Ph.D -Practice Based Research

MUSICAL MOMENTS FOR CLOWN AND PIANIST

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On the trajectory of my research towards a Poetics of the Clown I have experienced many challenges. As a clown, what I am looking for is something related to practice. As a researcher, I am searching for a better “translation” of the clown’s practice. Practice as a field to be analysed in order to extract principles. Principles here are understood as points of departure, the basis, the beginning. Clowns are considered to be the embodiment of the concept of incongruity. Living paradoxes, clowns represent the upmost misfit, the one who does not fit in to a given context. However, one could argue that clowns are full of rules and code of conduct. To be able to call a clown a clown we have to have some references, some indication that such a performer is a clown. The kind of clown I am talking about is someone who dedicates his or her life, or at least good part of it, to the art form of clowning.  Gaulier says that the clown is the performer that gets paid to make people laugh. I would add that clown does not just make people laugh but also presents a particular perspective of existence. The perspective of poësis (poetic, poetry) is where the practice of the clown creates a product (performance).I am inclined to believe that clowns are full of rules. My question at this point is: what are the norms that regulate the norm-breaker?  I wonder if the clown is one of the most recognizable figures in the world of performance and if so, why? Why is a clown called a clown? Probably because of the things the clown does. It is his/her practice that defines the character. It is not just a matter of how clowns clown. Or what they do they when they clown. The suggestion is that some rules can be bent, others broken but some must remain firmly in place as a referential point to be questioned[1]. One could argue that any rule can be broken, but if all the rules are broken simultaneously then the result is not clown but anarchy. I am suggesting an analysis of principles of practice that might help defining and understanding what it is to be a clown in the world.I intend to try to be as practical, literal and physical as possible, grappling with the body of the clown in order to discover his basic nature.  In my approach the focus would be the phenomenon of the clown in action. I intend to define and then examine the principles of practice of the clown using my own practical experience and transforming rehearsal rooms into laboratories. After critically reflecting on my own practice I came to the concept of misfitness and the clown as a misfit by profession. With the idea of the misfit as a background I started a codification of the principles of practice of the clown relating them with the concept of misfitness.My overall Inquiry: the Misfit UmbrellaFocused through the lens now of the clown as misfit my main inquiry is:  Is there a single practice that we can call Clown? And if so, are there some recognizable principles that could be applied to this practice? So far I have identified the following principles of practice that I believe many clowns, myself included, use:1) The Misfit Relationship (The Clown’s odd interactions with others)2) The Misfit Image (The Clown’s incongruous appearance or figure)3) The Misfit Object (The Clown’s interaction with objects that discloses aspects beyond their daily selves)4) Misfit Timing (The clock’s misinterpretation of the Clown’s timing)

5) The Misfit Body (The imperfect body of the Clown in action)

6) Misfit Logic (The Clown’s embodied logic)

These clown’s principles of practice are an attempt to define the mode of being that typifies a ‘clown’.

In an attempt to deepen my understanding of these principles and within the context of my PaR I participated in a collaborative, practical research process called Musical Moments for Clown and Pianist.

The specific inquiry of Musical Moments for Clown and Pianist

Paul Barker wrote a musical piece with the idea of examining the theatricality of the classical pianist. The clown would be the alter ego of the pianist and would ‘dance’ the music played and play some hidden aspects of the musician’s persona. Barker invited Alban Coombs (a classical pianist and also a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Music) to play the piano. He also invited Leo Sykes to co-direct the staging of the piece with him and invited me to be the clown.

Four researchers involved in a creative process with different research proposals. Paul Barker is a Professor at Central School of Speech and Drama and he is well known for his compositions where music and theatre are worked simultaneously.[2] Alban Coombs’s thesis is called  ‘Sobornost Revisited: Liturgical Models for a Synthesis of the Arts’[3]. Leo Sykes was interested in the collision of languages, the paradoxical idea of the highly formal classical pianist and a clown who does not know or at least obey the concert conventions.  The first was to play a written musical score while the latter was performing an unwritten physical score. Despite each one of the members involved in the process having a particular motivation and objective I would like to suggest that the process was one collective creative process, where each one involved came with a different background and professional luggage to contribute to the final products. I am considering that we are in a process of not getting to one final product (performance) but many different products: a performance, various academic papers and data than can be interpreted in various ways.

The Misfit Relationship

In the work in Musical Moments for Clown and Pianist my clown employs all of the clown principles I have so far identified, but it is a unique opportunity to test one specific principle above all others, that of the Misfit Relationship.

