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Jennifer Torrence performs No Say No Way (2015) by Francois Sarhan [still frame]
Credits: Jennifer Torrence performs No Say No Way (2015) by Francois Sarhan [still frame]

Quick now–

#guestwriter

“– Find the edge between comfort and discomfort, the familiar and the unknown. Balance there, however precariously.” [1]

I want to talk about the relationship between presence and crisis in performance. Considering it’s 2021 I suppose this combination of presence and crisis might be both peculiar and banal. Peculiar because presence is usually created in the live situation, which we have more or less been without for over a year, and banal because crisis has been our collective state of living (although our ability and resources to weather crisis has certainly been uneven and unequal).

That aside, as I reflect back on performances that I have loved most in my life, they are very often accompanied with some sort of crisis, catastrophe, calamity, or disaster. Perhaps it’s simply that crisis is what makes the performance memorable, which is exactly the logic my family uses when reminiscing about past vacations: we strongly prefer to recount the trips that had a good bit of getting lost, minor catastrophe, strange encounters, and improvised problem solving. How boring is a vacation that goes exactly according to plan? 

I love crisis in performance. I love it because I experience it as a catalyst for what we call presence. I experience the manifestation of presence as a certain clarity of the real moving in slow motion. Its texture is like sunlight in spring, “clear as an alarm” (as Anne Carson puts it.)[2] Things get stuck in it too, hence the slowness. It’s almost like presence has a certain thickness to its feel, a gooeyness, that small moments get stuck in, like a fly on flypaper, and then get stretched out into bizarre proportions, somehow hyperreal. The mind’s eye seems to buy time. (“what / swarm of clearnesses and do they amaze you”, as Anne Carson puts it elsewhere.)[3] Clarity in slow motion.

Of course crisis isn’t the only way to incite a feeling of presence. It certainly behooves the performer to find some other strategies here, because planning on catastrophe would defeat its power and its point. And for sure the texture of presence cultivated deeply and over a long duration, for example in practices such as meditation or qigong, is very different from the texture of presence that cuts in like an “alarm”. What I like about presence born of crisis is its speed. In contrast to counting breaths, crisis offers a good ol’ slap in the face. A manifestation of “Quick now, here, now, always-” (as T.S. Eliot puts it, and with the dash (-) at the end of the line wholly living up to its name (“Hurry!”)). [4] Presence always implies “now”, but what I can’t get enough of is that “Quick now” energy.

I like what crisis does to pieces. I especially like the improvisation it ensues, the quick decision making, which is not only improvising with/on/through the piece that is potentially falling apart, but also the improvisation of new interpretations born of new conditions, like when I unexpectedly found myself performing Francios Sarhan’s body percussion piece Homework for a bunch of children at an art opening. I experience this piece to be hyper sexual, but when performed in front of children this interpretation felt awkward (to say the least). The children were laughing and screaming back at me throughout the entire performance. The constant refrain of the piece, “No! No! No!” (while simultaneously slapping myself in the face) quickly moved away from my well-trotted interpretation of an A.I.-dominatrix-machine-gone-amok and rushed towards that of a disciplinary teacher communicating with (actual) unruly children. This “classic” percussion solo instantaneously transformed into an audience participation piece built upon call and response: “No!” I screamed, in time with a virtuosic body percussion gesture, “No!” the children screamed back at me, leaping to their feet. There was no way my well rehearsed plan could ever unfold under these new conditions, and that was completely thrilling.

A less innocent version of such situations occurred in September 2020 (during a short period of covid relief in Oslo, which allowed for limited live performance at the Ultima Festival). Pinquins were giving the world premiere of Manos Tsangaris’ piece My Heart Is a Map. The piece plays on the idea of inside and outside. One performer is outside performing a solo for speaking percussionist, while at the same time two performers are inside performing a duet for speaking percussionists. The two situations are separated by a window, which the audience is occasionally able to see through. The two parts of the piece (the solo and the duo) are performed simultaneously and coordinated via subtle gestures between the performers and an assistant planted in the outdoor audience. In addition, there are several “extras” that periodically stroll across the “stage” of the outside performance, thus blurring the real and the performative. The audience experiences the piece twice: once outside, once inside. The piece is performed in a continuous loop.

