3. Musical Gesture


But how then does a musician’s embodied experience in performance affect the creation and shaping of musical structure? Rolf-Inge Godøy proposes an analytical perspective: ‘we talk of coarticulated gestural-sonic objects in the sense of units based on the convergence of sound and movement into holistically perceived chunks’ (Godøy, 2011, p. 67). This process of segmenting gestural-sonic objects, out of continuous streams of sound and movement, is similar to a process of recognizing dance patterns and gestures implied in musical structure.

The physical nature of coarticulated chunks of sound and movement is also given by their temporal definition, that sets their natural durations within a range of a couple of seconds. ‘Coarticulated gestural-sonic objects are conceived of as units with regards to both perception and motor control, [materialized as] various kinds of ornaments, motives, rhythmical figures, and textual fragments’ (Godøy, 2011, p. 67).

Studies on the function of dance movement in musical perception indicate that musical structures can be interpreted from movement: ‘the anticipation may also be guided by body movements, and that this type of anticipation, due to its link with movement, is highly effective for facilitating and disambiguating perception’ (Leman, 2014, p. 239). Östersjö (2016), takes this observation further in a paper discussing the function of action chunks in musical performance:

Although chunking is certainly related to the auditory stimuli, it should not be understood as equivalent to phrasing or articulation; it is instead inherently related to movement, starting at one point and stopping at another (Östersjö, 2016, p. 484).

In section V2 'Dance' in this thesis, the complexity of the relationship between dance movement and musical structure is further addressed. An example of this is the polymetric relationship between dance movements and the articulation of musical structure in the Menuet (V2cT2) of Rebel’s Les Caractères de la danse. The simple ¾ metrical structure of the Menuet is juxtaposed with the structure of the dance step-units which spread across two bars with a different distribution of beats. Without being aware of this contradiction, informed only by the implication of the dance form, the liveliness and excitement of the Menuet in performance will go lost.

Leman and Naveda (2010) study a related phenomenon in Samba dance, where they argue that ‘perception of samba may be movement-based in the sense that through self-movement (of the dancer in response to music) musical patterns get rhythmically disambiguated’ (Leman and Naveda, 2010, p. 18).

The method of chunking the coarticulated gestural-sonic objects is implied in the trajectory of my video analysis. I proceed from a segmentation of the movement patterns implied in the musical structure (dance patterns, physical gestures, or poetic images), and elaborate them in my playing movements, drawing on my embodied experiences. In Östersjö’s study on chunking and coarticulation, the observation is made that the identified action chunks were consistently ‘related to the beginning and ending of movements[;] they also reflect musical structure, significant changes in performance techniques and musical gestures that may be interpreted as expressive’ (Östersjö, 2016, p. 489). This suggests that the very detail of a performative interpretation may be structured also from the detail of a performer’s embodiment. But, simultaneously, it is essential to bear in mind that such an interpretation will always also draw on other factors situated in the social and cultural domain of the performer’s frame of reference.


3.1 Gesture definitions

One of the most problematic features in studies of music-related movement, or 'gesture studies', is the actual use of the term gesture. Some scholars use the term gesture interchangeably with the term movement. Gestures are ‘movements made by performers to control the musical instrument when playing a melodic figure’, or even the ‘tapping along with the beat’ of a listener (Leman, 2010, p. 5)

Other scholars argue for a clear distinction between gestures and body movements. In his dissertation (2007), Alexander Jensenius finds the scholarly usage of the term gesture confusing to such an extent that he instead employs a different term, ‘action’. ‘The gesture definitions […] range from using gesture more or less as equivalent to body movement, to using gesture in a purely metaphorical sense.’ (Jensenius, 2007, p. 41).

Robert Hatten articulates a definition of gesture as ‘any energetic shaping through time that may be interpreted as significant’ (Hatten, 2006, p.1). Even though it is a very inclusive definition, it has a bearing on the widespread use of the term 'sound-producing gestures.' With reference to Hatten’s definition, we might reserve the term 'gesture' only for specific instances of body movement that are interpreted as significant. If the movement, or sequence of movements, is intentional and understood as significant, then we can call it gesture (Jensenius, 2007).

