Marcel Cobussen

Bodies Performing Sound

I see improvisation as much more than a musical technique. While watching the performance of Joëlle Landrée, solo and with Lee Shih-Yang (November 4, Nankang Theatre, Taipei), half of my attention goes to the mimicry, body language and theatrical techniques of Landrée, who is ‘acting with’ her double bass as much as she is playing it. She talks through it, of course, but also to it. She treats it sometimes as a human being, or perhaps an animal, as she feigns anger or joy towards it. At one moment she gently kicked the lower part of her bass with her foot, as if kicking a dog bothering her.


Joëlle Léandre responds visibly to her own music: almost as if it is not her making that music, but player and played are two; and she responds visibily to Lee Shih-Yang’s music and stage persona. In this way she sets up some sort of loops or interconnected circuits with the following elements:

  • a body performing, producing sound
  • a body responding to its own sound
  • a body playing with and for another performer in/through sound and in/through bodily gestures, facial expressions
  • a body listening and responding to that other performer in/through sound and in/through bodily gestures, facial expressions
  • and also, a body playing music and acting out the music for an audience
  • and responding to the audience (although rarely, in this case).


The music is the central theme of all these actions, it pervades it, surrounds it, generates it, steers it. But looking at the music alone would greatly limit our understanding of what is going on.

Joëlle Léandre’s performance was full of humor in more ways than music only can convey. Music in itself can certainly convey humor (I think of Dutch conceptual artist Wim T. Schippers playing a well-known Bach piece on piano, making all sorts of mistakes, trying to correct himself, repeating phrases, moving faster and slower, in the music-theatre piece Hoogwater voorheen Laagwater, 2016). But sometimes the musician herself becomes not just the medium of the music or sound, but something more like an actor or performer, aware of the fact that she is also playing a role onstage. She might exaggerate musical gestures in more than simply practical ways, she might use the body and facial expressions to convey messages that go far beyond what musicians express ‘as music’.


Léandre’s face showed some sort of running commentary to her own music and to the interaction with Lee Shih-Yang and at times made the audience laugh. By doing that, she puts the musician’s efforts between brackets, distances herself from it, provides some sort of criticism even as she is making music. It enhances the important idea in improvisation that the music itself, too, can be a running commentary on what the performers do.


You could say that some (in fact: many) musicians provide this commentary more discreetly, by only responding in music and not or not clearly in gesture, face, or body. Léandre on the other hand chose to enlarge her response through these means, making it less discrete, less hidden, less vague to the audience. Yet there were also moments when her playing, and her playing only, was a comment: this is one of the most common patterns in improvisation, and certainly so in jazz, where the musicians ‘comment’ on each other, ‘talk’ to each other. They build and exchange phrases, affirm and challenge each other, take the point of one musician further by moving on with it. This too was happening Saturday in Nankang theatre: rhythms, melodic patterns, noises and clusters going back and forth between Léandre and Lee, without obvious physical expression going along with it.


Intense music that requires concentrated listening, and where we can hardly be sure that what I hear is what the musicians intend, but where we still try to figure out what Lee is doing with Léandre’s ideas, and vice versa (of course, a perfectly valid alternative is not to care about this at all, but ‘simply enjoy’ the music, without figuring things out that you cannot know for sure anyway).


Music itself naturally triggers all sorts of physical, facial and other expressions, fitting to the roles of dedicated, serious musicians. We see it all the time, in video clips, classical performances, jazz: any music style has a number of ways in which the musician seeks ways to express music’s manifold qualities. Just some musicians, more than others, go way beyond the musical language itself. One can debate if this contributes to the music or distracts from it: purists might be bothered and uninterested in musicians acting out their performance too much. There are plenty of examples of exaggerated and silly theatricality in musical performance. One that comes to mind is many modern, female pipa players (a Chinese type of lute held upright in front of the player), who excessively sway their bodies and heads. I mostly prefer the old pipa practice where the music does not need all that visual display; it usually sounds better. Certain kinds of theatricality add nothing to the music but commercial value; it sometimes only serves to cover up a lack of genuine musical quality.


