The Embodiment of Grief in Blue Note

by Laura Ann Lucci

Grief is remarkably isolating. Of course, I speak from experience. But if one is going to successfully write about grief, or performing grief, or what it means to watch grief in performance, personal experience seems a fitting place to begin. In my own experience, grief is laborious, at once clouding perceptions of some things while heightening those of others. I remember noticing how hard it was to breathe during the days after my mother’s death. There was a subtle ache in my jaw as I tried to eat, an aimlessness as I wandered through my home, and a heavy sort of exhaustion with which I turned my head or adjusted a blanket when I tried to sleep.

Bernhard Waldenfels suggests that at the heart of Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s concept of the functioning body is the necessity of “[catching] the body at work, a work which it mostly does silently and unnoticed” (79). In an attempt to situate myself within this exploration of grief, absence, and performance, I must begin here.

My body worked hard that year (maybe it still does). I monitored myself in grief, often unintentionally. I became hyper aware of the things I was doing as a matter of biological necessity – breathing, eating, sleeping. Of course, my grieving body was a distraction in many ways. Once, as I was driving to the gym along a stretch of country road, I was so lost in the experience of my own body that I hadn’t realized I had turned my car into a lane of oncoming traffic. I snapped out of it as I swerved my car to avoid a head-on collision with a blue sedan.

Looking back on that year, I’m struck by the variations in my feelings and ideas of absence. Yes, my mother was (is?) an absent body, but in many ways I was (still am?) absent myself, and that year (everyday, still?) became (is?) largely about the problem of reconciling my presence in the world with the retreat into myself. To refer back to Waldenfels’ assessment of Merleau-Ponty’s functioning body, I caught myself many times as my body and mind tried to cope with the reality of my mother’s passing. All of the physiological manifestations of my grief – the shortness of breath, the uneasy sleep, the appetite changes – all of these seemed a natural part of the process, yet they held an unbearable fascination as I experienced (but could not control) my body’s response to this volatile life change.

It was in this time of volatility which I inadvertently came across the piece of performance with which this essay is concerned. Some well-meaning classmates, upon my return to school three days after my mother’s funeral, invited to see a free performance entitled Blue Note. They could not have known that the central theme of the work was grief. They also could not have known that that evening was really the moment that I truly began to navigate the life changes that would define my relationship to grief not as simply as an emotional or intellectual pursuit, but also as a process of embodied experience and understanding.

Performing absence, or more specifically the absent body, present a unique challenge: how does something which is not present in performance still have resonance? Furthermore, how do we encounter the absent body through the lens of grief? Of course we can point to a number of plays that are constructed around these questions and couple absence with grief; certainly Abaire’s Rabbit Hole, or Reza’s Conversations after a Burial are two plays with come to mind. Blue Note brings these questions to the fore as well, calling attention to the experiences of both collective and individual grief.

However, while all three works mentioned deal in some fashion with the grief and the absent body, I would assert that Blue Note does something markedly different by guiding the audience into relationship with the deceased. In the plays by Abaire and Reza (hereafter not the object of concern) the dead are static, unchanging – it is the relationships between the living characters that become the primary focus while the dead are relegated to the past. However, Blue Note finds a means in which the deceased “character” (for lack of a better term) still manages to partake of the event, and his presence is made manifest through words, music, images, and objects over the course of the performance. Additionally, Blue Note delves into the issue of embodied grief, at times drawing out the individual response to loss while at others addressing grief as a collective, social phenomenon.

Created by the Toronto-based company Nightswimming, this piece deftly tackles the challenges of grief, mourning and the perpetuation of the living’s relationships to the deceased, intertwining (rather than simply layering) both the notions of physical and phenomenological absence. Structured as both an exploration of choral singing and embodied grief, the piece (developed over several workshops and culminating as a performance/installation at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre in 2008) presents a rehearsal of a now seven-member singing ensemble, approximately ten days following the death of an unnamed male member of the group (Julien and Quirt 65).

The beginning of the piece features a three-tiered collection of “confessions” delivered by the seven remaining members of the group, dealing first with the group itself, then with singing, and finally the absent member. Following this, each member of the group simultaneously delivers fifteen lines addressing how they first heard about the member’s passing. As the group moves through the space, different arrangements and pairings of cast members begin to address the future of the group and the possibility of members leaving it. Throughout the piece, members expound upon their own personal experiences of loss, exchange verbal jabs on occasion, and reminisce about the history that the group shares. They struggle with acknowledging the singer’s passing and the resultant change in group dynamic. In all of this, the absent member is constantly reintegrated into the group, not as a physical presence, but rather as a testament to the potency of memory and as the locus of the group’s collective sorrow.