In a simplified understanding, sound-producing movements are employed to produce sound, and in that sense are not interpreted as significant. Therefore, being just technical movements, they are not gestures per se. They become significant through the sound they produce. And yet, even if we understand Hatten’s ‘energetic shaping through time’ as gestural-sonic objects (Godøy, 2011) conceived mentally, the sound producing movements employed in the realization of these objects, even though not intended as significant, will necessarily mirror their ‘energetic shaping’, and thus become gesturally significant in performance.

In this consideration, even a simple ‘movement of a finger’ pressing a piano key can qualify as gesture (Godøy, 2011, p. 71), being imbued with the intended expression. Sound-producing movements can assume the function of gesture through the assimilation of communicative, expressive, and ancillary movements into the process of sound production. With the resulting sound as a culmination and manifestation of this holistic movement complex, musical gestures will emerge.

In his study on musical forces, Steve Larson developed the idea that musical motion is shaped by forces that are analogous to those that shape physical motion (Larson, 2006). He proposes the concept of ‘graceful physical gestures’, which are based on actions and states of ‘impulse’, ‘inertia’, ‘point of stability’, and ‘passing the point of stability’ (Larson, 2006, p. 63).

Even though Larson understands the interaction of constantly acting forces only metaphorically, his concept of forces has inspired my understanding of the role of centrifugal and centripetal forces in the expressive body movements of a violinist. The activation of physical forces in the gravitational relationship between body and floor is exemplified in my attempts to enact the implied narrative, dance movements, and poetic imagery through body movements in performance.

This thesis explores the notion of musical gesture already implied in Robert Hatten’s view, that ’a theory of musical gesture must begin with an understanding of human gesture prior to its manifestation in sophisticated musical works’ (Hatten, 2006, p. 1). In agreement with recent gestural studies, I conceive of musical gestures as situated, constructed, and manifested through the body movements of a performer (Abbate, 2004; Davidson, 2002; Östersjö, 2016).

In the tradition of musicology gestures are explored from a different perspective. The seminal works by Robert S. Hatten and David Lidov are mainly concerned with gesture as emerging from a musicological analysis of the score (Hatten, 2004; Lidov 1987). Any understanding of a musical score as an authoritative and sufficient manifestation of a musical work is generally problematic, but especially from the perspective of an HIP practitioner. In 17th and 18th century musical practice, there are normally several extant versions of a given “work” already in the lifetime of the composer. The agency of a performer to complement compositional aspects directly in performance implies that baroque scores are not the definitive representations of the work (Butt, 2002; Haynes, 2007).

David Lidov concludes his interesting and complex discussion of gesture in music with a case study, an analysis of Schumann’s violin sonata (Lidov, 2006). He reads some gestures as embedded exclusively in the compositional process and manifested in the musical score. For example, in the opening of Schumann’s violin sonata:

The hopeful plea of the rising fourth, as if with clasped hands, yields to clutching or grasping. Then the melody edges downwards and becomes blocked in syncopated repetition. I am not sure whether I want to call this last atomic moment a gesture or a moment of gesticulation. Either way, it shows an initiative which then retreats and collapses as it dissolves in an arpeggio. To our dismay, whatever we are grasping at escapes. (Lidov 2006, p. 34)

From the perspective of a performer the poetic air of Lidov’s description suddenly takes a disturbing turn:

There is no way that a competent performance can fully unfold these gestures, which Schumann allows us only to glimpse […]. This passage is expressive in not allowing its gesture to come through (Lidov 2006, p. 34).

For Lidov, these gestures are revealed only through a reading of the score, and are lost in performance. A contrasting perspective is found in the gestural analysis in the case studies V1-V3. Here, I explore how gestures implied in the musical structure can be assimilated in body movement in performance. But additionally I explore the reverse, in which hidden gestural patterns are discovered that cannot be traced by reading the score, but only appear through body movement. To conclude, while movement is essential to the interpretation of any music in performance, it may be argued that musical gestures are a complex phenomenon which, when embedded in musical scores, can sometimes be traced only in the inner hearing of the silent reading situation. But perhaps more importantly, it may also be argued that a more widely encompassing approach to music as represented in both score and performance is through body movement.





4. Musical Interpretation



Back to:

Theoretical framework



4. Musical Interpretation



Back to:

Theoretical framework