HIGH DEF­I­NI­TION

An un­usual fu­sion of mu­sic and dance il­lu­mi­nates both art forms, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - En Aten­dant,

SOME mu­sic that was writ­ten cen­turies ago can sound as if it were writ­ten this morn­ing. The forms may be ar­chaic — such as the pre-Re­nais­sance polyphony known as ars sub­til­ior — but the colours and ges­tures are pretty out there. This is mu­sic that strains against con­ven­tion, that sounds like the shock of the new. It’s the con­tem­po­rary art of the 14th cen­tury.

Sydney au­di­ences will have a chance to hear some of this mu­sic — and to see a chore­o­graphic in­ter­pre­ta­tion of it — with the visit of two Bel­gian com­pa­nies this week: Rosas, the con­tem­po­rary dance ensem­ble led by Anne Teresa De Keers­maeker, and vo­cal group Grain­delavoix.

In a col­lab­o­ra­tive piece called Ce­sena the dancers will sing and the singers will dance. De Keers­maeker, on the phone from her com­pany of­fice in Brussels, de­scribes it as an ‘‘ in­tense and har­mo­nious ex­pres­sive unity be­tween both singers and dancers’’.

De Keers­maeker founded Rosas 30 years ago, when she was in her early 20s, with a piece called Fase, to mu­sic by Amer­i­can min­i­mal­ist Steve Re­ich. Known as ATDK, she’s re­garded with some­thing close to rev­er­ence in the dance world: highly in­tel­lec­tual, au­di­bly im­pa­tient, daz­zlingly in­ven­tive.

Her com­pany has had a long as­so­ci­a­tion with the Avi­gnon Fes­ti­val in south­ern France: the pieces that she is bring­ing to Sydney, Ce­sena and En Aten­dant, both had their first per­for­mances there. And both pieces evoke the mu­si­cal at­mos­phere of ars sub­til­ior: songs writ­ten in Avi­gnon and a few other places dur­ing the late 14th cen­tury at the time of the pa­pal schism.

‘‘ The mu­sic is re­lated to the sec­ond half of the 14th cen­tury and the Mid­dle Ages: a cen­tury of 100 years of war be­tween France and Eng­land; of plague, when two-thirds of the Euro­pean pop­u­la­tion died; and it’s the pe­riod of the great Western schism when there was a pope in Avi­gnon and a pope in Rome, and me­dieval so­ci­ety is shat­tered,’’ De Keers­maeker says. De­spite the so­cial ruc­tions and bloody soil, there emerged an re­fined mu­sic with ... a high emo­tional ex­pres­sion’’.

De Keers­maeker’s mu­si­cal col­lab­o­ra­tor is Bjorn Sch­melzer, founder of the early-mu­sic vo­cal ensem­ble Grain­delavoix. He ex­plains that com­po­si­tions in the ars sub­til­ior style — the name, mean­ing ‘‘ sub­tle art’’, was coined by aca­demics in the 1960s — were given newly ex­pres­sive de­vices to add emo­tional mean­ing.

Com­posers such as So­lage and Philip­pus de Caserta — their manuscripts are com­piled in a col­lec­tion known as the Chan­tilly Codex — used syn­co­pa­tion, dis­so­nance, polyphony and long melis­matic melodies that were richly or­na­mented. It’s the new ex­pres­sive po­ten­tial that makes this mu­sic sound so con­tem­po­rary.

‘‘ Like all the big song­writ­ing tra­di­tions, [ ars sub­til­ior] was about de­spair, it was about love, it was about the lack of love, the melan­choly, and about l’amour de loin, the courtly love, the love from afar,’’ Sch­melzer says.

‘‘ These con­cepts were in­vented in the 12th, 13th cen­tury in Western Europe, com­ing from the Ara­bic art of courtly love. You could say it was a very old-fash­ioned art that in the 14th cen­tury was al­ready two or three cen­turies old. But they were rein­vented, re­cy­cled some­how in new pos­si­bil­i­ties of com­pos­ing.’’

It was thought that ars sub­til­ior com­po­si­tions, with three or four sep­a­rate mu­si­cal lines, were too com­plex for singers to sing: that ‘‘ ex­tremely in­ten­sity of they were an ide­alised or purely in­stru­men­tal mu­sic. Sch­melzer — a stu­dent of eth­no­mu­si­col­ogy and an­thro­pol­ogy — rejects that no­tion. In Ce­sena, all parts of the songs by So­lage, Philip­pus de Caserta and oth­ers are sung, and not only by the trained singers of Grain­delavoix but by dancers in the Rosas ensem­ble too. Sch­melzer founded Grain­delavoix in 1999, tak­ing the name from the ti­tle of an essay by lit­er­ary the­o­rist Roland Barthes: the ‘‘ grain of the voice’’ here refers to the his­tory and tex­ture in­her­ent in a singer’s in­stru­ment.

As seen and heard on YouTube, the dancers and singers in Ce­sena don’t dis­guise the per­son­al­i­ties of their vo­cal cords. This is openthroated, un­var­nished singing. It’s as if the high pol­ish of op­er­atic bel canto has been sanded away, re­veal­ing new colours un­der­neath. ‘‘ Mu­si­col­o­gists very much an­a­lyse this mu­sic from writ­ten scores, from the no­ta­tion, and not work­ing from the sounds of this mu­sic,’’ Sch­melzer says.