It is the negotiating of an ongoing relationship which makes Blue Note particularly compelling. But the relationship to the dead is not an easy one – it is one that at once holds dearly to the memory of the deceased and the experience of loss while still struggling to move forward. Grief becomes not a purely intellectual exercise, but a process which is embodied. In exploring the idea of embodied grief, Blue Note suggests a number of dimensions of the experience of grief – individual, social, and organizational. Additionally, it presents a semi-public display of grief to the audience through which the spectators, while not grieving themselves, nonetheless partake of the group’s process. The following paper will trace Blue Note‘s exploration of embodied grief and corporeal absence.

If, to continue properly with this assessment, greater precision in language is required, it becomes necessary to draw distinctions between grief, bereavement and mourning. Todd Dubose offers the following distinctions between the terms: Bereavement is the experience of loss and event in which someone or something is torn from the fabric of one’s life and world – it is an experience which is external to the body; Grief is, at its core, the emotional response to this experience of loss, but may manifest itself in a number of emotional or physiological demonstrations as well as a retreat into one’s self – thus an internalized process; Mourning is the process by which loss is integrated into one’s life as the body responds to the world in which it exists (368 – 369).

The notion of absence is also deserving of attention. The most straightforward definition cites non-presence or non-existence – the deceased member of the singing ensemble is clearly no longer physically present to the group. However, the deceased’s absent body is not the only body with which this exploration is concerned. The body itself is absent as it interfaces with the world. Drew Leder asserts that the bodily tools by which people experience their world are vanishing points, i.e. what we perceive refers back to the point of perception (eyes, ears, etc.) as sites which cannot be experienced directly (12). For example, I cannot directly experience my eyes, only recognize what I perceive through them. Thus, one’s own sense of their body is nullified in the process through which it perceives the world.

The Collective Body in Pain: A Social Paradigm of Embodied Grief

Leder’s exploration is largely concerned with the corporeal presence and embodied experience of the individual. He limits most of his argument to points of physical transactions with the world and the body. However, while grief is not necessarily a physical point of access between the world and the embodied self, it is nonetheless a point through which “all elements and dimensions of one’s world are to be relearned, including physical surroundings, relationships with others, and even one’s own self’ (Attig 54). Much like our physical senses guide our engagement with the world, grief is a process that regulates and re-shapes our experiences. Grief becomes a kind of lens or filter, instrumental in a process of encounter with the body (and the self) as it is re-constructed privately and socially in the process of moving through embodied experience.

It is one thing to talk about grief. It is wholly another to be within grief. There are so many different bodies at work in Blue Note – the seven physically present members of the cast, the audience as it is guided through the space, all juxtaposed with the void left by the deceased member. Each of these possesses a discrete function in creating the world of the piece. Might we entertain for a moment that not only does the audience witness of a group of individuals working through grief, but is also presented with a macrocosm of the grieving body?

Thus, grief, the absent member, even the process by which the group progresses through its dealings with death speak to complex social constructions. There is perhaps no human experience as devastatingly isolating as grief. Martha Fowlkes alludes to the prevalent attitude that grief is an internalized emotional experience (636). At the same time, however, there is a distinct social component that is an inherent part of the process. We of course grieve for the dead, but in some manner, we grieve for each other – that is to say that we grieve for the benefit of others, displaying the tumultuous inner world of the grieving body and inviting them to partake of that volatility.

Blue Note’s pursuit of the grieving body presents a unique challenge. Much as the body in grief must negotiate its experience of temporal states, public and private mourning, and its relearning of the external world, the performance itself faces the problem of preserving the expansive power of grief while within a temporally and physically defined structure. In keeping with its pursuit Blue Note shies away from didacticism, not offering easy resolutions to dealing effectively with grief, but simply acknowledging the multiplicity of its manifestations.

But a process of distillation is nonetheless essential when addressing grief, and Blue Note is no exception. There is as much a spatial and temporal quality to embodied grief as there is a physical and emotional component. The grieving body exists in space and time, too.

Leder’s phenomenologically absent body is really only brought into focus when it is the locus of pain or discomfort – a “dys-appearing” body which appears as “bad, harsh, or ill” (75, 84). Bodily pain is rooted in the present, directing the sufferer’s attention inward, attempting to mitigate the affect or determine the cause of pain (76 – 78). When the body is pain free, it is not forced to focus upon itself as it exists in the moment, but is free to think about the past and future as well (76).

