Stephanie Schroedter*

Günther Lebbing and Tom Pauwels in Mouvements für Lachenmann by Xavier Le Roy, Tanzquartier Wien, 2005.
Photo by Monika Rittershaus

Corporeal dimensions of music as an audible though not visible art of movement manifest themselves in no other form of art as forcefully and plastically as in dance; that is, in the interaction with choreographic or improvised movements. Even beyond music visualizations[1] or music illustrations[2] through physical movements, which have repeatedly fallen victim to the verdict of trivial redundancy at least since postmodernism, music especially encourages an understanding in which motion and emotion correspond directly with each other.

A precondition for this approach to music is a specific corporeal movement listening—a situated movement listening or rather embodied movement listening— which experiences and conceptualizes music in motion, to motion and as motion. For instance, popular music is above all experienced by incorporating it rhythmically, in order to comprehend it directly by listening in motion.[3] This mode of listening, in which the perception of music is directly linked with clearly recognizable physical movement that coincides with it, I propose to describe as kinetic listening. In the case of kinaesthetic listening though, in which music is also immediately experienced as movement, the physically resonating movement does not necessarily have to be visible or congruent with what has been heard. The music does not even have to be audible to be experienced as movement—which will be demonstrated in the following by analyzing the concert performances staged by the French dancer and choreographer Xavier Le Roy, based on selected compositions by Helmut Lachenmann. Furthermore, apart from rhythm being important for kinaesthetic listening, melody, harmony and tone colour, as well as sound volume, are of equal importance in order to perceive music in its movement potential.

Finally, the auditory (and also visual) perception can not only be linked to the sense of movement, that is, the proprioception or kinaesthesia (see, among others Stewart, Gapenne and Di Paolo 2014: 183-218; or for a dance-theoretical perspective Batson and Wilson 2014: 87), but, due to the close connectivity of the receptor and sensory cells, also with the tactile and haptic sensations, and so comprising sensorimotor performances in the widest sense. At this point, the transition between kinaesthetic and synaesthetic listening (which is combined with other senses) is fluid, thus showing once more how important it is to differentiate between the various modes of listening, particularly with regard to the experience and understanding of music. Thereby, the music can be audible or just barely or no longer audible, exclusively present in the imagination, and the movement can be visible or invisible; that is, imaginary.[4]

Music in Motion, Music to Motion and Music as Motion

In contrast to the kinetic listening mode directly connected with one’s own bodily movements—listening to music while being in motion—music, sounds or noises in music- and dance-theatre, film or post-dramatic, event-like performances are heard to very different and often also highly differentiated movements, through which the viewer/listener is moved (inwardly); that is, affected. The audible events do not necessarily have to relate to visible occurrences nor particularly coincide with the; instead, they can cause irritations while listening and watching. In the course of the presentation, imaginary movements between listening and watching arise in the perception of the listeners, that can lead to those emergence effects,[5] in which the sum of auditory and visual—that is, audio-visual—impressions result in more, or rather, in something new and completely different than the audible and visible individual components presage in themselves.

Finally, music in a concert hall, that is, music not performed scenically, can be heard as (imaginary) motion due to its implicitly inherent, theatrical or performative dimensions—as can be comprehended very vividly in the case of Lachenmann’s music, which “stages” the process of the sound production—not least supported by very detailed playing techniques and playing instructions. Under these conditions, the gestures of the musicians can look like choreographed, so that the music takes on body-like or corporeal contours.

However, music does not inevitably have to be linked to physically visible, performed, choreographed or improvised movements (that is, movement components apart from playing the instruments) in order to perceive them regardless of their invisible corporeality as a moving body—that is, to experience and to comprehend them as motion—provided that the perceiver is able to grasp them with his/her sense of movement.