By using the term Misfit Relationship I wish to suggest that one of the principles of practice that is present in my own practice as a clown is characterized by the way my clown relates to other people, such as partners on stage (or clown acts), audience member, and objects.

I found this opportunity for testing the principle of practice of the Misfit Relationship to be an ideal configuration for experimental research because of the challenge of putting together two performers with completely different ideas of what the outcome of a performance should be. The classical pianist is trained to perform in an almost ‘transparent’ way, meaning that he/she is there to interpret a musical score in as accurate manner as possible, following precisely and sensitively what the composer wrote. When a pianist is performing the attention should be on the music or the musical result. In spite of the fact that he/she is a human being playing a musical instrument, what is important for the quality of his performance is the music that is being played.  S/he is a physical presence that serves the auditory experience. Classical pianists usually have a fixed score and their duty is to keep to it. The challenge of this process for my clown was to construct a ‘physical score’ and a sequence of actions that would be an interpretation of the musical score but also a way of highlighting the aspect of the inevitable misfit relationship that a classical pianist would have with a clown on stage.

 

The Methodology of Research in Musical Moments

In the case of Musical Moments for Clown and Pianist the research methodology applied was similar to the one used when I work alone, however it was more complex as it involved other collaborators.

At the beginning of this process the relationship suggested by Paul Barker between the clown and the pianist was that the clown should be the page-turner for the pianist.  This is a highly formal relationship, fraught with many rules and conventions and bursting with potential for mishap.  The process thus far has been an exploration of all the possibilities we can find for this relationship.  We focused on the idea of a page-turner who does anything and everything but execute his primary function, which is to turn pages and to be an absent a presence as possible.  In a somewhat Heideggerean manner[4], where failure of an equipment discloses its functions, the clown became the primary scenic presence precisely due to his dysfunctionality as page-turner.  Gorgonio, despite all his attempts, did not manage to turn one page without mishap and inadvertently called much attention to himself by a general lack of regard or indeed knowledge of the conventions of being a page-turner.  He disturbed the pianist by attempting to turn the pages not only at the wrong time but in the wrong way, so that sheets of music flew off the key board and others were ripped to pieces. He brushed the pianist’s tails as he played, obscured the pianist from the audience’s view, climbed under the piano and, sin of sins, he played the piano! At first this was inadvertently with his elbow, but later he did this willfully, forming a kind of crazy duet with the much beleaguered pianist.  The erudite classical pianist played harmoniously while the clown, with his clumsy fingers, played crashing chords.  This was all composed by Barker and formed a moment of unison between the two performers after many moments of disunity.

The methodology that we established, and that was in fact a discovery of this process rather than a pre-conceived idea, was that the misfit quality of the relationship was established exactly by each performer remaining in the realm of their own practice.  The concert pianist made every effort to allow the music to appear more than himself, to maintain the flow of the music in the face of many obstacles and to continue the formal relationship with the audience, bowing despite disaster and ignoring the chaos around him.  In some ways he was akin to the white clown, who is the foil to the red clown, the Auguste.

However, instead of following the clown tradition and repeating the model of white/red oppressor/oppressed clown[5], the relationship between the pianist and the clown changed throughout the performance.  Sometimes they were in confrontation, at others they were in synchrony, sometimes they were oppositional and at other times attractive.

A plan for how the outcomes of the presentation will be analyzed.

The presentation and the process of conceiving it were not purely aesthetic.  As the creative team is made up of four researchers (Prof. Paul Barker, Dr. Leo Sykes and the Ph.D candidates Alban Coombs and myself) the whole process is being documented in various ways (from personal notes to video record) and analyzed critically before/during/after the proper work in the room as it forms part of the different research projects of each participant. We had four different disciplines in the working room: Barker is a composer and head of MA Music at RCSSD. He is a specialist in composing music for theatre. Leo is a theatre and film director who specializes in musical clown shows. Coombs is a professional pianist and has toured Europe playing concerts. I am a professional clown and researcher. The aspect of a transdisciplinary work/product was clear from the very beginning. Each one of us had a specific research method and a different approach to the creative process and most significantly, different areas of enquiry.

I am suggesting an interpretation of the concept of clown’s principles of practice where the modes of being of the clown define his presence on stage. The analysis of the presence of the clown on stage compared to the presence of the classical pianist proposes a paradoxical relationship where the concept of misfitness will be the basis of the presentation. In other words, the challenge was to combine two figures that have many conflicting characteristics and intentions. The pianist is on stage to play a fixed score; the clown has to create a ‘performatic’ score based on improvisation.