If the music still comes first, though, the expansion of the performative language can add many layers of meaning and expression to an already rich, interesting performance, instead of peeling off those layers. In rare cases, performers truly and convincingly embody multiple languages, fluently blending the musical performance mode with other ones, like dance, movement, facial expressions. In India, earlier this year, I had a chance to see a live performance if singer Venkatesh Kumar. He is an absolute master of of his raga improvisations and also of his body. In several long drawn-out pieces he used his arms, hands and facial expressions to express his journey through the dense network of musical connections that makes up a raga. Fascinating stuff!


So far for the non-musical gestures. I guess some of this can be gleaned also from a brand new book that I hope to read soon. It will certainly interest those who want to know more about the why’s and how’s of improvising: Marcel Cobussen’s The Field of Musical Improvisation, an e-book that is free for download since a few weeks.


Last night was the first concert with Makigami Koichi. Tonight is the closing concert of the TIIMF here in Taipei.


Saturday November 25

Zhongshan Hall, Taipei, 19:30

Closing concert of the Taiwan International Improvised Music Festival

With Porta Chiusa; and Makigami Koichi (voice, theremin, Jew’s harp, shakuhachi), Tung Chaoming (guzheng), Mark van Tongeren (voice, sruti box, Jew’s harp), and others


Sunday November 26

Reykjavik Lab /愛雷克雅維克實驗室, Taipei

13:30-17:00, workshop Improvise!

Details and tickets on Accupass, or send a message to 0910382749

New article online/World Listening Day

Yesterday it was World Listening Day, initiated by a Chapter of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology. This week people all over the world organise sound walks and encourage others to pay more attention to their ears.

Last week my article about a unique listening experience in Taiwan was published in the Journal of Sonic Studies. The whole issue is devoted to sounds in Southeast Asia, and covers many countries from north (China) to south (Indonesia and India).

My article neatly fits in the  appeal to listening from the organisers of World Listening Day, as it is the result of a near-constant interest in what I hear during the last three-four decades, nearly all my life. Not only to music, to be sure, but simply to everything I hear around me: whether I am in cities, nature, houses, cars or trains; whether I listen to radio’s, live concerts or my smartphone; whether the sounds are intentional or accidental.

I encourage anyone to open up their ears and share their listening experiences, just as Marcel Cobussen, one of the editors of the Journal of Sonic Studies, writes in his editorial. And I would like to ask Taiwan readers in particular to keep their ears open for birds imitating portions of the sounds of the garbage truck and report to me immediately if they do so!

You can read my article (and listen to it) here and find Marcel Cobussen’s ‘Encounters With Southeast Asia Through Sound’, an introduction to all the other contributions, here. Happy reading and listening!



FORUM Interview about Thresholds of Audibility

There is an interview about my research for the University’s FORUM magazine, with some tracks of the Sphere album. You can read it here in Dutch:

and this is the English translation:

In The research of … Mark van Tongeren, doctoral student at the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, tells about his research int new possibilities of multi-voiced overtone singing. “We are making audible a strange world of harmonies, that is hidden behind every word that we speak.”

Tell something about yourself, how did you arrive at this research topic?
For some twenty years now I am studying the foundations of sound, among others from (ethno)musicological and artistic perspectives. It all began with the question: what is sound colour? I tried to find answers to that question experimentally, because I thought something of the spectral analysis that we saw at acoustics classes must be retracable in our experience. After a little while I recognized in my voice specific resonances, so-called overtones, and I taught myself to sing in two voices. The unfamiliarity of the phenomenon of overtone singing taught me, as a musicology student, that this was an interesting area of study that I could help develop. I went to Tuva, in Siberia, in 1993, where the world’s best overtone singers live: in that time it was almost terra incognita for Westerners. Those fieldwork experiences raised my curiosity about the wider role of music and sound in society, vice versa. More research trips to Asia followed, and I wrote a book in which I assembled existing knowledge about overtone singing. Parallel to this I developed my vocal art and did theatre projects. Through my teaching post at the Royal Conservatory in The Hague I heard about the inauguration of the Faculty of Creative and Performing Arts. The combination of science and art has always attracted me, and now I can solve some burning issues as a PhD student.

