Musical gestures as the interface of cultural identity in music performance. Western embodiment of Karnatic music

Start - End 
2012 - 2017 (ongoing)
Department of Art, music and theatre sciences



Recalling the sentence by the famous French pianist and pedagogue Marie Jaëll-Trautmann who asked herself before performing, “Will I have my soul at my fingertips?” (Guichard, 2004), I reflected on the role of performing gestures as the interface between the performer’s identity and musical meaning. Music performance implies a union between soul/mind and body which instantiates the sound message as a felt experience (Leman, 2007). The energetic tension produced by the “soul” in the creative act of performing is spread throughout the entire body to reach up to the “fingertips” in order to communicate the musical interpretation of a score to the listeners. To achieve this, the performer enters in a symbiotic union with his instrument while transforming by his bodily gestures his intentions into sound (Nijs et al., 2013).

As a piano performer, I was spurred to study the link between my musical intentions and my gestures by practicing a Western piano work based on Karnatic music from South India, 72 Etudes Karnatiques by the French composer Jacques Charpentier (1933). In this specific case study, my interpretation required a creative embodied knowledge - implicit and explicit - acquired through a deliberate practice from my own cultural background (enculturation) and from the Indian environmental context (acculturation). Considering how my interpretation would have been biased by a process of acculturation, I asked myself about the effects my intentionality would have produced onto my performing gestures.

Can gestures be considered as an interface of the performers’ cultural identity in music performance? In observing and analyzing my gestures in a live performance, how can I link movements to my musical intentions? Can my performing gestures be related to the musical meanings I embed in the score? And finally, can I identify my lived experience as instantiated into my musical gestures through the lens of empirical data?

By interweaving phenomenology and motion capture studies, I will perceive and explain gestures as a self “action” objectified into the “body image” which vehicles musical intentionality in terms of multifarious subjective data, i.e. thoughts, feelings, understandings and cultural interpretations.From this specific angle, my artistic research aims at studying performing gestures as an interface of intentions expressing both musical and cultural meanings. 





Dan Vandewalle

Royal Conservatory of Ghent