I am considering how to contextualize the presentation in relation to the broader enquiry of my research by opening up my key questions to the audience and my fellow-researchers.  The audience will be informed and invited to take part in the suggested contextualization through questionnaires and interviews. The presence of the audience is fundamental in the analysis of the affectivity of the work. The responses of the audience, kinesthetic (e.g. laughter or not), will be part of critical examination of the performance.

Barker, Coombs and Beré will present a panel at CPR 2014 at RCSSD about the interaction of languages.

Blog, documentation of insights – evidencing relevance to the research.

I am working on a blog that will encapsulate the reflections and analysis of the work. Following the presentation, the research results, analysis and examples of the documentation will be presented for a supervision assessment.  This will enable the presentation and associated reflexive and documentary materials to act as a model for how the overall project should operate. The annotations, photos, and video clips of the insights that bring to light my research questions will by presented on a dynamic platform. Notes and comments from my research partners will also be available, demonstrating a close dialogue and exchange of ideas that characterized this collaborative work. The audience perspective will be recorded on video (in a Q&A style after each performance) and also through a small questionnaire that can be answered on paper or by email/blog interaction.

Musical Moments for a Pianist and a Clown: four researchers, one process, many products.

The process

In our first meeting, Paul brought some musical scores and we listened to Alban playing them. We realized that the complexity of the music to be played required peculiar physical actions from the pianist. In order to execute the musical score, Alban had to perform some ‘contortions’ with his hands and elbows. He was like some kind of bird flapping its wings, trying to take off. Movements that pianist avoids doing and composers avoid writing because the execution would require an anatomic complexity. It could be funny just to look at Alban playing the score. However, the music was so intense and elaborated that the physicality of the pianist could be seen as part of this complexity. For the clown, every movement of the pianist and every note of the music were important to help creating the clown score. My point as a performer was not specifically to ‘dance’ the music or to build a physical score exclusively base on the musical score. I was focused on the Misfit Relationship with the pianist. The relationship would include not just the human beings involved but also the piano, the stool, the score, the context and of course, the music. Paul had a preconceived idea of what the work should look like. He wrote notes and indications in the musical score for the clown as well as for the pianist. For instance, he suggested that the clown would be the pianist alter ego. I understood the indication as ‘Gorgonio should play Alban’s shadow or reflection’ – the audience should be able to see some hidden aspects of the pianist through the clown physical action. It turned out to be something like that. But the temporary result (it is a work in progress) presented was much more elaborate than the clown just mirroring or mimicking the pianist. It was a relationship that evolved and assumed many shapes, layers, and intensities.

Through the observation of the pianist’s actions (e.g. sitting down on the piano stool, adjusting its height, adjusting its distance to the piano, checking the score) I suggested a physical routine that the clown would do before the music was played. It was a way of building up a ‘clown score’ based on improvisation and on the Misfit Relationship. The clown score was being constructed with the idea in mind that ‘there is something here that does not quite fit’ or like an odd piece in the theatrical puzzle. In the case of the page-turner, the action that would fit correctly in the presentation of a piano concert is that the person who turns the page knows how to do the job e.g. knows how to read music, knows when to turn the page without disturbing the pianist or the audience. In this case, I had real elements to support my attempts to build an improvised misfit clown score. I don’t know how to read music and had never worked as a page-turner before. That means that my familiarity with those actions was close to zero. My actions and reactions while creating the score were spontaneous and trustworthy because I was not pretending that I don’t know how to read a musical score. Gorgonio was turning the pages when he felt like was the right moment. That spontaneity highlighted the misfit quality of the relationship with the pianist. Alban’s reactions to the clown’s misconduct as a page-turner made the improvisation rich in details e.g. reprievable looks and small controlled gestures, that were worth working on. The difficulty in this process was to ‘crystallize’ the improvisation, meaning that once the clown repeated the improvisation it was not improvised any longer. Crystallizing the improvisation here has a sense of making an action (or a series of actions) crystal clear in a solid, in a transparent way. How does one make a choreographed physical action look ‘fresh’ or spontaneous? The challenge for Gorgonio the clown was to repeat a series of action with a touch of ‘imperfection’ or a combination of precision and lack of perfection. As a performer, I was always looking for ‘stupid impulses’ or physical reaction that would add something or differentiate my actual action from the previous repeated one. One of the strategies used to compose the clown’s choreography was to recall some of the principles of practice identified up to the moment on my research.

