Interview with Claudia Molitor

This interview stemmed from an interest in Claudia’s approach to notation as it seemed to share similar concerns with my own. I’ve been aware of her work with unconventional notation forms for a while, including the flick-book scores, so it was an opportunity to find out more. In particular, here tactile scores interest me greatly as it’s an area I’m exploring with object network and with paper.

This interview began on 23 September 2012.

We both seem to share an interest in tactile scores at the moment, so I wanted to begin by asking how you came to work with scores in this way? I note that you have said that ‘Touch is rarely considered an “appropriate” sense with which to engage with or experience music and visual art.’ I wondered what you meant by appropriate here?  

A few years ago, when my daughter was about six we visited Tate Modern and came across a sculpture she desperately wanted to touch, but she already knew not to in the gallery setting. I realised then that her experience of this work would have been much more meaningful if she had been able to touch. At the same time I wondered whether the artist had hoped that looking at the object would evoke the desire to touch, as it was ‘screaming’ tactility!

Obviously it is impossible to allow thousands of people to touch delicate pieces of work, but I think there is more to “do not touch” than purely preservation, after all the “do not touch” sign is given to sculptures that would hardly erode through touch.

There are more and more instances in art where touch is a considered and integral part of the experience and new technologies allow for exciting possibilities. But for the most part it is neglected, in the gallery it is actively discouraged, in musical events it remains irrelevant.

I think we do not always appreciate how much we experience through touch and that our senses are not as separate as we might sometimes believe them to be. As Steven Connor writes in his article Edison’s Teeth, hearing is “intensely corporeal”. The philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy goes further in his book Listening, explaining that listening makes us experience sense, both the perceptual/sensorial sense, as well as the intellectual/meaning sense. In other words, sense can only be made and experienced through corporeal sensation.
The anthropologist Tim Ingold suggests that we do not inhabit a world of senses, i.e. a world of sounds, tactile sensations and visual impact, which would make us mere consumers of stimuli. But rather the world consists of stuff (his words) that we can engage with through our eyes, ears or skin.

Considering Nancy and Ingold’s ideas you realise that far from being a “minor” sense, touch is equally important to hearing and seeing in the way that we understand the world around us, that all senses are interrelated, that we are truly multimodal creatures.

And in composing we employ all three senses in so many interconnected ways. We listen, we look, we imagine sounds, we make visual representations of our sonic imaginations in the form of scores, we use touch to guide the pen when drawing these scores and ask musicians to touch their instruments to elicit sounds.

And of course sound is what happens when two objects collide, so you might say that the essence of sound is touch.

All this lead me to be interested in finding different approaches to exploring and questioning our understanding of the relationship between listening and touching and seeing. And being a composer the score was the first place I started exploring.

With that in mind, how did you first begin to explore touch in your scores?

The first time I incorporated touch was for an event at the Handel House Museum that   Kerry Andrew asked me to create. I called it Touch and the barely audible and it was a performance installation which also included a wonderful performance by Sarah Nicolls at the harpsichord. She slowly loaded the keys with coins until it was enough to depress the key and pluck the string. In her piece she was exploring her relationship with the weight of her touch, the pressure that is necessary to make a sound, making the ‘weight of the pianistic touch’ visible.

When I started thinking about this event, about Handel and also the house it struck me that many people do not know of Handel’s blindness in old age. Probably because it seems less obviously devastating to a composer than say Beethoven’s deafness. But what would it mean for a composer to lose their vision? We not only immerse ourselves in a world of sound, we work also with our eyes. In writing notation we dwell in a predominantly visual experience, one which directly informs the compositional process.

For Touch and the barely audible I wanted to create an experience for the audience that drew attention to the outer limits of audibility and that blurred the sounds of the audience’s touch and movement with the music that was playing. The floors in the Handel House Museum are beautifully creaky, and when you close your eyes and walk through the house, you get a real sense where you are in the space because of theses ‘soundboards’ underneath you; I couldn’t not include this sound-source!

10 mouth installations was a piece with a bowl of popping sugar, one of pretzel sticks and another of pumpkinseeds. There were ten different ways to eat these, one after another in different orders, two and then the other, and all three together. The aim of the piece was three fold, to create an incredibly intimate piece, one that only the participating individual could feel, hear and taste; to draw attention to the fascinating sounds that occur even when engaging in something so every-day as eating; and of course it was a great way to draw attention to the interconnectedness of the senses.

For that installation I also created Stitched Score, where I mended an old, hand-woven tablecloth with embroidery that incorporated notational elements. And Material Manuscript which is a score that becomes progressively less visible, but at the same time more tactile. The first page is written with pen, as you would expect, but by the last page the notation is raised using different white materials. The audience is encouraged to explore these pages through touch, noting the different textures and listening to the sounds the friction between their fingers and the score makes.

In both these pieces you include notation elements, and I wondered to what extent these still have a meaning for people realising the score? Are they functional in any way?

Yes, they do indeed fulfil a function, but not entirely the one that is usually expected from notation. We mostly think of the score, like the written text, as ‘silent’ in itself. Only when played or spoken do the practices of notating and writing become sonic. We do not question the written word’s functionality or even validity if it is not read allowed, although there was a time when reading was always a sounding undertaking. Reading silently was not something anyone would do, because the written word was not thought of as separate from its origin in the sounding voice. Tim Ingold writes beautifully about this in his book Lines: A Brief History. Notation was a development alongside the written word and grew out of its commas and full stops. But unlike the written word it never quite divorced itself from being both visual and sonic at the same time. Hence a score that is not intended to be sonified in the conventional sense seems redundant, dead, even pointless!

I think it is wonderful that through musical notation the eye hears and the ear sees, and this I want to draw attention to by presenting a somewhat paradoxical score, a score that is not meant to be performed in a conventional way. (The touching of the score of course does make sound!) Some notational elements in these scores make only obscure sense because they have been manipulated to such an extent that they have become more graphic markings than notational instruction. But when you look at them you are undoubtedly faced with notation, there remains a strong memory of score and therefore a potential for sound… a sort of inaudible music…

One of the things I’ve found when making tactile scores is the need to distinguish between the act of touching and the type of material being touched. Of course both play a part in the result, but there’s a difference between the same action being applied to a number of different surfaces, or different actions on the same surface. I wondered how you approach this in your work?

You’re right that when we are thinking about making a tactile score we will think about “touching” (the movement of the audience/performer) and “touch” (the sensation when the material is encountered through skin) as two different aspects to be considered. However, when we touch in day to day life, we don’t usually distinguish consciously between the two. Touching is both movement and friction at the same time. Additionally the way we touch is also influenced by the way something looks, sounds and smells to us before we touch it. Some materials invite us to touch them softly, some not to touch them at all, all before we have even brought our fingers anywhere close to it. And sometimes the “touch sensation” already exists in our brain before the actual touch, particularly when we believe to be familiar with what we are about to touch. If this turns out to be unexpected it can be quite a shock. A little like taking a sip of coffee when you’re expecting it to be tea. In that moment coffee transforms into something quite revolting, because your expectations and experiences don’t match up with the sensation of taste. So the thing I consider and think about when introducing touch into my work is a sort of series of sensory relationships. For example the way something looks, how that visual information may or may not encourage the person to touch, and how the sound that then results from this touching relates to expectation.

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