Monday, May 18, 2009

Composition and the Alexander Technique

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes
but in having new eyes.
-Marcel Proust

The Alexander Technique is well known in the performing arts. Frederick Matthias Alexander (1869-1955), a theatre actor who specialized in Shakespearian monologues, developed the technique in the course of his life due to some performing problems which stemmed from the wrong use of the self. In Alexander's particular case, his voice used to go out in performance due to unnecessary physical stress of the back and neck. So, after medical doctors couldn't find the real cause, and much less a solution to his condition, he began searching, not for answers, but for the problems. After pinpointing them, he realized that doing something about it would not help, on the contrary, it would sometimes make matters worse. So what did he do? Nothing.

Yes, nothing. If he was tensing his neck, he didn't do anything to attempt to relax it, he just thought to himself that he wanted his neck to be free. In this way he didn't do something that would trigger more unnecessary tension in other muscles so that his neck would be better, he just stopped interfering with the natural way we balance ourselves. The difference might seem meaningless, even just a semantic one, but it is huge.

So the Alexander Technique helps us achieve a better use of ourselves. A way in which body and mind blend into a whole. The difficult part is getting rid of old habits (We first make our habits, and then they make us. -John Dryden). We tend to believe that what we do is right (Everyone wants to be right, but no one stops to consider if their idea of right is right. -F. M. Alexander). Sometimes we think we're doing something we're not. We might feel we're standing straight, not realizing that our spine is bent a little to the side and our shoulders are just hanging to the front, collapsed.

Performing artists have benefited a great deal from Alexander's technique. The relation is of course obvious. The way an actor moves and speaks, and how a musician handles her instrument and produces sounds with it are a few examples. But how about in the way an artist creates an artistic piece/object? Can the Alexander Technique teach us something, about how not to interfere with ourselves for instance?

I'm not talking about the way someone sits at a desk or stands in front of a canvas. I'm talking about the creative process, about the means that bring about a result. Thought has plagued the way we conduct our lives since I-don't-know-when, and it has deprived us of an equally important part: physicality and the senses. Art has not escaped this privation. We tend to see much less of this problem in the plastic arts, since theirs is a very tangible and physical nature. Music, on the other hand, lends itself effortlessly to take the shape of thought. We don't just hear Beethoven, we sort of understand the philosophy within his works. We tend to think that Cage's indeterminate works set sounds free, allowing a more direct apprehension of them, but in reality the process of producing sounds was given the freedoms, not so much the sounds themselves. Thought has controlled a great deal of western music in recent centuries: counterpoint, sonata form, Beethoven, Wagner, (almost all Germans?), serialism, all the neo-musics, etc.

Of course we have some very fortunate exceptions: Mozart, Schubert, Chopin, Debussy, Stravinsky, Varèse, Scelsi, Xenakis, Ligeti, Feldman, Estrada... just to name some of the most remarkable ones. Mozart's physicality has had to suffer Beethoven's existential phylosophy. But of course, not everything in thought-propelled composers is just that. For instance, the way the aforementioned Beethoven goes to the depths of the piano and brings about an incredible resonance that blurs harmony and rhythm is just astounding.

But I shall not digress. Physicality, sound, movement. Three basics of music that are surprisingly not very acknowledged. I won't say that music is intangible, but since its tangibility lies in another field of apprehension it is somewhat more difficult to experience in those terms, hence its propensity to imitate linguistic and thought structures. But you won't be able to get near Mozart or Scelsi if you only look for harmonic progressions and eastern philosophies respectively. Here, sound and its movement go far beyond a symbolic arrangement.

Taking as a basis the union of mind and body in ourselves, we can consider the union of sound and movement in music. So, in these terms, what can the Alexander Technique bring to music? Or better: how can music be transformed by the Alexander Technique? By metaphor. Matthias Alexander developed his technique for purposes other than music creation. But he teaches us that the means are more important than the end itself (It is the means that determine the end. -H. E. Fosdick). Now of course we begin to think about our means of music-making. What habits do we have? Are they necessarily right or are they there because, well, they've always been there? Are we trying to reach something, just as Beethoven in his ninth symphony, just as most chord progressions? Are we trying to say something, therefore arranging sound in a way that its relations, not its qualities, finally give some meaning?

Now, besides addressing our means of music-making, we shall explore further into the means of the music itself. Is the music trying to get somewhere? Is it just a way to go from point A to point B? Is our music literally constipated from all the tension and frustration of not having a compelling musical equivalent to language anymore?

What is there between points A and B? Sound. And what is that? Air pressure, yes, but how do I perceive it? As matter in motion, or better, as evolving matter (read matter here as physical substance). Am I listening to the sounds themselves or to the intervals between them? The questionnaire can go on, and the further it goes, the more the music will change.

Am I advocating for a purely physical music? No. Thought is very important, and art has always shown that. But when its physical counterpart is forced to submit to it, the results rarely achieve artistic status. Do we have here then, with the Alexander Technique, the origins of a new style, or even better, as some scholars would like to say, a new compositional technique? No, no, no. It's just the attitude. And attitude is what we finally listen to in music.

(All quotes taken from How you stand, how you move, how you live: Learning the Alexander Technique by Missy Vineyard. Very good book with very good quotes in it.)

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