Though the main focus of the research here is on the Misfit Relationship, other aspects of misfitness were inevitably touched upon.  Each of these aspects will receive its own specific research however it is also possible to mention them briefly here.  Just as they were sub-products of this research, so they are sub-titles of the main chapter.

Misfit Timing

Misfit Timing, for instance was used in the first piece when the clown page-turner showed that he was not on the same page as the pianist.

The result of this moment of practical research was unexpected, yet, on reflection, perhaps obvious.  Now that I consciously attempted to apply principles of practice previously used unwittingly and instinctively, they did not all automatically work.  Principles that previously would be used by Marcelo (the performer who embodies Gorgonio the clown) when the creative process demanded them were now chosen and applied by Marcelo the researcher, independently of the process needing them, but rather in an attempt to test their applicability.  For some principles this was very rewarding, for example in the misfit relationship between the classical pianist and the clown. A more misfit relationship is hard to imagine and the clash of cultures inherent in this relationship was the cause of laughter for the audience who could observe the mutual misreading by the performers.

Misfit Object

The principle of misfit object however was applied less successfully.  Though technically correct, the execution of this principle was conceptual rather than organic.  Following the qualities so far identified to be part of the misfit object of the clown the piano stool was transformed into a cajon, a percussive instrument and later into a dog.  It was also sat upon incorrectly, carried around and generally treated in a manner that broke the conventions applied to piano stools.  But the material created is weak, in the sense that it could have worked much better from the clown’s perspective.  Perhaps in order to function the object itself would need to be transformed in some way, so that it sounded good when played as an instrument, and was more evocative of a dog when treated as one.

The Misfit Image

While avoiding the classical image of the clown with his colourful clothes and red nose, Gorgonio nevertheless must always find a way to distinguish himself from the average gentleman.  In this case both performers were wearing highly formal morning tails. In order to distinguish the clown from the pianist Gorgonio wears red socks. Normally Gorgonio’s shock of hair is also a signal that he is a clown, but ironically the pianist almost outdoes his hirsute outlandishness with a truly magnificent beard.  Thus small details were used to ‘disturb’ the formally correct outfit and turn it into a miss fit.

Gorgonio also uses his eyes as part of his comic/misfit appearance. The mostly mute clown uses his eyes to involve the audience by constantly commenting upon the action and directing their gaze through an exaggerated use of his ocular orbs.  Thus his eyes become a vital source of complicity with the audience, which is, after all, the clown’s primary aim.  Indeed, the clown’s eyes were the most commented upon aspect of his appearance by the critics.

“…a pianist wrestles with his page turner to great comic effect, assisted by one of them looking like a cross between Marty Feldman and Andy Zaltzman.”[6]

and

“The first act involved one of the clowns of the piece, a real one called Marcelo Beré, who had a shock of vertical hair and Marty Feldman eyes with which he gimleted the audience.”[7]

Misfit Logic

Another principle tested on this opportunity was the misfit logic. The conventional logic would suggest that if the piano stool is far way from the piano, one should take the stool closer to the piano. The clown here, using the misfit logic, tries to bring the grand piano closer to the stool. Throughout the performance, the audience could see the pianist using his logic, trying to keep the conventional rules for a piano concert, while the clown was always suggesting a new approach to these conventions e.g. repositioning the stool, touching the pianist shoulders and playing the piano. When Gorgonio walks down the steps of an imaginary staircase to get under the piano and takes a lift to get back to the same level as the pianist, he is using a logic that is not necessarily rational but imaginative. However, even the clown’s misfit logic has its limits. At a certain point, Gorgonio lifted the stool over his head. If he had thrown it on the grand piano or on the pianist’s head it would be chaos. I am suggesting that the clown’s logic, despite coming from ‘stupid impulses’, is guided by dramaturgical rules that keep anarchy at bay.

Conclusion

As soon as I entered the workroom in order to investigate The Misfit Relationship it became immediately clear that what I thought in theory to be a principle of practice, was in fact a broad umbrella term for almost everything the clown does, as nothing happens in a vacuum and everything is based on relationships.  Thus the principle, in order to be put into practice, needed to be broken down into further sub-categories.  The sub-categories so far identified in the process are:

Misfit Relationship with Objects

Misfit Relationship with the Audience.

Misfit Relationship with Other Performers.

The Misfit Relationship with Other Performers itself contains sub-categories:[8]

Misfit Relationship with Another Clown

Misfit Relationship with a Non-Clown

Thus the process of practical investigation rather than help to refine Misfit Relationship into a definable concept, has had the opposite effect, that of showing its endless permutations.