Kinaesthetic listening, which is necessary for this kind of perception, has been barely examined in relevant studies on the act of listening to date. The challenges for kinaesthetic listening are not only the emergence effects mentioned above, in which very different impressions melt into each other, but also moments of surprising difference and interference experiences that mark a gulf between what is heard and what is seen (or heard, but not seen, and, vice versa, seen, but not heard), and thus expand the percipients’ aesthetic horizon of experiences and expectations. Hence, kinaesthetic listening (and also the respective kind of watching) is a firmly movement-sensitive and ideally also critically self-reflective listening (or watching respectively)— a listening (watching) which puts two movements in relation to each other: on the one hand, the proper motion, that is, from the skeletal muscles, the tendons and joints through proprioceptors); on the other hand, the orientation in space or the perception of people/objects and their movements in the surrounding space of one’s own body. The fact that the sense of balance, which is located in the inner ear, is decisively involved in the orientation of the body and its movements in space explains the close linkage between the kinaesthesis and the sense of hearing.

However, the perception of acoustic events is not based exclusively on the sense of hearing, but also to a significant extent on the sense of touch. Due to the fact that any auditory events are based on sound waves as oscillations or vibrations, which are also tactile and felt like a touch on the skin’s surface, they can be perceived by the entire body too. Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that touches of the dance partners in contact improvisation are called listening—although one cannot necessarily hear anything in the conventional sense or rather there does not have to be anything audible. As phenomena of tactile perception, hearing and touching are treated as equivalents (see Brandstetter 2012 and 2013).

Moreover, musicians generally associate a distinctively haptic component with acoustic events, since the production of sound is mostly connected with a sensorimotor activity such as pressing, fingering, bowing, feeling one’s way on the instrument etc. After longer practice the motoric process of sound production is so closely linked to the resulting sound experience that the movement as such can already trigger the impression of a sound or the sound can be imagined—and, vice versa, specific instrumental sounds can directly trigger in experienced players imaginations of movements, virtual movement patterns, which are necessary for the production of sound. This is comparable with a conditioning learning process (cf. Bouton 2007) combined with tacit knowledge (Polanyi 1996) or rather an embodied knowledge.[6] The latter originates most notably in a practical craftsmanship, particularly in the haptic and tactile skills and sources of knowledge before it can be rationalized (mostly just rudimentary). Music is here at first tactile-haptically grasped, in order to be gripped by it emotionally and to grasp it rationally.

Helmut Lachenmann’s Gripping and Grasping Listening

Exactly that aspect of a tactile and haptic perception of sound events, which can be experienced physically, is discussed very explicitly by Lachenmann in his “methodology of composition and aesthetics of listening” (see Utz and Gadenstätter 2008 in their explanations on Lachenmann’s music). He virtually puts it at the core of his artistic practice by starting with the composition as early as the production of sound as sensorimotor activity[7]—instead of taking traditional tonal systems or standardised articulations as the starting point. He developed composition processes with Pression für einen Cellisten (1969/70), for which he especially created a prescriptive notation (see Lachenmann and Häusler 1972/1996: 381; for a corresponding analysis, see Neuwirth 2008: 83-92). Thus, it might not be a coincidence that Xavier Le Roy included this composition in his staged concerts.

Emphasizing motor activity or highly diverse movement articulations for the accentuation of entirely new, subtly nuanced timbres, leads to the facts outlined earlier: Lachenmann’s music first of all has to be felt for or rather gripped and grasped so that one can grasp it, that is, comprehend it—by the musicians as well as the percipients (at least imaginarily). Accordingly, Lachenmann calls it a “gripping process” (“Abtastprozess,” see Schroedter 2012: 43-110), the scope of which is summed up very succinctly by Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus (2006: 104). He emphasizes that one essential prerequisite for the understanding of Lachenmann’s music is, first of all, an original bodily knowledge of movement in the form of a specifically tactile-haptic skilfulness. Furthermore according to Lachenmann, the tonal motor activity on which sound events are based does not aim at a sympathetic “listening” as recognizing something familiar, rather it wants to train a self-reflective “critical listening,” which questions traditional listening habits, in order to repeatedly become receptive with full attentiveness to the unusual and new.[8]

Choreographed Listening in Xavier Le Roy’s Staged Concerts

Such a motoric or physically characterized concept of music, which corresponds closely with a critically reflective listening attitude, can definitely benefit from simultaneous looking: a watching and touching comprehension of the visible (instrumental playing) movements can sharpen the ear, but also unsettle it, and, finally, result in a more careful and critical listening. Thus, Gerald Siegmund describes that the “timbres of tones and sounds” in Pression seemed to him like that of “other instruments, . . . like a guitar or a wind instrument,” from which he deduces:

