Performative Gestures
and the Performance of 
Takemitsu's 'Equinox for guitar'

by Fabricio Mattos

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Definition of Performative Gestures

It is of vital importance, if one intends to research performative gestures, to provide a definition which combines clarity of intention with conciseness. However, when researching such a wide field as musical performance, allowances must be made in terms of use and reach of such a definition. The relationship between audience and performer has changed dramatically over the past few centuries. As we can see in the chapter approaching the Performing Stage, this relationship developed from ritual to paid performances in about twenty centuries, and musical performance has never ceased to be an event with certain social significance. In the past century only we have seen the idea of musical performer changing from a court-owned professional, to paid ‘independent’ artist, followed by ‘recording artist’, and finally returning to ‘performing artist’, but with the pungent omnipresence of video-recorded performances. With these shifts in audiences’ tastes guided by either social or technological upheavals, the definition of musical performance has also been constantly readapted. In our 21st-century reality, it is almost unimaginable to spend a whole day without watching some video on internet, either recorded or streamed live.

Following these shifts in the definition of musical performance, everything connected to it has also been constantly reconsidered, such as the performance space (stage) and the significance of artists within society. 20th-century musicians such as John Cage and Igor Stravinsky flooded audiences with new ideas, not just linked to the technicalities of music, but also to its actual significance or superfluity. New uses for music started to emerge, as well as new interdisciplinary events in which music was consumed along with other arts forms. Nowadays we can count on exciting ensembles, festivals, and projects specialized in rethinking music-making and accessibility, playing not just contemporary repertoire, but also music from many centuries ago. The field of performance and the performance space are changing constantly, and so is the attitude of the performer. At least, it should.

The general concept of gesture has been widely discussed in fields such as Semiotics, Psychology, Drama, Anthropology and Neuroscience, among others. There has never been a clear and unique definition of gesture because its meaning changes according to the social situation in which it is adopted, or to how it is approached. [1]  Dramatists have collaborated for many centuries in such matters, and in this passage of his book A General History of Stage (1766) William Chetwood summarizes the importance of an accurate approach to gestures by actors:


I think Quintilian says, all the Parts of the Body assist the Speaker; but the Hands speak without a Tongue, supplicate, threaten, call, dismiss, provoke, show every Passion of the Soul. The Hands are the general Language of Mankind, and we need no Grammar but Nature to understand it. So by their awkward use upon the Stage, we may make the Serious into Ridicule. [2]


Bearing all that in mind, and joining with the contemporary difficulty in finding definitions, ‘gestures in music performance’ has been presented as a new challenge in academic circles. Practical musicians do not always think about their métier, perhaps because contemporary life offers conceptual problems but does not offer the time needed to solve them, or at least to try. Some musicians have accepted the challenge and started working with musical gesture in relation to a number of topics of human knowledge, from Cognitive Neuroscience to Semiotics to Philosophic trends. As expected, the concept of musical gesture, after being accessed from many viewpoints, is manifold. However, this multiplicity of approaches, perhaps contrary to what one might expect, enriches even more the palette of possibilities and uses of music in the 21st century. As Marc Leman and Rolf Inge Godøy write in the first chapter of the book Musical Gestures. Sound, movement, and meaning:


Although the many significations of the word gesture may appear to be problematic, they are, at the same time, advantages in that they provide us with a very bold and interdisciplinary basis for reflecting upon what meaningful music-based interactions are all about. [3]


One fact that can be used as a strong argument when attempting to define gestures in music performance is that musical events have never ceased to be accessible to all kinds of people. Even when musicians were sponsored by courts or the Church to play or compose for private events, music happened freely on streets and taverns, being widely spread through the verses of troubadours or danced to the sounds of guitars and drums. Nowadays, when walking through a station or sitting in a park suddenly musicians start to play, and this has been considered as a normal way of consuming music for many centuries in many parts of the world. Thus it is essential to consider music as part of the environment when trying to find a holistic definition for musical gesture. It is also important for such a definition to be more convincing than a mere idea of gesture as a ‘body movement carrying some meaning’. Many conceptual problems arise from such a simplistic reading, and one of them lies in the realm of human perception. It is known that meaning in both verbal and non-verbal languages can change depending on the social, cultural, and even political context in which one experiences any kind of performance. In a broad sense, such performances can be a speech, a Noh play, a mimetic show, or a music concert. When considering gestures only as ‘expressive movements’, we create a frame in which any movements perceived by the audience (also in a broad sense) are considered gestures. In the strict field of music performance, we cannot consider that every single movement of the performer is a meaningful gesture, even though minute movements that do not carry any meaning for one person may sometimes offer a life-changing experience for another. The relative problems in defining gesture in musical performance start here. Another fact to be considered is that every new performance offers different experiences in regard to the perception of movements, and indeed this should be taken into consideration in order to create a highly communicative event. Another way of pursuing this definition is to consider the performer’s intentions rather than the audience’s perception. If a performer, during his/her performance, gives tangible cues that gestures have been previously prepared and are meaningful, perhaps audiences will perceive every single gesture in this way. Although more convincing from the performer’s point of view, this approach could, however, generate superficially perceived performances, carrying a predictable and unconvincing plasticity. For all those reasons, a definition of gestures in musical performance should include the performer’s intentions realized through gestures as well as the results that those intentions might well achieve in the audience’s understanding of the musical message. Equally important is to differentiate gestural preparation from choreography. While the latter deals with sequences of movements with a clear design in space and time, the former aims to use movements to create extemporal gestural units, which can carry meaning in themselves or, as previously said, accompany the musical performance in different ways.