Now that the scene is set we can return to the question of crisis. I mentioned the “extras” whose primary purpose is to disturb the illusion of theatre by cutting across the outdoor stage on their apparent way to some place or other, seemingly unperturbed by the performance they had intruded upon. As with any outdoor performance, the piece is inherently made vulnerable to the wills of actual (that is, not planted) passersby. I had considered this “risk”, and when several teenagers joined the extras in their bold walk across “my” stage I wasn’t surprised, not even when they began touching and tapping my instruments as they repeatedly passed. The crisis came during one of the final repetitions of the piece, which occurred at around 11 pm. It was a Sunday night and I was performing (think loud drumming and operatic singing-screaming, crudely inspired by Wagnerian sopranos) during the city’s “quiet hours”. I had clearly upset a local resident with my carrying on and he clearly wasn’t completely sober. “Who the hell are you?!”, he shouted. “What the hell are you doing?! I’m going to call the cops! Hey!! I’m talking to YOU!”

At this exact point in the piece I was playing a woodblock very loudly and very, very slowly, like a dripping machine used for torture. In between strikes I periodically ordered the audience to “Wait.” (TICK…… TOCK………  TICK………….. TOCK………..“Wait.” …….TICK…..TOCK…….. and so on.) The whole scene lasts for a full three minutes.

At this dramatic moment, with a man clearly worked up into a near-bursting rage, I was coincidentally stuck in a loop delivering a text (“Wait”) that could appear both theatrically logical to an unwitting audience and totally disrespectful to this infuriated man. I was left on stage wondering how much the audience understood in terms of what was real and not real. The rules of theatre had already been broken multiple times in the piece – would they understand the need to step in and help if he actually became violent? On top of this unraveling situation, I also understood that I was responsible to stay “on script” and give the necessary cues to the players performing inside for a separate audience. Would it be possible to keep this train on its tracks? (In my mind myriad scenarios played out in full color. But in the video footage my face and body fain unmoved.)

Three minutes never felt so long. (My highschool percussion teacher would tell me that three minutes is indeed very long! “You can easily play The Star-Spangled Banner two times in that window!”) Perhaps this is the slow motion feeling of presence I mentioned before. Every strike on the woodblock felt like a violent blow. As real as the cut of a knife. A risk at escalation. I contemplated shortening the section. And then decided not to. Much like the situation with the children at the art opening I witnessed the interpretation and delivery of the text in Manos’ piece transform, departing from my well rehearsed plan. Previously I had delivered each utterance of “Wait” with a detached and slightly sarcastic style. But in this situation they became increasingly authoritative and demanding. My voice even became combative, clearly taking in the man’s energy and responding, attempting to use the situation to support the musical material, rather than letting it get crushed under the weight of his outrage. The real and the performative continued to blur. And again, it was thrilling. 

I also love when pieces artificially construct crisis, and in their construction, manage to create a similar sense of presence of and for the performer. In her piece Contralto, for ensemble and video featuring transgender women speaking, singing, and performing vocal exercises, Sarah Hennies asks the ensemble to perform so many actions at once that it would almost certainly be impossible for any performer to manage it all. She says in the score that “the sound of the musicians attempting and failing” is “expected and desired”. In Xenakis’ percussion solo Psappha, there is a critical point at the end of the work where there are so many different instruments that must be played at once, and at a density two or three times that of the rest of the piece, that it leaves me (and every other percussionist who dares to play it) utterly exhausted and heavy-limbed (even bursting into tears on occasion). Generations of percussionists have attempted to “solve” this “impossible” ending section, inventing numerous solutions and contraptions, but I sometimes wonder if Xenakis also wanted “the sound of musicians attempting and failing”, as if the sound of catastrophe is exactly the dramaturgy the otherwise orderly work deeply calls for. I like this idea of overexertion as a tactic to cause calamity, and, in turn, to manifest a sense of the real and a sense of presence. The result is not unlike choreographer Jan Mertens’ piece The Dog Days Are Over a performance made strictly of choreographed jumping, which draws on the idea that such a demanding and physical task as jumping causes (allows) the mask of the performer to fall off and for the real person to be revealed. 

Trond Reinholdtsen takes a different approach to overexertion and realness. In his percussion solo within Institute for Post-Human Performance Practice, the end of the piece is notated as a long accelerando of computer generated drum patterns that culminates with a relentlessly repeated fury of cascading blows racing down the drums over and over again. In the score, this repeated material is accompanied with the instruction “Repeat until close to fainting or until fainting”. Whether this instruction is a joke or not (and who can really know?), it does leave the performer asking, what’s the difference between performing losing control and actually losing control? In other words, if I’m not prepared to black out on cue (who isn’t?), how real can I/should I make this crisis?

