Raul De Nieves recently performed at Gavin Brown Enterprises, and as usual, it was very Raul. I wondered about this Raulishness as he gyrated, climbed in and out of his costume, and intoned in distinctly Raulish prosody over prerecorded tracks, and had also tried to distill it a week earlier while he was berserking out with his band Haribo, whipping around chairs and his body on the concrete of a newly opened bar. Performance-wise, it wasn’t exactly singing and it wasn’t exactly dancing. It was more like a sustained mode of announcement in both body and speech. Never did quite pin it down. One thing I did notice however— and something that got me thinking— was the degree to which Raul resisted the contours of the music playing in parallel. He didn’t embody the music, as a singer or dancer usually does. I guess I’d call his mode of performance “alienated”— both as in “Brechtian alienation,” and like a stranger taunting Times Square crowds with a megaphone.
After Raul came Sadaf Nava, and again: despite the mic, voice, pedals, violin, something distinguished it from “singing” or “musical performance” in a received sense. Sandwiching her body between a mirror below and a pane of clear acrylic, which she bent near to breaking throughout the performance, Sadaf almost convinced you that she was going to be sawn in half. Only in this version she was playing both the magician and the assistant. The music itself assumed the role of the saw. Maybe the drumroll as well. I sensed the same bodily contentiousness or alienation with the music that I did with Raul, a break from the way music conventionally just spouts from bodies on stage. On one level, it makes sense. If you listen to Sadaf’s music, they’re listenable even at their most erratic, but it’s unclear how a body would perform them in the sense of a public reproduction, even symbolically. The rhythms of “C.F.C.” (below) or “Stillness,” for example, offer no bodily analogy except through the miracle of video editing, and her ghostly wail and background voices might get echoed, laced, lacerated, or atomized, but they never “sing” in terms of producing meaningful modulations in pitch.
First searching for similarities or a common style between the sets, I soon realized that they were merely responding to the same cultural conditions— conditions in which music is no longer, as it has been for thousands of years, inherently embedded in the body. By “embeddedness” I don’t mean music that is literally produced by the body; embeddedness still includes most musical instruments, which only prosthetically extend musical categories originating in the body: melody, harmony, and rhythm as it’s traditionally conceived— relationships in sound that the body can still make or roughly mimic.
Disembeddedness is more radical. It means, among other things, that our musical categories and criteria, which organize sound into musical sense, can now transcend the possibilities of bodily production. There will be primary relationships within music that cannot be made by a body, that cannot be hummed or tapped out even in their barest form. This has huge implications for music obviously— for musicians like Sadaf, and most any other musics that tend toward noise or experimentalism, and I’ve talked about that before. Here though, I want to talk about why it’s also pretty big news for the performing body which, no longer the inalienable locus of musical meaning and reproduction, can suddenly strike up a new relationship with music. It can now be its partner, master, slave, mechanic, expositor— its opponent?
The first time I remember really encountering this alienation of the performing body was watching Jill Flanagan’s Forced into Femininity. The music itself, the tracks over which she performs, could certainly be considered “disembedded music.” Ascending and descending “pitch ladders” and fanbelt-like squeaks use pitch non-melodically, in the way that, uncoincidentally, sirens and alarms use pitch non-melodically. The rhythms are pseudo-rhythms, hinting at no analogy to bodily movements, but imparting motion through machinic grinding and processing sounds that you’d expect from a factory floor with a worker trapped in its gears. Neither the sounds nor the sound relationships are of a bodily origin, and accordingly, Jill does not perform as the source of the music. Instead she performs as its target.
Her body haywires and hatchets its way through the room and audience, in fitful repetitive gestures that bring to mind what caregivers of the autistic refer to as “stimming.” Those movements are not just decorative. They rethread the sounds with new musical sense; they visually cue us as to how to absorb the sounds as music. Her voice holds the havoc together in a tone somewhere between an operatic Miss Piggy and just plain yelling, and nowhere near a melody. By taking alienation as a given, both in the bodily disembeddedness of the music, and in her psychical and bodily experiences as a transwoman in broader culture, Forced into Femininity pulls off musical coherence and total bodily freedom in the midst— and in the form— of meltdown. Jill nicely sums up this strategy in one of her album titles: “I don’t exist therefore I can do whatever I want.”
The traditional, bodily embeddedness of music has always obscured a fundamental question when it comes to its performance: why do we watch music in the first place? If music is essentially “about sound,” as so many contend, what do we get out of seeing these sounds? Prior to the Edisonian revolution of recorded sound, the question was almost pointless. To play and perform, to hear and see, were more or less synonymous. Music was always coming from some nearby body or cluster of bodies. But now no longer. We could just listen to recordings— and to really good ones no less. But given the choice between an exquisitely-mixed, hifi recording and a sloppy, blown-out performance, people will still stand in long lines and fork over hundreds for the latter. Why? There’s a communal aspect to shows, certainly, but we can imagine other possibilities for communally absorbing music.
In Tokyo, safe from Shibuya’s river of human bodies, is an establishment called the Lion Café, in operation since 1926. All photography is explicitly, and all talking implicitly, forbidden. Inside are small, black-painted wooden tables and booths coldly illuminated from above. Visitors order coffee by indicating their selections on a laminated picture menu. In front, in the chancel of the café, an imposing hi-fidelity system floods the room with classical music— Mendelssohn and Beethoven were on rotation the night we visited. Lion Café is in essence a sound church, where attendees enter a transcendental, contemplative relation with unseen music. And rather than feeling like a novelty, it felt a sorely missed necessity. Lion Café should be a universal form. We should be able to deboard a plane in any medium-sized city and ask a local, excuse me, where is the nearest listening café, the nearest sound church?