‘‘ I think this mu­sic is re­ally made to be sung. For Ce­sena, we are work­ing with singers, and this mu­sic is done in an a cap­pella way, with­out in­stru­ments, only voices.

‘‘ My ap­proach to this old song is not some high­brow in­tel­lec­tual ap­proach but is more an ap­proach like avant-garde mu­sic. We tried a lot of dif­fer­ent tech­niques, far be­yond the bor­ders of clas­si­cal mu­sic or bel canto tech­niques [of the] 18th and 19th cen­turies . . . Bel canto is re­ally a limit of the body and the voice. We try to re­open this and try to find other ways of deal­ing with the voice.

‘‘ What Roland Barthes meant was that ev­ery­thing that comes up in the voice is not pressed down but is used, like a jazz mu­si­cian who is us­ing his in­stru­ment.’’

Sch­melzer’s think­ing is in step with what De Keers­maeker calls, chore­o­graph­i­cally speak­ing, the ‘‘ rhetoric of the body’’. ‘‘ It’s the grain of the body,’’ she says. ‘‘ You use the body in all dif­fer­ent as­pects: me­chan­i­cal as­pects, but also as a house which car­ries traces of so much hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence . . . What is so beau­ti­ful about danc­ing and move­ment is that the body can lit­er­ally em­body the most ab­stract ideas in the most di­rect, com­plete way.’’ Such cor­po­re­al­ity is at the heart of the two pieces com­ing to Sydney. In En Aten­dant, a cast of eight dancers — ac­com­pa­nied by three in­stru­men­tal­ists and a singer — is chore­ographed to a song by Philip­pus de Caserta, also called En Aten­dant, that re­curs like a leitmotif. It was orig­i­nally per­formed in a clois­ter at the 2010 Avi­gnon Fes­ti­val.

Ce­sena, pro­duced last year and in­tended as a com­pan­ion piece to En Aten­dant, was staged at dawn at the Pa­pal Palace in Avi­gnon. It in­volves 13 dancers from the Rosas com­pany and six singers from Grain­delavoix.

The mu­sic of ars sub­til­ior was not writ­ten for danc­ing, Sch­melzer ex­plains, but De Keers­maeker iden­ti­fied its in­ner move­ment as the ba­sis for dance. ‘‘ What we tried to make with Anne Teresa was not so much a his­tor­i­cal con­cern, but it was much more a rhyth­mi­cal con­cern,’’ he says. ‘‘ For ex­am­ple, Anne Teresa started not so much with danc­ing the mu­sic; it was our con­cern to step the mu­sic, you could say, to step the lines of polyphony . . .

‘‘ What is es­sen­tial is that the move­ment and the sounds em­anate from the same group of peo­ple, and this is re­ally one of the most orig­i­nal things of Ce­sena.’’

In a pre­vi­ously pub­lished in­ter­view, De Keers­maeker de­scribed the en­act­ment of mu­si­cal coun­ter­point within the per­former’s body: ‘‘ For ex­am­ple, a dancer may dance the tenor line, which is slower and more sim­ple, and at the same time sing the can­tus line, which is more elab­o­rated and in higher reg­is­ter. Singing and danc­ing com­ple­ment each other in one body.’’

The chore­og­ra­phy, too, is based on the prin­ci­ple of in­di­vid­ual dancers con­nect­ing, as lines of mu­sic do. ‘‘ All contact,’’ she ex­plained, ‘‘ is just a con­se­quence of coun­ter­point, lines that in­ter­sect in space and time.’’

The two pieces have just been pre­sented as a pair at the Ruhrtri­en­nale in Ger­many, with Ce­sena done in the early morn­ing and En Aten­dant in the evening. In Sydney, both will be pre­sented as evening per­for­mances. Car­riage­works is also dis­play­ing an art in­stal­la­tion by Ann Veronica Janssens, who cre­ated the stage de­sign for Ce­sena.

It is the first time the Bi­en­nale of Sydney, a visual arts fes­ti­val, has pre­sented a dance com­pany as part of its pro­gram. Given the in­creas­ingly por­ous form of con­tem­po­rary art of all stripes, how­ever, it may not be the last. Last year De Keers­maeker danced part of Fase at the Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York. She was ap­pear­ing in the per­for­mance se­ries at­tached to an ex­hi­bi­tion of 20th-cen­tury draw­ing called On Line; one of the cu­ra­tors of that show was Cather­ine de Zegher, De Keers­maeker’s com­pa­triot and a co-di­rec­tor of the Bi­en­nale of Sydney.

Fase was also staged in Lon­don last month to in­au­gu­rate Tate Mod­ern’s new Tanks gal­leries, for­mer un­der­ground oil tanks that have been con­verted into spa­ces for per­for­mance art. The Tate claims to be the first big art mu­seum in the world to have a ded­i­cated per­for­mance space.

Per­for­mance art was a hap­pen­ing thing in the 1960s, but De Keers­maeker says to­day’s artists have given it fresh im­pe­tus.

‘‘ I think peo­ple are re­ally look­ing for dif­fer­ent kinds of pub­lic ex­pe­ri­ences, and how they are framed in time and space,’’ she says. ‘‘ At Tate Mod­ern, it was not the black box of the the­atre but it was not the white cube of the mu­seum ei­ther. You re­ally feel that you have a dif­fer­ent au­di­ence. And you are deal­ing with un­known things: time is framed dif­fer­ently, space is framed dif­fer­ently, and there is move­ment within that.’’

Bel­gian dance com­pany Rosas

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