Notes on: Notation, Perception, Synchronization, the Chorus

Bernhard Gaul | 01/06/2010

Excerpts from a response to Andreas Pronegg from the Austrian theatre collective
KJDT regarding their project description for WOLOKOLAMSKER CHAUSSEE X
and a previous conversation with the said about
the chorus, notation and perception.


If it comes to notation (to pick up on TheaterAngelusNovus), I guess, the definition of Regel und Freiraum, rule and free space (for exploration/innovation/play, what else?) may be important (interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be an adequate straight forward English translation for Freiraum that doesn’t need some further elaboration). But I guess there is always something that is fixed, forms a rule, at the core of notation. Otherwise why notate anything at all?


Rather than on Regel und Freiraum the KJDT project description picks up on other dichotomies in the context of the Wolokolamsker Chausee:

law and anarchy, structure and coincidence, regulation and divergence

I’d prefer Regel und Freiraum: After all we are talking about play/performance here (in this case the German spielen (= play) for performing seems to be closer to what is important).
However, that list of dichotomies, although describing variations of Regel und Freiraum, reflect the unbearable realities and dilemmas of the history of a movement which started out on what should have been the search for/invention of the playful individual and (social/economical) space for it, but ended up in massacres, tragic justifications,

necessities (?), … Fatzer, Mauser, Die Massnahme, Wolokolamsker Chausee… there is no end to the tragedy. ---

An utopian state (as in state of being): Allowing for the playful social individual which is not finished, not devoid of challenges but provided with a social context in which the perpetual process of inventing rules, exploring and changing them as needed can be managed without casualties. Doesn’t have to be all easy, but maybe should be able to avail of a culture of effectively dealing with breaks and interruptions – discontinuities.

Erfindung und Korrektur (invention and correction) is the title of a book by Fritz Mierau about Tretjakow’s aesthetic. I think 20 years ago I read this as the definition of a necessity to allow for a perpetual process in which what was invented beforehand has to be expected to be identified as wrong or not sufficiently defined and needing correction, however, still with the expectation that there is essentially some sort of correct, linear path of progress. Instead it has become standard practice in many areas to introduce cycles of invention and networks of aberration/re-invention/adaptation where viewpoints and necessities differ and there is perpetual allowance for adaptive modification as situations demand rather than search for a clarified plan – solutions being valuable (and to be judged as such) always only in their own context, but maybe not more than material and suggestions for a different one .

Note on conceiving notation as a piece of art in its own right: I guess this comes from the general aspiration of treating all elements and aspects of what we deal with with equal respect, let them shine in their own right (or exploit them to their full potential?), in this case freeing notation from its subordinate role as slave to communication – part of valuing the process and its constituents, not just resulting products.

.., the problematic [with classical composition] appears to be the principle allocation of invention and repetition. What composers like Satie, George Crumb, John Cage and others achieve (amongst other things) by the fact that they break the linearity or other aspects of the established contract of classical notation is to provoke invention by the performer. It is blankly impossible to perform these pieces without inventing by the simple fact that the composer has, deliberately, not resolved his composition, in the opposite, he has invented stumbling blocks as challenges for others to come up with something. The act of notating, this way, becomes much more not only an invitation but a challenge to respond, the performer much less the instrument of the composer but his/her correspondent and partner in execution.

Looking for structures (of communication) which facilitate emancipation. Reminder of Brecht’s change of focus when realising he won’t be able to complete the Fatzer text: the productive side of failures to resolve invention, providing material as source for others, relinquishing control, but maybe importantly with the gesture of a challenge.

As I understand it, part of what you are looking for, in the wake of the Tod des Hektor project of TheaterAngelusNovus, which probed possibilities of extending invention/composition in a music theatre context to non-professionals, including structured composition times and questions of notation, is to find a form of perpetual concept that allows for the ongoing production/sharing/execution of inventive processes of performance in which every participant can/should occupy every role at various stages, with possibilities to branch out, interrupt, transfer, pick-up or otherwise deal with the process in various stages as desired. It should lend itself to the participation of non-specialists and facilitate the exchange between individuals of different background in a meaningful way.

