Composing
Syncretism


Syncretism was the first piece to demonstrate a change of direction for the portfolio, initiated by the failure of Portals and subsequent attempts to draw out and channel a performer’s unique knowledge of their instrument through video scores.

Syncretism was composed from a conscious decision to unite my understanding of video art, dancefilm and visual music with my existing composerly experiences. Syncretism dealt with the physicality of video in an attempt to direct viewer attention towards the medium through affective editing techniques (Garro, 2011; Meigh-Andrews, 2014), and was conceived as a large projection piece for a gallery space. Eisenstein’s (1949) concept of metric montage, as discussed by Evans (2005) in application to visual music, played a significant role in the formation of the piece as one of the main areas of research.

I was approached by my supervisor to prepare a piece for a seminar in which the visual aspects and interpretations of Cardew’s Treatise would be explored. This was particularly intriguing as Treatise is able to stand by itself as a work of visual or graphic art (Dennis, 1991) and continues to evade definitions in terms of being a composition or music (Anderson, 2006). Nyman (2009) observes that Treatise encourages a myriad of possible interpretations:
'Treatise reveals itself when the performer(s) form some sort of non-representational relationship between symbols and materials and treatments (which need not be of a sound variety) - or a mixture of both. . . . What is important, overall, is a contextual consistency: in Treatise a sign has to be made appropriate to its context' (Nyman, 2009, p. 118).
As an interpretation of a single page of Cardew’s Treatise, Syncretism draws on Burrows and Fargion’s Both Sitting Duet which is itself an interpretation of Feldman’s For John Cage, through the introduction of choreography, dancefilm and visual music to the research project.


Approaching
Treatise


I was somewhat familiar with the visual make up of Treatise, such as the lifeline and the large black circles which form the climax of the piece (Dennis, 1991), through my time studying improvisation with Thomas and Fell. I very much wanted my approach to remain true to my concerns regarding sonic improvisation: to find unexplored avenues rather than relying on my existing knowledge and cognitive constructs (Griffiths, 2010). Understanding that interpretations could be based upon single pages or page-ranges of any order (Cardew, 1971; Anderson, 2006), and recalling the concept of a ‘heuristic dialogue’ (Prévost, 1995, p. 3), I focussed on searching the score for pages which revealed some possibility for physical movement rather than relying on my experiences with sound-production (Gendlin, 1993). During the interim between Portals and Syncretism I discovered that a fixed elbow position would concentrate movement onto the wrist, which tied my work to the concept of micro-choreographies and the use of the close-up in dancefilm (Brannigan, 2011). My initial trials started with movements that were too small, revealing little of interest. Rainer’s Hand Movie demonstrated micro-movements which showed detail as well as larger, more distinct movements such as pronation and supination of the wrist.


Although Hand Movie presented an ideal approach to movement and the screen, my improvisations with bodily movement were, at best, unproductive. I had an apparent inability to maintain a focus on my performance while in front of the camera, instead concentrating on remaining in frame or worrying about lighting. Researching choreography for the screen pointed my reading towards the significance of rhythm (Roberts, 2012) and subsequently towards Eisenstein’s (1949) five types of montage via Evans’ (2005) discussion on visual music. Evans’ (2005) discussion of the musical phrase in visual music practice revealed that metre can be established ‘by making each cell the same length - the same number of frames. Each cell is like a phrase of music’ (Evans, 2005, p. 19). The concept of rhythmic montage bolstered my interest in video editing techniques as compositional tools and as an aesthetic enquiry, directly informing my approach to Syncretism. Cutting into the footage to alter the number of frames within each physical gesture would enhance or distort the natural movements of the hand to produce a spectrum of recognisable movements and physically impossible ones through a stroboscopic effect. Interlarding the unaltered video with still frames created staccato articulations, while increasing the play speed without additional still frames generated fluid, legato effects.

