Performing Bodies and Musical Objects in Andrew Norman’s “Susanna”

By Mariusz Kozak (Columbia University)

Author’s note: The following is a very short fragment from my forthcoming book, Enacting Musical Time.

“Susanna,” the third movement of Andrew Norman’s Companion Guide to Rome (2010, for string trio—but the movement is for solo viola), presents a fascinating case study of how a performer’s body becomes implicated in the constitution of emergent and transient musical objects. These are objects that lack the kind of endurance we typically associate with notes, chords, or generally events that can be represented on the page. Instead, they are fleeting phenomena that arise and dissolve together with the flow of time. In what follows, I want to suggest that these transient entities materialize in real, bodily relationships between performers and listeners, turning those relationships into proper objects of music analysis.

You can listen to the movement and follow its score by clicking here.

Norman’s miniature for solo viola has a very sparse and rudimental pitch structure, containing recognizable elements from common-practice tonality (such as chains of 4–3 suspensions and open fifths) without actually operating within a tonal system. It’s somewhat reminiscent of J.S. Bach’s works for solo stringed instruments, but Norman doesn’t use any identifiable quotations. In fact, whatever tonal techniques he does employ seem to be completely banal, mere stock figures that could’ve come from just about anywhere, used more for their capacity to stand in as markers of archaism than for their motivic potential. From a purely formalist perspective, the deceptively simplistic pitch structure offers interesting capital for a pitch-based analysis. In particular, notice below that the whole-tone descent in the lowest voice that supports chains of 4–3 suspensions, or the boxed-in “failed” tritone resolutions (e.g., E–A# → E–B).

Contrapuntal Reduction

Reduction of the first two lines of Norman’s “Susanna” showing chains of 4–3 suspensions.  Solid boxes indicate “incorrect” resolutions of the tritone.

Yet, I want to suggest that it’s not the pitch structure but rather the performer’s bow hand that is the principal purveyor of meaning in “Susanna.” The violist is instructed to apply heavy pressure to the bow while initially shaking it and, later, moving it very slowly, producing sounds that barely escape the instrument. From an almost inaudible G#–B dyad in the opening, to the full-throated broken chords in the third line of the score, there is a gradual opening of sound, an increase in clarity that corresponds with the upsurge of dynamics. A dominant-like C–B suspension against an open G–D fifth suggests imminent tonal closure, but the sound is arrested once again. Finally, in a last-ditch effort, the music lunges into an exasperated climax on a broken d-minor triad, only to be brutally and summarily choked by the violist’s heavy bow hand.

Thus, more than merely reproducing notated pitches, the body of the violist quite forcefully conceals “normal” sounds behind the harshness and awkwardness of the stutters and the shakes. Rather than thinking of this body as something “extra”-musical, I will argue that it is very much an indissoluble element of the music. The sounds we hear function as vehicles for a body caught up in an action that urges musical interpretation.

To be clear, the product of such an interpretation wouldn’t be stories of the sounds taken by themselves. No: they would be stories of how sounds signify particular kinds of bodily exertions, and what those exertions might, in turn, signify of the person producing them; or stories about historical figures, such as St. Susanna, the third-century Christian martyr and patron of the Roman church that inspired this movement; or maybe even stories that critique and challenge our societal assumptions regarding bodily norms and abilities. In all these cases, there is a human agency latent within sound, a gesture that gives it life and becomes the (transient and emergent) object of analytical attention.

*          *          *

Let’s delve a bit into this gesture: Who makes it? What is its musical significance? How do we incorporate it into our analytical stories?

The human body is a signifier par excellence because it always seems to stand in for someone who is more than a mere collection of his or her parts. There is always a “self” or a “subject” that inhabits the body, someone who gives it character: playful, lustful, sick, angry, fragile, powerful, confident, timid, and so on. However, as Naomi Cumming has shown, musicians’ bodies signify this subjectivity somewhat differently, for they exist in a liminal space between pure physicality (exemplified by the sheer athleticism of technical facility) and pure musicality (mediated and interpreted as particular kinds of sonic signs). As such, it becomes possible to conflate sounds with musicians’ identities because “the characteristics of sound are the aural ‘marks’ of bodily actions.” Thus, when listening to a recording of Midori (whom Cumming discusses at length) we don’t merely attend to the sounds, but simultaneously construct a body that produced them (or one that we imagine could’ve produced them). Based on our prior knowledge of bodies, and of correlations between actions and sounds, we supposedly create a “persona” of the performer.

