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

by Fabricio Mattos

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Typology of Performative Gestures

It is necessary now, in order to increase comprehension and deepen the subject of performative gestures, to categorize them into different levels of application. Doing so raises many questions which cannot be easily resolved objectively. The first difficulty is to find the right terms that will better portray the inner meaning of each gestural situation. Secondly there is the complication caused by the transmutation of gestures according to each performance situation, which may weaken any previous typological definition and make these same categories even more arguable and relative. And finally, such a typological approach tends to be academically relevant, but somewhat confusing when put into practice.

To resolve the first of these matters, it was necessary to carefully assess the generation and the perception of each gestural situation, i.e. it was necessary to portray, verbally and objectively, the subjective and abstract attitudes and postures that are involved in guitar playing. These definitions could perhaps be part of the domain of Semiotics, however the non-verbal and subjective nature of conception and reception of the performative signs make them harder to categorize by simply differentiating gestures from emblems, as is the usual practice in Semiotics. Moreover music performers deal directly with the question of the stage (or performance space), which acts as an agent of modification and perhaps magnification of gestures, a matter that can involve, in our brains, the inherent primitive conceptions of performance as a ritual, and which can perhaps thereby process the audiovisual information perceived from a performance area differently from those of everyday life. As previously said, more research on this matter will be done in the near future, and it is not within the scope of the present work to analyse performative gestures in scientific light.

The second problem concerning the changes of meaning of gestures depending on various situations is more easily resolved by admitting from the very beginning the highly subjective character of the typology here presented. It is also imperative to provide examples of these transmutations in practice, using videoed and printed excerpts of Equinox and other pieces to make clear when they happen. 

Finally, there is the problem of the practicability of gestural categories in guitarist’s real life. After quick research with colleagues, I realized that performers do not usually consider categories of gestures when practising, but generally apply what they call ‘intuitive’ gestures. The problem is that what is called ‘intuition’ in this case is a series of movements that are part of the performer’s own personal experiences and learned patterns, which in many cases end up resulting in confusing and misleading gestures in terms of a holistic (or Gestaltic, if one prefers) artistic perception. Bearing that in mind, such categories can help performers to organize their studies and identify certain moments in which they automatically apply some kind of gesture. It will hopefully generate a self-critical behaviour towards the ‘intuitive’ approach to gestures in performance, making clear how frail our musical messages can become when applying gestures without a previous analysis of the various movements that make them up. 

There is yet another problem that arises from the practicability of such typology: considering the previous definition of performative gestures as being previously prepared by the performer, what about movements that can be perceived by the audience as gestures but initially unintended by the performer? These are simply not considered in the present research, as they belong to the realm of audience perception only, without any implications for the preparation of a piece. As my research is suggesting, it is advisable that the performer keeps the performative gestures under constant control, thus minimizing the possibility of alien gestures during the performance. This may sound a bit doctrinaire at first, but when one takes the times to consciously include performatic gestures in the process of preparation of a piece, one realizes how many extra movements were happening, making the already tough task of playing an instrument even tougher; here, again, practice can justify theory, and what can be at first perceived as doctrinaire, becomes organically inserted into one's daily practice and will most probably take almost immediate effect in one's public performances. 

Traditional Eastern instruments, such as shakuhachi, sho and shen, have sets of gestures directly associated with their playing. Shakuhachi performers, for instance, often mention the impossibility of achieving determined expressive features without these gestures. For some reason music performance in Western countries became more concerned with technical perfection and intellectuality rather than sound (in a broad, conceptual sense) and the ritualistic character of the stage. Technique in traditional Eastern instruments is a broader concept, and gestures are embodied into the instrumentalist’s basic movements. 

