The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada
The Ecology of Experimental
Music Performance in Canada

Charlotte Hug


Newman Wine Vaults, July 9, 2006
Sound Symposium, St. John's

Excerpt from "Naked Intimacy"1
By Ellen Waterman

[In this article, I analyse the intensely erotic performance practice of Charlotte Hug, Swiss violist, composer/improviser and visual artist, in the context of two French philosophers: George Bataille and Luce Irigaray. They are polar opposites. Bataille writes about taboos and violence, and Irigarary writes about intersubjectivity and the feminine. I found both aspects in Hug's performance and was fascinated to hear what audience members had to say about it.]

In 2000, Swiss violist Charlotte Hug spent three months improvising in the dank, dark tunnels and cells of London's House of Detention, a former underground prison first built in the 16th century. Hug describes this "archetypal" space as both a "prison" and a "shelter" (Interview), echoing the ambivalence between entrapment and protection found in MauerauM WandrauM [a work performed inside a glacial cave]. The result of this sustained improvisational process is a multipart performance piece entitled Neuland (2000-2003). Hug sees Neuland as a constantly evolving work since each performance is a response to a new space and audience (Interview). Indeed, she describes the work not as a traditional composition, but rather as a "genealogical tree": an audio-visual and intellectual dialogue that has been developed over many years (Personal communication).

At the 2006 Sound Symposium in St. John's, Newfoundland, I documented Hug's performance of Neuland in the gothic atmosphere of the 19th century Newman wine vaults. Hug was an incandescent presence in performance, her viola, bows, arms, and body kinetic. Like a dancer, she used her body to activate the performance environment, one moment playing high in the air, then against a wall or crouched low to the ground, her back to the audience in a corporeal invocation of spatial acoustics. Hug's presentation was dramatic but efficacious, every movement serving to draw forth sound, helping us to "see" it.

Following the concert, I conducted a participant intercept study: a set of anonymous short "on-the-spot" interviews with audience members who were attending a post-concert reception. I set out to discover "how people experienced" Charlotte Hug's performance rather than "what they thought of it." To that end, I asked people to describe their aural, visual, imaginative, and emotional impressions.

The vast majority of comments express a combination of discipline and desire. For example, almost every respondent began by acknowledging Hug's "mastery" over her instrument, noting her "intensity" and expressing fascination with her particular bow and vocal techniques. Several people spoke about being swept away by the performance: "I'm still a little dazed" (W3); "When it's working for me I'm not aware of myself" (M2); "For me it's more of an in-the-moment sort of thing" (W2). Perhaps most tellingly, one respondent said, "I look for an experience and being told something, and I want to be taken somewhere, and I'm not very discriminative in terms of where, as long as there is a sense of mastery" (W1). On the other hand, people also gained obvious pleasure (and information) from watching and analysing, noting Hug's ecstatic performance but distancing themselves in a voyeuristic fashion. Consider the following three comments:

I always watch. It's all about how her whole body moves, how she acts as much as the music. [. . .] [I'm] trying to sort out the performance-based kind of stuff from the moments where she disappears into what she's doing [. . .] there's a shift in body movements and noises that are produced. (M2)

I was trying to analyze it more than enjoy. (M3)

I wanted to close my eyes and listen, but she was doing some neat stuff and I thought, gee if I don't listen to it [. . .] if I don't watch, then I don't know how she actually created those sounds. (W4)

Although it's clearly unwise to generalize from such a small sample, these audience members may be interpreted as describing both the sense of discontinuity (observing from a distance) and the desire for continuity (submitting to the experience) that Bataille finds operative in the erotic.

