I can’t remember exactly when it was, but it was certainly as I was juuuuuuuust beginning work on the piece that became “This is the Female Form…” that I was lucky enough to hear Martha performing some of Saariaho’s pieces for speaking flautist. I was struck—as one often is at magically engaging performances—with a revelation, one made even clearer in her work than in my own [for who could compare!?]:
The transverse flutes, because of their particular method of tone-production, participate in the phenomenology of the musically performing body in a peculiar way. The flutist participates—through the breath, the stopping of the teeth, the probing of the tongue, the pursing of the lips—in a physical actionworld which is of the kiss and the word; because of the manner in which the mouth participates, and the transverse breath escaping into the shared space of the performer and audience (rather than disappearing away from the audience down the performer’s instrument), the flute is active on a continuum of physical activity with speaking and singing, rather than existing in a different world of action. The flute’s music is a difference of degree—rather than kind—to speech and song. This is, perhaps, unique among the standard instrumental typologies.
Saariaho illuminates this continuum by manoeuvring the flautist’s physicality slowly along it; the weaving from air, to song, to speech to tone and back again—with signposts of rhythm and texture along the way. It was on the bus after that performance that I first sketched the two-measure incipit of “Female Form.” [Sidebar: that two-measure passage—which recurs throughout the work—also made an unexpected appearance in my ensemble piece “West Florissant 2014.” I hadn’t realised until the work was at the printshop…]
Sadly—or at least differently—this deliberate method of engaging a continuum is… not my way. So in “Female Form” I engage the continuum using a methodology of extremes, wrenching the performer physically from the tone-end the speech-end to the kiss-end [fuck off, geometers, this continuum has three ends] until she (and the original intended performer, Laura Cocks, was a woman) is entirely spent. [The piece takes on entirely different and very interesting dimension when performed by a male-presenting performer, as I hope to find out when this piece is performed in Wroclaw in May.]
The text, in the person of the title, takes on a rather obvious meaning—beyond the lustful, which is never far from my mind in even the most cerebral of reveries—in light of this physical phenomenology of performance. The title is a call to the audience to be mindful of the physical body—female form—performing in front of them as the locus of musical action, not as metaphysical conduit nor helpmeet nor handmaiden for the composer’s Platonic scorething.
© 2017 Martha Cargo