This is where listening and watching are already separated from another, our perception is expanded and our imagination is appealed to picturing another scene. This dynamic between play, sound and the listeners’ perceptive ability therefore is initially in a very conventional sense of a certain theatrical nature . . . : The cello and its tonal spectrum act like on a theatre stage, for it takes on the mask of something else, since it turns into something else in the consciousness of the listener. (Siegmund 2012: 254)

The change between different scenes of listening is increased if another theatrical level is added to music’s immanent theatricality—as happened in Xavier Le Roy’s staged concerts. Due to new experimental shifts in the concert’s setting, irritations were caused between a corporeal situated listening, that is, a kinaesthetic listening (in accordance with the definition given above), and watching—which will be described in more detail in the following explanations.

His first staging of a “concert evening” (subtitle chosen by him), Mouvements für Lachenmann, originated in 2005, on the occasion of the celebration of the composer’s seventieth birthday, at the festival Wien Modern. At the beginning, one could listen and watch Lachenmann’s “Schattentanz” (shadow dance) for piano no. 7 from Ein Kinderspiel (1980), performed by Marino Formenti—the very piece with which Lachenmann, according to his own statement, started the “provocation” of listening by choosing something where the recipient feels most comfortable—nursery rhymes and dance models. It was followed by Lachenmann’s Salut für Caudwell for two guitars (1977), which, three years later, was also the centre of the premiere of More Mouvement für Lachenmann, as a further development of the first staged concert (2008). There it was framed by Pression (1969/70) and Gran Torso (1971) though, whereas Mouvements für Lachenmann in 2005 ended with Lachenmann’s Mouvement (– vor der Erstarrung) (1982/84).

Mouvements für Lachenmann by Xavier Le Roy, 2005: Günther Lebbing and Tom Pauwels (right), Barbara Romen and Günter Schneider behind risers (left). From the artist’s website

In the following passage, I would like to focus mostly on Le Roy’s staging of Lachenmann’s Salut für Caudwell, which stood at the centre of both three-part concerts, since it raised essential questions about listening and watching movements. It gives those gestures of decoupling (of listening and watching) especially forceful contours, which I consider as symptomatic for a postmodern understanding of audible and visual, but also hardly or no longer audible and visible movement interactions in choreography and performance.


Mouvements für Lachenmann, after a workshop with Xavier Le Roy during Darmstadt summer course 2010

In Le Roy’s staged version of Lachenmann’s Salut für Caudwell, two guitarists played the composition without their instruments, as if playing air guitar, whereas the respective music was actually played by two other guitarists who were hidden behind a folding screen. But it did not stop at this comparably simple arrangement of decoupling the audible and the visible as an acousmatic setting, so to speak. On the one hand, it was increasingly perceptible that the visible gestures were distorted choreographically; on the other hand, the players behind the folding screen paused, whereas the silent play in front of the screen continued. Thus, the visible events departed further and further from the audible and increasingly unsettled (necessarily so) the listening/watching audience, since the movements they saw were different from those needed to produce those sounds. In short, the recipients/percipients did not hear what they saw—and, vice versa, they saw something they did not hear. These gestures of difference and interference, which oscillated between the audible and the visible, finally resulted in the audience being thrown back on themselves and reflecting what and how they were perceiving. In this way, Xavier Le Roy transferred Lachenmann’s intended listening as a critically reflecting perception authority into a respectively analogous kind of watching.

