Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gestural Thought

Pliable is back blogging again after travels abroad and his first post touches on a theme dear to my heart. The title of the post is, "He thinks completely with his body" and it contains this quote from John Heilpern.

An ultimate example of this is revealed in a film of Picasso at work [see above]. In one lightning stroke you can see how the tip of Picasso's brush captures his entire imagination. His brushwork can actually be seen as his thought process. The same is true of the great orchestra conductor. After years and years of work, he thinks and transmits in one gesture. The whole of him is one.

Back in the 70's music therapy was a fairly fringe concept, but over time has become more and more accepted as the data comes in. My feeling is that over time the same is going to happen with embodied cognition, or what I've always called gesture. Just as we play an instrument to create complex sound shapes, music plays the brain creating and connecting all sorts of things beyond the aural.


  1. Earlier this week I was at orchestra rehearsal, doing Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. The famous horn solo in the 2nd movement requires a similar idea, except that I'm gesturing with sound. I know what kind of emotion I'm trying to convey (though there are no words that can describe it adequately), and to communicate it, I have each element of the solo just so, with an emphasis here and a slight holding of the tempo there.

    And at the end, people (hopefully) think it is wonderful. It has spoken to them. They have no idea of the techniques involved, either the mechanics of getting sound out of the instrument, nor of the thought that went into producing and refining the interpretation. All we can hope for is that they like the result!

    The conductor does the same, but at one level further removed. By silent gesture he or she must inspire the musicians who produce the sounds so that they in turn can inspire the audience! That takes leadership and communication skills of a very high order.

  2. Jonathan - If I understand embodied cognition correctly, when you say, "except that I'm gesturing with sound" - those gestures in sound have meaning only because they somehow evoke, suggest, spring from physical gestures. Rather than being abstract constructs, they are based on body movements, and then refined to a great degree. To me, that's where atonal/arythmic music goes astray, unless you want to portray madness with all its twitching and then "refine" that.

  3. those gestures in sound have meaning only because they somehow evoke, suggest, spring from physical gestures

    We may be talking about different things again, but I would say that the sound I make in music is not representing physical gestures, but rather that both gestures and sounds are equally intended to represent or emotions, or alternatively are both forms of non-verbal communication.

    So I think it is a mistake to think of sounds or music in terms of gestures, it is better to think of both as having some degree of common purpose.

  4. Jonathan - Later yesterday thinking about this, thought of the linguistic concept of "cognates", where various words in modern languages can be traced back to a single word in an ancient language. Don't mean to imply a one to one mapping between the physical and the emotional/mental, just that there's a deep connection.

    As far as I know the embodied cognition people haven't talked about music at all, so this is all intuitive speculation on my part, so your skepticism is warranted. But if I'd waited until music therapy was empirically validated before getting involved, wouldn't be where I am today.