.. – In a political context we arguably work (and live) in conditions which rely on suppression in various degrees or otherwise trained on mechanisms of perception and response that let us function. There are aspects of us generally not being able to see beyond what the acquired filters of perception let through (understanding perception as the act of processing the barrage of sensual stimuli which continuously impress themselves upon us, filtering them and relating them to our systems of behaviour) including stimuli which may come from within, may signal discomfort, frictions or otherwise malfunctioning from conflicting needs and desires formed by the body. Overall we are talking about a complex and in its effects political system of trained behaviour, suppression and potential conflict with material needs and desires. Mechanisms which on the one hand support us in our daily routine but on the other hand may prevent us from even becoming aware of restrictions or acknowledging them. I guess this is one thing art can do: working effectively in this space, challenging patterns, or finding ways to express or project – make visible – perceptions which can’t make it through restrictive patterns of what we agree to be functional language. Maybe the core of a materialistic approach to the theatre (Brecht’s Epic Theatre): the exploration of what that can be that is needed, of what we actually are as social material beings, of how our needs and desires and choices hold up/are changed/interact with historical social contexts – in all their complexities.

Refining perception: an aesthetic program. I think there are two aspects to this: One is to invent (and re-invent) devices which over and again are capable of breaking encrusted patterns of perception, like Straub/Huillet’s films break the well trained patterns of consuming films (in the manner of a conveyor belt worker, mechanically piecing together the snippets of information that roll by, hardly ever taking a second look at what is before us as long as our focus on constructing the story gets fed into satisfactory) simply to open us up again and give us a chance to a fresh look upon what is outside ourselves. The second one I am less certain about, but it has something to do with being able to read ever finer aspects of what impresses itself upon us.

The part I struggle with is that I think more fine tuned automation, reflexes, is certainly something which is to be aspired to, too. I guess there is some sort of dialectic between breaking the patterns, opening us up for re-examination, having a, once-again, closer look and fine tuning responses which I don’t have a comprehensive theory of. But I guess most certainly notation can play its role in both of them. And maybe again: forming traditions of a praxis might to be reflected, too.

Dealing with the fear factor: What is encouraging about John Cage’s approach to his work is the lightness and playfulness with which he does it. Whereas both Brecht and Heiner Müller invariably refer to the horrors of revelation, dem Schrecken des Erkennens, he shows that uncanny ability of making it all appear as child’s play without denying the radicality or profundity of his conceptions, nor is there an absence of fear which the loss of established/relied upon patterns creates – original receptions were reportedly ones of shock and horror. Instead there are playful ways of dealing with it: numeric systems, mycology, indulging in systems of systemisation. There is definitely something to be learned from that as a gesture or attitude. To be discussed in this context: dependency of that on a state of limited threat versus the threat as justification.

Notes on the chorus: I had the intention of writing something more profound here about the theatrical chorus as approached by TheaterAngelusNovus and follow-on projects, KJDT being one of them. But I find whatever I try to formulate over and again tends to burry experiences in explanation rather than opening up the concept for renewed exploration. To a degree I am also lacking material to further verify what really holds up or tends to be speculation.

However, I’d like to suggest reflecting the chorus from the way it structurally demands sensual awareness, certainly an extremely heightened capability of sensual perception.

My own practical experience with it is extremely limited, but it was clear to me after a split second of a first attempt to speak in a chorus that my own relied upon patterns of perception are in no way suited to integrate in any way successfully with the challenge. It was, to a degree, as if I had never learned to speak. Nowhere near of demanding simple subordination of my responses to the greater collective, as I had expected, I had to realise that all of a sudden I appeared to be required to not only respond to but also, simultaneously, drive that collective. It became apparent that there truly could be the possibility of instant synchronization which, suddenly, also appeared as a desirable full place to be in – and that is not alone, responsible, not without challenge, but yet connected.