I find it interesting when a real crisis in performance reveals something essential about a work, something that should possibly be “built in” permanently.

This was the case in my collaboration with Simon Løffler in 2019-2020. In this case, crisis moved from being an experience of catastrophe to one of eureka. Simon composed Animalia I for two performers performing on wearable instruments, including a custom-made bird beak worn in the mouth, hand operated bird calls, and finger cymbals attached to the ears and beak. These instruments are then performed on by the second performer and vice versa, making an intertwined and intimate sharing of bodily space. The piece abstracts the biomechanics of bird head movements and roughly depicts a mating dance inspired by the virtuosic and musical displays of the albatross. The piece demands an intense sense of cooperation between the two players as they play the instruments attached to the other’s body, intertwine beaks, and perform rigorous hocketing rhythms while simultaneously executing bird-inspired choreographies. Behind the musical situation lies the fundamental task that the performers should, as much as possible, embody becoming a bird.

The whole realization of the piece was a bit of a rushed affair. The piece was written quickly, we memorized it quickly, and then we rehearsed like crazy very quickly. (But as the reader may have gathered, I do enjoy a rushed affair). In our haste, the wearable instruments were never totally perfected, and instead we became used to their precarity: their inevitable breakdown and the resulting call to re-glue a beak or to reattach a finger cymbal to one body part or another. There was never a rehearsal where something hadn’t gone awry, so why would it ever be different during performance?

True to our experience, mid-way through the world premiere performance my instruments started to detach from my body. Simon did his best to lunge his neck further forward and clamp his beak against the finger cymbals that were dangling from my ears and threatening to tumble to the ground. We scrambled to keep going despite the obstacles and our growing state of confusion. Finally the finger cymbal on my beak did fall off and went crashing to the floor. Like true professionals we continued our quest to hold the reins and “make it work”. But it all became too disorienting. Without my instruments in place Simon didn’t have any instruments to play. The hocketing rhythms became stuttering and lopsided gestures blown open by half-spoken silences. 

We attempted to stay “in character”, as birds, as we watched our instruments (and the piece) crumble around us. We both wanted to avoid using our hands and thus breaking the frame of the piece, which should only involve movements of the head. At a certain point it simply wasn’t possible to continue. Simon broke out in a soft laughter and bent down to pick up the finger cymbal that had fallen off my beak and I watched to see if he would begin our familiar ritual of instrument repairs. The audience started to laugh at our catastrophe. It felt like a pitiful laugh of embarrassment. The worst kind. It wasn’t clear at all how we would get through this situation (would we have to quit and apologize to the audience, leaving the stage in defeat? Would we take a break and start over after re-glueing ourselves back together?). 

Simon decided to “reemerge” as a human and began attending to our broken instruments. I chose to stay in character as a bird and attempted to keep the performative tension while he problem solved on our behalf. I remained totally strict, cold, locked, and non-communicative. My eyes stayed forward, fixed on an unseen horizon, occasionally twitching my head towards another direction. Simon moved with his hands towards my beak and prepared to repair my instruments. At this moment absolutely everything around me slowed down. As I think back to it now it feels like a dream state suspended from all rules of gravity and time: two birds trapped in an underwater landscape. Silence. It was at this moment that I understood, despite their pitying laughter, we had the audience in the palm of our hand (and not the other way around). They could see we were in a precarious situation, and this drew them in. They wanted to see if and how we would get out of this pickle. In a moment nothing short of a leap of faith, as Simon’s hands came closer to my face, I chose (again) to stay in character. And just as his fingers prepared to touch my beak–SNAP! I chomped down on him, sending the audience into a fit of laughter. 

From this point on, I had the sensation that it didn’t matter what happened to our instruments or to the delivery of the piece. We had entered into a state of vulnerability that was met with compassion, not unlike that of clowning, and it meant that we could be responsive, taking in the audience and each other in a completely new way. We moved away from delivering a strictly planned score, and moved closer to the improvisatory nature of the albatross’s mating dance. Our instruments continued to fall apart around us, and we continued to find our way forward, the two of us and the audience completely wrapped in suspense. 

