Contemporary Notation Project: Michael Baldwin

It gives me great pleasure to welcome Michael Baldwin as the Rambler’s first ever guest poster. Michael is an American artist currently living in Huddersfield, who works around the medium of sound, specifically in contemporary concert-hall music performance contexts. In his words, he is ‘primarily invested in examining the margins of musical performance practice through foregrounding non-sonic aspects of performance, with an emphasis on physical mannerisms/movement and conditions of body-instrument transaction.’ I’m always interested in margins, as well as matters of musical performance and transmedial coding of information, so I was very happy when Michael offered to write a post for the Contemporary Notation Project explaining his use of video as a notational practice.

If you are a composer with an interesting or unusual notational practice, and you would like to contribute a short post on your work, please get in touch.

As a contribution to this series I offer a recent trio of mine, this is not natural,for double bass, piano and horn. In line with my interest in ‘physical mannerisms/movements and conditions of body-instrument transaction’, a live performance of this is not natural lays bare a rate-of-movement relationship between musicians’ bodies and their musical instruments.

this is not natural – performers: Corey Klein [Horn]; Pieter Lenaerts [double bass]; Tomoko Honda [piano]

The observer of this is not natural is presented with the original raw material of the piece in the first 15 seconds – material that for the remainder of the piece is subjected to temporal, technological and compositional applications of transformation. From these first 15 seconds, the parameter of performance I am most interested in is movement – in particular, musical-instrument influenced physical movement.[1] This parameter, its transformation and, in turn, the remainder of the piece, brings me to the heart of my contribution here.

this is not natural works with video-graphic notation where the production process is important and sequential.

Production process:

  • Initial collaboration with musicians
    • Determination of what physical and sonic elements are deployable at different rates of movement
  • Original 15-second choreography taught to trio
  • A variant version of original choreography taught to trio and video-recorded
    • Only two differences between original choreography and variant version:
      • Performers instructed to direct their line of vision away from each other towards a personal laptop screen
      • Performers physically provoked by a sonic stimulus resulting in disengagement of line-of-vision focus and an attendant facial expression resembling shock
  • Variant version video-recorded from different perspectives and edited to show most important angle for a performer at a given time.
  • Three videos made, with one for each performer
  • Each edited video-recording treated as an object subject to technological alteration through time-stretching
    • Videos stretched from 15 seconds to 9 minutes resulting in dramatically slower rates of physical movement[2]

Variant version of original choreography

Individual video-score (piano)

Here are the scores for horn and double bass. Blue shading in the horn part is indicative of action taking place in or around the mouth.

In performance, the musicians enact the original 15 seconds of raw material from memory and subsequently turn their gaze towards their laptop screen where they continue by performing from their video-score for the remainder of the piece. What the observer is presented with then is in many ways an ambiguous repetition. The repetition is ambiguous in that it at times appears to be a direct repetition of the source material, and at other times either seems to be, or is, a clear departure from the first 15 seconds of material. My own experience of the piece, on a structural level, is one of constantly flickering back and forth in my mind between two modalities of performance-observation (looking and listening) relative to the original presentation of performance and the transformed version of performance, scanning for similarities and differences as they fit within the expectations setup by the initial 15-second framing of material.

Video-scores here are a mixture of descriptive and prescriptive notation that temporally (without recourse to presentation of past or future actions) delineate how a performer moves through space. Performers are confronted with slow-motion video of themselves, which they are instructed to mirror as accurately as possible, effectively embodying technologically distorted versions of themselves.[3] Importantly, this embodiment is only possible through a constant mediation between the performers’ kinesthetic knowledge of how these slow-motion movements feel in real-time (or learned-time). Performers are not simply miming their temporally stretched selves located in the video-scores. Instead, they are always reading – always in dialogue with how they know to move, how they are being shown to move, and how they remember moving.[4]

In my estimation, the presentation of the video-score (and the attendant presence of laptops to display the scores) draws considerable attention in the performers’ minds to body-instrument movement, and attention from the audience towards how musicians move and how they are directed to move – in this case through what can, at times, seem an eerie (or at least distance-inducing) technological means. By shifting the focus towards the arenas of musical movement and human-score interfaces, a resultant affect of ‘making the familiar strange’ (a well-trod artistic device) is manifest. This affect has marked repercussions on not only the atmosphere of the concert-hall, but also casts performative shadows on the pieces before and after.[5] As I perceive it, the piece invites the observer to reassess both retroactively and prospectively the conditions of performance. In other words, the piece and its affect(s) palpably extend well beyond the frame of the piece and begin to seep into an audience’s perception of the surrounding performance context.

this is not natural marks my first exploration into using video-scores as a notational medium, and will likely be a mode of performance-information dissemination in future pieces. Other pieces of mine have used alternative scores/notations such as audio-scores, picture-scores and mimetic/human-scores. For readers interested in these pieces, more information can be found throughout my website.


[1] Bodily movements informed by transactions and mediations between musicians and their instrument(s) of performance.

[2] One will notice that the degree of temporal stretch is not constant throughout. There are portions that have been warped faster or slower (with the end coming to a complete stand-still). These alterations of temporal stretching are a result of both practical (physically possible) and aesthetic/compositional considerations.

[3] On this point I suggest watching both Renée Lear’s Renée Taking a Sip of Water (Human and Video in Motion) and, with a less transhumanist tone, Bill Viola’s Quintet of the Astonished.

[4] Although the notation is focused primarily on movement, it is worth noting there are parameters of movement that are not fully accounted for in the video-scores presented here, the most significant of which is amount of force to be applied across the space of movement. In this regard, my video-scores are an incomplete medium towards instructing performance, cannot be engaged on its own (without, I’d argue, faulty extrapolation), and is dependent on the embodied kinesthetic knowledge described above.

[5] Here I am thinking of Michael Chekhov’s notions of atmospheres. Chekhov describes groups of people and the places people occupy (spaces) as having objective atmospheres and that no two distinct atmospheres can co-exist long before one either takes over as dominant or the disparate atmospheres synthesize into one. I would identify three basic elements within a concert-hall setting: the hall itself, the audience (with their cultural and experiential background), and the event/performance staged. What I’d like to propose here is that the atmosphere exuded by this is not natural has the effect of silencing the audience’s and concert-hall’s emanating atmospheric energies, drawing an observer further into the piece’s inner logic and bringing under careful consideration both the spectacle of the event and the sonic byproducts of said spectacle. See Michael Chekhov, To the Actor (Routledge, 2002): 47-62.

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