Instead when we want to communally listen to music with strangers, we overwhelmingly prefer it in its most spectacularly empirical and bodily form: we either want to dance or we want to watch it performed. Publics enjoy a performing body for more than just kicks, or in order to have something to adore or gawk at. They want the performing body because music is not purely “about sound.” It’s as much about the relation of sound to the wider world, including visual culture and human bodies. Even when disembedded from bodies, music is always embedded in something else. Performing bodies help charismatically imbue sound with musical sense, as they did with Raul, Sadaf, and Jill, each in their own way. On the whole, publics go for the more straightforward ego-identification of the rockstar model (whatever the actual genre), somebody that will play the source— real or symbolic—of all the musical expressivity. This rockstar model most often reinforces the well-established categories of embedded music: melody, harmony, and rhythm as it’s traditionally conceived. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with musical traditions. And I’m not suggesting that the rockstar model is inherently rearguard, but I do note that none of the performers that got me thinking about the relation of the performing body to new music fits the image of the white, male, heteronormative mouthpiece that loads when you image search the word “rockstar.” If this is the kind of body that has been lending sense to sound, you might understand why some would be so eager to establish a new relationship of the body to music— or for that matter, to everything else. And on that note, I have a few more thoughts, on Sigrid Lauren and Monica Mirabile of Fluct.
Of the millions of ways your body can move— walking, working, playing, lounging, interacting with other bodies— you cruelly permit it only a countable few: namely those actions with a socially sanctioned and legible purpose. The body wants to move freely; that’s what it’s for. Yet, by and large, it only gets to perform cleanly purposive actions, not the messily effusive ones that feel so good. And those purposes have got to be clear. If you’re strolling down a sidewalk then realize you forgot your wallet, it is socially impossible to just pivot on the ball of your foot and walk the opposite direction. First, you have to slow down, slap your forehead, pantominically pat yourself down, mouth curses— you have to visually explain yourself, even though you have a perfectly good reason. When you sit on a park bench, or with another person on that bench, the vocabulary of permissible movements and postures is very, very small. No weird shit. The spazziness and physical non-sequiturs you witness in children— the movements of a body fulfilling itself rather than functions— are slowly admonished away over the years, until the constraints are internalized— until we no longer “want to anyway”— and the energetics dries to a trickle. Our bodies then readily comply with the power vectors working upon them— social lines of force that are, needless to say, particularly unforgiving on female bodies.
Fluct is the body— the female body— in a therapeutic revenge against these social lines of force. Bodies at last fulfilling themselves rather than functions. I’m sure this is part of a long tradition within dance and choreography (though I have to confess my ignorance here: fill me in where you can), but it doesn’t need to be construed in those contexts. In the vimeo below, for instance, Sigrid and Monica are in the park. Monica’s forearm moves over Sigrid’s face like a lint roller. They pose androidally on a stone block, or on a park bench with Monica’s hand on Sigrid’s lip. Monica wheelbarrows herself, shins on shoulders, on top of a daydreamy Sigrid. They blithely fiddle with each other’s hair, face, and fingers.
In contrast, everyone else in Madison Square clearly has a job to do. Walk a dog. Eat a lunch. Stroll a baby. Even athletic leisure is helpfully excused by proper gear, outfits, and stereotyped movements, just in case anyone asks. It all checks out. Then the camera cuts to Fluct, and you see them first sitting, then twitching or “glitching” in unison, then back to sitting again, void of any shame or visual explanation. And why should they apologize for a twitch, a tic, or bodily release of energy? Why would any observer feel a mild social horror over a momentary disobedience of the body?
Sigrid and Monica walk calmly along. Monica collapses into a pile on the sidewalk. Sigrid walks on, unbothered. After a few moments, Monica inflates back to a standing position and continues walking. Physically, the definition of a body is something that obeys gravity. Socially, however, a body is never allowed to fall. It’s the first thing we learn. The first thing that we can do correctly or incorrectly, for Mom and Dad, is walking without falling, and I’d bet that’s largely why the embarrassment of falling and the charge of slapstick is so deeply and universally rooted.
In their performances, Fluct falls often but definitely never as slapstick. The falls are willful; their limbs, lightly hued from bruises of the previous week, indicating bodily power rather than its loss. Their bodies tangle in what would be an awkward intimacy if they were paying any heed to the everyday and patriarchal purposes assigned to female bodies, even performing ones. However, they’re clearly not. Even their “glitches” I take to be both a refusal of these demands, and a demonstration of their relentlessness. It’s a choreographic vocabulary that pairs well, though not exclusively, with experimental and disembedded musics that are also deviating from bodily demands, and Fluct seems to phone their many friends in noise and experimental music circles for that very reason. But something that I had never sufficiently appreciated— maybe because I was too stupid when it came to the history or theory of dance, who knows— was how much more needed dance would be for experimental and disembedded musics. Whether it was Diaghilev and Stravinksy, or Cunningham and Cage, throughout the twentieth century, experimental musics were more vividly musicalized by their contact with experimental dance. If disembedded music, by definition, frees musical sense from its conventional bodily intuitions, dance (or some weird offshoot of it) is all the more necessary to imagine new relationships between sound and bodily power.