Afterwards, more than one audience member suggested that Simon rewrite the piece by transcribing exactly what had happened in the performance. For them, it was perfect. And to his credit, Simon took this feedback on. Not as an exact transcription, but by adding aspects of the score that are more game-like between the players. For example, by making the number of repetitions of a figure open and dictated by the spontaneous choice of one of the players (it alternates). This move thus allows a sense of alertness and attentiveness to emerge between the players as they seek to “catch” the sudden cue of the other. With this strategy the score moved away from demanding the dutiful counting of pre-ordained repetitions, and towards a more dance-like improvisatory exchange between the two performers. For me, this revision is a subtle and lovely tip of the hat to the experiences we shared that evening. 

Such performances have been my teacher. They have taught me about presence and they have taught me about staying responsive in moments of uncertainty. They have shown me the value of saying yes to a loss of control, which is actually saying yes to a new unfolding of a piece, new possibilities, new connections. In short, these performances teach me to embrace the proverbial shit hitting the fan, to let intuition kick in, and to enjoy a well-laid plan being dramatically diverted.

These experiences also make me question the value in settling down and committing to one interpretation of a piece and drilling it until one can almost “guarantee” it will go “to plan” in performance. These experiences seem to emphasize listening deeply over speaking dogmatically (and indeed it is a very particular mode of listening that emerges when in a state of performative precarity).

Could there be a way to rehearse and practice that leaves the piece open and vulnerable without intentionally sabotaging it? To invite the intervention of the live situation into the work, even if it’s not, strictly speaking, a crisis? To cultivate my own discomfort? Will this afford a more nuanced and dynamic relation to that  “quick now” crisis energy I love so much? 

Of course it’s not so simple either. I feel a certain “vital ambivalence” (as Julietta Singh puts it) [5] when thinking about performance and vulnerability. I always feel a sense of doom when I go on stage, even a sense of dread, a feeling that wholeheartedly resists my call to embrace the unpredictable in the service of “becoming present”. I still want to deliver brilliant performances shaped with care and precision. And I still want to go on stage with a clear musical or performative idea and every intention of delivering it. Arne Nordheim used to say that “Music lives in the span between poetry and catastrophe.” (Camille Norment extends Nordheim further: “between rapture and rupture”.) [6] That living that he points to, that vitality of standing in ambivalence, is, in my mind, the birth of presence itself. Jamaica Kincaid describes a similar ambivalence in relation to her garden in My Garden (Book).

In the story “Wisteria”, she describes how she had meticulously planned and planted her garden with discipline and precision so that each plant would bloom at the right time and in the right order, with each new blossom opening out to the next plant’s blossoming, unfolding temporally like a finely crafted musical composition. But to her great dismay (and ultimately her great delight), the plants never seem to blossom as she had envisioned. They continually blossom out of season and out of turn. And when they do finally bloom she feels they look odd and “not quite right at all”. On top of this unraveling catastrophe, wild critters (a fox, a rabbit, a woodpecker) disturb and intrude “her” space, leaving her helpless in her struggle to control her beloved and beloathed garden. For Kincaid, the garden puts her in a “a state of constant discomfort”, and she likes that discomfort so much that she “would like to share it.” I couldn’t agree with her more.

“How agitated I am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so agitated. How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed. What to do? Nothing works just the way I thought it would, nothing looks just the way I had imagined it, and when sometimes it does look like what I had imagined (and this, thank God, is rare) I am startled that my imagination is so ordinary.” [7]

Bibliography

(1)  Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark. (1999). Philosophy of the Flesh: the Embodied Mind and its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books. As cited in Brandstetter, Gabrielle. (2013). “Listening”, in Touching and Being Touched Kinesthetic and Empathy in Dance and Movement. De Gruyter.

(2) Carson, Anne. (1995). “The Glass Essay”in Glass, Irony and God. New Directions.

(3) Carson, Anne. (2005). “Gnosticism IV” in Decreation. Vintage Contemporaries.

(4) Eliot, T.S. (1941). Four Quartets. Harcourt.

(5) Singh, Julietta. (2018). Unthinking Mastery: Dehumanism and Decolonial Entanglements. Duke University Press.

(6) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2hxoedWvVZo

(7) Kincaid, Jamaica. (1999). My Garden (Book). Farrar, Straus and Giroux.