Performances often involve noises, relative pitches, and are usually connected to natural phenomena or magical plots, particularly in theatrical situations. [1] 

In the video below are included some samples of performances of Eastern instruments:

In Japan, particularly, performing traditional instruments requires a very strict process of training not just from the theoretical and technical point of view, but also in terms of the presence of the performers and their artistic message on stage; shakuhachi, shamisen, or tsuzumi players, for instance, are prepared in such a way that the amplitude and deepness of their movements are highly controlled, and are coordinated with the group in the case of an ensemble performance, such as in the following video of the percussion Ensemble Fujizakura:

In terms of Western instruments, many categories of gestures have been academically established in the past years by a handful of researchers, such as sound-accompanying gestures; sound-producing gestures; sound-facilitating gestures; communicative gestures; and modification gestures, among others. As one can promptly realize, such a number of categories can be confusing and misleading, all adding in subjectiveness to the already subjective definition of gesture. As we could see in our attempt to define performative gesture, this is a broad and infinitely debateable concept varying from hands-only movements to the involuntary movements of listeners in response to performers’ actions. During the process of the present research and in my work as a performer in diverse situations, many categories of performative gestures have been subject to careful scrutiny, both conceptual and practical. At the end some categories have been considered useful for the present work, others arguably useful, and others absolutely reproachable in their very conceptual foundations. 

A good example of the varied quality of information provided regarding types of gestures is a paragraph from an article by Alexander Refsum et al., in which there is an attempt to provide a clear typology of performative gestures (here referred to as ‘musical gestures’), also based in other typological definitions by other authors: [2]


To understand more about the functions of many musical gestures, it is easy to discern four functional categories of musical gestures, based on works by Giget (1987), Cadoz (1988), Delalande (1988), and Wanderley & Depalle (2004); namely, sound-producing gestures, communicative gestures, sound-facilitating gestures, and sound-accompanying gestures.

  • Sound-producing gestures are those that effectively produce sound. They can be further subdivided into gestures of excitation and modification. Sound-producing gestures are called instrumental gestures in (Cadoz 1988), and affective gestures in Delalande (1988).                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
  • Communicative gestures are intended mainly for communication. (...) such movements can be subdivided into performer-performer or performer-perceiver types of communication. Communicative gestures are called semiotic gestures in (Cadoz & Wanderley 2000). Several of these can also be considered gestures in the way Kendon (2004) and McNeill (1992) use the term.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           
  • Sound-facilitating support the sound-producing gestures in various ways. (...) such gestures can be subdivided into support, phrasing, and entrained gestures. Sound-facilitating gestures are called accompanying gestures in (Delalande 1988), non-obvious performer gestures in (Wanderley 1999), and ancillary gestures in (Wanderley & Depalle 2004).                                                                                                                                   
  • Sound-accompanying gestures are not involved in the sound production itself, but follow the music. They can be sound-tracing, i.e. following the contour of sonic elements (Godoy et al. 2006a), or they can mimic the sound-producing gestures (Godoy et al. 2006b).


Although the author considers the task of creating a typology of performative gestures an ‘easy’ one, he is not successful in the sense that it does not provide enough clarification, either about the terms used to define each type or in the definitions per se. For instance, the sentence ‘communicative gestures are intended mainly for communication’ does not provide enough clarity of information, as it is a generic approach to both communication and typology. Another problem arises from the constant link between gestures and sounds. 

As performative gestures are extemporal signifying attitudes formed by one or more movements, it would be more appropriate to link movements with sound production instead of gestures. If gestures are to be linked to sound output, it should be with analogous concepts, such as phrasing. We could thus, generate the following relationship:

Movements  =>  Sounds

Gestures  =>  Phrasing

Alexandra Pierce, on the other hand, provides examples of gestural situations completely related to subjective and extemporal concepts such as phrasing and rhythmic vitality, but with no concern to typological description or further conceptual explanation of each situation: [3]


There are as many as ten musical elements with a distinct kinetic quality that can be vitalized by movement.

