Playing without mental representations: embodied navigation and the GesTCom as a case study for radical embodied cognition in piano performance

Pavlos Antoniadis and Anthony Chemero

Background in Performance, Musicology and Music Interaction. Performance of notated piano music has remained attached to a past paradigm of interpretation, which is based on the mental representation of musical scores. This paradigm is challenged by developments in contemporary music, musicology and technology. The complexity of the musical act problematizes its encapsulation in a text and musicology has acknowledged the fact, through its performative and embodied cognitive turns. The primacy of multimodal interactions in complex musical systems, the central role of embodiment in performance and the mediation of the musical act through technology crack music notation open and invite us to reflect on the very essence of mental representability.

Background in Cognitive Science. Anthony Chemero’s research is both philosophical and empirical; typically, it tries to be both at the same time. The research is focused on questions related to nonlinear dynamical modeling, ecological psychology, complex systems, phenomenology, and artificial life. His ‘radical embodied cognition’ problematizes the role of mental representations and offers concepts and tools for the development of a theory of embodied interaction with the musical score.

Aims. To argue that the role of mental representability in learning complex notated piano music can be outsourced on the embodied interaction between symbolic and environmental information; to do so against both the traditional textual interpretation paradigm and predictive processing in embodied cognition; to present the GesTCom interactive system and argue that it makes a convincing case for radical embodied cognition in piano performance; to explore reciprocal relationships between radical embodied cognition and complex music performance.

Main contribution. We propose a novel paradigm of pianists’ interaction with complex music notation defined as embodied navigation (Antoniadis 2018). Its novelty lies in rethinking the classic notion of textual interpretation as embodied interaction, and musical performance itself as a dynamic system. In the radical version of the embodied navigation model, and in line with the radical embodied cognition (Chemero 2009), the processing of the musical text can be explained even without the need for mental representations, as dynamic interaction between the elements of the system: body, mind, instrument, notation and interactive systems. This embodied navigation paradigm is materialized in the GesTCom (Gesture Cutting through Textual Complexity) (Antoniadis 2018), a dedicated interactive system for learning notated music. It is a modular, sensor-based environment for the analysis, processing and real-time control of complex piano notation through multimodal recordings. The system optimizes the performer's learning experience through longitudinal multimodal documentation, real-time activity monitoring with augmented feedback, and adaptation of notation’s complexity to the user's developing skills.

Implications for musicological interdisciplinarity.The contribution above is inscribed in what today constitutes a paradigm-shifting web of knowledge around musical performance. The relevant fields of the project include both the humanities and the sciences, as well as artistic research. In humanities, traditional approaches stemming from historic & systematic musicology and music pedagogy are complemented by the performative turn in musicology, the wider field of performance studies, and aspects of complexity in post-1950 compositional and performative aesthetics. In sciences, the role of embodiment in cognitive processes (embodied cognition/cognitive psychology), the study of physical movement through interactive technologies (Human-Computer Interaction) and the creation of new interfaces for musical expression are combined with computational approaches in musicology and dynamic systems theory. In terms of interdisciplinarity between musicology and cognitive science, both the theory and the interactive system presented here are inspired by radical embodied cognition. Inversely, they can serve as a case study for many of the non-musical claims of this theory, in a mutual and reciprocal gesture between the two fields.

Keywords: piano, complexity, notation, interaction, embodiment, cognition, representation