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This song has a wiggle in the middle

Rena Sharon and Eric Vatikiotis-Bateson (University of British Columbia)  
Thursday, May 17th 

Biological organisms naturally engage in coordinated behavior. Highly skilled behaviors such as spoken communication, singing, or playing a musical instrument exploit this truism to attain more intricately organized and more controlled coordination. So, for example, the basic tendency for two people walking side by side to fall into step with each other can be modified into a highly synchronized march or tango. The fluidity and beauty of such actions depends on sophisticated engagement by the performers for whom the outcome has become a coveted goal rather than a merely comfortable occurrence. The performance of a highly skilled piece of music requires that substantial cognitive, neuromotor, and metabolic resources be marshalled and carefully integrated. The result is more impressive than casual coordination, and more fragile. For example, a minute change in timing that would go unnoticed for two people walking in step can become a glaring performance error in music or song. What’s more, once a behavior becomes a desired outcome, it becomes susceptible to aesthetic interpretation whereby one instance of a performance can be preferred to another. While this is useful in training, it also stylistically constrains the performance to be one way rather than another; in other words, a form emerges that, even if arbitrary from the perspective of any known causal factors, suppresses other forms as different and/or undesirable.

For the past several years, we have taken a multi-pronged approach to understanding how coordination within and between performers contributes to the execution of over-learned expressive behaviors. In this talk, we focus on the particularly rich domain of Art Song in which a pianist and a singer must bring to life a work of art that consists of a poem and a piece of music written for that poem. The task for the Art Song duo is daunting because the audience often has no prior experience with the poem (and increasingly with poetry in general) and therefore has only fleeting access as the piece is performed. To make matters even more complex, over time performance style has become constrained in ways that do not make much sense to modern audiences, thus challenging the final coordination link between performers and audience. We present results of our converging efforts as scientist and musician 1) to modify performance style to better connect with audiences, including expanding the range of the singer’s body motions and introduction of more tangible dramatic devices such as a silent player representing the intended recipient of the song, and 2) to provide quantitative support for these modifications through analysis of the coordination between a singer’s voice and body motion and between the acoustics of the voice and the piano. Finally, we do not at present have the facilities to record the data for quantifying the coordination between musicians and audience; however, we exemplify how such an analysis could be done using our coordination analysis of the rock group, Queen, and a large audience of 72,000.

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