Drawing on Paper,
from Mind to Voice

A compositional exploration
of the intermediary

I started the working process with writing the text for the piece. It is a multi-layered reflection about the above themes: a personal observation of the creative process spanning over three areas (inner, outer, intermediary), a personal re-enactment of Sor Juana's thinking, and feminist statements as an explicit extension towards the outer reality of today's society. The text follows a postdramatic dramaturgy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postdramatic_theatre). I start from monitoring inner movements linked to the origins of my thinking activity, the arising of a creative impulse, and resulting perceptions and body movements such as in writing. I return to that theme several times in the text, interrupting other layers of expression. I move into the personality of Sor Juana as she writes, and into an artistic exploration of some phases of her life. There is a culmination point; the following passage evokes thoughts of ending, death and settling; the text closes with a translated quote from Sor Juana.

After the text, I sketched the composition, and then formed the choreography as a counterpoint to text and vocality. Using a big sheet of paper and working through the composition sketch, sound by sound, I explored possible connections of gestures, positions, body movements and object handling with vocal productions. I chose additional objects, a single goose feather and feathers mounted on rotating milk whisks.4 The feathers are a reference to Sor Juana and the process of (hand)writing. Using milk whisks for rotation adds interesting flurries of sound and an oscillating visual element (see example 4). All these movements produce a selection of noises and percussive articulations integrated into the piece; in the final score, choreography is fused with vocal production.

Example 4: Milk whisks and feathers (photo by Pia Palme).
Milk whisks and feathers

Notation of movements happens in two ways: over the stave for the voice, there is a row of verbal choreographic directions; for this, I used black pencil. The notation of positions and gestures for movements made directly onto the score membrane are defined with red pencil. Red lines run over and across instructions in black pencil, layered as a second score across the black handwriting. Here, I imitate design principles as in patterns for sewing: line systems of different texture can be shared on a single sheet of paper. There is an intentional reference to female handcrafting, which I have been practising for a long time.

The composition features a fragmented sonic personality, following the text. The text-layers are further deconstructed in the compositional working cycle. I condense layers though implied polyphony, a Baroque compositional technique. Introspective parts have to be recited with a closed mouth. The piece builds from a subtle passage with mostly unvoiced, whispered textures and barely audible spoken words to a middle part with sung vocality (see example 5). Here the word 'Liebe' (German for ‘love’) is sung. Only four words are sung in the entire piece; I chose this word because of its content and its sonic qualities, both of which are connected with human interaction and exchange. The 'L' at the beginning requires a partially closed mouth, which illustrates the transition from inside to outside. At the same time, the performer's movements develop from a first connection with the tip of a feather to the paper, to subtle explorations of the terrain, to big movements, then smaller 'writing' gestures with a feather, to touching the score with hands, upper body and mouth. The intensification of physical contact with the score accompanies the vocal development from unvoiced to sung expression.

Example 5: Gesture in the first part of the piece; the corresponding position in the score is towards the end of the first system, precisely at the word ‘dort’ (‘there’).

The performer stands at the beginning; in the middle part, repeating the sung word 'Love', she is asked to go down on her knees, and keeps this kneeling position to the end. This is for practical reasons - the musical notation needs to be spaced out vertically on the paper - but also for content: at the final stage of her life, Sor Juana had to bend to the authorities. A dynamic point of culmination is expressed in this kneeling position, with arms outstretched far to the sides, as if crucified, extended by rotating feathers. Here, the performer is instructed to boldly recite the slogan ‘MACHT STATT PFLEGE’. The passage translates as ‘power instead of care/nurturing/nursing’. The word ‘Pflege’ in German sums up a number of meanings connected with nursing, supporting and helping, traditionally women’s activities in many societies. I wrote this passage as a climacticstatement of text, gesture and sound, about feminist aspects of Sor Juana’s life and work. Apart from the historic reference, it is also an impassioned contemporary statement about what I wish for women to change, worldwide. At this point I still perceive women pushed into helping roles, lacking in social power, and concerned with care and nursing, instead of decision making - or composing and writing.

Towards the end, vocality dominates over movement. Three sung words are fragmented by more noisy expressions, and herald the end: 'Ende unser aller' (in English approximately 'the end of all of us’) - like bells of a church ringing, as a sonic reference to Sor Juana's life. The performer is instructed to move one arm in front of the membrane, and her palms gently caress each other, with the score in between. For the end of the piece, I turn to a German translation of a line from Sor Juana's poem XXI: ‘Óyeme con los ojos’.5 One’s field of vision may cover a greater physical distance than the range of one’s voice and hearing, or at times it may not possible to communicate verbally with someone within vision. I draw on Sor Juana’s paradox to illustrate the dispute about the influence of the visual on the aural, and vice versa, in musical performance. Only at this moment is part of the performer’s face visible, near the lower lefthand corner of the score. The actress is directed to turn sideways, on her knees, while she tenderly and softly whispers the words, as if addressing a lover (see example 6).

For the title I looked at the German word ‘Besetzung’. This term has various different meanings:6 from ‘occupation’, ‘allocation’, ‘cast’ to ‘instrumentation’. Sigmund Freud (Freud, 1972), in developing a vocabulary for psychoanalysis around 1900, introduced the word ‘Besetzung’ to denote an investment of emotional or mental content, by a person, into an object or an idea. There is the sense of occupation of an otherwise existing object, an extension of one's personality. I chose the main part ‘Setzung’ of this word, without its prefix ‘be’. ‘Setzung’ translates as ‘setting’, 'settling' or ‘placement’ and is mostly used as a term in technical language.7 The title refers to the setting/placement of the membrane score in front of the vocalist, and also to the fact that I allocate layers of compositional content to a huge piece of paper. There are hidden layers, too, which are of personal relevance: the inner emotional work tied to the composition; my connection to Sor Juana, or simply the extended physical workflow of concentrated handwriting and drawing on the big surface.

Example 6: Position at the end of the piece (photo by Pia Palme).

5 A possible English translation is ‘Hear me with eyes alone’ (Cruz, 1988, p. 71). The German translation I use is ‘Es höre mich dein Auge’ (Cruz, 1966, p.75);

6 In Grimm, J. and Grimm, J. (1854) Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jakob und Josef Grimm. Leipzig:1854. [Online]Available at: http://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB?lemma=besetzung [Accessed 23 September 2014] and further [Online]Available at: http://www.woerterbuchnetz.de/DWB?lemma=besetzen [Accessed 23 September 2014]

7In English, there is a difference between ‘settling’ and ‘setting’; for the German term see [Online]Available at: http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Setzung [Accessed 16 September 2014]