beauty acts by relaxing the solids of the whole system producing an inward sense of melting and langour

In October of 2014, cellist Seth Woods and I conducted an exploratory workshop for a new collaborative work: beauty acts by relaxing the solids of the whole system producing an inward sense of melting and languor. Here is a short video from our workshop:

deviser / performer: Seth Woods
deviser / invisible performer / composer: Michael Baldwin
camera operator: Daniel Porteli
sound assistance: Beavan Flanagan

Project Headspace: The title of the work is taken from Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Beautiful and Sublime wherein Burke details the affect of beauty on the body. In Burke’s terms the body is understood to be the system upon which beauty acts by a relaxation of the constituents of that system. In his own words:

“When we have before us such objects as excite love and complacency, the body is affected, so far as I could observe, much in the following manner: the head reclines something on one side; the eyelids are more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an inclination to the object; the mouth is a little opened, and the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh; the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to the sides.”

Burke goes on to describe this relaxation as a kind of “softening” and further claims that this relaxation – effectively a manifestation of an inward sense of melting and languor – produces “the passion called love.”

My first encounter with Burke’s writing was in the context Sianne Ngai’s research into the minor aesthetic of cuteness as outlined in here article, The Cuteness of the Avant-Garde. In Ngai’s text she defines the general criteria of cuteness as displaying smallness, compactness, softness, simplicity, and pliancy. She goes on to reveal the multivalent affectivity of cuteness, in particular illustrating the simultaneous tenderness and aggressiveness associated with cuteness. Ngai starts her argumentation by pointing towards commercially produced cuteness using the example of a small frog-shaped bath sponge, suggesting that the aesthetic of cuteness invites not only physical touching, but “to use a more provocative verb, fondling.” In this fondling there is a sense of manipulation and domination that Ngai identifies, establishing an inherent helplessness and pitifulness associated with objects made cute and thus making clearer ways in which cutification has the ability to provoke both aggressive and tender feelings.

One might draw a link between the softening of Burke’s beauty and the softening that comes about through Ngai’s notion of cutifcation. In her article, Ngai even goes as far as to speculate that today’s modern concept of cuteness could be a ‘new’ form of beauty as understood in Burke’s terms. This link is where the concept of cuteness becomes interesting for me and has some powerfully personal resonance. I can identify in a certain way with an idea of love as the byproduct of a softening of a subject, and that softening possessing an ambivalent relationship with both tenderness and aggressiveness.

Given the physical descriptions associated with these concepts of beauty and cuteness and my current interest in the conditions of body/instrument interactions, there seems to me to be a fruitful area of exploration waiting to be uncovered. I am especially interested in the potential development of a kinesthetically emphatic music, which is to say: a music in which an apprehension of the affects associated with cuteness and/or beauty perhaps allows for a transcendence (or dissolution) of self into the musical experience.

I am also interested in finding non-obvious (non-visible) ways of expressing the forces that affect the body. Part of my recent work has looked towards alternative representations of musical action (or rather: notation) as a means of affecting performance in ways that would may not be possible otherwise. As an example of this work and its consequences on performance, a trio I wrote towards at beginning of 2014, this is not natural, takes videographic information of an ensemble performing and subjects it to video editing manipulations, slowing the captured video to approximately 1/40 the speed of the original video material (15 seconds becomes 10 minutes). The post-manipulated video serves as a score functioning as a distorted mirror upon which the original performers can view themselves and be moved by themselves.[1]

Adonta ta melê, which translates as “her still singing limbs,” is a phrase that references the mythological Echo and suggests an unseen voice resounding through time past the mythological creature’s physical existence. For me the videographic representation (notation) and manipulation of material in my trio finds resonance in this idea of Echo’s ‘still singing limbs’ in the sense that the distortive principles of time reform into a kind of physicality that estranges the future. With this project I am interested in further exploring the ramifications of echoes through videographic representations of movement and the encoding of a physical force unseen to an audience.

Combining this interest with the concept of softening, in this workshop Seth and I worked towards finding a way of making manifest an invisible presence of cutification – presenting a subject (in this case Seth) being seemingly moved by an invisible force that, whilst acting in tandem with Burke’s notions of beauty, becomes made cute. Our way towards this was to establish a short sonic motif (4-5 seconds of sound) with which we could work with in a loop and to then introduce physical manipulations of Seth’s body while performing. The physical manipulations where carried out by me and fluctuated by degrees of dominance/constriction over Seth’s movements. These “haptic interference”[2] exercises were video recorded during our workshop and Seth sightread the resultant video recordings (see 0.27-0.41 in video) attempting to reproduce the movements of his body as accurately as possible.[3] We decided that it makes the most sense if Seth remains mindful to project in his movement the sense of being moved by me, but of course without my body actually being present to catalyze or intercept the movement. The result in the video above is far from ‘cute’ in either a physical or sonic sense, but demonstrates a choreographic method that with some fine tuning could compliment a sense of physical and musical softening.

[1]: More information about this is not natural’s video construction can be found here.

[2]: See Tyler Futrell’s duo for violin and performer, pas de deux, for an example of another string work that utilizes haptic interference as compositional material.

[3]: A very similar principle is at play in a kind of nostalgia, a guitar duo developed by Diego Castro and I with an almost ambiguous relationship between which performer is maintaining agency over their movement.