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Gesture in performance

June 1, 2011

Historical movement and gesture in performance is a controversial topic of discussion in the world of early music, with some interesting ideas proposed by various performers.

Pertaining to use of gesture as an aid in the interpretation of historical lute songs, there have been some enlightening essays including “The performance context of the English lute song, 1596 to 1622,” by Daniel Fischlin in Performance on Lute, Guitar, and Vihuela: Historical Practice and Modern Interpretation, Edited by Victor Coelho, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1998).

A full-length book dedicated to the subject is Tune Thy Musicke to Thy Hart: The Art of Eloquent Singing in England, 1597-1622, Robert Toft, University of Toronto Press (Toronto,1993), which is replete with examples of hand gestures drawn from a manual on rhetoric and oratory published in the 17th century.

Lute News, magazine of the Lute Society (UK), featured the transcription of a presentation made by vocalist Rosemary Carlton-Willis on the subject in issue No. 94, August 2010.  The article makes reference to present-day performance gestures used to good effect in Indian classical music, and how such information may inform us.  But the presenter has the great good sense to ask the question: Are gestures from another age or culture really meaningful when removed from their context?

Context seems to be the keyword.  If we employ gestures in a performance of lute songs today, historically and culturally appropriate or not, we can’t help but draw attention away from the music and place the performer front and center.  The sheer novelty of using unusual gestures in an idiom that is already unusual enough will only direct attention to the movement.  Undoubtedly, the movement is what will stick in the collective memory of the audience.

As Daniel Fischlin points out, there is not much evidence to support the use of gesture in historical performance of lute songs, which is much too intimate an idiom to benefit from a theatrical treatment.  And any stage actor knows the best way to draw the attention of an audience is to stand anywhere in the theatre and wave a sheet of white paper.  This gesture will infallibly cancel out anything else happening on stage at the time because the audience cannot help but register the movement.

But we’re not necessarily saying that use of historical gesture is a bad thing, and effectiveness depends entirely on the goals of the performer.  We choose to place the importance of the music first and strive for a more neutral performance, acting as a conduit for meaning and nuance in such an intimate repertory.

Following up on an earlier post, we offer two more examples of performance practice from 1932/33.  The first is a solo song with a backing orchestra.  The singer uses a great deal of graceful movement to augment her delivery, even some fairly obvious rhetorical gestures.

“Something in the air” with Marion Burns:

The second example is more of a chamber performance with very restrained movements by the singer – though you can see she would probably like to use a little more movement.

Ruth Etting and Eddie Lang from the 1932 film, “A Regular Trouper”:

If we were to use the (historical) gestures showcased in these videos in a performance today of any music – lute songs or even the very same songs performed in the video – the quaintness of the movements would be the only thing the audience would notice and remember.  We would prefer that the audience recalled the beauty of the music and the depth of our performance.

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  1. Dan Winheld permalink

    Great post. Check this one out. To the end!

  2. Thanks Dan. She’s a little scary.

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