Performing the Body –

– Weston Olencki

  • [thoughts regarding complexity and noise in recent writing for the trombone*]

In music, the instrument often predates the expression it authorizes, which explains why a new invention has the nature of noise…it contributes, through the possibilities it offers, to the birth of a new music, a renewed syntax. – Jacques Attali: Noise – The Political Economy of Music

Discourse in contemporary music often concerns itself with the conceptual, the speculative, the theoretical, the analytical, etc. Rarely are the pragmatic or practical issues of performance thoroughly addressed from the vantage point of the performer themselves, in a non-pedagogical, affective, and physical way – not just, ‘how is a particular sound created?’, but ‘what are the manifold consequences of creating such a sound?’ Recent research into alternative methods of sound production obviously do not exist in a purely aesthetic vacuum, rather, they require from performers new conceptual methods in approaching the production of sound, and navigating the demands of such works. I plan to offer a few of these different suggestions below.
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1. {noise}

How is noise in brass performance unique? The distortion is entirely physical and physiological. Instead of activating an external vibrating source – reed, membrane, or string – the conscious manipulation of the normal playing apparatus requires a particularly intense internalization with regards to unorthodox sound production. The actions of body do not construct the multivalence or “complexity” of the resulting sound, instead, the sound is created as a byproduct from the manipulations and postures of the body itself. The sound and its method/source of production are fused into a single conceptual entity – thus, one must literally assume the role of a physical “sounding body”.


Aaron Cassidy: “Because they mark the zone where the force is in the process of striking” (2008), m.8

In other words, disfiguration, dislocation, deformation of the sound is the aural result of the bodily apparatus’s contortion – the impurity of sound as an impurity of the trained bodily mechanism (basic institutionalized, instrumental pedagogy). Aaron Cassidy’s Because they mark the zone… disassembles the pedagogical/bodily synthesis into its constituent parts**, all while redefining the rules which govern the mechanics of the instrument – [ce n’est pas une trombone] – the instrument I am holding is a trombone, yet my instrument functions as an alien body in its own conceptual skin. The human body must then reorient its own relationship with the familiar pedagogical practice of not only itself (from the physical decouplization), but also the new logic of Cassidy’s reassemblage.

2. {materiality}

This transgression of traditional muscle memory is interesting in two respects: certain noise or distortive procedures require an extreme amount of internalized, physical effort from the performer (discomfort, contortion), while other sounds can be created from more involuntary actions of the bodily mechanism. For example, using the instrument as a resonator for air sounds/vocally-produced-white-noise bypasses altogether the learned construction characteristic of “classical” technique, since this sound is simply produced according to a more (perhaps the most) innate bodily event. Noise on the brass instrument is no longer a varying scale of effective forces, but rather a continuum formed from the performer’s confrontation with the constructive systems of instrumental pedagogy vis-a-vis the natural processes of the human body.

In this situation, the basic materiality of the instrument must be examined; the trombone is a metallic resonating tube that may be both the site of and an external tool for magnification of fundamentally physiological sound production.


Stefan Prins: “FITTINGinSIDE” (2007), mm.122-126.

With Stefan Prins’s FITTINGinSIDE, the instrument is transformed into an amplifier for syllabic interruptions – phonemes contrapuntally emerge from a granulated, imploded timbre produced from “overpressure” in the vibrating mechanism (notated here through diamond-shaped heads). Although this is not foundational material of the piece, Prins’s example turns the trombone from a vocally imitative instrument into this aforementioned resonating chamber – the instrument, rather than acting as a mediator or cause for these sounds (the internal distortion of pedagogy discussed in section I), is used as a receptacle for them. The trombone acts according to its own peculiar properties of resonance and spectral filtration, and in this example it essentially functions as a “preparation” of the performer’s body. Here, and other similar treatments, the trombone is an external apparatus, and no more – therefore, while the embouchure morphologically resembles that of the human vocal cords, it is not a voice, but a wonderful and exciting prosthetic: an external echo chamber of the “sounding body”.

3. {density}

Increases in complexity – both in quality (timbre) and quantity (density) of materials – require a different approach to the learning process and performance of such extreme situations of execution. The body must enact complex postures to perform this material, obviously, but such postures also reflect themselves back on the mechanisms of the performer. Katherine Young’s solo trombone+electronics piece requires the trombonist (so far, myself) to navigate a hyper-glitchy field of noises produced by the entire instrument+body system – not only must the embouchure respond at its threshold of its potential agility, the method of holding the instrument must be reconsidered and adjusted to execute the ancillary sounds from the instrument’s mechanical parts (the bottom stave of slide hits and trigger clicks).

Katherine Young: Puddles and Crumbs, pt.I (2014), mm.1-5

Katherine Young: “Puddles and Crumbs, pt.I” (2014), mm.1-5

It is not simply a complex agility of how to operate the mechanism of an external device (one unmoored from the body’s direct sound source), but this complexity above requires an increased mental facility of navigating all the body’s intrinsic methods of sound production. It is a matter of inhabiting a mental space where I am perceptive of my status as a sound-producing body, perceptive of my instrument as an additional externalized “body”, and am also cognizant of the range of possibilities for synthesis/confrontation/conflict between them.

What I am positing is not an overtly spiritual or ritualistic connection between the performer and their instrument, but that there exists a special interior relationship built on internal awareness, which is largely removed from the public eye. With these situations of extreme density, there is a shift in approach from the act of producing sound to the act of embodying sound. This attitude has proved (personally and subjectively) essential with this extremely physical music, such as Timothy McCormack’s HEAVY MATTER: the internalization and embodiment of his material should not be relegated to the fringe of preparation or conclusion of the learning/performing process – they are the process of navigation for comprehending/performing material from the notation below.

Timothy McCormack: HEAVY MATTER (2012), second system

Timothy McCormack: “HEAVY MATTER” (2012), second system

The sound is the body – or in McCormack’s description “The sound is not within a space; it is the space”. Any and all manifestations of its multiplicities (noise, density, difficulty, strain) are enacted not only upon the culturally assembled properties of the sound’s identity (the traditional “voice” of the instrument), but also on the body of the performer directly. As performers of this music, our sounds and ourselves (and their conflicts) must be fused into a single entity: in essence, we must embody the sound’s inherent physicality, thus we truly become a sounding body.

addendum, it is worth noting that the repertoire I have chosen to discuss here are works I have performed and had extensive contact with as a performer, often in close dialogue with the composers. Refer to the attached appendix for further existing works that deal with similar concerns (to varying degrees) with the concepts below.

** this process is not unprecedented – the early trombone works of Richard Barrett (basalt/negatives, EARTH) extensively explore this kind of technical fracturing. I choose Cassidy’s example for its notational clarity and this very estrangement of the performer-instrument relationship.
Appendix: [Selected Repertoire]
This list is by no means exhaustive or complete; rather, I sought to include other works whose instrument-performer relationship is substantially and critically re-examined in a solo/small ensemble setting.

Richard Barrett – basalt
Aaron Cassidy – songs only as sad as their listener
Ann Cleare – to another of that other
Nicholas Deyoe – facesplitter
Ray Evanoff – Proxy
Luca Francesconi – Animus
Klaus K. Hubler – Cercar
Evan Johnson – Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum)
Dmitri Kourliandski – Tube Space
Timothy McCormack – Uns-Apparatus
Alex Mincek – Number may be defined
Yokiashi Onishi – spargens
Joan Arnau Pamies – [VItbn]^4 (o quatre panells per a trombó sol)
Dave Reminick – ,8,1

Katherine Young’s Puddles and Crumbs, performed by Weston Olencki.