Where I struggle to go further in description is to come up with some sort of theory of what else is entailed, fragments of which would be:

  • Reliance of that on extended sensual perception involving all senses – demanding the body as a whole.
  • The dynamic structure of the approach in which synchronicity is always attempted through self-adjustment, never through fixation or allocation, requiring the ability of continuous re-orientation, to resolve conflicts and tensions through movement, to change/re-check and adjust proximity and distance to others as well as the position within the surrounding space.
  • The importance of body images/manifestations of experience in the body; to which degree do age and gender play a role and why?
  • The importance of rhythm in communication.
  • The value of the elaboration, even if failed (TAN reportedly only counts a handful of attempts ever as having been successful): what does it show, uncover of social/personal processes? You don’t have to go outside, write a drama about society, the social material is right here and there.
  • Questions about the balance of solidarity/support versus challenge; questions about sustainability and long term processes (I guess above I have written a lot about opening up, but it is also about how to channel, preserve and build up…)
  • Questions of conflicts that open up as a gap between experiences, attitudes, behaviours, awareness, reflexes etc. obtained in the process and what is demanded of you to fit in outside this experimental context. How to resolve them? What changes when on which side? When does the whole thing break apart?
  • Potentially: the ability to perceive the joint body of the overall collective as well as the surrounding space as a whole as a body of resonance for the choral projection.

Something like that… (but maybe this is already documented much better somewhere else).

By the way: I always thought that poetic experience is a state of heightened awareness (and slowdown), maybe induced by some sort of loss, certainly by something which forces (or allows) us to abandon relied upon certainties and thus throws us back onto ourselves, opening us up, once again exposing us “to the elements”. Even though not necessarily a pleasant experience, not a happy one, it appears to be welcomed despite all as a chance to renewal, to shake off the old crust, a chance for cleansing: letting those winds blow through your painfully exposed guts. It, too, is a chance to start the process of healing.

There is also this sentence: In der Zeit des Verrats sind die Landschaften schön. To be reflected. A challenge.3

Background Material

I assume it is not far fetched to think of the armour of the European medieval knight as being exemplary of the state of European (male) perception, together with the whole concept of chivalry as an extensive set of rules of fairness, to be relied upon because the armour prevents sensual awareness. I find this exemplified in Hartman von Aue’s Erec, where the knight rides out in search of adventure, his wife, Enite, behind him as punishment for having incited him to perform his duties of seeking adventure for the sake of adventure. As the story goes the enemies who provide the adventure, mostly mythical creatures, giants etc., don’t play by the rules and approach from the side where Erec isn’t able to perceive them because of the limited field of vision that the armour provides and also its noise, which drowns out everything else around him. He relies on Enite to warn him, which spawns off a cycle of repeated success in battle followed by renewed scorn on Enite for having broken her orders of non-communication and off they go again to do the same, over and again. See also: Klaus Theweleit’s chapters on Body Armour in Male Phantasies.

TheaterAngelusNovus had identified Wu-Shu and Tai-Chi as most effective forms of training for their purposes. As I understand because they focus on locating your centre of gravity in the space around you, raising awareness of all three dimensions, perceiving and moving in all directions, not favouring, e.g., just the front.

1 I am referring here to the publication Sports et Divertissements for which Satie composed piano pieces accompanying drawings by Charles Martin, which are claimed to resemble the graphical layout of the pictures in the graphical impression that the notation makes. Whether this is indeed verifiable or not does not distract from the point to be made here which is about the principle possibility of transforming visual art into instructions for performers.

2 In the light of what is said below about the importance of challenges it should be said here that reducing the free space may well be a valid challenge, too, in order to stimulate inventive expressions. However, the point here is about general understandings what notations are for.

3 At the time of betrayal the landscapes are beautiful. From: Heiner Müller - Der Auftrag. Perception changes as our world-view falls apart...



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