According to some research, musical gestures also incorporate the movements of the perceiver moving along and in response to music, and also composers’ patterns which have meaningful structural or conceptual roles within some specific musical situation. For this reason the term musical gestures will no longer be used in the present work, being replaced by performative gestures, as it is specifically linked to the gestures effectively realized by the performer. Again contrary to some recent research, in the present work gestures are not considered only as hand movements (even though hands are of utmost importance on this matter), but the general spectrum of movements realized by the upper body of the guitarist when playing in classical position. Therefore, all possible movements of guitarist’s arms and upper body may result in gestures. [4]

As many attempts have been made to define performative gestures (even using the term musical gestures), Albrecht Schneider insightfully offers a synthesis of the main definitions by important researchers as well as his own:


According to Thomas Fay (1974), a musical gesture is a musically and perceptually meaningful unit that is the result of a listener’s segmentation process. A musical gesture thereby may exhibit properties known from Gestalt theory (e.g. completeness, distinctiveness, conciseness) yet the aspect of movement and temporal-dynamic organization is often of special importance. Gesture in music accordingly has been described as a “holistic concept, synthesising what theorists would analyse separately as melody, harmony, rhythm and meter, tempo and rubato, articulation, dynamics and phrasing into an indivisible whole” (Hatten 2001). Gesture further has been regarded as “a movement that can express something” and as “an expressive movement that embodies a special meaning” (Iazzetta 2000). In general, gestures in music can be viewed as patterns of elements grouped in such a way as to appear to the listener as being highly integrated into coherent and meaningful wholes, which make up expressive units or building blocks. [5]


The Gestalt connection is of great importance, as in consideration of the fact that gestures should be part of ‘coherent and meaningful wholes’, which can only be achieved through the performer’s very detailed and informed preparation of the dynamic content of the performance. 

One of the most successful attempts in defining performative gestures after considering these and many other problems that arise from different approaches is again from Leman & Godøy's book:


Therefore, it may be worth the effort to try another approach to defining gesture, namely one that is more focused on the way in which humans interact with their environment from the perspective of embodied cognition. In this approach, gesture can be defined as a pattern through which we structure our environment from the viewpoint of actions. Gesture conceived that way is thus a category, or structural feature, of our perception-action system. In this approach, gesture is both a mental and a corporeal phenomenon. [6]


Considering gestures as ‘mental and corporeal phenomenon’, it is clearer that we should define gestures from both performer’s and audience’s point of view. It is also safe to say that, as mental phenomena and part of the subjective realm of perception, we admit the inefficiency of any attempt to use gestures in performance that will be immediately understood by all audiences, as each single person has different mental capacities and life experiences that will allow or not to comprehend all messages (verbal or non-verbal) being conveyed in any situation. 

After considering a great number of attempts to define performative gestures, it is important for the present research to be based on one that covers not just general aspects but specific ones concerning the spectrum of actions involved in guitar playing. Another intention here, which also goes against the idea of ‘gesture as movement’, is to establish that in musical performance sometimes it is necessary not to add movements but to get rid of them, as in some cases it is more convenient to assert when not to use gestures rather than applying some that are too ambiguous or too obscure. When observing a performer on stage, the perception of gestures is augmented in comparison to daily situations, and unnecessary movements are often prejudicial to good communication of musical content. The attitude of ‘not acting’ is understood as the non-intervention of any kind of physical action in the musical text, letting it exist by itself and acknowledging the artistic sense of a mainly sonorous message to be perceived. [7]

The original definition of performative gestures to be used in this research is:


Performative gestures are performer’s pre-conceived movements or held positions with a clear design in space and time, which can support, convey, or facilitate the communication of musical messages from the performance space to the audience.


Even though this is not a final definition for performative gestures, it addresses the necessary issues that will be further explored in the present work concerning typology of gestures in guitar performance, as well as in general considerations about the stage and overall perception of performance. The only idea that can perhaps be generalized is that, in terms of gestures as well as in many other forms of human communication, the simpler, fewer, and clearer, the better.

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[1]  Gestalt psychologists, for instance, include gesture in a broader sense than semioticians, and anthropologists and neuroscientists often disagree on the subject of gesture as a social or mental construct.
[2]  Chetwood, William. A General History of the Stage. (London, 1749) 
[3]  Leman, M. & Godøy, R. I. et al. Musical Gestures: Sound, Movement and Meaning. (Routledge. 2010). pg 08.
[4]  A specific notation for performative gestures will not be provided in the present work, however the author is currently working on the possible application of Labanotation for these purposes, as well as developing collaborations with composers with this matter in mind.
[5]  Leman M. & R. I. Godøy et al. Musical Gestures: Sound, Movement and Meaning. pg 74.
[6]  Ibid. pg 08.
[7]  N.A. In situations and styles in which the musical rhetoric is systematically constructed, by composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach, an extra care should be taken when applying gestures, and the ‘non-action’ attitude should be considered; in certain situations in which counterpoint, for instance, is less important, e.g. harmonic sequences, slow movements with single lines, and implied counterpoint, or articulation in which the body acts as an important agent, ‘technical’ and ‘psychoacoustic’ gestures can support the musical message (please see the definition of such gestures in the chapter ‘Typology of Performative Gestures’). Even though this is a subject that would require very detailed research, watching musicians such as Trevor Pinnock or Rachel Podger playing can be of great help in understanding how the body as a whole can actively participate in the communication in Baroque music.