Music of Embodied Physicality: A Portfolio of Works 2011-2019
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CitationMcCormack, Timothy. 2019. Music of Embodied Physicality: A Portfolio of Works 2011-2019. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation collects ten of the 24 musical works I composed during my eight years at Harvard University. Presented here in chronological order, the pieces in this portfolio trace my evolving understanding of the physicality behind sound production, and how that physicality can inform an entire compositional praxis.
My aim has always been to embed the tactile, corporal, palpable forces at play in sound production within sound itself such that a piece’s sonic identity carries with it the energies of its own making. In my work, the performer’s physical relationship with their instrument is always evident within the sound they create. If, for example, a string player is moving their bow from tasto to sul pont, I want us to hear not only the change in timbre that that repositioning creates, I also want us to hear the hairs of the bow moving along the winding of the strings. This has been a constant through-line in my work, but the ways in which this is articulated have gradually changed. The ten pieces offered here trace this gradual shift: from an enactment of physicality to an embodiment of physicality.
Earlier works (ex: HEAVY MATTER) propose an ecstatic, frenetic physicality that is primarily located at the level of the gesture. Here, gestures are constantly elided into one another, never fully resting and never clearly delineated. Some element, some parameter from one gesture is always intruding into the next. Gestures are always smeared across each other to create a moment-by-moment turbulence upon the surface of the music. Gestures also never seem to be fully fixed within any of their parameters, and may at any moment contain dramatic and momentary shifts in register, dynamics, articulation, or quality of sound. The impulse was to create the sensation of a highly active, frenetic sound world which contains multitudes of itself, and these multiplicities are almost molten, spilling into one another, their energies renewed at every passing moment and constantly being put out into the world.
These pieces construct sound worlds that display an effortful, virtuosic, extroverted type of physicality which is always pointed away from the body. Like the sonic energies contained in the musical gestures themselves, physical energies are constantly being spewed outwards towards the listener, and the musical power of this physicality comes from its effortful display of itself. These pieces are intensely physical experiences for the performer, but for that intensity to reach the listener, the pieces must enact this physicality through their wild, ecstatic gestural language. They are demonstratively physical. As an idea, physicality grounds the musical material to a rich and specific foundation which is both conceptual and a very real element in performing these pieces. However, the gestural language at play subverts this by putting the physical, corporeal language on display as a feat of strength. While the expression of physicality as fundamentally athletic, energetic, intense, or ecstatic is a perfectly valid articulation of what physicality can sound or behave like, my understanding of what physicality is has shifted and broadened over time. I began to see my adherence to this particular gestural language as being too prescriptive towards a certain, specific expression of physicality. I asked myself and my material: “How else can physical thinking sound like?”
In more recent works (ex: WORLDEATER, your body is a volume), an altogether different understanding of the body is at work. Here, the relationship between a body and an instrument is understood as internal, almost private or hermetic, and located at the level of touch. Sound worlds are entirely built upon how and where the performer touches and connects with their instrument. Sound is still thought of as an amalgamation of various physical parameters in simultaneous movement, but they are now bundled together so as to articulate the behavior of specific worlds of sound. Maintaining the correct touch - be it finger pressure, bow pressure, breath support, embouchure, bow speed or placement - is of the utmost importance, even through the modulation of any one of those parameters. These pieces resist at almost every moment the transmutation of touch into gesture, while still embracing movement itself as a fundamental imperative. The impulse is to create a sound world that is so richly dense, textured, and tactile that it seems to completely saturate the space and subsume the listener inside a sort-of aural amniotic fluid which, once inside, alters one’s sensation of elemental things like gravity and time. In other words, establishing a world outside of the world and inside of the sound.
These pieces require the performer to draw their attention inward and develop a sensitivity towards small spaces between themselves and their instrument: the space between a finger and a string, or a tongue and a reed. Physicality is no longer enacted as it is no longer expressed through gesture. The type of physicality required here is almost invisible to a viewer, but should be heavily palpable to a listener, and hopefully pulls that listener inwards, towards the source of the sound and inside the space of the piece. Just as before, these pieces remain intensely physical experiences for the performer, but here it is because the performer is required to fully embody the physicality required. It is not a constant release of physical energy; it is a constant containment of that energy, and a measured modulation of bodily condition. Before they activate their instrument, performers must first feel these sounds in their bodies and direct their physicality towards the idea of that sound. This is called proprioception: one’s awareness of the position and movement of their own body as measured from within their body. The physicality required by these pieces brings the performer closer to their own body and sense of bodily awareness.
Citable link to this pagehttp://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:42106919
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