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Section 2: Gesture

Stefano Scodanibbio used his own music and techniques “to liberate the contrabass from its conventional sonority…after having known only the stammering of voices inappropriate to it or the sadistic violations of the so-called avant-garde” (Korb, 2000). ZAB was Boivin’s and Robert’s attempt to do exactly the same, only following a different path. They tried to liberate the instrument by giving the performer a new autonomy, free from all conventions, discovering a new world of sounds where not only the sound-related idea or music determine the performative gestures, but the gestures themselves – at times – constitute the resulting sound. The gestural dimension becomes a composition in itself, both visual and audible, as the musical gesture is always associated with a corporal movement and hence results both in an audible and a visible effect.

Visuals as clarifiers

Some visuals in ZAB can be said to have a clarifying function, which means that the movements enhance the impressions of the audible sounds and make them more approachable. In general, the visuals always add a dimension to the sound. But their explanatory quality varies. In some cases, layers of meaning, initiated by equivocal music, are removed for the benefit of a clear meaning, while in others what is expressed by the music becomes deliberately blurred by the added content of a movement. The visuals may also be correcting in such passages where the sound is abstracted to a point that it evades a precise mental picture of the sound.

An incidence of the latter is shown in example 2.1: The rhythmical pattern of movement (the quintuplet) generates a multiple of sounds that are difficult to identify on an auditory level, in particular the fourth note in the quintuplet, which produces a bi-tone when the finger is hammered on the string, and the fifth note in the quintuplet, which creates a muffled sound when the thumb is moved with force horizontally onto the string. The thumb is kept on the string and released with a soft pluck, triggering the open E-string, which is the first note in the quintuplet.

Ex. 2.1. Rhythmical pattern of movement. ZAB, page 2, first system.

Situational references

ZAB highlights a diverse contextuality in its complex set of situational references. It combines for example techniques from the tonbak drum with theatrical movements resembling a Shiva God (see example 2.2), and the body posture of an act of worship (notice the score-indication ‘religioso’) with percussive playing on the neck of the bass (see example 2.3).

Ex. 2.2. Shiva figure. ZAB, page 2, second system.

Ex. 2.3. “Religious” posture. ZAB, page 12, first system.

The performer is only allowed to turn the pages of the score once during the entire performance. With a theatrical motion that breaks dramatically with the mood of the preceding music, the pages are to be thrown away with sudden irritation and anger. This drama was suggested by the composer based on how he remembers the performances of Jean-Pierre Robert and is illustrated in example 2.4, in the beginning of the section that lasts 18 seconds. Following the aggressive page turning, a beautiful gestural scene is introduced that is inspired by the Japanese Nô theatre. The performer takes a position behind the bass and begins a repeated, rhythmical hammering of the strings, maintaining a constantly floating tempo, gradually getting faster and slower, like the drum beating in the Nô Theatre. He then slowly descends behind the bass while playing the drum rhythm. Boivin describes this situation as the sun going down. In other words, the scene must be executed beautifully! When the “sunset” is completed, the scene continues with a visual play of the hands in front of the bass.

Ex. 2.4. Nô Theatre and “the sunset”. ZAB, page 14, first and second system.

Altered understandings

In the following examples, we see how clearly defined movements and theatrical actions characterise and alter the auditory experience. Example 2.5 illustrates a situation where the music itself, if only listened to and not being seen performed, can induce associations that differ remarkably from a visual interpretation provided by the score: The performer is hiding behind the instrument, letting his arms and hands perform a visual play on the front of the bass. Abrupt and noisy actions are played with the bow on the strings, while tender and passionate soundless gestures interrupt and re-establish the serene exploration of the hands. An intense and almost erotic connection must be sensed while the finger slowly moves along the curve of the bow. The pure magic of the movement is for a short moment replacing the enchantment of the sound.

Ex. 2.5. ZAB, page 14, third system.

Continuing in example 2.6 and 2.7, we see that the musical expression is deliberately blurred by additional movement. The two sections that appear almost towards the end of the piece, can be characterised as moments of gestural reflection for the two performers in this piece; the musician and the double bass, whose identity has now been almost fully revealed. Can we sense the individuality and uniqueness of the double bass, its own self?

In the sections of gestural reflection, the double bass must slowly draw large curves, while the bow rest motionless on the string. Thus, the movements of the bass conduct the bow across its strings thereby creating sound. The performance is about to end, and we see how the instrument in its big gestures seems to refer to a larger entity, to the cosmos.

The music, whichfades into almost silent timbral acts of sound, is obscured by two quotations in the score that are meant only as secret messages for the performer, optionally linking the significance of the meaning to the corporal movements. The quotes read: “La fusion est un espace courbe…” and “…Ta trace est une courbe”, which can be translated as “fusion is a curved space” and “your trace (or, your path) is curved”. These meta-instructions should not be said out aloud, and the true meaning, if existent, remains Boivin’s secret.

Ex. 2.6. Gestural reflection. ZAB, page 18, first system.

Ex. 2.7. Gestural reflection. ZAB, page 18, second system.