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