For Cumming this attention to something beyond the acoustical signal constitutes the heart of musical experience. For example, a so-called “singing” violin sound (as highly desirable as it is elusive) doesn’t emerge because this sound merely refers to vocality, or because the violinist imitates a singing voice with the instrument. Rather, Cumming claims that listeners interpret it as emanating directly from the violin because “singing” is “heard as belonging to a sound.”

The pedagogical tradition of comparing the sounds of stringed instruments to the voice goes back at least to Leopold Mozart’s Treatise: “singing is at all times the aim of every instrumentalist.” In this same passage, particularly relevant to Norman’s “Susanna,” he furthermore praises the human voice for its ability to “[glide] quite easily from one note to another,” without creating a break between notes except to produce “some special kind of expression, or the divisions or rests of the phrase demand one.” Because of this long history of associations, the sounds that the violist makes in “Susanna” can be heard as violating some norm, marking them as pathological (stuttering, choking, etc.). In turn, this creates an image of a body that might produce these sounds, a body that struggles to express itself, a body engaged in some excruciatingly difficult and painful labor, fighting against some force, straining to liberate itself from whatever internal or external power is trying to suppress it.

But remember that for Cumming vocal pathologies belong to the sound and not to the body of the performer. This means that we are not dealing with the real, physical human body directly engaged in making sounds. The violist in “Susanna” isn’t literally choking or stuttering. Instead, Cumming proposes that performers project what she calls “presence,” which is a body created metaphorically through acts of interpretation. In other words, bodily presence in sound is mediated by language or other representations; it’s a sign. Or, to use another of Cumming’s terms, the sound conveys a “virtual agency,” akin to Edward T. Cone’s “persona” or Carolyn Abbate’s “figural subject.” These agents, personae, and subjects all take the human body as their (imagined) form, but it’s not a body like yours or mine, made of flesh and bones. Instead, it’s a body created in the semiotic act of listening, a body that is unrestrained by physical laws and thus capable of superhuman feats. In short, it’s a body that has been defleshed and deboned. This somewhat grotesque act of butchery displaces the immediacy of communication between performers and listeners, turning it in to an “illusion,” a “mediating representation” created by the performer’s negotiation of “the mediating space between physicality and interpreted gestural motion.” Presence here is thus a construct, an effect of semiotic play.

*          *          *

Perhaps we sometimes need this semiotic play to create a distance between ourselves and the music, an act reminiscent of Homer’s Odysseus tying himself to the mast of his ship in order to experience the treacherous song of the sirens. But, contrary to Cumming, I propose that this distance, a culturally mediated space promising safety and aesthetic enjoyment, is not at all how the presence of the body in “Susanna” is created. Here we’re not dealing with a body that is a product of our imagination, nor is the intimacy enacted by the performer a mere effect of interpretive work, an “extra”-musical appendage in excess of the notes themselves. No, these aren’t the sounds of nobody; these are sounds made by real flesh and blood and stained by pathology and violence. The relation between performer and listener is immediate precisely because sounds mark the bodies that produce them.

To be sure, the nature of this relation may not be captured by metaphorical descriptions like “stuttering” and “choking.” When I hear this piece I don’t have the urge to leap onto the stage and start performing the Heimlich maneuver. Nevertheless, I want to suggest that the whole point of “Susanna” is to hear the body that makes the sound, not just the one imagined in it; to hear the violist defy and defile those very modes of sound production that constitute our Western performance tradition; to hear her body tense up, close up, force itself into shapes and gestures that transgress everything she has painstakingly cultivated through years of study. The communion thus established between the performer and her listeners is far from an illusion created by mere semiotic play, but instead is as real and as moving as those between bodies engaged in intimate––if violent––nonmusical acts.

It is this communion that brings forth the emergent and transient musical objects I mentioned in the beginning, objects that may not necessarily be concrete and precise, but are nonetheless experientially genuine and transformative. Indeed, a dogged focus on “the notes themselves” wouldn’t create a sufficiently rewarding listening experience, but neither would an approach that considers the intimate link between performer and listener a mediating illusion. In contrast to Cumming’s claims, the manner in which Norman directs the violist to perform “Susanna” does not merely inscribe the body in the sound, but makes it so that the sound is heard as explicitly issuing from a very real, physically present body. And it is the tangible corporeality (corpo-reality) of this body that becomes musically meaningful.

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