1. The relative harmonic completion of phrases and sections and the finality of a piece’s cadential tonic are enacted by a balanced, alert, and muscularly toned resting into the sound of resolution and completion;

2. The continuity within melody is enacted by sustained, smooth arm movement that follows its ups and downs with precision and with a fluency made possible by the flexible spine;

3. The deft initiation (ictus) of both beat and measure, together with their resilient follow-through, is rendered by weight-throws of arms and hands grounded in a stable base;

4. Coalescence into chords and middleground rhythmic vitality can be explored in a restrained stepping of the roots of deeper level harmonies to articulate the durational pattern of their progression;

5. The span of phrase (the elastic relationship between structural levels) reveals itself in the interaction between weighted, anchoring core movement (of the trunk and legs) and lithe peripheral movement (of hand or mouth);

6.Climax, the organizing peak of a phrase, can be experienced as the furthest outward stretch of a hand extending open or an arm drawing a large arc in space;

7. Reverberation allows gestures to flow through appropriately mobile joints, especially between phrases – to rest into the very actions that produce the flow of music;

8. Juncture, the stillness between phrases, is embodied by gestures that shape the ending of one phrase, release (ever so briefly), and shape the beginning of the next;

9. The affective life of a motif is characterised by a spontaneous, full-bodied gestural response;

10. Tones of voice, the shifting affects in passing musical events, are named with adjectives or adverbs, said aloud as if in the heightened expression of spontaneous speaking. Distilled and dramatized the colour of the vocal sound, along with the corollary face and hand gestures that accompany speaking, bring to awareness the aroused feelings of the music.


Later on in the same book she provides more details about her actual concerns that, although clarifying her general intent, still do not provide any kind of typological information: [4]


Let me anticipate a concern. The kinetic work discussed here does not have as its performance goals broad weavings or exaggerated gestures. There is a range of possibility as to how ‘embodiment’ will evolve for a player. For instance, Vladimir Horowitz or Jascha Heifetz are quite still as they play. Movement beyond fingers, wrists, and forearms is subtle, hardly noticeable, but it is there. On the other hand, ebullient expression in playing movement, as seen with Yo-Yo Ma or with the pianist Lang Lang, when it is not mere spectacle, can shape sound convincingly and be exhilarating to both player and audience. To free and extend movement in rehearsal so that the player becomes permeated by the music, imbued with what Emile Jacques-Dalcroze called plasticity, is part of coming more fully to sense a piece. It is valuable for everyone, no matter what their performance style.


Although she characterizes gestures as not being part of her general intent, according to the present definitions what she calls ‘movement’ would be exactly performative gestures, without any artistically unjustified exaggeration and following the simple and clear design stated before. The idea that is most connected to the definitions and typology of performative gestures is the one stating that even performers who clearly have a more subtle playing style use gestures (or movements as she calls them). Performative gestures as ‘mere spectacle’ are as far from the present work’s concerns as they are from hers, as these gestures do not have as their main purpose the communication of artistic messages, but rather a simplistic and somewhat vulgar approach to performance that has been often enough criticized in the course of History, from Aristotle to the present day.

After carefully considering the general guidelines of simplicity, clarity, and practicality central to my work, and closely considering the guitarist’s métier, I established three categories in which I considered most aspects of performative gestures could be included, and all of which arise from the duality between movement x representation. It is important to bear in mind the range of possible interpretation of gestures from the purely functional to purely symbolic, already stated by François Delalande in 1988 [5]. Within this conceptual frame, one can further argue that some gestures are generated simply by the need to move the body in automated movements to produce the very first element of music performance, the sound; other gestures arise from the inherent and unavoidable theatricality of every performance, generating signs that are not directly related to the musical material; and the third is one that bridges both categories, seeking to find the equivalent in gestures of the musical ideas themselves, in order to support their conveyance. 

From these generalisations arise the three following categories, namely technical gestures, symbolic gestures, and ancillary gestures. As previously stated in the present work and by other researchers, there are many situations in which these categories overlap, revealing that the threshold of each of them in reality is not always clearly defined. A few of these situations will also be listed at the end of this chapter, under the subcategory mixed gestures. It is important to note that the listed gestures are not exhaustive, and applications can vary depending on the performer’s intentions. However, it is possible to illustrate more clearly the categories of the commonly used gestures, most of which will be applied in the final performance of Takemitsu’s Equinox.

