Bryony White: Where lies the origins or urge to use music within your performance work?
non-performer: I suspect that the initial urge to use music in my performance work derived from the fact that I don’t write music or play any musical instruments, although I do listen to music a lot. I also spent a significant amount of time watching live music acts as a result of my part-time job. As a spectator, I began to notice recurrent behaviours in the musicians on stage. Whatever the genre was; folk, blues, jazz, rock, experimental – I saw the ritual.
A structure was then discernible, from which I soon began to identify certain codes and prerequisites. I became interested in this structure, and furthermore the conventions of music, how it is made, and its language and terminology.
For instance, I was interested in which term a musician, or a group of musicians, would use to define their genre, and whether that term would mean anything. Further to this, I was interested in how a musician performs – the persona that he creates when on or off ‘stage’, its various physicalities, and how he would make use of his body when performing and handling the instruments.
Moreover, I wanted to explore how music can be used as a plot device. How, through music, stories are being told and narratives created, and how music makes use of text or rather ‘spoken text’, which has an anarchic appeal.
As I mentioned, I’m not able to write or make music myself. So, with ‘I was Less Than Amazing’ (‘IWLTA’) I decided to take the structure of a music gig, because the structure would hold the audience through the show, suggesting that the ‘predictability’ of this structure would help to give shape to a piece which relied primarily on an anarchic use of text rather than a linear narrative, physical movement or visuals. This structure became a functional contributor in sustaining a linear dramaturgy throughout the piece.
I worked in setting the space as a music gig would take place-which eventually it was a gig; an experimental gig drawing on performance, where lighting would follow the conventions of gig lighting and where musical instruments were both musical instruments but also scenographic elements.
Actual music in IWLTA played for approximately 4.75 minutes.
BW: There is a poetic quality and rhythmic musicality to the way in which you perform the ‘spoken text’ of your performances. How do you score or go about the process of writing the text for your work?
np: In the case of IWLTA I worked a lot with the spoken word which became the text through writing, and eventually became the ‘spoken text’. Writing in this case acted out more as a filter and a vehicle that allowed me to record and document my spoken word in a visual way.
The spoken word was fundamental to my thinking therefore fundamental to my writing. I would speak out loud (or whisper) and write. Most of the times I was doing both simultaneously and at other times I would stop speaking, and I would only write, but always in relation to the previously spoken word. When I would finish my writing, I would read the text out loud. There I was in a position where I could concentrate more in the acoustic properties of a word and start playing with the different sounds a word can produce.
Sounds construct and deconstruct meaning, so narrative is constructed and deconstructed accordingly. For this reason the sound of a word or the sound of a combination of words ( a composition) dictated the way I would proceed with my writing, but also in later stages how I would recite the text, therefore how I would perform the ‘spoken text’. Through the spoken word and the ‘spoken text’ I would detect ‘inherited’ rhythms, just as different languages express rhythm in different ways. So then I had to make decisions if I were to keep the ‘inherited’ rhythm or if I would intervene, alter or impose a new rhythm which in some cases would alter the meaning of the word itself.
This can be seen as the first step in ‘scoring’ the text. I would then repeat the same procedure (as described above) but now through artificial means (although artificiality was used before through the act of writing): I used a vocal stompbox where I could manipulate my voice by applying different effects (fx) such as distortion, radio and strobe, reverb,robot, delay. Also I could create loops and layers in real time. This ‘artificiality’ added another dimension and ‘amplification’ (technically and metaphorically) on the ‘spoken text’. The layered loops would produce another layer of sound, and as a result, at times the ‘spoken text’ would acquire new meaning.
I would choose a specific fx and depending on the text I would try different ways of recitιng. Just like in a photograph, I detected in the text what ‘pierced me’. I would then try and translate it into an action, a moment or a situation and along with the chosen fx I would form the final ‘composition’ and/or ‘scoring’ of the text.
Furthermore I focused on the signifier, the word, the shape of the word and its phonic component. It became my primary focus as it felt more stable, instead of focusing on the signified, which varies between people and contexts (though that in itself allows playfulness in shaping meaning, by possibly allowing reinvention and re-investment).
Finally I was affected by Saussure’s view that a signifier without a signified is noise, whereas the signified without a signifier is impossible. Maybe after all my ‘spoken text’ was just noise.
BW: I’m interested in the ideas of failing/failure within your performance work and the way this is predicated within the very title of I Was Less Than Amazing. Can you pinpoint why you chose to engage with this phenomenon of failure and what you are trying to critique through using failure?
np: I chose to engage with the phenomenon of failure as it is something that I am very familiar with – something that I do very well. Failure is something very personal to me. I perceive failure as a form of involuntary acceptance or an imposed acceptance-which is a paradox : a non-accepting acceptance. That very moment where you experience failure, whether you like it or not, whether you want to or not-you accept it.
