Movement and Musical Meaning
William Westney joins an international, cross-disciplinary collaboration for a deeper look at gesture.
by John Davis
For piano virtuoso and prize-winning educator William Westney, the study seemed fitting.
In a state-of-the-art, FourM's – Music, Mind, Motion, Machines laboratory in Oslo, Norway, he sat connected to sensors and plugged into a computer as the subject of an experiment by researchers from universities in Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden who were seeking new ways to analyze musical gesture and meaning.
As he played a passage of Harold Arlen's "That Old Black Magic" three times while portraying different emotions each time, his movements were logged into a computer database where they could be used for comparison by philosophers and technicians attempting to understand the contribution of gesture to the way we perform and interpret music.
The experiment is right up the alley of this Horn Professor of Music.
Westney prides himself on developing new approaches to teaching young musicians how to express themselves through performance after learning the importance of multi-faceted musical expression at an early age. His own Un-Master Class seeks to break down the barriers young performers face with techniques closer to those used in an actor's studio than a typical musical master class.
The goal of the Un-Master Class, he said, is to help musicians open up so that they experience the piece of music they’re playing with their whole body in a genuine, authentic manner to ensure their performances are full of life and ring true.
"Basically, I don't see any other reason to be on stage performing music (and the Un-Master Class is a performance class) unless it is establishing some sort of meaningful connection with the audience," Westney said. "This is just like acting, public speaking, dance – anything that is offered from the stage. And for most people who study music, the dream of being able to make that connection, and trust themselves to do it, is the deep reason they started studying in the first place."
The manner in which music may be said to be meaningful has intrigued and provoked philosophers through the ages, said Cynthia M. Grund, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Southern Denmark, who asked Westney to participate in the collaborative Nordic research.
"Traditionally, it only has been possible to discuss many of the questions related to this topic in speculative terms," Grund said. "The development of information technology within the past 10 to 15 years has provided us with new tools with which to study musical performance, musical perception and the character of the sounds produced by musical instruments, just to name a few areas of investigation of relevance to the question of the formation of musical meaning."
Westney with students from Texas Tech University.
Grund and Westney will be presenting a paper titled "Pathways to Authenticity in Operatic Interpretation" at the 1st Annual Conference of the Royal Musical Association's Music and Philosophy Study Group, Opera and Philosophy, King's College, London, July 1-2. While Grund is in London, Westney will be participating via Skype from Oakland, Calif., where he will be keynote speaker at the Music Teachers Association of California convention.
During 2011, they will also be presenting work together at Texas Tech University; University of Texas, Austin; and at the annual meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in Tampa, Fla., where they will present a co-authored paper titled "'You Make It Look So Easy:' Negotiating Utility and Beauty in the Practice Room – a Discourse Addressing the Themes of Beauty, Utility and Experimental Aesthetics in Broadly Humean Terms."
Images of William Westney Courtesy Neal Hinkle.
Though Westney started playing the piano at the age of 5, he began a more holistic Dalcroze movement-oriented music study at the age of 3.
"I was growing up in Queens, N.Y., and it was evident to my parents when I was 3 years old that I had musical ability," Westney said. "But I was much too small physically to play the piano at that time. It seemed like I needed an outlet for music in my life – some activity I could go to that would be fun. It just so happened that there was a little Dalcroze class right in our neighborhood. That was an incredible stroke of luck. I’m a huge fan of Dalcroze now as a way for people to start their music study before they ever try to press the keys on an instrument."
Emile Jaques-Dalcroze was a Swiss composer and music teacher who developed a cross-disciplinary method of experiencing and learning music called eurhythmics. Also studied by actors, dancers and philosophers, Dalcroze believed that turning the body into a musical instrument was the best way to generate a solid musical foundation.
Westney said this served as the foundation of his approach to music.
He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree from Queens College in New York and a performance doctorate from the Yale School of Music, all with highest academic distinctions. Other than a brief encounter with the writings of art philosopher Susanne Langer while in college, Westney had little contact with the music philosophy genre after that.
Westney studied in Italy under a Fulbright grant. Performing credentials include top piano prize in the Geneva International Competition, top prize (and only American winner) in "Radiotelevisione Italiana" auditions, recitals at New York's Lincoln Center, in London, Denmark, Iceland, Taiwan and Korea, throughout Italy on a U.S. State Department tour, and on NPR's "Performance Today."
Meanwhile, he began developing his Un-Master Class methods in about 1985 at Texas Tech. This also led to his book, "The Perfect Wrong Note," in 2003. The book deals not only with trusting the body for meaning, expression and connections in performance mode, but also with motor learning and letting the body express itself even if the results are momentarily less than perfect in the beginning.
"It's a way to get the body to work in a virtuosic way without strain and conflict," Westney said, explaining the book’s theory. "It turns out there are a number of philosophies that relate to this. And I always hoped that would be the case, and that the things we do in music would be an exciting subject for philosophers. Music performance is uniquely intense. There's a lot going on in a musical performance. Levels of meaning. Personal and interpersonal psychology. Body and mind. Both sides of the body. The whole brain is being activated. There's a profound emotive and spiritual component. It's an uncanny communication with groups of people. It's full of dimensions that can be fruitfully talked about and studied."
