Louise Alenius. © Kasper Vang

The composer in the bedroom

Reflections on a meeting with persona Louise Alenius in her performance 'Prequiem'.
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Part 1 – A bedroom experience
In September i experienced Louise Alenius' work Rouge where she gently tortured her two performing musicians while playing. Six weeks previously she performed a different piece in my private bedroom with me as the only member of the audience. I was laying in my bed in the role of a dying person at a hospice for her work Prequiem. This work is only performed for the terminally ill in their private ward – a quite peculiar performance situation for all involved.

Louise Alenius sang for me and played the Indian instrument shruti box. She was accompanied by Jenni Luning on viola. So there I lay, constituting a very exclusive audience. The fact that I had never met Alenius before made the experience even weirder. She wouldn't even allow any email correspondence, but made the arrangements through an agent. The reason for this arrangement was that I was writing an interview article about her for the digital paper Zetland.dk [Article (in Danish)]

So, the first time I met Louise Alenius I was laying in my bed as she walked in, performed a brief ritual with a scarf in her hands and began to sing

So, the first time I met Louise Alenius I was laying in my bed as she walked in, performed a brief ritual with a scarf in her hands and began to sing. During the performance I attempted to have eye contact with her, which I managed after some hesitation on her part. A certain game of our glances meeting and separating occurred between us. We were establishing a relation between the composer and the audience on peculiar grounds marked with embarrassment. This was awkward, at least for me, even though she later told me she preferred to speak of “fragility”.

At some point I was suddenly moved by the music (and the lyrics) and I shed exactly two tears. I don't think the composer noticed how it touched her audience. The point is that this mix of intimacy, strangeness and performance is unlike any other experience I have ever had.

Part 2. Objective sensibility
I will now move from my bedroom to a drier environment: My PhD dissertation and book Objektiv sensibilitet ('Objective Sensibility').

In short, I examine how objects as well as images and music can be expressive and convey emotions and affect. It entails a complex philosophical argument as well as concrete analyses of artworks and music.

The core of the argument is that both the idea that the answer is to be found in the composer's subjectivity and the idea that the answer is to be found in the listener are wrong. Instead we need to focus on the object, the work itself. Of course the subjectivity of both the composer and the listener play a role in the process of creation and experience, but not in the sense it is often naively assumed in a common mindset still saturated by expressionist aesthetics and committing an expressive fallacy.

The answer to the question of how art and music express emotions is not that the inner feelings of the artist is somehow communicated through the music so that we are in contact with the feelings of the composer when we listen to music. This idea is just as fascinating and popular as it is wrong.

The opposite idea is equally problematic. This is the notion that emotions in music are simply a question of the listener projecting her own emotions into the artwork, an idea many sociologists love because it enables them to eliminate the artwork and have a proper behaviourist object of study. If this were in fact true, we would never have proper experiences, only narcissistic affirmations of ourselves. On the contrary, when we have a proper aesthetic experience, we meet something outside of ourselves, an object (in the broadest sense of the word) which affects us with its expression. The object is the centre and thus the experience can be called 'allocentric' (as opposed to 'autocentic', where oneself is the centre).

Rather than a character they are a persona – a staged and self-conscious version of themselves

Something happens when we experience a piece of music or a work of art. An expression and an experience take place. And basically, what the music expresses is not essentially the emotions of the composer or the listener, but of the music itself.

Of course, music does not have emotions in the sense that it experiences emotions, but nevertheless music can and does express emotions, and herein lies the crux of the matter. Music is expressive because we let it be expressive. We are empathic creatures perceiving the expression.

We use our sensibility to perceive the gestures of the music and we employ our nervous system in the service of the musical piece when we have a proper aesthetic experience. Our body and cognitive apparatus becomes like a seismograph registering the trembling of the musical object. This is 'objective sensibility' in a nutshell.

Part 3. The challenge
So I have been challenged. I have had an aesthetic experience where I was in direct contact with the composer Louise Alenius. Where we affected each other with our glances. Doesn't this go against my concept of objective sensibility in that our souls met directly with the eyes as the interface?

Not really. Of course, there was contact and it was personal and it affected my experience of the work significantly. But this became a part of the performative work, not some mechanism behind it.

The performative staging is always a part of live music, more or less prominently. In the tradition of the happening in the broad sense – be it John Cage, Fluxus or other frameworks – the performative aspect is decisive and the composer is often on stage performing.

A good example is Danger Music Number Seventeen by Dick Higgins, in which the performer (who was originally also the composer) screams repeatedly. The scream is in a sense the essence of an expressionist aesthetic where the inner pain is so powerful that it must come out, suspending the civilized effort of forming words. But in this case it is a performance, and it is possible to scream with conviction no matter which mood you're in. It is an act.

The performer of a traditional happening is not an actor, but still does things (s)he only does because the performance demands it

Not an act in the same way an actor plays a character. The performer of a traditional happening is not an actor, but still does things (s)he only does because the performance demands it. It is a planned, limited and formalized action performed by one or more people. Rather than a character they are a persona – a staged and self-conscious version of themselves. The pop star and the stand-up comedian are other good examples of persona on stage playing themselves.

When Louise Alenius finished the performance in the bedroom of my apartment, she and the viola player retired to the living room. I didn't quite know what to do, so I went in there to talk about the ensuing interview. But Alenius stopped me and said: »Before we talk I would like to go down on the street to come out of character and return as myself«. She perceived of (what I would call) her persona as a character. But regardless of the term, the point is that there was a performative self at stake, which was decisive both for me and for her.

I was moved by the whole performance, including her performative presence, but just as much by the music and the lyrics. There was a musical and performative work to which I related and which affected me. The answer to what happened, to how an expression took place, is not inside Louise Alenius' heart, but rather outside in what happened performatively in that particular room, my private bedroom, which temporarily was transformed into a venue.

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