I would argue that grief functions (in a social framework, particularly when it is tied to a specific group as it deals with loss) much in the same manner as bodily pain, and Blue Note’s text takes this into account. The work itself is confined to the time and space of the ensemble’s rehearsal. Even the performance itself demonstrates the otherness of the body in pain and grief. Each member, while part of a larger group, displays their own brand of pain or discomfort with the absent member. As the deceased emerges as dys-appeared with respect to the group, each member mirrors this dys-appearance in turn. Pain establishes a new relationship between the self and the body while grief renegotiates the relationship between the self and the world. Leder writes the following of physical pain: “The disruption and constriction of one’s habitual world thus correlates with a new relation to one’s body. In pain, the body or a certain part of the body emerges as an alien presence” (76). If grief over the absent member serves a similar function to the ensemble as pain does to the individual body, then members may estrange themselves (or feel estranged) from the group.

This is demonstrated through the piece, notably in the series of confessions that precede the more structured portion of the performance. Members step aside, making themselves physically absent from the circle and from the group. They speak directly with members of the audience. As previously mentioned, these confessions revolve around the group, singing, and their feelings towards the deceased. But while the subject matter is limited to these three topics, the expressions are markedly different. One member (“John” in the score, but the performers used their own first names in performance) calls into the group while others continue to sing: “Could everyone just stop and listen for a second? You want us to learn this song? While we’re missing an entire male voice? Good luck is what I say” (Julien and Quirt 69). The song continues and no one responds, suggesting that this sentiment is not intended for the other characters, but for the benefit of the audience. The other members partake of similar confessions, revealing parts of themselves and their relationship to the others. Some speak of artistry, others of their affection for the missing singer. Just as pain may be localized rather than systemic, each member draws themselves out as “other” to the group, directing attention not into the overall experience of grief as demonstrated by the ensemble, but rather the very specific response of each member to the absence of their colleague. Such individual expressions bring each member more clearly into focus and the juxtaposition of grieving bodies is a theme that recurs throughout the work, not only through spoken word but through music, most notably as a the gospel hymn O! Magnify the Lord overtakes (and ultimately surrenders to) Purcell’s solemn Hush, No More, a pairing immediately followed by Lullaby (by the Dixie Chicks) as it gives way to Crazy by Gnarls Barkley (Julien and Quirt 72). Quirt and Julien write in the score about how each song offers a different response to bereavement and grief (72). However, the subject matter of the songs is perhaps less interesting than their combination, the simultaneity of the contrasting works capturing the tumult of grief as the individuals and the group as a whole deal with multiple responses and emotions not one at a time but as a constellation of different and often conflicting experiences.

The group does not offer their grief wholesale either to each other or to the audience (at first). There are seven bodies are at work before the audience, and each shares at points their own concerns about the group, the music, and absent member, offering seven different inner process by which the group members contend with the passing of the unnamed member. However, Blue Note attempts to counter the isolation of private grief by creating at some moments a cohesive entity which is forced to turn its awareness inwards. The group becomes less a collection of individuals and more a singular, dynamic entity that retreats into istelf in order to cope with the pain the wracks it. In short, the group disappears and reappears into itself, not unlike that of Leder’s pained body.

Locating the Absent Body

But, if the group is at some moments functioning as a kind of macro-body, where might we locate the site of pain which serves as the prompt for its collective self-examination? In Leder’s terminology we may only experience the body’s perceptual and physical interfaces with the world when such sites become the site of pain or discomfort. The space (physical as well as musical) which is opened by the absent member of the group effectively becomes this locus of pain and the site at which the ensemble must begin to deal not only with his physical disappearance, but the dys-appearance from which it derives its need for introspection.

But the space left by the absent member is not a vacuum. In his place, Blue Note strives to create an entity which still has relational value to the group. It is with a real object that that the construction of the absent body begins. Included in the circle of singers is an empty chair; away from the circle, the music stand meant to be paired with it (Quirt and Julien 68). It goes largely unacknowledged in the piece (at least until near the conclusion), effectively standing in for the individual who once occupied it. But, while the object itself remains static, the relationship of the ensemble (as well as the audience) to the absent member is continually in a process of becoming over the course of the performance. Along with the chair, there is video footage of the singer in rehearsal with the others, and near the end of the performance, a recording of his solo voice resonates through the space (68, 71, 79). Kieran Cashell notes that the dead leave in their wake semi-permanent signs through which the living actively maintain their relationship to the deceased (347 – 348) and so it is through these signs that the singers maintain their relationships to the dead member. Cashell also suggests in his consideration of the remaining signs of the dead that death is only the concern of the living (346). It should be noted that Cashell does not direct his efforts towards the issue of an afterlife, reminding the reader that the deceased themselves are literally and figuratively personae non gratae and instead focuses his attention on the experience of the dead by the living (346). If death becomes the concern of the living, then these signs also deepen the connection of the grieving entity to the time and place of the ensemble’s rehearsal by utilizing those elements which are germane to the environment and the activities carried out within it.

