On Researching Gesture

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Now all the events I had big writing projects for in autumn 2019 are over, it’s time to start processing the mountains of notes I took at them. Expect to see me referring back to theHands-On Choral Symposium in Aveiro and the Choral Research Day at Dublin City University every so often for the next few months. Both were both very friendly and very stimulating events, at which I was made to feel most welcome. It feels like I met more people who have read my choral conducting book during November 2019 than I had in the previous ten years!

Anyway, the first thing I wanted to blog about was to revisit a question I was asked during the round-table discussion in Dublin, and which I felt I didn’t handle terribly well. By the time my flight home was halfway across the Irish Sea I had mustered my thoughts into much better shape.

The question was what advice I would give to people embarking on researching conducting gesture. At the time I made a couple of potentially useful, if rather ramblingly-articulated, points. First, to be aware of the tension in Performance Studies between what the literature says you should be doing, and what people actually do do. This complicates any study of praxis, but can also open up some interesting avenues to develop insight. The key is not to assume that either is inherently more valid than the other.

Second, I recommended considering the analytical framework you use to make sense of the gestures you document. Laban effort shapes have been used to good effect, as have various flavours of semiotics, whilst non-verbal communication studies and Lakoff & Johnson’s theories of metaphor proved very productive for my work.

There was also a useful piece of advice that fellow panel-member Rhona Clarke gave for those people doing composition as research that also applies here: document your process. Action research and/or artistic research approaches inherently produce situated forms of knowledge; they may not be replicable, but they can and should be systematic and transparent.

The point that didn’t come into focus until about two hours too late was about why I consider it more useful to collect the gestures for analysis in naturalistic settings than to try and test different gesture types as in the genre of ‘Effects of…’ studies. I discussed this in Part I of my book in terms of the problems of designing research methods around a model of conducting that saw it as a linear and sequential, rather than an interactive and simultaneous process. That critique still stands.

But looking at the question again, through the filter of the ways I theorised gesture in Part III, I see another reason for this advice. The most interesting bits of conducting gesture, pretty much everyone agrees, are where you move beyond ‘mere time-beating’ to ‘become the music itself’. Or, as I glossed this in nonverbal communication studies terms: when you switch from pantomimic gestures (consciously deployed to convey a specific message) to musicotopographic or emergent gestures (generated intuitively as part of the process of musical thought in real time).

In practical terms, this means that any time you choose to do a particular form of gesture on purpose, you are presenting a form of depictive, self-aware gesture for your ensemble to respond to. It is thus literally impossible to study spontaneous gesture in a carefully-planned experiment; you only have access to the pantomimic.*

To access the more interesting, holistic aspects of conducting, then, you need to let people loose to make actual music. Even if you do this in a setting that is somewhat false (e.g. with the various forms of kit needed to capture the experience cluttering the place up), the act of leading a group of singers in a musically meaningful way is sufficiently cognitively demanding that all involved will quite soon get absorbed in the task and cease to be self-conscious. Then you’ll get access to the magical bits of the process.

Working through this has generated some further things to mull upon, both about possibilities for research method, and implications for teaching conducting, but I will leave those for another day as is this long enough for now. I just mention the doors that opening here in case you want have a look through them before I get there.

*Pantomimic in McNeill’s sense, of partially conventionalised, speech-replacing gestures, rather than in Efron’s narrower definition as a subset of depictive gestures. See pp. 52-53 of my book if you want to rummage in these distinctions further.

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