Embodied performance techniques signal narrative aspects of Song of Rednessand Visions in Robe, a fashion opera by Alastair White

Traditionally, in opera, the orchestra are separated and hidden physically in the pit whilst the conductor mediates between the two parties. As such, Heile (2020, p222) suggests that instrumental performance is a closer relation to Experimental Music Theatre than opera. Further to this, in the same article, Heile explores the idea that Kagel uses dissonance between movement and sound to highlight the embodied aspect of music making;

I believe that it is on the occasions where what we hear does not match our expectations based on what we have seen that we become aware of our embodied responses. For these reasons, any artistic approach that is directed equally at movement and sound, which, as I outlined above, is the foundation of experimental music theatre, needs to drive a wedge between them.  

However, my experience of performing in Robe highlighted some different takes on ideas of embodiment and movement. The team that produced this opera used staging and movement to create a highlight narrative ideas and draw the character of the flautist into the drama more fully. 

In Robe, the team staged the ‘orchestra’ (Flute and Piano) on stage, with the flautist in full costume and makeup. In addition, the stage set up placed the flautist and storyteller in balanced positions at the front and to the side of the stage (left and right respectively). Their costumes were in similar shades, in contrast with the other singers and dancers, and they were both in striking makeup.  

Setting the stage in this manner immediately suggests a connection between these two performers, and casts the flautist as a character (with visual and sounding importance) rather than simply and accompanist. 

This connection is reinforced by movements made by the singer and flautist. At 2’02’’ in the performance, the singer and flautist slowly turn and make eye contact with one another. This is a common movement within in closely synchronised musical passages, but the slow pace of the movement and somewhat exaggerated fashion in which it is done (the flautists’ back to the piano), almost ritualised, suggests a deeper meaning. The expansive movements made by the flautist immediately following this turn tie her musical line into the dancers’ movements and the storytellers’ gesticulations. Many shared musical gestures and pitches between the flautist and storyteller further cement this relationship.  

In Visions, the flautist performs a series of two-part phrases, each consisting of a flurry of complex notes, leading into a slower and more contemplative appoggiatura type gesture with long legato notes in free time. The second, freer part of these phrases is performed with whole body movements which distort and alter the sounds produced. The moving gestures begin slowly and thoughtfully, but become more and more agitated and uncontrolled as the movement progresses, culminating in phrase  which sweeps across four octaves and ends in a stamping foot. 

Again, these movements draw attention to the flautist, and specifically the expansive and slow gestures she is playing. The flute writing in Robe is generally characterised by scurrying, rhythmically dense passages, with occasional still sections in which the flute tends to be shadowing a vocal line. These slower, more legato solo phrases are in a minority and so pairing them with large movements creates a uniqueness to this section. 

The flautists’ movements in this section carry out a deeper function, namely, pitch distortion; the side to side/up and down movements interfere with the embouchure, at points the flute appears to be trying to escape the flautists hands, and inevitably this creates an unstable sound which glissandos up and down, distorts and deteriorates in tandem with the physical movements. A positive feedback loop is established by the mirroring of sound and vision, back and forth. The movements cause the sound and also provide visual confirmation in the embodied expression of the sound performed by the flautist.     

To summarise, Robe subverts the traditional model of opera by placing the instrumentalists on stage, and although this is often done now a fairly well trodden path, here, the idea is extended in the case of the flautist by the use of embodied techniques which seek to include the flautist in the narrative of the story. These embodied techniques are also used to highlight certain important solo moments in a similar way to the fashion in which the soloist in an aria might make more expansive gestures as they sing. The interference created by these movements in the sound of the flautist further add to the drama of the piece, heightening emotion and creating unique sounds and timbres. 

In answer to Heile’s assertion that a wedge needs to be driven between movement and sound, I would suggest that using movements which adhere to but exaggerate the instinctive shapes suggested by the musical phrase, can be successful in a context in which this is a common technique to begin with. This piece does not explicitly seek to hold movement and sound in equal importance, but it uses similar ideas, with differing but successful outcomes. 

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