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

by Fabricio Mattos

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The performing stage and its influence on perception of gestures

The relevance of the stage as an agent of modification on perception of gestures cannot be underestimated in any kind of performance. This means that what is produced on stage in terms of gestures is interpreted in a different way compared to everyday life because the stage as performance space is the result of religious, political, and social changes suffered during thousands of years by human civilizations. As William Chestwood says at the beginning of his book A General History of the Stage, from 1766:

The Stage is almost as old as the Sacred Inspiration of the Muse.

Performers should bear in mind that, when playing in concert halls, we artistically inhabit a space that originally belonged to the theatrical arts in performances that included music, dance, and rhetoric mixed in meaningful events; and when playing in open spaces, such as in the streets or other venues that were not constructed with the primary intention of hosting artistic performances, we are creating a performance situation which refers psychologically to times of humans gathering for rituals and magical acts. In both cases, a primitive mental construction of such situations might be naturally attached to our definition and perception of these events, and such perception might be influenced by social constructions acquired later in History.

An interesting aspect of the presence of musicians on stage is that music often appeared in many different civilizations primarily as accompaniment for rituals, to either excite or intensify its sense of spirituality and religiosity, and some time later started to be similarly used in theatrical plays. Ceremonial spaces (or what we could call primitive performance space) were recognized by all participants in such acts, and this notion of space and time in such performances was widely respected from aborigines in Australia to African and South-American tribes. Considering this aspect of the history of performance, human societies have long ago agreed at some level that such performances were necessary, and that special places were an essential requisite for it to happen. The stage as a physical place is relatively new in human history, evolving from ancient civilizations to the present days, often representing aspects of the highly hierarchical character that performing activities assumed throughout History. As we have previously stated in this work, contemporary theatres and concert halls are basically the continuation of those developed for many centuries in both Western and Eastern cultures, and they act today, as in those times, as important cultural, religious, scientific, and political assets of different societies. With the human artistic output evolving from ancient religious rituals and primitive ceremonies to more complex and well-defined events, the performance space had to be updated accordingly to the needs of each society, influencing particularly the architecture which would allow these areas to be used by people according to their needs and beliefs.

Another important aspect that makes the stage an important agent in performance is the fact that it can also exist as a psychologically created space. Public performances are agreements between performers and audiences, in the sense that the latter knows that the message to be presented does not belong to their reality, but to the reality of the stage, which represents (or, to some extent, emulates) the fabric of another reality, one that is invisible, intangible, and only accessible through this special area. It is, indeed, a ‘mutual bond of the most mysterious and fundamental kind’, as states J. L. Styan. [1]  The performer is the one who will bring part of that specific world by using a space which both performer and audience agree is necessary for that performance to happen. In Western and Eastern cultures the evolution of the performing arts over centuries came in the form of street performances, public plays, or private events for a small number of attendants. Many other forms of performance were born and disappeared, but the need for representation was always present in many civilizations across different historical periods.

It is also important to draw some attention into the evolution of the human brain when approaching the influence of the stage on perception. It is known that the brain activates specific areas when it comes to spiritual beliefs, which have originated all kinds of performances; however, it is also known that such beliefs did not evolve alone, but ‘evolved along with other belief and social cognitive abilities'. [2] According to recent research, there is no single spot in the brain that corresponds to the experience of supernatural or spiritual presence, but diverse areas that act in accordance with many other factors; it is also proved that these parts of the brain constantly overlap and are activated by other functions, e.g. moral, cognitive, or basic survival. When analyzed under the specific criteria of the neuroscience of music, recent research show that, in experiencing music, the human brain actively engages different parts in order to process musical information. According to Daniel Levitin:


Musical activity involves nearly every region of the brain that we know about, and nearly every neural subsystem. Different aspects of the music are handled by different neural regions — the brain uses functional segregation for music processing, and employs a system of feature detectors whose job it is to analyze specific aspects of the musical signal, such as pitch, tempo, timbre, and so on.  [3]


It is thus hypothetically possible that the brain areas that evolved to create and interpret primitive rituals still have some influence on what we experience in live performances. It might also possible to hypothesize that the receiver’s brain processes actions performed on stage differently from everyday activities, and this assumption makes one wonder if the stage acts as some kind of ‘agent of modification’ when it comes to interpreting artistic messages. What one can empirically assert, though, is that performers often state how differently they experience abstract concepts such as time and space on stage, and audiences often experience the passing of time differently when watching a performance that they enjoy.

It seems that concepts such as the Japanese ma are somehow embodied to all performances, and are possibly one of the aesthetic concepts that arise from determined brain processes. Even though more research is required on this matter, we can infer that performative gestures are not processed by the brain as ‘non-performance’ situations, as they are part of a non-verbal language system connected to other higher or lower levels of information.

Perceptually, musical performances can be classified through both ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ processing, depending on which aspects are being analyzed. From the performers’ point of view, the elements that form the performance (e.g. sound, movements and their sub-groups) as a whole can be considered isolated from each other, eventually being put together to shape a performance; roughly speaking, this is how a ‘bottom-up’ classification would work. The ‘top-down’ analysis, on the other hand, can be applied in the case of considering the performance from the audience’s perspective. When watching a concert, for instance, an audience member processes the message based on more complex information, such as previous experiences, taste, and the social relevance of the event. From this perspective everything happening on stage is firstly perceived as a unit, and then dismantled into smaller parts, such as sound and movements. This is the reason that why, in my opinion, research in the area of performative gestures should first consider the role of gestures in a ‘top-down’ context (i.e. the audience’s point of view) and then move to more specific facts related to the making of any performance. For this reason in this research I considered the performance space as a major contributor to the perception of gestures, and its history in different contexts should be acknowledged by any performer who wants consciously to convey artistic messages to the highest standards. Sensu stricto, the performance of Equinox  by Toru Takemitsu can be considered in the light of the composer’s experiences with both Western and Eastern stages, and his lifelong attempt to first unite these traditions, subsequently setting them apart, and finally confronting them, creating unequaled echoes of his aesthetical quests for tradition and modernity within his music.

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[1] Styan, J. L. The English Stage. (Cambridge University Press, 1996). p. 01.

[2] Jordan Grafman, in interview to The Daily Mail. (Accessed on 22/09/2013).

[3] Levitin, D. This is your brain on music. (Plume, 2007). p. 83.