Music Department Colloquium: Lara Pearson—Interacting with Melody Through Movement: Co-singing Gesture in Karnatak Vocal Performance

Wednesday, September 28, 2022 at 4:30pm

FREE! Reservation required.

When performing and teaching the South Indian style known as Karnāṭaka Saṅgīta (Karnatak music), vocalists tend to spontaneously gesture while they sing. Such physical gestures share an important quality with Karnatak melodic structure, namely a degree of non-discreteness; in this style gamakas (ornaments) tend to subsume conceptually distinct svaras (notes) under their more continuous, often oscillatory, melodic movement. The relationship between gesture and melody lies at the heart of this paper, in which I reflect on the extent to which vocalists’ spontaneous co-singing gestures can be considered as either representations or analyses of musical sound.

Based on interviews with Karnatak musicians and analyses of their teaching and performance practices, I show how vocalists’ gestures tend to index and show iconicity with musical features. As a result, the gestures can be understood, in part, as representations of musical sound – even acting sometimes in lessons as a form of spontaneous kinetic notation. However, drawing on enactive theories of cognition, I ask whether it might be more accurate to view such gesturing as part of vocalists’ bodily engagement with their musical ideas, where such musical ideas already include traces of physical movement. I further discuss ways in which such co-singing gesturing can be viewed as a form of music analysis, in the sense that through gesture, vocalists explore the music and communicate their insights.

This talk is founded on the years I spent learning to play the style with the violinist T.K.V. Ramanujacharyulu, and on my subsequent research with Karnatak musicians on their teaching, learning and performance practices. This includes analyses of gestural interaction based on videos recorded in India between 2011 and 2018.

Lara Pearson is a musicologist and researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (Frankfurt am Main, Germany). Her work focuses on Karnatak music performance and pedagogy in South India, exploring bodily and movement dimensions of musical experience using an interdisciplinary combination of ethnographic and systematic approaches. She has also published on cross-cultural aesthetics, cultural heritage, music notation, and the concept of improvisation.

The colloquium is organized by Assistant Professor of Music John Dankwa and Assistant Professor of Music and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies Saida Daukeyeva as part of the Music Department Colloquium Series. It is also part of the 46th annual Navaratri Festival at Wesleyan.