Technical Gestures

Technical gestures emerge from the instrument’s technique, and assume a secondary role adding visually to the musical understanding of the piece. Instrument’s technique in this case are all the necessary movements realized by the performer in order to achieve sound results that will be part of a bigger and more complex musical idea. Godøy (2008) called these gestures ‘sound-producing gestures’, and stated that they consist of: prefix (movement leading to the contact point); excitation (contact with, and energy transfer to the instrument); and suffix (movement leading away from the contact point). [6]

These gestures are a reinterpretation of the established technical palette of the guitar, showing the intrinsic expressivity of movements that are most of time automatically learned and realized. This category can be related to ‘sound-producing gestures’, as mentioned before, although there is a conceptual discrepancy that has also been mentioned.

Into this category are included: rasgueados, vibratos, glissandos [7], Bartok pizzicato, percussion, shifts, RH (right hand) positions, and others. From technical gestures, we could identify three subcategories, according to their amplitudes (general spectrum of movements in space):

  • Big amplitude: rasgueados, Bartok pizzicatos, and long glissandos;
  • Medium amplitude: short glissandos, percussion/tambora [8] with RH; strumming with thumb (RH);
  • Small amplitude: vibratos, LH ornaments;

Symbolic Gestures

Symbolic gestures are expressive body signs that carry intention and significance according to social and cultural conventions, but are not directly connected to the musical content. They are also called ‘semiotic’ gestures by some authors; however, as the term ‘semiotic’ carries in it a set of meanings and specific uses, the term ‘symbolic’ was favoured here. These are highly stylized gestures that could lead a performance to the extreme of superficial theatricality, and should be applied carefully. Due to the necessity of some kind of semiotic preparation and high level of attention to details, performers should not expect a high rate of success when applying these gestures.

The level of significance of such gestures can range from ‘purely symbolic’ (carrying the full meaning in itself) to ‘structurally relevant’. In the latter one can find possibilities of, for instance, creating a musical unity through gestures, particularly in circular musical structures as found in Takemitsu’s works. If in reappearances of key-chords, for instance, the same gesture is used, it can help the audience to identify the idea of return, even if slightly altered.

In Kabuki theatre, symbolic gestures are often used to express a variety of situations, such as traveling long distances, representation of objects, or even be an important part of the understanding of storylines. Onnagata [9] actor Bandō Tamasaburō V is widely acknowledged as a master of clarity and cohesion for his symbolic gestures on stage, creating an important connection between performer, audience, and plot.

Bandō Tamasaburō applying symbolic gestures during a Kabuki play.

In Equinox, two moments can be highlighted in which such gestures can be used. In terms of purely symbolic level, the harmonics on   bar 66 can be played with a gesture of the LH which imitates a flower blooming, thus relating to the spring equinox. [10] 

   Equinox. Bar 66.

Another possibility for the use of symbolic gestures in Equinox is to express the circular structure. As exemplified below, the idea of return can be fully understood in bars 02-03; 14-15; and 70-71, where the same chords appear, with minor modifications in rhythms and dynamics. 

                                                                                                                                         Equinox. Bars 02-03. 


                                                                                                                                          Equinox. Bars 14-15.


        Equinox. Bars 70-71.


Ancillary Gestures

Ancillary gestures support the musical message trying to match the visual content with it. 

It can be subdivided into two groups: sound-accompanying gestures (SA) and psychoacoustic gestures (PA).

In the first subgroup, sound-accompanying gestures, are included gestures that are intended to follow actual changes in sound and its subsequent rearrangements (phrasing, dynamics, etc). Some examples are gestures that signal the climax and resolution of a phrase, and the suspension of an appoggiatura.

Psychoacoustic gestures offer the opportunity of conveying musical intentions purely through gesture, inducing the spectator to perceive the performer’s intention purely through a combination of movement, expectation, and imagination. A rough parallel could be created between the mental completion of the message by the audience and the Kanizsa illusion, which proves that the brain completes missing information to match previous experiences or ordinary shapes.