Failure can act as a neutraliser. For when you fail – a new balance is established. But what I find most interesting is that failure can be disarming. Disarming for the person who experiences failure, but even more for the person who will witness failure – the spectator. Failure can arouse sympathy, pity or even revolt (and that revolt can become fruitful). However it never ceases to arouse, and for me that very act of arousement, carries a perverted quality which I find attractive. I perceive failure as a spectacle, and as something very watchable.
In IWLTA by predicating failure I had set an arena where I could place and expose my interests -and through the constraints of it, I was allowed to critique and touch upon subjects in a more raw, aggressive and immediate way, using ‘spectacular’ language to disrupt the flow of the ‘spectacle’. Through failure I critiqued failure-It was personal and then it became political. The critique dealt mainly with the ego-obsession of today’s successful human who fails to fail: it dealt not with its supposed suppression, but with its hyper-expressivity.
BW: ‘When I’m singing, I’m not thinking, I’m just trying to feel’ – I enjoy what seems like a frustration with the way in which celebrities, or certain prominent figures propagate themselves within the media and how through your performance work this is filtered through the comedic and the satirical. Do you feel a frustration/anxiety with and around the empty terms words or theories that are thrown about in the media or elsewhere?
np: Certainly, yes. This kind of frustration/anxiety is quite evident in IWLTA. But what really triggered this kind of frustration, wasn’t just the empty terms/words and theories alone, but their resonance within the public. But what had already ‘legitimised’ these empty terms/words/ theories and gave access so to be thrown about in the media or elsewhere, was the image of certain celebrities and certain prominent figures (the image they had created for themselves, or what the industry created for them). And the image has a central importance in society and it is the main tool of marketing and religion.
By focusing on the image, I saw big, constructed icons. And I could discern, newly constructed mythologies. And because they were newly constructed, they weren’t mythologies but pseudo mythologies. I would observe how they could ‘legitimately’ disseminate their ‘self-pseudo-mythology’ to the point of idolatry, as if, they were something sacred. And then it was interesting to see the people’s response. This reminded me that people always seem to be in need of icons, just as they are in need of stories.
So that is why IWLTA became this odd kind of vanity project, using a persona device and constructing its specific image. This persona was inspired by a strange mixture of iconic (and not so iconic figures), spanning from the art world- particularly from performance art to the music industry -from wannabe artists or musicians/ singers to more mainstream art/pop icons: a strange mixture of introvert and extrovert, someone you can keep looking at but never get any closer to understanding.
That became my vehicle within the gig structure mechanism, where I could use the comedic and the satirical. And it felt very challenging as there was a very thin line between satire and parody: one thing I was sure of, was that, I wasn’t set to create a parody. There is this pressure nowadays where everything needs to be either funny or utterly dramatic, and I didn’t want to do that.
In IWLTA, I purposefully used the empty terms, words and theories that I came across in the media and created a variation where i could reuse some of the characteristic elements of the originating work. I would alter these and I would place them in a context where I could subvert, change their meaning, and put across an oppositional message. My attempt was to turn expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself.
BW: I’m interested in how as a solo artist, you call yourself ‘non-performer’ as opposed to using your given name. Where does the decision originate?
np: To start with, I have a ridiculously big, ‘foreign’ name. This was an opportunity where I could choose not to use it. Of course it was more than that: the word non performer can be defined as a person or thing, that is not performing well or properly, or a person who does not perform, especially on stage or before a camera, as a crew member of a stage production. It is also a synonym of failure. I liked the idea of calling my self non performer: performing the non-performative and claim the non-performance of performance.
BW: How (if) do you document your work?
np: I sometimes document my work through writing – I write in various paper notebooks, draft emails, google docs, post-it notes or anything that I can write on. I also document my work through photographs, drawings and audiovisual recordings. Part of the documentation is also keeping costumes, objects, or anything that was used in my work.
BW: Do you ever return to earlier work? In what form? With what goal?
np: I dont use this documentation as a basis for new work, though the possibility of it becoming a basis for new work always remains. I do return to earlier work. Usually to criticize it. I find that documentation deals essentially with time and time interests me.
non performer works across theatre, live art, comedy, autobiography, and the spoken word. non performer’s practice utilises discursive everyday structures and works within these received structures in order to destabilise the audience’s familiarity with the predictability of their established codes and conventions. non performer’s work often questions the potential failure of the theatrical set-up and how the failure of theatre’s frameworks can establish generative and alternative possibilities for both the performer and spectator.
non performer received a B.A. in History of Art and Drama from Kingston University, an M.A. in Performance Making from Goldsmiths, University of London, and completed an intensive course in Contemporary Drama at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
non performer is Alina Dheere Babaletsos.