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OUR Field Guide 3: B is for Body

Performers do things with their bodies. Some performers at Omaha Under the Radar

are explicitly asking what bodies do with their performances. For Ammie Brod, violist for

Ensemble Dal Niente, professional florist, and featured performer on an evening of solo

works at Milk Run on Friday, this can mean something as simple as talking with a

composer about what feels good physically when she plays her viola. The composer

and performer Jenna Lyle says that she and her collaborator Jessica Aszodi have been

revising their piece Grafter, featured on Thursday at House of Loom, on the basis of

their shared current interest in the ways movement affects voice. Thinking about bodies

as being themselves involved in performances has obliged both women to think about

collaboration. Both women have extended their interest in human bodies to inanimate

and electronic bodies.

Grafter treats the highly trained vocalist as one of many bodies in a corporeity extending

across human beings and electronics. It reminds me of the massive “instruments” David

Tudor (1926–1966) “composed”—as my friend and colleague You Nakai put it in his

dissertation, “On the Instrumental Natures of David Tudorʼs Music” (NYU, 2016). Where

Cage spoke of nature as a flat plane of equivalent sounding sources, Tudor was

concerned with the mysterious or unknown “nature” of any particular electronic device

and with the unpredictable possibilities actualized when electronics of disparate

“natures” are brought together in a composerly fashion—when what one device does

depends upon input from another device, for example. Grafter seems to work with

something like this problematic, with the difference that in the place of a network of

electronics, two moving and singing human bodies occupy the workʼs central position.

In the pieceʼs first half “for movement and voice,” movement itself becomes part of the

material. The performers will share one anotherʼs weight and play with that frightening

moment where a stable body begins to fall. Theyʼll sustain a tone and listen to how it

changes when the body tenses or spasms. For Jenna, the performance can convey

vulnerability and weakness but also unforeseen strengths. This seems like one of the

key differences between Tudorʼs composerly practice and the performance called

Grafter. Tudorʼs “instruments” produced unexpected composite sounds but left their

components shrouded in mystery. Jenna, by contrast, would like to learn something

about the capacities of two bodies.

What brings her back to Tudorʼs problematic, for me at least, is her concern with

interdependencies. “Now that weʼve found out how we move together,” she explained,

“weʼre figuring out how we share responsibility for movement.” This can involve

experiments as plain as preventing each other from falling. It is also leading them to

experiment with voices as bodies which together produce changing harmonic spectra,

resultant tones, and acoustic phenomena. In a second half “for voice and electronics,”

recorded samples of ambient sounds combine with Ms. Aszodiʼs voice as her voice

combines with itself and with Jennaʼs. The choreography will be extended to spatial

effects caused by speaker placement and balance.

Jenna locates her practice relative to a diffuse scene. She cites the composer Pierluigi

Billone (b. 1960) as someone whose compositions are so deeply shaped by his own

perceptions of the instruments he writes for that women with breasts sometimes find it

impossible to realize his vision. But she also talks about her own experiments with

motion-capture technology, the Xbox 360 Kinect, and a microphone made out of a

stethoscope. She says she feels strongly rooted in Chicago, and her background is very

Midwestern—sheʼs attended Birmingham Southern College, Cleveland State University,

and Northwestern, where she recently completed her DMA with a dissertation on

“movement as motive.” But her interests remind me of the sorts of work I encountered

through the Panoply Performance Laboratory and No Collective in New York.

At its best, Jenna hopes, her work disrupts the voyeuristic aspects of performance and

introduces “an extra-musical experience,” a “deep connectedness,” whether between

the sound-maker and the bodies around it, or between two or more sound-makers. She

likes it when she feels less like a voyeur and more like a participant—House of Loom, a

dance club, may provide an ideal site for that experience. But sheʼs also sensitive to the

ways that the historical contingencies of the female body pull us back into voyeurism.

When she tells me that her piece is “body sensitive and body specific,” I hear her talking

about a specificity that is woven through vast situations.

That concern relates back to something like the ethics I treated as a basis for a

preoccupation with “access” in Field Guide 2. One of the pieces Ammie will be

performing on Friday is an unaccompanied work entitled Quiet Threnody written for her

by the composer Katherine Pukinskis as part of a series supported by the University of

Chicago called Project Incubator. That series encouraged collaboration by pairing

performers with composers. Ammie says she feels like part of the piece. In part thatʼs

because she and Ms. Pukinskis had many conversations leading up to its realization.

Itʼs also because Ms. Pukinskis wanted to know what Ammie cared about as an artist,

what felt good to her as a violist, what worked, and what didnʼt. The emphasis on the

body in this case is simply one aspect of a pervasive attention to a complete person

living a rounded life. Itʼs fitting that the piece deals lyrically with one of the most wideranging

human experiences, grief: Ammie describes it as moving through fragmentary

cells punctuated by weighty silences and complicated emotions before ending on a

sustained perfect fourth played on the violaʼs open strings—a resolution to the body of

the viola on a harmony which sounds less than resolved. She relates the satisfaction of

playing the piece to the satisfaction she feels in living a rounded life with more than one

satisfying job and more than one scene to call her own.

For Ammie, itʼs clear that Amanda DeBoer Bartlett has worked hard to achieve

something like that variety and roundedness through OUTR. If that variety serves the

goal of accessibility by providing audiences with a lot of individuated “ins” or “access

points,” a focus on the bodily specifics of particular performances seems to draw Ammie

and Jenna back to a perspective on a larger whole.

Ammie likens the search for that larger whole to the difficulty involved in creating a kind

of “narrative continuity” in her flower arrangements. She emphasizes the collaborative

feel of her entire solo set: the composer Mikel Kuehn communicated with her by email

about another piece sheʼll be performing, and someone will be operating her electronics

on Friday. She talks about how Ms. Pukinskisʼs attention to lyricism and to what feels

good for the performer contrasts with the values of so much of the new music she plays

with Ensemble Dal Niente. What she likes is less one alternative over the other, but the

contrast itself: if one possible experience doesnʼt seem like your own, she says,

performance can still help you imagine it. One experience can provide an access point,

but other experiences should help you learn new access points.

In Jennaʼs case, an attention to the larger whole is felt especially in her complementary

collaboration with Ms. Aszodi. “Weʼre sharing our respective practices.” Where Jenna

feels that her strengths lie in a composerʼs attention to conceiving and directing a formal

whole, she praises her partner as an expert on the voice. Eventually she wants to see

Grafter evolve into an evening-length work. In the meantime, she describes her duo as

“just an ensemble.” It seems clear that for now at least the ensemble, rather than the

finished work, is precisely whatʼs important to her. She says that when performers do

something “of a very corporeal nature,” something which “exploits the body in a very

specific way,” itʼs productive of the sort of voyeurism sheʼd like to get away from. If

thereʼs one thing that an attention to the body as effective in its own right proves, itʼs

that no one knows what might happen in a collaboration. In an ensemble, people find

out what happens together.

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