Images from *Music, Movement, Performance & Perception: Perspectives on Cross-Disciplinary Research and Teaching within NNIMIPA - Nordic Network for the Integration of Music Informatics, Performance and Aesthetics. An essay in words and pictures recounting the NordPlus-sponsored Coordination Meeting for NNIMIPA held at the University of Oslo, February 18-19, 2010. Photography by Cynthia M. Grund.
The Power of Facebook
Westney taught Grund piano for one year, 1972-73, but they lost touch after that.
Years later and thanks to the magic of social media, the two reconnected on Facebook. Though Grund became a philosopher, she continued to study the philosophical aspects of music and its meaning. And new technology was helping her to unlock new answers.
"When we got to talking over the Internet, I discovered we had been sort of on parallel tracks in our pursuit of music and meaning," Westney said. "When I went over to Denmark to take part in a number of projects, several of Cynthia's colleagues thought I might be a good candidate for a guest professorship at the University of Southern Denmark, even though the university has no music department. That's what brought me over last year, and it gave me the opportunity to spend six months deep in my involvement in these networks of philosophers and other investigators."
He spent six months as the Hans Christian Andersen Guest Professorial Fellow in the philosophy department. Along with his participation in Grund's research program, "The Aesthetics of Music and Sound: Cross-Disciplinary Interplay between the Humanities, Technology and Musical Practice," he mingled with an interdisciplinary mix of scholars, and offered his expertise as an artist and educational practitioner.
Grund, who also serves as project manager for the Nordic Network for the Integration of Music Informatics, Performance, and Aesthetics said Westney's work in developing his Un-Master Class and the numerous related topics on which he had written and lectured has proven to be of interest for researchers and students within philosophy of music, education, linguistics, medicine and performance studies.
"I proposed Bill for the appointment based on the argument that no field allows for more cross-disciplinary synergy than music when it is studied in its fullness," Grund said. "His development of the Un-Master Class was based on many years of experience, both as performer and educator, and drew extensively upon intuitions that he had regarding the use of gesture in honing skills useful for richer musical performance, interpretation and appreciation. The Un-Master Class had thus been a kind of travelling laboratory for 25 years of research and development regarding the use of gesture on various levels to enhance musical performance and appreciation. It was therefore a marvelous opportunity to associate Bill's practice-based expertise regarding gesture in musical performance with the empirical studies."
E for Experiment
Researchers used motion capture technology to create digital, 3-dimensional animated models of the complex motions made by the performing musician, Grund said. The models are generated by 3-D motion capture photography of sensors placed on the body of the musician, and provide scientists with a new tool to selectively view aspects of the performer’s movement that haven't been measurable until now.
Westney said he was excited to participate.
"I had no idea of what that would feel like," he said. "You wear a tight running jacket with Velcro on it, and they affix sensors to you. Luckily, you don’t feel this material very much on your feet, or hands or head, since it's extremely lightweight. As I portrayed the designated feelings through my playing, I tried hard not to do so in an external, self-conscious way, but just feel the emotion inside. Preliminarily, people who have seen the results tend to find more expressive clarity from watching the stick figure than from seeing the entire video of a person whose facial expression and the full-body presence are visible. That’s very interesting to me and other performers. I was intrigued."
Because this is a new frontier and the work still is in its infancy, Grund said one of the fascinating parts of the work is discovering further questions created by the nature of the data now made available by means of the technology.
So far, the relationship has borne fruit on several fronts. Westney and Grund have given joint conversational lecture-performances in four countries. This past October they delivered a paper together at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics in Victoria, Canada, entitled "Embodying Music." Westney has participated in several of Grund's research seminars at University of Southern Denmark in Odense via Skype during the 2010-2011 academic year.
"I'm continuing to explore ways to use the new technology as a feedback tool for performers," Westney said. "One hope might be to find greater efficiency in the way we gesture, and then integrate that in our performing movements. There are apparently many ways that the artistic instincts we have can be verified and brought to new levels of insight through technology."
William Westney: http://williamwestney.com/
Cynthia M. Grund: http://www.cynthiamgrund.dk/
The Aesthetics of Music and Sound: http://soundmusicresearch.org/index.html
William Westney – H.C. Andersen Visiting Professorial Fellow 2009-10: http://www.soundmusicresearch.org/HCA_Prof.html
*Grund, C.M and Westney, W. Music, Movement, Performance & Perception: Perspectives on Cross-Disciplinary Research and Teaching within NNIMIPA - Nordic Network for the Integration of Music Informatics, Performance and Aesthetics. An essay in words and pictures recounting the NordPlus-sponsored Coordination Meeting for NNIMIPA held at the University of Oslo, February 18-19, 2010. Text: Cynthia M. Grund and William Westney. Photography: Cynthia M. Grund. Odense: The Institute of Philosophy, Education and the Study of Religions at the University of Southern Denmark and NNIMIPA: Nordic Network for the Integration of Music Informatics, Performance and Aesethetics, a network supported by NordPlus, 76 pages. ISBN 978-87-92646-11-8. Release date for print version: November 11, 2010. Online version at: http://www.nnimipa.org/CM.html
John Davis is a Sr. Writer in the Office of Communications & Marketing at Texas Tech University.