Having tested the principles of practice in a practical way I have now realized that they do not always function, or rather, they are not independent from their context.  Their usefulness depends entirely on how, when and to what they are applied.  In other words perhaps they are not something as lofty as a principle, but rather are just simple, useful tools.  And as Heidegger would be the first to explain to us, tools only work as they should if used in the correct manner. The moment in which an unskilled person employs a tool it will not achieve the desired effect, but rather attract attention for its very failure.  Thus I find myself back where I began, with the idea of failure as disclosure, but this time it is my own failure that is being disclosed.  My attempt to prove the presence of principles of practice has made me realize that there is something else that lies deeper – something more fundamental than these.


[1] The clown as a rule-breaker will be discussed in the body of my dissertation, mainly in chapter 4 and 5.

[2] Paul Barker’s abstract for CPR 2014:

Intersections are transgressed boundaries, open divisions crossing places between allegedly unrelated streams. The process of research and creation for Musical Moments for Clown and Pianist led four individual researchers to begin to disclose the intersections between creating and performing material for a clown and instrumental composition and performance. I composed a score which explored clowning within the microcosm of the pianists fingers; the pianist reconfigured these patterns and incorporated them successfully into the virtuoso pianist’s armoury; the clown amplified and developed aspects of the pianists physicality and natural absurdity; the director took the phrasing and structure of the music and found a theatrical truth in parallel or in opposition.

The disciplines of clowning and pianism reflect curious connections and exceptional confluences. Whereas there may be some superficial similarities in the tradition that includes the Marx Brothers to Victor Borges and Les Dawson, our specific objective to create original chamber music theatre for clown and pianist intercedes somewhere between violin/song recitals and comic duos/two-handers. Paradox is a crucial underlying principle: where we uncover the theatre of the pianist we discover the music of the clown; when we see tragedy and find comedy we discover silence and music; where we find truth behind pretence we discover pretence behind the dramatic truth.

As McGilchrist has pointed out, our minds can discover connections almost anywhere and the concept of intersection itself might be an illusion, albeit a fecund starting point for exploration and research.

If we should weep when clowns put on their show,

If we should stumble when musicians play,

Time will say nothing but I told you so.

If I Could Tell You, by W.H Auden

[3] Alban Coombs’ abstract for CPR 2014:

Of all classical musicians, the concert pianist is, perhaps, the most solitary. Except for lessons, when hopefully another human being is involved, most pianists find that their only companion during their long training is the instrument itself. It is no surprise then that collaboration for the classical pianist can be a stressful process. Models of collaboration for pianists, far from being extensions of their practice, seem often to be retreats into narrower specialism – song accompanists and chamber pianists being obvious examples. Ubiquitous as the pianist seems, they rarely engage in experimental or improvisatory encounter – unless specially trained to do so.

The challenges then for a classical pianist engaged in experimental collaborations with a clown and theatre director are multifarious. Yet, despite the seeming difficulties posed by working with a clown, the experience of creating Musical Moments for Clown and Pianist suggests that the very differences between these two performance practices –clown and pianist – offers particular opportunities for creative collaboration.

Sophistication of technique is shared by both clowns and pianists, even though the clown’s explicit exhibition stands in marked contrast to the pianist’s implicit mastery. Contrasts of practice, such as the classical musician’s approach to the score that values ‘correctness’ rather than the actor’s (or clown’s) search for ‘dramatic truth’ might seem at first to be an obstacle. But these points of dissimilitude can become the points where trans-disciplinary influence and transformation are most apparent.

During the processes of rehearsal and performance, dynamics of synthesis and transformation were discovered and demonstrated. The apparent incongruences between these two performance practices – clowning and pianism – became less important for both performers, resulting in a shared technique that incorporated and celebrated both differences and similarities.

[4] Whether the Heideggerean notion of unready-to-hand can be applied to people is a contested issue, I am suggesting that the misfit relationship established in this case could be related in a way or another to this concept. [At very least, I would suggest that the person ‘fails’ in a different manner, and this failure discloses a different aspect, but the case for this position needs to developed phenomenologically.]

[5] Please see Chapter 1 of Poetics of the Clown (thesis) for more on this.

[8] the idea of categories and sub-categories will be fully developed in the CPR conference.

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Two Clowns, um álbum de claire.shovelton no Flickr.

photo album of Gorgonio & Pagliacci by Claire Shovelton

http://youtu.be/3nFAMYhwL_4 -Video clip – creating a clown score

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