both hands (and a different colour for each hand), each hand corresponding to each ear. It is not a means for visualizing sound, nor is it that the sound brings forth an image in perception. It is the space between sonic sources which becomes evident, their nature constantly modifying in a continuum. Drawing in a continuum becomes an “oto-kinetic” parameter. This is a parameter which follows gravity and speeds of response in an attempt to synchronize with the moving sounds. Here, the kinetic (movement) becomes kinaesthetic (movement in relation to position and sensorial perception of the body). In this respect, drawing in relation to what one is able to hear/listen to is somatic time; time relating to movement—of the drawing hands and/or bodies—is also a way of testing synchronicity.

Earlines drawing is also a way towards and out of performance improvisation. In this sense, I see drawing as a directly emerging from context. It is only “improvisation”, if it is intended in the ambiguous nature of the concept, if it is a way of allowing intuition through guided facilitation in favoring orientation in space.

Performance Dark Matter, Live Art Development Agency, London 2010.
Photo by Hugo Glendinning

The visual aspect is in a sense “understood” when also linked to peripheral vision in relation to auditory localization through movement. Drawing and sound share corporeality. Drawing earlines and being, at the same time, “drawn” by sound share a fluid conversation and a continuous process of composing movement in relation to listening. There is a correlation between the abstractness of the lines and the concrete, bodied experience of the sounds. A performer might stand on a demanding path of sensitive precision and concentration in performing/drawing, and a “randomness” is the result of an effort towards detail in its tracing.

Externalized in very small or more visible movements and lines, a movement response to sonic input happens in almost-synchronicity. Almost-synchronicity does not mean tempo, no matter how immediate and accurate a drawing movement can be—as thinking comes with it—and reacting to the sonic input with as little as possible cognitive mediation also requires an exercise in considering sensorial perception and misperception, the “lies of perception.” In the drawing of earlines, it is always an effort to find a direction or a locus. The ears follow the sonic impulses in the way they specifically have been perceived and the drawing of sound-movement carries something in the process.

An earlines drawing while walking (initially performed in 1997 at the Helsinki Academy of Fine Art, Finland). London 2010. Photo by Hannes Guðmundsson

The concept of improvisation being drawing applies also when we come to address spontaneity and extemporaneity. In this context, improvisation is a way to educate intuition ad lib. Lines make connections through sounds and bodies, and one can draw as a sort of “stenography” of sound, because it is related to quick response. In the case of earlines, walking as a performative action is also moving by following acoustic parameters. The active performance of walking and listening and that of drawing meet on a correlated level; then, once a trace is impressed, it is already dispersed and lost.

The walking body is a form of listening which is already a form of active feedback. While walking, I realize the corporeality and fluidity of space while listening. Walking, in my Ear Bodies methodology, and, therefore, in aural choreography, is always connected to listening and drawing, all the different ways of exploring listening through walking include drawing while walking. Sometimes also with the use of trays attached to the body, or walking on wooden boxes attached to the feet (containing tea cups or other objects). which I constructed and used in performance. Walking is transitions, connecting indoor and outdoor spaces like corridors, perimeters of a building and enclosed outdoor spaces.


[1] For more on non-intentionality, see Birringer 2014.
[2] For Wrightson, “acoustic coloration” is “caused by echoes and reverberations that occur as sound is absorbed and reflected from surfaces within the environment, and due to the effects of weather related factors such as temperature, wind and humidity. The resulting coloration offers significant information for the listener, providing cues relating to the physical nature of the environment and expressing its size in relation to the listener” (2000: 11).
[3] Barry Blesser says that soundscape is an eventscape. Tim Ingold, who in 2007 wrote “Against Soundscape,” stands against the term “soundscape— preferring “transduction”—sice soundscape is both an objectification and subjectification of sound, criticizing R. Murray Schafer’s use and creation of the word—intended as a sonic version of landscape—as romantic. Importantly, to Ingold, the soundscape has become haunted by the notion of immersion.
[4] I paraphrase the title of a collection of poems by the Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli, Sempre aperto teatro (Cavalli 1999)
[5] Barry Truax applies his term acoustic communication “to the study of how information flows between listeners and their environments, and how sound creates relationships, both personal and social” (2001: 2).

Works Cited

Birringer, Johannes. “Resonances: The Sound of Performance.” GRAMMA 22.2 (2014): 205-15 (also in hz-journal 20.)

Blesser, Barry. “Eventscape: The Aural Experience of Space and Place.” Power Point Presentation. 25 Feb. 2011. Web. 31 Mar. 2011.

Casey, Edward (2009) Getting Back into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009.

—. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. London: University of California Press, 1997.

Cavalli, Patrizia. Sempre aperto teatro. [Always Open Theatre.] Turin: Einaudi, 1999.

Manco, Fabrizio (2016) Ear Bodies: Acoustic Ecologies in Site-Contingent Performance. Diss. University of Roehampton, 2016.

Mathews, Freya. “Introduction: Invitation to Ontopoetics.” PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature 6 (2006). 25 Mar. 2012.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge, 1962.

Palmesino, John, and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog. “Matters of Observation on Architecture in the Anthropocene: John Palmesino and Ann-Sofi Rönnskog in Conversation with Etienne Turpin.” Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, Ed. Etienne Turpin. Ann Arbor: Open Humanities Press, 2013. 15-24.

Roesner, David, and Matthias Rebstock. Composed Theatre: Aesthetics, Practices, Processes. Bristol: Intellect, 2012.

Williams, Luke. The Echo Chamber. London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011.

Wrightson, Kendall. “An Introduction to Acoustic Ecology.” Soundscape: The Journal of Acoustic Ecology 1.1 (2000): 10-3.

Truax, Barry. Acoustic Communication. 2nd ed. Westport, CT: Ablex Publishing, 2001.

*Fabrizio Manco is an artist, independent scholar and lecturer. His practice includes performance and live art, what he calls “site-contingent performance,” choreography, drawing, installation, working with different sites, landscapes, architectural and cultural spaces. He has studied, trained and worked in Art and Design, Arts and Humanities, Fine Art, Architecture, Theatre and Performance both in Italy and London (including training in Butoh in Italy, England and Japan). His Ph.D. thesis Ear Bodies: Acoustic Ecologies in Site-Contingent Performance weaves together his previous practice-research on Carmelo Bene and the Baroque, on Tarantism and Butoh, performance with sound, bodied listening and tinnitus/hyperacusis. He has performed work, nationally and internationally (including Italy, Singapore, India, Canada, Finland, Germany, Croatia, Spain), as well as taking up art residencies and conducting research projects, working both solo and collaboratively, including [STATES OF]TRANCEformation (2005) on Tarantism and Butoh at Chisenhale Dance Space, London; Ringing Forest (2005) on Tinnitus (Sciart award, Wellcome Trust); Ear Bodies (2009) at Central School of Speech & Drama, London; Building Sound supported by the AHRC Beyond Text initiative (with Ella Finer, 2010).

Copyright © 2017 Fabrizio Manco
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Aural Choreography as Composed Performance
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