The realisation that Treatise could inform the approach to editing rather than guide the choreography was a positive step. Turning my newly focussed attention back to the score revealed a vivid contrast between the flowing lines in the middle of page 35 and intersecting angular shapes on the left, which I began to interpret as contrasts between smooth and arrested motion. Rather than repeat my previous mistakes with improvised movement I returned to exploring Treatise through sound in ‘the uniqueness of the moment’ (Nyman, 2009, p. 9) using my main instrument, the electric guitar. My sonic improvisations revealed heavy string bending and swelling sounds generated by the slow and truncated releasing of pre-bent strings with staccato articulation preventing a reiteration of initial pitches. My improvisations based on page 35 revealed a concept of ebb and flow which was applied to editing techniques rather than the composition of hand footage. Creating a representation of the page using video editing techniques was not my intention as I wanted to remain faithful in allowing myself to discover new possibilities through the score.

Maintaining a contextual consistency was essential (Nyman, 2009) as I attempted to translate or visualise Treatise through my sonic improvisations into a temporal visual dimension (Fuxjäger, 2012), as reflected in visual music practice: 'For the visual artist, composition is "the arrangement of elements and characteristics within a defined area . . . a grouping of related components that make sense together . . . balanced by an overall appearance of continuity"' (Bowers 1999, as cited in Evans, 2005, pp. 12-13).


Creating the Footage


My struggles with improvising in front of the camera pushed me to choreograph my movements prior to recording. The concept of ebb and flow penetrated my approach to choreography through Evans’ (2005) discussion of montage in which he confirms Eisenstein’s (1949) theory that simple metres, such as 3/4, work well with metric montage. My previous research into ludomusicology connected the use of a 3/4 metre to a cinematic trope: underwater narratives were frequently accompanied by a waltz-like feel which has since permeated into many strata of popular culture, including video games (Fox, 2016). Using a tempo of 60 beats per minute alluded to a resting heart rate and provided a comfortable tempo for performance.

Taking some inspiration from the hand positions seen in Rainer’s Hand Movie I choreographed a sequence of movements which had a natural ‘accent of some visual dimension’ (Evans, 2005, p. 19). Action was confined to the first beat of the bar and featured movements known to living flesh (Gaffney, 2015): the extension, flexion and separation of the fingers. The accent was provided by pronation and supination of the forearm, positioned at the beginning and mid-way points of the overall sequence, each time prepared by a lengthening of the bar and a quickening of the rhythm. This created a 30-second cell that could be looped in a similar approach to the accumulative form used in Portals.

The flowing line of page 35 was interpreted as a legato waltz-like feel, fluctuating as it meandered across the page, while angular lines were interpreted as interrupting the flow to produce staccato articulation and disturb the pulse. The sequence of hand shapes remained intact but the removal and elongation of frames, as influenced by undercurrents or eddies, had a staccato effect on the movements. Building on my experience with Portals I choreographed a video score to ensure a strong performance in front of the camera. The video below shows the original score which aided my performance, composed using still images.


Using a score drastically simplified my performance for the camera and resulted in footage of a higher quality with a clear intention.


Structure and Form


The 30-second loop consisted of two distinct parts, each five-bars in length, separated by the natural twisting of the forearm: the first half of the sequence, choreographed for the dorsal side of the hand, consisted of four bars with a 3/4 metre and one bar with a 5/4 metre. The second half, choreographed for the palm of the hand, consisted of four bars of 3/4 and one bar of 4/4. The changes in metre functioned to prepare and enhance the upcoming accent and subsequent repetition of the loop.

Working with an approach similar to American avant-garde structuralist cinema, in which the shape of the film is of most importance (de Bruyn, 2013; Mollaghan, 2015), was my intention for Syncretism. As the piece ebbed towards its conclusion the imagery retained its sequential identity but the pulse and depiction of natural movements were gradually eroded through cutting and insertion of still frames. Large-scale structure was directly informed by page 35 itself, working from right to left, while the footage of hands were informed by visual music theory and my sonic improvisations.

As part of the seminar presentation I prepared some notes and a diagram of my approach to page 35 which may provide further insight on the construction of the piece.


