A discussion of the use of aural setting in ‘Sutra’ (2008) by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. (Work In Progress)

Ah, the dreaded aural accompaniment question. There hasn’t been one since the specification changed in 2016 and we all know we are waiting for it. Are you prepared? You can find an article on analysing the aural accompaniment for the Rambert Dance Company area of study here, Rooster and other works by Bruce here, or the Independent Contemporary Dance Scene in Britain area of study here.

The aural accompaniment for Sutra was created by collaborator Szymon Brzoska, a polish composer who likes to explore the synergy between music, movement and image. A five day trip to the Shaolin Temple inspired Brzoska to use the soundscape of their environment and focus on the meditative and emotional qualities of their music. The compositions he created continued to be adapted during the collaborative process, with the overall aim of providing an emotional framework for the dance, suggesting mood, tone or theme to the audience. The musicians play live on stage behind a mesh cyclorama so that the musicians can respond to the dancers rhythm and speed of action. Furthermore, there is a sense of Chinese culture without focusing too heavily on Chinese music, so that Brzoska could remain true to his own style and influences. This article will focus on the following six sections: Maze, Box, Lotus, City, Pagodas, and Courtyard.

“The musicians are actually doing a lot of the work. They are following the monks, so it’s not the monks following the music. The monks feed off the energy of the music but they have their own rhythm.”

Szymon Brzoska, Sutra DVD Interview

Section 3: Maze

Maze uses two compositions which evoke different moods, as well as vocal sounds to connect to culture. In the first half of the section, Brzoska’s score, Machine Music, directly correlates to the movement to enhance the scene as we observe the monks transforming the boxes from the graveyard in section 2 to the maze. They do this with utilitarian gestures, moving the boxes in the most efficient and practical way without an aesthetic consideration. The boxes are turned on their sides, pushed and shifted into position in a methodical, precise manner to create a square maze, complete with pathways and 6 entrances/exits at the top. The music begins with a repetitive, low-pitch piano rhythm which remains at a constant quick pace, creating a sense of predictability. This is soon layered with a repetitive tapping sound which almost sounds like the ticking of a clock, or it could possibly be visualising the inner, logical workings of an adults mind as we watch the monks move with such ease to create a complex maze with accuracy. A violin melody overlaps this which varies in pitch and pace to soften the mood slightly. The music stops very suddenly once the building of the maze is complete. The abrupt stop to the constant repetition feels satisfying, as is the completion of the physical maze that Dong Dong can explore. Overall, the accompaniment in section 3 is used to support the mood and the utilitarian movement vocabulary.

The transition between the first and second halves of the section begins in silence and we hear Dong Dong’s voice shout as he prepares to perform a series of flips across the stage towards the maze. It is often used in Kung Fu to announce the attack. In Japan there is an official term for this, known as ‘Kiai’. There is no direct equivalent in the Chinese language due to the wide range of movement techniques, but the closest we could use is ‘Fa Sheng’ which means vocal, to give voice or sound production. The use of Fa Sheng here connects the section to the Shaolin monks Kung Fu training, setting the place and linking back to the origins of the work.

The second half of this section provides contrast, changing the mood and breaking away from the military style precision in order to frame Dong Dong’s exploration of the maze. Brzoska’s The Maze consists of a soft, slow piano melody as Dong Dong drops down and disappears into the main entrance of the set design. There is an accompanying violin melody and altogether it feels peaceful, thoughtful and calm. We watch Dong Dong investigate the pathways, entrances and exits of the maze with childlike curiosity at a leisurely place, enhanced by the patient melody. However, the introduction of the singular, low pitch piano notes create a sense of foreboding just before we hear the found sound of the monks clumsily scattering the boxes along the floor to the sides of the stage, thumping and squeaking, leaving one box centre stage with Dong Dong inside. The singular piano notes repeat at slow intervals, layered by a sombre violin which increases in pitch until it becomes uncomfortable. This creates a tense atmosphere as Dong Dong crawls in the box, banging his head against the sides and becoming more and more scared as he appears trapped inside. The music is used here to create an emotional response. It allows us to consider the true intentions of the piece, visually and emotionally connecting us to Cherkaoui’s sense of creative fatigue as we clearly see and hear the scene change from a calm, imaginative exploration to a tense and heavy sense of feeling trapped or blocked.

Section 5: Box

The aural accompaniment in section 5, Slow Down, directly correlates to the origins of the piece by creating a sombre mood. The use of violin and piano is calming and pleasant to listen to at the start, but it slowly builds by incorporating a repetitive foreboding melody, overlapped by a higher pitched melody which moves freely and unpredictably. The volume and intensity of the music also builds throughout the section, and with it a sense of deep sadness. Cherkaoui uses direct correlation, moving slowly and fluidly, twisting and turning within the box to emphasise exploring not only the confinement of the box physically, but the feelings he encountered spiritually when he lost inspiration and creativity after Zero Degrees. This is evident when he curls up into a ball and holds his head in his hands. The composition is a slower pace than previous sections which clearly supports the sombre mood and intentions of the section, where we sense that Cherkaoui feels lost, trapped inside his own head.

Section 6: Lotus

Brzoska’s composition in section 6, The Lotus Flower/Barocco, is used to suggest time and place in terms of the Shaolin monks culture. The cello plays a low-pitch, calming melody by using drawn out notes. The violin plays a melody which could be considered to take you on an emotional journey due to the lack of repetition; instead there are varied notes which increase and decrease in pitch and pace throughout. At times we can hear the vibrato of the violin strings to create accentuated ripple effects in the sound. There are some moments of pause or quiet, disrupted by either the triangle or the Tam Tam, a Chinese gong (often used to signal the start of a ceremony). The overall effect is calming and meditational. This mirrors the ceremony we can see taking place on stage, with Dong Dong performing sweeping arm gestures and meditational imagery e.g. prayer position or lifting his palms up in front of his chest as he deeply breathes in, and swaying them back down as he breathes out. The aural accompaniment makes reference to the Shaolin monks culture in a subtle way, providing clarity to the scene.

“Szymon Brzóska’s score for percussion and strings wisely doesn’t try to compete with the monks’ inner rhythms; rather it seeks to surround them with soothing, even meditative sounds.”

Debra Crane, The Times

Section 11: City

Section 12: Pagodas

Section 18: Courtyard


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