One audience member, however, described her listening experience in a manner more suggestive of Irigaray's ethics of intersubjective listening:

I let my brain be very busy and I thought about how she did it. I'm a viola player. I thought about how strong she was, and about how courageous she was to try this, and then after a while I shut my eyes and thought about what it would have been [like] underground when she was playing there, so I could really experience that. [. . .] She seems to really love her instrument. I thought about that a lot. [. . .] She has to have worked with it for hours and hours and hours, and you wouldn't do it unless you loved it. Her fingers are so strong. (W5)

Rather than seeking escape in the music, this listener retained control over the listening experience ("I let my brain be very busy") while also recognizing Hug's efforts: her strength, her work, her courage, her love. Closing her eyes, this listener tried to listen her way into the space that produced Hug's music. Of course, we could also interpret this empathetic listener as identifying with (and perhaps even projecting her own experience onto) Hug, since the listener is also a violist and a woman. But she does seem to me to be trying to meet Hug on her own terms. Irigaray writes that respectful listening between two subjects is about more than the search for information (useful though that might be): "I am listening to you is to listen to your words as something unique, irreducible, especially to my own, as something new, as yet unknown" ("I Love to You" 116).

It appears that eroticism's "true communication" (as Direk would have it) operates on two quite different levels: 1) it occurs in the jouissance found through an ecstatic identification with the other; 2) it occurs in the loving caress between two subjects where there is no "other." Bataille's conception of communication is essentially pessimistic; the continuity we desire may be blissful, but it is impossible to sustain. Irigaray's conception is utopian: under patriarchy woman cannot be a subject, but she must nevertheless work towards creating a space for subjecthood. Irigaray insists that the progress towards a sexuate culture that recognizes and honours difference "needs a language. Not just the language of information [. . .] but the language of communication, too" ("I Love to You" 113).

Hug's own comments about the audience and listening are also illuminating. At Sound Symposium, Neuland was one of two concerts she performed, the other an improvised set with Quebecoise laptop musician and composer Chantale Laplante. Comparing the two concerts, Hug told me that

I felt the audience much more in the solo [Neuland] because I know the music [so well]. I have listened to the sounds so many times that I have really integrated this music. It's composed music, but I still have windows where I can improvise so I can communicate with the audience. I have a great sense of the space and of the audience. When I play with Chantale, I'm really focused on music making right now, together, so I'm communicating with her. And I feel the big support [. . .] of an audience, and I play for the audience of course, but the communication is with Chantale first. That's the strongest and most direct conversation. (Interview)

Improvisation served as the conduit for communication in both concerts. Hug characterizes communication as a function of focusing on the moment, but also as a communication that may grow deeper with time and experience. It was her intimate relationship with Neuland that gave Hug the freedom to direct her senses towards the space and the audience. Hug described the "velocity and lightness" engendered by so many performances of the work interacting with diverse environments over time as "like making love and you know each other so well that you can really feel the nuances [. . .] and maybe fulfill the inner wish of your lover" (Personal communication). Further, she suggests that in the duo improvisation, the spontaneity of musical dialogue with a partner creates a situation where she has to make major decisions from one second to another. This "quality of inventiveness and the risk of the moment in an interaction with another person [is] supported by the energy of the audience," even though they are not direct participants in the conversation (Personal communication).

As my analysis of Charlotte Hug's work shows, a musical performance may encompass a number of relationships of power, discipline, and desire – some of our most potent listening pleasures (whether as players or audience members) come through the restraints imposed by those very bonds. Creative improvisation makes high demands on the listener to "go with" the performers, who themselves may understandably be more focused on their own interactions as musicians. When examining the effects of communication within creative improvisation, it is worth remembering that the Sirens were mistresses of audience manipulation and that Odysseus' ecstasy came from his "disciplined" experience of listening. We need to do more work in critical studies in improvisation to account for difference in the experiences of listening subjects before we can really understand improvisation as a model for intersubjective communication.

Many thanks to Charlotte Hug for permission to post the excerpt from her performance at Sound Symposium on the Sounds Provocative website. Thanks are also due to Charlotte for her active participation in the development of my article on her work.



1. Excerpted from: Waterman, Ellen "Naked Intimacy: Eroticism, Improvisation and Gender." Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation, Vol 4, No 2 (2008). Accessed 22 July 2015.



Hug, Charlotte. "Artistic Statements." Accessed 17 Nov. 2008.

---. Interview with Ellen Waterman. St. John's Newfoundland. 13 July 2006.

---. MauerrauM WandrauM. Enhanced CD. STVASM, 1999.

---. Personal communication with Ellen Waterman. 27 Nov. 2008.

Irigaray, Luce. I Love to You. Trans. Alison Martin. New York: Routledge, 1996.