wait a moment

People Doing Things

A brief survey of bodies in music, specifically in the music of Pierluigi Billone, and even more specifically in Mani. Matta for marimba and multi-percussion.

by Jenna Lyle

Any discussion of music, its meaning, or its success will eventually find its way toward the topic of performance. And any discussion of performance will meander around the spoken or unspoken perception of a performer’s body. Some scholars cite the “superficial pyrotechnics” of virtuosic playing1 compositional practice of score-making is effectively the production of a set of instructions for action, reliant on a body’s ability to execute those instructions. The body may also become a rhetorical point of reference in music, where a composer invokes the sonic representation of physical gesture or bodily process, as can be observed in the early 20th Century study of musical figures (i.e. the suspirans or “sigh” motive in the music of Monteverdi and later).

Beate Kutschke, in her essay “The Scream in Avant-Garde Music: The New Left and the Rediscovery of the Body,” argues Western culture’s preoccupation with the relationships between sounds in music and consequently the semiotic underappreciation of “the sound and its timbral quality, its intensity, its articulation and, of course the body as vehicle of the sound.”4 She cites Sybille Krämer’s writing on the infant’s scream as evidence of the physical body’s responsiveness to sound. The scream, an amalgam of all human expression, communicates beyond language and evokes a physical reaction in the listener, one that incites to caring. In her discussion, Krämer goes one step further to include all human vocalization in the category of the scream. “…this holds true of any human utterance…As part of the elementary and existential corporeality of the speakers, the voice testifies to our neediness, which is characterized by longing and which is directed towards the other. In our voice, we reveal ourselves not only as ‘essences’, but in fact as concrete, bodily ‘existences’.”5

Those “existences,” as discussed by Krämer, lay the framework for an exploration into Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s idea of subjectivity: that which lies “not in the conscious mind but rather in the physical and active body—the ‘lived-body.’” George Fisher and Judith Lochhead discuss “bodily based notions of meaning…[which] provide more fertile ground for an understanding of music in terms of the explicit or implicit movements of the physical body.”6 In their jointly-written article, “Analyzing from the Body,” Fisher and Lochhead conduct a  movement-based study of works by Brahms and Joan Tower, where they deconstruct musical gestures in accordance with the physical gestures or muscle tension necessary to produce them. They highlight moments of embodied memory on the part of the listener and performer and point to the “lived-body” experience of unisons.

The study of the body in terms of music is by no means a novel one. What is novel is the manner in which each participant in the music-making process engages with the concept. Over the past year, I’ve studied Perluigi Billone’s Mani. Matta, for extended marimba and multi-percussion, with focus on the bodily experiences of composer, performer, and audience. Below are a few of my findings.

Scholar William Wilkerson discusses at length Merleau-Ponty’s concept of être au monde (being in the world) in his study of the philosopher’s metaphysics. “If we follow Merleau-Ponty’s own introduction of the concept of être au monde in the Phenomenology [of Perception], then the living body with its world is a plurality of forces in a continual becoming toward an equilibrium that it can never fully attain.”7

Referencing Merleau-Ponty regularly when discussing his music, Billone talks about giving “importance to the world.”8  In his work, he calls upon the Merleau-Pontian “living body,” presenting a set of objective actions which performer and audience are to experience, allowing their senses in conjunction with outside forces (the world, entropy, etc.) to bring those actions into being. ). The listener’s body becomes important as a resonating object, especially in the passage between systems 46 and 70, where sustained tremolo in the extreme low register of the marimba creates sub-frequencies that are felt as vibrations in the body by a live performance audience.

Billone uses instruments as extensions of bodily movement, and resonance to trigger bodily sensation and response. The traditional constructs of motive, form, symbol, and musical relationships are certainly not absent from the piece, but it is important to note that those constructs share equal footing with the kinesthetic experience of executing and hearing/seeing them. In a manner similar to composer Rebeca Saunders’ practice of using instruments as “the basis of, rather than the medium for- the material,” Billone’s compositional practice is deeply rooted in his physical experience of the instruments for which he composes, hence his hyper-
specific request for finely-tuned, unconventionally-sized log drums and chest-mounted gong. 9 “I’m working now on qualities of the why,” he confesses.10

Billone’s “why” is very much a thing that becomes outside of his control. His composition of Mani. Matta may qualify more as the establishment of a logistical framework for the piece, consisting of an instrument setup, performance techniques, and instructions for sound-making, all conveyed in a meticulously-notated score. That score is then delivered to a performer, who builds the setup according to the composer’s specifications and their own physical needs, internalizes its techniques and sound materials, and then physically projects them for an audience. Each performer will project a different embodiment of the piece, depending on learning technique, logistical resources, bodily comportment and stature, listening sensibility, etc. And ultimately, it is that embodiment and struggle against the established framework provided that drives the piece’s significance.

According to a former student of Harry Partch, Corporealism was to Partch “a vehement protest against what he considered the negation of the body and the bodily in our society.”11

“It resulted specifically in an attack on abstraction. What that meant to him was first of all that music should not be separated from words or visible actions, whether theatrical, choreographic or simply musically functional. He directed us to see people doing things.” –Ben Johnston

Grazia Giacco mentions in the program note for Mani. Matta that the piece is best experienced when it can be absorbed with a person’s entire body, seeing and sensing with resources beyond the ears. Billone too appears to desire that his audience “see people doing things,” while taking added delight in the process of harvesting movement and sound potentialities specific to the human and instrumental bodies with which he works. Ultimately, he leaves meaning in Mani. Matta to manifest itself in the sensibilities and bodies of those who would experience it (both performatively and observationally) and through its existence in the world.


1 Jack Lin, The Anatomy of a Challenging & Historic Violin Concerto, Strings Magazine http://www.allthingsstrings.com/Repertoire/ORCHESTRA/The-Anatomy-of-a-Challenging-Historic-Violin-
Concerto June 2012, accessed Dec. 2015.

2 Fisher, George, and Judy Lochhead. 2002. “Analyzing from the Body”. Theory and Practice 27. Music Theory Society of New York State: 37–67. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41054335. 39.

3 Williams, Peter. 1979. “Figurenlehre from Monteverdi to Wagner. 3: The Suspirans”. The Musical Times 120 (1636). Musical Times Publications Ltd.: 648. doi:10.2307/962468.

4 Kutschke, Beate, Ed. Bjorn Hjelle. 2009. “The Scream in Avant-Garde Music: The New Left and the Rediscovery of the Body”. Modernist Legacy: Essays on New Music Ashgate Publishing, Ltd. 260.75.

5 Sybille Kramer, ‘Negative Semiologie der Stimme: Reflexionen uber die Stimme als Medium der Sprache,’ in Cornelia Epping-Jager and Erika Linz (eds), Medien/Stimmen (Koln: Dumont, 2003): pp. 65-85: 68.

6 Fisher and Lochhead, “Analyzing from the Body,” 39.

7 William Wilkerson. 2013. “Merleau-ponty the Metaphysician: The Living Body as a Plurality of Forces”. The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 27 (3). Penn State University Press: 297–307. doi:10.5325/jspecphil.27.3.0297. page 299.

8 Billone, Pierluigi. “Masterclass: Boston University 2015.”

9 Adlington, R., The Music of Rebecca Saunders: Into the Sensuous World; Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 140, No. 1868

10 Billone, Pierluigi. “Mani. Matta Coaching with Percussionist Mike Williams.” Coaching, Boston University Composer Residency, School of Music, Boston, MA, March 26, 2015.

11 Johnston, B. The Corporealism of Harry Partch; Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 13, No. 2

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