Remarkable are also the consequences for the musicians resulting from this experimental set-up. Thus Le Roy observed:

The specific quality of the movements produced by you as musicians is also very interesting. Dancers would not be able to achieve this. It gets obvious that unlike dancers, who could make the same movements, you know exactly how these movements would sound, what function they have, how much pressure you have to apply etc. This knowledge lends your movements a special quality that the audience notice. (From the programme for More Mouvements für Lachenmann, Dresden Festival of Contemporary Music TonLagen, 2009)

Since the actual impulse for the movements of musicians originates from their sound imagination (combined with an embodied knowledge how to produce it)—and not from physical or movement techniques (for their own sake), let alone codified gestures and figures of movement, musicians become a species of dancers of their own. Equally, dancers can become a species of musicians of their own, if they are led in their movement creations by musical impulses without being inevitably ensnared by the music. What connects both species of artists is a kinaesthetic listening which, above all, perceives music as audible but also physically (tactile-haptic) noticeable movement, in order to enter into an animated and stimulating dialogue with it—with the eye and the ear in an equal partnership.[9]

[1] For a critical discussion of this term, see Jordan (2000: 5; 2015: 3).

[2] The terms “visualization” and “illustration” are often used as synonyms, although illustrations of dance through music (and, vice versa, of music through dance) tend to be narrative. Visualizations mainly aim at an abstraction or rather concentration of the music or rather dance itself, with special emphasis on its structural composition. A terminological differentiation between these non-identical music-choreographic procedures would therefore seem appropriate.

[3] Recently, the frequently discussed concept of embodiment, or rather, enactivism has significantly contributed to recognise physical, that is, particularly sensorimotor, activities as important factors of the perception as well as cognitive formation process. Substantial prerequisites for this came from Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology in succession to Husserl, as well as from the integrative neuroscience and the embodied cognitive science, which was developed from cognitive linguistics. For approaches in cognitive sciences in the field of music theory or music psychology, see Zbikowski (et al 2002 and 2012), as well as Cox (2016) and Leman (2016).

[4] Initially, I developed a model of different modes of listening in the context of my research on movement and sound spaces in nineteenth-century Paris, as a flourishing modern city with its diverse levels of dancing/dance-musical activities (Schroedter 2017). I came to the result that these phenomena are by no means exclusively historical or even referring to a specific cultural region. They are rather due to individual, (socio-) cultural and, finally, yet importantly, (socio-) political tendencies, which also include historically evolved listening habits and their consequences for the musical life and musical experience.

[5] The causing of emergence effects in interaction with music/sound and dance/movement is chiefly ascribed to the collaboration of Cage and Cunnungham. In the end, this is a rather fundamental phenomenon of the cognitive generation of meaning. Thus the question arises whether not all interplay between audible and visible impressions does inevitably lead to emergence effects. See, among others, Roth (1992).

[6] Latest research methods have increasingly refered to practice-as-research that relies on artistic practices as its starting point. For a survey of the varied dimensions of embodied knowledge, see Renger, Wulf, Bangen and Hanky (2016), particularly on the dancing dimensions of implicit knowledge; Brandstetter (2016: 327-32); and Quinten and Schroedter (2016).

[7] With regard to Gran Torso (1971/72), that string quartet which was as expanded instrumental ensemble, also part of Xavier Le Roy’s staged concert, Lachenmann emphasizes that. in his compositions. the “concept of material . . . tries to free itself from convention by taking instead of the sound the mechanical and energetic conditions of the sound production as starting points and deduce structural and formal hierarchies from there” (Lachenmann and Häusler 1978/1996: 386).

[8] For a concise summary of these subject matters, which are not elaborated any further at this point, see Neuwirth (2008: 77).

[9] For further information, including photos, see: here and here.

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*Stephanie Schroedter gained her PhD from the Institute of Musicology/Dance and Music Theatre Department at the University of Salzburg. A project on dance (music) cultures of the nineteenth century at the Institute for Music Theatre Research of the University of Bayreuth, subsidized by the German Academic National Foundation (DFG), was followed by several visiting professorships in the fields of dance, theatre and media studies, as well as further collaborative research projects. She now works as dance scholar and musicologist at the Institute for Theatre/Dance Studies of the Freie Universität, Berlin. In 2015, she finished her second monograph, Paris qui danse. Spaces for Movement and Sound in a Modern City, which was subsidized by the German Academic National Foundation (DFG) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNF).

Copyright © 2017 Stephanie Schroedter
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Staging Listening: Corporeal Dimensions of New Music in Choreographies by Xavier Le Roy