Influences and Critical Engagement


The variety of approaches in the composition of Syncretism were reflected in the choice of name. Although these influences were vital in its construction they also created the problem of positioning the work within a larger cultural framework: approaches from video art and dancefilm were combined with a practical concern associated with visual music, with structural factors and choices informed through musical improvisation practice. Roberts’ (2012) illuminative Notes on Filming Dance were reached through his collaborative dancefilm Hands, which introduced the presentation of rhythm through bodily motion. I connected Roberts’ (2012) consideration of rhythm in video with Eisenstein’s (1949) concepts of montage, reached through Evans’ (2005) explanation of visual music. I feel as though I composed Syncretism from a position informed by sound through improvisation but did not intend the piece to be considered as music or to produce non-cochlear sound.

Reading around visual music revealed Eisenstein’s (1949) methods of montage. Although the use of montage in visual music had a direct influence on the portfolio I did not intend to compose pieces of visual music. Syncretism was my first attempt to amalgamate several external influences which themselves fuse non-representational visual and sonic elements. A ‘deterritorialization of the body’ (Brannigan, 2011, p. 44) through Balázs’ (2010) theory of the close-up shot to expose ‘dance-like qualities of micro-movements’ (Brannigan, 2011, p. 46) and the application of video art theory through the language of video editing (Eisenstein, 1949; Belazs, 2010) were intended to focus viewer attention to the medium itself and generate ‘rhythm as an intersection of pulses, both tangible and intangible, on screen’ (Roberts, 2012, p. 107).

That being said, similarities between my approach and that of a visual musician may serve to reveal a thought process rather than an attempt to align the work. Mollaghan (2015) connects visual music with absolute music and film through their non-representational intentions, claiming that visual music is an inherently hybrid art that ‘requires the characteristics of at least two disciplines, one of which must be musical in nature and one that is primarily visual in order to be classified as visual music’ (Mollaghan, 2015, p. 6). Ox and Keefer’s (2008) curatorial work also indicates several approaches to defining a work as ‘visual music’. For example, my approach to Syncretism through Cardew’s Treatise could be considered to be ‘a visualization of music which is the translation of a specific musical composition (or sound) into a visual language, with the original syntax being emulated in the new visual rendition’ (Ox & Keefer, 2008, Defining Visual Music section). However, Syncretism was not a direct attempt at creating a representation of the score or the sounds which emerged from my sonic improvisations.

Furthermore, the use of the close-up shot to amplify the motion of the body (Benjamin, 2005; Koupil & Vícha, 2011) through micro-choreographies (Brannigan, 2011) align my work with dancefilm and video art. These aesthetic decisions were based on the desire to continue to work with video and the dexterity of a performing hand throughout the portfolio.

The application of bodily motion to visually express musical scores is not a new idea or approach as exploring musical parameter through the moving image may align my working process with the experimental films of Fischinger, recognised as a highly influential filmmaker in the history of visual music (Keefer, 2015; Mollaghan, 2015). Whereas visual music and experimental film often feature abstract imagery in the work, Syncretism directly employs mimetic imagery as a way of drawing attention to the processes imposed upon the images.

As previously discussed, the image of a disembodied hand on screen brings with it the potential for codification of meaning and language. This potentially problematic issue could unintentionally engage the viewer with a search for meaning in or through the images of the hand, rather than hunting for structure and formation within a temporal perspective (Snyder, 2001).

Vostell and Paik’s purposeful violation of the cultural and social concepts which dominated the screen in the 1960s (Hornbacher, 1985; Hanhardt, 1990; Meigh-Andrews, 2014), coupled with the presentation of Syncretism in a gallery space, may enable a temporary suspension of an audience’s cultural associations with the screen, such as a classical narrative structure (Garro, 2011). However, as a silent film there may be issues relating to viewer engagement and concentration. As a short piece it would be presented in a loop, but as the viewer is free to roam the gallery space there is a high possibility of entering into the work mid-way through. This is a common practice for many video art installations (Meigh-Andrews, 2014) but also creates another issue: as Syncretism is physically silent noises from the gallery space may intrude on the perception of the piece, altering the experience. Although this is more of a concern for Étude and Apprentice, as these pieces were composed with the overt intention of conjuring private or imagined sound for the listener, environmental sound may still be a factor for Syncretism.
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