However, while this apparently semiotic analysis of the missing member’s relationship to the group as a whole provides a point of access into Blue Note’s exploration of grief, it is too simple to say that these objects and images simply stand in for the unnamed singer. They are not a mere substitution. Within the absence of the singer and objects and sound related to him, the group invests their memories of the deceased, their regard for his craft (good or bad) and their feeling of his absence. In this investment the piece finds the impulse to move forward in its exploration of grief and these objects act as touchstones that connect the living to the dead.

Grief in Song: Music as Mourning

“You can’t cry and sing at the same time.”
Blue Note (75)

But such investment is guided and manipulated, again rooting Blue Note’s exploration to a specific time, place, and constellation of activities. The ensemble, as both a set of individuals and as an singular grieving entity knew the deceased only in the context of the group – the score makes no indication that the characters are to be understood as having extensive relationships outside of the ensemble – in fact, Christine, in describing her affection for the deceased, notes her regret that she did not know him outside of the group (Quirt and Julien 76). Thus it becomes important that the group can only share his death, as they did his life, in a particular fashion – that is, through music. Julien and Quirt write in the score that at one moment the voice of the deceased is heard singing a line from John Bennett’s Weep O Mine Eyes, upon which the group takes up the song from the beginning as they prepare to conclude the work (not before a lighthearted recap of a past trip to a singing competition in Michigan) (79 – 81). This piece as the preceding rendition of Dave Brubeck “Psalm 121” are the only moments in the show in which the ensemble transitions from rehearsal mode into performance mode (79). Julien and Quirt note this transition in their notes to the score, writing that “the ensemble’s version of ‘Weep’ became, in essence, a requiem for the missing singer, and the rehearsal became, for a moment, a wake in his memory’ (79).

To begin to address the notion of a wake, allow me to assert that while the ensemble featured in the work appears to coalesce into one grieving body, such a process does not nullify the presence of the individual members, nor does the ensemble work consistently towards a point of singularity. This exploration is concerned largely with the manner in which Blue Note demonstrates the different levels of embodied grief that can be experienced, not the degree to which one level may be privileged over the others. At many points in Blue Note, various individual experiences of bereavement and grief are emphasized and/or played against one another. At other times, it is the group’s loss of an individual member that is placed at the fore. The collective body is continually formed and renegotiated in the process of navigating these different levels of experience. Moreover, the group (and by extension, the audience) partakes in the void left by the absent member. The “nothingness” of his absence is constructed before us, but absence in this regard does not assume ephemerality or impotence on the part of the missing singer. He remains a challenge that must be addressed by the ensemble, present in the feeling of loss rather than as a corporeal entity. He is made absent by the group who cannot experience his death directly, but rather through the literal and figurative vanishing point at which their grief is both directed and located.

Thus the notion of a wake becomes particularly important in this regard. A wake gathers mourners as the share themselves with each other in grief. Not all relationships to the dead are identical – clearly the multiplicity of attitudes to the absent member by the living singers offers an indication of this – but they do partake of a common association with the dead. A wake is where the grieving catch themselves in the work of grief, and see that work mirrored in the sorrow of those who surround them.

Grief is work, but so is mourning. Grief is private; mourning extends beyond the self into the process of reintegration into the world (Dubose 368). If the ensemble’s transition from rehearsal to performance mirrors the transition from wake to requiem, then this moment in the play ushers in a sense of forward motion. The requiem finally becomes public and communal acknowledgement of the singer’s death that is demanded in the process of achieving closure.