Photo: Four Sardinians sing in Five Voices. Photo M. van Tongeren, Castelsardo, Sardinia, 2007.

Can you tell what the research programme is about? Which is the central question?
I discern two main themes in my research programme Overtone Singing and the Thresholds of Audibility: one concerns a niche within a niche of music, the other rethinks and articulates what that means for the way in which each human relates to the world acoustically. My starting point is the artistic research into new possibilities of multi-voiced overtone singing. In fact I am not doing more, but less than what already has been done: together with others I show the matrix that is the foundation of the singing voice, without frills. This is done with the help of Zero(points) (Nulpunten), a series of systematic sound structures in which fundamental tones and overtones ‘meet themselves’ as it were. We are making audible a strange world of harmonies, that is hidden behind every word that we speak. Everyone speaks with the help of overtones, but nobody hears them, because speech is founded upon strategic transformations in our perception. That is the reason, secondly, for a deeper investigation of reality and illusion of our auditory world. For example, overtone singing is often considered a spiritual phenomenon, despite the fact that it is founded upon a way of listening that could be called rather empirical or phenomenological.

On 0.29/3028 three singers execute a variant of  Zero(point) 29, which exists of an almost endless series of permutations. In a simialr fashion Parafonia has recorded hundreds of chords, rather systematically and without frills. A selection of the Zero(point)s, starting with 0.32, forms the artistic part of the PhD, and its leitmotiv. They are further approached from the viewpoint of science, philosohpy and belief.Listen: 0.29-3028 (mp3)

What are the most exciting parts of the project?
I am tempted to select the artistic part of my research, for which I founded my laboratory Parafonia, as the most exciting part. Without a doubt the vocal experiments, in which performance – and theatrical elements also play a role, are the driving force behind this project. Within that, the composition cycle Zero(points) takes a special place, because it is something that has never been done before, while in my view it deals with fundamental knowledge and skills in music and acoustics. It is interesting both artistically and conceptually. On the other hand, it is just as exciting to think about what is nót very specific about this obscure way of singing, but what this way of singing lays bare about acoustic reality as such. You hit upon fundamental illusions in our perception that are comparable, for example, to the gaping rift between the space-time of modern physics and that of our everyday experience.

What do you hope to achieve?
For the short term, until February 2010, I hope I will be able to write down my thoughts crystal clear and to record the sound likewise. These are important conditions to get my research across to people. It is my intention that singers, composers, and my group Parafonia do much more with this material. Apart from that, I am aiming at people who have an interest and passion for music, who want to satisfy their curiosity with sounds that, from a musical and aesthetic perspective, try to get to the essence of sound.

How do you like the life of a researcher at this faculty?
I find the wide scope of the Academy of the Performing and Creative Arts  in the international framework of docARTES very stimulating. The first two year every PhD student joins monthly meetings with other musicians and composers, to talk about the theory and philosophy of artistic research. Philosopher Marcel Cobussen and theoretician Henk Borgdorff have given many impulses for the development of the new area of artistic research, together with a host of international guests from the musical and scholarly world. That was rather intensive, and to some extent I now miss the frequent exchange of ideas. Here in Leiden I have the privilege to work in a beautiful building on the Rapenburg with excellent acoustics: we have recorded the best Zero(points) here, among others in the kitchen, and not in the chapel in The Hague where our new, audiophile Cd Sphere was recorded. Hopefully the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts remains in this building for a while so that we can continue to realize our crystal clear recordings in ideal acoustic conditions.

Forum, September 2009