I’ve written, in the past, about the importance of taste and the palate as markers not only of identity, but also as tools for politics, histories, and more. Now, in the past two weeks, I’ve read a few articles that actively examine the possibilities of other senses – sound and movement – as ways of understanding and making meaning of the past. In the first, Michael Schmidt assesses the relevance of sound and sound archives to historical research. In the second, Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim writes about attending a baroque dance workshop.
Culinary historians taste the past, bringing to life the textures, smells and flavours of common historical meals. In so doing, they bring to the present flavours that had been lost to us. But these textures, smells and flavours are not merely curious experiments; rather, they infuse our reading of other documents, from intimate letters to royal proclamations.
Dance and fashion historians ask us to consider the ways that historical bodies moved through space: What did it mean to wear 25 pounds of clothing? How does one sit with a bustle skirt? How does one play violin with a ruffled collar? What are the physical relationships between individuals when a dress is four feet wide? How does candlelight reflect and play with intricate lace? How do bodies move through a detailed Sarabande? And how does any and all of this shape things like posture, breathing, comportment? Exploring these questions opens new windows into historical experience, identity, and subjectivity.
Specialists in musical performance practice, meanwhile, explore sound, rhythm, texture and harmony. In their hands, physical space becomes meaningful not only as a resonating chamber, but also as a space that unites performer with audience. Performance practice asks us to consider not only the performer, but also the listener, and the space between the two. Indeed, it critically interrogates the space between “text” and “act” (to follow the terminology put forward by Richard Taruskin). Historically-informed performers (HIP, ironically), seek to explore the myriad ways of bringing the textual remnants of history into a performative present. Indeed, HIP-sters are never solely concerned with notes, markings, and text. Rather, their performances emerge in spaces and with audiences: How long will a note resonate? What is the physical relationship between the performer and the audience? How does an ornament speak in different physical spaces? What role does the instrument itself play in the realization of the composer’s musical vision? What, indeed, are the relationships between the performer, the composer and the audience?
In all of these cases, interest lies not in the text, but in the embodiment of the text; that is, in bringing the text to life both through and with the body. As scholars working with embodiment have argued, embodied knowledges offer conceptually different ways of approaching research and produce very different results. But these results are just as vital as any that might emerge from more conventional conceptual lenses.
I’m headed off to the annual meeting of the Canadian Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies in October. On the agenda: minuets, musical performance and the university classroom. When was the last time you actively engaged your body – or those of your students – in the university classroom? What did your body tell you, not only about the material you were exploring, but also about embodied knowledge? What did it tell you about yourself?
Corinna da Fonnesca-Wollheim observes that:
According to Ms. Turocy, many dance manuals of the period emphasize the primary importance of the figures the dancers draw in space as they move through a work, with one dance master recommending that performers first memorize a piece by walking this blueprint and only then adding the steps, jumps and ornaments. In the dance notation of the time, these outlines have all the symmetry and grace of a manicured French garden. Perhaps in music, too, the harmonic progression holds its own geometric logic that needs to be honored before we consider the virtuosic embellishments above it?
By the end of the workshop, my feet were no closer to mastering the Sarabande than before. But my ears had learned to see Baroque music in a new way.
Come, dance with me.