Dissolving the Macro-body: Re-Establishing the Individual as Part of Healing

But the process of closure and healing does not equal a return to “before,” that is, life continues with the knowledge of the absence of the dead. Thomas Attig writes that “grieving must be understood as a struggle to reweave the fabric and restore a new integrity in the pattern of caring involvement in the world. Whole persons grieve” (61). The grieving process tends to (or at least hopes for) a sense of wholeness that is perhaps different from life before the death of or a colleague or loved one, but not invalid. As Blue Note concludes, the group is able to remove itself from the moment, away from the phenomenon of pain and loss, and recollect upon the past (particularly the aforementioned conversation about a trip to Michigan) (Julien and Quirt 79). The collective body of the group has served its purpose, and begins to dissolve. The dissolution of this macro-body is hinted at as the group concludes its rehearsal and begins its preparations to go home, hinted at even before the more decisive moment presented in the rendition of the Bennett piece. The group (in a section labeled “Occurrence E” in the score) begins to manifest the clear individuality that was expressed at the top of the work during the “Confessions” portion. But, unlike the opening of the work, the group tends to a shared acknowledgement of their loss, referring to the empty chair, the process of packing up and leaving the space, a last minute “dispute” over the divisions of vocal parts, and the physical manifestations of distress, fear, nervousness, or sadness (heaviness in the legs, tightening in the throat, a forced smile) (77 – 79). This and the following sequence sees the group revisit their memories of where they first heard the news of the member’s passing, where they are as individuals and an organization, and the transitory quality of life (78 – 79).

Each member moves towards wholeness in their own way then, bit by bit. In the combined performance of Hush, No More and O! Magnify the Lord they cling to it again, suggesting that there is always a retreat from progress in a grieving process and moments where the pain of loss is reemerges as palpable as it was when it first appeared.

The collective body of the ensemble dissolves following their Michigan discussion, each member moving towards an outside life that is unclear to the audience, but almost certainly does not include any other members of the group. They are leaving each other, but unlike the death of their colleague, it is an amiable, nonviolent end. The implicit understanding is that some ends are only temporary and may offer renewal. The group will rehearse again.

One member (In the score, it is Kate) leaves here music behind. The indication is that she will not be returning (81). For her, the end is just that. Ultimately, the journey of grief and the unpredictability of the body and the self while on that journey is manifest with great variety among individuals. The coalescence of the group into a unit which shares their pain as one is itself ephemeral. As individuals, within the span of the performance they are forced to relearn each other and the world in which they reside as an ensemble. Now it is time to direct that process of mourning outside the confines of the space and time of rehearsal.

Perhaps the effort put forth by Nightswimming in Blue Note is a particularly ambitious one. Certainly, there is no work of art, theatre, music, or literature that fully encapsulates what is at the heart of the experience of grief and mourning – at least nothing comes to my mind. What the work does offer is the understanding of the multiplicity of this experience. It suggests that the ways in which the body encounters and processes loss is a fragmented process that comes into and retreats from itself. To speak of the grieving process is inaccurate, both with respect to the larger experience of grief and specifically with regards to Blue Note. Our languages betters serves us when it refers to a grieving process, one which suits the individual, occasion, environment and social group in which they find themselves. In the end, Blue Note is one such process, not a perfect one, and perhaps as fragmented as the grieving body its constructs, but a process nonetheless.

This paper was presented to Dr. Bruce Barton in partial fulfillment of the requirements for DRA 3211: The Performing Body, at the University of Toronto’s Graduate Centre for the Study of Drama on April, 27th, 2011.

Works Cited

Attig, Thomas. “Relearning the World: On the Phenomenology of Grieving.” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 21:1 (1990): 53 – 66.

Blue Note. By Martin Julien and Brian Quirt. Perf. Neema Bickersteth, Jay Bowen, Christine
Brubaker, Steven Gallagher, Kate Hennig, John Millard, and Jane Miller. DVD.

Cashell, Kieran. “Ex Post Facto: Peirce and the Living Signs of the Dead.” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 43:2 (2007): 345 – 371.

Dubose, Todd J. “The Phenomenology of Bereavement, Grief, and Mourning.” The Journal of Religion and Health 36:4 (1997): 367 – 374.

Fowlkes, Martha R. “The Social Regulation of Grief.” Sociological Forum 5:4 (1990): 635 – 652.

Julien, Martin and Brian Quirt. “Blue Note.” CTR 140 (2009): 64 – 81.

Leder, Drew. The Absent Body. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Waldenfels, Berhard. “The Central Role of the Body in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology.” Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology 39:1 (2008); 76 – 87.

I would like to offer my thanks to Brian Quirt and Rupal Shah of Nightswimming for their accommodation of my requests to view the video footage and their willingness to talk about their work, as well several of my classmates who offered me their stories, insights and advice as I continued to define my topic, namely Seika Boye and Heather Fitzsimmons-Frey.

The DVD performance I saw was filmed on September 17th, 2008. I was present at the performance on September 18th, 2008. While that event has remained with me as an important experience in the theatre, my recollection of the work was greatly enhanced by reviewing the performance footage, which ultimately guided the writing of this essay.

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