Introduction and Ictus
What is it about a conducting gesture that produces results? And not just any result, but the preferred result, the one that matches a conductor’s musical idea?
The short answer was addressed originally in my earlier series on the Hierarchy of Music Making, that one’s audiation informs the nature of a gesture through a series of somatic sensory impulses. A conducting gesture is, in fact, a response to one’s imagination. True.
This is the theory, but what about the practice? How does one rehearse the physical movements needed to refine gesture? What are the skills required to pull together a palette of gestures that can cover the spectrum of choral timbre and movement? Herein lies another nested hierarchy, the gestural world.
The hierarchy (holarchy) of conducting gesture is comprised of only one junior-to-senior relationship: ictus and rebound. Each is a complete world that captures the essence of how music undulates within the steady alteration of arrival and departure. Before examining our more contemporary meaning of gesture let’s revisit a much earlier musical body of literature, chant.
Chant and Ictus
The gestural representation of chant has received the title chironomy, a derivative of the Greek word chiros (hand) and the suffix –nomy (a system). Chironomy is a hand system that flows along with the natural accentuation of the word and music in the chants.
In monody there is no regular organization of time, no measures, and therefore no regularity of poetic foot or meter. Rather, there is a sophisticated flow of linguistic syntax, expressive inflection that is captured subtly by the linear movement of the hand.
We start here because although the building blocks of both chant and later musical styles contrast greatly, there is a common element: the ictus. For at the ictus the accent of the word and the touch point of the hand coalesce.
Ictus is a “point,” but as in the theory of geometry this “point” has no dimension, takes up no real space. However, it does have a specific location in the conductor’s working plane, and the conductor must always know where that is going to be. As a simple example of this sensation sit at a table and touch lightly the tabletop with an exaggerated but equally light rebound. The feeling of touch is the feeling of ictus. When you move the hand away from the tabletop into air, but retain the sensory memory of touching the table you are rehearsing the skill of ictus.
To place this skill into a musical context again sit at the table and with your hand starting across your body (in the position of beat two within a four-beat pattern) move your hand to the right in a straight line, placing attention on the middle finger, and in little bunny hops to create the phrase, “Fa-ther, Son, and the Ho-ly Spir-it.”
Move away from the table top into the air above the table and repeat the same touch exercise. Each touch point is an ictus gesture.
It is important to observe that the point of ictus is not, in itself, very musical. It is only a point of touch. However, it is essential in order to organize the syntax of the phrase. The ictus can vary in strength to denote accentuation to a specific syllable, and can vary in the speed of both onset and offset (rebound) to generate a subtle differentiation in tempo. Albeit a simple demonstration, this is the essence of ictus as applied to chant. In more contemporary application we generally find our touch points at metrical locations in a measure, on the strong beats of a metrical pattern (2/4, 3/4, 4/4).
As in chant the touch points themselves, the repeated icti in a conducting pattern, are not very musical. Much more musical information lives between the touch points and within the space of our rebound (to be addressed next in our series). However, there are some gestural qualities that can be shown at the ictus. You can show three qualities of an ictus by either emphasizing the movement toward the ictus, passing through the ictus, or emphasizing the movement away from the ictus.
Moving toward the ictus is similar to pointing your index finger at the point and saying here! here! here! It is emphatic. Moving through the ictus is like gliding across a single touch point on your tabletop, in a bowl-like shape with the ictus in the bottom of the bowl. Moving from the ictus is to minimize your direction toward the ictus and more emphasizing the controlled rebound away from the ictus.
Each quality of ictus, to, through, and from, is an expressive decision that comes from one’s audiation of the music, from the preparation and study of the music. Refine the concept of ictus and one expands the iconographic language of conducting. The benefit here being that less explanation is required in rehearsal about a specific shaping of phrase or word within the phrase. We improve our efficiency. In my next article I shall explore “rebound,” the senior relationship to “ictus.”
Remember, “Practice does not make perfect; it makes permanent.”
To read part 2 of this article, click here.
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