‘Composing Performance’ – a practical workshop for Arts Week.

This post was contributed by Jeremy Mortimer, a student on Birkbeck’s MA Shakespeare and Contemporary Performance.

walkthewalk02Last term our MA group was based at Shakespeare’s Globe, and in a session on Tudor music workshop leader Keith McGowan explained that John Cage’s idea of silent music would have been old hat to the early moderns and the ancient Greeks. They took their cue from Pythagoras who had identified that the pitch of a musical note is in proportion to the length of string that produces it, and thereby understood that mathematical relationships will express ‘musical’ tones – whether you are able to hear the music or not. So it is that the movement of celestial bodies creates the music of the spheres, and Tudor dancers moving in proportion, to the Galliard or the Pavane, created their own harmonies.

Director Peader Kirk didn’t cite Pythagoras as an inspiration, but form, proportion and harmony were called for, and found singularly lacking when a group of us started to move around Room G10 at the Composing Performance workshop, run as part of Birkbeck Arts Week. Working barefoot, and in pairs, with one leading and the other ‘complicit’, we used the space of the room to walk, stand, sit or lie down. It may sound simple, but for us rookie performers it felt like an exercise in lumbering self-consciousness as we tried to avoid careering into each other, and wondered whether it was right to lock our gaze or to look away.

The aim of the workshop was to reveal how a compositional rather than a narrative approach can be used to create theatre. Peader was going to make a montage performance using us as his raw material, and he certainly had his work cut out. Ever so slowly we took on a broader repertoire of movements. We could vary our pace, and use proximity to move closer to, or further away from our partners. We could swap leader and follower, or even merge with another pair. This was definitely Grade One performance stuff, but the very simplicity of the approach, and the limitations, gave our movements a certain coherence.

Finally, starting from a very simple movement, we were ready to start composing.  A brave volunteer (well done Nick !) walked the breadth of the room. Paused. Turned. And walked back again. We watched as Nick repeated this walk and then each of us had to choose where or how to insert ourselves into the composition in such a way that added to and did not distract from the performance. Very slowly, and with a deal of trial and error, we found positions, and actions, which felt right – in some sort of Pythagorean way. With lights dimmed and to the soothing ambience of a Brian Eno track, Nick’s regular pacing took on additional meaning as each of us joined him in the performance and then, one by one, peeled away. Thankfully no visual record was kept of our debut, but we each found our own narrative in the piece and for a moment, even in G10, there was a sense that, with Peader’s help, we had created a moment of theatre.


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