Collaborative platform on arts, literature, and thought
By Keir GoGwilt, writer
(relevant section from 3:35-5:26)
In this video, Yehudi Menuhin invites us to observe technical movements of his body in performance. Various technological effects render the isolation of these movements accessible to the eye—the construction of a plastic violin and the different camera angles and close-ups take part in a critical process of disassembling and reconstructing the materials of the instrument and the materials of performance.
Menuhin here appears to adopt the role of an engineer explaining the mechanisms of his body. The instrument is not secured by the shoulder or gripped by the hand, but is rather as mobile as the joints around it. The instrument moves responsively as an appendage of the body.
The transparency of the violin reveals the transparency of the artist as an instrumental body.
(Clip from Billie Whitelaw’s performance of Samuel Beckett’s short play, Not I)
The mouth is another example of an isolated mechanism: the presentation of naked articulation. The body of the actress, the body that would make the figure of the Mouth into a recognizable subject, disappears into an anonymous and indistinct set. The mouth is de-contextualized, becoming an instrument of articulation.
The actress is strapped into an apparatus so that her mouth does not move out of the light. This condition of restraint and blindness liberates the speaking mouth from the performing subject. The actress does not affect speech with intentional, interpretive gestures, but rather exercises a blind and impulsive technics. The most vivid details of the performance are those that exhibit Whitelaw’s awareness of the mouth as instrument, details that could not reasonably be classified as interpretive: the spittle that is allowed to accumulate at the sides of the lips, the crinkled tremors of the chin as the mouth is held shut between intervals of screams, the slight arching and folding of the upper lip, the vibration of the tongue as she laughs, the movements of the tongue as it twists and pulsates with brief exhalations of the breath (6:01-6:04). These details expose gaps in the ideology of performer-as-interpreter, an ideology thatinforms not only the language of musical/literary criticism (see just about any classical music review for an example of the exaggerated rhetoric around interpretive fidelity), but also the pedagogical method, the technical, physiological activity of performance, and the politics determining a performer’s visibility. The impulses, the invisible, technical forces guiding the mouth constitute a bodily re-writing, a corporeal response to and against the script—a script constantly formed and de-formed through its performances.
The rhythmic motions of the mouth-as-instrument form a responsive relation to and against the voice; they shape and motivate its inflections. The voice never becomes the individual’s voice, formalized by the subjective “I.” The voice never departs from the activity of its making. Characterizing the voice as the mark of the individual (I) is already interpretive, already reductive, for it creates a summary of the individual, labels it a manifestation of “difference” (the catchphrase of post-modernism), and subsequently neglects all the transient mechanisms and movements constantly breaking and re-constituting that image labeled as the individual “voice” (look, for example, at the writing of the philosopher Adriana Cavarero).
The Mouth refuses the personal pronoun, I (hence the title, Not I). This mouth in fact belongs to the “girl” spoken of, the “girl” who herself cannot speak until she is de-humanized, reduced to a mouth and made instrumental to language. By the Mouth’s account, the psyche or subject of “girl” inhibits her ability to articulate speech. The Mouth presents a figure that comes up against the limits of the psyche, a figure continually refusing the personal subject. The speech of Mouth, which is in fact the speech of “girl,” is only possible to the extent that the Mouth is continually distanced from its identification as “girl.” The repeated disappearance of the subjected “girl” and the interpreting actress motivates performance.
(Clip from Yehudi Menuhin’s performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto)
In this video, Menuhin performs without his own added commentary—the flexibility of the head, the shoulder, and the violin are integrated into his movements. The articulating movements of Billie Whitelaw’s mouth are here analogous (or perhaps homologous) to the arms and hands of the violinist. Mouth subverts signifying language–the falsely secured relationship between the phenomenal and the ideal (signified and signifier)–by the overwhelming display of an instrumental mouth, by the impulsive movements that shape its voice. Menuhin refuses signifying, interpretive gestures by the stoicism of his expression, by the stillness of his own mouth, by the drastic motion of his arms and the instrument.
The isolation of the articulate parts necessary for performance challenge codified interpretive meanings. Menuhin’s demonstration with the plastic violin begins to sketch the limits of the artist’s technical knowledge (in contrast to the limitless combinatory practice of performance), demonstrating specific and functional axes of movement.
In order to perform more actively, these functional, technical movements become studied critically, isolated by the transparency of the instrument, by the perspective of the camera, by the stage light and the harness. The musician’s identity or the identity of “girl” becomes secondary to the postures or movements that constitute the performance of bodily parts. These movements do not belong to any one interpreting subject, but are rather critically isolated and actively integrated by many bodies.
Difference, mobility, and freedom arise through and against these transparencies and technical restrictions (the apparatus that blinds and restrains the actress, the technical system that limits and guides Menuhin’s movements). It is a study of the movements and mechanisms arising from the technical, not the hermeneutic, which may be seen as a starting point for the artist-engineer.