                                                                                                                                          Kanizsa triangle

These physical and mental attitudes also help the performer to achieve some particular textures during performance, such as changes in sound and dynamics, which could not be achieved through regular technique usually due to physical impossibility of either the instrument or the body, or even both. A way of applying this concept to the sound production, important feature of guitar performances, is to change the position and adding movements before actually playing the note, creating a purely gestural preparation and changing the perception of the texture of the next notes:

The examples below represent some particular moments in Equinox  when such gestures could be used, in order to convey very specific illusionary effects.

                                                                                                                                          Equinox. Bar 13. 



                                                                                                                                       Equinox. Bar 67.

Mixed Gestures

As aforementioned, some performative gestures can be included in more than one category, and for these gestures is attributed the name mixed gestures. Due to the self-explanatory character of this category, the best way of understanding it is by identifying practical situations in which they occur in existing pieces of the traditional guitar repertoire. 

One of the most typical mixed gestures present in guitar performance comes from the glissando technique. The glissando adds a sliding effect between two notes played on the same string, usually with the same finger. 

However, if the guitarist moves the elbow towards the chest slightly before moving the hands, it is possible to create a very specific gesture often used to increase the expressive character. 

In this case, we can say that this gesture, which was initially classified as technical, assumes the character of ancillary gesture, with a psychoacoustic character (PA), as the actual sound does not change, but the perception of it does. In the following videos it is possible

to compare an excerpt of the same piece when a glissando is played as atechnical gesture only, and afterwards as a                                 technical-ancillary  (PA)  gesture.

Another example of a mixed gesture is the vibrato. It is a very common expressive technical attitude in practically all string instruments; however, on the guitar it assumes a special character. As the natural sustain of the guitar’s sound does not allow the performer to hold the same note for longer than few seconds, the presence of vibrato for longer than the actual length of the note would be unjustifiable.

It is possible, though, to keep the gesture of the vibrato even after the sound has ended, creating the illusion of a sustained sound that lasts longer than it physically does. Thus, the vibrato may sometimes be considered technical-ancillary (PA) gesture, as its function is transformed from movements that change the frequency of the sound waves to others that create the illusion of its continuity.

Finally, another gesture to be considered is the damping of strings by the RH near the bridge, which causes the sound to stop, thus allowing silence to take place.

This can be considered a technical gesture, as it results from movements that cause changes in sound; however, they may assume a structural character at the end of sections or ending a piece, thus creating a sense of closure.  In these situations the ‘damping’ gestures carry meaning in themselves, therefore being classified as technical-symbolic gestures. 


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[1]  NA: Suffice to say that music is, as it was in Greek theatre, indispensable part of the plot in Kabuki and Noh plays, for instance. Actors interact directly with the music (not with musicians) and sounds and noises are considered as equally important. Theatrical performances require from musicians certain gestural attitudes in order to produce determined expressive features, even though they are not the main agents of generation of the artistic message.

[2]  Leman, M. & Godøy, R. I. et al. Musical Gestures: Sound, Movement and Meaning. p. 23.

[3]  Pierce, A. Deepening Musical Performance through Movement. (Indiana University Press, 2007). p. 03.

[4]  Ibid. p. 04.

[5]  Leman, M. & Godøy, R.I. et al. Musical Gestures: Sound, Movement and Meaning. p. 18.

[6]  Ibid. p. 22.

[7]  Two types of glissandos are considered: long glissandos, with slides of five frets or more; and short glissandos, with slides of up to four frets.

[8] Tambora is a special kind of percussion produced hitting on strings near the bridge, which still allows to recognize the pitch of notes or chords.

[9] Onnagata is a Kabuki actor specialized in female roles, who aims to capture the essence of women rather than simply imitating them.

[10]  Takemitsu wrote this piece in Tokyo, in March of 1994 (Spring time in Japan). As the composer was intensely moved by nature to compose his pieces, the image of flowers blooming (particularly cherry trees) must have been very present at the time of its composition.